BY CHERYL DUMESNIL
This morning I woke to the kind of burning tension in my neck that signals a migraine on the horizon. Crap. I have three defenses against migraines: Go back to sleep, down four ibuprofen tablets or drink a glass of wine. It’s 7:30 a.m, and in an hour my friend will be dropping off his two kids for a day-long play date with my two kids, so going back to sleep is not an option. I don’t really want to add “remember when Mom drank wine for breakfast?” to my sons’ list of childhood reminiscences, so the chardonnay’s out, too. In the end I get out of bed and swallow the magic orange pills, hoping that their chemicals will reach my brain before the migraine kicks in.
When I emerge from the sleepy cave of my bedroom into the kitchen, my family’s morning activities are in full swing: coffee pot gurgling, children arguing about who gets to watch what video, emergency requests for toast and Cheerios stat.
Over the course of the next half-hour, I snap at my 8-year-old son, B-man, for “talking back” (one of the things I swore I’d never say); I warn my 6-year-old son, K-Bird, that “today is a do-it-the-first-time-I-ask day”; and it is suggested to me, via a knowing glance from my wife, Tracie, that this is not just a migraine-on-the-horizon day but a PMS day. Double crap.
What I need: a quiet day of few demands. What I will have: Lord. Of. The. Flies.
I mean, yes, the four kids I will be hanging out with today are quirky, creative, adventurous, fun boys who truly adore each other. Alternatively, they could be described as a loud, mayhem-inducing gang who leave a tornado-worthy path of chaos in their wake. Taken individually, these children are charming, thoughtful, reasonable people, but their blended chemistry sometimes fritzes their wiring, and as a group they require constant (ideally patient) reminders to follow the most basic house rules, as well as regular (ideally peaceful) mediation to assure that their innumerable power struggles don’t escalate into World War III.
On my best day I enjoy the challenge. This is not my best day.
“Why don’t you take a few deep breaths?” Tracie asks in the tone of a cop coaxing a jumper off a ledge. “I’ll handle things out here. You go take a shower before I leave for work.”
She’s right. I disappear into our bathroom for a long, hot shower and an internal coaching session.
These coaching sessions usually consist of me running through a list of tried-and-true catchphrases that restore peace to my frazzled-mom brain. On regular days phrases like “a little chaos is a good thing” and “at least it’s happy noise” have the desired calming effect, but on this PMS-migraine, one-two-punch day I call out the big guns: “It might have been otherwise.”
Years ago I lifted this line from Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise.” In it she describes a series of everyday moments, like “I got out of bed / on two strong legs” and “I ate / cereal, sweet / milk, ripe, flawless / peach,” and she follows each of these descriptions with, “It might have been otherwise.” A poem of deep appreciation, “Otherwise” reminds readers to count even their smallest blessings.
On days like today, when being the parent my kids need requires instantaneous personal growth, that one line reminds me that there was a time when I questioned whether I’d ever get to be a parent at all.
You see, for Tracie and me, parenthood was hard-won, not only because of the hoops your average lesbian has to jump through in order to conceive but because I suffered three early miscarriages before our B-man was born. In fact, I was so shell-shocked by those losses, so uncertain that I would ever get to experience a full-term pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding connection (three experiences I coveted with bone-deep longing), that when B-man finally arrived, I spent the first several weeks of his life staring into his eyes, saying, “I can’t believe you’re here.”
No matter that, for the first 10 months, he woke me once an hour to nurse: “It might have been otherwise.” No matter that it took two years for him to learn how to sleep through the night: “It might have been otherwise.” No matter that a month later K-bird was born, starting the sleep deprivation cycle all over again: “It might have been otherwise.”
No matter the situation, those five simple words can move me from aggravation to accommodation in one swift push. So today, when the crazy boys’ wild energy erupts, as it often does, into a spontaneous dance party, I will join them, headache be damned. And when their backyard antics crescendo, for the umpteenth time, into battle cries of “no fair” and “you cheated” and “did not” and “did too,” as I reach for the (ever more elusive) patience I will need to play referee, I will pause and take a long look at those healthy, thriving kiddos out there, their beet-red faces full of passion, indignance and fury, and I will remind myself, “It might have been otherwise.”
Poet, writer, activist, and educator, Cheryl Dumesnil is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood.” She spends her free time jumping on a trampoline and telling potty jokes, because the sound of her kids’ laughter makes her really, really happy.