Reflections on a Decade of Not Getting It All Done

It is a very good thing that sound and image do not travel through the internet without forethought and intent. It permits me to write sentences about my life that seem admirably clean and functional, without actually conveying the way they play out in reality.

This allows me to write things like "Eli, my autistic eldest is on school vacation and is creatively working on fine motor control using local fibers." Now if you could see what this actually means, you'd see that Eli is taking my yarn, lovingly preserved for knitting, and wadding it up, making spiderwebs and spreading it all over my bedroom. Why is he doing this? Well, it makes him happy. And since Eli does not like disruptions in his routine, such as vacations, his happiness outweighs the 4,500 hours I will be spending untangling the yarn.

I can also write things like "My children are out in the greening grass, playing among the goats and chickens by the side of the creek." Like the former, it is technically true. And because sound does not travel through the internet, you can avoid hearing the sounds of three shreiking little boys screaming "he made me spill my iced tea by looking at me...I'm going to kill him with this stick....Ahhh...Daaaaaaaddddd...he's got a stick and..." If I cover my ears, even I can pretend it is idyllic.

Eric's school break is over today, but before heading back to the educational mines, he's building a circular raised bed in our side yard. Again, since the internet has no "smell-o-transmission" function, this means that I can conceal that we dumped a bunch of the barn cleanings out in a circle on the yard, and then realized that every time we opened the kitchen window, we got a fine wiff of composting chicken shit, so we hurried to dig up some dirt to cover it up.

This is what my life is like. And I feel strongly obligated to point this out fairly regularly for all those people with jobs or kids or other obligations who wonder why the fuck their lives aren't just as perfect as mine. No matter how often I tell people the truth (and I do fairly often, in fact one chapter of _Depletion and Abundance_ opens with a discussion of what one does when one runs out of diapers and wipes while picking corn far away from civilization...) that my game is not bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan and the rest of that crap, that I'm just as screwed up as everyone, I know from my email not everyone believes it.

And you should. You may well be doing rather better than me, actually in many respects, like organization (I promised to mail people some books in ummm...December, and I still haven't mailed them), tidiness (crushed matzah with peanut butter is actually stuck to a wall in one room...note that I did not stop to remove it, I merely noted it was there for future reference), not screaming at your kids (the iced tea crisis ended with my threatening, through the upstairs window, never to let my children drink anything, including water again) and a whole host of other respects.

The gift that allows me to be reasonably content despite the body of my failures, and the fact that I'm constantly and chronically behind on nealry everything is the simple gift of ignoring things. I always had this gift, the inheritance of my slacker youth, but it sprang into full bloom with the birth of my first child. In fact, I think the fact that I'm so happy in my life is entirely Eli's gift to me - he's a wonderful, funny, sweet kid, now 10 years old. He wasn't what I expected - but that was part of the gift. I know other people come to these realizations through other experiences than parenthood, but for me, what taught me the most was the even more chaotic transition into motherhood.

Eli at grandmas.jpg

(Eli, visiting Grandma)

You see Eli had colic. Those of you who have never experienced an infant that screams 7-10 hours a day, nurses every 45 minutes and sleeps only an hour at a stretch may not realize just how quickly this breaks down every standard you ever had. The combination of sleep-deprivation torture, the terrible sense of not being able to comfort your baby, never being able to leave the house because your boobs are constantly being sucked on (and are cracked and bleeding because of it) and your child is constantly screaming and the neural overstimulation of listening to that sound means that nearly everything becomes trivial. When, after four horrible months this finally subsided, the rest of the world was a magical oasis of calm and delight - why, everything was wonderful! If I did four dishes in a whole day, that was awesome, compared to the past. If I got to pee all by myself, wow, life was good. There's still some of that in me - the sense that it is a good day if no one is sucking on me and the screaming is only intermittent.

