Creating Security when the World is Scary

My response to the news over the past few weeks has been a mixture of anger, sadness, helplessness, and fighting for reaffirmation that my decision to bring my children into the world was a good one.

10305337_10152245834408282_559586058682218791_n (1)I brought my girls into this world promising them I’d take good care of them. I grew them and birthed them with hope they would prosper in our community and wherever they decided to go as adults. I made a choice as a woman, as a single woman at that, to take on this responsibility of providing them with the basic needs of food, shelter, love, and safety.

In a span of several days, I saw news stories of people dying in streets, in front of their children, in front of people peacefully protesting, while trying to provide for their family, and my response was to clean.

We live in a small apartment-about 670 square feet-and even at that size I cannot keep up on the deep cleaning. When I used to be a housecleaner, I learned the difference between light, maintenance-type of cleaning, like wiping counters and giving the toilet a quick brushing, and the deeper cleaning that is done from your knees. The deep cleaning that makes your arms ache from scrubbing marks off of walls, sticky spots off floors, and reaching behind the toilet to wipe away the dust and hair.

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I started sorting through cupboards, throwing away expired food that I’d hung on to out of the old habit of not wasting anything. Some were years old, and I tossed them knowing I’d at one time carefully packed them in a box, bringing them to our new home that I could afford without needing roommates.

IMG_0832A living room free of dust and a hallway mirror without spots wasn’t out of my want to have a clean space, but my biological need to provide a safe home for my children.

I started sorting through my older daughter’s room, clearing out years’ worth of crumpled papers and past art projects she did on rainy Saturdays. If she’d been looking over my shoulder, she most-likely would have objected. But in my experiences in gutting out her room, she returns from visiting her dad, hugging me for helping her climb out of her tendency to save every special rock, every bottle cap, every Happy Meal toy.

For three full days I ignored work, fought through having a slight version of my daughter’s stomach bug, and cleaned. The outside world had turned into a scary place. I had to carve out a tiny space where they could run to, fall asleep in, and wake up to Saturday morning breakfasts.

IMG_0872As a mother, I sometimes resist the complete and total surrender that comes with caring for my children. I also fight to make sure I can say to them sincerely, honestly, and openly “I chose to have you because I wanted you, and I have never regretted that decision.”

Sure, there have been times that I questioned, or thought I’d grossly overestimated what I could physically and emotionally handle, but for the most part we get through our days just fine. Most nights I don’t long for a different life. I am content and often happy with the life I have chosen.

But I can’t protect them from heartache. I can’t shelter them from scary things happening in the world. I can’t keep important people from leaving their lives without saying goodbye.

But I can give them my arms, my beating heart felt through my chest, and a safe place to call home. I can give them food. I can let them fall asleep in my lap. I can sit with them. I can give them myself whenever they need.

 

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On Working

“No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work, – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work that I do. For a long time, I never felt like I did enough. I thought “work” didn’t count unless I logged in specific hours for pay. I didn’t think domestic work counted. I didn’t think doing dishes, laundry, shopping for and preparing food to feed my children (and myself, for that matter) and even playing with my kids counted as work.

The last few days especially have been a fog of fatigue, of exhaustion that causes my eyes to close if I sit down for too long. On days I have my children home with me from when I wake up to when I finally tell myself to go to sleep, I spend every waking minute caring for the two other people (and furry beast) in my home. I eat, hunched over the kitchen counter, in between gulping down coffee or sometimes water and in the evening a blessed glass of wine or beer. I often do not shower. It’s a constant, grueling mess of two children tugging at my legs or mind or emotions.

In between all of this, I fight to work at my job. I email editors pitches in between flipping pancakes. I keep up on the social media side of being a published writer. I field phone calls and texts and emails about different groups and organizations I’m involved in. I have conference calls while the toddler takes things out of the fridge and spills it all over the floor, much to the delight of the dog. I struggle to put pants on her kicking legs, and sometimes start screaming and flailing myself before walking into my bedroom, embarrassed and angry, heart pounding, and wanting to sob.

