Posted by: patriciamar | June 6, 2018

Crying on my Banana Phone

E flying

This personal narrative details the week that I, the childless Californian aunt, came to town to take care of my three nieces and nephews. Lessons were learned. Fun was had.

 Here at the start of June, one week in to summer break, there are takeaways for any parent or caregiver.

*        *        *

Last summer I made a trek to the Midwest to do some babysitting. My sister had a business trip, I was on break from teaching, and that was that. They flew me in to babysit their three children for the week. I should begin by saying that my nieces and nephews are great. During that week, they were amazing–helpful, sweet, and they went to sleep at night!

Now let me tell you how getting to spend a week taking care of three adorable kids brought me to a near breaking point, driving a minivan around the Twin Cities, tears streaming down my face as I sang along with Raffi to “Banana Phone.” They sang too.

I came into the week prepared. I had a notebook full of ideas, things I had loved as a kid that we could do during our summer days together. I had playdates scheduled. We would be painting and making art projects, biking to the local park to have a picnic, swimming in the little backyard pool and singing songs in foreign languages. I was not unprepared.

Of course with children, you can never be prepared enough. This might have more to do with life than raising children.  I’m not sure.

Obstacle one occurred before I even arrived. The air conditioning was broken. Say what you want, in Minnesota, you need air conditioning in the summer. The humidity is oppressive. You’re sweating constantly, yet somehow it feels like you might burst because the water in your body, 80, 85% or whatever, is so hot that it’s boiling, trying to force itself out of your pores to evaporate into steam. It’s not pleasant.

Once air conditioning was out, all plans were off. The basement was livable, so all action would have to take place there–eating, sleeping, playing, reading–everything. First I had to change the menu. Those beans I was soaking to make into pork enchiladas, nuh-uh. That was probably too ambitious anyway. Sandwiches. There would be sandwiches for lunch.

Sleeping arrangements were altered. The two older kids share a bedroom downstairs, so they were set, but the littlest sleeps upstairs, and it immediately became apparent that she does not appreciate the heat. A sweet, giggling one year old becomes a shrieking ball of sadness when her cheeks turn rosy. I get it. I feel the same way, honestly.

Within 24 hours I learned to watch for the signs as we cycled inside, back outside to the backyard, into the pool, out and down to the basement for lunch,, upstairs for a diaper, back downstairs for coloring time.

I moved a pack ‘n play downstairs for her, and then of course the monitor, the monitor cam, diapers, wet wipes, pacifier, favorite blanket–I could continue. Life as a one year old is tough.

Next, consider life as a one-day old mother of three. As you can surely imagine, logistics got sloppier and sloppier as things moved downstairs.

And in the end, it still wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough to do. The basement was still too hot, and the one year old got testier with every increased degree. Here’s a science question: How many degrees does the temperature of a basement raise per minute of a temper tantrum?

Plans changed. We called my brother and his wife and they graciously volunteered to take us in.

Obstacle two: I am a terrible packer.

I started early in the morning, knowing that children need stuff and I need stuff and children need food and fruit and milk and juice in sippy cups. And diapers, I have to remember the diapers. We might swim, no–we’ll surely swim. Where are those little swimmers? Nighttime routines–they should be maintained. Four people need pajamas. Vitamins.

Did I mention that I’m not a good packer? Even when packing for myself, headed on a trip to San Francisco for two nights, my husband comes in and repacks my bag the moment I leave the room. I always bring two notebooks and three books to read, but no pens and no socks.

I forgot toothbrushes. What’s worse, I forgot swimming trunks for my nephew. One cannot go down a homemade slip ‘n’ slide in their shorts. This is absolutely, terribly, horribly, undeniably impossible. He told us all with all the tears the poor kid could muster.

Obstacle three: I’m still terrible at packing.

The heat subsided after our first overnight adventure (sorry, teeth!), and we went back home for a night before the heat returned. Packing for the second time (after the swimming trunks debacle) I worked harder. I started the night before. I walked through the day in my mind: play time, lunch time, swimming time, swingset, the park, bedtime, the next morning. My mind was sharp with two Keurig k cups. I was focused, organized. I accounted for little “accidents” and I made sure that I brought those toothbrushes.

The outcome? I had seven pairs of underwear and three pairs of swimming trunks. I had 0 pullups and 4 little swimmers (They look so similar!). I had asked my dearest, eldest niece to pack two outfits for herself. I thought it would be nice for her to have some freedom with her wardrobe.

Yes, I understand that you’re laughing. I wasn’t smart enough to catch that before it happened.

She was a good helper and old enough to pick out her own clothes, no matter whether they matched or not. Thank goodness she had, because other than those colorful outfits with gauzy sleeves, she had nothing. I had no pajamas for her, no socks, and due to bad guesswork when confronted with a family toothbrush holder, she still had no toothbrush. Apparently picking the three smallest ones wasn’t a substantiated method for selection.

