Carry Me Up

In all of my memories, the kitchen is spotless. She is mopping the floors, soap bubbles swirling and eddying in a shallow bucket while talk radio keeps us company in the background. Talk radio seemed a cheerful companion then, more like a pep talk than a doomsday sermon, always giving thoughtful advice about investing in gold and where to get a warrantied vacuum. That small kitchen, the heart of our home, radiated with the scent of lemon and sugar and roast beef in the crock pot. I wipe the mirrors dutifully with Windex and a paper towel, watching my own reflection become blurry, streaky, clear.

It’s hard not to compare us, when I’m at the same task, 20 years later. While I clean the kitchen glass I’m disgusted by the feel of dried mud beneath my feet, caking from the aging floor and clinging to the bottoms of my heels. Coffee grounds seem to be steeping in every orifice; they sweat in the coffee machine, they clog in the sink, they lay soaked across the counters and strewn across the path to the garbage can. I wonder what my house smells like before feeling slightly relieved that I probably can’t detect its smell anymore. I wonder: did this ever happen to my mother?

Her life then never seems powered by coffee, and her energy levels are steady, smooth. She glides through motherhood with the finesse of some kind of domestic superhero. There is no tired grime that lives in the corners of her life. The most stress I think I ever saw her exude came in the form of a prolonged blink. She is as calm as a glacier, but somehow, I never felt cold. 

My mom always made it look so easy. But now, I know that it wasn’t.

On the heaviest days: the ones fraught with hospital waiting rooms, and specialists, and blades and staples taken to her younger daughter’s body, I felt the weight. The day they broke both of Sarah’s legs to try to fix them. The day they stopped and restarted my sister’s heart to sew it up. The day they misjudged her anesthesia dose and she went limp in my mom’s arms. I am a witness, I remember.

And I was there for the setbacks, too. The potty-training that had to happen again and again. The teeth that grew rotten from medication and had to be removed. The tests that never came back with any answers. The mortality that loomed in the little details of our lives.

Sometimes I would wake up for the day and pad over the green shag carpet to find her and there she would be, asleep with her head on top of the Bible. There was always a prayer sheet next to her head, with a long list of other people on it. I would shake her by the shoulder, ask for buttered toast, thinking nothing of the limits of what one woman might have to bear.

I grew up knowing that there is no limit to what God might ask me to do for my children. And because of my mother, I am not afraid of that. 

I didn’t have to think about it, even once, until my son was here and I noticed how differently mothering came to me. I don’t want to imply that it’s because she is superior, a champion of selflessness among other people’s mothers, but the truth is I believe that is the truth. Exploding diapers, ruined furniture, old clothes, and no sleep have never taken me by surprise. In fact, the hard moments are the ones that feel most comfortable. I can do this, I know. I can do it because she did this and more, and she made it look so easy all the time.

To erect boundaries on what my children might require of me seems a wasted energy. To consider myself a resource in limited supply would serve no purpose in this economy. To be needed, needed, needed is exhausting, I’ll admit, but it’s an identity that I delight in, that I welcome. This endless laundry, this barrage of entreaties, this flood of watered-down apple juice doesn’t make me fearful or intimidated, as some things do. It thrills me to think that I can try to be like her.

On my weaker days, I draw strength from the strength that she has. I can close my eyes and feel lifted up by her. I see her with my siblings, Sarah wearing her white eyelet dress and the tiny little headband with a single delicate pink rosette. I see her bargaining with me on what to put on for Sunday service, while she negotiates with a blowdryer and apply mascara at the same time --- diplomacy that could’ve resolved a missile crisis. I can see Ben, sunny and perfect, as we made up a stream of endless nicknames for our little man. I see her pressed skirts and the silk blouses that lined the closet, and I feel her chin against the top of my head as I sat in her lap as we watch your husband, buoyed by idealism and hope and God and her, living out an impossible dream.

It is always her, without assistance. Her, without complaint. Her, the small and lemon-scented center of an utterly unpredictable family life.

Was there a time she sank, strung out with responsibility, desperate with questions? Was there a moment when she didn’t know what she was doing? Were there ant baits and bill piles and weeks she didn’t take the garbage out? Was she saddled with guilt and worry, quieted by grief? Did motherhood ever become a performance that she wanted to stop putting on, if for only an hour or two?

She must have, and there must have been. But I really can’t recall.

