Last weekend, I became a single mom of three kids (four and under) for three days. And I’m alive to tell the tale. More than alive. I’m gonna wear this thing like a badge.
My sis and her hubby decided to scoot over to Seattle from Friday to Sunday. Jeremy had to go for work, Jenny wanted to go for Jeremy, and I’m pretty sure it was the first time they’d ever stepped away from all three boys for more than a short date, so when my sister asked me if I could take on the whole Bunchkin crew at one time for 60 hours, I was happy to say yes — even if the idea made me block August 16-18 off my calendar like it’d been eaten by a black hole. Honestly, the monotony of patiently cultivating relationships with tiny people who might poop on you if you aren’t a ninja with the diaper isn’t my strong point. Doing things is my strong point, and if I don’t feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, something that changes the world, I start to wonder why I have a soul and if I’m under some special curse or something.
Moms, I’ve read your books and blog posts encouraging each other to keep feeding, burping, washing, folding, cooking, folding, shopping, cleaning, so on and so forth, and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t freak me out a little. Every horror story about dinner boiling over and kids tossing cookies in the middle of the night and toilets not getting scrubbed and old food mutating through the colors of the rainbow and Mount Vesuviuses of dirty clothes erupting in the laundry room made me cringe and wonder how on earth I’d do it all when my turn came. (Hello, worrying about tomorrow!)
But then I remembered what it used to be like watching my big sister battle long nights of college homework (I was two years behind her) and wondering if, when I was in her shoes, I would still be human or still know what fun was like or still have my sanity. Turns out, I hit college and did just fine. Like an intense workout, the college burn felt good — and I went to a pretty tough school.
I remember studying muscles, arteries, and organs for almost 27 hours straight in order to pass the natural history final. I remember thinking that if I tipped my head an inch to either side, all the kings and heroes of Thucydides would come sloshing out and I’d get expelled halfway through my sophomore year. I remember slowly conforming to the shape of my chair over the course of eight weeks as I took 24 credits at one blow and wrote 1,000 words a day on my senior thesis. I remember taking three languages at a time and hoping I didn’t accidentally write Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum in Greek letters on my Latin test. I remember babysitting my only nephew at the time (little EZ) as much as I could and hoping I wasn’t killing him with candy just to keep him happy so I could keep writing about Milton’s philosophy of evil.
The point is, once you’re in it, you do it. And once you do it, you realize you can keep doing it, and that if you “suck it up, drink water, and press on” (as my Oma would say) and you work your tail off to honor God (not your GPA) and you deny what you want to do for what you should do, then all the nightmares are actually kinda fun to tell. (“My computer crashed three times the first semester of freshman year, and I wrote all my papers on about six different laptops I borrowed from friends and four different computers at the school library.” I still love that one.) More than that, the nightmares change who you are. They are scars, and scars well-earned are proof of tough fights that you didn’t quit.
I want my life to be a crucible. I want to be different after having passed through it. Which means I’m going to feel the burn. Getting my BA at New Saint Andrews in three years has already been a huge part of that. Next step (if God chooses to make me sweat some more)…motherhood. So how about a little practice?
All of that was going through my mind as I took the reins from my sister last Friday and became the only person keeping three little bodies in one piece (despite some of their best efforts) for the weekend. And before I tell you the rest, it’s time to introduce the Bunchkins.
EZ (short for Ezekiel) is almost five. He’s a freckled, red-headed cowboy who likes to negotiate when you tell him what to do. “Well, how ’bout I just play a gorilla really, really quietly?” “Well, how ’bout I have waffles?” “Well, how ’bout I have a treat now?” He’s curious, creative, and rambunctious, and tends to think his baby brother loves to get a monster roar in the face right after nap time. He’s also a great door-opener, carseat-unbuckler, diaper-bag-carrier, poopy-diaper-taker-outer, and I do believe he would know enough to alert me if the 11-month-old were to, say, start floating in the bathtub, though I never tested him.
Virgil is three and a half — a little drama king currently obsessed with David the giant-slayer. He plays harder, wants band-aids quicker, cries sooner (and longer), and can turn himself into the Hulk at the drop of a hat. (Sunday night, I heard both boys yelling at each other as they got ready for their bath, and entered the bathroom just in time to see Virgil turn into a little pinwheel: fists on EZ’s face. EZ retaliated, but much more dispassionately. Within another minute, their bunners were a little pink and both boys were playing happily together in the tub, best friends.) Virgil is happy-go-lucky and affectionate and huggy, especially late at night when he starts virtually sleepwalking, complaining that “this nigh-nigh time is taking too wong.”
Galen is almost 11 months and definitely the easiest to kiss as well as the one most likely to drive you batty as you hunt for his pacifier in the blanket jungle of his crib for the third time in the middle of the night while he hollers his own death dirge at the top of his lungs and conducts a tragic symphony with both arms. He’s been a chunker since he was born and will probably squash linebackers one day.
So. How did the mom part go? I will confess: I felt like I was going to die. At least twice. Not from the busyness, but from the treadmilliness. I don’t do well on hamster wheels. Go, go, go, go, go–wait, I’m not actually going anywhere! I clearly remember just feeding you. It wasn’t just the repetition (I rather like repetition; part of my OCD), but none of what I was doing actually felt like it was moving the world even the tiniest bit closer to…I don’t know. A better state of being. The Eschaton. The new heavens and new earth.
