The other day, I sat at my favorite bookstore to write. Occasionally, the words don’t come when I stare at my computer screen; I’m too distracted by Facebook and blogs that need catching up on. So, I turn back to my trusty black Moleskine. (Those notebooks have been keeping me company since my junior year of high school.) On this particular night, I opened up the notebook and flipped to the next available page. It was blank except for one thing: toddler scribbles.
For awhile, Ian was very interested in notebooks, pens, and “writing.” I felt such joy every time he grabbed a pen and dragged it across whatever piece of paper he found lying around the house. I set many bad examples for Ian (like not eating enough vegetables and carrying my phone around the house with me all day), but at least I did this right: I taught my son, through my actions more than my words, that writing is a good way to spend his time. For a long while, he was content to “pretend,” just dragging a capped pen across the page indiscriminately, but eventually that wasn’t sufficient and he wanted to see the lines appear on the paper as he went.
And on one occasion–the particulars of which I don’t recall–I found a blank page for him and let him do exactly what he wanted.
This is so unlike me, to let someone (anyone!) scribble in my notebook. What a waste of a perfectly good piece of paper! (And in a Moleskine, no less–those pages aren’t cheap.) I normally don’t even rip out a sheet for an impromptu shopping list, and I certainly don’t use a pens that bleed because that wastes the opposite side of the page. In the same way, I never liked to give scrapbooking paper to my sisters, or share my fancy pens with Evan. It’s because I’m a control freak, sure, but I am realizing that it also involves a lot of selfishness and greed.
Being a parent makes my life much, much messier. The mess invades every corner of our house. Rice and applesauce cover the floor under the highchair, the tray on which is permanently stained reddish-orange from too many bowls of spaghetti eaten with chubby toddler fingers. No matter the time of day, you’ll find at least one Cheerio left behind on the living room floor. Alphabet magnets peek out from under our fridge. All day long, I toss toys back into their baskets and wash yet another bottle and search for that misplaced burp cloth again. I have given up entirely on washing fingerprints off our windows. I almost never leave the house without spit up, drool, or smooshed snacks on my clothing.
The messiness isn’t contained to mealtimes and playtimes, though. The lines of my entire life have been blurred. I can be so exhaustedly angry because Ian said, “No!” for the ten millionth time, while simultaneously wanting to laugh at the clumsy way he runs away from me with chubby arms waving in the air, and I am immensely proud at the complete sentence he just threw together as though he’s been doing it his entire life. I have to drag myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to feed Leo but am suddenly awake and alive because of the way he smiles while he falls back asleep, milk-drunk and content.
This is what parenting does: blurs the lines between clean and dirty, happy and sad, angry and proud. It leaves me mired in uncertainty about my decision-making, the rules we’ve set, and the way I speak. I am coming to terms with the fact that these children have minds of their own, and no outcomes are guaranteed. Just when I uncover an effective discipline strategy or toss the very last block into its basket, the rules change again and a different bin is overturned.
Most days, I feel I’m not doing a very good job handling all this mess. Instead of embracing it, I fight, desperately clinging to my illusion of control, my desire to turn these kids into exactly the adults I hope they’ll be, my expectation that life progress according to my plan.
There is that one page in my notebook: scribbled on, crinkled, used up. And I willingly, joyfully gave it over to just that purpose: mess making.
In those scribbles I see the proof that parenthood is growing and stretching me. As I learn to be ok with “wasted” notebook pages and the sticky grape jelly coating every surface of my home, I am learning to embrace my shifting identity, my stretched-out tummy, my small and ordinary days. I am learning to be ok with the mess.