The battle lines are drawn. It’s the Wickers versus the insidious stomach bug and finally after much germ warfare, the Wickers are gaining ground and close to a win.
For over a week, I haven been fighting the stomach bug. I’ve been the victim but mostly the medic,
running stumbling to the front lines to provide aid to the fallen. Sleep has been in short-supply. Vomit and diarrhea have not been. My husband was the last to fall victim – right before a weekend where he was scheduled to work 38-hours in three days after working a regular 40-hour work week. Forget the Dr. McDreamy stuff. This is real life. Thankfully, he found coverage for Friday, but he was back at work bright and early Saturday, and I was schlepping the kids to and fro the hospital to bring him plain, hot soup – about the only thing he could stomach for lunch and dinner. I actually kind of liked this duty. I got to see my husband, and I found him looking handsome despite having puked his brains out not too long ago. He glanced back one last time at the minivan before entering the glass doors to his prison for the next two days and smiled, and my heart fluttered the way it always did when we first started dating. I was looking quite fine myself, in an over-sized Notre Dame fleece, black workout pants accented with toddler drool, dog slobber, and unidentifiable smears, no makeup, and hasn’t-been-washed-or-brushed-much-lately hair. No doubt he was filled with feelings of romance as well.
Rachel was our first victim of the virus; it’s been going around the the parish school. She nearly missed hurling on her younger sister who was below her on the bottom bunk. Next up was Madeline. Then a few hours later Mary Elizabeth succumbed. I was exceedingly proud of this little trouper. She came to me just after I’d drifted back to sleep after – brace yourself – extracting big chunks of tilapia studded with rice and veggies from a bathroom sink (poor Madeline couldn’t make it to the toilet in time), and she whispered, “Mommy, I think I have to throw up.” I leapt out of bed with the kind of alacrity only a mom who knows what it’s like to be puked on can do (yes, I once almost got some in my mouth when I scooped up a nauseated, little one) and took her to the toilet. She’s only 4, but Mary was able to make it to the bathroom in time. Later she hurled into the big bowl I’d placed next to her in my bed and didn’t get even a drop of bile stew on the nest of towels I’d surrounded us with. Early the next morning, she woke me up. “I’m hungry,” she said. And she proceeded to eat a normal breakfast. For two days we were all healthy, and I thought to myself, “This is getting easier. The stomach bug isn’t quite as bad when the kids are older and puke doesn’t end up covering every surface area.”
I also figured the rest of us were fine. We’d successfully dodged the germ bullet. Hooray for us. Foolish, foolish woman. At this point, our home was one big Petri dish for germs. Not surprisingly, I woke up Tuesday morning with cramps and was preparing to stoically empty my bowels when my 2-year-old started convulsing beside me in bed. We just so happened to be sick at the exact same time. That’s how bonded I am with my little boy. So my toddler and I tag-teamed it, working hard to expel the demons who had taken control of our innards. I mostly used the toilet. Little Man did better in the bathtub; his aim isn’t as good as mine yet, but he’s getting there after our glorious night together. I got about .5 hours of sleep, and then I woke up the next day and had to take my two oldest to school since my husband had an early meeting, and I was trying to keep him healthy (epic fail, obviously).
As I loaded the kiddos into the van, I first prayed that I wouldn’t get sick in the car and then started to curse myself for deciding not to homeschool again this year since I could have popped in a movie for the kids and stayed in my puke-encrusted PJs all day. Instead, here I was taking my puke-encrusted PJ-wearing-self and driving my kids to school while my 2-year-old screeched at me telling me he was hungry. What the? How do these little people bounce back so quickly? How could he possibly be hungry after a night like that?
When the stomach bug first hit our house, I thought of posting some pity-provoking Facebook update or tweeting something about the puke fest going down in our house, but I decided against it. (I really don’t share every sickness, every flooded basement, or wild animal encounter on social media). The last time the kids ended up blowing chunks (let’s see how many puking euphemisms I can come up with in one post!), we were on a beach vacation. Three out of four kids ended up sick. So did my dad and sister-in-law. She grew so ill she had to go to the ER. Fun stuff. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t fun when it was unfolding, but it was quite funny in the aftermath. Mary Elizabeth still talks about the time she was a mummy at the beach.
