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Honesty and the Price of a Fish

Three fish darted frantically around the plastic bag squatting on the counter. The cashier punched in two codes, and then announced a total.

“You forgot a fish,” my son said, looking up at the woman. “There are three fish in the bag and you only rang up two.”

He was right. She had missed a $6 fish that he would be paying for with his own money. She rang it up, he paid, and we left.

“That was a nice thing you did in there,” my husband said. “Not many people would have pointed that out.”

Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether I would have pointed it out. I hadn’t even noticed the cashier had missed a fish. Maybe I would have figured it evens out with all the fish that die within a week and we never bring back.

Not a fish in my son's tank but one he'd like.

Not from my son’s tank but a fish we had to stare at for a long time.

My son is a fairly honest boy. He’s never been a good liar. Oh, he’s tried. But I can look at him and he caves. His guilty conscience gets him. Faulty cashiers aside, I have the guilty conscience of a hundred nuns. When I know I did something bad, my guilt eats away at me like a fleet of gnawing rats. I punish myself worse than anyone else ever could. I see this trait in my son. While I grew into it, he seems plagued by it now.

He follows rules. He gets antsy when he notices from the backseat that I’m going five miles over the speed limit. When left with his grandparents for an evening, he’ll remind his sister that they can’t have ice cream again because they already had some that day.

That is a trait he did not get from me. Sure, as a kid I knew what it meant to be reliable and I was scared to not follow rules, but I would have easily forgotten a little thing like extra ice cream. I would do anything to get something sweet. I stole a box of brown sugar from the kitchen and hid it in my room to eat whenever I wanted.

I learned the hard way that lies lead to more lies and that you get caught. I stole my parents’ checkbook and hid it in my doll cradle for some authentic play. I didn’t even fess up when I knew they were looking for it. Finally, I returned it when they closed the account.

I didn’t fear dishonesty the way my son does. My daughter seems to be experimenting with dishonesty right now, testing boundaries with little white lies. Her lies often grow out of competition, not wanting to be left behind. When we heard an owl in the middle of the night, she heard it too. She even saw it from her window. In the dark. Three different nights.

Sometimes being the youngest is hard. I remember. When her older brother describes a movie that’s too old for her, my daughter insists she’s seen it too. We all know she is lying.

“Who’s the main character then?” my son quizzes.

“I can’t remember his name.” Hmm, it is a boy.

“What does he look like?”

“Uh, brown hair.”

“Wrong! He has dark hair!”

“That’s what I said!”

The interrogation continues and so does my daughter’s stubborn will.

But when I least expect it, she shows that guilty conscience too. And honesty. After a normal afternoon, she’ll burst into tears and admit she got reprimanded hours earlier at school.

At some point, I know my son will tell me lies. And at some point, I know my daughter will stop. Honestly, it’s what kids do. One day I may even look out my daughter’s window in the middle of the night and see that owl.

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Some Days, ‘I Love You’ Must Be Enough

The morning game of getting dressed begins with a kiss, a smile, and quickly dissolves into tears, fussing, and a mad rush for the right pants. “What’s wrong with these pants or these?” I say, flinging pairs from my daughter’s drawer. Those pinch, those won’t stay up, never mind that she’s been wearing them for three months and chooses this morning with exactly 27 minutes until departure to boycott all of her clothes. She wants the dirty black pair from the laundry room. Fine. Wear stinky clothes. Anything. Come on, come on, come on!

Finally downstairs, the morning didn’t start like anyone intended. Over breakfast, we sneak a peek at each other. I wink—a truce. I won’t send her out into the world holding a grudge over pants.

Mornings aren’t always smooth in this house, but with raccoon eyes and cereal breath, I plant a kiss on the kids’ heads before they bury them in my soft robe, then run out the door.

After school isn’t much better. In two seconds they undo everything I’ve spent the day doing. They toss backpacks, jackets, and muddy shoes on the floor—and I just swept. The contents of their backpacks spill out, covering the entryway like debris from a natural disaster. “Where do our coats go? Please bring me your lunchboxes! Stop pushing your sister! We have three bathrooms! Stop fighting over that one!” Less than a minute in, I’m exhausted and cranky. I try to remedy it by asking about their day.

afterschool mess

Hurricane Kid, after school.