IMG_0174There is beauty, of course. There are moments of laughter and joy. There are friends who check in, who come over to talk, who invite one or both of my children over to play.

But I can’t get away from this overwhelming desire, a primal need to just sit down and write. I’m caught up in freelancing to the point where I could probably write all of my waking hours and still not feel like I’m caught up.

This does not coincide with the work I do at home at all. It is not a gentle give and take. It is an inner battle of fighting to love what I hold most dear.

I love writing. I love that I’ve chiseled out a career where I am a writer by trade who is paid well for it. It’s living a dream. Being a mother, well, I can’t say that has been something I’ve dreamed of being since I was in elementary school. Writing was my first love. It is how I identify myself. It is what I will do until I can’t any longer.

IMG_0168Being a mother is also something I do very well, but I can’t say it’s my passion. I don’t enjoy playing, or going to parks or story time at the library. Although I am a good mother, it’s not because I mother my children directly all the time. I outsource my mothering duties. As a single mother especially, there’d be no way I could possibly be everything to my children all the time. I’d have nothing left of me. I’d have no career. My life requires a rotating, constant set of characters that step in to replace me for a time, or I would surely dissolve.

Coraline starts daycare full-time next week. Up until this point, it’s been a hodgepodge conglomeration of a couple of daycare days, a babysitter, family, and friends who all pitch in to give me precious hours to work. I started freelancing in earnest a year ago, and have finally reached the point where I easily log in 50-60 hours a week of writing, researching, interviewing, or keeping up on administrative duties. Then I wash, I cook, and I love on my kids until I am falling asleep sitting up on the couch. Having a full 40 hours a week to focus on work, whether it’s direct or domestic, will be huge for me. I hope to shower, and maybe get back into climbing and hiking. I hope to start cooking again, instead of dragging myself to the store and picking up whatever is easiest.

IMG_0166I always return to that quote by Joseph Conrad. He focused on the rivets, saying it was the little things that made all the difference. An article published on a platform I’ve pined for, being fully present while my toddler goes down a slide, laughing with a friend: they’re the little moments that keep the ship together, and chugging up the river.

I’ve worked two or three jobs for most of my adult life. I am a person who enjoys working, and gets a little nutty if I have too much downtime. Judging from my family history, it’s in my genes. But in these days of feeling so entirely wiped out, I start to wonder if I’ve pushed myself too far, while still getting caught up in the rush that is pitching and getting published. It’s necessary to celebrate the rivets. They keep us together. They keep us moving forward. They are so small, yet vital. They are what holds our life together.

 

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Zen and the Art of Treating Yourself

DSCN2288My tax refunds have, historically, been spent in the most practical ways possible. I pay off my most high-interest debt, buy much-needed pants or shoes, get the girls a fancy dress, and usually do one shopping trip that is basically replenishing all our toiletries and medicine cabinet. This year I decided to invest, instead, in a little peace of mind.

I still put a chunk in savings that’s enough to float us a month if needed. I made a little cushion on credit balances. I also treated a business trip like a vacation.

I hadn’t been on a plane in something like seven years. I hadn’t left Montana in two, and hadn’t really been out of Missoula much in the same amount of time. Any sort of traveling has been out of complete necessity. When I felt the force of the plane’s speed as it lifted us into the air a couple of weeks ago, I smiled like a little kid.

The sky was completely clear of clouds for the first leg of our trip. I forgot how small things are. How small I am. How my city blocks that I circle from my apartment to the store to grandma’s house and daycare and the bank get scooped up and disappear between all the mountains.

I wrote on the plane. I found out I get kinda air sick now. I landed in Newark past closing times, in awe that lounges in the airport had tables containing a tablet for every person. I successfully found a cab ride, accidentally tipped the driver 25 bucks, and flopped on my bed about half past midnight, totally wide awake.

The trip was no vacation. I was in training sessions for most of day one, and right up until I flew out on day two. But I got to shower for as long as I wanted. I slept in the shape of a starfish. I ordered room service.

