In darkness, she moved tentatively from the doorway to the foot of my bed. I could sense she didn’t know if I was awake. Until I realized I was alone in bed, I was uncertain whether it was the middle of the night or moments before the day was to begin.
“What’s up, Buggy?”, my voice still groggy from sleep that ended abruptly just minutes ago.
“Hi, Mama,” she said cheerfully as she slid into the still warm but empty spot next to me. She wrapped her featherweight arm around my waist.
I heard the rise and fall of her breathing, the wild energy of her feet dancing under the cotton sheet as she settled in close. I rolled onto my side to face her. She beamed at me. I kissed her cheeks, devouring their cool, rounded softness. Her hair, still silky from last night’s shower, smelled faintly of citrus. It fanned out in ribbons on the pillow next to me. Even without my glasses on, I could see the grey-black gaps between her new and disproportionately large teeth. I wondered when the remaining four teeth would fill in the spaces, completing the smile she’d flash for the rest of her life. A light knock on the doorjamb said it was time to awaken for the day, so we rolled out and shuffled down the hall together.
The moment was brief, but our connection was deep. How much longer would I be able to consume her—know her—just like this, through all of my senses? Loving a child bestows a profound intimacy and understanding of who they are and what they need. But it is temporary. I am increasingly aware of how much sand remains in the top of the hourglass.
When she was born, the inputs that had helped me understand and revere the world were instantly overwhelmed. My dendrites of daily living dialed to a new frequency. I now needed to share my senses of smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste in order to read her cues and sustain her life, not just mine. As someone who was already highly sensitive, this was no small undertaking. But I quickly parsed out the difference in pitch and volume in her cries of hunger, fatigue, and discomfort. I pressed my lips to her forehead to detect fevers during the longest of nights. I identified stains on my shirt with a quick sniff, removed a spot of raspberry jam with a quick lick on the fly.
Overwhelmed shifted to heightened. Heightened shifted to enlightened.
I still experience the physical world in a totally new way because of her. My eyes and ears are more open. Things that had become bland and dull are once again gourmet. In many ways, I returned to my own childhood, even those stretches of time I cannot remember. And though I still feel everything acutely, I’ve also noticed that the senses of mothering are starting to gradually diminish.
The first sense to go is taste, it seems. I remember the purees, crackers, and juice, all tasted second hand from chubby little fingers or a sticky nose. The sweet, milky taste of open-mouthed kisses that were given freely have long since stopped. Now, I’m occasionally treated to a salty tear on sad days or the trail that a powdered donut leaves behind, but not much more.
Thankfully, I can still relish the scent of her hair when she returns from playing outside on a late autumn day when the neighbors’ fireplaces are in full swing. It is nothing short of magic how a child’s hair can grasp so tightly onto the essence of pending snow and wood smoke, and hold it just long enough for me to inhale indoors. It’s always gone an instant later. Even her skin radiates a subtle fragrance that she’s had since birth, one that I could detect blindly in a room full of people. As she grows, I am sure a few more blossoms will be added to her bouquet, whether it be the hard won sweat of exertion or the sickly sweet fog of drugstore perfume, but she’ll always have those notes of baby underneath. I will inhale deeply to find it, when she lets me.
Seeing her, hearing her, and touching her, I imagine those will remain steady and frequent for a long while. The softness of her cotton leggings and the clammy feet that stick to me while we’re reading on the couch. Her still baby soft skin that confirms her youth when she holds my dry, wrinkling hand. The squeals in the backyard while being chased by her dad after dinner, the off key singing from the other room. Watching her limbs stretch year to year, already displaying whose genes she is going to have. The last few blond strands glinting among the darkening brown while she plays in the mid-April sun. The lake blue eyes that just as easily lift me when she smiles as they do unsettle me when she tests out some new form of defiant independence.
This is how I know soon enough there will be shut bedroom doors, less snuggling close together, and possibly fewer words spoken. So for now, I will let all of her in, every which way I can. I enjoy feeling enlightened.
