This column was originally published June 30, 2017.
She was upstairs for all of 40 minutes.
Plenty of time, of course, for all three children to go completely nuts.
When my sister called to ask if I could watch Autumn while she made an important phone call Tuesday evening, I didn’t hesitate. The thought of watching two infants and a toddler made me anxious, but Kate and my brother-in-law, Eric, have stepped in a million times for us. I agreed using my most overused phrase, the one I drag out when I’m too tired to discuss logistics but fine with the commitment: “Sure, we’ll figure it out.”
Babies, like animals, sense when you are at your most vulnerable. The reality of having my 1-month-old niece, 3-month-old daughter and toddler son all in my care put me in a cold sweat.
Everything seemed kosher at first. Autumn was hanging out in a bouncer seat as I held Hadley, who prefers to perch like a parrot with an arm over my shoulder for the best view of the room. Ollie was watching a movie. But as soon as Katie went upstairs, Autumn’s bottom lip curled in a picture-perfect pout that would have been adorable had, you know, another adult been around to see it. And to save us.
Hadley started whimpering in my arms as Oliver abruptly upended a bin of building blocks in search of “Man”: a plastic figurine he insists must drive his favorite toy tractor. Only Man, who is smaller than my thumb, can commandeer such a magnificent machine; he’d been missing for days, of course. I’d searched for him as Ollie delayed bedtime the night before. I kept hoping he’d forget Man and move on to one of the other three billion trinkets in the house, but that’s just not the toddler way.
So I was dodging Ollie’s blocks while crouching awkwardly by Autumn, now crying in tandem with her cousin from the bouncer. The indecision of what to do, who to help was overwhelming. I was instantly taken back to when we first brought Hadley home: one person needing eight arms.
Though it was all happening as I’d worried it would, I didn’t want to burden my sister by begging for help (or mercy). It had been, like, five minutes. Maybe. She probably hadn’t even dialed the phone number.
It was one of those moments I had to examine from afar so I wouldn’t panic: the television blaring a children’s movie no one was watching, though the remote was nowhere to be found; me in my crumpled dress clothes, vision obscured by sweaty hair; the living room I’d carefully picked up that morning obliterated in minutes.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
I might not have been so frazzled if I hadn’t been solo parenting this week. With Spencer 3,000 miles away for work, the weight of handling everything child-, home- and work-related had me making lists to organize my to-do lists. I set an alarm on my phone so I would eat lunch and remember to use the restroom before flying down the highway to pick up the kids. I mean, only someone badly in need of a tropical beverage could forget something like that.
I sound high-strung, I’m sure. Folks do this every day; our babysitter is one of them. I just randomly thought of a childhood friend, her younger sister and their triplet siblings . . . their mom always seemed collected, though I can’t imagine she ever sat down for more than two minutes. Definitely made of stronger stuff than me.
But I had to pull it together Tuesday. I settled Hadley in a bassinet where she could watch her brother (cheap entertainment), then got Autumn’s bottle ready and sat nearby to feed her. Hadley could see me, too, so she quieted down. Autumn ate. Once my niece was calm, I flipped the girls: Hadley getting a bottle, Autumn watching us from the bassinet.
My toddler took advantage of the spotlight moving off his sneaky head to dig around in the kitchen. I had, of course, forgotten to put the child safety lock back on a cabinet after putting away dishes, and kids have radar for that sort of thing. Ollie returned wielding a full collection of musical pots and pans. While I fed Hadley, he performed an original ditty I’d call “Utter Disarray, Panic and Bedlam — Please Get the Advil (Part I).”
Really added to the ambiance, you know?
I knew enough Tuesday to recognize this was funny, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. When my sister finished her call, I heard the guest room door swing open before she raced downstairs. I’d switched the girls again. Autumn was passed out and drooling on my shoulder while Hadley whimpered from the bassinet, which I was pointlessly rocking with one foot. Ollie was sitting next to me with a small LEGO trophy he pretended was a cup; he reached over to shove it in my face so I could “drink! drink!”
“Well, this is a picture,” she said.
I might have laughed, but that would have startled Autumn. Also, the “cup” was almost blocking my airway.
Katie sprang into action with Hadley and called her husband, our backup; he picked up dinner on the way. The sight of Eric walking in with a rotisserie chicken, reaching out to free my arms from their baby prison . . . if I’d known that moment of relief and gratitude would come 10 years after he started dating my sister, I might not have been so tough on the guy. (We all love him now.)
So we survived. And even got the kids bathed. Kate and Eric stayed until well after Ollie went to bed and my heart rate had returned to (mostly) normal.
Spencer was due back Thursday evening. If his flight was delayed, even for 10 minutes, please check on us.
And if you find Man, ask him to pick up more chicken.