By Lauren Gonzalez
There are moments in parenting when you realize everything has changed, that your life will never be the same. You would think that this revelation would come all at once, hitting you hard and fast at the beginning of your journey, and it does – I still remember vividly my first “Oh, f*ck” moment (my first OFM, if you will): I was lying in my hospital room in the wee hours of the morning, all the lights off, the machines beeping, my husband lightly snoring on the couch in the corner, and my infant son peering at me through his plastic bassinette walls, writhing around in his swaddle, making indecipherable gurgling noises, and needing something… always needing something.
Suddenly, an uncomfortable wave of exhaustion and fear swept over me as I realized that this tiny human – this stranger already wrecking havoc on my sleep schedule and causing me intense amounts of anxiety about tending to his needs – was here to stay. There was no going back. I had to come to terms with his presence, and begin climbing the brutally steep mommy learning curve (don’t look at it too closely, it will paralyze you).
This initial OFM was the worst of them, at least in my experience, but it wasn’t the last of them. Not by a long shot. In retrospect, it’s fortunate that newborns keep you busy, because they distract you from getting lost in the sh*t spiral. You’ve got to keep moving, keep learning, keep climbing up the learning curve in order to outrun the anxiety, and the OFMs that just keep coming. You do get used to them, learning to take yourself less seriously so they don’t hit you quite so hard. Still, sometimes they creep up on you, exposing your vulnerabilities and asking you, yet again, to come to terms with the harsh realities of child rearing.
Like this past weekend. All through winter, my husband and I looked forward to taking the kids camping. Truthfully, the two of us were dying to sleep outdoors, to live outside of the cramped confines of our house, and escape for a night or two. We wanted to show the kids a good time, and teach them how to love living in the elements at a young age, but honestly, we wanted to go for our own sake. We planned our trip so carefully, sticking close to home, tediously packing up the car with all the toys, snacks, and clothing our kids could possibly need, and strategically departing after nap time, when everyone was at their best and brightest.
In the end, it wasn’t the brief rain shower that did us in, nor was it the incessant wind, the chill in the air, or the fact that the 9 p.m. sunlight still looked like 5:30 p.m. No, it was our children, or, more accurately, my inability to handle my children. At 9:15 p.m. – way past everyone’s bedtimes – I staunchly raged against fate, struggling to put my daughter down in her Pack ‘n Play while my son bounced around maniacally on our blowup mattress.
Five minutes later, my husband entered the tent to find me cowering in the corner, mindlessly stuffing s’mores fixins (and my feelings) into my mouth, my son repeatedly smacking me in the back of the head with our pillows, my daughter red-faced and screaming at me mercilessly from her crib. Without warning, my son launched himself head-first into my face, sending my fistful of marshmallows, my glasses, and my last shred of sanity plummeting to the floor. Sensing the impending sh*it storm about to ensue, my husband scooped up my son (before I could reach him to wring his neck and toss him from the tent), cheerfully announcing, “It’s time to go!”
One hour later, we pulled out of the campsite, our car loaded down with hastily jumbled gear and food, two exhausted kids quietly passing out in the backseat, and me sitting shotgun, fighting back hot tears of frustration and disappointment. I found myself in the midst of yet another OFM, feeling angry at myself for not being stronger, for my inability to remain calm and steady, to take the kids’ shenanigans in stride so that we could all enjoy a fun, family camping experience together.
Parenting is really just one long experiment to find out how much sh*t you can take before you crack. Kids expose your quirks, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings harder and faster than anything else. They show you who you really are, underneath your carefully curated, controlled exterior. The question is not whether your kids will change you, but how, and what are you going to do about it? How are you going to cope? In order to stay engaged in the journey, you have to find ways to accept the version of yourself that your kids bring out – the real you – and it isn’t always pretty.
It is terribly painful for me to admit that I do not have the inner fortitude to manage a one-night camping trip with two children under the age of three. For good or ill, I have worked painstakingly to create a routine-driven sleep schedule for my children – one that enables me to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep, but also makes it impossible to travel, or do anything outside of the usual schedule. Apparently, whether or not you sleep-train your children, nobody wins. There is no scenario where I come out ahead. Apparently, I am incapable of subverting the routines that I created for my kids. This is a truth about myself that my children so graciously revealed in the course of one weekend.
So, what am I going to do about it? I’m going to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone just enough to do day trips, and plan shorter outdoor activities with my family, but we’ll probably give up camping for the next year (or 10), until all of our kids can walk, talk, feed themselves, and none of them are clinging to me like barnacles. I’m going to accept my limits, rather than bemoaning and ignoring them. I’m not going to willingly put myself in situations where I want to pitch my toddler across a tent. For now, I’ll travel no further than my own backyard when I get the urge to camp.
Until the next OFM, that will have to do.
Lauren Elizabeth Gonzalez is a Missoula-based writer/ blogger, whose kids (both under the age of 3) provide ample inspiration for her short stories, social media posts and articles that highlight the challenges, joys and bare realities of motherhood. Drawing on her master’s degree and background in conflict and dispute resolution, Lauren is also working on a series of how-to guides that will enable parenting partners to build a stronger, more connected team dynamic. Find out more at www.LaurenTheFreeMom.com, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter for a daily peek inside the head of a nutty gal just free mommin’ it.