What sense could you not live without? Do you have one sense that seems more heightened than the others? If you have children in your life, how do the five senses come into play when you are with them?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Today marks ten years that we have lived in this house. A decade in one place. That is a milestone for me—the longest stretch I’ve lived any one place.
When I realized this, I was first struck by a feeling of unexpected melancholy, perhaps a longing because I did not live in the same house for my entire childhood, like some do. But then, letting that notion simmer for a bit, I decided it was not precisely what was bothering me.
Instead, it was reluctant acceptance that the balance of my life is now unequivocally weighted heavier on the adult side, not childhood. This milestone—a signpost of staying put and settling in as a grown up—is just the first of many more to come, though I arrived here much faster than I anticipated. I am wholly content with this realization, but it is jarring all the same.
A lot has happened in the time since we were given the keys to the house. We learned the difference between eggshell and semi-gloss paint. We made fools of ourselves calculating how many bags of mulch we needed to spread around the shrubs—it never goes as far as you think it will. We used clipped voices when appliances stopped working or pictures hung crooked and off center. We quickly appreciated the ways a quality Christmas tree stand can stave off divorce. We cursed at armies of ants. We learned how to grow tomatoes and radishes, but never got the hang of watermelons.
We found our spots on the couch.
We shaped our professional lives.
We became parents.
Routines settled in. Crises were averted, mostly.
We discovered our strengths and accepted our weaknesses.
For some, it might grow boring, living in the same spot for so many years. Our tiny house and humble 8,919 square feet of land might not seem to offer much reward. The same view day to day, inside and out, has the potential to numb. The variegation of novelty shifts to monochromatic redundancy.
Yet treasure abounds even in the most routine spaces.
By remaining firmly in place, you witness the waltz of the sun and earth, how the steps change ever so slightly over the course of a year. Facing west at the close of each day, you discover nuance among the twilights. You learn where to spread your blanket under the maple tree and maximize the stretch of cool shade it offers on a long afternoon in July. Year to year, seasons jockey for your attention. You discover the snow never drifts the same way twice—especially this year. You are confounded when the rosemary doesn’t grow back for the first time in many years, and you didn’t do anything different. You hedge your bets: will the lilac bush peak on Mother’s Day or will she be late this time around? You watch for birds, hoping to add a new one to your list.
Over the past ten years, twenty-seven different birds have alighted in our yard or in the maple tree. I know, because I’ve kept a list. I have my favorites, of course, like the cardinal and the titmouse. I know the blue jay is a bully, but the juncos are not easily persuaded. The hummingbird only visited once, and I think it was a fluke. I am determined to lure him back. I’ve learned to identify some birds through their songs and calls. They let me know when a cat is in the yard or a hawk is overhead. The Carolina wren baffled me for the past three years—I heard its trill long before I saw it, somehow convinced it was a veery until I finally matched face with call this past December. It felt like victory.
Still, I have yet to see a blue bird or an oriole in our midst. They are elusive, it seems, but I’m determined to stick around and wait, maybe even another ten years. For me, there is a comfort in standing still and staying put. A lot more will happen in that time, whether it be new birds in the yard or boyfriends waiting on the front step for my daughter. And I know it will all pass just as quickly.
Here is a list of the birds I’ve seen in the past decade of living here:
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Just a normal Saturday of “getting a few things done” stretched out before us. Bathrooms were cleaned, and I got to sleep in a bit. Coffee was brewed, eggs were fried, and showers were taken. Sheets got stripped from the bed and thrown in the wash so that they could be put back on before our next slumber. These are our favorite sheets, a soft jersey cotton and miraculously still brilliant white. They offer a full body embrace at the end of a cold winter’s day.
Puttering was in full swing until at least noon.
But there were things we had to get done out in the world too. Printer ink needed replacing, and new set of dry erase markers was long overdue. We can barely read the kitchen calendar, especially if green needs to be used—that’s my color and it seems as though I’ve been the busiest because it’s been dried out since January. A deal was made: let’s get the office supplies and then hit our favorite restaurant nearby for some grilled cheese and nachos. We hardly go out like that for a meal just the three of us. It’d be fun to change things up a bit. After that, they could get haircuts and drop me off at home on the way.
