The morning has gone well. My little girl and I are cool. We move through our day like well-choreographed dance partners. Like a feather bouncing on the breeze, our movement appears effortless, light, without burden or rigidity. We are all flow. She is in her room playing. I am making lunch, pausing periodically amidst egg-salad preparations to check in on her because toddlers are like the ocean: you look away one minute and the next, a tsunami-size wave is coming at you. But not this day.
She has turned her pink CD player on, and I can hear “Bamboo the Bear,” her new favorite song. My eyes are greeted with a delightfully eccentric view. She has pulled her pink princess backpack on over her striped shirt and yanked yellow rain boots onto the wrong feet. Her unicorn hair clip is still in, but her unicorn pants are off. She is dancing around in her Doc McStuffins pull-ups, wielding a purple magnifying glass as she sings about a “giant panda from Central China.” We have days like this, and when they come along, it’s easy to feel grateful for the gift of being home with my girl. The season we are in is vital, fortifying, life-giving. It is when the emotional foundation of who my daughter will be gets established. To be given such a mission is a weighty privilege.
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And yet, I have often heard my current parenting stage – the 0 to 3 years – described by veteran parents as the “trenches.” Maybe that’s why you can so often feel disheveled and dirtied up, bruised and battered by the early work of shaping a human. I don’t always get the feather-dancing-on-the-wind days. Sometimes, I get the tsunami. In truth, so often during this period of my life, I go out into the world mentally and emotionally frazzled, with paint or glue-stick residue on my fingers and my arms, food on my clothes, consecutive showerless days, my hair knotted up in the proverbial scrunchie-encircled bun on top of my head, no makeup. These are the ugly, beautiful days, days where my thoughts are perpetually scattered like candy exploding out of a piñata, and I am utterly beat down by the effort it takes to get out the door (dressing a toddler can be like attempting to thread a needle while someone continually smacks you in the face).
But, my child is flourishing, changing, growing, an inevitable rite of passage that somehow manages to fill me with awe and wonder every day I witness it. It makes me happy. And yet, I’ve realized, it’s good to keep a lookout for an oasis during those days when your existence feels like a desert. I have learned that these places of sanity are usually very ordinary and simple.
1. The Neighborhood Park
One such place for me is a small park a few blocks from where we live. Almost entirely enclosed, equipped with a large sandbox and a slew of abandoned but still workable toys, we made this our go-to locale throughout the Summer. Sometimes she’d sit in the sandbox for 30 uninterrupted minutes, mixing up culinary masterpieces of sandy delight. There is a large hill for running up and down. Pine trees dot the top of it, providing great hiding spots for my wee one who does not know yet how to play hide-and-seek without being adorably conspicuous. The train runs nearby; always popular with the under-3 crowd. There are swings, stairs, and a slide all tailored to her size. A noticeable shift in her physical capabilities and capacity for independent play seemed to culminate at the same time during one of our visits to this park, marking it forever in my memory as the little urban paradise where, for the first time in a long while, I was able to enjoy a coffee, a thought, a long sigh, all to blissful completion.
2. Wherever Other Moms Are
“Look mama! I have a swinging buddy!” my daughter observes on any given day, as another mom deposits her toddler-size companion into the swing next to us. The other mom smiles. Our kids are side by side, grinning, chattering away as the swings grind out their loud metal creaking. “How old is she/he?” one of us asks, invoking what is often a standard mommy conversation starter. The days when this typical playground preamble transitions into full-fledged sharing about our mutual adventures in toddler world, perspective is suddenly no longer elusive, I laugh a little easier. It’s like the first breath you take in a stuffy room after opening the window. Fresh air comes rushing through, and the space you’re in feels less confining.
These encounters remind me that other moms are my fellow comrades, and they are indeed a refuge for me. Some are veterans of the toddler trenches, others still knee-deep in the muck as I am, but all are well-versed in the language of survival, which is, simply put, encouragement. The mom with older kids or more than one can tell me with a knowing authority, “honey this stage will pass.” The mom who is like me, wrangling a 2- or 3-year-old day in and day out, can say “Yes! Me too!” With those few words of validation, I am plucked out of soul-crushing isolation.
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As one recent conversation with a neighborhood mom taught me, it is just as important to create opportunities for yourself to talk about things besides your kids. As we shadowed our girls running throughout the playground, we talked about writing, the craft of it, our mutual interest in memoir and short-story writing. It was invigorating, and I came away from my time with her energized and inspired. Similarly, another mom friend of mine and I recently decided to try and meet up once a month for coffee, brunch, or even just a long walk without the kids. Sounds like a recipe for sanity to me!
3. The Local Coffee Shop
Frequenting neighborhood coffee shops and cafes has also been instrumental in drawing me out of the mommy doldrums. My daughter and I built up a ritual around visiting such places. I get a coffee, she gets a muffin. We got to know the people who worked in the cafes. We learned things about them, like how the owner of one shop keeps a stash of Yorkshire Gold tea – the same kind my husband drinks – to remind him of his fondness for England. Or the barista who is a fellow singer and performer of musical theater. These places have been like my stay-at-home-mom version of Cheers, “a spot where everybody knows my name,” or at least recognizes my face. The brief conversations, while not always deep, still engender a feeling of community. Sometimes that’s all it takes to set me right again.
4. Outside on a Rainy Day
The weather can often provide a place of refuge if you are willing to let it impress its natural pause on you. Travel becomes harder. Schedules get interrupted. Days like this are often declared pajama days. We hole up and build with blocks, or color, or crank out art projects with construction paper and glue. But if we do venture outside, our activity is slowed down. The world beyond our door is wet with snow or rain, limiting what can be done. But the limitation is where I find my peace. Rainy days are my favorite example of this right now. My little love’s wearing and using her rain boots. And thanks to an affinity with Peppa Pig, muddy puddles are a must on a cold, wet day. We walk around the block slowly, chatting to one another, watching for puddles to splash in. It is a leisurely stroll without the pressure to entertain. I can breathe in the smell of the rain, the brisk cold of the air. I can listen to her tell me stories in her broken toddler English about the world as she sees it. I look on as she throws her 34-inch frame into a jump. She watches her boots lift off the ground and crash into pooled water. Bits of leaves, ejected from their previous homes by Autumn’s arrival, fly every which way with the collected raindrops. We are content and unhurried.
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5. The Library
Sometimes, refuge can be found and sanity maintained in spaces designed with you and your kiddo in mind, like the children’s area at your neighborhood library. The activities they provide, usually free and open to the public, bring in the community at large, fostering a cheerful, warm environment. We are all here, together, in the service of our children who simply want to play, explore, and be read to.
I love going to the library. Beyond the gratitude I feel toward the communal, civic willingness to invest in my child, I am filled with nostalgia for my own childhood. I recall fondly a time when the Brown County Library, in my home town, Green Bay, WI, was indeed a place of refuge because it possessed one of the things I loved best as a child and still do: books. Books of every kind. Books with pictures, books with chapters. Books that I could check out over and over and over again. When I see how excited my little girl is by the same collective literary presence – one we have unlimited access to – I feel confident I am passing on a valuable pastime that will keep her company for years to come.
I hope I am also passing on the importance of self-care. I hope my demonstration of this over time is consistent enough so she will see how everyday things, everyday encounters, can sometimes take you out of the quotidian of life. In those moments, it may not seem like much is happening. But like a seed in a pot of earth, waiting in stillness, the good stuff eventually gets awakened and really starts to bloom.