“You’ve got this.” It is what I told myself when all the dust settled after the two pink lines on the pregnancy test stick showed up. My husband, who already had a grown-up daughter from a previous relationship, desperately wanted a boy. Two, he said, if I was happy to oblige. Like many Filipinos, I was quite accustomed to the chaos of extended families; I grew up looking after my little sister, nephews, and nieces. Raising one child would be a cruise.
It was not. I had just moved abroad with no family to fall back on for what I thought would be a simple, epidural-free birth. It turned out to be a 36-hour labor that put both my little boy and me at risk. And just like that, my dreams of a magical homecoming in our little heritage cottage turned into a one month stay in the special care baby unit for my son, Liam.
Our youngest, Tristan, decided to make an equally spectacular entrance, coming even earlier than his brother did and looked very much like a scrunched up Griffon puppy (it looks like this), breaking my water at 2 am. I did not see Liam for three days, and when he finally did, my eldest probably wondered what the little squalling thing in my arms was. And then wonder of wonders, we took them home and just to prove that he can wreak as much havoc as his big brother, Tristan did not sleep through until he was 2 years old.
I thought I was always going to be that woman who balanced life and work effortlessly, driving kids off to school after a cooked breakfast, and then going off to work in my business suits. But Liam was unwell after birth, and there was no way we could leave him in daycare. And when we decided it was time for a second one, there was no going back.
That magical pitter-patter of children's feet that you often hear about when you become parents? We didn’t have them. We had what sounded more like a stampede every day, combined with an epic chorus of high pitched squeals and snitching: “he hit me first,” “he's silly!”, “he pushed me.” Life started turning on some other orbit, and I found myself relentlessly stalked every single minute of every day. If I had time to go five minutes in the shower without one child slowly but steadily opening the door to ask for something, I considered it a holiday.
Out of this alternate orbit, the universe taunted me with broken toes, trips to the ER, and bleeding noses. I marveled at how much pee pooled on the bathroom floor every day. Out of desperation, I put a ping pong ball in the toilet. It was apparently a universal solution to the global problem of the wandering wee.
Three days later, the ping pong ball was missing, and, to this day, I don’t know which little hand fished it out of the toilet. Both boys have “helped” clean this poor toilet bowl with a bathroom brush -- before flushing. This love affair with the bathroom throne was not a short and sweet phase -- it is proving to be a long drawn out one. Remote controls, cordless phones, and car keys have ended up here.
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That magical pitter-patter of feet that you often hear about when you have kids? With boys, it's more like a stampede.
And speaking of car keys, I can’t recall how many times the car’s battery emptied because one boy decided to play with the lights. The car’s CD player committed suicide just three days after coming home with us. But it’s not always deliberate.
When my current car was new, I got lost picking up my youngest from Kindergarten, and we wound up having to go on a long winding road that stretched the 20-minute trip to 45 minutes. Neither my first-hand experience with motion sickness nor my stoicism prepared me when my eldest hurled his lunch out in the car. There I was, parked precariously by the side of the road, with a wailing 3-year-old and a rather traumatized 6-year-old, scooping out partially digested spaghetti from my leather seats. As if the day had not gone bad enough, I came home to two golden retriever puppies who needed to go to the potty. I've often found myself chasing after two puppies or two boys. On really good days, I would be chasing after all four of them while the fire alarm goes off inside the house because the dinner was burning on the stovetop.
My husband, heretofore referred to as MAN TO BLAME FOR TWO BOYS, likes to travel. I do not mean trips to the mall. I mean trips to Milford Sound, or Langkawi, or Phuket or some other destination that seasoned parents probably would have told us not to try, had we been inclined to listen. In the early days of our foray into parenthood, we would find ourselves teetering into anxiety attacks about whether we could get sterile water on the plane since liquids are not allowed on board.
Flights felt like trapeze acts. I learned to bring extra clothes for my husband and me after our experience during a flight to Hong Kong from Manila. My husband and I found ourselves jammed in the plane’s bathroom, struggling to change our 1-year-old boy. The baby came out of this escapade clean, dry, and mostly unscathed. His parents? Not so much. The front of my pants was soaking wet by the time we got out, and my poor husband had to sit out the rest of the trip with poo on his shirt.
Nearly eight years in, I can honestly say that my biggest misconception about parenthood was it would run smoothly, that I could be everything I thought a mother should be, or that I was equipped more than most to manage this juggling act. I still find myself at 10:30 p.m. cooking gourmet dishes to pack into lunch boxes that at least one child will bring home barely eaten. There are days when I still find myself yelling at the absurdity and chaos of my life (especially when I find most of the bubbles in the jet bath are on the walls and the ceilings of the children’s bathroom).
Perhaps the greatest lesson that I am now starting to learn, however, is how to step back. I need to keep myself from cushioning my children's falls so they learn the consequences of the risks they take. But, more importantly, I need to stop aiming to be the kind of mother that perfectly meets the needs of her children all the time. Because if I meet every need and break every fall, I deprive them of lessons they need to learn to be self-sufficient individuals and lose myself in the process.
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If I had time to go five minutes in the shower without one child slowly but steadily opening the door to ask for something, I considered it a holiday.
These days, my campaign is different. I have started teaching my 7-year-old how to cook. And the youngest is learning to shower and dry off. I hold my breath when they jump into the new pool because it’s 2 meters deep. But I remind myself they will never learn to swim if I hold them. They are learning to set the table, although water spills and broken dishes happen with shocking regularity. They are firmly asked to tidy up their play area each night, or it will be locked until they are ready to put things away.
They still whine but a little less each day. It’s all slow going, but we are getting there. When little hands steal chocolate chips for the cookies we are baking, or one or the other sets the speed on the mixer to high and flour flies all over the kitchen bench, I remind myself that they cannot learn without experiencing.
This afternoon, my two boys, now 7 and 4, brought me presents -- flowers and oranges -- from our little orchard. And last night, when I winced from having a sore back, tiny hands attempted to give me a massage. These days, I am more inclined to say, “We’ve got this,” a reminder to myself that it’s a journey I’m not making on my own.
On days when I need reminding that it is okay to be an imperfect mom, I remember the day when I did not perfectly cook that roast chicken because I was busy playing hide and seek with my sons.
Belinda Andal, who lives in New Zealand with her husband and two boys, has multiple degrees in psychology and is as clueless as any parent.