Nearly two-week, round-the-clock nannying experience leads to considerable reflection for this grateful mom
“Do they let children pick the flowers?” she asked as we journeyed to my parents’ home a few Sundays ago. I affectionately dubbed it “the castle in the woods” on our way there, trying to make it seem more exciting somehow — as if it needed a fairytale introduction.
It is a magnificent home on a hilltop with a one-of-a-kind playground my dad built himself and swings with at least 20 feet of rope creating a long, slow, breathtaking sway. Not to mention my mom’s well-stocked closet with toys that have stood the test of time, “just in case” little ones ever happen to visit.
I was eight days into an 11-day, 24/7 appointment providing care for two little girls while their parents traveled out of the country. I have been nannying two days a week for this family for over two years, so the girls are well familiar with me and we have a relationship rivaled only by blood.
My own three children are now between the ages of 17 and 30 so the days of round-the-clock care of little ones is a vague, yet at the same time, vibrant memory. After experiencing the mental challenges of parenting teens and young adults, keeping preschool-age children healthy and happy seemed somehow like it was going to be easy. And on a lot of levels, it was.
A lollipop fixes many an upset and a simple game of tag can cure even the most angsty moments. I have to say though, that my little ladies rarely experienced an unhappy moment in my nearly two-week “vacation” from my normal life. Maybe because I attacked this assignment just like I did the early days of parenting my own children. By default, or on purpose, or simply by genetics (it is hard to truly flesh out reasoning sometimes) I tend to be a little, as my kids would call me, “extra.”
I had every minute scheduled with new and fun activities. I wanted the girls to have a ball, partly because I didn’t want them to spend any time missing their parents — but also because that’s just who I am. I wanted them to be happy. The same way I wanted my own children to be happy, comfortable, and not have to work too hard. I tend to be a people pleaser and a nurturer by nature and still enjoy making breakfast — nearly every day — for my own “children.” There is much to be said regarding my natural (and societally prevalent) parenting bent, but that discussion is largely for another day.
This particular child caring experience left my mind swirling with memories and reflection so I’ve decided to write down a few revelations — some simple, others, dare I say, profound. Firstly, there are a few things I had forgotten to remember about caring for young children. One being the utter absence of sleep. While I am sleep deprived today, by choice I guess, that really isn’t nothing compared to the sleep challenges of parents with young children.
I began falling into my old familiar habit of staying up way too late in order to experience a quiet house and maybe compose a coherent thought or two. I’m sure this is something most parents can say they are guilty of — but then when the little pitter pat comes creeping your way very reliably at 6 a.m., you are constantly burning that dang candle at both ends. And I personally like to get myself together and ready for the day before the pitter pat — so I just stopped doing the math. I refused to even look at my Fitbit sleep tracker after the first two nights. Every waking minute I focused on the primary care of these young people — something I genuinely love, but also something there is a definite season for in most people’s lives — and for good reason. A season with a smack in the face beginning — and what I now realize was an indiscernible end. The season is survival. It is the worst — and it is the best. You pour what feels like your literal lifeblood into beating hearts that just suck it up — suck you up. But the rewards of parenting, as I’m sure most would wholly agree, are worth every squeezed out drop of blood, sweat and, forgive me for being cliche, but yes, even the tears.
I have never had so many coffee accidents in a row as I did in those 11 days. Twice I filled up the Keurig water reservoir and apparently didn’t fully set it back into its proper place — so twice I was surprised first thing in the morning with a lake extending from the counter to the floor. More times than I can count I started brewing a cup of coffee with an already used pod, and once I didn’t even notice the watered down beverage until I was nearly finished — and I’m someone who drinks only strong, thick, puts-hair-on-your-chest coffee. Then there were the times when I altogether forgot to put a cup under the spigot. Sleep deprivation is real. My hat is off to all parents of young children. I’ve been there of course — but this child-caring stint gave me the chance to be humbly reminded.
My next takeaway was movement — steps — calorie burn. Recently, I have been tracking my steps. I’m told 10,000 steps a day is the suggested goal. I consider myself successful when I reach it — which is maybe half the time during my normal week. But during this experiment, this 46-year-old logged well over 20,000 steps every single day. Every. Single. Day. I forgot that you just don’t sit. Ever. (Except in the aforementioned late hours of the night and wee hours of the morning when you really should be sleeping but are so giddy to be watching Friends’ reruns and somehow tricking yourself into believing that sleep is overrated and that maybe the next days’ tasks will actually be less taxing than the day before).