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I’m still waiting on two larger paychecks, and I’ve decided to spend them. For the last month, I have carefully and intricately selected items and placed them in my Amazon shopping cart. I’ve decided it’s time to update the $30 set of pots and pans I got six years ago at Walmart. The girls need summer shoes. I’m getting a blender because I really want to give smoothies a try, dammit. I got us new pillows and sheets. I got Coraline some bath toys. I’m getting vitamins.

These are the things I spend money on when I have it. They’re the things I haven’t had money to buy in years. Either that or I felt something else needed cash thrown at it instead. I fight justifying these purchases, and I haven’t even bought them yet.

The general consensus in giving the poor cash is a resounding no. Many people living in poverty fight for the scraps the government has left them, jumping through work requirements and audits. But what if we just gave the poor some cash? Not like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is supposed to supplement the now extinct American Families with Dependent Children funds. The unemployed or even underemployed don’t benefit from tax refunds. People need cash to buy pants, shampoo, and maybe for a meal they don’t have to cook.

Maybe it’s a fear that the poor would go out and blow the money on non-necessities. And Americans don’t like people getting money for doing nothing. But the majority of people living in poverty, when they get some cash to spend, purchase necessities. Things that get taken for granted, like new toothbrushes and soap. Plus, all of that money would go right back in to our local economy, perhaps even creating a few jobs.

These are the things I think of when I stay up at night, carefully adding and subtracting items from my cart. Part of me still nags that I should be paying off credit card debt in sweeping gestures like I usually do. But for now, it’s good to have some cushion. It’s good to make life a little easier. And boy was that room service nice.

DSCN2289This morning, I decided to get some groceries after dropping Coraline off at daycare. I grabbed the bigger cart, the produce section glowed, and they had a lot of great deals on meat. I ended up grabbing a lot more than I intended.

When I got to the register, the cashier and I chatted a bit while she rang everything up. I loaded the cart and she told me the grand total. I paused a second before swiping my EBT card, an action that’s made me feel like I’ve had a neon “POOR” sign over my head for the last several years.

I looked at the cashier, and smiled.

“This is my last month on food stamps,” I said.

She cocked her head kind of funny, maybe taken aback a little. Then she smiled too.

“Congratulations,” she said. “That must feel good.”

I’ve never been able to support my family completely on my own before. It feels a thousand more times than good. It’s fucking incredible.

 

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The Still, Quiet Voice

I sent my older daughter off to school after I’d woken her up only 20 minutes earlier, walking around the kitchen with my hair all crazy, my mind foggy, holding a 26-pound little human to my bare chest who refused to stop nursing.

When I dropped that baby off at daycare nearly an hour later, bucking and screaming when I handed her over to the woman I felt empathy for, I ran away before she could say “No, not like this. Not screaming like this.”

I got home, made myself some food and a second pot of coffee. The dog curled up on the couch, then at my feet, thankful I’d returned home and hadn’t abandoned her like she’d assumed.

A lot of being a writer is not writing. Much of it is reading. I see these as two separate but vital things. The not writing comes in waves of piecing together, and for me it’s self-reflection; looking at parts of my life from all different angles, looking for the most vulnerable, tender spot for the truth. Sometimes it’s an act of chewing, or going through a piece I’ve researched to death and still don’t know how to talk about. Sometimes, when I am most lucky (which hasn’t happened in years until just recently), it’s in someone else’s bed, staring up at someone else’s ceiling, intertwined completely, listening to their contented sleepy noises, my nose buried in their hair.

Things find you. People. Words. Whole entire essays that sit down with you and see you.

“We—mothers who write, solo mothers who write and create—often, if not most of the time or all of the time, write for our lives. Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary. We can get lost in routine and duty, obviously, but getting lost in the love part—love of our children, love of writing—might prevent that. Part of that is self-love. Part of that is creative output. All of it meant to keep us connected to who we are, as creative beings, when external forces might sever or corrupt such connection.”

