How to Breathe During a Tsunami

I loved sharing this piece with a fabulous audience at Listen to Your Mother last night!

I get out of bed at 5am, pour my first cup of coffee, and vow that this morning will be better- I’ll get ready before the girls wake up, so that I can spend my time connecting with them instead of barking crazed, one-word orders as I shout out the time: “7:02!” “7:14!” “Shoes!” “Backpack!” My guilt won’t cause me to text to a friend who works at my seven year old’s school, asking her to show my daughter an emoji-filled apology. I've been working part-time since August after seven years as a stay-at-home mom, and I knew it would be an adjustment. I did not know, however, that every work morning would leave me feeling like that time when I was kayaking in Alaska, and a glacier calved, sending a small tsunami that left me in thirty degree water: breathless, confused, and relieved to be alive.

Here’s a confession to file under “things a feminist living in Boulder is not supposed to say:” I liked being a stay-at-home mom. My husband is gone twelve hours every day, and we don’t have family nearby. Having one parent who worked and one who stayed home made sense for our family. I know I’m privileged to have the choice about whether to work. My coworkers are inspiring and supportive, my job flexible. Still, the morning tsunami stuns me every time.

My four-year-old wakes up at 5:30.  She wants a snack that’s a surprise, but contains these exact ingredients: smoked salmon, cucumbers, and shredded cheese, but not that kind, the other kind, the kind that we don’t have. I turn on the TV for her so I can get myself ready. My inability to conjure the correct variety of shredded cheddar has slowed me down a bit, but I’m on track for a semi- ontime departure.

Then I remember that I have three lunches and one breakfast to pack before we leave. My 4 year old and I have to eat our breakfasts, too, because even though she has basically eaten a whole fish at this point, she insists that that was her breakfast snack, not to be confused with her breakfast. I pour her some Cheerios and reheat some oatmeal for myself, which I shovel into my mouth while I fill the girls’ Bento boxes with various types of cereal, some cheddar bunnies, and goldfish crackers. Boulder mom fail.

I wake my 7 year old, who rubs her eyes and asks if she has time to play. She doesn’t. This is unwelcome news each of the three mornings per week that I go to work and she goes to Before Care at school. I force a smile, reminding her that there isn’t usually playtime on before care mornings. She scowls as she dresses herself, and I wrestle my younger daughter into her dress, but not that one, the one that’s really twirly.

The girls jockey for position to brush teeth, the first fight of the day. The best spot is sitting on the counter, feet in the sink, but there’s only room for one of them there. Some mornings, I enforce the “all feet on the floor for teeth brushing” rule (who has a rule about that?!) and others, I let them fight it out, get toothpaste on their feet, and complain about being spit on.

Battle number two ensues, a riveting “who gets to sit on the left side of  the step to put on socks and shoes.” They squeeze together, throwing elbows with the occasional kick for good measure. I tell them this is not an argument I’m going to moderate. I tell them that if they cannot find a solution, they will not watch TV that afternoon, and I get huffy when my oldest points out that that’s an illogical consequence. She remembers that it’s poetry day, and that she needs her poetry binder, which she is sure is either in her room, in the kitchen, or maybe on the coffee table.

My youngest wants a princess costume to wear over her puffy jacket, and still, nobody is wearing socks or shoes. The sock basket contains approximately eighty-five pink socks, none of which match. Suggesting non-matching socks is akin to suggesting to my Harry Potter-obsessed 7 year old that wizards aren’t real. Unthinkable.

Finally, after I’ve unearthed matching socks of questionable cleanliness, we walk out the door. I am sweating. I check to see if I’m wearing a shirt that disguises it, and thankfully, I am. At the car, the girls begin the grand finale fight of the morning about who is getting into which side of the car while I shuffle our various bags for the day’s activities to the trunk. My watch pings to congratulate me on earning exercise minutes because my heart rate is so high. Three minutes later, they are both in their seats, and nobody is crying, though I am close. It is 7:41 am.

When we were thinking about whether I should go back to work, my husband and I wondered if it would be good for the girls to see me working outside the home- for them to see that I had skills beyond laundry and errands. But I worry that what they actually see is a stressed version of the mom they knew, constantly telling them how many minutes they have until they need to do something else. Because while I now have a part-time job, my stay-at-home mom responsibilities haven’t changed. There is still a house, two kids, two animals, and so, so much laundry to attend to, in fifteen fewer hours per week. My husband does what he can when he’s home, but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done.

I’m just about to pull away when my older daughter cries “Mom! We forgot our breathing!” Recently, I introduced “one minute of deep breathing before we leave the house.” I read somewhere that while you breathe, you should picture your children as babies, which helps you to reconnect and get back into the moment. I have been in this moment for two hours and forty-one minutes, but I resist the words, “we don’t have time.” As I look at the girls in the rear view mirror, their baby selves and their current selves come into focus, and I feel my jaw unclench. I smile at my daughters, and I breathe.