And the lesson of colic has been that almost nothing really throws me in the long term now. Every single moment of my life since those days exactly a decade ago that Eli was driving me to madness in his miserable first encounter with the world has been pretty mellow. Eli gave us the gift of appreciating what we have - and I mean that quite seriously. Nothing in my life has ever been that hard again - so yes, sometimes writing books and working long days in the garden is tiring and stressful, but after parenthood boot camp, I'm mostly feeling fine. (I used to feel guilty about calling it boot camp, until my sister, who was a Marine and who also had a colicky infant observed that having a baby with colic was in fact much harder than Marine boot camp.)

The other gift my son gave me was a sense of perspective. In retrospect, Eli's colic was part and parcel of his autism - he simply wasn't equipped to deal with the world. He's adapted extremely well - he is, as autistic children go, a mellow, go with the flow kind of kid. He's funny and sweet, affectionate and delightful. But he's not what I expected - I always think of having an autistic child as going to the pound to adopt a puppy and coming home with a kitten instead. Kittens are great - but they don't heel or bark or herd the sheep, and if you spend all your time trying to make them into what you expected, you are in for trouble. That's not to say Eli doesn't have to live in our world too, just that I've learned to appreciate him for himself, to like his kitten-ness and adapt my world in some ways to its reality.

It would be easy to obsess about the things I do wrong, about the things that are undone and need doing. It would be easy to build up grand expectations of my life and my future and my kids. The gift of parenthood is a recognition that much of my life will be out of my complete control for the forseeable future. The gift of parenting a disabled child is the recognition that it is worth seeing ones accomplishments outside the context of what you can't get done or do. If I look at Eli through eyes obsessed with traditional models of success, I won't see Eli's accomplishments. They don't appear if you look at the world through the lens of failure and imperfection, so you learn not to do that. They only appear if you look at progress, steps forward. I know that Eli can now stay dry all day at school. I know that he can answer yes and no abstract questions. I know that he can dress and undress himself and put his clothes in the laundry. It is a mistake to look at him in comparison to others or what he cannot yet do - because that blinds us to the reality of Eli. I don't see any point to worrying about what's not there when there's so much there to celebrate.

And that's how my life works - it is full of failures and empty spots and places where you are undoubtably doing better than I am. It doesn't go as smoothly as it sounds on the internet. I'm not the best gardener or preserver, the best parent or teacher, the best anything. But I've learned to look at what I did do - I did more preserving last year than the year before and will do more still this year. I try to remember not to yell all the time, and sometimes it works. I the kitchen floor has acheived I consistent greying color, darker than the linoleum's natural color, but lighter than the blackish color that it often is during spring mud season. I didn't start all the peas yet, but I did some. I'm grateful. I'm happy about it, I'll work on a little more.

Every so often I get emails from people wishing that their lives were just like mine, and those emails make me laugh. Because they probably are - their lives are lively, messy, problematic, filthy, flawed, chaotic. You may have a suburban backyard and I may have 27 goat-filled acres, but the substance is the same - we're neither of us keeping it all together perfectly, we both of us probably feel guilty about it sometimes, and the best answer to making our lives work the way we want is to not obsess about what we can't do and go hard as we can towards what we really want.

It amazes me that the tiny baby that drove me crazy and filled me with adoration is now 1-0 years old and has feet almost as big as mine. In the morning the first thing he does when the boys come running in to let us know that it is light enough for them to get up (not nearly as light as we'd like it to be) is to climb into the middle spot between Eric and Me and cuddle, much the way he was when he slept nightly in that spot between us, long before we imagined his brothers.

My mother, when Eli was a screaming infant, repeated to me what her mother had said to her when I was born, her first (probably screaming) infant - enjoy it, it doesn't last. My mother observed that when my grandmother told her this, during my infancy, which seemed to last forever, she thought her mother was out of her mind. Looking me (then 27) with my baby, she said, it lasts only a second, so you might as well enjoy it. Those four months of Eli's colic went on at least a thousand years, I'm pretty sure, but the next decade came and went in the blink of an eye. It isn't clear to me how time can pass so slowly and so rapidly at the same time - his brothers all had not-quite-so-endless-but-still-not-short infancies too, and toddlerhood for each kid had its long stretches - but it did.

