Cute Survival Mode

Barbara Matousek

By: Barbara Matousek

Over ten years ago when I lived the single life, my college roommate Kelly and her husband and their two boys came to visit me. When they arrived they unloaded Rubbermaid totes filled with toys and sleeping bags and kid videos and I opened the first bottle of wine. The next day when we decided to make a quick trip to the grocery store, Kelly’s husband and I both stayed in our chairs in the living room and didn’t rush to get up.

“You know she’s going to have to make a list first, don’t you?” I said.

“That’s what she does,” he said.

The week before I had taken a Myers Briggs personality test for grad school, and after we got our results the instructor used me as a class example. She asked a guy sitting next to me his plan for tomorrow and he started listing his schedule. He was a planner. A list maker. A guy comfortable with routine and structure. I was not. I was the opposite of that. When she asked me what my plan was I said “I don’t know. It’s not tomorrow yet. We’ll see what happens.”

When Kelly sat down with pen and paper in my living room and said “Okay, what kind of meat do we want?” her husband and I laughed and I told her she was cute, that after fifteen years of friendship I always knew what to expect from her.

Fast forward ten years and I’m out with new friends at a local farm having wood-fired pizza with my one-and-a-half-year-old son. I have just come from a long day of work, and most of the other parents take turns chasing their children. Mom drinks wine while Dad takes their daughter to feed the chickens. Dad pours a Spotted Cow while Mom stands near the jungle gym. Mom rests in a lawnchair and chats with friends while Dad brings the pre-schooler to the port-a-potty. Dad enjoys his pizza and the live bluegrass music while Mom changes dirty diapers. I mostly chase my son. From the playground to the sandbox to the chicken coop to the tire swing to the slide to the pizza box. And when one of the dads takes Sam to see the baby cows I shove some pizza in my mouth and exhale and say that we’ll be going soon.

“Oh but Sam’s having fun,” one of the moms says. “Stay.”

“It’s getting late, and it’s already past Sam’s bedtime,” I say, feeling as if my exhaustion is not a good enough reason. “If we stay up too late it’s impossible to get him down and I still have a list of things to get done before we leave tomorrow.”

The next day we are headed out of town for a week of beach living.

“Oh, you and your routine and your lists,” she says. “You’re so cute.”

I don’t know why this triggers a defensive reaction in me, why being called cute makes me want to crawl out of my skin. But I’m exhausted and I start to rattle off the list: wash two loads of laundry, feed the cat and change its litter, put the garbage to the curb, water the plants, turn off the air-conditioning, water the garden, move the flower containers out of the sun, call the guy who mows the lawn, and pack everything but the kitchen sink. And packing will take at least an hour. That list is two pages long. Playpen, stroller, diapers, wipes, music player, lullabye CDs, blankets, clothes, bibs, and spoons. And for the beach there are diggers and shovels and floaties and swimsuits and swim diapers and beach towels and sunscreen and the inflatable plastic duck that quacks when you squeeze its nose. I feel my heart beginning to race, and a river of sweat is running down my sternum as I fold up my paper plate and begin putting blankets and toys and sippy cups back into our backpack.

When I’m in the car on the way home I call Kelly. Sam nods in the backseat and I wind the car through deep, lush valleys that are half woodlands and half farmlands. I tell Kelly that I’m sorry for any time I ever teased her or made her feel small for the way she was raising her children. I tell her she is my hero and only now do I truly appreciate lists and routine. When her boys were little I used to try to train them to tell her she was the best mom in the whole wide world, and I tell Kelly that when I grow up I want to be just like her.

“They are just so much easier to deal with when you have a routine,” Kelly reassures me on the phone. “Sam is so little right now and you’re in survival mode. You are a great mother.”

I tear up. I guess this is all we ever want to hear from our friends, that they recognize our strengths, that they see us doing the best we can for our children, that they understand. I struggle just like every other mother. I make mistakes like every other mother. I’m learning and changing as I go. I didn’t used to like to know what was coming next, didn’t want to be “held down” by a plan or a schedule or a commitment. The word “list” used to mean “boring” to me. But now as a single mother of two children under the age of four, I know I couldn’t function without my lists and our routine. There is too much to do and too little time to do it, and lists and routines are how I manage to stay organized and efficient. They are how I manage to get quality time with my children. They are why my children feel secure. They are why I am a good mother, cute or not.

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