Here’s how she spent a day at the beach:
As for why I’m posting about it now is simple. I’m here to say to all the weary, battle worn parents out there: You will survive and you may even find some silver lining in it all – just not in the lining of your intestines. Don’t expect those to be right for a long time. Drink your Kefir. (I am not paid to endorse Kefir, but I should be.)
Yesterday I started being able to eat normally again after my non-intentional Master Cleanse (forget running – the stomach bug will help you fit into your skinny jeans in no time), and I’m already finding humor and glints of gratitude in it all. I think of poor Thomas’s shaking body as I put him in the bathtub and rubbed his back and said to no one in particular, “This is awful,” and he emphatically agreed.
“Yes,” he replied just before he lost his cookies (no cookies had actually been eaten for dinner the night before).
I think of Madeline saying something about how tilapia doesn’t taste very good the second time around and how Mary Elizabeth wanted to be the one to bring her daddy drinks when he was recovering in bed and how she told me I smelled awful the morning after Thomas and I had been in the puke trenches together. I thought of how when Madeline and Rachel came home from school the day I was still recovering and feeling green, they worked together to tidy up the kitchen, make dinner (Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese), and fold towels that had been forgotten in the dryer.
I also found joy in how each child cuddled just a bit closer in the aftermath of their hurling. I found fulfillment in serving my husband. I could not work for him. I could not make his stomach feel better, but I could bring him soup and Kefir as well as a smile. I could joke about the fact that I hadn’t showered in two days and that I was just doing my part to save us money on our utilities. I liked how the kids and I were all holed in together, shut out from the rest of the world and all the distractions and to-dos like bears in hibernation and had nothing but time for games and reading stories.
Life has been kind of crazy lately. We’ve been fighting flooding basements, long work hours for my husband, and the dreaded stomach bug among other stressors; yet, on Friday night I found myself shooting off an email to someone – a stranger no less who is bound to think I’m a wee bit delirious (and perhaps I am after dealing with vomit and diarrhea and skimping on shut-eye for over a week now) – where I made light of the puke-poop fest. And reliving the last week actually me smile. I signed off of my email, kissed a pallid husband whom I love so very much good-night, and felt grateful for the life I’m living even in the midst of all the hazardous waste.
Each Advent season we head out to a local Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect tree. I am honestly okay with a Charlie Brown tree, but my detail-oriented husband is a perfectionist about things of which I am not and always has a hard time selecting the tree. The kids show him their favorites, and he inevitably finds a bald spot or notices the tree’s overall shape is too sparse or too asymmetrical. Eventually he reluctantly acquiesces with one of the kids’ selections after I remind him no real tree is going to be a flawless shape and height. But we’d rather have real than artificial.
Then we return home, and that’s when I start wanting things to be perfect. The tree is just a tree, but the memories we make decorating that said tree better be glittery-gold. So I make homemade cocoa. The girls dip candy canes into warm pools of chocolate. Then they watch The Grinch as my husband laces the tree with multi-colored lights. None of that elegant-only-white-light business; that’s not the kind of perfection I’m after. We do bold and bright in the Wicker house. The same holds true for the ornaments. There are no themes. The decorative danglers cover the gamut – from homemade angels with pictures of the kids’ heads for faces to a bristly hedgehog that was my husband’s as a boy.
I love sifting through the bottomless container of ornaments. So many of them conjure up memories or old loves like the golden horse head molded out of clay that reminds me of my beloved Palomino, Sunny or the Baby’s First Christmas ornament that I received during my first month of motherhood. This is a tradition I savor. My children do, too, and I hope these are the moments they will remember instead of the less sepia-toned ones like the daily fighting that occurred each morning over whose turn it was to open the drawer of our Advent calendar where four M&Ms (all the same color so as to dissuade another fight) were hidden.
I once wrote about how moms are not memory-keepers, but memory-makers. We can’t control what our children will remember or what they won’t. Nor should we obsessively try to document every moment on Instagram. Sometimes we just need to live it even when it’s not so pretty and we’re afraid of what type of emotional sediment might be settling in our children. But again, isn’t real better than artificial? We want real, human memories not contrived ones.