Every week it’s the same rut, never perfection.

I yell. When I’m busy, I only half listen and mm-hmm in all the right places when stories go on for ten minutes too long. Sometimes I’m the mean girl I want my kids to stay away from. I mention that that outfit doesn’t match or that habit of talking like a baby extremely annoys me. I don’t try to be hurtful. In the seconds after it slips from my lips, I wonder if that statement will be the one to give my child a complex for life. I apologize quickly.

After four farts at the dinner table, I’m not amused. Can’t we just eat for once? My dad and I had this same scenario thirty years ago. I excused myself and he hollered, “There ain’t no excuse for it!” I giggle at the story even now. One day my son will tell our stories and laugh at how they angered me. He’ll describe that instant when my face transformed from the sweet mother who tucked him in at night to mean mommy and back again. Why, when early morning around here is a free-for-all and my kids once dubbed me “Fart Powder” after a book they found?

When girl drama rears its ugly second-grade head, I have little patience. It takes me too long to realize hugs cure a lot. When hobbit adventures and Star Wars battles unfold for repeats, I’m quick to interrupt and fast-forward to the ending. I slam cabinet doors when I’ve had enough bickering. Some days I’m just a terrible mother. Some days start out well enough, but in an instant, I ruin it.

I’m not a perfect mother. My list of flaws could cover our driveway written in tiny childlike script. If mothers were required to fill out applications, I’m not sure I ever would have been qualified. So many others seem to do it better. But the one thing I do get right, always, is letting my kids know I love them no matter what ugly thing may go down. A bad day is just a bad day.

Whether we argue over homework or wearing shorts when it’s 30 degrees out, I still hug my kids, kiss their cheek, and tell them I love them because they should know there is nothing they could do that would ever make me not. I just hope they’ll always love me back. And if they happen to be too cold, well, that’s their own damn fault.

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A Mom’s-Eye View of Home

I spy with a mother’s eye…

Notes that say simply “Mom” left in unexpected places

Half-full trick-or-treat bags on the pantry floor in July

A paper cup catapult ready to launch

Books about fish that fill my son’s head with more facts than Jacques Cousteau knew himself

A cluttered art table no one can seem to keep clean…ever

My red metal crab constantly repositioned on the bathroom counter to look like it’s hiding, walking, or a hermit crab

Metal hermit crab: "I'll rust if you put me in water."

Every time I went in the bathroom, this guy was in a different place.

A rocking chair where my daughter reads aloud in her room at night

Small fingerprints on our dirty storm door

Dolls ready for school

Toys scattered on the floor after a day of loud, in-your-face pretending

Tear stains on a pillow when one sibling decided playtime was over

An indentation in the pile of beanbags and pillows where the kids snuggled together

A drawing of a bird that looks more lifelike than stick figure, penciled by my son

Play people lined up along a table in the playroom

Pink barrettes on the kitchen counter that I’ve asked one million times to be put away

Purple plastic heels, size six-year-old

A desk in a boy’s room littered with lists of state names, book characters, city names, and types of fish

Drawings of rainbows in all sizes

A pink rubber ring with a 12-carat “diamond” that will hopefully be one’s wedding ring someday

A cardboard robot that appeared on my nightstand out of nowhere

A beaded pink tiara

Ugly Lego men painstakingly placed above my son’s bed

When will they come for us?

My son says these guys sometimes fall on his head at night. I think they are just escaping.

Paper bits under my daughter’s chair from an hour of just cutting

Sheets and blankets spread over every inch of the playroom floor

Drawings on a closet door of mushroom people named Snillwill and Lenny and Grent

…and two busy kids behind it all.

Some fun guys, mushroom men.

Some of these guys have peg legs and walking sticks. Coming to a forest near you.

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The Reality of Summer With Kids

It’s the last day of school. My last day of a quiet house. Nothing but the noise of the refrigerator running. Me sitting here writing in peace, watching mysterious white vans drive by and making note of it in my dossier. Me contemplating motherhood, life, and what I’ve mucked up recently.

The last day of school fills everyone with high hopes around here. We gear up for adventure and lazy days. Having nowhere we have to be sounds so utterly amazing, I can’t stand it.

