I think the only time I really played with my son today was in the basement while the house was being cleaned upstairs. It felt different than any other five minutes. I had to be in a position of no other choice in order to fully be with my child.
What was I doing the rest of the day, real mothers might want to ask? I wish I knew. Elliott kept redirecting me. (I know, it’s supposed to go the other way around). Shortly after we all got up, I carried him outside to get the newspaper. As I started to walk back inside, he pitched a fit, pointing outside and saying “hat.” So we went for a walk. He waved his hand and said something like “sheesish” to ask for music, so I sang until I forgot and he didn’t care anymore. He took off his hat and stuck his hand out of the stroller, waiting for me to take it from him. Occasionally he looked up at me and said “hi.” It was a nice time, but I don’t think it qualifies as “play.”
When we got home, he wasn’t thrilled with my plan to set him down so I could make us some breakfast. I held him a while and put on some music, eventually able to put him down without his face turning into an evil jack-o-lantern. I think he crawled into his high chair (which is on the ground because he always stands up in it), and I gave him some random snacks while I cooked eggs, veggies and sausage. Before either of us could eat anything, he asked to nurse. He’s taken to saying in an angelic voice and signing “please” (“peez?” and rubbing his hand on his chest). If he does this rather than simply reach down my shirt, I oblige. Once he started walking, his interest in nursing soared. For the first of two or three or four times that day, I sat on the couch with the latest issue of Brain,Child magazine while he reconnected and got some nourishment. While the food was still getting cold and uneaten in the kitchen, I realized he’d pooped, so we headed upstairs for a change.
This time I put him in some real clothes in case we headed outside again. I’d been a little embarrassed when the mom of a girl I tutor had run into us on our walk. She saw Elliott in his “pajamas” – a formerly white short-sleeve onesie (was it the one my husband cut the long sleeves short?) stained with all sorts of food from several meals, most notoriously sunflower seed butter. On bottom were his striped Circo pants size nine months (he’s now 17 months old); they are light and stretchy in the waist and perfect for a night that starts out in cool air conditioning but, because of our toddler-minded thermostat, ends with the ceiling fan circulating warm air while the downstairs stays crisp.
At some point in the morning I checked my email and then called Becky, a friend I hadn’t spoken to for months. We both decided our weeks had been too busy to meet up, so we caught up over the phone. Elliott was playing well then, and I was cleaning up from breakfast. I also fed him some berries and coconut milk while I was talking to her. After that is when I caught the other poop – when he started to go upstairs and I realized I hadn’t closed the gate and ran to spot him.
I thought perhaps we should go to the playground before lunch. But the cleaning woman had called after getting back from vacation and said that she could fit us in today so we wouldn’t wait another two weeks. I knew I needed to hide the newspaper to spare it from the recycle bin and to stuff various papers into the storage cube so I could find them later. The kitchen and bathroom counters were beyond cluttered, which meant she would take even longer to do the house and I wouldn’t be able to start dinner until late. So I straightened up as much as I could between breakfast and lunch, between nursing and more nursing, between the tantrum-inspired walk and other tantrums, between diaper changes. I ate lunch with Elliott sitting on the floor, him eating some food and playing with my fork and then the second fork, too.
At1:30, Elliott still didn’t seem ready to nap. He was asking for his shoes, so we went outside. This first foray into the unintentional wilderness that is our backyard, I was fairly engaged. I tossed the ball to him on the slide; he rolled it down. I narrated his play with little plastic balls in one of those things where you put them in at the top and they roll down through a few switchbacks. That was fun. But it seemed late and I wanted to start the nap. We’ve successfully napped in the basement a few times during housecleanings, and I hoped with the bathroom fan on we could manage. I took him to the kitchen to get some water and show him to Sonia so he’d know who was making the noise above him and returned to the futon in the basement hoping for some shut-eye. But the boy was too peppy.
After a few minutes lying down with me and nursing, he smiled and bit my neck and grabbed my cheek. I got the message. It seemed too hot just to go driving in the car, so I thought I might try getting him to sleep in the stroller. He arched his back and gave me a firm “Mnooo” – that’s a soft-sounding “no,” not a “Mom’s Night Out On Opium” or some kind of gooey West African vegetable dish. And “Mnooo!” as a negative interjection is not to be confused with “Mo?” the request for “more.” So instead of taking another walk, we hit the back yard again.
But it was hot, and I was tired and thirsty. I called a few friends to see if they happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted to come over to play. While I talked to K’s voicemail and to KM about her visit with her mom, Elliott scooted down the short, steep slope to the flat part of our yard. He was enjoying the grass under his feet, the twigs to touch. At some point after I hung up the phone, we came upon a beach ball, which I threw uphill, and he laughed as it rolled down toward him. This happened enough times that I expected him to start reaching for it, but he just giggled. I suppose that might count as play on some scoreboards.