And this too informs my plans - someday I'm going to look up and realize that I've been on my farm for forty years. I know that I will not give a hoot about how the linoleum looked during most of that period. In some ways it is insane to take the long view when the short one keeps calling out to me. And yet I can't help believing that contentment, well, that I will remember.


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My mothers doctor told her when she was obsessing about everything that in a hundred years who will care. That guided the rest of her life. For the better I think. She had five boys.

By Bob Sonnenberg (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink


Sharon, I think you are one of the sanest people I know.

Now- when are you going to start teaching courses in sanity? I think more people need that than need instructions on canning tomatoes. :-)

Who are these people who think some peoples' life is perfect? If someone's life looks perfect, they're hiding something.

Good luck with the peanut butter on the wall. I managed to get pb on a wall recently and I don't even have kids. (tripped while carrying a plate of pb crackers.) The peanut butter came off but there's now a grease stain there that I think is a permanent part of the paint. So it goes.

what are you talking about. my life is totally perfect. i never scream at the one kid i have. i always manage everything with grace and calm and my apartment is always immaculate.

ESPECIALLY when i'm showing a roomful of people from our community garden how to water-bath can, and i buy too few apples so i end up with only three jars of applesauce to can and not enough boiling water to cover them, and one of those breaks when i put it in the boiling water and while i'm dealing with broken glass and boiling water full of applesauce, my one angel child falls down on the ground in front of everyone and pitches a fit because he's not getting enough attention and i have to physically drag him off to his room for a time out while he does the piercing scream he perfected back in his colicky days (ah, how dearly i remember THOSE days) and everyone stares.


amen on the colic. i don't know if it was his colic or his only sleeping 45 minutes at a time for 4 months straight, but it was honestly the most traumatic time of my life. i HISSED at people who told me to "treasure these moments".

Thank you.

oh, and jerah- it has long been my contention that our Founding Fathers here in the US forgot an important right. Constitution should be amended to say: "It is the natural right of every citizen to make a damn-fool of him or herself, once a day."

Think how much stress could be alleviated; how many arguments avoided, by just being able to say "oh, never mind that nonsense- that was just my Once-A-Day."

As a not always content with my singleness and no children situation, I often wander out to my friend's farm for the day. When she's about to murder her husband with a shovel and lock all the kids in the chicken coop and run screaming into the fields, I laugh and tell her to go take a bath. And by the time she's done? I'm done playing out her "idyllic" life. Works for both of us. On a very regular basis.

That was a nice post. I have worked a lot of graveyard shifts, and we raised six kids, so I know what you mean about sleep deprivation. I read an article once about how they used to tame wild elephants in South East Asia by depriving them of sleep for a week or so.

When they were first captured and placed in really strong corals, they would run around and raise all sorts of commotion. There would be a couple of men always around and when they got a little tired, they would walk over to that side of the pen. This continued on through the night, and the men would talk and tell stories and sing, and the elephants got tireder and tireder. More men would come and they moved them to smaller pens and stayed close to them. After about three days and nights the elephants were almost asleep on their feet, then most of the village would come and have a party and cook food and dance. Finally the elephants were so tired they didn't care what the people did, and then finally the people started touching them. It reminds me a lot of parenthood. By the time the last child is a teenager, you are so tired, that you kind of give up. You know they won't listen to you on everything anyway, and that if they are going to do something stupid, that you will have little to say about it.

But it is OK. By then you are mellow and ready to be a grandparent.

(I was wondering where that book was. :-) )

I've got the exact same chicken manure problem --- put some that's not composted enough right outside the window and smell it on every breeze. I'm looking forward to the rain tomorrow to soak it in a bit.

