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Feverish Activity

With small kids I lost sight of myself — but my kids reminded me

You know how it is when you have small children. Although my oldest is 11 and my youngest is already two, it’s been a thin spread of nights in the past 12 years that I’ve slept a full night (thank you delicious five-year-old who still doesn’t sleep through the night.)

When you have small children, you’re subsumed, consumed, completely given over to the varied aspects of their care. No time for spouse, no energy for self (do I even have a self?). The days mesh together, filled with their infinite joys and delights, with challenges and frustrations too numerous and exasperating to recount.

And always, the self-doubt. You were too firm, yet you still feel like a pushover. You said only a fraction of what was on your mind, yet it was still far too much.

Were you safety conscious or were you a helicopter? Were you encouraging independence or were you negligent and permissive? You need a manual, but no one ever gave you one. You agonize, you philosophize, sometimes you just pragmatize.

You forget that there’s another world beyond the one that spins upon your axis. Other people are marrying off children, starting new jobs, fulfilling ambitions, while you can’t think beyond the next diaper or dinner.

You live in an alternate universe and you’re always surprised when you realize there are adults out there who think about things other than the little people in their care. You forget — or maybe you just can’t imagine — that your little people will one day be adults too.

You give and you take care of and you nurture from reserves so deep you can hardly believe you can access them. You put one foot in front of the other, sometimes with joy and exuberance, sometimes doggedly and dutifully, because you’re their world and they are yours, and that is all that exists for you right now. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

And then on a hectic Thursday night (aren’t they all?) I came down with a fever. And they noticed!

The oldest tried to shoo me off to bed. Control freak that I am, I knew that if I took her up on the offer, my house would be on wheels until midnight and in shambles by Friday morning, so I demurred.

The second noticed my discomfort at my daughter’s pushy insistence that I go straight to sleep. “Can’t you see that she doesn’t want to do that? Let’s help the way she wants us to.”

And they proceeded to do just that. Without fighting. Without complaining. They divided jobs between themselves and made a list on my whiteboard command center while I retreated to the comfort of a hot shower.

From within that steamy haven I heard all sorts of footsteps. Soft pattering ones from the two-year-old. Scampering ones from the five-year-old. Purposeful energetic ones from the older crew.

Usually when I shower and the kids are awake, I tense up at any noise. Not tonight, though. Tonight, I had the luxury of an extra three minutes. No screaming, no pounding on the door. Just hot water and pure, undiluted joy.

Unbelievably, impossibly, when I emerged, the house was clean. The kitchen table was wiped. The living room rug was vacuumed. Surfaces had been decluttered. Nobody was crying. And they were all still on speaking terms.

“You can give Mariann the day off tomorrow,” they told me gleefully. “We’re ready to make muddy buddies for Shabbos!”

I write this piece while they’re gathered around the kitchen table, doing just that with the recipe I’ve printed for them. And I marvel and turn over in my mind the beautiful truth, that maybe, after all my giving, they’re learning to become givers.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 725)

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