When my twin girls were born, my son’s face was round, his belly full, arms and legs skinny as spokes. Now, I catch glimpses of how he might look at 16: athletic, a little moody, his bright blue eyes darting to the rear view mirror as he backs down the driveway to school. This past year, I raised infant twins to the cusp of toddlerhood. One is walking; the other is nearly there. I raised a little boy out of toddlerhood, too — a preschooler who wears his shoes on opposite feet and uses “funk” as a curse word.
I haven’t cut my hair in 15 months. I am constantly tugging, twisting, tying it out of the way. I was going to cut it when the girls turned one, but there was no time.
When the girls turned one, I was going to do so many things. I was going to be sleeping more. I was going to start exercising again. I was going to stop eating so much sugar. When the girls turned one, I was going to get a massage. I was going to start writing again.
But now — 12 months after becoming a mother of three — I’ve finally realized that “when the girls turn one” was a lie. It was a lie I told myself to get through the physical pains of wearing two babies at a time, the psychological agony of driving everywhere with both of them screaming, the emotional strain of juggling everyone else’s needs, the obstacles and annoyances and mind-numbing tasks of parenting two babies and a toddler at once. We couldn’t go grocery shopping without people stopping us to fawn over the twins, and my son’s hand would tug mine, reminding me, “I don’t like to talk to strangers.” I didn’t, either.
On a “good” day, my son spent hours waiting — for the babies to sleep, to nurse, to stop crying. Sometimes, we all wailed together, and when we stopped, he would ask, “Mommy, are you okay?” In those moments, I tried to believe what others had told me — that not hiding my struggles could teach him about grit.
On a particularly bad day, I stood sobbing and holding my two babies close in the front yard, desperate for a neighbor to help us after my son dragged a tree branch into the house and whacked at me with unrelenting frustration. More and more, he lashed out at the babies, and I could no longer relax in a room with all three of my kids at once. In my son’s tantrums, I saw myself, screaming on the inside, “This isn’t fair! This is too much!”
When the girls turned one, things would settle. I would get a bit of my life back. We would eat better. I’d get a handle on my own emotions so I could help my son manage his. My husband and I would talk at least much in person as we did over text messages, each dealing with a baby in separate places. Some of this did start to happen on its own, but as their birthday approached, I began to suspect that it might come and go. No switch would magically flip on its own, to grant me unbroken sleep, saint-level patience, or quite simply, the sense that my family was flourishing.
If I wanted things to change, I would have to change them myself.
Of course, the lie wasn’t without a purpose. In fact, it was a useful lie because it gave me a deadline — both a time-limit and a period of leeway. At 10 months, I felt no guilt over eating frozen waffles drowned in syrup every morning. The waffles were a way to start the day with some semblance of control. At 11 months, I gave myself a pass and let myself watch TV to unwind instead of writing. Soon, I’d be responsible again. But for a year, I survived, and I didn’t require much else of myself. I needed the lie to give myself grace, to let myself and my mothering be a mess, and to have hope for an eventual return to order.
When I was still pregnant, a friend gave me a ceramic planter with five little succulents in it. Ever the skeptical realist, I placed it on my kitchen window sill, fully expecting it to die before the babies could sit on their own. Still, I hoped. I wanted to be the kind of person who had plants on my windowsill. One of the succulents died within weeks, before the girls were holding their own heads up. I tried not to worry about what it meant. I turned the shriveled up plant to the window so I didn’t have to see it.
I did my best this past year. Still, my best was often not enough. Loved ones assured me my kids would grow and adjust and even thrive. My son would not remember the first time I ever grabbed him so hard I had to lock myself in a bathroom afterwards and hyperventilate. My daughters would not suffer long-term damage from crying as I triaged their needs, because I couldn’t always pick them both up at once. My “best,” when I am rested, when I am writing, when I have recently left my house alone and listened to my own music and daydreamed the peach sunlight of the last days of summer … well, my best on those days is the gold standard.
But some days this year, a championship win was simply letting my son eat a peanut butter and jelly and Nutella sandwich. Some days, I celebrated accomplishments like not throwing his shoes around like a maniac while shouting, “I don’t care which shoes you wear or which feet you wear them on, just put them on!” And I was an absolute superhero in my own mind the two times (out of the whole year) I got both babies to nap at the same time and did an honest-to-God craft with my son.
Before my twins arrived, I expected some dark days — the ones when their constant needs, plus my toddler’s, felt like a relentless tide washing over and over me. Those days left me all turned around and stranded. It was all I could do just to breathe. So yes, sometimes just getting through looked like four frozen waffles, toasted in pairs, made into two stacks, and flooded with syrup. That was my “me time.” I did not change a diaper until my plate was clean. I did not feed anyone else. A limit, a small allowance. When I set my dishes into the cluttered sink, I filled a little cup, and I watered the planter on the sill.
They say you have to place your own oxygen max on first before you can help others. Fill your own cup. Yet, every time I got the chance to be alone, I thought of my son — how I should be filling his cup instead. All day, I chose which baby to soothe first. Unless he was bleeding or standing in fire ants, my son nearly always came third.
When the girls turned one, they would not need so intensely. When the girls turned one, I’d give him more of me.
Succulents are tough little things. They ooze when cut, they shrivel up like dead skin when they die, but they survive with very little. They stretch toward light, “growing legs” to get what they need, even if you have placed them in a window with weak morning sun. When my planter took a bad turn and my favorite plant (the green and purple rosette) faded to white and started dropping its long leaves, I couldn’t take the failure. Instead, I put the ceramic container outside to fend for itself. A few months later, the rosette had wound its way out of the planter, long stem snaking six inches down to the ground to escape shade. The others had doubled in size. I was planning the birthday party by then. I brought the planter back inside.
My son struggled this year, and I didn’t give him all that he needed, despite my best efforts. There were too many times that I let him fend for himself. I should have held him more; I should have been steadier for him. But he is coming into his own anyway — a little boy, who hugs more than he hits his sisters and laughs when he asks, “Where are my funkin’ shoes?”
A few weeks ago, I gathered trimmings from my succulents. I laid them out on top of soil that I scavenged from a different planter in my backyard — dead lavender from two springs ago. I added water. The year I gave myself to merely survive is over.
My kids have started clutching each other’s faces and giving loud, wet kisses. Back and forth, they press their noses together. They squeal and fall down. I take 39 pictures of within a five-minute span. I catch my husband’s eye and know I look crazed with sudden joy, and relief, and hope.
And in the kitchen, all 10 of my cuttings are sprouting tiny green leaves.