Has anyone actually died of boredom playing trains with their toddler? Marty pushed Thomas around the track, followed by too many cars. He took a tight turn and the last five cars slipped from the grooves, flopping limply to the side. Being a master engineer, Marty was no stranger to this, and calmly filed the trains back where they belonged.
I glanced at the clock and was devastated that only two minutes had passed since I’d last looked. It felt like at least five.
“Mommy, play trains!” Marty said.
It was a demand, but I didn’t have the energy for a politeness lesson, so that Teaching Moment slipped by while I simply moved my train.
Marty chuffed along behind me. When he came to my side, he plopped into my lap. I wrapped my arms around his middle and kissed his cheek, marveling at his soft skin. Then I tickled his tummy and he laughed hysterically.
He jabbed his fingers into my armpit, waggling them around. It didn’t tickle, but I fake laughed, which became real laughter when I saw his delight. I tickled him again, targeting feet this time. For a second we giggled wildly. This is why you had kids! Be in the moment! Focus on-
Marty’s fist hitting my face derailed my train of thought. It was merely tickle-induced flailing, but my immediate reaction was anger because it FUCKING HURT. Then I felt stupid for expecting a two-year-old to control his body like an adult. I sighed. This is life with toddlers. One moment you’re laughing, and the next you’ve got a fat lip.
I checked the clock again. Two more minutes.
Later, during the soothing silence of naptime, I realized I’d forgotten to send Ava’s class snack to preschool.
I mentally wrote my apology e-mail to Ava’s teacher as I tiptoed upstairs. She’d be forgiving, as they always have extras and I’d never forgotten before, but I don’t want to be that mom. The irresponsible mom, forgetting snack and dropping her kid off 15 minutes late, flabbergasted that class started at 8:30 again. Or the hypochondriac mom, demanding antibiotics at the slightest fever. Or the granola mom, panicking when her kid ingests any amount of sugar.
All too soon it was time to pick up Ava, so I woke Marty. After three rounds of I-don’t-want-to-change-my-diaper, I-don’t-want-to-wear-my-shoes and I’m-not-putting-on-my-jacket, I lifted Marty into his car seat. As he passed within range, he batted at the air vents.
“Quit it!” I said, much too angry for a minor infraction.
After buckling him, I appreciated the few quiet moments while I circled to the driver’s seat. Once inside I looked back and was annoyed that Marty had also turned on the overhead light. There goes the Zen I’d cultivated on my walk around the van.
“Marty! Stop turning on that light!”
I know I sound harsh, but the kids leave those fucking dome lights on ALL THE TIME. It’s a constant annoyance that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but drains the life out of me.
I didn’t try to reach the light from my seat. Past experience had taught me that my arms are almost, but not quite, long enough. All I’d get is a sense of failure and a pulled neck muscle. I’d hit it when we got to school.
“Here we go! Off to pick up Avy!” My tone was so cheerful I should’ve been rendered in claymation, declaring this the Best Christmas Ever.
“Yay!” Marty yelled, breaking my heart with his sincerity. “Mommy, what that sign say?”
I sighed. We’d been down this road before, figuratively and literally.
“Which sign, Marty?”
“Honey, I can’t look right now, I’m driving.”
Predictably, he started whining. Why not just make something up? I have this bizarre notion that I shouldn’t lie to my kids, even about innocent things. If I tell him the sign says, “Monkey Poop” and then every time we pass this way he excitedly says, “Monkey Poop” and we laugh, I’m afraid when he can read he’ll figure out it only says “One Way” and feel betrayed. However, there’s no consistency to this policy. When Ava asked where that tedious book of fairy tales was, I said I didn’t know, even though I knew it was at the bottom of the trash can. Ok, the recycling bin. I’m not a monster.
We turned onto Maple Avenue and got a glimpse of today’s pick-up line. Not bad. Only two cars waiting in the street and nobody turning left. Seriously, how hard is it to drive one more block and turn right into the pick-up line? Are you so busy you must cut in line, stopping traffic both ways? The worst are those people who can’t wait, so they pull in and park their car, COMPLETELY BLOCKING THE ENTRANCE. Everybody’s five minutes late because that asshole has the patience of a gnat.
Today, however, the line chugged along smoothly. I even got to pull straight into the loading zone, instead of parallel parking in front of other impatient parents.
“Can I come pick up Avy?” came a tiny voice from the backseat.
Normally I leave Marty in the van, because it takes three times longer to do anything if he’s mobile. However, I still felt guilty about snapping at him, and ruining a treasured memory of the “Monkey Poop” sign, so I gave in.
“Yay! Thanks, Mommy!”
I was instantly glad I’d agreed. Five seconds later I regretted every decision I’d ever made, because he took off at a dead sprint, tripped over nothing and smashed face first into the concrete.
