Two days into our family road trip vacation, I realized something: being with kids is far more enjoyable without the distractions and responsibilities of everyday life. Without housecleaning, grocery shopping, work deadlines, or school schedules, things are just ... calmer. Less grating. Richer and sweeter.
Duh, right? Of course everything's better when you're on vacation. But after nine days of driving around Oregon, staying in everything from luxurious ranch cabins to a $50 bare-bones motel room in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I got a much-needed parenting reboot that just might help get me through the rest of the summer -- plus some lessons in how I can bring some of that vacation magic into our regular life.
If you are a parent and you have a computer, I'm sure you've seen the article titled "6 Words You Should Say Today." Sometimes it's shared under different titles: "The Only 6 Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids," "This Is the Only Parenting Tip You'll Ever Need," "6 Words You MUST Say to Your Children or You're Literally the Worst and Should Go to Jail," etc. The gist of it is that saying "I love to watch you play" is the best thing you can say to your child when they're doing an activity like sports or playing a game -- much more powerful than praising or criticizing their performance.
Here's the problem with that oh-so-viral command: what if you do NOT love watching them play, not at all, not even a little bit? What if watching them play is so insanely boring, it makes your brain feel like it's liquifying and is on the verge of erupting from your eye sockets in a wall-splattering fountain of grayish-red gore?
Because that, friends, is exactly how I feel about Minecraft.
During each day there are times when I feel enormously lucky, deeply content. I smile indulgently at my children and answer their every question with my full attention: "What is my favorite swimming animal? Oh, I'd have to say the otter." I make bright suggestions: gosh, does it seem like a good time of day for some ice cream? I am beatifically rooted in the exact moment and in no rush for the next one to come along. Namaste, motherfuckers.
Then there are the times when I'm practically crawling out of my own skin, restless and stupendously bored, not a single ounce of patience or a gentle motherly smile left in me. I've got that Grinch monologue stuck in my head: And then ... all the noise! All the noise, noise, noise, noise! If there's one thing I hate ... all the noise, noise, noise, noise!
I recently needed to wrap a present, and as I was digging through the junk drawer for the Scotch tape, I remembered: Oh yeah, I have children. Therefore, the tape isn't in the drawer. It isn't on my desk or in the kids' crafting supplies or anywhere that makes any kind of sense. Fifteen increasingly frustrating minutes later, I found the tape abandoned on the base of my 6-year-old's bedroom lamp next to a random assortment of seashells, a LEGO vehicle of some kind, and a homemade hatchet.
In my experience, once you give birth, certain things are never where they're supposed to be. (And I'm not just talking about my hooters, although frankly I wish I'd been warned I'd eventually need a spatula to get a sports bra on.) I've been photo-documenting this irritating phenomenon and I'd like to share my findings with you, so you can tell me: is it just me? Am I the only one whose children are part magpie? Should I just give up on having easily accessible wrapping tape EVER AGAIN??
When I was a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with Ripley'sBelieve It or Not! Not the "museum" franchise, I'm talking about the 80's show that had Jack Palance as the host. Man, remember that breathy delivery of his? "Believe it … or not."
Anyway, I was thinking of that series recently and how I would totally watch a parenting version of it now. Because there are SO many unexplained mysteries involved in raising kids. Strange events! Otherworldly artifacts! Facts that are so downright bizarre they'd be impossible to believe if you didn't view them with your own eyes!
For instance, take these 5 examples of inexplicable parenting phenomena that makes NO sense whatsoever.
There are some oddball milestones in parenting, aren't there? A recent one for me was taking my son to see Godzilla. The noise, the monsters, the immersive nature of watching it in IMAX 3D ... there was a time I would've predicted that sort of movie outing would have been about as successful as trying to force-feed him a bag of live spiders.
It seems so obvious in retrospect: he wouldn't have enjoyed a loud dramatic movie because he was too young. But at the time, I thought of him as quirky. I mentally referred to his sensory issues. It occurs to me -- now that he's older, now that I'm not so caught up in how he compares to other kids his age -- that our easy access to an infinite amount of anecdotal medical information has ruined our collective ability to let our kids develop at their own pace.
It was just a couple weeks ago that my husband and I left our boys, who are 8 and 6 years old, in the truck while we made a quick grocery stop. It was a cool rainy day, we were gone for maybe five minutes, our kids had fun chatting about Minecraft while my husband and I enjoyed a brief moment of adult time.
I don't leave them in the car a lot, but I've certainly done it. On weather-appropriate days, in a locked vehicle, when I'm going to be gone for the amount of time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn? Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with it. But I won't be leaving them on their own again for a long, long time -- and the reason is both sad and infuriating.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I remember sitting in the assembled nursery, my huge belly resting on my lap as I rocked in our newly purchased glider, and marveled at how the room had changed. Just months before it had been a perfectly unremarkable guest room, and now look at it! Softly lit, filled with unfamiliar furniture, dreamily unfocused stars projected on the ceiling from the crib mobile.
I was thinking of that strange, anticipatory feeling the other day when I was in my oldest son's room gathering laundry. How his room has a life of its own now, his personality shining through in every minute piece of clutter. Once upon a time, that yet-unused nursery overwhelmed me with its quiet promise of how our lives were going to change ... and now my 8-year-old's messy room still crushes my heart, with its freeze-frame capture of a little boy's journey to growing up.
The other day my husband and I were reminiscing about our baby-raising years, when entire days would revolve around naps. How we'd tiptoe around the house when someone was sleeping, putting off noisy activities like emptying the dishwasher or speaking above a hushed whisper, because god forbid if that two-hour nap was interrupted and we got screwed with a measly 45 minutes.
We would have done anything to ensure we got the full, allotted naptime. That time was so unbelievably precious, I can still remember the whole-bodied relief of it. The blissful silence. The sense of somehow reconnecting with your own self while temporarily drawn away from the fierce parental undertow: Oh, you're still here. Good.
Our kids are well past the napping stage now, and thankfully, they're not nearly so demanding. But I've learned we can easily recreate that napping atmosphere -- and oh god, it's so hard not to abuse this power.
The women sitting next to me are immersed in an animated conversation. I'm not trying to eavesdrop, but, well, they're right there, it's hard not to overhear. Not that they're talking about anything super personal, they veer from mom-topic to mom-topic: how the swimming lessons are going, what their kids' teachers are like, their plans for the summer. Although they seem to have met each other only moments before, these women have the semi-tentative yet excitable air of two people with a great deal in common. Like people on a second or third date.
I'm shifting in my seat, eyes scanning the pool to find my kids. There's Dylan, happily dunking his head. There's Riley, shivering but determined on the diving board. I have the sense I've been here a hundred times before: the uncomfortable bench, the sneaking glances at my watch, the shrinking -- yet painfully conspicuous! -- feeling of being excluded.