I knew I was beaten on the day I finally admitted to myself that I was using the dog as a vacuum cleaner. "Get on over here, Champ!" I'd wearily bellow, hardly pausing to watch as our elderly and almost completely daft French bulldog lapped up whatever rice, peas, Cheerios, or raisins the baby had flung around the kitchen. It was a job that required some supervision, though far less effort than reaching for the Hoover: "You missed a spot right here, buddy" Sometimes I'd even help him halfway up onto the baby's seat so that he could pry loose any morsel that might have wedged itself between the bottom of her booster and the chair. It was slovenly and gross, and I knew it. Of course I knew it. I could even feel my clean-freak mother's disapproval clear across two thousand miles and three time zones. But I was tired, so tired, too tired to care, much less worry about some dog saliva and a few stray elbow noodles. Three kids, a husband, and a full-time career had lowered my standards to depths I never thought possible. In the span of a few short years, I'd been transformed from an anal-retentive, obsessive nutcase into a who-cares-as-long-as-we-don't-have-bugs obsessive nutcase. Which I guess counts as progress, or will have to, since there's no going back.
I've poured my energy- the energy I might have used for cleaning, serious volunteering, learning a new craft, or at least doing Pilates--into a crazy experiment. One that I realized probably wasn't working out all too well on the evening I caught a glimpse of myself looking haggard and crazy-woman sloppy in the sunglasses department at Wal-Mart. While my husband tried on new shades, I stood clutching a package of Dora the Explorer underpants for our three-year-old, and numbly watched as our one-year-old gnawed on the metal arm of a tipsy display rack. Part of my brain screamed, Germs! Oh my God! Germs! Exposed metal! Danger! Danger! Danger! But the rest of that soggy organ slyly whispered, Ah. She's not crying. Excellent. Why not enjoy a minute here to yourself? ... Which is precisely what I did, staring bug-eyed off into the middle distance, half-listening to the chatter of my family and the murmurs of my passing fellow Wal-Martians. That's when my husband's righteously disbelieving voice sliced into my dazed reverie like a knife. "WHAT are you chewing? Mommy! Hello? Hello? Do you see what your baby is doing? THAT'S not too disgusting! Here!" Thwomp! He dumped the baby into my arms, her face screwed up in rage and disappointment. I knew that we had only seconds before the now-building scream would tear loose from her throat--shrill, deafening, insane. Whipping a colorful, trendy, pediatrician-approved teething device from my bag, I waved it at her, a gesture rich in both hope and futility Furious, she knocked it out of my hand. More screaming.
Sensing an opportunity, our three-year-old sidled up. "Mommy, can I please have some Skittles?" She nodded her head "yes" while asking, hoping to hypnotize me into granting her request.
"No Skittles," I answered firmly, still convinced that I might yet pull off the whole calm, reasonable, I'm-in-charge-here parenting charade. "You've already had a treat."
My husband was now swabbing out the baby's mouth with a Wet One, an indignity that only slightly muffled her roaring.
"But I want some Skittles!" Olivia barked. "You have to give me some Skittles!" Furious that her demands were being ignored, Olivia then upped the ante to full-blown hysteria. Inspired, the baby lustily joined in. Stereo shrieking.
Shooting me a look of pure aggravation, Mark hissed, "Let's just pay and get out of here."
As we hustled our little treasures out the door, both grimy-faced and wailing, it hit me: What I wanted was a family just like the families on television. What we actually became, however, was Those People. The family no one wants to be anywhere near on an airplane or in a restaurant. We were loud, we were grubby, we were bickering and we were at Wal-Mart on a Friday night. How on earth had we gotten so far off course?
It began as a New Year's resolution. After a frantic holiday season of too much shopping and too many toys, of juggled schedules and events, of expectations reaching too high and energy levels hovering too low, I wanted a break. No, that's not quite strong enough. I wanted a different life--for all of us. I couldn't understand why everything always felt so rushed and crazy. Everyone was healthy. We weren't starving or cold. Nothing was on fire, leaking, or ready to explode. So why did we exist in a state of constant, chronic chaos? I flirted briefly with the idea of quitting everything and moving the whole family to a modest cabin out west, but my parents did that, and believe me, it created far more problems than it solved. Our approach to making a new life in rural Wyoming was so half-assed that compared to us, the Unabomber in his ratty shed looked like a responsible guy with a bright future. When it comes to experiencing the raw thrill of an isolated, poverty-stricken, sub-zero winter or two, I've been there and done it, thank you. You can keep it. I like my creature comforts, i.e., electricity, flush toilets, and central heating, way too much to willingly surrender them.