DSCN2207Khadijah Queen’s essay on “Mothering Solo” touched on so many aspects of being a sole caregiver without explaining, it came at almost a relief or sigh. Because I’ve felt the need to explain my situation for so many years. I think a lot of my writing in the last few months has been just that.

Since finding out about Coraline, I’ve fought-and sometimes lost-a horrible battle with a part of myself that slut-shames me. I don’t know how else to describe it. I feel people’s questions burning. The whens, whys, wheres, and hows. I have no explanation anymore. We just are. Us three.

Much of my social life is online. It’s where I share most of myself. Even now, in writing this, it will be my one chance to talk about my day. I never expect responses, or even that many readers. Writers are a special sort of breed that need to share their stories by writing them down for others to see. Even when I kept journals as a child, locking them up before hiding them so no one would find them, I hoped someone would. As a kid, I wanted to be like Anne Frank, with my diaries found and published years after my death so I wouldn’t have to experience the horror of people reading my thoughts. I think, even as a kid, I knew that part of it’d be hard.

My last post got picked up and shared by WordPress, and has since been read over a thousand times. Yesterday I watched, a little stunned, as the comments of love and support came in, and continued to this morning. “From the still quiet voice, that shouts in my mind, I am letting you know, that it does get better,” one said. “It won’t ever be perfect, but better. Please feel free to reach out to me should you ever need a friend or listening ear that simply understands.”

DSC01838I started this blog years ago, before mommy blogs were popular, as a way to pick out pieces of my often lonely days with Mia that I wanted to remember. I needed to do that in order to stay sane, but also to be a present parent for her. If I spent even ten minutes remembering, and writing, later that night when she screamed and fought me over eating or going to bed, I could go back to that place where I meditated on the way her hands looked as she carefully picked up a crab with a yellow plastic shovel.

I called it, this website, “Still Life with Mia” then. Most of the entries have been set to private. I want to tell the stories in a different way, in an older writing voice. I want people to read about our life then, but not in the near-desperation of how I wrote about it then.

When I decided to be a “real” writer, I stopped blogging and refused to say the word. Almost a year ago, I started, slowly, taking selected past entries out of hiding and creating new ones. I never imagined I’d have many followers. I wanted to be a freelancer, and in order to get clients, I needed some kind of writing sample. I never thought I’d consider my own website as a true platform, or anything people would seek out. Now that it is, I can’t help but get emotional over the support people so freely offer.

11816093_10153158450028282_1964318977357852109_oBecause it’s still just me, sitting alone, at a computer, staring at a wall of photos and grabbing a mug to take a drink of coffee that is long-since gone. I have to remind myself to get up, to eat, to stop staring, and walk around a bit.

I dropped my baby off at daycare this morning when she was upset and needing her mom so badly, running away from her neediness, so I could sit and listen to the still quiet voice.

What’s it going to say today?

When I used to have regular panic attacks, ones that’d come for no reason, ones that would cripple me into feeling like I was suffocating, ones that curled me up into a ball in a jacuzzi bathtub of a house I’d been cleaning, I found a mantra:

“I love you, I’m here for you.”

The further I got into this journey as a single parent, and found myself further and further estranged from my family, it became my mantra for life. I’d learned I couldn’t depend on anyone else, and fell back into myself as my only source of support.

Maybe that’s where I got my strength from. Reaching out became an action of weakness. Writing blog posts about my hardest moments were showing humility, admitting faults, in an action that is going against the grain of only displaying perfection. It feels necessary to me now.

Where we are raw is where we are alive.

 

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Here Now

I’m writing this knowing my bank account is overdrawn, because I’m still waiting on four, unexpectedly late paychecks. I’m writing this from my couch, where my 19-month-old is sleepily nursing in my lap. I’m writing this two hours before I was supposed to meet friends for lunch, but had to cancel because of lack of funds. I’m writing this in between the tugs on my heart strings and knots in my stomach and angst of being alone.

Yesterday I went to bring my friend who’d just had a baby dinner. While I sat at her table, doing the familiar action that was holding a small baby while trying to eat, carefully picking food I’d dropped off of her incredibly new little frame, I started to seethe in jealousy and self-loathing.

