Because I’m married to a sports junkie, oftentimes, when I turn on the car radio, I am immersed in conversations about Peyton Manning, where he’ll sign next; or Albert Haynesworth, how he’s colossally let down the Redskins (and Patriots, and Titans. . .). It’s a lot of sports, a lot of the time, but I like it. Thom Loverro, the co-host of the ESPN radio program, The Sports Fix, has this scratchy, high-pitched, irresistible voice—he’s a helium-breathing Teddy Bear—and I can’t get enough of him, even when he’s slamming on my Phillies.
Professional athletes are subjected to obvious, intense scrutiny. To sweepingly generalize, they are bazillionaires so I don’t feel sorry for them. But while I was listening to sports radio the other day, I conjured a hideous day dream: that I, a professional mother-of-two, was the topic of discussion.
It went a little like this:
Tom Loverro: I mean, come on. Really?? You think Katie Lenehan deserves a contract extension??
Kevin Sheehan: I think we need to give her a break here.
Tom Loverro: A break? How much of a disappointment is she? I mean, how far down do you have to go on the list of most wasted potential and talent. How far??
Kevin Sheehan: Ok. Not far, I’ll admit. She’s a bad mom.
Tom Loverro: A BAD mom. She’s the WORST.
The conversation would continue. Loverro would spew statistics—percentage of dinosaur chicken meals over home-cooked meals during the last season; how many art projects attempted vs. completed. Fantasy Football goons would call in to smack-talk and commiserate with Sheehan who picked me for his team and couldn’t trade me.
The thing is I joined the National Mom League in decent shape. I come from a line of good mothers, so the training was there. And when I only had my first child, Caroline, I played hard and tough. Seventeen months later, however, little Lexi came along, and somehow I landed on Injured Reserve for fracturing multiple good intentions.
For instance, when I only had Caroline, we listened to kiddie sing-along songs in the car, like Wheels on the Bus and I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. When I only had Caroline, we ate organic everything.
Lexi sings Toby Keith’s Red Solo Cup at high volume. Her first words were “Chick-Fil-A.”
When I only had Caroline, we attended classes at My Gym, Maryland Hall, and Music Together.
Lexi goes to Target.
When I only had Caroline, our pediatrician told us what he wished for all first-time parents: that we would treat our first child as if she were our third. What he meant by this, of course, was that we should relax, be easy on ourselves and our kid. These days, in the morning, after Caroline has left for kindergarten, I allow Lexi to watch episodes of My Little Pony while I clean the kitchen and down coffee like it is Gatorade. I take our pediatrician’s advice too far: I parent as if I have no children.
I’m kidding, obviously. Apparently that’s what lastborns do. People (probably firstborns) study this stuff. Lastborns share certain characteristics: creativity, humor, persistence, lower self esteem. (No baby pictures of me exist—not a one—but that’s okay because lastborns are optimistic.) Some famous lastborns: Stephen Colbert, Mark Twain, Goldie Hawn.
And yes, firstborns are generally confident and organized. They become presidents and astronauts. Some famous firstborns: Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein.
My fear is because of my glom-on first-time parenting approach, Caroline’s going to be a lifelong people-pleasing perfectionist . . . unless Lexi rubs off on her a bit. I was all over Caroline when she was a baby. For whatever reason, I have always given Lexi more room. Smarter defense in football terms, right? If I get too close, they’ll blow right by me. I am learning…
As much as Loverro, Sheehan, and I like to highlight my weaknesses, I know I’m doing alright as a parent. My girls are fine. In fact, they’re wonderful. I hope I am blessed enough to see how all of this plays out. What choices will each daughter make: what career, what spouse, what place on the map?
I’ll plan on landing a second career in broadcasting after my playing-with-my-kids days are over. I’ll buy a home in West Palm Beach, one in Telluride, so my grandkids will have cool places to visit on school breaks.
And as for all this birth-order mumbo-jumbo: Peyton Manning’s a middle child.
I understand his little brother’s also had some success on the football field.
“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
This morning I left the dishes in the sink longer than usual, in order to set up the painting table and let the girls loose on unsuspecting construction paper. Sitting side-by-side wearing only princess underwear, Caroline and Lexi painted at least 15 pictures each. I had them title their pieces (“Pictures don’t have names!” said Caroline), and after the girls got into it, works of art, including “Doggy, Froggy, Turtle, Duck” and “Funny Daddy” by Lexi; “Beautiful Stone Wall” and “Bamba!” by Caroline, lay drying on all available counter space. Our house is the Barnes Collection: pictures hang on walls above sofas, under tables, climbing stairwells. Caroline can now dispense scotch tape, so no place is safe from masterpieces. I could go upstairs to vacuum a hallway (hypothetical here) and come down to three new displays: two on the sliding glass door and one taped just below the stove’s front, left burner.
The girls love painting. I love watching them love painting. This morning I stood staring at them from the kitchen sink, grateful and happy.
