It Wasn't About the Toothbrush

Yesterday was a typical “getting back into the routine of school and activities” day. I picked Margaret up from preschool, and then we went to get Julia from her first day of Lego Club, and then to get our CSA veggies at a nearby park. The girls watched a show while I unpacked the day’s various bags: my sweaty yoga clothes, Julia’s lunch, our fresh fruits and veggies, a bag of miscellaneous items I’d bought from Target (the mom cliche is alive and well). I shuttled snacks to the couch for the girls, who were starving, and put dinner on the grill. Miraculously, the girls didn’t kill one another in the 40 minutes between our arrival home and when we sat down to dinner, and I felt a sense of relief when we landed at the table, connecting and eating and chatting about the day.

After dinner, the girls fed Kenai and helped me clear the table: two habits that the promise of dessert afterwards have helped to cultivate. On her way to the sink, Julia spotted two Toy Story toothbrushes on the counter. 

“What are those?” she asked, a hint of disdain in her voice.

“New toothbrushes…?” I replied tentatively. 

“I don’t WANT a Toy Story toothbrush,” she said. Uh oh. We were veering into dangerous territory here. 

“That’s fine, Jules. You don’t have to have one. You told me last week that you felt too old for princess band aids, so I wondered if you felt the same about toothbrushes. We needed new ones, so I got these from Target; it was either these or princesses.” I kept my voice even, but she was stomping into the playroom before I finished speaking. She slammed the door, and I could hear crying from the couch. I got Margaret into the bath, and then joined Julia. I wondered whether this was truly a meltdown about a toothbrush, or whether something bigger was going on.

“I wonder if you’re feeling a little sad because you still kind of want your princess toothbrush,” I said. “And eight is kind of an in-between age. You aren’t little anymore, but you’re also not quite old enough for the next thing.” She cried harder, wailing, “I wish I were still seven.” I sat next to her as she continued crying. “When I was seven, everything was easier,” she sobbed. I did the back and forth between her on the couch and Margaret in the bath. Scott got home, and Julia was still crying, so he did Margaret duty, and  I returned my full attention to Julia. 

“Actually,” she sniffed, “there’s something else.” She proceeded to tell me about a conflict with friends that day at recess, sharing her worries about not knowing how to get out of a game she didn’t want to play. As we talked, I glanced at my watch, an idea forming in my head. It was already 6:45, and after an entire summer of terrible sleep, Julia finally turned a corner at the beginning of September. She has been sleeping from 9-7 every single night, and we have been religious about our nighttime routine, hesitant to do anything that might alter these sweet nights of sleep. 

When things get hard, I know that some parents loosen the reins, but I tend to do the opposite. I clamp down, hold tightly, try to control. I considered this for a moment, and then looked at Julia, and told her that I needed to drop the car off across the street (in the midst of the day, I found a screw in one of the tires on my car). I asked if she’d like to go with me, and suggested getting ice cream to walk home with. She smiled through her tears and nodded.

A few minutes later, Scott was reading to Margaret, and Julia and I were standing at our local ice cream shop, ordering cones. It was only 7:15, but a combination of mid-September light and an afternoon storm made it dark outside. We strolled home, and I quieted the voice that considered asking her to walk faster (Margaret’s bedtimes, too, have been unpredictable and challenging, and I felt some survivor guilt for being out while Scott was potentially waging battle with a 4.5 year old). As we walked, I asked her if she knew the term “the last straw,” and she did- “Yeah, I guess that’s what the toothbrush was,” she said. “Just the last straw on a long day.”

I spent the summer in survival mode. Between my grandmother’s death, my mom being sick, and our terrible sleep, I moved distractedly through most days with the girls. I got a lot of things wrong. I criticized when I should have listened, I railed on when I should have let arguments go, I scrolled through my phone during challenging moments instead of asking myself, “What do they need?” Now that both girls are back in school, I have two hours, four days per week, to myself. It’s my first regular, predictable alone time in over eight years. I sometimes balk at the current “Moms need self care; put on your own oxygen mask first” maxims. They seem like yet another way society sets moms up to fail, as if we’re doing it wrong if a bath and a face mask don’t make us feel ready to tackle the demands of parenthood, or as if we’re failing somehow if we skip a workout. But I’ve tried to frame my time to myself around the question, “What do I need to do right now so that I can be more available to my girls?” Sometimes, that’s running around the house frantically with a garbage bag and a box to find items to throw away, and items to donate to Goodwill. Sometimes, it’s cooking, or meditating (which I have been trying), or exercise, or lying down with a book. And over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed myself opening back up a bit, and really seeing the girls again.

Last night, it would have been tempting to stick to the schedule, to give Julia a perfunctory hug, to sit down at 7:20 sharp to read with her bedtime snack so that she was in bed at 8pm on the dot. But as we licked ice cream cones together on a windy night, the clouds parted for a moment, and the moon was full and bright. I had a visceral memory of being a child, and being upset, and knowing that my mom knew what I needed, even when I didn’t-- whether it was a late-night bath or graham crackers with peanut butter and milk and a chat at the counter. Last night, I felt my body relax a bit as I realized that, after our hard summer, I was doing exactly that for Julia: I was able to put down my own worries to give her just what she needed at that moment. We returned home, sticky and connected, and we slept.