Actual Fun vs. Parental Fun

There are two distinct funs once you become a parent: actual fun and parental fun. Actual fun is the life I had before kids. It’s travel, adventure, bike rides, hikes, sunsets, big waves, a great meal, a great movie, a great book. Actual fun is conversations that wander and take unexpected turns with people who can make me laugh until I cry. Is it possible that my children are becoming those people? Am I trading in parental fun (baby giggles from the baby swings) for actual fun (squeals from beside me on a roller coaster)? Is it possible that I can once again be the person I was before people wiped their noses on my shirt?

More and more often lately I notice myself having actual fun. Sure, I enjoyed watching my toddlers toddle; no sound is as sweet as baby giggles; and I’ll always miss dimpled knuckles, wet baby kisses, and those hilarious early mispronunciations. I loved a lot about those days, but there was little actual fun. Those days were mostly work, flecked with moments of sometimes transcendent bliss, usually interrupted by disgusting bodily emissions. But not actual fun. 

At eight and nearly six, my kids are (sometimes) actually fun to be around. They’re engaging, happy, and keen to try new things. They might still have a hundred annoying conversations to every interesting one, but at least it’s not a thousand. They’re big enough for so many things, but at the same time, they’re little enough to still think I’m awesome. I sufficiently remember my childhood to know that this stage must be fleeting.

After all those years of doing things I hated, (I’m looking at you, Music Together,) for the sake of my children’s happiness and to ward off the tedium of spending all day with illiterate, inarticulate, incontinent, uncivilized companions, I can’t believe my luck when I get to simultaneously experience actual fun and parental fun.

Actual Fun

Suddenly, we can do things together like go for bike rides in the woods, one of my favorite actual fun activities. I get the actual fun of riding through sun-dappled trails, breeze on my face, and the bonus parental fun of sharing something I love with these little people I love, of watching them steel their nerves to try something new, of seeing their tongue-in-teeth effort and concentration, of those bright-eyed smiles and unbridled whoops when they make it. It is so much ACTUAL fun!

While my shirt might still suffer other people’s snot on occasion, I find myself feeling more like myself lately because I’m doing the things I used to do. Instead of activities that I hate and they like, we can watch movies we all enjoy, read books we all enjoy, and play games we all enjoy. So long, Go Fish! Luke can play Rummy 500 and Sally plays a mean game of chess.

Gone are the baby days, the toddler days, the cry-over-the-wrong-color-cup days. Ahead are the tween days, the teen days, the ugh-my-mom-is-so-embarrassing days. We seem to be in a sweet spot. How long do I have here?

Guilt and Photography

I feel like my life, parenthood especially, is a constant struggle against time. Time is moving too swiftly or too slowly, leaving me either breathless in its wake or frustrated and eager for what comes next. My coping mechanisms, of which I have two- guilt and photography- are inadequate.

When I think of how quickly my kids are growing up my heart squeezes with the early pangs of nostalgia. All too soon my house will be empty of squeals and giggles and the pitter-patter (actually much more like elephant thumps) of little feet. As much as I long for peace and quiet, I know that’s my eventual reward and I don’t want it too soon. I may crave physical space, (must we always be touching?) but I know that I will never again have the heat from their small forms curled affectionately against my body; my hand will be forever bereft of their little hands to hold. I will no longer be the embodiment of safety and comfort.

Stay young, kids. Stay naive and sweet and full of that open bursting joy that comes with childhood. Stay small. Stay here- in my arms, under my roof, driving me crazy- for a while longer.

I’m sorry I’ve been impatient. Yes, I want to hear you sing that song again. Yes, I’ll watch your cartwheels and bike tricks and monkey bar accomplishments.

Another snack? Sure, my darlings.

Yes, I will tuck you in again and read another story. I’m sorry I get annoyed when you come back downstairs. Let’s go up together and savor these moments.

Anything. You can have anything and everything from me.

Guilt and longing. So I take photos. I take hundreds of them trying to freeze time, hold on to this. If I can capture that messy haired, barefooted moment of exalted summertime little-kid-ness, then it will stay with me forever. If I take photos of all of this, then surely my guilt will be assuaged.

Look, life, I’m not impatiently waiting for them to get bigger and put themselves to bed. I’m savoring. SAVORING! So you can slow down a bit. I get it.

But it doesn’t slow down. It can’t. Click.Click. I take more pictures.

At the same time, these very same people who I long to hold onto but who move through my arms inevitably, liquid and beautiful and unattainable as quicksilver, drive me completely crazy. Their noise and movement are constant and relentless against my senses, completely overwhelming. I just want a break.

Just a moment’s peace, please! Please stop asking me for this or that.

Please let me walk away. No, I don’t want to watch.

Please stop fighting.

Do you have to make noise at all times? Can’t you be still for just a moment?