The screaming was instantaneous. I picked him up and saw this wasn’t a scraped chin situation. It was a Code Red: blood spilling out of his mouth.
“Oh shit!” I said, before I could stop myself.
Marty screamed harder.
“Is it bleeding?” He splattered my face with blood.
That “truth telling” thing kicked in again. While Marty screamed and bled, I stood paralyzed. The preschool director swooped in.
“Take him to the nurse’s office and we’ll keep Ava.”
She gently guided me into the school.
“Thanks,” I said, too dumbfounded to say anything else.
When we got to the nurse’s office, she took over like a pro.
“He fell face first onto the concrete.”
She nodded sagely. I sat down, Marty in my lap. By now his screaming had calmed to whimpering.
“Alright, Honey, let’s look in that mouth,” the nurse said.
Marty shook his head, mouth clamped shut.
“Have you met Mr. Frog?” She rustled around in a bin of stuffed animals.
Marty didn’t answer, but he was interested. Behind trains, frogs were his favorite. The nurse pulled her arm out and we were face-to-face with a frog puppet. It had googly eyes, a top hat, and a giant, flapping mouth. Marty reached out to pet the frog’s nose.
“Can you copy Mr. Frog?” the nurse asked.
Mr. Frog leaned to the left and right. Marty swayed on my lap. Mr. Frog nodded up and down. Marty followed suit. Then the moment of truth. Mr. Frog opened his mouth and we could see a big, red tongue. Marty didn’t hesitate. He opened his mouth and stuck out his own tongue.
“Good job!” The nurse quickly examined him.
“He bit his bottom lip and chipped one of his teeth.”
“Is that bad?” I asked.
She was already getting an ice pack from the small fridge in the corner.
“The chip doesn’t look big enough to have hit a nerve. Take him to the dentist tomorrow, but don’t stress about it.”
Right. I won’t stress about the possible NERVE DAMAGE my child suffered. She handed me the ice pack.
“Alternate that on and off his lip for 10 minutes at a time. Salty foods will sting, so avoid those for 24 hours. Tomorrow it’ll look like he got into a bar fight. The old ladies at the supermarket will be deeply concerned, but he’ll be fine.”
“Thank you.” I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.
Somehow Mr. Frog was back on her hand. Even I didn’t see her do it. Marty was obviously still in pain, but his eyes twinkled.
“Bye, Mr. Frog!” I said brightly.
Marty patted the frog’s nose and waved. I stood, situating him on my hip. He laid his head on my shoulder and I sighed. The weight of my kids leaning against me had a calming effect, like two glasses of wine without the headache in the morning.
Back in the hallway I tried putting the ice pack on Marty’s lip. He shook his head and popped his thumb into his mouth.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
He shook his head again. I shelved the ice pack fight. Something to look forward to at home.
The nurse’s office wasn’t far from the Purple Room. Ava was stacking blocks while Miss Rachel cleaned up art supplies.
“Hi Ava,” I said.
“Mommy!” She jumped up and ran toward me. Please don’t fall!
Ava expertly weaved through tiny chairs and avoided the hazards of the pillow nook. When I kneeled down to hug her she touched my cheek and said, “What’s that?”
I’d forgotten I was splattered with blood. I’d had that entire conversation with the nurse looking like a careless serial killer. I stood up and said, “Do you have any-” but Miss Rachel was already holding out baby wipes.
After cleaning myself up, we trudged back to the pick-up lane, where our van was the lone vehicle in sight. Suddenly I was the inconsiderate driver. Maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental. Everybody fucks up sometimes. We’re all in this together, kumbaya, one with the universe, forever and ever, amen. I shut my eyes and shook my head, before I spiraled out into deep space.
After both kids were buckled I had my meditative walk, but my head was so muddled I forgot to enjoy it. So much for being in the moment. Climbing in, my eyes flicked to the back seat.
“God damn it!” I said, then slapped my hand over my mouth. Marty’s light was still on.
I surveyed the kids to see if they’d internalized the blasphemy, but Ava was reading a book and Marty stared out the window.
“Marty, can you reach that light?”
He raised his chubby arm valiantly, making a cute grunting noise to aid the effort, but was ultimately thwarted by the car seat buckle. Damn modern safety standards.
I didn’t want to get out again. I considered asking Ava to hit the light, but five years of parenthood had taught me that was a terrible idea. She’d unbuckle and Marty would start whining. I’d explain that Ava was only getting up for a second, to turn off the light, and being a rational human Marty would accept that explanation with grace. Just kidding! He’d whine louder and kick his feet, accidentally punting his sister in the stomach. Ava would start crying, so I’d have to get out of the van, get Ava out, give her a hug, assess her injuries, calm her down, get us both back into the van, and then drive home, realizing after five minutes we still hadn’t turned off the damn light.