The fact that Painting Pictures Day at home coincided with Picture Day at preschool was not a surprise to me. I was fully aware that the girls needed to be especially clean and presentable by 12:30, when I would drop them off. A bright orange post-it with “Picture Day!!!” had been stuck to my desk all week, like one of Caroline’s paintings. I had chosen outfits the night before— pink and brown jumpers in coordinating colors because I had paid 5 extra dollars to get a sibling shot—but what I had not anticipated was mutiny. Picasso’s Blue Period ran from autumn 1902 to spring 1904; Caroline’s Rainbow Period has been going full-tilt since March; her palette not confined to paper. At 11:45, both girls’ bodies were clear of paint, but the brown and pink of Caroline’s potential outfit was not speaking to her as loudly as the rainbow of colors on her long-sleeved striped shirt. I began to panic. I jogged down two flights in search of storage bins, rummaging for a solid-colored jumper that would match. The green just a notch next to “puke” on the color scale, was the only jumper she’d allow, so instead, I insisted she pick out a pair of pants (“NOOOOOOOO!) or a skirt to match the rainbow shirt, since the dark blue jumper that would have looked great, had constricted her breathing upon impact—I saw ribs. The blue jumper removal tousled Caroline’s hair dramatically; then a voice rang from the adjacent room. It was Lexi: “I want my poople (purple) dress! I don’t want go school!” Her cherub song skipped and repeated like a record turning, needle over scratched vinyl again, and again, and again. My girls were going to Picture Day, damn it, and they were going to look cute. This was Guernica.
At 12:10, when Lexi caught on that I could not find the car keys, she pretended that she’d hidden them. I asked, “Where are they keys, love?”
She answered, “Upstairs.”
I looked all around the upstairs and asked, “WHERE ARE THE KEYS, LOVE!”
She answered, “Downstairs.”
After searching the house twice, I wised up, grabbed the extra set of keys, and then found the initial set in the backseat of the car, where I’d left them all night. By the time I pulled out of the driveway, I was exhausted from having chased Lexi around the kitchen, a smidge concerned that new neighbors might have called Social Services as I stuffed my sobbing 3-year-old into her car seat, and ticked-off that we had not one tissue in the car, since both girls’ cheeks were tear-streaked. Caroline wore her striped shirt with grey skirt and tights. Lexi wore her purple dress with pink cardigan. We were so late, I had to walk them into their respective classrooms. One perk of car-line drop-off is that fewer people notice that you are jittery, your hair is unkempt, and your voice is hoarse from yelling.
Minutes later, when I went to Safeway to buy milk, I also picked up a couple of four-color ballpoint pens and two spiral notebooks—blue for Lexi and red for Caroline. They’d been writing a lot in Mommy’s notebook, so I thought this might be a nice time to give them their own, since I was feeling generous and completely debilitated by gnawing guilt. I happened to stand in line behind a parent I had seen minutes before in Lexi’s classroom. I introduced myself to her. She looked at me as if she’d never before seen me and then her eyes registered and she said: “Oh, you’re the one who asked if they clean faces before pictures.”
“Oh, ha…yeah. We had a little trouble getting there today.”
“For an afternoon class?” She slid her fingers through what looked to have been recently brushed hair, and then she turned slightly towards the checkout. The conveyor belt moved; the placed divider, a line drawn, separated her toilet paper from my retractable pens.
I’ve swum in the Atlantic and dipped my toes into the Pacific on the same day. I’ve sat in a movie theater, seen a two-hour film, and as credits rolled, I’ve had to think about it: “Where am I? What state am I in—Pennsylvania? Virginia? Florida?” Just this morning, soft sun slowly gathered around the colors in our kitchen. I sat in pjs squeezing light and dark blue, purple, and orange into empty egg containers. The girls and I were fresh and blending. But in the earliest turn of the afternoon, I was suddenly rabid and sweaty, dumping folded turtlenecks from storage containers onto our basement floor. What state was I in and how did I get there on that very same day?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once she grows up.” Pablo Picasso
(I wrote this last February and just rediscovered it. This one’s for you, Lexi-Loo!)
Lexi was up last night—started to cry around 1 a.m. She and Caroline have been trading viruses like baseball cards, even though the doctors have said that what they have is bacterial and not contagious. Three rounds of antibiotics later, and I’m a little suspect. Caroline’s cough seems to have waned, but Lexi sounds like a goose. She is 18 months old; she should be sleeping through the night. That’s one of the MANY things you don’t read in parenting books—that newborns aren’t the only ones who deprive you of sleep. It’s those toddlers. Lexi cried so loudly and for so long, that Caroline woke up from the adjacent room: “Mommy, I want Lexi to stop cwyyying!” (I’m right there with you, Caroline.) “Mommy, I want Lexi to stop cwyyying!” (Say it again, sister.) “Mommy, I want Lexi to stop cwyyying!” Dave caved in the direction of Caroline’s room, and I caved towards Lexi’s room, and eventually, we all met for a little pow-wow in the hallway.
