My 2-year-old's been walking around with her hand down the back of her pants for three days, moaning.
"I no wanna poop!"
The kid is the definition of anal-retentive. She's been holding it in on and off for the past six weeks. This results in terrible constipation for her and parenting uncertainty for me: Aren't I supposed to catch these things before they get out of control? Why didn't I see the signs? This is my third kid, after all.
Until now, parenting Lilah has been something of a no-brainer: sleeping through the night? No problem, thanks to my year-long odyssey teaching Ruby how to sleep. Weaning her off the binkie? Nothing to it, thanks to my dogged determination to convince Ella to quit her thumb sucking. Not pooping? Not really sure.
I go with what I do know and give her ripe pear and prune juice and high-fiber everything. Nothing works. I turn to my pediatrician, who says, "Nothing major, just constipated." and recommends a daily dose of child-friendly laxative, which makes changing diapers a particularly smelly and watery adventure. We can't seem to find a balance and within a few days, she's holding in her poop again.
I scour my brain for an explanation: Is our high-energy family overwhelming for her? Is there too much brouhaha around potty training? Am I not feeding her a healthy diet? Does she have a food allergy?
I'm concerned about my kid's health, no doubt, but the real question behind that concern keeps catching my attention like a jagged fingernail on a favorite sweater: If I'd just been more attentive, could I have done something to prevent this?
The truth is, I'm a distracted mother.
Having three children swallows me whole. I love them fiercely, but I'm not always paying attention to them. With my first two, I submerged myself into mothering for a solid seven years. I was totally focused on their every need, every whimper, every delighted squeal. Then they grew up, went to school and I turned 40. Their needs became less physical and more emotional. They became more independent and so did I. The need to stay home full time faded a bit and I started to explore my place in the wider world. Eighteen months later, quite unexpectedly, I was pregnant again.
Now, I'm 44 with a 2-year-old, an almost 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. Having three kids, one of whom is a toddler, makes every day exponentially more challenging for me, especially the staying present part. The very real physical needs of my little one combined with the practical daily and intense emotional needs of my older two can leave me drained and distant.
Often, I feel like a ping pong ball zinging from one side of the table to the other. At one end, I'm overwhelmed by the concrete business of mothering -- rousing everyone for school, making the lunches, driving the carpools, refereeing the rivalries, changing the diapers, making dinner, checking homework, tucking them in. At the other end, my brain is constantly in monkey-mode, jumping from all the to-dos I didn't do to the appointments I have yet to make to the groceries I need buy to the texts dinging at me to reply to the next essay I want to write to the proposal I promised that client to what are the words to that Muse song? to I have to call my mom/sister/BFF and tell her about the Thanksgiving plans/amazing sale/girls' weekend. It goes on and on and on.
I'm not saying there aren't moments of profound connection between me and my girls. It's just that they don't seem to last more than those few moments. Snuggling Lilah on my lap, I feel her heartbeat against mine through her purple monkey pajamas. Ruby turns her rosy face up to me for a kiss, then wraps her arms around my waist, her cheek resting on my stomach. Ella strokes my hand and says, "I love you mama."
These moments catch me by surprise. I am so immersed in the day-to-day of running my family and corralling my thoughts, which are scattered like a billion stars across a universe of I Musts, What-Ifs and I-Didn'ts that I begin to drift out of orbit. It takes the stillness of my kids to pull me back to earth, even if it's just for a brief moment before one of us is distracted again.
Living this way, it's no wonder that I miss the signs, whether it's a heads up sneeze preceding an oncoming cold or a furtive whine signaling a major meltdown. Why does it surprise me that I missed the toddler's developing tummy troubles? I won't beat myself up about it anymore, but I do need and want to be more attentive to the life in front of me, at least as much as my buzzing brain will allow. But where do I begin?
In the end, it's the dog that saves the day.
After more pears and prune juice, I figure a little physical activity can't hurt the pooping process, so Lilah and I take Sadie for a walk around the block. About a quarter of the way around, the dog begins her circular sniffing that always precedes a poop. As the dog squats, tail lifted, Lilah watches, clutching my leg, then looks up at me, eyes watering and says, "I making poop too mommy."
That's when I get it: even as I schlep and shop and bathe and write and yearn for myself beyond motherhood, I'm here. I'm in the kitchen cooking as my third grader does her homework at the counter. I'm in the driver's seat while my sixth grader belts out Lady Gaga with her friends in the back. I'm standing on the sidewalk holding the dog's leash with the toddler using my leg for leverage as she finally poops.
We all have to start somewhere. I'm starting here.