Quite unexpectedly, and perhaps a bit unusually considering the time, there was a long wait for a table at the restaurant we wanted to visit. We didn’t have time to wait.
A plan was devised for the second best option just six miles down the road and so we changed gears. Only, we hadn’t been since before M was born some 7.5 years ago. We were a bit suspicious when we pulled into the vacant parking lot. Closed for renovations. Figures.
A third plan was hatched, this time across the street from the hair cut salon, but still another twelve minutes away and we were all getting a bit hungry. Good thing I thought to bring some apples for her to snack on. Thankfully there was no wait, and we were soon filling our bellies with food. She enjoyed her grilled cheese, but we were left disappointed. We laughed about it though—Who puts parsley on nachos? Is this tomato sauce? I don’t think it’s salsa! The cheese is weird too. She forgot the lemon in the iced tea. Oh well. The nachos were largely left untouched and we stole fries when she wasn’t looking. (We eventually got busted.) We watched her blush when we told her to say hello to a (boy) classmate who was also there with his family. The waitress stopped to talk to her dolls and so she got an overly generous tip.
They got hair cuts and I picked up some small things for dinner at the adjacent grocery store while I waited for them. I lingered in the magazine aisle awhile since I wouldn’t get that time at home as I’d planned. Why are there so many magazines about guns?, I wondered. I left irritated by the feeling that so many buzzwords—mindful, clean, happiness—were making me reach for magazines that were largely devoid of meaningful content once I’d peeked inside.
As I made my way to the checkout line, I spotted a tiny pink birthday cake, smaller than a teacup saucer. Her half birthday had been the day before. It feels like a whirlwind on her actual birthday with the start of school and Labor Day every year. But early March offers a nice pause and so we usually do something very small to note the mini milestone. Last year it was a balloon. This year it would be a bit of cake. There was some confusion when I asked the bakery clerk to write “7 1/2″ but eventually she got it right. I hid it in the trunk of the car.
We sang “Happy Half Birthday” after the groceries were put away and the birds were given an extra suet cake on the tree. She was delighted. “When did you buy this!?” she gushed. Mission accomplished.
A gin and tonic was poured, and I skimmed the first few pages of The New Yorker. Björk is 50 years old? I saw her in concert a few… wait, well more than a few…years ago. I am a longtime fan, even from her Sugarcubes days. How could this be? Where is the time going? I let the ice in my drink brush up against my lips as I pondered this perpetual mystery.
Without me realizing it, the two of them had escaped upstairs to play for a bit. Twilight arrived and I started to lower the blinds. As I coursed from room to room, lowering each one, I thought to myself how lucky I am that we are all tucked safe inside this house tonight, together. We made it through another day. There are so many who didn’t. And tomorrow, that will happen to a few more. One day that will be each of us, but right now, in this moment, we were fortunate that we got another day.
As I got to the last of the windows, the ones in my office, I glanced out the French doors that face the backyard to the west. It’s my favorite view at the end of the day. I noticed dark, gauzy clouds enveloping the light fading on the horizon. I was reminded that the clock will thrust ahead an hour and a bit of sleep and rhythm will be lost as a result. Moods might swing for a few days. No matter, I thought, this—days like this—is what matters most. We will be lucky to get another one together.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
I didn’t know this at the beginning, but it’s only after you have a child that Father Time likes to play his most sinister tricks on you. He knows the predicament you’re in now. Or maybe he just thinks he’s funny. But he’s sly, like a fox, that guy.
At first, you just sense him lurking along the edges of your heart and frayed nerves. He lies in wait until you’re settled. He only makes his presence known once you’re deep, deep in love. But by then you’re too far gone. There’s no way out.
Father Time is running the show. Tick. Tock. Trick.
