Familiar examples abound – the sophomore slump, senioritis, the seven-year itch – unless you’re a competitive napper, performance decreases with fatigue.
Lacking the energy and creativity necessary to prepare breakfast with a toddler underfoot, I ushered Viv into the bathroom in which Ian showered one morning last month. I figured she’d play with her bath toys or the shoes in the bathroom closet. Only a few seconds after I left, however, legitimate instinctive screaming stopped me in my tracks. I sprinted in to find her right cheek and shoulder doused in the hot coffee her daddy had uncharacteristically left on the edge of the counter. Employing his far superior first aid skills, Ian swooped Vivi into the newly frigid shower. (I don’t hesitate, but my panic turns me toward information garnered from nineteenth century literature rather than the many parent preparedness classes we took. Cut on the wrist? “Tourniquet at the bicep, stat!” Groggy and unresponsive? “Time for bloodletting; leeches, people!”) Viv hated the morning lavation but emerged totally normal, aside from her first set of goosebumps.
A few hours later, I watched Viv mount a stool more than half her height. Recalling a friend’s recent admonition that saying “be careful” demeans a child by implying that she cannot perceive risk independently, I kept my mouth shut. Viv toppled. She tried again and again to stand up, each time howling, curling her left foot under, and looking up at me with a mixture of bewilderment and indignation as if to exclaim “what the hell happened to me, Mom?” After renting a car in order to spend the remainder of the day in the pediatrician’s office (only to learn that her leg is too small and her foot too wiggly to obtain a conclusive x-ray), I returned home with a hungry, even-more-impatient-than-usual toddler. Ordinarily I make sure her oatmeal cools completely before I hand her the bowl. Worn down by the constant exhortations she hurled at me from her high chair perch, I scooped up a spoonful, blew on it, and passed it to her, placing the bowl at the edge of her tray. I told myself she’d swing her eating utensil around her head before lowering its contents toward her face for closer inspection, as per usual, and the rest of the oatmeal would release plenty of excess heat by the time she managed to swallow a bite, pull the bowl to the center of her tray, and load another spoonful. Instead, she immediately threw the spoon on the floor and thrust her hand into the mass of oatmeal. Leaving her little paw submerged, she started truly wailing with pain for the third time that day. After I pulled her hand out, I coated it in butter – just jesting, I ran it under cold water – and inspected the damage. She seemed to be calming quickly, but, to my horror, her palm stared back at me a violent shade of pink. Only several minutes, at least ten “Mommy is so sorry”s, and an unlimited amount of mental self-flagellation later did I remember that her hands had been covered in magenta “washable” marker for the preceding 48 hours.
The following Thursday, I breathed a deep sigh as I dropped Viv off at daycare. I truly enjoy spending time with her on the five days of the week we still share, but I desperately needed alone time. Putting my sanity aside, practical considerations abounded. With my mother-in-law scheduled to arrive that evening, I needed to clean our apartment and complete many more errands than would fit into the eight toddler-free hours that lay ahead. Sixty minutes later, the daycare called, asking me – after a charged but not quite heated exchange it became clear that “asking me” actually meant “ordering me” – to pick up my daughter because of a goopy eye. Even after I explained that her eyes always develop a yellow crust when she gets a cold, they booted my little pinkeye risk. I collected her, returned home, settled Vivi at her coloring table, and turned to the mess in the kitchen. Usually I don’t take my eyes off her for more than a few minutes. Since I could hear her singing to herself (“AB, CB, DB, EEEEEEE!”) and our apartment is totally baby-proofed, I focused on the dishes at hand. I looked up to find that she’d covered our wall in orange crayon. As we scrubbed it clean (I make her assist me with just about all household chores; she has her own sponge, broom, and duster, and she knows how to drag a proportionally weighted bag down the hall to the trash chute), I added “buy washable crayons” to my mental to-do list. In a rush to return to the sink full of suds, I decided not to battle a hyper Viv – who sang (“How I wada . . . up a bud da”) while keeping the beat by repeatedly flinging her upper body against our couch – over lying down for her diaper change. Just a wet one after all. I pulled off the old diaper while she stood in front of the couch banging her fists against the cushions in rhythm. As I unfolded the new one, a dark blue pattern appeared on our light blue sofa. At 20 months my daughter accomplished a feat I’ve always envied. She peed standing up without getting a single drop on her pants. The couch cushion, couch, and white shag carpet weren’t as lucky.
