To get some work done this morning I set my alarm for 4:39am. As Molly has grown, my ability to do anything during the day besides retrieve her from near-death experiences is essentially nonexistent. The fact that other adults manage to keep multiple children alive in the same house at the same time utterly confounds me.
So as my little offspring has gotten older, my alarm clock has edged its notification digits earlier and earlier. Daily, I convince myself that I waste the most productive hours of the day by sleeping into the grotesque hours of 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning.
If only I could intercept the time before Molly wakes up, I think that maybe I could stamp my day with a little productivity or at least brush my teeth more thoroughly. But by six am, the window of opportunity has closed. This is usually the time Molly wakes up. This is when I stumble into her room to see her smiling face and smell the overpowering scent of overnight diaper.
But this morning I never heard the 4:39am alarm.
Because Molly woke up, bright eyed and ready for jokes, at 4:36am.
It was a brutal hijacking, like she intercepted my punch line before I could even wake up to deliver it. I had high plans for a devotional time and follow-on writing session, but instead, between the four and five o’clock hour, Molly dumped out a box of Legos, a box of foam blocks, and every drawer in her dresser. I tried to muster the energy to care, but I had not yet finished my third cup of coffee, which is generally the time I start becoming an exceptional parent.
There is constant block building happening around here, temporary structures erected purely for destruction purposes. Legos, foam blocks, stackable cups; you name it and we have it momentarily assembled into a tower so that a miniature, red-headed Godzilla can come and swat it down. She grins for about half a second afterwards and then looks at me with enormous, beautiful eyes that read, “That was fun! I’m bored again.”
Mike is far more diligent and innovative with his structural masterpieces. He builds pergolas and cathedral ceilings with oversize Legos. He doesn’t just create buildings; he engineers entire campuses. The other day, when I complimented him on one of his Lego creations he built ‘for Molly,’ Mike cast his eyes down and said, “I really wanted to build a waterfall next to the monkey jungle, but I ran out of blue Legos.”
“ _________,” I replied.
As for me, I place two or three square blocks on top of one another and consider my toddler interaction complete. If I’m lucky, I can build quickly and sneak in a four second catnap before Molly comes huffing across the living room with a palm poised in the air. Sometimes she misses the tower completely and slaps me in the face. Consequently, we are working more diligently on hand-eye coordination.
Whether it is block building or diaper changing, my days are consumed with circular, repetitive tasks that make the word “done” an instantly expiring phrase. I build towers that are knocked down. I think endlessly about healthy meals that are tossed off the high chair or fed bite-by-bite to the dog. I wrestle shoes onto her before we leave the house. She takes them off in her car seat before we leave the driveway.
Last night before I set my early morning alarm, I told Mike that I sometimes feel like I’m taking baby steps to nowhere or paddling hard while inexplicably remaining lost at sea. My work feels like drops of water on a hot day. It evaporates instantly.
And there seems to be a never-ending list of pending activities I assume would render my best sort of self, the most specific, well-rounded, enlightened version of the adult-y me. In one morning’s reading of the news, I was reminded that as a human I absolutely need seven to nine hours of sleep, more kale and less dairy in my diet; and as a well-meaning citizen I need to take a personal and ardent stand on issues related to racial inequality, same-sex marriage, and the political response to ISIS.
Meanwhile, in the margins of leftover time, the assumption is that I’m a good wife and mom and friend and also that I if I wear makeup it is paraben-free; if I eat meat it is grass fed organic; and if I’m cleaning my house it is only with distilled vinegar, essential oils, and really good vibes. (Because: cancer).
Yesterday, a fellow mom gently asked me if I was considering a Montessori preschool for Molly. My brain nearly exploded. I actually checked my nose to see if it was bleeding. Then I replied, “Wait. At what age to parents usually send their kids to preschool? …I’m asking for a friend.”
I can sense, deep down, that the decisions that feel very large right now will actually look quite small in retrospect. I can sense that someday I will remember the fatigue with a sort of nostalgic fondness, that I will oversimplify this stage of life as “some of the best years of my life” or as moments to be “soaked up,” whatever that means.
Truly, I can feel the richness of the moments even as I live them: the new words she speaks with victorious wonder, the tiny shoes strewn near the front door, the way she clings to me in the middle of the night when she wakes up afraid and I soothe with whispers in her ear, “I’m here. I’m here.”
How can a person feel so empty, so used up, and yet inexplicably complete at the same time? For me, it took becoming a parent.
Even though it seems like I’m perpetually building with invisible gains, tonight I witnessed an observable breakthrough. Molly built a tower.
That’s the whole news.
In the bath, with lukewarm water rising barely to her waist, she stacked three round cups on top of one another and then crowned the top with an old teething ring.
With a gaping mouth, I observed while swatting Mike’s arm as if he wasn’t watching it already. She had learned something that we had shown her, not once but thousands of times. I don’t think she even knew it was an achievement until we erupted in cheers.
Being a parent feels so grindingly thankless so much of the time, but isn’t it shocking to realize that occasionally there is actual training going on? Before now, I didn’t really understand the phrase ‘raising children.’ I didn’t understand the reference to vertical ascension. But now I do. Because I saw Molly building, block by block, higher and higher, with focused determination. Her upward progress acted as a sort of indicator that I’m doing this thing, for better or for worse, I’m doing it. I’m parenting. And Molly is learning things!
The value of all those temporary towers isn’t at all about the lifespan or durability of the towers, but about the ethic of building, over and over again the building. The cleaning. The on-and-off shoes. The Velcro diapers. The repetitive gestures that say “I’m here. I’m here.” GOODNESS GRACIOUS IT’S FOUR AM. I’m here.”
Love is not always proven in one sweeping gesture. More often, it’s built inch-by-inch, minute-by-minute, block-by-clock, in a habit of faithfulness that adds up to a history of trust. I’m not just building towers. I’m building trust. And hopefully I’m building capacity by pouring mine out on her. I’m depositing love in increments that rise like walls around her so she can grow and learn in safety of belonging.
As I’m learning to build, so is she.
Inch-by-inch. Block-by-block. We rise faster than the morning sun.