To backtrack a bit, neither kid ate any dinner. To backtrack a bit more, right before non-dinner, the girls and I walked home from our neighbors as Caroline sobbed hysterically, “The WIND is going to BLOW me AWAY!!!!” Hers was not a cry of joy, but rather a cry of terror ringing through the Windgate Townhomes. I was carrying Caroline (Note: She’s the older one, the almost 40 lb one), while Lexi was waddling after us down the path, facing the wind, spreading her arms wide and grinning as her eyes watered. Lexi was Sunday driving in sub-tolerable temperature, and her sister wanted the fast lane home. If fresh air is actually good for us, then, we were good, but it took us a year and a half to go 300 yards, and when we arrived home, only Lexi was okay. She seemed to be searching the warm room for something—an après-ski cocktail?—but she was content. Caroline and I, on the other hand, were ready to rumble.
That gets us to non- dinner, how I boiled pasta, reheated a sweet potato, sliced carrots, and nuked some peas, and, neither kid ate any dinner. Too many crackers and grapes at our neighbors. I should have accepted that, but, when Lexi starting chucking veggies on the floor as I swept, and when Caroline kept crying for the yogurt that we just did not have in the fridge, I crossed broom to heart and made a solemn vow (at high volume) that “When your father gets home, I’m done! Mommy’s not giving you a bath. Mommy’s not reading you books. Mommy’s taking a little vacation!” That went over well on all accounts. The girls were pleased with my pledge and my tone, and Dave was tickled pink when he heard the news upon entering the house. He mentioned something about an elderly man almost plowing into his car outside of the mall, but, really, that wasn’t important.
All through bath time, I sat downstairs and “relaxed” with a cup of tea. I tried to check emails but was having trouble focusing. The wind was still knocking around outside, so I was musing about where that might put our trashcan come morning—that may have been distracting me. Or, it may have been the fact that I could not completely unclench my fingers to type since both my daughters were yelling “MOMMA! MOMMA!” from the top of the stairs. I could hear the baby gate shaking and had a clear visual image of Lexi trying to prison break from the second floor. Dave was actually enjoying himself—he must have been a Catholic nun in a previous life because he just kept talking over the screaming, “Well, next time you’ll listen to your mom and eat your dinner!” I gave in early—post hair rinse but pre-towel snuggle. I couldn’t do it to Dave, and really, I do hate to miss the towel snuggle.
Caroline’s current book of choice is Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, a classic, but a long one, especially when Caroline prolongs and repeats the name of the antagonist, “Henry B. Swaaaaaaaaap.” She’s also taken to saying the word “boobie” at random and then breaking into hysterics. Simply reading a book before bedtime has become less simple. I speed read; I diverted attention; I laughed; I grew irritated. All the while, as Caroline squirmed in my lap to get comfortable, I tried to tighten abs and suck in surrounding gut so I’d feel more like a chair than a pillow.
Caroline is not yet potty trained, but the seat itself has not been idle since it’s where Lexi sits while she brushes her teeth. “Sitting” is relative, though—a momentary thing. Lexi’s up and away, toothbrush in hand, running head first full speed towards our room. Even Caroline refuses a book when Lexi rounds a corner like that, with eyes ablaze, with all eight teeth lighting her way, with joy unbridled evident in her every move. Caroline’s eyes will dart from page to sister and then linger. If an adult fails to corral the little one within seconds, the big one is gone. It was just so last night when Caroline’s hand reached back for support so quickly that my stomach was caught—soft and unawares—as she sunk into me and then rebounded onto the floor to join her sister. I thought, “I have got to get to the gym.” I thought, “We need to get these girls to bed sooner.” I thought, “Where did I last see the Ibuprofin?”
Finally, I sat again on the rocker as Caroline faded to sleep. Mrs. Potato Head’s arm, alone, bent rigid beside the hamper like the striped stockings of the Wicked Witch collapsed under Dorothy’s house. Hoping for the best for the rest of Mrs. Potato Head, I made my way to my room, ready for a good night’s sleep.
But, finally isn’t all that final all the time—just like a simple bedtime book isn’t always simple. We did not sleep well that night. It took us a few more nights to realize—as Lexi’s cough and mood worsened, and her breathing quickened—that she was awake at night for a reason. She’s okay now, but Dave had to take her to the Emergency Room and there she stayed in the Pediatric Ward of the hospital for three nights. Bronchiolitis, the doctors said. NO WONDER she was having trouble sleeping. NO WONDER she was grouchy and not eating. Such a wonder, my little love, that she–days before her hospital stay — was breathing in the best she could the crispness of winter and the comfort of her sister’s company. She did without them both for a few days, and boy was she fired up about that. She was hooked up to oxygen and IV tubes; she was stuck solitary in an industrial sized crib; she was as unsmiling as I’d ever seen her, but in the mornings she woke saying “CC”—her name for her sister—and her smile arrived just as Caroline, cheeks flushed and hair tousled, toddled into room #119 for a visit.
Viruses—just a start of what these two will be sharing.