I want her to know that when I think about her, she is her greatest hits. A collection of her best moments. Her batting average is 1.000 and her hair always looks good. My mind has frozen the cool water of her voice singing to me in the darkness of my little bedroom when you calmed me and kept me safe. I am not the aggregate of her shortcomings, though I know she must have had them. I am not the sum of the times she felt I was neglected or not protected or over-indulged. I am the complete and utter opposite of that, because of how strong she is. How strong she let God make her. Because she was willing to always be the anchor. Because she kept the light on for the storm that kept coming to her door. I know I can survive anything because she is standing, still.

When I was eight months pregnant, I fell down a staircase at Christmas and broke my wrist. My husband left the next day for a long work shift and I was alone for several days with a forty pound toddler that needed me to be here and to be whole. As hot water ran over my arm in the shower that first morning I let the tears take me. And then I called my mom.

She came, she wrapped my purple fingers and we laughed about how bad it looked. She made sure I ate something, because the pain was making me nauseous but the baby inside me needed me to eat, and after she left my son’s abundant energy felt like a blessing once again. He ran to me covered in orange marker and chocolate chips and demanded, “Carry me up!” I swung all of him into my arms without one wince. That’s how strength works. We have to earn it by being broken—but then we can share our strength with the people we love.

I cannot claim to be anything like my mom, in my mothering or in my more general life. My kitchen has been spotless maybe once (because she came over and cleaned it). I do know how to make her cookies and I do know how to be an anchor, and I’m grateful for that. When I talk to my friends that are sunk with the weight of their lives, and when I feel saddled down with the grief of what I cannot fathom; when I am overcome with the evil of this world or simply inexpressibly tired and so far from the finish line, I close my eyes. I let her strength carry me up. And if my boys look back and see a happy home and hear a cheerful voice and know that they were always safe in my love, it’s because of her. It’s because she made it look so easy.


Guest post written by Kate Watson. Kate is a writer and developmental editor living in New York City. She co-edits Upwrite Magazine, a digital publication that aims to cultivate hopeful content on the internet. When she's not advocating for authors, chasing children, or pitching publications, she is taking a deep breath and being incredibly grateful that this is what her life turned out to be. Find her on Instagram and Twitter

Father's Day Gift Guide

For the fort-builders. The chasers of nighttime monsters. The "you go on to bed, babe, I'll handle the midnight bottle"-ers. For the ones who champion our dreams and share our fears. A new tie or french press isn't really adequate to say thank you, but a gift never hurt either, right?  

My Bright Boy

Screams pierce the air. My son’s mouth turns down, face red, arms swinging. I worry, not for the first time, what my neighbors are thinking.The offense was a simple request for the three-year-old to take his jacket off before getting in the car seat, but the response proved to be very complicated. Two minutes into our battle, I wonder how much it really matters, but I have been trying to set consistent boundaries and fear that giving in will cause more problems later. His occupational therapist has told me that he likes wearing his coat because it feels like a buffer from all the overwhelming sensory input coming at him, but I’ve read articles saying it is not safe to put a child in their car seat when they are wearing a winter coat. After a decade or two, I wrestle him out of his puffy red coat and strap him in.

Is this normal? Have I disturbed some exquisitely sensitive mechanism in his brain, or is he just a three-year-old throwing a tantrum? The dozens of unanswerable questions that scroll through my mind daily start rolling before we have backed out of the driveway.

My fears about his development didn’t come into play until shortly before his second birthday. He talked early, using words by nine months and putting them together before he started walking. He could point out every object on a book’s page and piece together puzzles that stumped older kids. He listened to music attentively, face rapt; he pulled me away from the group of moms at the playground to point out flowers and bugs. I wondered privately if my quirky little boy with his magical sense of wonder was a genius.

However, as the months passed, worries crept into my mind. My son avoided other children at the playground, and eventually refused to get out of the stroller. He recited entire books and echoed my questions back to me rather than answering them. He spent playtime arranging his dinosaurs in a complex circle. He flapped his hands when he was excited and panicked when we entered a crowded room. I stopped planning play dates with a good friend because her daughter shouted my son’s name with glee when she saw him, reducing him to inconsolable tears.

I rationalized everything. I’m an introvert; maybe he is too. He’s highly sensitive. He’s going through a phase. When his new daycare teacher asked me to meet with her, I expected mostly praise. “We’re so impressed with his vocabulary,” or maybe, “He’s quiet, but transitioning.”

Instead, she asked, “Have you ever thought your son might be delayed?”