Your post made me feel a lot better. I spent all morning frantically cleaning up our house and yard because we were going to be interviewed (on camera --- gulp!) this afternoon, and I'd somehow managed to forget that those junk piles existed. I ended up tossing most of it in the barn to be dealt with later --- there are even worst junk piles in there. Except in frantic moments like that, though, I love not obsessing about what my house and yard looks like. Isn't it more important to put that time into things that really matter?

Sharon, what a great post! My daughter who has 4 children and hasn't slept through the entire night for the last 3 years will enjoy this. It is always so affirming to see you are not alone! It is way too easy to compare yourself to others, we women are too hard on ourselves sometimes. Your write so well and seem so self assured it is easy to assume that your life is all together. Thanks for showing us the peanut butter on the wall!

By Karen in CT (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink

I was just visiting down--- to--- earth blog archives and found this statement by Rhonda who is so wise: "Forget perfection, that only exists in the advertisements for products sitting on supermarket shelves. Real life is flawed, but it is also beautiful and amazing".

By Karen in CT (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink

colic is pretty chronic in our family too. My eldest screamed for hours with it too. Eventually I just made sure he was safe and warm and then went to the far end of the house with all the doors shut. I could still hear him - just but it did keep me sane. He is now 13 and mildly autistic, dyslexic and gifted! I figure if we can survive that, we can survive anything :) Oh, and he's a neat kid too! (Even if I do want to strangle him on an almost daily basis!!!)

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink

Great post, Sharon.

A wonderful post, Sharon. Yes, it's the contentment and the love that lasts for ever. The rest of it just sort of fades away (maybe not as quickly as we'd like sometimes ... ;) except in so much as it provides a foil for our greater appreciation of the small, contented moments. A friend of mine, a mom to two disabled, chronically ill kids, wrote a song called "Just an Ordinary Day" (It's on Tofa'ah's latest CD - Feel The Power). I think of that often - wouldn't it be wonderful to have just an "ordinary" day? But even the craziest days have so many blessed moments hidden in them.
Thanks for this post. I'm going to make sure many of my friends read it too.

I'll enjoy the book whenever you get around to sending it. =)

Thomas, my oldest, now 3, was like Eli as a baby. As a scientist and first time mother I kept a "lab notebook" of his nursing/sleeping/pooping etc., for the first few months. I was looking back on it recently and counting the number of times he was nursing in one day - more than 20 times was not uncommon. I didn't know any different so it actually seemed normal to me at the time. I thought those mothers who had children who fell asleep on their own (rather than bouncing for hours on a yoga ball with them) were either lucky or lying. Interestingly enough, while not autistic, Thomas is rather quirky and has some sensory processing issues. I think those definitely contributed (and still do) to our challenges with him.

People always marvel at how much do (now with a 3 year old and a 1 year old) but they don't realize that one of the reasons I do all of these things is to stay sane. Getting out in the garden and weeding (baby will only sleep in a sling while I am moving), staying up late canning salsa (hey I'm going to be woken up at least five times a night anyway - might as well get something done between wake-ups), etc. were, for me, ways of still feeling productive and connected to the world while mired in the Gulag of having an infant.

Excellent post.

"it is a good day if no one is sucking on me and the screaming is only intermittent"

You captured it right there. I think the reason older women want to cuddle little babies so much is because we were too sleep deprived to really appreciate our own.

the iced tea crisis ended with my threatening, through the upstairs window, never to let my children drink anything, including water again

This just has me rolling! I can *totally* see you doing this.

Sharon, this is too cool. I just wrote a Facebook post about how everything is easy compared to childbirth and raising kids, and then I came right over here and read this. It's beautiful, and I totally get it, having my own autistic Eli...

Aahhh, the four months of screaming, sucking and throwing up. It's always nice to know you aren't the only one. Nothing will ever be that hard again, and it was great training for teaching middle school. Patience, patience, this too shall pass....

Thanks Sharon, wonderful post.