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"What's wrong?"

Updated: Jan 1, 2019


“You think I’m too messy, but you don’t think Clayton is too neat!” Dee Dee wails.


This outburst comes at the end of a recurring fight, in which Clayton is infuriated by Dee Dee’s mess and Dee Dee, in turn, is enraged by Clayton lobbing her toys into her room and bossing her to tidy up. Their father, annoyed by their constant bickering, tells Clayton flatly that he is “too neat” and Dee Dee that she is “too messy,” and charges them with finding a way to live together.


Clayton immediately seeks me out in the kitchen.


“I don’t think it’s possible to be too neat. Is it?”


“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.” I think of my Italian roommate, Fabiana, who regularly cleaned the inside of the kitchen drain with a toothbrush and asked me to go outside to brush my hair, lest any fallen strands contaminate the bedroom.


“But am I too neat?” Clayton persists.


The diplomatic answer would be no answer, or a noncommittal shrug. After all, Don and I are supposed to be a united front. But I can’t help valuing Clayton’s sense of order and our shared appreciation of a tidy house.


“Am I?”


I shake my head wordlessly, not realizing that Dee Dee is watching me like a hawk. She buries her face in her hands.


“You don’t think Clayton is too neat, but you think I’m too messy,” she cries through her fingers.

“I never said that!” I backpedal desperately. “You’re just different! I love how creative you are, all the crafts you—”


“But you still think I’m too messy!”



I remember when the kids were very little, and I’d be pushing the twins in the double stroller with two-year-old Clayton on my back. The diaper bag would be packed as if for an apocalypse, my shirt stained with breastmilk, my shoulders knotted as tree branches under the perpetual pressure of the Ergo straps. Seeing me, moms with older kids would nod sympathetically.


“Don't worry, it gets easier—” they would begin, before shaking their heads and giving an apologetic shrug. “Actually, I'm not sure if it does.”


I would smile and nod amiably, but secretly, I wondered. How could it not get easier? Maybe they just felt guilty that they were out of the trenches, while I was still clambering over barbed wire and dodging mines in No Man’s Land. Or maybe mothering young children is a bit like childbirth; we know that it is laborious and painful without being able to remember, precisely, what that pain and labor felt like.


Now that my kids are older, I can almost understand what those moms meant. I would never dare say that to a new mom, though, as there are certain things— certain important things— that do get a great deal easier. After all, you do eventually sleep through the night (barring a senile dog who scratches at the bedroom door, not remembering that he just went out an hour ago). Meals never cease to be a daily chore, but at least now putting food on the table is the extent of your responsibility; you are no longer charged with both putting it on the table and spackling it between your offspring’s toothless gums.


But while the physical labor of childrearing has undeniably lessened, I am finding it harder and harder these days to navigate the emotional map of living with three emotionally complex youngsters. If it’s not “You think I’m too messy,” it’s tears because “You’re mad at me,” or a gloomy moodiness that has no discernable cause at all.


Because, let’s face it, humans are complicated, emotional creatures. With five of these creatures living in the same shared space, our moods and emotions are bound to bump up against each other. They are also hopelessly intertwined.


After one lengthy conversation about why Clayton can’t be as nice to Dee Dee as he is to Sylvia, he confesses, “I love Dee Dee, but I just worry that she’s better than me.” There is no amount of heart-to-heart discussions about multiple intelligences and different individual strengths that can quell this fear, that can rip out this awful, gnarled nugget of “I cannot measure up.” I know, because I’ve been chipping away at mine for decades, and I can still feel it in there if I press hard enough.


Nor can I take from Dee Dee the persistent longing that seems lodged in her soul. Dee Dee just yearns. She yearns for understanding and praise and compassion. She yearns for a best friend, a cat, a place of her own. Mostly, she yearns to escape the limitations of her eight-year-old self. She wants her crafts to turn out exactly as they look in her mind’s eye. She wants to stop wallowing in the uncertainty of her future and just be a teacher already, a baker, a chemist, a writer. She wants to have done with the murkiness of childhood and get started on her life’s work. And because she can’t, because she’s stuck, for now, in the life of a child, she gets started on the next best thing, which inevitably involves a hot glue gun, some clothespins, and a little mess.


Sylvia has always been my laid-back child, my go-with-the-flow, happy-go-lucky girl. But I am slowly learning that beneath this easy-going surface, she has her own emotional depths and potholes, and they are all the more surprising because I stumble into them unexpectedly. With Dee Dee, a harsh word will bring an immediate torrent of tears, as if a floodgate has been opened for the sole purpose of letting you know just how miserable she is. (If she is sent to her room, she simply ups the volume on her sobs, lest you forget that she is wounded and misunderstood.) Sylvia, on the other hand, licks her wounds in private. I will find her in her bed after a quiet half hour, dismayed to find that she has been crying all that time because she thought I was mad about a less-than-perfect grade on a progress report, or some slight reprimand that she took unexpectedly to heart.


My father once said— of being chair of the engineering department— that he spent most of his days “putting out fires.” I find that that it is a good metaphor for motherhood, too. Between the rinsing out of lunch boxes and the matching of dozens of little white socks, I am often caught up in a whirlwind of consoling, encouraging, mediating, and sympathizing. Sometimes I find myself thinking longingly of the time when my children's grief was less complicated and could be assuaged with a handful of baby cheese puffs, a quick nurse, or a few refrains of "Twinkle Twinkle."


And while I find the old adage mostly true, that a mother can never be happy if her children are sad, it seems that, in my home at least, the inverse is equally true. If I slump in my chair with an exhausted sigh, or groan out loud about some frustration— the plumber still hasn’t called me back, or the washing machine is leaking again— my children immediately want to know what's wrong. Clayton, especially, constantly monitors my moods.


"Momma, are you happy?" he will ask, mostly when he suspects I'm not.


And even if I'm grumpy or tired or annoyed with the plumber, I always nod and tell him that I am. And it's true. Because I find that happiness is like the overstuffed diaper bag of old. All the frustrations and discontent and melancholy and regret can somehow be crammed inside that big, old bag of happy.


"Yes, I'm happy," I assure him. "Are you?"


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Please contact me at ericawitsell@yahoo.com

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