Besides, what I wanted wasn't exactly a simpler life; I wanted a television life. A fantasy in other words, made up of rollicking, wholesome, happy, zany fun. I knew such a thing was an unattainable goal, of course, in much the same way that I knew getting a body like a swimsuit model's was an unattainable goal. But that didn't stop me from hitting the gym every February. All that was needed was a plan and a bit of willpower. Compared to the impossible task of morphing my five-foot-six-inch dependably sturdy frame into that of a willowy bikini mannequin, transforming my beautiful family into an idealized little band of adventurers seemed just about ridiculously easy. We'd simply have to commit to living our lives to the absolute fullest, seizing every moment, instead of just schlepping from place to place, mess to mess.
Phase One of my plan consisted of getting every member of the family to buy into the whole notion. The baby, Caramia, and the three-year-old, Olivia, were easy. Not only were they both already my loyal followers; they were easily bribed with balloons, key rings, or a fistful of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. The eleven-year-old, Eric, was easy, too I just didn't mention it to him, knowing that he'd go along with pretty much anything that didn't conflict with PlayStation, Gameboy or whatever he was watching on TV at the moment. My husband, Mark, was another story altogether. It was a classic case of differing priorities. My idea of the perfect day included a family outing, a shopping trip, and a fabulous meal. His perfect day began with sex, followed by a dangerous and dirty ride on his mountain bike, followed by even more sex, and finished off with a gigantic bag of something really sugary and gross, like Mike and Ikes or cheap jelly beans. Suffice it to say, neither one of us was living our idea of perfect. Mark's initial response to my suggestion that we conquer the stresses of daily life by thinking and acting like a sitcom family was a disbelieving "what is wrong with you? That's nuts." It took some serious persuasion to bring him around. I designed my argument around four key points.
Think Yourself Happy
Research shows that perception is a powerful factor in determining state of mind. Of course, research can be made to show a lot of things. In this case, I counted on my husband being too busy and too distracted to try to prove me wrong. This approach, being very similar to count your blessings, was designed to emphasize all of the many fabulous aspects of our busy life, and to stress the importance of being grateful for each and every last one. Especially those aspects that were very soon to be inflicted in large numbers on us, by me.
Remember: They're Growing Up So Fast
What parent, gazing into the sullen adolescent face of their once-adorable spawn, hasn't felt the mortal sucker punch of time? Babies turn into kids, then teens, then adults, in the blink of an eye. Better get in all the balloon animals and beach trips you can while the kids are still cute and enamored of you. Someday you'll be scrounging together their bail money and wondering if maybe you should have taken them to play mini-golf more often. Why not do it now, while you still can?
Adapt to the Challenges
Argue with Darwin all you want, but there's a lot of truth in that whole survival-of the-fittest business. With kids, someone or something will always be broken, off-schedule, or horribly expensive. Only those parental organisms that can adapt to hardship and somehow manage to thrive despite deprivation of sleep, privacy, and cash will survive. And don't think you can save yourself from any of it. Cowering in the house in front of the television offers no protection from the aggravation, expense, and sheer fatigue of having a family. Accept that you're probably going to wind up old, broke, andexhausted, and just fling yourself into it with everything you've got. Then, when you're old, broke, and exhausted, at least you'll have some good stories to tell.
Plan for Adventure
If you just sit around waiting for something amazing to happen, chances are excellent that absolutely nothing will ever come your way. Fun is something you generally have to seek out. Fun that finds you is usually someone else's fun. That's not always a bad thing, but after a while it feels unsatisfying at best, downright abusive at worst. Remember all those great ideas you had about what your life would be like one of these days? The scary truth is, these days are here and not only here but flying by and gone. It's past time to get busy. Think basic physics: A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Maybe you dozed through that class in high school, but it means, very simply, a person sacked out on the couch like a big, lazy, bloated hog will stay sacked out on the couch, possibly forever. Start living now, really living, before you drop dead and leave your kids with a houseful of pointless crap and clutter to sort through, argue over, then dump into Hefty bags for the garbage collectors.
To make it easy for everyone to remember, I condensed it all into four words: Think, Remember, Adapt, and Plan or T.R.A.P, for short. And Mark was trapped. Given the choice between being a man who really seizes life by the throat and being a joyless lump of couch-riding livestock, what self-respecting human being would proudly opt to be pork? Mark was in--he just didn't know for what.
