I sit with my three-year-old daughter in the dining room as she kicks and screams. I’ve tried holding her, talking to her, yelling at her, yet nothing is working to calm her. I’m asking her why we’ve placed her in time out (to finish the thing up), but I might as well be speaking Dutch because she has zero cognitive ability to reason through this disciplinary action.
Rewind: She went missing just before lunch as I was finishing up homeschool with my older kids. We found her (quickly enough so I didn’t panic) in my van, squirreling away LifeSaver mints in her pocket and her mouth as fast as she could. She got caught red-handed, so the whole time-out scene ensued.
It’s exhausting, the disciplinary gauntlet my three-year-old creates for me and, though I know it’s necessary, I never love it.
Fast forward: Minutes after the preschooler finally settled, I’m bopping along in the same mint-laden van (minus a few) on our way to Costco with my twelve-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, harmonizing at the top of our lungs to Hamilton. (Sometimes the three of us can do three-part harmony, and it’s amazing.)
“Mom, what does ‘ironic’ mean?” my son asks. I search my brain’s database, and all I can come up with is Alanis Morissette circa 1995. I ask my daughter-turned-copilot to find the song on my phone. We leave “Angelica, Eliza, (and Peggy)” to head over to “rain on your wedding day” and “a free ride when you’ve already paid.” He loves the song and comes up with his own irony: You buy all the toilet paper in Costco, and then don’t use any of it (thank you very little, COVID-19).
My two older kids stay close at Costco, help me load the cart with our regular groceries, and accept “no” for an answer as we pass by toys, books, and clothes that aren’t in the budget this week. At one point, my son needs to use the bathroom, and we come up with a very specific plan about where he can find me when he is done; he doesn’t need me to go with him. The kids help get the stuff up onto the conveyor belt, and, after purchasing everything, they help load it into the back of our minty van. As we begin to drive away from Costco, I hear both kids, unprompted, say, “Thanks, Mom!” One for some books she’s been wanting to get and the other for a LEGO set he paid for himself.
As we get closer to our house, my daughter pipes up, “It’s just awful that he cheated on his wife,” circling back around to the plot of Hamilton. (My brain is usually caffeinated just to keep up with her myriad non-sequiturs.) We’ve talked about this particular topic many times since she started listening to the soundtrack. I reply as I have in the past, knowing that repetition is the beginning of understanding.
“Yes, it is awful. When you sleep with someone, you share your whole soul. Eliza knew that, Alexander knew it, and so did the other woman. That’s why it hurts Eliza’s heart so much and why she takes herself out of society for a while.”
“Here, Mom, look! I pretended to do an autograph in my Wings of Fire book! It looks so real.”
And we’re onto the next thing.
I glance over from the driver’s seat and see she’s found a black pen and scribbled a fake autograph in the front of her new book from Costco.
As we back into the driveway, I hear a groan from my son in the backseat, “Do I have to help carry everything inside?”
“Yes, you do,” I say as I back into the driveway. Honestly, knowing that my older kids will help bring in our Costco haul saves my sanity (and my back) after a long day of homeschool, disciplining, prepping food, and shopping runs. They’re my teammates, and I rely on them for some of the physical labor involved in my everyday life. (One day, I will write about the time I had to bring in all the garbage bins. By myself. I will title it: MY EVEREST.)
Two minutes later, inside the house, the three-year-old’s tantrum has faded, and she’s showing me how she can carry all her lovies at once and do a jump. It seems like her quiet time with Daddy while we went to Costco served its purpose, and she’s back to a fully-functioning toddler. I smile big and say, “Wow!” as I shift from the deeper, older kid car conversations back to mom-of-a-toddler. I get a snack for my two-year-old son, who is just up from his nap and following me around the kitchen, saying, “NACK! NACK!” like some deranged duck. I text with my mom, who has taken my eight-year-old son to her place for the afternoon. She texts back that he’s finished his reading assignment, and that he’s loving his one-on-one time with Grandma.
Then it hits me. I am…Pinball Mom.
Switching between littles and bigs can feel like pinball—Up! Down! Side! Other side! Diapers! Pre-teen angst! Booboos and bandaids! Laughing together at memes! Cuddles! Watching shows together! Middle-of-the-night bad dreams! Writing assignments! Copywork! Spelling tests! Board books! Chapter books!
Sometimes, my interactions with my children are about stealing mints and hiding in mama’s van and time outs and opening snacks. And other times, it’s about the sacredness of marriage or the definition of a highly nuanced word or unsolicited “thank yous.”
Hear me out: I will never tire of the opportunity to help guide and instruct my little kids. But the hours I’ve already spent guiding and instructing my older kids when they were little is starting to pay off in a way I don’t think I ever could have imagined. The discussions we are able to have now and the jokes we are able to share together make all of the work I put in years ago seem worth it. This motivates me as I continue to guide and instruct my littler two babes.
My older children serve as a welcome change of pace from the slog of the littles. The big ones also require a lot more deep thinking and consideration and late-night chat sessions. After years of only littles, I am up for the challenge of these new older realms while still able ping over here to witness the wonder of the little years.
I am rocking my three-year-old little girl before bed—the thief who stole the van mints earlier today. Her brother (the deranged duck) is already asleep close by. We quietly sing “My God is So Big,” and I brush her hair away from her face and kiss her and tell her how much I love her: “Forever, no matter what.” As we rock, her big sister comes into the room.
“Mom,” she whispers, “will you come into my room next and scratch my back?”
I am, after all, Pinball Mom.
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Lynne lives just north of Los Angeles in a little suburb called Canyon Country, CA. Her five children (ages 2-12) challenge her sock-matching skills, her culinary prowess (especially when it comes to boxed mac and cheese), and her ability to conjure the best bedtime stories possible. She and her composer husband of 15 years enjoy date nights about twice a month where they get to finish a thought and eat the food when it’s still hot. You can find her on Instagram.