I take my children swimming. We plant sugar-snap peas in the garden, venture to the library, forage for blueberries, visit the children’s museum even though half the exhibits are broken, night-walk in the woods when the moon is full. The dark doesn’t scare me anymore, my daughter says afterward, now that I’ve crawled inside it. We do all this, the children and I, and also the chores of daily living, of having a body: unsnarling hair, brushing teeth, washing jelly from faces, scrubbing mud from feet, checking for ticks, wrestling arms and legs into shirts and pants, making sandwiches.
Through it all they heave with tantrums and whining and blowups and blowouts. I dispense consequences for back talk, provide stern talking-tos about manners and respect, about listening ears in parking lots and gentle hands. They listen, and then heave some more.
Every minute, every moment, it comes.
I am ashamed of how much I yell at them, the rancor with which I hustle them into their shoes, their coats, their beds. I worry I have broken them—am breaking them. I fear they are breaking me.
I grow fat with frustration. Every day I am furious and flustered and alone because my children are an ocean. They are wave after wave, wearing me away until I am no longer the shore but a pebble, a grain of sand, even less than that. I struggle to breathe, to hold my temper, to take a bite of food while it is still warm, to use the bathroom without someone calling for me or climbing into my lap—or both at once.
Sometimes I cry, but the children are oblivious—too busy with the world to notice. They are gleeful and scared of bears. Fascinated by frogs. Busy stuffing their pockets with leaves and sticks and gravel and bits of broken plastic, which I will discover lodged in the filter of the washing machine on Sunday night when I finally muster the will to approach the cascading heaps of laundry.
I want to abandon my children, leave them in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, and then go home and drink a hot cup of coffee, in silence. I want to do the impossible: read an entire chapter of a book in one sitting, binge-watch tv—something with curse words and sex and no talking animals—take a shower alone, leave the house without anyone else’s snot or drool or spit-up or half-eaten food on me. I want to stay up late and sleep late.
Someone else can do the wiping, and picking-up, and hugging and rocking and scolding, and reading-to, and ferrying from here to there and there to here, and lunch-making, and midnight-wakings, and-and, and-and-and.
It is relentless. There is no calm, there is no time, there is no space—no after they sleep or before they wake, no lulls, no quiet. No breaks. There is surviving, and some days there is hardly that. There is me and these children—clinging to my leg, begging to be held, hungry, dirty, sobbing, screaming, bickering, half-dressed or—just as often—naked, careening, laughing this effervescent, rhapsodic laughter—a sound I will crave for the rest of my life, even as my temper wells.
It is me and them, just me and them. All the time, me and them. And I cannot reconcile it, this double helix of desire, one strand urging me to desert my children, the other to rip the world apart protecting them.
At night, after I have scoured and pajamaed my children, as we are cresting the final exhausting wave of bedtime’s tedium, they beg for songs, cuddle close to say they love me. I give a last hug, and then just one more, and then I slip out the door, leaving nightlights aglow, blankies akimbo, and I pray tonight is the night they will sleep. But it never is.
My daughter wakes to pee, and again for a hug, and a third time with a nightmare, her guttural screams echoing down the hallway and hurrying me awake.
I have not slept through the night in five years.
Eventually they settle, but my son rises for the day at 5:00am, bursts into my room hungry and lonely and demanding to have his diaper changed because at three years old he still isn’t potty-trained. He asks if it’s morning yet, if it’s a school day, if it’s raining, if I can read him The Little Engine That Could for the ninety-seventh time this week. He has climbed into my bed with the book in one hand and his blankie clutched to his heart with the other and is using my torso as a trampoline.
Love seeps from them like salt from the sea. They cannot reach the countertop, but are desperate to try. I find the smears of their curious fingerprints on every surface: the refrigerator, the sink, the shower, my underwear drawer. They are constantly poking, constantly prying, in a constant state of need. And what they want is simple. It is clean and absolute: me.
What they cannot understand, not until they have children of their own, is that they have me. I am infested with them. Their parasitic cells swim through my bloodstream, have rewired my neurons to pulse a Morse code of devotion through each and every nerve ending. I live in a body that startles and responds to every slightest sound they make. Even in the deepest hours of night, through the fog of sleep, I know when my children are crying, when they are calling or coughing or have slipped from bed and are tip-toeing down the hall, when they have breathed too deeply or paused too long between breaths. Even asleep, I swim toward them.
This is the new normal, this endless riptide, this near-drowning. I live at the mercy of the children’s swales and storms and tides. I have found no purchase in these waters—no ledge, no bottom. I have found only the unexpected sand bar or islet, which appears as though conjured, and offers a makeshift anchorage—a sanctuary—where I can drag myself ashore. And then, from that unexpected vantage, for however many breaths I am granted, I marvel. At the surf, at the children—vast and deep and wild. That we are born, that we survive, I marvel. Then the next wave crashes, and I am cast back to sea.