For this month’s meeting, my writing group, Writers on the Avenue, held the challenge to write a story including a set of predetermined words.* Since it’s Valentine’s Day season and I’ve been thinking about the great loves of my life, I decided to share my short meditation here.
All Joy and No Fun
The difference between parenting in her generation and mine, my aunt tells me, is that I get to enjoy my children. We’re sitting on my porch swing while my kids run back and forth. I nod; she’s right. I do enjoy my children, in the five minutes a day they are not screaming at each other, screaming at me, or I am not engaged in some hopeless and endless activity like trying to feed, clothe, groom, teach, guide, discipline, clean up after them, or otherwise attempt to keep their living environment moderately clean. All Joy and No Fun, so goes the title of the parenting book which would in all likelihood explain to me why my two healthy, active, vibrant, interested, curious, developmentally-slightly-ahead-of-the-curve children** leave me feeling so stressed out and inadequate. It would explain things, that is, if only I had time to read it.
For instance: the nightly ritual of the bath. Baths are fun. All they require of me—or ought to require of me—is benevolent monitoring that no one is drowning, until my help is needed to wash. I used to do yoga postures while my kids bathed or read the news headlines. They would make tidal waves, plaster the wall with foam letters, shoot cannonballs at one another from the plastic pirate ship, phosphorescent yellow balls that roll everywhere and which Mommy would be recruited to return. It was relaxing for everyone.
But lately the tenor of bath time has changed. It’s no longer as entertaining. Now I always have a deadline, so I bring in the book I am reading. I rarely achieve more than a page or two because I am constantly breaking up a fight, mopping the floor, or issuing orders.
“Okay, you need to switch places so your sister can be near the elephant faucet. Okay, you need to stop pushing your brother’s head underwater. One more time and that’s it. Do that again and I’ll . . .” The vague threat of not-yet-conceptualized punishment. I sound redundant even to myself.
“Stop licking each other.” That’s a new sport they’ve taken up. The two-year-old began it and the four-year-old enthusiastically pursues his lead. They lick each other’s arms, backs, cheeks, and, once, tongues—not amorous, but aware there was something forbidden in it, something incestuous. “Go back to licking each other on the cheeks”—one of those things you never, not even remotely conceive of yourself saying before kids, unlikely to envision the kind of circumstance that necessitates licking interventions. It ought to be funny. All of this ought to be. But kids are barbarians. It is an exhausting task to try to keep them out of the way of traffic or even get them to wear clothes, much less civilize them, teach them table manners, make sure the pants and the shirt match.
The joy is almost there; I can feel it. I know it’s possible. Joy is in the water beading on their eyelashes and the fine hairs on their back. Joy is looking at their exquisite dimpled bodies, their thin wrists and lanky legs and plump butt cheeks and pointy chins. Joy is in how their hair smells of apple and their skin of lavender and how when hugging me they press their little faces into the aged-peach skin of my belly and then try to lift my shirt to plant a raspberry. Joy is in the flattening, almost unreal knowledge that they are both individually perfect, unique, irreplicable and irreplaceable creatures who have been given to me to love through this life and into forever.
Perhaps I cannot surrender to this joy because the love is so huge, so passionate and fierce, something coded into my bones and blood and skin, into my DNA. There is nothing blissful in this love. There is nothing restful or soft. It makes my heart huge and heavy, swelling at my chest and pushing into my throat. It is absolutely the most mindless and authentic and humbling and magnificent and crushing thing that has ever happened to me, this gift, this charge—these two biological accidents, these two brilliant and sacred truths. What I was before them is something vanished, nearly forgotten, something that no longer even matters. This love is huge and it has swallowed me. I don’t think I will ever come out on the other side. I don’t think I want to. Perhaps this—sharp, mined with failures, loss and danger ever at the edges, and at the core the soft warm weight of their delicate bodies pressed against mine, their beauty so profound it hurts the eyes—this is the landscape of joy.
* The words in the challenge were: fun, heart, redundant, amorous, phosphorescent, passionate, surrender, blissful, entertaining, authentic. We regularly brainstorm words that we have to incorporate into a story, poem, or essay. Try it yourself. It’s fun.
** I say this, but I’m just bragging. My children are solidly in the middle of the developmental curve. And that’s fine.