You don’t read about his antics in any of the parenting books. There’s no chapter titled, “Dealing With Father Time,” or an outline of what to expect from him going forward. When you’ve read the same books aloud for months on end, there is no entry in the index for “Time, passing too slowly.” When you’re giving away the newborn onesies and halfway through first grade all in the same nanosecond, there is no entry for “Time, passing too quickly.”
No, that word—time—is glaringly absent from the books. There is no advice to be given. Even the experts are stumped into silence.
Your only signposts are the weathered tenets and thinly veiled warnings whispered by more seasoned parents. Sometimes they look directly into your eyes with glimmering reminiscence, a gentle smile on their face. A bubble of hope rises through your sternum that makes you believe that there’s a speed bump ahead that will slow things down eventually. But the optimism is ephemeral. It’s the ones whose eyes are downcast that make me most worried—they have more hindsight. They know the truth.
Enjoy it while you can.
This too shall pass.
Live in the moment.
I remember when mine were that age.
They grow up so fast.
Millennia have passed and this is still all we know. These are our best defenses in the face of time passing with those who completely obliterated everything we knew about love before them. This armor is not adequate. You are pummeled to the ground with the notion that Father Time is in control here, not you. You rise up and wipe the grit from your wet eyes. You empty the heavy stones out of your pockets and brush away the dust. You submit. Again and again, you submit.
He holds the strings, after all. In a complicated game of Cat’s Cradle he weaves them in and out, over and under, plucking and strumming, fingers flowing with magic and transformation right before your eyes. It’s mesmerizing, simultaneously fresh and predictable.
But you never know when he’ll turn on you and tie your heart up into knots, the string a crumpled mess in his hands.
On a wet weekday morning in November, it will be on the way out the door, on the heels of a late night dealing with a stuffy young nose, after you’ve packed your five hundredth container of cut apples. Time will come to a screeching halt, your tires spinning in the rut of a well-worn routine. You cannot possibly do this again tomorrow. Time is passing too slowly.
On a lazy Saturday in August, it will be while you’re lying on the deck warmed by the afternoon sun. You’ll catch a glimpse of a fine flaxen line in a long brown ponytail and remember when her whole babycrown was woven with wisps of blond curls. The shimmer of superfine leg hair will catch your eye and you lament that shaving is only a few more years away. Life is shifting quicker than a bolt of lightning from a sodden cloud. Time is moving too fast.
You cannot seem to catch your breath in this two-step of fast and slow. You want to grab highlighters and take notes and snap photos and just remember it all—contain it somehow—so you can take it all in again and again, now and later. You want to press pause and fast forward at the same time.
The silver fox tricks you once again. Your effort is futile. It cannot be done.
Father Time is unfair.
Tick. Tock. Trick.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
There are so many wonderful words written by parents who have more than one child. Some lovingly lament the last of their babies shoving off for Kindergarten or college. Others offer hope for the relative ease of parenting that settles in when child number two or three or even four comes along. War stories of parental exhaustion are swapped around virtual campfires. Revelations about raising sons and daughters are bricks laid in these family foundations, and the intricate and intense relationships that form between those siblings are the mortar that holds it all together.
Yet, as the parent of one child, I can’t write some of those stories.
Sure, I can glean tiny bits from the perspective of being a sister and growing up with a brother myself, but as a parent I am not quite able to walk the full mile. I’m not sad or remorseful about that—those words are too strong—but I am sometimes curious about what differences I might’ve seen, both in myself and within my family as a whole, had we chosen to have more than one. Would patterns in nature versus nurture emerge more clearly? Would I second-guess myself less with each added child? Would I be faced with the question of “whom do you love more?” and, more to the point, would there be an answer I could truthfully utter aloud? Would she have been the amazing older sister I know she wants to be? Would I have found that my well of patience and resilience is actually much deeper than I think it is? I don’t play often here in this treacherous land of unknowable answers because it’s too easy to get lost in shadows of doubt and mystery, but sometimes I do.
