The other day I saw an acquaintance that I haven’t spoken to since before I began this blog. She commented on how great my hair looks (because it’s long enough now to help others forget I had breast cancer) and how color is back in my face (I wasn’t sure if this referred to the lack of chemo’s graying effects or if I was flushed after chasing around my toddler). She mentioned the blog in a voice choked with emotion.
“It’s so amazing to me how you have yourself together. I don’t know how you do it, but you are the envy of us all. What’s your secret?”
I glanced over my shoulder to see if she was talking to someone else. ME? She had to be in the midst of a serious midlife crisis or major PMS. How could she possibly infer from reading the blog that I had myself “together?” Was I presenting myself to the world as some savvy know-it-all? I was in trouble.
If she only knew what any given day is like around here…
- There was the morning that I raced around to get the kids ready for school: lunches packed, schoolbags inventoried, and children awake, dressed, fed and cleaned. I had just enough time to make myself look presentable before grabbing boots from the closet and rushing out the door to get Baby #1 to her orthodontist check-up. Of course, it wasn’t until after I had been there for 15 minutes and spoken to multiple people before I noticed I was wearing two different brown boots….
- I had the best of intentions to bake cookies for the kids and the friends coming home from school with them. Really, I did. What I didn’t intend on doing was dropping a pot holder onto the oven door and closing the door without realizing it. In case anyone is wondering, flame-broiled peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies are not edible, and burning pot holders make the entire house smell bad for hours.
- Should I tell her that the only way I had been able to put a stop to Baby #4’s tantrum that very morning was for me to make loud vomiting sounds, which had shocked him into a fit of laughter?
- I could also share how I had given Baby #3 a lecture about leaving his toys all about, only to return to the kitchen counter top that was strewn with hospital bills and volunteer paperwork, the stainless steel water bottles I had yet to refill from lunch, a tangle of charging cords for electronic devices, a broken pot lid that I’d been meaning to check the warranty on for weeks, the magazine collecting dust that I wanted to read, and Baby #1’s art projects.
- What about how I woke up the kids the day of the school district’s Homecoming parade by marching up and down the hallway while loudly singing the Penn State version of the “Hey Song,” thinking it would excite them, but they burst into tears?
- Then there were the parenting fails at the parade. After Baby #4 melted down for 20 minutes at the site of costumed school mascots, Baby #3 kept hitting spectators in the crotch with the lollipops he threw while we walked. To placate Baby #4, I had him sit in the stroller watching Pocoyo for well over two hours.
- I completely forgot about a family fun day we were supposed to meet my best friend and her crew at, even though it was on my phone’s calendar, the wall calendar, and recorded in my daily planner.
- What about the day I got all four kids to church on time, and was horrified to realize not only did no one comb their hair but clothes didn’t match and faces weren’t washed? It was obvious we had rolled out of bed and scrambled to our pew.
- I could share about the day I was at the gym and in a rush to get Baby #4 from the childcare room and to the public library for story time. I decided against undressing at my locker and took my entire gym bag with me to the showers. I turned on the water, stripped down, and dug around the bag for soap. Once in the shower and rinsing off, I realized I had not seen a towel in my bag. I turned off the water and rifled through my dirty clothes and toiletries. Lucky to find a clean hand towel, I dried myself off as best I could, rendering the cloth saturated. Then I planned my strategy back to where my clean clothes were locked. The lockers…I needed to get out of the showers and past the sinks, the stalls, and the main door, which opens up to the hallway. I scampered around, with the bag on my shoulder and covering my backside, while the hand towel hung in front and one arm was clenched across my chest. I couldn’t decide what would be more offensive to someone entering the room…my flashing cheeks or the battle scars across my chest? By the time I made it to the locker (and realized that the room was empty), I couldn’t contain my laughter.
Since becoming a parent, my confidence comes from my ability to keep the kids presentable and behaving consistently (on some occasions , that doesn’t necessarily mean the same as behaving well, but I digress…) Before breast cancer, these types of days would throw me into a frenzy of anxiety and panic. An off-kilter day not only made it difficult to manage things but it also wounded my pride.
Some days nothing goes according to plan. You wake up late, you don’t realize you are out of conditioner until after you are in the shower rinsing the shampoo out of your hair, and little kids are banging on the door for your attention. And then a domino effect takes place: one of the kids misses the bus, the baby goes through two outfits before you leave the house, you forgot about a meeting scheduled at lunch, and…speaking of lunch…isn’t yours at home by the front door? You hit every red light on the way home after work, the kids have more homework than they’ve had in weeks, you have a looming deadline to meet, and you need to scramble to get everyone where they should be for evening activities. Oh, and the playroom looks like a war zone with debris scattered about, there are 4 baskets of folded laundry to put away, dishes are piling up in the sink, one of the boys completed missed the toilet in the powder room, the cat is underfoot, the dog is hungry, and your husband want to know if–wink wink–you want to go to be early tonight. Sigh.
When the cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment demanded I slow down, I found myself entertained by my previous stress. I suppose being required to sit still and watch others perform your daily duties has an element of amusement to it. It forced me to parse my routines and habits as I observed others completing them. Was some of that stuff even necessary for a happy, healthy family?
It turns out, the answer is no. I don’t need to separate out the generic dollar store ninjas from the licensed superhero characters in the toy bin. It is okay if I buy some snacks pre-packaged into individual servings. The kids will still do a good job on spelling tests if I’m not reviewing their words with them for the five extra minutes we can study at the bus stop. It isn’t the end of the world if they watch TV so I can get dinner started. There is no film crew following me around the house to broadcast the state of its cleanliness. And so on, et cetra…
My silly mistakes and the goofiness of my spontaneous decisions are reminders to be present in the moment, to focus on what is in front of me. It’s okay that some days the groove and balance are there and I can be proud of all I accomplish. It’s also acceptable to have days where an emptied dishwasher and one uninterrupted phone call count as victories. When I tuck each of the kids into bed and ask them what their favorite part of the day was, 9 out of 10 times it involves laughter: Baby #4’s Winnie the Pooh impression, Baby #3’s dance moves, a new story Baby #2 is writing, or the adventures of the upper elementary school bus for Baby #1. Notice that the things I’m concerned about usually don’t make the list. They shouldn’t.
So how did I respond to my acquaintance, who asked me what my secret is to keeping it all together?
“I’m a downright mess, but that’s okay. I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m held together by laughter.”