Karen Rivers

on parenting and shower curtains with elephants on them.

Karen Rivers

Some days the most important thing in the world is a shower curtain with an elephant on it, the question being:  Will the elephant make the bathroom more or less scary?  Will the elephant, by making the bathroom the Most Fun Bathroom Ever, negate the need for you to attend the bathroom with your five year old every time she needs to pee?  Will the time spent looking at the elephant shower curtain be more valuable than the time you should have spent on your work, given that your children's fears and phobias are squeezing the hours of the day, toothpaste-tube style, into an ever smaller strip of blue at the far side of midnight?  Will the elephant shower curtain change everything?  Nothing?  And why aren't you working?  Why are you so tired that the words blur in front of you, your coffee cup empty again and there you are, yawning or crying or both and looking at things you won't buy on Etsy and thinking I should have an etsy shop, I could sell the art that I don't have time to make and then I'll make money so I can spend more time writing to sell things to pay the bills and keep the cycle going the working and working and working and paying and paying and paying.

The kids want to go to Disneyland.  How would that work? 

I'm a single parent, you tell people.  Which is easier in so many ways.  Except, maybe, Disneyland.

Oh, they say, That must be hard.  They think about their family and their husband who is annoying but at least he is there and they are awash with relief that they try to hide from you but they can't because they can see how they can go to Disneyland and you can't.  No, you insist, in many ways it's a lot easier.  Or just as easy.  Really, it is.  It is.  IT IS, you insist.   (What you want to say is please don't feel sorry for me at the same time as you feel quite sorry for yourself that even though you will go to Disneyland you are aware that it will be hard and perhaps not even possible and sort of a really daunting thing to take on, not to mention expensive.)

It will be fine! you add brightly.

You say this enough times that you believe it that you will go to Disneyland, and for gods sake, how hard can it be?  Space Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean and all those Mickey Mouse ears emblazoned on everything, small hands in yours and awe at all the things, which makes it sound easy and manageable and you smile and say, yes, of course I will take you to Disneyland. 

I am a single parent, you say, which is easier in so many ways.   You don't know why you are selling it, it is not as though you think other people should be single parents because it sucks and it is so hard that it is ridiculous some days, ridiculous being your word of the moment, as in stop being so ridiculous there is no such thing as Frankenwienie.  

Nothing about this is easier.  

Easier than what?  Physics maybe or that moment when Felix Baumgartner had to force himself to step out of the capsule.  Yes, that was definitely harder than this.  This is fun. Sometimes, at least.  Occasionally it's fun and easy and you feel like yes, I know what I'm doing.


There is one of you and two of them, their sling-shot wants and needs whizzing by your ear thisclose as you bend to attend to something else, a tick in the dog or the escaping birds or even your own ever wavering needs, which are themselves almost like a hallucinated oasis on a dessert, shimmering there like something that used to be real but isn't any more.  You don't have needs and you can't get your work done because he is afraid of fainting and school lockdowns and she is afraid of the bathroom and Frankenwienie and skeletons who access houses through bathroom windows.   And he needs a hug and look out because she is going to punch you in the back when you least expect it because the last Jolly Rancher was pink and not purple as she had hoped.  

And this is parenting, this is what parenting looks like:  one kid hanging from your leg outside his classroom crying because what if he faints during swimming and drowns in the pool and the other one swinging her backpack into his head because she is late for library and it is an outrage against humanity that he would prevent the Mummy's legs from moving in the direction they need to go to get the girl to her requisite plastic seat ON TIME.  And everybody's angry and scared and crying and this is what parenting is, don't let Pinterest confuse you.

Someone gives you a sympathetic look and keeps walking. 

What must the neighbours/other people/that kid think? you tell the kids, hating yourself for saying it because you sound like someone who is not you who cares more about what the neighbours/other people/that kid think than what is actually going on, but what DO they think?  The noise around your house from the outside must sound... well, it must be... it is...

They scream HELP ME SOMEONE HELP ME because you brushed their hair or they stubbed their toe or they can't get through their spelling list or they don't like lumpy fruit in their yogurt or someone kicked over someone else's Lego tower on purpose or by accident or was that a monster in the window peeking in?  

The neighbours, you continue, must think I am murdering you with a blunt instrument.  What's a blunt instrument? they say and can we have one?  No, you say, you'd kill each other, blunt instruments are obviously dangerous which is why when you read things about murder they frequently employ the phrase 'blunt instrument'.  Then give us a sharp instrument please, they say, like a clarinet.  No! I say, so you can kill each other?  Can't you just play or draw a picture or vacuum the floor?  Then, I don't even have a clarinet.

We are playing they say and then someone steps on the other person's hand while dancing Gangnam style and the other one films the ensuing hysterics on a pretend camera and says Can I post it on YouTube? And the first one screams HELP ME HELP ME and you say WHAT? and she says, he's going to put it on youtube and you say he doesn't even know HOW and he's not allowed and he doesn't even have a CAMERA and please stop screaming HELP ME SOMEONE CALL 911.  

