It was our first vacation as a family of five. The trek would involve airplanes and hotel rooms and rental vans, the trifecta of chaos for a young and unseasoned traveling family. I started piling clothes up under the window in our bedroom five days before we left, each child with a designated area for clean and folded pajamas, shorts, tank tops, and swimsuits. To add to that, we had candy, crackers, games and a fully charged iPad.
If there was ever a mama prepared, you were looking at her.
When I woke up on the morning of our trip, the anxiety I had kept at bay with superhero amounts of preparation began to creep in slowly and steadily. I had, of course, thought about how badly things could go with three children on an airplane. The four year old’s excitement could turn into defiant opposition to all listening, the baby’s need for a nap could turn him into a hot mess of epic proportions, and the three year old’s autism was the wild card in the equation: would he panic mid-jetway and throw down all the stops to not step foot on that airplane? Would he start swinging his arms at anyone trying to comfort him? Would he bite? Would he make people stop and stare? Would we all come out of this still liking one another?
As we piled luggage into the trunk of the car, I expressed all of my worst fears and ‘what ifs’ to my husband, hoping that somehow speaking them out loud might magically make them not happen. He listened well and affirmed that, yes, things could unfold in the worst of all possible scenarios, that we could have meltdowns and potty breaks and some anxious biting all at the same time. This long-anticipated trip, despite my efforts to leave no stone unturned in preparation, could all go terribly wrong. “But Babe,” he said, “we are the thermostats here. It is only going to get as bad as our reactions are.”
I knew he was right. We may not have all control over our kids’ behavior, but we are fully in control of our own.
Late last fall as the new season brought colder evenings and earlier sunsets, we set the heat in our house to turn on every night. For a few days, it kept us comfortably warm and cozy and thankful for the luxury of temperature controlled homes, but that comfort quickly turned into, well, sweat. My husband woke up at 3 in the morning and threw the bed covers off, complaining about the temperature and quick to go find out who had tinkered with our system. He turned the hall light on and pressed a few buttons, then came back to our bedroom and said, “It is 87 degrees in here, but the thermostat is set at 68. Something is off.”
Yes. That much was obvious.
All three children woke up the next morning with red cheeks and hair caked to their faces, and we called the HVAC repair man as soon as they opened. By the time he arrived just before lunch, the temperature upstairs was in the low nineties and even when we turned the unit completely off, it would not stop pumping heat. After a short assessment, he returned from the attic with red cheeks himself and confidently announced, “Your thermostat is broken.”
Yes. Again, that much was obvious.
“The unit will continue to pump out heat because nothing is telling it to stop; as the temperature rises the thermostat gauge just goes up with it, so we will get someone out here as soon as we can to fix that.”
Three days later, as we slept with windows open to the freezing temperatures outside to battle with the heat inside, we learned firsthand the problem with a broken thermostat: when the heat rises, there is nothing to tell it to stop, there is only more rising heat.
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to check in and get to our gate, and had already mapped out which adult would watch each child as we made our way through security and to the airplane. Again and again, we looked at one another and mouthed “thermostats” and then flashed a smile, our tiny reminders to one another that we were ready with calm hearts and minds for whatever our three littles would bring.
As the plane picked up speed and began to lift off of the ground, the three year old did do exactly what we expected him to, and his anxiety got the better of him. He cried and yelled and signed with his tiny hands ‘all done’ over and over again. He wanted to be anywhere but that airplane, yet there was nowhere he could go. And my husband held him tight, rubbed his back, and looked nowhere but at him for 25 minutes, until he fell fast asleep on his daddy’s chest. The thermostat did its job.
And later in the trip, when the sun and the swimming and the long days of fun took their toll on an exhausted four year old little girl, on the same morning the baby had been awake since before 5 a.m., our hotel room became a disaster zone before breakfast. So much of being a parent is being constantly tempted to respond to our children with the same kind of behavior they are showing—isn’t it a bit amazing that a four year old can actually make me act like one myself?
Motherhood, over time, put some wear and tear on a thermostat.
But in the midst of that chaos, of two loud and whiny children and one on the ground with his knees tucked up under him in his ‘make it stop!’ posture, we kept reminding each other of the thermostats, of our ability to be mom and dad and to endure patiently rather than reacting angrily at each other (which usually happens first) and then angrily at the children who reason at the level of, well, children. Thermostats don’t have much work to do when the temperature is perfect, but we need them desperately when the climate changes. Maybe that’s the whole point: we don’t really even notice that the thermostat is doing its job until it breaks.
Our trip did not go off without a hitch. We had tantrums and meltdowns and at least one more three year old anxiety attack that would not quit. But oh, it was amazing, not because it was perfect but because it wasn’t, and we still managed. Like stagehands with cue cards visible to the actors from anywhere in their performance, our whisper of ‘thermostats’ became our daily reminder of what we needed to be, of what we were capable of doing.
I hope that my family remembers our trip like I do, with images of laughter and moments of chaos and all the best things that real life with real children is, and with five people who did indeed come out of it still liking one another. And I hope over a lifetime, until they are old enough to raise their own children and look back at the kind of home they were brought up in, to pick out what they want and what they do not want to replicate in their own way, I sure hope they see, purely and simply, a mom who was there and present and steady, who was just doing her job—in all kinds of temperatures.