Eventually Elliott reached for my hand and headed up toward the door. For our transition to quiet activity, I brought out a construction-themed wooden puzzle. Honestly, all the machines looked the same to me the first time I saw it. Pictured in the carved out space underneath the spot for each item – backhoe, bulldozer, barricade – there is a smaller version of the puzzle piece (and the word, thankfully). I finally paid attention and tried to describe the pieces. “Where does this one go? Where do you see wheels and a green arm holding grey cement?” I pointed at individual spots and asked which piece fit, attempting to wedge in all the ones that didn’t fit and then showing my profound excitement over the last one when it did. “Mo?” Elliott said, tapping his little fingers together. He liked this! And it didn’t involve music, or breasts, or outside. He especially thought it was fun when I pinched his fingers around the small red handle and let him feel the piece going into the spot. He was used to chunky knobs, and you could tell he felt like he had just graduated to the full-size lockers in middle school. This is what you’re supposed to do with your child, I thought.
After a while, I rose and sat on the futon. Elliott buried his face in my knees and whined, and I knew it was time for sleep. We laid down and both drifted off while he nursed. I woke when Sonia’s helper was about to bring the dirty linens downstairs; I successfully delatched Elliott and got up. For about an hour I typed quietly on the computer until he woke and immediately stood on the futon like a drunk waking in the middle of the night, thinking he’s still the life of the party. I laid down to see if Elliott was still tired. He pulled up my shirt and he promptly passed back attached to me. It was sweet to watch him sleep and cozy and all, but I was hungry and not tired, and it was almost 5:00. I kept trying to pop Elliott off in the hope that he would either go back to sleep or decide he was ready to wake up. After about the sixth time, he looked at me and babbled in a way that seemed to indicate he was good to go for the next few hours.
As soon as I tried to lead us to our newly pristine upstairs, however, he whined and assumed cling-on mode. He’s learned to wrap his legs around mine so tight that he hardly even needs to hold on with his hands, and I simply cannot put him down. I got out the Ergo carrier hoping to put him on my back. “Mnooo!” he swatted it out of my hands. I stepped with him onto the porch to get the mail, and when I tried to come inside, he started crying. I ran us back to the basement to put back on my now smelly sport tank and shorts after napping in a blackberry-stained t-shirt and boxers. But I couldn’t find the black tank and instead put on a yoga tank I had gotten out in the hopes of resuming my practice. Unfortunately, this top clashed pretty bad with the shorts, which in themselves were embarrassing for showing my eczema-scaly knees, and the tank barely covered my midriff since the pregnancy somehow lengthened my torso without my petite self actually growing any taller. I was hungry and thirsty, but I had the feeling we would be in for a long night if I didn’t get us out to the playground pronto.
Back outside, I was hoping I could hide behind the stroller, but again I met resistance. Elliott insisted on walking, and when he stepped into the street, he pitched a fit and swatted at my attempt to hold his hand. He wriggled when I picked him up, but once we got across the street, I couldn’t put him down. His legs were clamped tighter than a stabilizing grip in shop class. At the playground, he spotted another little boy happily toddled over. The boy – almost three months younger but bigger and with a full head of hair – smiled, and I chatted casually with his mom and dad while inwardly cringing at my outfit and scratched raw knees. The five of us wandered the play structure for a while. When I asked Elliott if it was time to say “bye-bye” and I did not get a “Mnooo!” in reply, I promptly took off, carrying Elliott the whole way home.
My husband drove up just then, and the rest of the evening was spent with me making dinner while John played with Elliott or tried to distract him from screaming at me behind the gate to the kitchen. After changing a diaper as a distraction tactic, John said he entertained Elliott by jumping on the bed and, when he stopped out of fatigue, got an unprompted first two-word sentence: “Mo, peez.”
But back downstairs, it was all we could do to get any food into Elliott besides beets and watermelon. We let him play for a bit in the hopes that he would eat or nurse some more and not wake up early in the night. He brought us a bottle of bubbles, put his finger to his lips to show blowing and said “Mo?” We explained that bubbles were for daytime, for tomorrow, and the world ended. Elliott wailed and wailed all the way upstairs.
The sound of bathwater didn’t calm him, so I headed upstairs to find some pajamas to put on after a shower and to try to get the boy into a better place for sleep. We sat in the rocking chair to read a story, but the CD player we usually keep on the floor had been placed on a bookshelf. Elliott was mesmerized by the blinking wrong time, right at eye level. He pointed to the cheap piece of electronica, waved his hand and made his unintelligible attempt to say something that means “music.” When I did not comply, we lost ground and then some and returned to tantrum mode. John clicked to track 16, a quiet tune called “Arco Iris” (“Rainbow,”). We got out the large version of the board book we’ve been reading Elliott since he was in utero – Time for Bed – my husband and I reading the pages Elliott chose to flip to. When the song ended, we said “All done, music. Bye-bye.” Elliott said “Bye-bye,” and, from his father’s arms, blew me a kiss.
I came down to the basement with a basket full of laundry and looked wistfully at the construction puzzle, remembering those lovely five minutes and wishing I didn’t need to be restricted by space in order to feel free with my time to simply play with my child.