But living it can be so tough sometimes. For whatever reason, my Advent season this year was more stressful, or maybe it just felt that way. (Not being able to run is still taking its toll on my emotional health, but a recent MRI looked very promising, and it seems that my hamstring tear is healing quite well!) These 12 days of Christmas have been much more manageable and enjoyable, too. My husband did not get his perfect tree although it was darn close and a real beauty this year. I didn’t get my perfect memories. That’s life. We gathered around, and kids started pulling out several ornaments from the big plastic storage box all at once. I barked orders about not getting new ornaments out until each child hung up the one in her hand. Then Thomas broke an ornament. It looked like a ball, so he hurled it across the living room. And, of course, all the girls were sad as if that was there favorite ornament of all time. We comforted Thomas because we thought he was scared from the glass ball shattering at his feet. Maybe he really thought it was a ball. Poor guy. No matter that there’s no throwing in the house. Little goober gets away with everything. But then he snagged another ornament off the tree and chucked it across the room where it promptly shattered into colorful shards.
I remember how I felt standing there in the shadow of a beautiful, sparkling tree. I examined the pieces and knew there was no way to salvage that ornament. At that moment, I felt the same way like I’d been broken into so many pieces there was no way I’d ever be made whole again.
Nothing seemed to be turn out the way I had hoped or the way I wanted it to. The Advent memories were not very Norman Rockwell-ish at all. We were a mess. And a very noisy one a that.
So I wonder: Will the children’s memory banks see past all that? Will they take ornaments out each Christmas and smile fondly, or will they remember the shards reflecting the tear-stained faces in their broken shininess?
A few summers back an evening storm flashed in the sky. The girls and I gathered together and read The Storm Book and Storm in the Night by candlelight. They cuddled close and listened to the beautiful imagery of both the books. We weren’t doing anything grand, but no one was fighting and everyone, including me, just seemed content. It felt like we were exactly where we were supposed to be together safe from the storm churning outside. I remember thinking, “This is what I want them to remember. The stories shared. The way their mom’s face looked serene and joyful in the soft glow of candlelight, the way the rhythm of her voice sang out the lyrical words from good books, the way later that same night she did not push us off to our own beds but fell asleep beside us and loved us as well as she could in her raw humanness.”
I cannot go in to great detail because I know it is my job to protect my children and to be their champion and that sometimes means keeping things private, but one of my children is going through a rough patch. It has been going on for some time now, and I’ve been desperately trying to fix things. However, like so much of parenting, I am learning a great lesson in humility. I wince because I fear we have made some bad memories together, and perhaps this is partly why I am found myself almost maniacally trying to make our annual Advent traditions even more golden and lovely in an effort to snuff out the not-so-nice moments that are coming all too regularly.
We are getting help. We are working on it. I am trying to remain hopeful and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am trying to not let my fears that I have failed her as a mother or that she may always struggling this much eclipse the hope I have not so much in myself or even in my precious child but in an all-loving God who can make up for each of our humanness, who can take our very brokenness and transform it in to a beautiful life.
A friend of mine sent me a poignant post about how maybe Advent is supposed to be a little sad because we so desperately need a Savior. We are broken, hurting. We are not satisfied. We need hope – Christ – to be born in our hearts. We are not like that shattered ornament. We can always be redeemed and pieced back together.
I am not sure what my children will remember. Maybe they will recall the creamy cocoa, the silliness, the Tomie dePaola Advent and Christmas tales more than the fights over who got to hang up what ornament and then Mommy’s shouting over the din that she won’t take anymore of this. But maybe they will have some memories that are less than sparkling. Maybe they will have a little Advent darkness, and maybe that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed the Christmas season so much, partly because our Advent wasn’t so easy. I similarly feel that when I am back running again, I will be wiser and appreciate each step I am able to take that much more.
My kids might have some darker recollections, but perhaps they will have the Christmas memories, too. The memories where we all got it right – not perfect but right for the moment. There were broken ornaments and sometimes broken promises, too. There were silly stories and happily ever afters, but there were some tear-jerkers thrown in there as well with endings that weren’t all neat and tidy. There was a mother who did her best. Sometimes that wasn’t nearly good enough for what her children and family deserved. But many times it was. It was somehow amazingly enough. There was hurt, but there was love that was inexorably linked to mercy and forgiveness.