This is how I view the summer ahead:

1. Sitting around the kitchen table doing one of the many crafts I’ve picked out, the kids and I laugh, joke, and bond as we cut, glue, and toss dashes of glitter over our magical creations. They look like something Martha Stewart made herself. Heck, they look better.

sequins ready for crafting

Who wouldn’t want to create with this rainbow of shimmering inspiration?

2. Sitting poolside, I watch my kids frolic and play while I read a book, crunch a snack, or dip my toes in for refreshment. I put my time in for many years of having the kids hang on my every limb. We can enjoy a game of catch or I can relax on a noodle and bob around.

3. Thinking a lazy day is in order, I make plans to cook a delicious snack. Cake pops sound fun. They turn out beautifully. I think we could sell them. We eat them as we lounge in our pajamas, snuggle in beanbags, and watch movies all afternoon.

4. I need to get some work done in the office. The kids quietly play so I can edit or write. When I’m done, I reward them with a trip to the park.

In reality:

1. The kids never want to make the cool crafts I suggest, the ones I’ve been clipping from magazines for years. They have “better” ideas. They don’t like my suggestions on how to embellish them. In the end, they look like something Martha Stewart’s dogs made. After the seemingly ten hours it takes me to set up, it takes my kids 3.4 minutes to slap some glue on their craft and say, “I’m done. Can we go play?” Then it takes another ten hours for me to scrape the glue off the chairs and get every speck of glitter off the floor.

sequin collage

I give him five minutes, tops. A piece of art that will never be complete.

2. The minute I sit in a lounge chair, the kids ask me every five minutes when I’m getting in the pool. The minute I get near the water, the kids still hang on my limbs. At least once a season I see a kid puke something into the pool and his mother swish it out. That kind of ruins the rest of it for me. Thanks, rule-breaking mother.

3. The recipe takes way more time than I imagine. The kids fight over whose turn it is for each step. Having the kids help makes the process go twenty times longer than it should. And when it’s all over, the kids don’t even like them. “Can we have popcorn?” “When can we start the movie?”

4. The moment I get on the computer, the kids sit in the office chair behind me and start to wrestle. Someone gets hurt. I send them upstairs. They go upstairs and continue to fight. I still haven’t gotten any work done. I send them to their rooms. Doors slam. I am mad. Tears. Yelling. I haven’t managed to get any paying work done, but I probably got a post out of it.

Summer: The reality is, I look forward to it every year and I still miss it when it’s gone.

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Ghosts of Valentine’s Past

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone. There have been years when I awaited with starry anticipation, only to have two sticky toddlers put a crimp in the romance. My husband and I have never bothered with sitters, learning long ago that the area restaurants jack up their prices and fancy up their menus and all we really want is something fresh and fun and jeans-appropriate.

When the kids were young, I tried cooking a nice meal after the kids went to bed. Those turned out to be the nights the kids would not go to sleep at 7:30, and they’d come out of their rooms a dozen times. Curly Bear fell on the floor. Water needed refilling. Someone suddenly needed a tissue instead of a sleeve. Plans for dinner went out the window with the screams of “Mom” from my daughter’s bedroom, and we’d end up scarfing down food in a manic hunger.

This candy didn't end up on the floor or in any drinks.

We’ve tried including the kids in a special dinner at home only to find our daughter had a trick napkin that just wouldn’t stay in her lap. Oh, it’s on the floor again. Better climb down to get it. She burned all the calories from her meal while she constantly retrieved that flyaway napkin. Meanwhile, the ploop! of each pea my son plunked in his milk attracted the other half of our attention. Boy, we couldn’t have asked for a more romantic evening.

I get a bit weepy about the kids growing up sometimes, but it has plenty of advantages. Like dates and Valentine’s Day. Last night, I made a meal we could all enjoy and everyone sat around the table like civilized people and ate it. No one crawled on the floor or stuck food in their milk, though I caught my son red-handed earlier in the week. We enjoyed our evening together. I gave the kids homemade candy that took more time than I care to admit to make. But including my children in Valentine’s Day is what having a family is about. I love them too, every cute, painful, annoying, sweet thing about them. And they put up with me.

And the husband and I can finally have our dates. We met for lunch while the kids were at school, and neither of us put peas in our drinks.

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Filed under Everyday Life, I Love Those Darn Kids