Before my kids were born, no one prepared me for the fact that they would accumulated so much stuff. It started with a crib and a baby swing and somehow, when we weren’t looking, the paraphenalia began to replicate on its own, spitting out wipes warmers and belly gyms and multicolored spoons.
The landscape is different now, with a five-year-old and seven-year-old, but it isn’t any neater. A visit to our house these days would reveal heaps of Legos and stockpiles of blocks. We have messy dressers, stacks of shoes. Boxes of doll clothes rival shelves crammed with books. Costume finery vies for space with plastic playtime food.
I swear sometimes the stuffed animals propagate, in spite of their innocent plastic stares. If I ever catch them spooning under baby blankets, I’ll have all the proof I need.
My husband and I have done our best to simplify. We’ve donated bags and baskets, carted carloads to consignment. Still, I trip over half-built cities and stumble on rolling balls. My children are magnets for random, plastic-coated, sticky-handed objects.
They should have come with warnings, these lovely kids of mine. They should have come with labels, big and shiny on their bellies, multi-colored lists of the ways we needed caution.
On her fifth birthday, Boo Monkey got two Zhu-Zhu pets, tagged with admonitions to the effect that any stray hair in their wheels could lead to dire, stuttering malfunctions.
I wonder what my children’s labels might have read.
“Hazard of Accumulation” would have made me wary of sharp Lego corners in the soft tenderness of soles. I could have prepared for tangled doll hair, half-completed coloring books, and markers without their tops.
“Watch for Falling Food” would have tipped me off to the imperative of a sturdy vacuum cleaner, one that can suck up scattered parmesan and sticky soba noodles. I might have stocked up on rags to catch the flow of dripping juice, the splattered sauce, and squashed, rejected peas.
“Danger of Implosion” might have steeled me for the temper tantrums, the soggy days of wailing. I might have braced myself for stretch marks on my already-wayward patience.
Someone might have told me that a skinned knee is a catastrophe if a child is overtired, that blankies wipe away the stubborn tears, that 2 am would be my most familiar hour. I wish I had been ready for that first alarming fever, the first projectile vomit. Someone might have warned me that parents can survive on an appalling lack of sleep.
Who knew that car seat installation could lead to heavy migraines? Or that I would ever utter the sentence, “Don’t lick or bite or suck on your sister”? Why didn’t anybody tell me that I would sing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” at least a thousand times? Or that “Bedtime” was a magic, luminous, happy word?
My kids should have come with warnings.
No one told me that I would carry them until my back was trembling, that I would spend more time with the pediatrician than my closest friends, that I would step between my kids and everything I fear.
No one warned me about the nightmares — their terror dreams of monsters, mine of losing them. How could I know they would render me breathless or that I would check their breathing, the rise and fall, every single night?
No one said there would be crazy, twirling dances, a lovely counterpoint of childish singing, and grace in every smile.
No one schooled me in the suddenness of loving them, in the ferocity of caring.
Once, in graduate school, I drove with a friend from Maryland to New York after we had both presented academic papers at a conference. Giddy with lack of sleep and lingering adrenaline, I discovered a hidden humor in standard roadside signs. “Watch for Falling Rocks” seemed ironic in those narrow cut-throughs, a belated sort of hazing. If the rocks were already falling, was there anything left to do?
If our children came with warnings, I doubt that we would heed them. Like the crash of falling rocks, such warnings come too late. It isn’t possible, beforehand, to parse out the sheer magnitude of passion, the earthquake-love of parenting. Little belly stickers wouldn’t do the trick.
I take my days now as they come, with all their surprising, messy splendor. My soles are toughened from the Legos. My arms are stronger from the hefting. And my heart, who knew it could break and mend so often, always larger in the healing?
I’ve still got my eye on those stuffed animals, though. When Blueberry and Quackers have fuzzy bear-duck offspring, I won’t give them my parental warnings. Sometimes, there just aren’t any words.
If you are a parent, what has surprised you most in that journey? And, if you aren’t a parent, what has surprised you most about your current life adventure?