A few days like these, nearly two years of interrupted sleep, and toddlers’ screaming insistence have a way of modifying parents’ standards. My wonderful friend Christine – whom I met after a college girlfriend read my “Play dating” post, took pity on me, and emailed a friend referral – provides some of my favorite examples. Eight months pregnant at the time, working almost full-time as a gastroenterologist, and still insisting on cooking gourmet meals for her family, fatigue finally found traction. When Chris entered her living room and caught sight of her daughter Sylvie from behind with a cap-less permanent marker clutched in her little fist, she took a deep breath. Sylvie turned to reveal a swirl of black drawings surrounding her mouth. Losing it, Christine cried, “What did you do?!?!” Sylvie matter-of-factly replied, “Whiskers.” When Christine’s husband Cedric returned home that evening to find his daughter covered in what appeared to be war paint while his wife reclined on the sofa with a glass of water, his eyes narrowed into a stare that managed to be both questioning and accusatory. Christine looked up at him and calmly explained: “Whiskers.” Around the same time, Chris’s protruding belly caused a momentary loss of coordination. She dropped a lasagna she’d spent the last few hours preparing and exclaimed, “SHIT.” Immediately remembering her maternal status, she peeked her head into the adjacent room. Sylvie stood in front of her miniature kitchen, babbling away and appearing completely undisturbed. A full two weeks later, Sylvie tried to ferry several dolls across the living room at once. When one slipped and hit the floor, Sylvie said, “SHIT,” picked up the doll, and continued about her business. When Cedric shot Christine the same look, she shrugged and said “at least she used it in context.”
Some more of my own entries for the not-so-coveted Mother of the Year Award, Facetious (think Academy Award, Best Actress) include barrette-gate and the Cheerio incident. Frustrated by continually losing one hair clip in each pair, I decided to stow Viv’s tiny barrettes – little cloth bows glued to colored metal fasteners – in her silver shoes as I packed in an exhausted daze for our trip home from Thanksgiving. Viv played the role of cherub on the flight back from San Francisco, fell asleep in her crib promptly upon arrival, and awoke in love bug mode, handing out hugs and little pats on the back like it was her J-O-B and she’d heard reports of pink slips to come. I changed her diaper, unpacked her suitcase, and put on a light blue outfit, her silver shoes, and matching hair clips. For the next three hours she whined and fussed. She wouldn’t eat, refused to play ball, wanted nothing to do with her little push walker, and just generally drove us crazy. We decided she must need more sleep and started the bed time routine a full hour early. As I removed her clothes in preparation for bath time, I noticed a hot pink hair clip in the middle of the floor. Odd. When I took off her second shoe, the other pink clip toppled onto the bathroom tile. With dread I removed her socks, then hung my head when I saw the bright red, barrette-shaped marks on the soles of Viv’s feet.
The Cheerio incident came at the end of a particularly rough day. When I was pregnant with Viv, I told people I felt like I’d just stepped off a bus after pulling an all-nighter; though tired and vaguely nauseous, I never felt terrible. This time around at least once a day it feels like New Year’s Day: I’m bone-weary, dehydrated, headache-plagued, and continuously on the brink of losing my lunch. I often don’t know if I can make it across a room standing up, let alone chase a toddler. Though I can’t complain in the grand scheme of things (I’m obviously incredibly grateful to be expecting again, and I don’t number among those poor women who literally can’t keep food down), I’m not exactly firing on all cylinders. Recently, I asked Viv what she would like for her snack. Usually she surveys the choices in her cupboard and points to the blessed item. This time her hand flashed out of nowhere and seized the entire bag of Cheerios. Too physically spent to argue, I let Viv drag the three-quarters full bag of cereal around the apartment. After she’d calmly inserted her hand and removed only a mouthful at a time for about ten minutes, I thought maybe the other foot would never fall. Then it grew quiet. When our house is totally silent, Viv is either sleeping or knowingly engaging in a forbidden activity. I rounded the kitchen island to find her seated on the aforementioned pee-stained shag carpet, Cheerios spread around her in an arching mound. I didn’t run for the dust buster. I didn’t even chastise her. In fact, I let my daughter pick Cheerios out of the carpet for the next day and a half while I mustered up the energy to care.
Around the two-year mark, many parents end up with whiny, moody, easily frustrated little imps who pee on couches, draw on walls, say embarrassing things, and constantly get injured. I know behavioral development plays a large role, but lately I find myself wondering whether the parental job fatigue and physical exhaustion that force us to watch them less closely and manage their emotions less effectively aren’t also to blame. Knee-deep in the terrible too-much-for-too-long-on-too-little-rest phenomenon, competitive napping starts to sound pretty good.