And you think, is this what parenting is was it always like this and teenagers do this, really, they get pregnant and manage this and could I have done this as a teen?  And then you stop thinking about that because someone needs you and says Mummy I need you and you say OK what is it and they say I forget but I love you and you say OK let's just trade marbles for a while and talk about how many sprinkles can fit on a cookie and whether or not a squirrel would make an ideal pet if it wasn't wild.

There.  OK then.

Let's just have some fun before today crashes and burns into another bedtime of IsThatAGhostInTheCorner and why is it that it is so hot and so cold at the same time and I can't sleep can you and please let me tell you this one other thing that happened at school today. And they're thirsty and they're hungry and they want to just quickly check what on the computer and it's late already and have you done your spelling list and just give me one minute to load up the dishwasher and feed the dog and then I will listen while you read.  No, you have to read. Yes, you can have a glass of water.  Yes, it has lemon. You read the book to me, please, or how about we read it to each other instead, no you read first and then me and then we will make up a story, only one more, no more because it's late.  It's too late.  Take turns.  We'll take turns.  

But first just brush your teeth but do not hit each other I AM NOT KIDDING DO NOT HIT EACH OTHER how many times do I have to?  Seriously, how many?  Because last time I checked you did not need to hit each other in order to remain cavity free, which is the goal here, fewer cavities and no black eyes from just the act of standing in the bathroom holding a toothbrush in front of your teeth while NO DO NOT TELL YOUR SISTER THAT FRANKENWIENIE IS TRYING TO COME IN THE WINDOW and yes I know you are scared there are no such thing as ghosts.  You want me to go away and never come back and you don't know why you want that you just do?  What do you mean?  That hurts my feelings, I love you more than oceans please don't pick your nose and you don't know why you love me but you do?  OK, I'll take that, I love you, too.  

Let's have some milk.  Please do NOT do that to the dog just come over here and sit with me for one minute, we'll just sit here.  I will wipe up that spill.  Please pass me the paper towel and don't cry, I will pour more milk and yes, I know milk is the worst thing to spill because it stinks how about you sit down to drink it no sit down sit down sit down.  Please sit down.

I know, I'm tired, too.  Let's just cuddle, climb in to my big bed tonight, let's have a sleepover, let's look up through the skylight at the stars and make wishes.  Don't tell me or they won't come true and then yes I want to hear about what happened at school but take turns, no she started talking first, let her finish please, no it doesn't mean I love her more it means she started talking first and deserves the respect of being allowed to finish her story. You've forgotten what you were saying?  OK, OK.  Well, let's just be quiet for a minute and it will come back, ideas come back and thoughts do, too.  Yes, I think the fairies bring them. I think the fairies hold on to them while we are SO MAD and then when we are ready they bring them back so ask the fairies, say please, will you bring back the rest of my story?  And look, there it is, so tell it, I can't wait.  Yes, I am listening.  

I am always listening.

And then there are the sweaty heads on the pillows.  

Finally, finally.  Heads on pillows.  The day is won.  The night is won.

This is parenting, the sweaty heads on pillows, this is it.  

You lie on the ridge in between the mattresses which is as comfortable as anything and you try to be in the moment, stay in the moment, do not worry for just this few minutes about the bills and the work and the way the days fray down to nothing until you are left with just a handful of thread where you thought that by now you'd have woven something as big, yes, as a shower curtain with or without an elephant.

But look, their eyes are closed, and in that moment, you love them so much, it's like a sand wave of love filling you up and spilling everywhere, warm and perfect and this is your life, this white bed is your life-raft and the stars in the skylight are yours and the moon is yours and the way the branches drop needles and cones on the roof and the symphony of night all around all yours yours yours and everyone is safe and there is no lockdown and no one faints.  

Then one of them laughs and the other one says, I didn't say that and the first one says I wasn't talking to you, I was LAUGHING and oh the outrage that my laugh is misunderstood! The other one hums a song and whispers Gangnam Style and you kiss them both and they each have an arm, give me my arm, they say, and you say, Lucky I have two, what would you do if one fell off and they say we would fight over the last one and you say well then I will keep it attached at all costs and they are giggling and fine, just fine.  Then everyone is sleeping for real this time and in the morning there they are sleepy arms reaching for you and I love you Mummy I love you I am glad you aren't gone and I don't know why I said that that I wanted you to go away or why I tried to push you down the stairs and you say, me too, let's try not to be late for school today who wants to play race-the-timer to get dressed and you will win a prize, you will win all the prizes and we will get to school on time and no one will be crying, tie askew, in the hallway, not today.  

Today you win the world or at the very least a shower curtain with an elephant because elephants are good luck you know.  Good luck unless one steps on you says one of them and you laugh and say yes, good luck unless they step on you, or poops says the other one and they are laughing so hard, the world is shaken by their laughter, the whole house is shaking, the dog barks and the birds squawk and you say, let's hurry so that we aren't late, not today, let's just not be late.