My friend had a housecleaner. She had a mother-in-law staying with her. She had a husband at work who made enough to support the three of them and their house, two dogs, and two cats. She had a pile of boxes of things people had sent her, and a lot of things she’d planned to return because they ended up not needing them.

IMG_6450I looked over at my girls, playing so sweetly together, and thought of when Coraline was just born. I was completely on my own in an empty house just two days after I’d given birth. My cousin had stayed with us for a few days, and left us with a freezer full of pasta dishes, and some friends had brought us some food. Other than that, I was alone with a newborn who screamed if I put her down, and a rambunctious 7-year-old who, though I didn’t know it at the time, had hair completely full of lice.

Though Cora’s dad wasn’t there then, he’s here now. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him almost every day. He got a full-time job and has committed to helping me pay for daycare costs while working with me on a schedule that gives him ample time with his daughter.

Mia’s had a hard time with this, of course, since she just returned from being with her dad for a week. Last night, after the visit to my friend’s house, Cora’s dad came to hang out with her for a couple of hours. I turned to Mia and asked her if she wanted to go to the store for cupcakes.

We live next to this ritzy hippie store, full of organic produce, but they also have baked goods that we can purchase with food stamps. On the way there, Mia skipped along next to me, holding my hand.

“Have I told you how much I love you lately?” she said.

I laughed and said not really.

“I love you so much, Mom,” she said. “You’re the best mom anybody could ever have.”

We ate our cupcakes, and I sat across the table from her while she talked about school, and mentioned one of her friends who was really really grumpy that day.

“Am I ever really really grumpy?” I said, knowing I was often.

“Yeah,” she said. “Like if I’m not listening and I know I’m not listening.”

“I feel like I’m kind of hard to live with sometimes,” I said.

“You’re a great mom,” she said. “You get grumpy, but you just had a baby by yourself. I know it’s hard.”

Lately it’s come to my attention that I’ve exhausted myself for a long time, and I’m beginning to feel the mental and physical toll. My hair’s about half as thick, and going gray. I don’t sleep for more than three or four hours. There are always about five things I need to be doing, not including taking a shower or going pee.

I’m looking for a therapist, though I’m not sure what it’ll do to help.

DSCN2248Despite all of this, I’ve already been published several times this year, and am putting the finishing touches on a book proposal that I hope to send out in the next week. My article through the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago made it to print in the newspaper. An essay featured in the Style section.

These last few months have been life-changing with Cora’s grandparents and father becoming a part of our little family. It comes with its own realizations of my own issues revolving around trusting others. In that sense, sometimes it’s easier to be alone.

IMG_6480Coraline took to her dad instantly. I’m pretty sure on some level she knew she was his. Watching them together has been full of moments of unexpected sweetness. She wraps her arms around his whole head, and runs to him for a hug when he leaves.

All of my desires to find a suitable partner have faded. It might be from a mix of no longer having the ability to put energy into it, to wanting to focus on my family’s recent expansion and how that’s affecting everyone. I published a piece about it in the Washington Post the other day, ending with saying I’d try some sort of casual thing, but even that was too much.

I think it’ll be a long while before I can jump into anything like that.

But Coraline’s finally starting daycare two days a week. I don’t think I even need to say what a huge relief that is. It seems like things are always just on the brink of sailing smooth. Or sometimes they do for a while then dip back down to weekends like this where I have absolutely no money.

Darkest light’s before the dawn, you know.

 

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These Twists and Turns of Fate

DSCN2235Christmas comes and goes here. It’s a chaotic whirlwind of buying, wrapping, and opening presents that I spent money on which I didn’t really have. I do this for the joy of watching their faces light up, just like any parent does, I suppose.

Christmas also brings a day of preparing Mia to travel to her dad’s via airplane. She’s grown accustomed to flying alone–she’s been doing it for a few years now. Tonight, the day after Christmas, I got us ready, thinking if we left by 6 o’clock we’d have plenty of time to make the 6:50 flight. Missoula has a tiny, very empty airport. There’s never a line, and usually when we get there 45 minutes early, we end up waiting for a half an hour.

