It’s the most glorious time of the year in Minnesota, the cusp of autumn, with bright, still-long days, a warm but no longer humid breeze in the air with the green smell of trees and flowers still in bloom. My family and I are visiting my brother and his family — his wife, toddler, newborn, and dog. The house is full of chaos, toys, and love, not necessarily in that order.
And being around these half-gnawed-on pieces of toast and tiny bits of fruit, peeled just in time for a child to lose interest and walk away, reminds me of so much that I had already forgotten about what it’s like to have very young children. My kids are almost seven and ten years old. It’s been a few years since I’ve spent what feels like a lifetime within one day of wiping counters and spills and cleaning dishes, picking up toys, changing diapers, and trying to get at least one person (preferably two) to sleep for a little while. I’m not at an age where these tasks feel like ancient history; my kids still make a huge mess. But now they’re old enough to help clean up. And they no longer eat like pint-sized Henry VIII’s in catch-all bibs, discarding half the meal onto the floor for the dogs to lap up as they flail about in highchairs. I forget the visceral sense that raising babies and toddlers is a set of Sisyphean tasks contained in every day. But then I’m around a baby and a toddler, my niece and nephew, both out of sorts because of colds and the oddity of visiting family members in the house, and it all comes back.
When I was with my own babies, I did find it meaningful. But many days were unbearably long — like first-draft theater of the absurd with tiny, schmutzy people who said nothing that made any sense. I felt like I would never have a thought to myself again, let alone write one down. I was filled with the basic needs and preferences of other people. It was overwhelming and often sucked.
One weekend, when my son was a baby and my daughter a toddler, I was invited to a party for a writers’ professional organization. Eager to get out of my toy-littered, sticky, furry house, I accepted, even though I didn’t know anyone else in the group. When I arrived, the pleasant hosts led me into their suburban home. They were the parents of one grown child, and their house was clean — noticeably free of glittery art projects, stuffed animals, and board books. Instead they had paintings on the wall, a sedate fish tank instead of floppy dog beds, a bookshelf full of reference books and novels. They were medical writers, like me, and they seemed like a happy couple. But as I looked around their house, I couldn’t help imagining how boring their life must be. (And then I got a little irritated with myself, since my inner monologue was starting to sound like that crappy, women-belong-at-home-with-babies 80′s song, “I’ve Never Been to Me” — the one where the singer claims to have been to paradise, but never to herself, because she didn’t have children.)
In the years since I’ve had kids in preschool and diapers, I allowed myself to think that I’ve become something of a pro at aspects of parenting. That my difficulties at the time were because I was young, inexperienced, sleep-deprived, and hadn’t learned to take the long view of parenting (and writing). But when I spend time with a family with very young kids, and I try lamely to lend a hand with cleaning or cooking or wrangling, I realize that I’m no better at this small-scale version of “having it all” than I was in the recent past. And that, even though it would be fun sometimes, I would sort of suck at the baby stages just as much now as I did then.
All this, and I also miss it so.