Seriously, you’re hungry again?

Look around you at all we’ve provided for your enrichment and entertainment. You have books and toys and bikes and a big yard with a freaking swing set in it! There are hoses and sprinklers and balls and a stream and woods full of mysteries to explore!

Go! Go away and do the things!

Puddle gazing

Oh, look how adorable! Heads together they study some small puddle. Click.Click. And now, look how they chase each other around the house on their bikes. Click.

Their shouts and laughter follow them as they move through their world at a dizzying pace, everyday growing infinitesimally larger, infinitesimally closer to leaving all of this behind for the trappings of bigger kids, leaving me behind as a relic of their littleness, no longer wanted as desperately as I’m wanted now. Click.Click.Click.Click.

Guilt and longing. So I take photos.  

A little crazy is good for them

My mother has more patience for annoying things than your average person. She somehow tunes out what would drive anyone else crazy. Her general equanimity remained unaltered despite her three children’s cacophonous voices, vexing messiness, and constant fighting.

Every once in a while, though, she’d snap.

“NOW YOU’VE DONE IT!” she’d scream at us when she reached that breaking point, implying that we had finally gone so far, been so terrible, that we crossed a line. Just in case we didn’t pick up on the implication, she might shout, “IF YOU MADE ME YELL, YOU MUST BE REALLY ROTTEN!”

With that, she’d storm out the door and to her garden on the far side of our property.

It seemed unpredictable, what might send her over the edge. We didn’t necessarily do anything more obnoxious than any other day. Maybe exasperation was cumulative? Turns out it was PMS, but none of us knew that at the time. This was the late ’70s and early ’80s and PMS was not a widely recognized thing, despite women everywhere suddenly hating everyone.

What I remember was the feeling of, “Oh, shit we’ve really done it this time. We ruined everything.” Without her (nearly) endless patience, we’d be in serious trouble, all the time. My job, I felt, was to sit vigil in the window and watch her in the garden, to make sure she didn’t leave the property. If she left, surely she’d never return, and we’d be doomed. I imagined her ripping weeds from the ground while angrily thinking about how terrible we were and how awful we made her life. It wouldn’t be long before she planned her escape.

From her perspective, I learned years later, she felt better immediately upon slamming the back door leaving us inside and her alone. She’d weed her garden and pick vegetables happily, not stewing over her horrible children or plotting her flight for freedom. By the time she returned to the house, she was so far past the anger that it was a non issue.

Meanwhile, when she returned to the house with a bowl of fresh beans, smelling of Earth, I’d make sure I was on my very best behavior, hoping to endear myself to her again so she wouldn’t abandon us. Ultimately, this made her garden retreat a double win for her. She felt better and her kids stopped being assholes, at least temporarily.

I did not inherit my mother’s temperament or tolerance. I’m easily irritated and can’t keep calm in the face of my children’s obnoxious exploits. Shouting the phrase “Now you’ve done it!” would be pointedly meaningless in my household. My kids hear me yelling so often that it’s a useless measure. That is, until all things align just right. Then, something in me snaps (more than usual) and the yelling takes on a note of hysteria. Then the kids sit up and notice. I recognize the fear in their eyes and I don’t care. I have to leave.

I don’t have a far away garden that soothes me. Instead, when I lose it, if my husband is home, I get in the car and drive off in a fury. I generally have nowhere to go, and am not fit to be in public anyway. I look exactly how I feel – like a lunatic. I don’t want to sit in a coffee shop reading a book or in a restaurant sipping a glass of wine. I want to yell and scream and rampage like a two-year-old. Instead, I usually pull over into some random parking lot and cry for a while, then just kill time until either the kids are in bed for the night or I can be trusted to actually like them again.

While I don’t come home smelling of Earth and feeling renewed, I do come home. And my children are appropriately afraid and sorry and hoping to endear themselves to me again. I might feel guilty for storming out. I probably feel like a bad mother. But then I remember my mom and her garden. And even though those occasions were full of yelling, anger, and upset, my memories of them always make me smile. It’s those crazy moments in a family that no one else knows about – the secret hidden stuff that makes it only ours. Somehow, it’s the crazy that makes family family.

My children’s lives are safe and happy, as mine was. If having a crazy mother is the worst thing that happens in their childhood, so be it. Their crazy mother might sometimes be a tempest, but I love my kids and they know that. Occasionally seeing that their mother is only human and needs a break is just fine.

One day I’ll tell them that while they were often horrible, it was PMS that drove me to the brink. One day they’ll think back on these occasions fondly. Memories of our crazy household will be the stuff we laugh together about; it will be what they think back on when they’re at the breaking point with their own families.

I can’t be a perfect mother. I’m flawed and my kids are annoying. And we’re all good enough.

Mom is crazy