Her entire mouth was blue. Lips, chin, cheeks, and tongue – all blue. The initial shock (Is it blood? What is it?) was replaced too quickly with anger when I realized what it was. Ink. It’s always ink. Why her school insists the kids use a stylo plume is beyond me. It’s not easy to write with – especially if you’re a lefty, like Short-pants. It makes a huge mess on the paper and covers her hands with ink every time she does her homework. But it is required.
I looked down at the floor. The beige carpet, selected for neutrality and alleged durability, colored with huge blotches of blue. There were blue stains everywhere, on her bed sheets, on the comforter cover. The final punctuation on the wall: a perfect handprint, in indigo.
I’d like to tell you I laughed out loud and took her over to the mirror and showed her how silly she looked, like a creature from an Avatar tribe. I’d like to tell you I calmly asked her about the blue ink covering face and hands and clothes and most of her bedroom floor, inquiring, gathering data, seeking to understand what had happened. I’d even like to tell you I counted to ten, releasing my anger so that if I had to scold her, at least I could do it in a sensible, thoughtful way before asking her to disrobe for an impromptu bath.
But no. It’s a classic parenting scenario. And I blew it.
I yelled at her. Sharp, angry, questions: “What’s on your face? How did it get all over your hands? What were you doing?” And when I saw the blue on the carpet, I started firing ballistic missiles.
She exploded, of course, into tears. Repeating, again and again, I’m sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry. Breathless crying. I didn’t spank or hit her, but I suppose I struck her with the violence of my words. It took an entire bath for her to settle down.
“I hate myself,” I said later, tossing in bed, unable to sleep, “I should know better.” De-facto turned and spooned with me, wrapping his arm around me, pulling me close. “You have a lot on your plate right now,” he said, “don’t add this.”
There’s always a bit of stress when we have a job, but this week put me in a spin. To get the kids fed and dressed – let alone to get myself prepared to get out the door – and scurry them to school and sprint to the metro to make it to the meeting in time was a real grind. I only have to do this once or twice a month. I’m in awe of mothers with regular jobs who handle this every day, week-in-week-out. Three days in a row floored me.
That I am going away for two weeks (or more?) adds fuel to the fire. It’s less about getting ready to go and more about getting ready to be gone. Lots of little details: paying bills, organizing child-care, anticipating school assignments, leaving little notes for De-facto. The unspoken stress about the trip ahead, well, that just gets folded and packed in the suitcase with the rest of my clothes – all of which really could use an ironing out but I’ll deal with that – with all of it – when I get there.
I’m too often stretched to the max like this, squeezing in to the short days all the things that must be done so that when 4:30 rolls around, honestly, I’m not ready for them to be out of school. I want a few more hours of solitude. I’m not ready to scramble off and get one and take her here and go back to get the other and take her there and have you done your homework or please finish your dinner or get in the bath or brush your teeth. It’s not like they just take orders and say “yes, ma’am.” There is a fantastic production of lollygagging and goldbricking and stretching out of tasks on their part. I may need to move the night along chop-chop – so I can finish that project or prepare for tomorrow’s meeting or write the post that’s been seeding in my brain all day, or hell, just have a few minutes to sit quietly, read, watch a movie, or simply collapse into bed – but that doesn’t mean they will comply.
It’s not that they are so terribly misbehaved. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do! They’re playing. They are marvelously distracted by the present, by the current thought that just crossed their mind or by the toy they just happened to see in front of them on their way up the stairs to do something else, like, for example, that fascinating coloring book – the one with the ink on the pages and a stencil to scratch it off, and wow, look what happens to it when it gets wet. (The source of all that blue, we find, was not the stylo plume, but a high-tech coloring book.)
In order to let them play, I have to juggle what role I want to play.
I did not audition to be a nagging, scolding parent. I idealized a version of me: firm but friendly, rigorous but respectful. Strict but sassy. I usually start out that way: questioning, encouraging, firmly polite rather than barking orders. But sometimes things spiral down. There are those days when I just don’t have the patience, or the feelings are simply too strong, when I hear my own voice shift from being stern and admonishing to just plain hollering. The momentary release brings a very temporary satisfaction, but then it feels worse. And it doesn’t solve the problem the way I’d hope for my girls to learn to solve problems. I’m willing to “talk hard” as we say, but I hate it when I have to yell.
So we sit down to sort it out. I ask questions and listen. I tell them how I feel and what I need. There are tears. Some half-hearted smiles stretching into honest-to-goodness ones. Apologies extended all around. Hugs. Promises. Resolutions.
Then later, when it’s quiet, I go upstairs to check on them, leaning close to sweep the hair off their sleeping foreheads and to plant kisses on their spongy cheeks. Each has her own distinct smell, one like cookie-dough, the other like corn silk. In their slumber, they are oblivious to me and to the world outside their cozy attic bedrooms. They breathe rhythmically – even snoring lightly – sleeping still and sweet and I see how perfect they are, blue fingers and all.