Sunday, July 27, 2008
“Summertime, and the living is easy,” Noah croons as he stretches his clasped arms high above his head. He is standing ankle deep in the waters of the bay, looking out on the dusk stillness with lazy enjoyment. I am watching from five feet behind him, my toes nestled into the cool sand, Lizzie asleep in the frontpack. Her limbs are slack and I can just barely feel her breath rise and fall against me. Max and a friend take turns jumping off the dock, their laughter loud and insanely free as they soar from the rickety wood to the waters edge, and quickly scramble back again. Yes, I think to myself, summertime is so, so good.
This evening, one of ice cream sundaes and paddle boards and cold lake splashes, almost never happened. Don’t worry—there is no tragic almost accident or illness or major dramatic turn of events about to happen here—it is simply my occasional yet neurotic need to put parenting into a neat little box marked “perfect, anal, alternative, natural mothering.” Obnoxious, but true. We have been on the go nearly every night since the Fourth of July, busy with family and friends who flock to our pristine neck of the woods for the three whopping weeks of lovely weather we get each year. My children and their bedtime routine parted ways as the Independence Day fireworks exploded over their heads. In the clouds of hazy smoke that followed us home that night, they marveled at just how many stars could be seen when the world went dark.
“I’m staying up this late every night,” Noah whispered, his eyes directed skyward. “This is incredible.”
It’s true. It was. The deep July sky was pocked full of winking white lights. The Milky Way traced in an arc directly above us; a soft, smudgy outline that resembled eraser marks across black construction paper. It was the kind of night that is so thick and clear, if we’d laid flat across the driveway and reached up, we could have, perhaps, pressed stars between our fingers.
But we didn’t, because I went into frenzy-mode due to the fact that the boys were still awake at 11:38 p.m. As I bustled around the car, unbuckling car seats and gathering up a half-asleep toddler and squirmy baby, Noah keep talking, still looking up.
“Did you know that stars are like, millions of light years away or something? So the stars up there could have gone out a long time ago and we can still see their light. Cool, but kind-of sad too.”
I could have told him how his grandfather bought his grandmother a star for their first anniversary, how I carry that thought with me and still look to the sky and see millions of years of lovers because of it. I could have paused to reflect on the immenseness of his statement on the fire-light that continues to shine long after its celestial body dies. I felt that twinge of conversations we might have had, even as I hastily tucked him in, barking all the way out the door “go to sleep, it is way too late, close your eyes this second.”
I must interject now, that I am blessed to be raising my three littles alongside a tribe of amazing women—women who have far more patience (they can answer Max’s constant interruptions with smiles every time), far more parental discipline (they actually turned down parties when their babies needed to be home and in bed on schedule), far more knowledge on basically everything that goes along with raising a happy, healthy, creative and independent child. And then, there is me, the woman who nine years and fours months into her journey as a mother still feels completely ill-equipped most days. I am the one who views every minute that slipped by past bedtime as a monumental testament to my shortcomings and continual inability to stick with a parenting plan.
Having had Noah while sill in college—I was just turning 21-- and not going a week without someone still commenting (with disapproving taste) that I look way to young to have three children, my parenting mindfully confidence hovers just above the sludge found under the sandy bottom of our bay. And so I tend to err on the side of something that manifests itself to look like extreme robocop-granola mom. This is when I get all crazy and start turning good ideals into absolutes, must recently displayed in the BWS, otherwise known as Bedtime Warden Syndrome.
“They must, must, must be asleep by 8:30 p.m.” I lectured Justin as we stood together in the kitchen one evening shortly after the Fourth of July. It had been a non-stop mantra, which I failed on miserably, every night for over a week. If I had allowed myself to have fun while failing it—instead of fretting at each nightly gathering as the sky grew rosy and sleepy and my children grew rambunctious and loud—it would have been one thing. The fact of the matter was, however, that I became this awful, mean, per-snickety lady when we would finally arrive home. I shouted demands at my children, chastised my husband for allowing the bedtime rule breakdown (although I, myself, was usually the initial perpetrator). I was becoming the world’s biggest contradiction: I wanted to stay, let my children enjoy the company of summer friends or family, take the time for Justin and I to talk and be out and together after a long winter of baby-abyss. Yet, each time we did, I went into this panicked mode, as if my children missing an hour or two of sleep would kill off half their growing brain cells or permanently stunt their growth or give them fodder for therapy in 30 years. I ended up squashing the fun we’d just had with a harried, miserable Chinese fire drill of a bedtime
Justin, for his part, let me run with this dualistic personality for about six more days before finally shutting it down.
“It’s summer, Kate,” he sighed in that I-know-you-won’t-hear-me-way. “It’s still so light out at 8:30. They are kids. Don’t you remember running around until dark when you were little? Catching fireflies and falling asleep exhausted and sandy and all that stuff?”
I looked at him and (despite the flood of just such fond memories) uttered, in my most drawn-out, high and mighty voice “they will be asleep tonight by 8:30 p.m. Children need a routine. They need a bedtime that is not deviated from and we are going to get back on track for them. Period.”
Except, we didn’t. We got a phone call and a dinner invitation and we ended up here, on this beach, inhaling the sweet smells of lake and wind and watching my children’s love for this place we call home deepen like hues of water fading from daytime blue to dusk’s slate black.
The bay is still enough to reflect the glittering drops of sun as it sets behind us, each orange and pink ripple making its way from the middle of the lake to lap at Noah’s feet. I forget, standing here with my toes embedded in the sand and my daughter sleeping soundly on my chest, to check my watch. I am lost in Max’s belly laughs and Noah’s off-pitch song to no one. I am aware, for the first time in a long time, that the practice of parenting is not necessarily an art at all. Perhaps instead, it is in occasionally letting go of the practice—the theories and articles, the research and rhetoric— where the beauty of mothering is hidden.
The first star of the evening is beginning to come into view as the blue of the atmosphere darkens. Noah is watching it glow in the water. I am watching it in the sky. I move into the lake beside him and find his hand for a moment.
“Do you think that one is still burning?” I ask, just above a whisper.
He looks at me with his toothy grin and nods. “As long as we can see it mom, I think that might be all that matters.”