09/11/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Subtle Shifts

Julia Goss via Getty Images

Some days, it seems my life is comprised of the mindless, incessant shifting of things. Last night, home alone with the kids, I lost count of the number of times I trudged up and down the stairs to do nothing other than shift things from one place to another:

•Up the stairs, carrying kids and their cups of water to baths and beds;

•Down the stairs with yesterday's cups of water;

•Back up to grab a swimsuit to pack for my daughter's swim lesson the next day;

•Down, dragging a basket with a load of the kids' dirty laundry;

•Up again, toting a second basket of yesterday's clean towels, ready to be folded;

•Back down with toilet paper for the bathroom and toys to be put away in advance of the cleaning lady's visit the next day;

•Up once more with hairbands and clips strewn about the kitchen counter by the kids (again, cleaning for the cleaning lady);

•Back down with a stack of paperwork I had been meaning to bring into the office for days;

•Up again, with my phone for charging and a glass of water for myself;

•Back down to put away the now folded dish towels;

•And up again with the library book I forgot to unpack before bedtime.

There was nothing special about either the volume of items to be shifted or the items themselves. A similar routine (and often the only way I get any exercise on any given day) is undertaken on a daily basis, and even more so on the weekend, when everyone is home and there are more pants haphazardly discarded in favor of costumes, more tissue boxes emptied because someone needed a snowy backdrop for their dance, and a week's worth of mail finally opened, coupons and bills and birth announcements passed around, thrown on the counter, or stolen by small hands for the afternoon art project.

For the most part, I ignore the shifting as I'm doing it. I don't even realize it's happening until I look up and notice it's already 9 p.m. and I can't figure out where or when I lost the potential for evening downtime. It's the physical equivalent of white noise. Like a trained athlete whose body knows precisely when to leap, or throw or twist -- mindless movement, propelled only by muscle memory.

But last night, on the 1,387th trip upstairs, my body had had it. What started as a dull, warm ache, harbored in my lower back on one trip, flamed into a full-blown, five-alarm fire, clawing up my spine by the end of the hour. And as the flames climbed, licking at my brain, they sparked a resentment that boiled in my blood until I reached a fever pitch.

Why was I bothering? Who the hell would care if the yellow, flower hairclip planted itself permanently in the front credenza? Would anyone other than me notice if the fridge magnets were enjoying a second life as bite-sized snacks for the babydoll? What did any of the incessant shifting earn me other than 2 advil and a missed episode of Project Runway? Day in, day out, a million tiny shifts, and yet nothing ever changed, nothing ever evolved. The parental personification of Sisyphus and his boulder. No end in sight and no point.

I poured an extra large glass (read: carafe) of wine and struck back at the universe by staying up an extra hour too late to watch Tim Gunn make it work. I built a fortress around myself on the couch, pillows and blankets towered high enough to block out anything but my glass and the TV, and vowed to watch until I couldn't keep my eyes open. (Never mind the fact that I was the only one who would suffer for it the following day. There's no room for that kind of logic when you're giving the universe the what-for it so badly deserves!)

The next morning, it was business as usual. A thousand, daily mini-shifts, eating up every moment between waking and work. Waffles in the oven, lunch boxes into backpacks, swim bag to the front door, paperwork for school into folders.

But then, something incredibly bizarre happened.

My 5-year-old daughter dressed herself. And not only that -- she brushed her teeth. Not because I asked her, or laid out her clothes, or bribed her with a mug of breakfast hot chocolate. She just -- got dressed and brushed her teeth. It was nothing short of madness.

I shrugged it off to a good night's sleep and soldiered on. But then, when my younger daughter was throwing a tantrum at breakfast, spilling her cereal on the floor, my 5-year-old said, "Now don't be silly, that's not how we act at breakfast," ...and bent down and started cleaning up the floor herself because, "Mom, we definitely don't want to step on this when we get up." Um. OK. "Um, wow. Thanks." A good night's sleep -- and a possible doppelganger exchange?

And then, out of nowhere, she started to fold the blankets and rearrange the pillows on the living room couch. (Yes, the ones tossed into a heap during my reckless, Heidi Klum-themed escape-fest the night before). "Mom, we should get these in order -- remember, the cleaning lady is coming today."

I just stared at her, my jaw lying on the floor. What was happening? Was this a dream? Where was my daughter and who on earth was this heaven-sent angel standing before me?

But it was her. And in that moment, five years flashed before my eyes. Five years of feeding issues, tantrums and bickering over suntan lotion and skirts in January and knotty curls. In that moment, the years were suddenly gone and I was staring at my newly-minted kindergartener -- the one who was, very suddenly, and without much warning, growing up.

I croaked out a quick, small "thank you," and turned to grab the backpacks so that she wouldn't see the tears threatening to well up. (Only partially to shield myself from the questions, but also to avoid putting her off from cleaning again, god forbid!)

And while I loaded my arms with the baby, and the backpacks, and my purse, and the work files, I felt nothing but gratitude for that moment and the responsibility of shifting each of us, and our things, into our day. The small shifts are a-OK, numerous though they may be. Because they do add up to something. And when they have piled up, and a seismic shift occurs as a result of all of those small efforts, the effect is powerful, the reverberations ground-shaking. And as fulfilling and inevitable as those big shifts are, I'm in no rush to get to them -- because I already know that when they come, I will long for the days of the small.