And thirdly, eating — or not eating to be more precise. I forgot that you spend so much time preparing food for the little mouths, and then convincing the little birdie beaks to eat the exquisitely prepared yummy food, and then cleaning up the sticky, crumbly, messy affair that you end up having no idea if you’ve eaten or not. And then when you do manage to put something in your mouth—tasting it is quite literally an afterthought. Needless to say, it was the most effective “diet” I’ve tried in quite a while.
Being called “mom” is the highest honor of my life. I can genuinely say I have enjoyed every age and stage my children have walked through even more than the one that came before. Our kids have provided my husband and I with the best moments of our lives. Watching their talent on the field and on the stage exceeded our wildest dreams and witnessing their hearts at work takes my breath away. And now, I am fortunate enough to get to walk intimately with another family, treasuring the sweet milestones in very much the same way. It is bittersweet to hear fumbled words begin to be pronounced correctly. In fact, when I heard the girls’ dad trying to model for “my” 2-year-old that it is oKay and not oTay — I actually felt a twinge of anger. How dare he try to grow her up? But the truth is, no matter how many times we say we wish we could go back to cuddle those little lumps of buttery softness … we don’t actually mean it, do we?
The next stage always brings something new and special, and one year closer to flying the proverbial coop. I remember on particularly exhausting days counting down in my mind how many years were “left,” but now as I am at the end of that countdown I realize the years “left” are the rest of my life — and the best of my life. There is nothing on this earth that will stretch you, and grow you like being a parent. Just when I thought I was actually getting the hang of parenting a child at a certain age, they would always go and grow to the next one. And then there was that cruel trick that all children at the same age do not react the same way to your very well-honed, thought-through parenting skills. I’ve spent many sleepless nights desperately searching my mind for new skills, wiser ones — and who am I kidding — miracles.
I’m not sharing anything new when I say that parenting starts out mainly physically exhausting, and then as the years pass, mental exhaustion begins to creep in, and then eventually takes over. The emotional lows older children go through is not something I thought much about as a young parent. Elizabeth Stone conveys it well when she said “Making the decision to have a child — it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” And if you are already a heart-on-your-sleeve type of person, like my genetic hand dealt me, that can spell trouble. Trying to be there for a struggling child without heading into the darkness yourself is a skill I am still perfecting, and quite honestly will probably forever be perfecting. I think I’m glad that I had no idea how difficult the role of “mom” would be. So very many people do it, so how hard could it be I used to think. Hard is the answer. But, again, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir in saying it is by far the best, hard thing one could ever do.
So back to the question about being allowed to pick the flowers. This 4-year-old’s inquiry really stuck with me and was the impetus to semi organize these thoughts in my head. Apparently she had been to a friend’s house recently and the answer was no. But my parents are not lacking for color spots so “of course” was their enthusiastic response. Even though I had planned lots of fun activities, such as a first visit to Chuck E. Cheese’s, organized weekend events, playgrounds and play dates, and her mom had left loads of new toys “just in case” — the simple desire to pick some flowers brought a radiant smile to her face. She ran up to a literal bed of flowering weeds and was picking with joy. If there is one thing I miss the most about having little ones underfoot it is their ability to find magic in the simple. I hope I never forget to keep that gleam in my eye.
Thankfully, the parents of my “best friends” came home as scheduled and I went home in the evening of the last day. My 20-year-old daughter is home from college for a spell and coincidentally it seems, she had two of her best friends visiting that evening. Grateful doesn’t adequately describe how I feel about the long-term friendships my daughter enjoys with the best girls on the planet. Years and years of activities together, sleepovers, ups and downs and true loyal friendship flooded me with each warm hug. I am forever indebted to those who have spoken life into my children — and these girls are it. Coming directly from a dear family just starting out — to the shared history of love, laughter and tears with these young women overwhelmed me with the gravity – and the circle — of motherhood. From the years of giving and giving until you resemble a dry, shriveled shell of someone you used to be — to the moments like this one where the fruit is hanging low and visible, and plentiful for the picking. Each of these young women are admirably embarking on their own futures with their own goals and dreams. They are smart, strong, independent women. Each one from a family that has done their very best.
It has been challenging for me to let go of giving unsolicited parental advice and stand back and witness each of my children take hold of their own lives, even though I know that is the goal. Wisdom is earned, and sometimes when your heart is outside of your body, that is hard to watch. My husband and I hope and pray daily that where there have been holes and missteps in our parenting journey, that the Lord our God continues to step in to fill those cracks.
If you are still reading — thank you for staying with me. It is my wish to encourage a weary parent today to keep going, keep fighting, keep loving and know yours is a season of great reward.
Heidi Wetzler is the administrator for ClarkCountyToday.com. The mother of three is also a part-time nanny.