“I’m sorry Sweetie, could you please just use your mom’s toothbrush? Just for tonight?”

I felt awful, but at least there were no tears this time. She was simply shocked that I wouldn’t know that the small pinkish toothbrush was her mother’s, not hers. She took it well, and I did eventually find a pullup in the many bags.

There were many lessons learned during this trip, and a lot of epiphanies relating to so-called freedom, the ins and outs of planning, and flexibility.

As an instructor on a university campus, the hours of the day that I am required, truly forced, to be somewhere doing something are minimal. In a way, they are almost non-existent. Of course I have to go to work, I have to teach my classes and I need to be there, in that location, to do so. However, I make the lessons, I plan what we do and when we do it. That opens life up to an extreme level of flexibility.

In Minnesota, I was responsible for lives. Yes, three little human lives, plus myself! This, for me, carried a shocking amount of… emotional weight, you might say. I was in constant fear of all the things that could happen, that might happen. I well understood that they probably wouldn’t, I could reasonably understand that this heavy burden on my mind was a first-time parent issue. Parents get used to being parents, this I believe.

I was not used to it, and that fact didn’t necessarily get easier as the week went on, mostly because as the days passed by, I got more and more and more tired.

Like I said, they slept well. But what if they woke up!? What if they woke up at 2 a.m. and never went back to sleep? What if the littlest one woke up in the night and I didn’t hear her? After they were in bed at night and the house was quiet, the adult figure needs some time to decompress. I needed time to read and think about my upcoming teaching schedule and reply to emails from colleagues. Add to that the desire to actually relax–listen to music, read, watch tv, or write. There is. no. time.

When I was a child, my mother and several colleagues and teachers wrote this book called “Links of Love,” now out of print. There are two versions actually, the second is “More Links of Love.” It has numerous sections with games, stories, ideas, recipes, anecdotes and child development information and advice. It’s basically a guide to being a great parent. Not just a good parent, a great parent. Basically, I was raised by a professional mom. I can confirm after only five days that this is very, very hard.

This is something that absolutely amazes me. Parenting is something that almost the entire population does. It’s a process that so many people complete that it’s not even a thing.

In the car on the way to my brother’s house, (for the second time) I breathed a sigh of relief. Mediocre substitute parent #1 was about to go meet up with two more parents. Two real full-blown parents, each with more than a 2 ½ year old of experience. It was going to be a dream.

Obstacle four: I get lost sometimes.

“Why aren’t you turning here?” My four-year-old nephew asked.

I had driven to my brother’s house on a number of occasions. In fact, I drove there already in this article. But I haven’t driven there more than ten times total, so I’m no expert. Why didn’t I listen to him? I’m unsure. He has been there more than ten times. Perhaps I thought I knew the way better than a four year old.

And that’s how I ended up driving a minivan around in the country on the north edge of the Twin Cities, somewhere near Scandia or Big Marine, three kids in the car, all buckled in, tears running down my face as I sang along.

“Ba-na-na phone…” You parents know it.

There are a few moments of note that sustained me, kept me alert and awake and smiling hour after hour. I will always remember those special moments.

First is bedtime, when we listened to the Frog and Toad audiobooks and the littlest would scoot her diapered butt backwards like a little short bus to sit on my lap, so we could listen together. And shortly after, when my four-year-old nephew turned to me with the biggest eyes and asked why Toad doesn’t like sledding.

When everyone, myself included, was splashing in the pool and thus, no one was sweating.

When they played with play-doh. I often played with play-doh as a kid and now I understand why. I have three siblings. It’s so quiet when kids are building things–thinking, planning, plotting their cities and monsters and fields of snowmen.

I will remember every time during the week when I got little hugs. Kids are never short of hugs to give away.

These are the moments I will remember many years down the road, when my niece calls the wild great aunt from California and asks her to babysit for a week. Absolutely, I’ll say.

On the plane on the way home I was so sad. It was not because I was tired or annoyed or because I had forgotten my toothbrush. I was sad that I hadn’t spoiled them enough. I should have given them more cookies, and played Candyland a few more times. I should have let them stay up late with me and fall asleep on the couch watching Wild Krats.

What would they remember from this week? Would they remember the fun? All racing to the pool and jumping in at the same time? Or would they just remember when I made them brush their teeth again because they did it too quickly the first time, or when I told them they could only have one cookie? I’m not sure. That, I conclude after my pitifully short week of single parenting, is the catch 22 of parenting.

So for all the good parents out there, keep it up. I’m sure you can do it. Apparently we’re made for this sort of thing, as human beings, I mean. If I could make it through the week, I’m sure you can keep up the good work that you’re already doing. I hear that it gets easier.

And for all the great parents, wow. That’s hard work. Your kids will remember it. Don’t think they won’t. Eventually, at least.

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