I was unable to respond with coherent sounds, so the daycare teacher went on. “He hardly ever talks, and when he does, he is just saying words back to us. He covers his ears when we have music time. He doesn’t play with the other kids, just watches them.”

By this point I was bawling. I’d walled up my fears in rationalization, telling myself I was just worrying the way new moms do. But here was someone who’d worked with his age group for decades telling me she thought something was wrong with my son.

I returned to work from my lunch break twenty minutes late and cried through the rest of my shift.. I spent hours on the “Worried about Autism” BabyCenter forum. My mind played and replayed scenarios—my baby playing tetherball by himself on the playground, struggling through school, never falling in love or having a relationship. Other times I rebelled at the idea of a real problem—he’s just sensitive, I told myself. He doesn’t like crowds.

We took him out of the daycare, certain at least of the fact that he wasn’t thriving there, and hired a babysitter with a little boy his age. For the next year I watched him closely, gathering evidence that he was okay—he said a sentence he couldn’t possibly have heard anywhere else, he got cookie dough on his hands without screaming, he played with another child. I made doctor’s appointments and then canceled them. But I could never shake the nagging fears planted in my mind by the daycare teacher, or stop noticing the little quirks that set him apart.

I was describing a frustrating tantrum to my therapist when she mentioned that he sounded like he had sensory issues. “It isn’t a DSM diagnosis,” she told me, “but an evaluation is free. If he qualifies, the school district offers free services.” She handed me a pamphlet, which I shoved into a drawer, finally working up the courage to call the school district a month later.

His evaluation showed mixed results—he met the majority of his milestones, but still struggled with speaking to anyone but family members and shut down in social settings. He started seeing an occupational therapist and a speech therapist, and he is showing small changes—he will whisper to his preschool teacher and play with other children. He is slowly letting others see the intelligent and enchanting person he really is.

I’m happy to see him more comfortable in preschool and able to make friends. Ultimately I’ve stopped worrying about “fixing” his problems, instead focusing on simply helping him have a happy life. My son has challenges to face, like any child, regardless of how a textbook does or does not classify him. He also has amazing advantages—his sensitivity, his memory, his attention to detail.

“He’s the same bright boy,” my best friend told me, when my fears were at their height. And it’s true. He’s the boy who spots a caterpillar in the grass from ten feet away and lets it crawl through his fingers for the next hour on the playground, holding him as he swings and goes down the slide. He’s the boy who watches his baby brother and alerts me when he toddles too close to the stairs or looks like he might explore an electrical outlet. He’s the boy who knows every dinosaur and can identify obscure species of shark. He’s the boy who won’t pick up a peanut butter sandwich because he is afraid of getting sticky fingers, but will stick his entire face in a chocolate cake. And he’s the boy who is teaching me that I don’t have to understand everything to be able to embrace it all.

He will continue to have inexplicable tantrums and get overwhelmed on the playground. It might take teachers and friends a little longer to see the gems in my son’s mind and heart, because he doesn’t share them freely or easily. But in spite of his challenges, perhaps because of them, he is still that magical little boy I’ve been falling in love with for the last four years. Sometimes daily struggles cloud our perspectives, but ultimately the difficulties are dispelled by the bright love between mother and child. I’m learning how a child can stretch and shape a mother’s heart, changing her irrevocably.


Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. This summer she is moving from Washington state to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured in several publications including Mothers Always Write, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.

Breathing Room

Our friends, Brandon and Emily, just completed construction on a new, screened-in porch (a coveted item in buggy Tennessee summers) and invited us over for a “break in the porch” get-together. My husband has known Emily since high school, and their friendship easily expanded over the years to include spouses and now our four combined children. There were kickball leagues and Saturday nights spent closing down the bar in our pre-kid days, along with one epic Halloween that involved some pretty elaborate Spaceballs costumes. Brandon and Emily were the first in our group to have a baby, and they fielded many of our questions and texts when we embarked on our own parenthood journey. We’ve buoyed each other through first-time parent fumbles and seasoned parent gaffes. Meals have been delivered, drinks poured, and hand-me-downs exchanged. As our children have grown up together, so have we.

On that particular spring evening, we sat on the new porch casually sipping drinks and chatting while the kids played in the yard. No one was swaying gently to comfort a fussy baby. There were no mid-sentence sprints to stop a curious toddler from poking a toy into a light socket. We just ... talked, like four, untethered adults. Emily even told us an entire story that had our sides aching from laughter without a single interruption.

