That’s the actual pile of shoes inside my front door right now. And that’s more contained than usual. As far as I can tell, chaos is not contained to any one life stage. The following was originally posted on less-please.com in 2017. As that lovely site is no longer available, and since I desperately need the reminder from time to time, I’ve posted again here.
“How did you do it?”
Now that my kids are a little older, moms of younger kids sometimes ask me this, gently probing for the elusive secret to my arrival at this stage of greater sanity.
I understand why. I’ve felt it, too. The certain knowledge that there is some key to winning at parenthood, one that others have found but that’s always just out of my reach.
Can I tell you a story?
It was late morning in our house outside the slums of La Plata, Argentina.
I was on the couch combing my four-year-old’s tangles. My husband stood in the doorway watching out for street dogs while our puppy sniffed around for the right spot. The two-year-old was playing, the baby was sleeping, and we had 20 full minutes before we had to leave the house. Peace and harmony.
Then it all happened at once.
The dog caught a scent and took off running. My husband followed, leaving the front door open. The two-year-old announced that he had wet his pants and solved his own problem by stripping off his clothes just as the baby woke up and began to cry.
It was the classic dilemma of motherhood: the baby needs me, the toddler is naked, but if I let the preschooler go now, she’ll walk around all day with a matt of thistles on top of her head. God help me, I prioritized the hair.
I was still reassuring myself it was the right choice when the two-year-old, stark naked from the waist down, walked straight out the open front door.
I know, you saw that coming, but can I confess it was a minute before I noticed? Fortunately for my son, though not my pride, a passing neighbor saw the half-dressed, unattended child and came over to shoo him away from the open sewers and back inside the house.
Then, this being Argentina, the neighbor stayed and chatted for a while.
“How did you do it?” the question goes. (What do you have that I’m missing?)
You want to know? I can tell you exactly how I did it.
I did it holding an angry preschooler, while a baby yelled in the back room, a two-year-old ran around with his butt in the wind, and a near-stranger looked on and asked how I was enjoying the recent sunshine.
That really was it. I did it messy, I did it loud, and I did it overwhelmed.
I did it like a lunatic.
I did it like a mom.
That woman sitting on the couch while three small humans exposed her every weakness? She didn’t know any secret.
And that is the best part of the story. The part where the freedom is found. The part where my pride got broken down enough to realize the truth:
There. Is. No. Secret.
There is no magic key that unlocks your best life. There is just getting up every day and living it.
Nothing could be simpler (or more difficult).
My best, happiest, most freeing days as a mother have ended with me slumped on the couch, laughing until I cry. (Or, let’s be honest, crying until I laugh.)
Then I let go of my dream of perfection and I remember the stuff of my real life.
I remember the screw ups. Like the time I thought a sweet hummingbird was in my kitchen when it was actually a giant moth that terrorized my children. Or the time I left the window open at night and a stray cat came inside the house where my baby was sleeping.
I remember the chaos and the clutter and the couch stains and that somehow we still get to the end of every day alive and loving each other so much it hurts.
Because wherever we live and whatever we’re like, as parents we only ever have to do those two things: love them and keep them alive.
Our life looks different now. The kids are taller and can do things like mow the lawn and discuss important novels and tie their own shoes. The house is slightly cleaner and a whole lot quieter. But we’re still doing it the same way. Still riding waves of chaos and craziness, of homework and hot tempers. Still providing entertainment for our neighbors.
We’re still alive, and we’re still in love, and that’s the only secret we know.