With everyone safely snared in my T.R.A.P., the next step was to figure out which areas of our family life most needed the television treatment. Interesting casting wasn't the problem. We're a blendedfamily, with a few extra Hollywood touches thrown in to boost the overall level of wackiness, misunderstanding, and melodrama. The Mommy (that's me) does a syndicated radio show heard in towns all over the country. Not only does that lend a bit of showbiz glamour to the whole enterprise, it all but guarantees weekends full of events featuring stilt-walkers and free hot dogs--pure gold for any adventure-seeking American family. Mark (aka The Daddy) left his engineering career to be a full-time stay-at-home father. How much more Sensitive New Man can you get? Eric, my stepson, lives with his mom in another state during the school year, spending summers, holidays, and every other weekend with us. His mother, my husband's first wife, is gay, which explains pretty efficiently how I came to be in the picture in the first place. Mark and I have two daughters, a three-year-old dinosaur maniac who never stops talking and a one-year-old who never stops bellowing.
Thanks to the clan-expanding metrics of divorce, Mark and I also have a huge extended family. Between us, we've got four sets of parents, five sisters, three brothers, six stepbrothers, and an entire army of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. That amounts to dozens of birthdays to keep track of and remember--a task at which I consistently fail. Like many women trying to juggle family and career in a world that apparently expects us to earn like a CEO, keep house like Donna Reed, and look like a barely legal porn star, overwhelming guilt and anxiety push everything else out of my mind. So I throw pizza at my family three nights per week and constantly shuffle back and forth to the Hallmark store to buy ridiculously overpriced cards for my swollen horde of relations, not one of whom is considerate enough to live within reasonable babysitting distance. Not that we'd have taken advantage of them if they did we were both too paralyzed by guilt to even seriously contemplate finding a sitter. Mark because he was a stay-at-home dad and, by golly, the kids were his job. And me because I had to go to work every day and wasn't that already too much time spent away from mybabies? Clearly, Mark and I were nuts. Changes needed to be made.
The problem, I thought, wasn't that our family was idly bored, but that we had far too many of the wrong sorts of things to do. Granted, a lot of that involved laundry and meals. But shouldn't life be more than endlessly pretreating garments for stains and barking, "Swallow that bite right this minute!" over and over again? No one had warned Mark and me that having multiple small children was akin to being placed under house arrest. No sooner did one wake up than the other wanted a nap. Whole days passed by while we waited for everyone in the house to be simultaneously awake, fed, dry, and not sobbing. On the rare occasions that the stars aligned to permit an outing, it would invariably rain, or snow, or hail. Or one of the babies would suddenly throw up, just to keep us off-balance. (This phenomenon, known as decoy barfing, is a purely random event, neither preceded nor followed by any other symptoms or disability. It's done strictly for laughs the child's, not yours.) Back we'd trudge into the house, our hopes dashed, another Sunday afternoon shot. Next thing you know it's Monday morning, then Friday night again, then Halloween, Christmas, and the Fourth of July Where did all of those days go?
There's an interesting theory floating around that tries to address the mystery of why time seems to fly as we get older. It has to do with routine, with falling into a behavioral rut. When we're young, every day is packed with new experiences, new things to discover, explore, and learn. The days feel long and full, dense with meaning. As we age, we have fewer new experiences. We try new things less frequently. We follow the same patterns, day after day often eating the same foods, driving the same routes, having the same conversations over and over. This tiresome drudge, also known as having a job and paying the bills, requires less mental engagement than learning how to tie one's shoes or do long division, for example. As a result, each day blends into the next, with few landmarks to distinguish one from the other. Until the day you lookup and say, "Whoa there! Where the hell did my twenties/thirties/ forties go?" It's depressing, isn't it? But it's not hopeless.
If it's routine that literally makes our minds numb and our lives zip by too quickly, then it only stands to reason that shaking up those routines could make life feel longer, fuller, and infinitely more fabulous. That was exactly what I wanted for my family. And in the cold light of a January morning, it seemed perfectly reasonable. New people, new adventures, new places, new habits. We'd swap the daily grind for something fresh and different, something with a purpose, a plan, a plot. All I'd have to do to beat the mundane was turn every possible opportunity into an episode. And I felt more than qualified for the job. After all, I'd been called a drama queen my whole life. Now I was finally ready to embrace the title and ascend to the throne. No longer would we be ruled by chores and obligations. Surveying my cluttered little kingdom, I announced, "This year, everything is going to be different around here." No one was listening, of course. For all the reaction I got, I might as well have uttered the words "There is a lobster growing out of my head." But no matter. Know those signs sold at truck stops that declare, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy"? I was Mama. And it was time to make me happy.
Copyright © 2006 by Sheri Lynch. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.