All She Can
She hears footsteps above and pauses, trying to tell which of her children are awake. Throwing the blanket off her lap and pushing her glasses back up her nose, she sets her stack of books on the table, prepares herself for the early morning quiet to give way to incessant chatter.
The dog appears first, and shortly after, her seven year old. She tries to transition from being alone with her thoughts to being a mother who is excited to hear about the latest Lego Ninjago storyline that her child has dreamed up.
He starts as soon as his feet hit the bottom step. “Mom, did you know that Jay and Cole went to the Temple of Doom and the Samurai was there?”
“Oh really, bud? Very cool,” she says, trying desperately to cling to a thought slipping away. She glances out the window; the dark has turned to the dreary gray of a rainy February morning, and she sighs, knowing that she will have to choose between the boundless energy of three children stuck inside all day and a floor full of mud.
More footsteps on the stairs and her curly headed toddler appears, pausing on the stairs to yell “PRIZE,” his favorite way of announcing his presence, before running to her with open arms.
Moving to the kitchen, she stares into the refrigerator, fantasizing about an ordinary morning, “before”. She remembers those pre-pandemic days, when mornings were a constant scramble to get out the door, when lost shoes making them late for school drop-off were her biggest concern, when they actually left the house.
“Mom, I want a sausage dog! Did you know what’s crazy about the Temple of Mech?” She nods as the Lego monologue continues. The two-year-old stands on his tiptoes, slowly coaxing a bag of bagels from the counter to his hand, holding it aloft like a trophy when he finally succeeds. She pulls herself away from the refrigerator to start toasting bagels and microwaving sausage dogs.
“Mommy! Mommy! Come upstairs, Mommy,” calls her four year old. She knows this means this is one of those mornings he will refuse to come downstairs unless she comes and gets him, one of those mornings that, if not handled just the right way, will set off a tantrum she doesn’t have the energy to deal with.
Passing her husband on the stairs, she pauses for a quick kiss as she hurries upstairs. “You carry me downstairs, Mommy?” She holds out her arms and he jumps into them. “I want yo-grit for breakfast,” he says, “with strawberries AND blueberries.”
“Okay,” she agrees, depositing him on a barstool at the kitchen island, relieved that a tantrum doesn't seem imminent. She slides plates and bowls and cups in front of her children, and for a few moments there is comfortable silence as they begin to eat. Pouring a second cup of coffee, she settles in at the island, scrolling through the news as her husband relays his schedule for the day.
She thinks about the day ahead, the to-do list, the virtual classes and virtual speech therapy session, another day with little to distinguish it from the other days of the pandemic. She dreams about the day she will be alone in her house again, wonders when things will feel safer, if normal will ever return.
“Hep peas. Hep peas.” A little voice startles her and she realizes that her youngest is hanging from the kitchen island, arms propped on the counter, legs no longer able to find his chair.
“You need some help,” she repeats, placing him on the floor.
“Tank you,” he says, running off to find a toy.
“How long until my first class, Mom?” asks her oldest.
“An hour and a half,” she says, and he heads to his Lego collection.
“Mommy, I still hungry,” the middle child says. “I have a bagel now?”
“You must be really growing,” she says.
“I am. I growing so big and strong. That’s why I so hungry,” he says, holding up his hands to show her how tall he will grow.
She fixes a bagel, pours a third cup of coffee, tries to drum up energy and enthusiasm for the day ahead. She is tired of winter, tired of the pandemic, tired of staying home.
Last summer, it seemed like there was only one good decision for their family when it came to school for the pandemic school year.
Pandemic news was uncertain—they didn’t want to be on edge waiting to see what the school board decided every time they met. They had been fairly successful with the spring at-home/virtual learning combination. Three kids at home meant at least they would have each other to play with. She already stayed home—no job would have to be sacrificed. Their risk tolerance for the pandemic was low—they have stayed home and stayed isolated since the world shut down.
So she hit submit on the virtual school application and hit send on the email withdrawing from preschool.
She added manipulatives and curriculums and art supplies and subscription boxes to her online shopping cart. She put library books on hold. And she told herself it would be fine.
One year. We can do it.
Some days, this is true.
Virtual school goes relatively smoothly. Preschool activities are prepped and participated in with enthusiasm. The weather cooperates and they spend the afternoon outside; she reads a book while the kids entertain each other. The grocery store order is placed in the back of the minivan with nothing missing; the meal plan doesn’t require any tweaking. Check marks are added next to items on the to-do list as they are accomplished. It’s approximately how she imagined this stay-at-home year would go.
And then there are other days.
The days when tensions run high. By 8 a.m. it seems like she’s already broken up hundred fights. By 10 a.m. she is wondering if she can manage even one more minute of pandemic life. Her to-do list remains undone and when her husband asks what’s for dinner she stares at him blankly, then quips, “you mean y’all want to eat dinner every night?”
These are the days she doesn’t meet her own expectations of herself, the days she isn’t the mother she wants to be.
Her patience is short. She yells. She gives in to more screen time than she would like and then she sinks onto the couch in defeat, hoping the screen will buy enough time for her to reclaim a shred of sanity.
She second guesses all of her decisions.
Are the kids getting what they need? Am I doing enough?
She finds herself staring at case counts and vaccine numbers, trying to bargain with herself—trying to bargain with God—if only we do this, then can we have a quasi-normal summer?
Sometimes her thoughts drift to the alternate universe where no one has ever heard of COVID. The one where normal still exists. She wonders what the “new normal” will be and when it will arrive and if she can hold on that long.
She thinks she’s not doing enough.
She should be planning more activities. Getting the kids outside more. Being more creative with their days. Being more intentional about connecting with friends. Going on more walks. Doing a better job of managing all of this.
She knows she is at her limit.
She is doing all she can.
This post was a combination of an exercise from an Exhale Storytelling Workshop and a response to a Rhthym writing prompt - find other responses by searching #exhalestorytelling and #rhythmwriting2021on Instagram.