We got there at 6:22. I know this because the woman at the counter said it three times. When she thought it was me traveling with two children, she said there’d be just enough time to make it, since they had just started boarding. When I said Mia was traveling alone, she said she couldn’t let her on.

“What?” I said. “But it would take us ten minutes to get to the gate.”

“There’s paperwork to fill out,” she said. “There’s just not enough time.”

For the first time in my life, I begged and pleaded. I asked her again. And again. She said there was a flight leaving in the morning that she could get us on, and waived the fees and extra cost. Someone called her on the walkie-talkie about a passenger with a medical problem who had to disembark and get on a later flight.

“Is there a delay?” I said.

“No,” she said.

“Please, isn’t there anything you can do to get her on this flight?”

“Ma’am, there’s nothing I can do here. You got here after the 40-minute window to check-in and board. I’m waiving the fees for you to get on the morning flight but that’s all I’m going to do for you here. Now do you want the morning flight or not?”

Mia was openly crying, the baby was squirming in my arms, and I was desperate. I knew Mia’s dad would be upset. Mia was now refusing to go at all. I called to tell her dad about it and he also couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let us through. But he’d missed a flight before, too, for the same reason, and was forgiving. Maybe it was the tone in my cracked voice, and my apologizing. He talked to Mia a bit and I went back to the counter to change the ticket.

I sat with Mia for a few minutes before leaving. I was shaking a little with anger, stunned that we’d missed the flight for the first time in these years of back-and-forth traveling.

“I’m so sorry, Mia,” I said.

“It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

It actually was. I’d taken out the trash, had to defrost the windows of the truck, and ran back inside twice to grab things we’d forgotten before we left. I’d figured if we’d gotten to the airport with 30 minutes to spare we’d be fine, and was obviously wrong.

I got both the girls Happy Meals, got home, and started scrubbing the house, as I do when I’m frustrated with something I can’t control. I took down the tree, picked up the living room a few times, cleaned the kitchen, and scrubbed the bathroom. Mia wouldn’t go to sleep for a couple of hours, a trend she’d started since not going to sleep until two in the morning on Christmas Eve.

We’d gone to Coraline’s grandma’s house for the evening, much to the horror of our dog, who rarely gets left alone for more than an hour. Coraline’s family in town has quickly become ours. Mia calls the parents of Cora’s dad “Granny” and “Grandpa,” and they treat her like a bonus grandchild. We laughed and told stories and the girls opened a small pile of gifts. I even got a scarf and money for coffee, along with a gift certificate to go on an ice skating date with Mia. I got choked up at one point, sitting there amongst Granny, and two aunts, an uncle, and a cousin who is just six weeks younger than Cora.

“Thank you so much for everything,” I said. “And for accepting us like this. This is so unexpected. I haven’t spent the holidays with family in four years.”

DSCN2238Christmas morning came after a few short hours of sleep. Mia quickly tore through her gifts, and pretty much opened Cora’s as well. After the late night, I was so grumpy about basically being a vessel for gifts to flow out of and not much else. But I was able to get Mia one really nice thing, purely by donation of a couple of musicians in town: her very first guitar.

I cringed at her wanting to carry it around, knowing that it was worth almost as much as my new laptop. She spent hours in her room, trying to play “Wagon Wheel” and singing and dancing to Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

Most of the day was spent in pajamas, and by the time we got ready to leave to a friend’s house for dinner I realized the only thing I’d eaten was various chocolate treats and bacon.

Mia joined the crowd of kids at my friend’s house like she always does, while I shyly spoke to the adults like I always do. Coraline walked around, letting people dote on her and pick her up and help her up and down stairs, which has been a new personality trait in the last few months. Before that, if anyone tried to engage with her at all, she clung to me even harder and often cried. Being able to sit and relax knowing other adults were keeping an eye on her was incredible. And so was dinner. And the company. We left with very full bellies and leftovers, which I ate most of today.