Rather than waste ten minutes on that, I vowed not to forget, and turn off the light at home.
“Marty, what song do you want?” I asked.
Turn off the light.
“Bus!” he said.
“Ok, ‘Wheels on the Bus’ comin’ up!”
Turn off the light.
I fiddled with my phone to bring up the song and we finally pulled out of the wretched pick-up lane (my kumbaya realization turned to dust, apparently).
Turn off the light.
“BUS!” Marty screamed along with the song.
Turn off the light.
We reached a stop sign and Ava yelled, “Bunnies!” I looked over to see two rabbits nibbling on grass.
“Marty! Look on Ava’s side!”
“They’re so cuuuuuuuuute!” Ava said.
Despite this charming, bucolic scene, I needed a break, and probably a shower. That meant letting the kids watch TV, but it was only 3:30. I wanted to push TV time later. Phil had meetings until 9:00. I pondered this dilemma as we arrived home.
Exiting the van was uneventful, aside from Marty saying, “Welcome home, Avy!” and giving her the sweetest hug. It was enough to make a diabetic’s blood sugar spike.
Between the hug, Marty letting me put the ice pack on his lip, and the story Ava told me about her day (She, Jack and Larson played Chase. Yes, that was the entire story, but beggars can’t be choosers.), I got a second wind. Bedtime was a measly four hours away.
“How about we do a puzzle?” I said.
“Can I choose the puzzle?” Ava asked.
“Sure, go pick one and we’ll do it in your room.”
I was feeling a generosity of spirit unusual for this late in the afternoon, so when Marty thrust his hands into the air and said, “Up! Up!” I complied. I even pretend-dropped him and was rewarded with tiny giggles that floated around like bubbles. I wished for the millionth time I could bottle my children’s laughter.
By the time we got upstairs, Ava had already dumped out a puzzle and was busily sorting pieces. Our cat Buffy was acting unusually excited over in the corner, so I set Marty down next to Ava. When I rounded the bunk bed it took a moment to process what I saw. Then I remembered. This morning I’d asked Marty to put a new box of tissues on his dresser. I’d never checked on the progress of that task, like a god damned amateur, and now every tissue was lying in a pile on the carpet, except the ones Buffy was eating.
“Marty, did you pull all the tissues out of the box this morning?”
I kneeled down.
“You can’t do that. That’s wasteful and now Buffy’s eating them. Tissues stay in the box unless we’re blowing our nose, and then we only take one.”
Well, I think I handled that spectacularly! I spoke calmly, I explained things on his level and I didn’t even sigh. As I wrestled tissues away from the cat, I imagined the plaque they would hang in my honor on this spot. Then I had the inspired idea to put all the non-chewed tissues in a bag so we could still use them. My Nobel Prize for environmentalism couldn’t be far off, either.
“I’m going downstairs to get a bag. Stay up here and I’ll be right back.”
“Ok,” said Ava.
“Bye, Mommy!” said Marty.
My intention was to quickly grab a bag and go back, but my exit had gone so smoothly, and the kids were quiet, engaged in an educational activity. It couldn’t hurt to load the dishwasher. Without someone pulling on my leg, it only took one minute, so I allowed myself the luxury of checking Facebook. I was surprised when 15 minutes had passed. It was still quiet upstairs and nobody had come down, so I was immediately wary. I grabbed the plastic bag and headed up. Marty crouched near the top of the stairs, intently focused on something.
“Hey, what have you got there?” I asked.
He turned and revealed a pile of cat vomit laced with tissues.
“Gross! Don’t play with that!”
I mentally prepared myself to clean up the mess when I looked back at Marty, and, with dawning horror, realized he was chewing.
I scooped him up and rushed to the bathroom, where I dug cat vomit out of his mouth. I was so disgusted I forgot his lip injury. Marty started wailing, showering me with vomit-laced tissues.
In that moment, a crying child on my hip, covered in something revolting for the second time today, I gave myself up to the gods of parenting, sat on the floor and just laughed.
Later, after a shower, a viewing of Moana, and an early bedtime, I sat on the couch drinking wine. Parenthood is relentless and that’s what makes it awful and wonderful. No matter how bad today was, I have to do it all again tomorrow. No matter how bad today was, I get a blank slate tomorrow.
I looked up as Phil came in the back door.
“Hey!” he said, sitting down and giving me a kiss. “Why is the dome light on in the van?”
Katie Borders is a writer and activist living in St. Louis, MO with her husband and two sons. You can find her on Twitter @katie_borders, and read her blog Forever Incomplete at katieborders.com. This is her first publication.