When Steve and I first got together Ben and Brandon were 6 and 2, respectively. They were sweet, cute little boys, full of love and innocence and that wonderful acceptance that most young children have for new adults. In the beginning, I’d meet them on Fridays for dinner at Arby’s or McDonald’s and we’d spend the evening together. Eventually, Steve and I decided to buy a house, where the boys would stay with us every other weekend.
We found a small house in a nice suburb with a fenced yard; on the weekends the boys were with us they would have a nice bedroom and a place to play outside. The boys were cautiously optimistic, Steve was worried about how they would fare on their first night in our home, and I was completely clueless.
Now let me explain. I was never one of those girls who loved babies, who played with dolls, who wanted to be a mommy. I hadn’t planned on having children, and didn’t see myself as a “kid person.” Growing up I babysat maybe three times and really didn’t enjoy it – I just didn’t get kids, even when I was one myself. I had changed one wet diaper when my nephew was an infant – a diaper my sister had to put on again because I had gotten it backward. I had reached the age of 34 knowing absolutely nothing practical about how to care for children. I was about to get my first real lesson.
The other thing I want to point out (somewhat in my own defense) is that most people get their children as babies. They’re small and helpless, and can’t move around or talk back. By the time they’re 2 and 6, most parents have gotten a handle on what to do and not do, what to give them or not give them, and how to otherwise not make a complete nitwit of themselves. In my case, however, we were gearing up for some serious nitwittery.
The first weekend the boys stayed with us, Steve had an emergency at work that required him to go back into the office after the boys went to bed Friday night. He explained this to Ben, who was (understandably) upset his father wouldn’t be there on his first night in a new house. After Steve put them to bed and left, Ben began to wail for his father.
I didn’t know what to do. Ignore him? Go up and comfort him? Go up and cry with him? Stay downstairs and cry by myself? About that time, Brandon began crying as well and I started to panic. I went with what I know best. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and said firmly, “Ben, your father isn’t here. He had to go to work. Now go to sleep.” Miraculously, the crying stopped. O.k., maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.
I sat downstairs for a while watching television, and then went upstairs to go to bed. I checked on the quiet, evenly breathing forms, and went to bed satisfied that all was well. That lasted about two hours.
Shortly after 2 a.m. I heard a tremendous thump. I started awake, heart pounding, threw on my robe and raced across the hall to find Ben sitting on the floor looking confused. Brandon was still asleep. “Are you o.k.?” I whispered. He just looked at me with a complete lack of comprehension, got into bed and fell almost immediately back to sleep. I went back to my bed amped up and wondering what in the hell had just happened.
I lay down on top of the bed in my robe; listening intently, ready to spring into action if needed. Every sound, every twitch made me sit up in alarm. Were they o.k.? Did one of them fall on their head? Were they still breathing? Holy shit; do I remember how to do CPR? I dozed fitfully between visions of having to explain why there was a flat spot on Ben’s head, and how Brandon managed to crawl over his bed rail to play with matches.
Finally, at about 6:00 a.m. Steve returned, exhausted. He climbed into bed, and I was able to crawl back under the covers and get some real sleep. That lasted about an hour until the boys were up. I could hear what sounded like reasonable, normal kid noises, and crept across the hall to get them so their father could sleep.
I got them downstairs without incident, and was toasting up some frozen waffles while they waited at the kitchen table. Honestly, Eggos, couldn’t be easier. I set down their plates and Ben picked up his fork and started to dig in. I looked at Brandon, who was looking at me. What was he waiting for? Oh, right, he’s probably too little to pour his own syrup. Does he even like syrup?
“Hey Ben, does Brandon like syrup on his waffles?”
“Yes,” he said, confidently pouring syrup on his own waffle. O.k. no problem, I’ve got this. It’s not like you let a two-year old pour his own syrup, right? I took the Mrs. Butterworth’s and carefully poured some on Brandon’s waffle, picked up his fork, cut it into pieces, put the fork on his plate for him, and sat back smiling.
Until I realized he couldn’t really eat with a full-size fork. HE WAS TWO. He began to pick up the waffle pieces and lick off the syrup. He looked up at me in surprise and delight, and those sticky fingers began going on his face, in his hair, on the table – pretty much everywhere, dragging long, syrupy strings behind them. I turned to Ben and asked what should have been my first question. “Has he ever had syrup before?”
Ben looked at me, “I don’t think so,” he answered. “When is Dad getting up?”
“You don’t think so? But you said he liked syrup!” I could hear the pleading tone in my voice, wondering what in the hell Steve would say when he saw the stiff peaks beginning to form on Brandon’s head.
“Well, I figured he probably would,” Ben replied, “but I don’t think he’s had it before.”
O.k., I thought, don’t panic, this is not a problem. I just need to be a bit more specific in what I’m asking. Not if he likes syrup, but if he’s ever had syrup. O.k., I can learn from that one.
I turned my attention back to Ben who was starting to get restless. “Uh, I don’t know when your dad is getting up, honey. He was out very late working and didn’t get home until about two hours ago. We need to let him sleep a little bit, o.k.?” He didn’t look convinced. “Why don’t you go in the playroom and play?”
I had set aside a large bedroom downstairs for the boys, designated as the playroom. I figured this would keep the toys and clutter out of the family room, and give me some “adult” space in the house. I had planned on putting in a T.V. at some point, but hadn’t gotten to it yet. Come to think of it, there were quite a few things I was planning on putting in there, but hadn’t gotten to yet. So I had pretty much sent a six-year old to an empty room with a few toys to entertain himself for, what, like five or six hours?
In about ten minutes Ben came back into the kitchen where I was trying to clean up both the table and a two-year old with a damp sponge. I made a mental note to buy some wet wipes.
“Will you play with me?” I just looked at him. Play? Play what? “Uh, o.k., maybe in a minute, I need to get Brandon cleaned up, o.k.?”
“When is Dad getting up?”
“Um, I don’t know honey, we need to let him sleep a little bit, o.k.?”
He stood watching me try to clean up Brandon with a kitchen sponge, probably thinking I didn’t know what I was doing. He was right.
To be honest, I don’t remember how the rest of the weekend went, but I know it was long. Really, really long – for all of us. At about 10:00 that morning, I decided Steve had had enough sleep (I mean, come on, four hours) and I went and told him he had to get up. Now. We didn’t have all that many hours before he had to go back to work. That night, he put the boys to bed and returned to the office.
When he had to leave for work on Sunday afternoon, I was the only one who wasn’t crying. I think I was just on autopilot at that point and knew someone had to hold it together. That’s kind of my groove, so I step into it pretty naturally. Ben and Brandon were in tears, and Steve, exhausted, began to cry. Being the pragmatist I am, I shoved him out the front door and said, “See you later.” Again, I couldn’t tell you what happened next, or how I kept the kids occupied but apparently I managed.
Of course we all survived that first weekend, and I’ve learned a thing or two since. Now 25 and 21, the boys are capable of taking care of themselves. There are no more baths to give, diapers to change, behinds to wipe, tears to soothe… well, you get the idea. I learned how to feed them, clothe them and put them to bed. I even cleaned vomit out of shoelaces and changed a dirty diaper whose contents seemed to have made their way up to the nape of Brandon’s neck. We all ended up being comfortable with my parenting skills, and hey, they made it to adulthood so I’m declaring success.
It is with gratitude that I think of their father and mother, both of whom generously supported me over the years as I learned the lessons of parenting, and who did all the real work and heavy lifting. And it is with awe and appreciation that I tip my hat to parents everywhere. You need strength, stamina and courage to make it through. And wet wipes. A shit-ton of wet wipes.