I know I probably won’t sleep tonight, nervous about getting up at four, getting everyone out the door, and making the flight in time. Most of the time when Mia’s gone I camp out on the couch watching whatever I can find on Netflix, too mopey to venture out much at all.

This week will be a little different. I have a large book proposal to edit. There’s also this gentleman who wants to cook dinner together and spend afternoons giggling. It all feels so promising I get a little caught up in it all. I guess we’ll just have to see.

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Finding Christmas

Freelancing has an odd flow to it, or no flow at all, really. A bumper month is the payoff of work from two months before. Once I got a couple of regular gigs that together are a steady stream of money coming in, I stopped pitching stories to other outlets. I worked on my book proposal, and sometimes just didn’t work at all.

It’s easy for me to sink into the ebb and flow of my kids’ constant needs and wants. I allow them to drain me.

This morning Coraline woke up at four, making an odd kind of desperate wheezing noise. She’d cough, and cry a little, but still directed me to the kitchen to get her something to eat. I relinquished, got up, and turned on the coffee maker.

These are moments I wonder what it’s like for parents who have a partner. Does one person get up at night if another has to work early? I imagine the “off-duty” one still getting up, offering help, or relief. Maybe when one finally gets up for work and finds the other half asleep, watching Sesame Street with a sick toddler in their lap, they smile at each other a bit, trade places, and one can take a shower or stretch or pee. I guess I don’t know. I only have what I can imagine. I’m not sure I’ll ever have anything else.

Photo on 12-17-15 at 5.26 AMCora’s been saying her version of words lately, and asked to go in her backpack. I paced around in my living room and kitchen, handing her apple slices, starting my day in the stillness and dark, except for the glow of the multi-colored lights on our fake Christmas tree.

I’ve been struggling with getting in the mood for Christmas this year. Mia has been relentless with her requests for gifts. It doesn’t seem to matter what I get her, there are always five more requests in line after it.

I sat on the couch this morning and watched her get ready for school. She sneezed, and coughed, flipping her bread with an egg in the center in the pan to cook on the other side. She put her snow pants on, then sat next to me on the couch. I could tell by the dark circles under her eyes that she was sick.

“Let me feel your head,” I said. She wasn’t warm. Or at least not as warm as the limp baby in my lap, who roused at the sound of my voice. Coraline sat up and immediately hugged and kissed Mia.

I wish sometimes that this could be Christmas. Quiet mornings, in the glow of lights, and not a build-up to another early morning of opening gifts. I want to enjoy these two warm bodies next to me that were once part of my own.

This year will be the first Christmas in a very long time that we’ll spend with family: Coraline’s grandparents and aunts and uncle and cousin. Her grandma came to Mia’s Christmas Pageant at school. Her grandpa comes over and cooks dinner with them. They’ve taken Mia in as a bonus grandchild. I sit back and try to enjoy these things without my lack of trust keeping them at too long of an arm’s length. I’m happy for my girls. I’m happy for me, too, if I allowed myself to admit it. I’m still getting used to grandma and grandpa calling once or twice weekly to ask when they can see the girls again. That’s never happened to me.

10173640_10152613732603282_2581214178596635514_nWe do have much to be thankful for at the end of this year. Last year, I had nothing. The girls’ presents were bought with money from donations and money I literally found. I sent Mia off to her dad’s on Christmas Day and when I called to ask if she’d landed okay he called me a dip shit. I dread her leaving for a week this year again. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.

Lately whenever Coraline’s tired and wanting to nurse, she drags around the U-shaped pillow, following me as I try to eat and use the bathroom. I’ve been trying to not let her take these little naps during the day so she goes down by nine at night. The other night we both sat on the floor, taking turns pulling the plungers out of syringes with her laughing at the popping sound they made. It was almost midnight, and I’d tried to put her down three times already. But I sat there on the floor with her for an hour, knowing she’d never remember it, but I’d never forget it.

step.