And there was always grace, and it almost always was born out of the darkness. It came in the child who hugged the sad Mama and told her something she’d heard that sad Mama tell her, “There’s nothing you can do to take my love for you away or to earn it.” The grace came in a “just because” note a child scribbled down and shyly handed to her mother. It came in an apology. Grace filled our hearts as we filled cups during an Advent tea for the grandmothers. It was marbled in an email a father wrote to his daughter. It came in a love note of thanks from a husband on Christmas evening, the best gift a wife could ask for and one that made her cry tears of joy and thanksgiving. It came in a hot cup of cocoa, a homemade ornament with the face of a child propped upon a lopsided gingerbread body, and a sweet, family sing-along. Grace slipped into our lives just when we needed it. It was a gift that grabbed a hold of hearts even if we were lousy at preparing ourselves for it. Somehow, like Christmas for the Grinch’s Whos, it came all the same without boxes, packages, or bags. Without perfect mamas. Perfect children. Perfect memories. Grace was there. Joy was there. This is what I hope, God-willing, these children of mine might remember.
This morning my sweet 2-year-old boy delicately cupped my chin in his dimpled hands, widened his bright, brown eyes, and said to me, “Do laundry. Make dinner.”
I have to admit I was expecting him to profess his unfettered love to me, not give me a to-do list.
I laughed at this unexpected moment but if I’m completely honest, my heart felt an ounce heavier, too.
Lately I’ve felt like my life has been reduced to a list of menial tasks. Many of my friends have careers outside of the home or they at least work part-time. I’ve drastically cut back on the amount of freelance work I do. I have one chapter of the novel I say I’m writing, and it’s not a very good chapter either. When I homeschooled the older children, I at least felt like that was my job. I was a teacher. I was imparting great wisdom to these impressionable souls gifted to me. These days I feel like I am simply the person who cleans up spills, folds clothes, and makes sure permission slips are signed and returned to school.
I don’t write much. I blog sporadically and am always apologizing for my vapid posts. I don’t run (still resting…and hurting. Sigh). I don’t homeschool. Here’s what I do do: I clean. I nag. I wipe snotty noses. I schlep kids around. I worry that I’m doing it all wrong, that I am ruining my kids. I feel like no one notices all that I do. I feel taken for granted, used, and ignored. Wah, wah, wah. Please tell me you have felt this way before, too.
A friend of mine texted me a few weeks ago and asked me if I ever feel invisible. Um, yes. All of the time. I’ve wondered what would happen if I slipped quietly away. Of course, the world would still turn. But my household? It would be even more chaotic and discombobulated than it is now. I remember reading Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler before I had any children and being miffed with the heroine’s selfish behavior. In the novel, 40-year-old Delia Grinstead strolls down a shoreline and just keeps walking, abandoning her husband and three older children. The decision is not a premeditated one, and there was no big fight or breaking point that forced her to walk away from it all. She leaves more on an impulsive whim because she is tired of feeling like a “tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges.”
I didn’t get it then. I could not empathize with Delia. Today I have more insight. Today I sometimes feel like that gnat, too, that everyone is swatting away and doesn’t want around to bug them about picking up dirty laundry off the floor or being kind to their siblings.
I’ve taken two pregnancy tests recently (both were negative), not because I really thought I was pregnant (it would have been a miracle) and not even because I am desperately longing for another baby, although I would certainly embrace a new, little life if one was given to me. It was more out of a need to feel useful, to have a sense of purpose, and duty, to be more than a pesky gnat. I’ve written before that babies, while certainly physically exhausting, are beautifully simple to me. Their needs and wants are one in the same. I nurse them when they cry, and they are at least briefly satisfied. They want only mama. I have an excuse to “do nothing” except care for my baby. People allow you that when you have a newborn but when you have older kids, you need to be team manager for the soccer team and make homemade snacks. Or there’s the pressure – real or perhaps just perceived – because you’re “just” an at-home mom.
