It’s a math equation, and it’s like that from day one, and on good days it’s closer to running a day care than parenting. As a parent of multiples, I’m all about efficiency. How do I get as many tasks done for as many children as possible in the least amount of time?
Grab a spoon out of the kitchen silverware drawer. You’ll see the toothpaste in there. I can’t finish feeding two kids and help the third to brush her teeth if she’s in another room. It all has to happen in the kitchen. Look at an assembly line. You won’t see the production happening in different rooms. It all moves along down the line in one big room.
Really affectionate, beautiful baby-loving people were wonderful to have around in the early days. They would look at my babies with such warm eyes, and they would hold them with unmatched tenderness. Were these same people effective babysitters? Not usually. I would often have to say to them, “It’s okay if a baby is crying, if the baby is safe.” At 18 months, it was tough. Stopping to take the time to cuddle one baby could mean not seeing that a different baby has managed to open a door during that pause and walk out of the house. My triplet mother mentor once told me about a time she and her husband were at a wedding. Somebody offered to watch her toddlers on the dance floor while she and her husband danced. The friend focused on one of the toddlers doing her dance and cheered the child on with affection while the other toddler looked on and laughed. The third toddler? Well, he had walked out of the reception and down the block. He was soon safely located on somebody’s porch a few houses away.
This math equation that I call parenting began as a countdown of days, then an inventory count of bottles and boosters and bouncy seats, on to a constant counting of heads, and now a simple backwards glance to make sure all the backpacks are gone off the hook in the morning as we leave for school.
That guerilla parenting style that kept babies safe when they were learning to think, learning to walk, and had physical skills but no ability to be reasoned with—that parenting style moves our days forward today. It allows us to get places on time, complete homework, and participate in activities.
Parenting is a moving target, though. Just when you get good at the phase you’re in, it changes. I was in the classroom the other day watching how the teacher handles a roomful of children. This notion that it’s hard to keep track of three children at once is laughable to a teacher. I watched this teacher as she answered questions about upcoming schoolwork and events, artfully deflecting questions or comments that were off topic (“I had a tooth fall out last night”). After class, I asked her about it. “There’s a time for those conversations,” she told me. “I go outside ten minutes early, as the children are playing and I make myself available for conversation. I ask about weekends, missing teeth, missing pets, upcoming vacations, birthdays and injuries.”
I realized that my parenting target has moved, yet again. The children–kids now I suppose–understand about poisonous bathroom cleaners and electrical outlets. One doesn’t run out the door when I turn my back to help another. They’ve entered a new phase. Have I entered it with them? Have I allotted ten minutes in the morning to talk about the upcoming weekend plans, and why we don’t eat the tail of a shrimp and why we need to hide the cat’s pill inside something called a “pill pocket” that amounts to a treat with a hole in it? Am I still looking at their clothing as inventory and not noticing that my little girl won’t wear dresses to school anymore and asking the reason for that? Am I still keeping the toothpaste in the silverware drawer and not noticing that two kids can finish eating while one can be trusted to brush his teeth on his own—in the bathroom? Am I now reaching for a new bag of tricks, perhaps the bag of tricks that was being used by those people who were our loving, yet slightly incompetent babysitters early on?
Parenting: a moving target, indeed.