Wiping peanut butter and jelly off little faces countless times (EZ and Virgil wanted PB&J more often than anything else; it must be comfort food), swatting little bums, explaining movies to little ears, monitoring the level of the bathwater (both in the tub and on the floor), singing Galen to sleep (over and over), making sure he wasn’t feasting on Lego pieces or drinking toilet water or getting walloped by a makeshift slingshot (Virgil was practicing for Goliath), realizing that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually checked my reflection in the mirror (and not even caring)….
Tell me when.
For three days, I wasn’t writing my book, teaching freshmen, planning conferences, editing the EMSI blog, or encouraging a friend over a cup of tea. I was simply keeping three little boys from dying. That’s it.
And then it hit me. (Like I knew it would.)
I was saving their lives. Not just saving–I was making their lives. Our lives are stories, and I was helping to turn these three little lives into better stories than they would have been. How would the boys remember this weekend? How could I help shape them into the warriors they’re supposed to be? How could I show them the Gospel with my words, my time, my life?
Raising kids should remind us: absolutely everything is a story. The boys thirsted for them. All the time. Stories of ants and bears and timber wolves on YouTube. The story of Percy Jackson, which led to the story of Theseus and the minotaur in the labyrinth, which led to many, many hours of the boys telling the story back to me, starring themselves as Big Minotaur and Little Minotaur. The story about the Red Cross Knight and the dragon (twice). The story of David and Goliath (three times, with increasing detail). The stories of Samson and Sodom & Gomorrah (rated PG).
The first night, Virgil woke up shouting my name. He asked me to hold him, so I took him out in the living room and asked him what kind of story he wanted. “Jack,” he said simply. The universal hero name. So I told him the story of Jack and the beanstalk.
I loved watching how stories shaped them. Virgil tends to feel sorry for himself after getting spanked, and the quickest way I could get his mind off his sore bum (and injured feelings) was to tell him a story. But not just any story. I told him this one: “Once upon a time there was a little boy, and he was three years old, and he was wearing a green shirt, and his name was Virgil. And he grew up to be four, and then he turned five, and then he turned six, and a long time later he became a big soldier for Jesus who fought bad guys and loved God and told stories to his little kids, and do you know why he grew up to be such a good soldier? Because his mommy and daddy spanked him when he was little, to help him be a good boy. Because otherwise, the dragon in his heart would grow big, and Virgil would turn into a bad guy like Darth Vader. That’s why we spank you, to help you keep the dragon small.”
That’s why I wouldn’t trade last weekend for anything. I spent the most concentrated time I ever have with these wee nephews of mine, these future superheroes. I got to help them fight bad guys all day long–imaginary dragons and the dragons in their hearts. Eschaton, here we come. This is what the new heavens and new earth are made of.
And whenever I felt like moms don’t really get to do anything, I took a step back and took a good look at what I was actually doing. I was waitress, drill sergeant, story-teller, life guard, nurse, comforter, disciplinarian, chauffeur, weapons advisor, hugger, kisser, singer, referee, detective, bailiff, attorney, judge, EMT, protector, teacher, entertainer, cop. And that’s without having to shop, really cook, be nine months pregnant, or pull off all the wife duties at the same time like Jen does. I used to look ahead to my big sister as she did school. Now I’m looking ahead to my little sister who has blazed the trail ahead of me, and I have even more respect for her than I did a few days ago.
To mothers everywhere: you are one hot mama. I’m going to give your own advice back to you, now that I’ve tasted just a tiny bit of your labors. Keep up the good work. Enjoy the repetition. You know that God does. (Look how often He does sunsets.) Giving is getting. I gave up a little free time; what I gained, I don’t even know how to measure. I discovered that when I’m busy giving myself away to needy little bodies around the clock, there’s less room in my heart for me. And boy, is that a good feeling.
Sunday night, I came home to an efficient house run by single gals where all I have to do is work out, get to the office on time, do my own dishes, write my word quota, watch movies with friends…and all of a sudden it felt like that wasn’t doing anything. What? No one needed me every minute of the day in order to continue life as they knew it? I might as well be a hermit!
But no. If there’s one final ribbon to tie around this package, it’s that we are to do what God puts in front of us, whatever stage of life we’re in. I’ve heard that advice countless times so I know you have too, but it’s true. School? Tackle it. Job? Crush it. Marriage? Eat it up. Kids? Tell stories. Lots of stories. Tell them with your words, your deeds, your discipline.
My great-grandmother was a Thornton. Back in the time of the American War for Independence, the Thorntons had a family coat of arms that they wore on their uniforms: a lion’s head over a crown and a shield with the motto fac et spera. “Do and hope.” That’s our job: always do, always hope.
So let’s do. But with all our doing, let’s not forget to hope.
Suck it up. Drink water. And press on. (In faith.)
I’m not afraid of the treadmill anymore. I’ve taken the advice of little Virgil, whirling his lizard (sling substitute) through the air: “I’m not scared, cuz I’m David and I’ve got a slingshot.”
Now, how on earth would a three-year-old know that?