Leaving the baby stage and the utter exhaustion during those early years, those I can relate to, but in a different way. For me, saying goodbye to the open mouthed kisses and baby cellulite happened only once, and the fatigue was shorter lived because I didn’t renew my contract with late night feedings and diaper changes. At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the gravity of these things ending, but I certainly had a strong hunch I wouldn’t be going for another round. By the time she was three, we were pretty settled that she would be it. Even our momentary, three-month change of heart when she was almost five was half-baked and half-assed. We knew from very early on that we should pay attention to the milestones because we’d likely see them only once. There would be no reminiscing that started with “Your sister was … when she did that.” Those first several years, I was equal parts “thank goodness we are almost done with this” and “oh no, we are almost done with this!” It’s an odd, unsettling feeling when that is all tied to one child rather than more.
For us parents on this particular path, whether it be by choice or otherwise, I’m guessing some of it really is different, though certainly stitched with the common thread of sorrow that binds all of us parents together. Honestly, I’m not even sure if parents of multiple children can fully understand what it is like to have just one child because, on some level, it forces them to imagine their life without one or more of their children. That’s an impossible exercise. You get only a small taste of what it’s like between the time when your first is born and the second comes along, or perhaps when the last one is still in the house after the others have gone, but I imagine the flavor will never be as robust or nuanced as raising just one with intention.
I often wonder if parents of onlies and parents of multiple children ask themselves what I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, I wonder how could I possibly love anyone else as much as her…how could that possibly fit in my heart? And yet, I feel like parents of more than one might ask how could you stop at just one? because they actually live that intense love that (I’m guessing) doesn’t diminish despite more juice to pour or teeth to brush.
For me, the biggest discovery has been how I straddle the worlds of “firsts” and “lasts” so much of the time. My oldest is also my youngest. Her first day of Kindergarten was the first and last time I will ever have to do that. I won’t know if it gets easier with each child, or whether it grows harder knowing what’s on the horizon. It’s all easy and hard at the same time because I have no idea what to expect nor do I have to endure it again. I do not get that next child to “get it right” or “pay better attention.” This is it.
If we are going to see the twirl of her favorite flowered dress again, it might be on a friend or a niece, but certainly not another daughter (I have saved a few for a maybe granddaughter…you caught me). We will cycle through only one string of teachers in school, and there’s only one set of pencil marks on the wall recording how tall she is each year. She always gets the last cookie in the box, undivided and without elbowing a sibling on the way. In the same vein, we have to make sure she gets other opportunities to learn how to negotiate, respectfully disagree, and work through disappointment in ways that families with multiple children might take for granted with a home-based band of nations.
I don’t have to tend less to anyone for lack of arms or time or energy. There is enough of me to go around. The flip side, of course, is that once she’s too big for my lap, my legs will be cold again forevermore. That’s an inherent liability when you raise one child, but I choose to see it as a reward. There is an intense ability to savor and dwell in many of the moments because I am able to focus, stand upright, and face in only one direction.
Depending on the day, it can look like a sprint or a marathon, but it is certainly not a relay race. She is the only one on the track, and so I can wait patiently for her to cross the finish line in her own time. But this all reveals that being the parent of one child can be intense in a very singular and sometimes uncomfortable way for both her and me. I am sensitive to her life possibly unfolding under a magnifying glass, on center stage, or in a fishbowl.
There are simultaneously too many rules and not enough. There is no brother to blame for broken vases, and there is no sister who will break curfew first in order to soften our position when she does. If I want her to feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes but without the burden of feeling like she has to please us all on her own, then sometimes I am (and will be) forced to avert my eyes, even though I don’t want to.
As with any first-born child, there are no worn cart paths to follow and guide my way. But the difference with one is that I will only travel down this road once. Any wisdom picked up along the way is nice to know, but not necessary for another time. This is why so much of parenting one child is now or never, and I feel that so deeply sometimes that I’m afraid to blink. I don’t want to miss all the brass rings. I know this wonderful carousel pony is eventually going to slow down and stop. And I know I only have one ticket to ride.
This post was inspired, in part, by some of the words I read here by Dina L. Relles. Do you know her writing? You should.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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