As we refilled our drinks, Emily let out a sigh and said, “Isn’t this nice? We finally made it into the sweet spot.”

The sun was just dipping behind the trees as I watched my youngest, Ellie, climb onto the trampoline with the help of Lyla, Emily’s youngest. The boys were already jumping amidst bouncing balls and laughter. They four of them had been playing, without adult intervention, for at least 45 minutes. I took a sip of my wine and smiled in agreement.

“Yes,” I answered. “It’s pretty great to finally have a little breathing room.”

***

There’s a reason we call the season of motherhood with little ones “the trenches.” It feels like you're always at war with something: a sleepless baby, a tantruming toddler, your own expectations. Someone is always touching you. There are sippy cups to fill, babies to nurse, bottoms to wipe, and it seems like someone usually has a runny nose. It’s grueling, demanding, relentless work. You are their sun and moon. Many of your days begin before dawn, and there are seasons where they never really seem to end, thanks to teething, sickness, and growth spurts. It can begin to feel suffocating, to have so much demanded of you and so little time to catch your breath.

Since becoming a mother, my life has largely been defined by the ones I care for. I work part-time from home, but those are hours squeezed into the corners of the day—my schedule is pliable, which means I can bend it to fit around my primary responsibilities: namely, keeping both children alive. Each day of the previous six years feels like it passed in a flurry of spilled milk, block towers, Daniel Tiger, and hanging on until bedtime.

Yes, the mother smother is all too real when you’re in the trenches.

The last six months have felt different though. My children are six and three now, which means we are taking gradual steps out of the physically demanding and energy depleting phase of little ones, and into the next chapter. Everyone’s potty trained and sleeping through the night. I haven’t carried a diaper bag in over a year, and the last time I left the house with the two of them, I just tucked my phone in my back pocket and grabbed my car keys. What was once an exhaustive list of feeding times, soothing methods, and nap schedules for the babysitter has become just a simple, “keep them alive and have fun.”

As for my children, they spend hours together in secretive, imaginative play, inventing a world that I’m not invited to be a part of. It’s not that they don’t need me at all—there are still arguments to settle and snacks to get, of course—but my spot is on the sidelines now.

For the first time in a long time, I’m not being run ragged by motherhood. It’s not that it’s easy now (is it ever truly easy?), but it’s become less all-consuming. I can work in one room while my children play in another. I can enjoy a conversation with a friend without constant interruption. Who knew being a mother could feel so … light? I briefly reveled in the sensation, before new questions loomed:

What do I do now that I’ve caught my breath? How do I function when I’m not viscerally needed for allthethings all day long?

My honest answer is that I don’t know. For all the exhaustion and depletion that life with littles brings, there’s something to be said for knowing your place in the world. I wasn’t expected to have a side hustle or even a hobby. I had small children. They were both my responsibility and my excuse.

Now their world is bigger than me, which means mine can be—no, should be—bigger than them. If Act 1 of my adult life was defined by pre-kid freedom and Act 2 by the exact opposite, then perhaps this third phase becomes the Balancing Act. I still get to revel in these little people who are mine to raise. They really like me right now. Friday nights consist of living room pizza picnics followed by a movie, all snuggled up on the couch together. I get to build forts and have dance parties and hear prayers before bedtime. As my friend Emily said, this is the sweet spot. I’m soaking it all up.

But there’s also room for more. There’s space for writing—real, scheduled writing that’s not just scattered thoughts thumb-typed into the Notes app on my phone during a nursing session. We can travel, explore, and adventure. I can eat my meals with two hands, while seated at the kitchen table.

Sweet spot, indeed.

Every stage of parenting has its difficulties, and this one is no different. They’re called threenagers for a reason, after all, and school life has brought new anxieties to navigate. And then, there’s also the challenge of answering the question, “what now?”

I’m not sure just yet, but figuring it out is half the fun.

***

It’s late when we get home from Brandon and Emily’s that night. The kids are visibly weary as we help with brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and tucking into bed. I kiss Ellie and whisper goodnight, then her hand—still soft and chubby, more baby than little girl—reaches out and grabs my shirt sleeve.

“Wait, momma,” she says. “I need you to snuggle me.”

I smile as I curl my tall frame into the sliver of bedspace unoccupied by her menagerie of stuffed animals and pile of blankets. As I kiss the top of her head, she burrows further into me, fitting into the bow of my body. I am perilously close to the edge of the bed, but it doesn’t matter.

I have all the breathing room I need.