The Not-So-Little Instruction Booklet

As published in The Rye Record, January 27, 2013


Boy, do I need a vacation. I’m actually on my way to a four-day weekend with my husband, no kids. My normal life doesn’t really generate enough stress to warrant a getaway like this, but the amount of work and planning necessary to leave my boys with a sitter for four days has wiped me out.

It’s not like I’m leaving them with someone unqualified. I’m leaving them in the care of a tag-team babysitting trio of siblings, maybe Super Siblings, the kind that might have been assembled at the Hall of Justice. They arrive in their glory (no capes): a teacher, a nurse, and a genius! If my kids need help with algebra, or have a weird rash, or want to turn our toaster oven into a robot, they’re covered. I am so overstaffed by these three, who are innately more qualified to deal with my kids than I am, that I really should have nothing to prepare. All I should have to do is photocopy my calendar so they know who needs to be where, when. So why did I spend a week compiling a six-page (single-spaced) instruction booklet before I left town? Because my job is much more complicated than it appears.

Mothering is not brain surgery — there are actually schools that you can go to that will teach you how to perform brain surgery. For mothering, all we’ve got is the school of hard knocks. You can apprentice for the job if you have younger siblings, babysit, or watch TV, but it still isn’t enough. Even if you know everything there is to know about diapering, discipline, and dioramas, you may still be totally unprepared for parenthood. What you have to learn, the hard way, is how to parent your particular brood. It’s a sticky, three-dimensional art project, not a science. After 14 years of on-the-job training, I have a lot figured out. And it has very little to do with what’s on my calendar.

You start small in this job, usually with just one child who eats and sleeps. After a few months, you get brave enough to throw in Gymboree on Thursday mornings at 9:30. It’s a big deal. My husband used to say with a mix of pity and envy in his voice, “So what have you two got going on for this week?” I’d reply, as if I was Secretary of State, “Well, you know we have Gymboree on Thursday. Nine-thirty.” What I didn’t tell him is that I was secretly concerned about getting there at all, what with naps, the unpredictable weather and such.

Then you have another baby and you honestly don’t know how you’ll ever get out of the house, get them both bathed, make dinner. But slowly you learn. You get stronger — savvy even — as you gain confidence that maybe you can do this. You know better than to rely on one pacifier. You move your jewelry to someplace where they won’t be likely to grab it, lick it and toss it in the trash. And, as you learn, your brain starts to loosen up. You let go of your expectations of perfection and make room for lots of other information. Thursday is no longer Gymboree day. Thursday is: recycling (remind Kid 1), basketball for Kid 2, library day for Kid 3, and your last chance to feed Kids 1-3 protein before the Friday pizza bender.

My six-page tome to the Super Sitters includes the calendar, of course, but has so much additional information that I worry they are going to laugh at me. But I offer it anyway, because I can’t send them in cold: When you leave for the tutor, take the baseball stuff with you because if you go back home to get it, everyone will take their shoes off and you’ll never get them back in the car. Speaking of shoes, Kid 3 has a tendency to take his shoes off in the car and tuck them out of sight under the driver’s seat. So, before you make yourself crazy (and late) looking under couches for his shoes, look in the car. Kid 2 will text you right as you are coming to pick him up from school on Friday to ask if he can go to Jack’s house. So don’t rush to pick up, it’s a waste of time. No matter how lucid Kid 1 seems when you wake him up in the morning, he’s going to fall back asleep the second you leave his room. Check back ten minutes later.

It takes time to season a mom. A seasoned mom doesn’t react strongly to dirty hands or lost socks anymore. She has her radar up for big stuff and stays in touch with the even more seasoned moms so she can brace for what’s coming. She avoids conversations that involve gossip about children, because she’s learned that her kids aren’t perfect either. She’s got a lot in her head and knows in her heart what pitfalls may be ahead for each child. She knows because she’s been at this awhile.

As I board the plane, I get an email about a birthday party I’d forgotten and (what?!) noon dismissal on Monday. I text the Super Sitters an amendment to the aforementioned document. I have to shut off my phone before I realize that I actually forgot to tell them about the shoes being hidden under the driver’s seat. Oh well, they’ll figure it out.