What's the one thing frazzled young moms always hear? "These years go by so quickly -- enjoy it while you can!" Which is sort of like getting a severe sunburn and hearing, "Summer will be gone before you know it -- enjoy it while you can!"
Oh, settle down. I'm not really saying that spending time with your nice little baby is a blistering agony. As the proud owner of a schnoogily, schnoogily little baby girl who has two pearly little teeth and the cutiest, wootiest style of scooty crawling that any baby in the history of ever has ever invented because she is brilliant, believe me when I say that there is nothing nicer than babies. It's true: Babies do grow up incredibly quickly, and the special joy of the baby years melts away like fog in the midmorning sun. I'm not looking forward to the day when my kids will be gone.
Still, there is only so much joy a person can stand. I can remember, for instance, having three children, all in diapers. When my husband came home in the evening, and I would feel confused, unsure of how to deal with something that wasn't a bottom. I knew he had many wonderful qualities, but my favorite thing about him was that he could pour his own juice. All day, every day, everything was up to me, me, me, and even though I loved my work, it was unrelenting.
In short, I was stuck in Babyland. Babyland is a wonderful place, where all the voices are squeaky, all the clothes are adorable, love and affection flows freely, and where mothers often go to lose their minds entirely, and would trade their immortal soul for five minutes of adult conversation and an uninterrupted cup of coffee.
So when I see a young mom struggling wearily through the day, I don't tell her, "These days go by so quickly," even though this is true. What I say is, "The years go by quickly -- but the days sure are long, aren't they?" And then I say, "Don't worry -- you won't always be stuck in Babyland."
I'm not stuck in Babyland anymore, even though I still have a bunch of little kids at home. These kids can't do much for themselves, and a good part of my day is still caught up with wiping hands, faces, bottoms, and ceilings (don't ask). But I no longer feel like I'm going to go cuckoo because of my responsibilities.
There are a few reasons for this: more maturity, more skill, more perspective, more help from my husband. But most of all, it's because along with the little, helpless ones, I also have older kids. Simple, right? But you'd be astonished at how much difference it makes.
First I realized that someone else -- yes, someone else -- could pour a bowl of cereal for the toddler. Life-changing.
Someone else could hunt for a missing sneaker while I searched for my keys.
Someone else could hold the baby while I rescue an overconfident three-year-old from the deep water.
Someone else could answer the phone, fetch the mail, close the windows if it starts to rain.
A few more years, and I could zip over to the supermarket for a gallon of milk and be home in five minutes, rather than losing forty minutes to car seat buckles and shopping cart struggles.
And when they hit the teen years -- ohh, by joe. Last weekend, my husband and I finished up dinner, cleaned the kitchen, took a look at the sky, and realized we could -- get this -- leave all the kids at home and go out for a quick swim in the town pond before the rain started. Alone. Together.
So long, suckers! I mean, thank you, children!
Do I worry that I'm turning my kids into little domestic slaves -- that I'm robbing them of their childhood and autonomy by making them pay for my and my husband's irresponsible reproductive choices? Sure. For about half a second. And then I test out this statement: "If there's one thing I'd like to contribute to society, it's a young adult who thinks his own freedom is more important than the needs of helpless people, and who has no skill at or desire to care for others." And I giggle in delight, because it's not often that something that's good for me is also good for my kids and for the world as a whole.
My husband and I check ourselves constantly, to make sure we're not asking too much of our kids -- not making them raise their siblings or do more work than any child should. And we're not. They're regular kids, who goof off and go out with friends as a matter of routine. But yes, they are expected to help with the little guys, because it's family -- and they're good at it.
When we broke the news that just Mama and Daddy were going to the beach, they were bummed. But then we explained that Mama and Daddy had not gone swimming alone together in fifteen years. The kids were horrified. "You should go!" they said. "We will take care of everything!" I'm not even kidding -- that's what my ten-year-old son said to us.
Oh, and one more thing: they love each other. In between the stabbing and the shrieking, the spend some part of each day enjoying being together. I have an eight-year-old boy who actually chokes up trying to describe how cute his little sister is; a teenage girl who knows that she alone can talk her little sister down from her pre-dinner hysteria; a three-year-old who hears the baby wake up and says, "Mama, can I go cheer her up?" Look at them, and then tell me, "It isn't fair to turn your children into babysitters!"
Kids who care for each other are more responsible in general -- and if you want to learn to love someone, then take care of him. It's the best way.
I think maybe we'll go to the beach again tonight! You know . . . for the good of the children.