Lately I’ve found myself pining for those simple, early days of motherhood when it was just my baby and me in a cathedral sort of calm, cloistered off from the rest of the world and to-do lists. The miracle of what happened within my body – the laborious process of growing a human – was obvious as I held the baby in my arms. When I had that pregnancy bump, it was a visible sign of sacrificial love. Those first smiles were big returns for my investment. I felt needed. I had a great purpose. The babies needed my womb to house them. As newborns, they needed my milk and arms to comfort them. As my kids grow older, I feel more like a glorified waitress and maid. My job is to serve (and serve again) and pick up after them, and I’d better not forget to send water bottles with them to school or soccer practice. Sure, there are plenty of bigger teaching moments. I know mothers do far more than keep house, but I do struggle with this dying to self and all this quiet, unnoticed work. There has been a longing in my heart for little ones to nurture – as if I don’t still have young children underfoot (my oldest isn’t even 9 yet, but she’s getting very close!).
I could blame my internal struggle on society and the push for women to do it all. It’s easy to feel like a slacker when you only have four kids whom you no longer homeschool, and you don’t work outside of the home, and your husband even hired a house cleaning service to help you out for a bit. I mean, what exactly do I do all day?
I don’t watch TV. I don’t squander hours on Facebook. I do go to library story time with two littles. I read lots of books. I search for MIA shoes and socks. I bake muffins with sous chefs at my side. I make sure soccer cleats and shin guards are in their place for practice and that soccer balls are round with ample air. I meal plan. I wash dishes. I wipe counters. I kiss boo-boos. I encourage. I tickle. I wrestle wiggly toddlers into diapers.
But too often I am focused on all that I don’t do and on all that I lack. Or I look at my work and think it’s so mundane and useless. What’s the point? Many times I dwell on all that I do wrong: How I may have handled the emotional, raging child the wrong way, how I bark orders too much in the morning to ensure we make it to school on time, how I bite my nails, or ply my kids with Goldfish instead of making homemade crackers from the recipe I found when I was pregnant with my first. (I’m already forgetting about the homemade, healthy pumpkin muffins we made just this week.)
Then I discover notes like this: A “just because” note that should remind me that all this work I do – the routine stuff and the more important stuff too – has meaning that transcends hazardous waste removal.
Those little people do notice and they do love you even when their actions, their hurling of phrases like “I hate you” pierce your heart and cause you to collapse into a heap of self-doubt (or maybe that’s just me).
And you’re probably doing a better job than you think like this must-see video reveals. (Do watch it when you get a chance. My babysitter sent it to me recently, and it was just the pick-me-up I needed.)
I’m traveling through a rough patch right now. People said it would get easier as my kids grew older. I feel like it gets lonelier. I feel more powerless than ever before. There are all these unique people in my midst who have strong wills and their own ideas of how to live their lives. Pregnancy, nursing, babywearing – these were all more obvious signs of love. Now I am more hidden. And so is my work. Being a mom deals far more with that which is invisible. Love cannot be quantified, counted, or priced. It can only be given. Sometimes it’s given in more obvious ways like when you hold a tired child. Sometimes it’s doled out in meal after meal you serve day after day. Sometimes love is offered in a “no, you can’t have an iPod touch even if every other almost 9-year-old in the world has one.” When you give that love, you’re only given rejection and anger in return. Your work is hard. It’s tireless. It brings joy, but it hurts a lot, too. There’s nothing extravagant about it. I am not building skyscrapers. I am not piecing together perfect prose. I’m not saving lives as my husband does on an almost daily basis. There are occasional love notes and hand-picked flowers (thank God for those gifts of gratitude), but there are no raises, promotions, great accolades, and I’ll certainly never be up for a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, or even finish number one in a race. No podium climbing for me, but there’s another ascending, a drawing closer to Love itself. Motherhood is surely a path to sanctity, especially if we give our work – even the most tedious tasks a greater purpose.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wisely stated, “It is not the nature of our work, but its consecration that is the vital thing.”
All that I have and all that I do, the visible and the invisible – from the bum-wiping to the limit-setting – is not only for my family but for the greater glory as well.