When the kids were small, well-meaning strangers used to stop me in the grocery store.
“Don’t worry, it gets easier,” they would say. Then they’d smile knowingly and add, “Well, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s hard in different ways.”
I’d have one twin on my back and her sister in the infant seat, while Clayton and the other toddler I watched for one challenging year fought over the steering wheel of the little red car attached to the front of the cart.
I’d try to smile, but I didn’t believe them. At that point, I couldn’t even begin to imagine any future parenting challenge that could compare to the herculean effort it took to buy groceries with four kids under three.
I still can’t. And yet.
My kids are twelve, ten, and ten now, and I’m sure that there are parents of teenagers who will shake their heads to read this and insist that the real challenges are yet to come. I have no doubt that they’re right, but that doesn’t help the answers I’m seeking now feel any less murky.
I think that’s the crux of what makes this stage feel so hard: the right thing to do is not as clear as it once was. When Sylvia used to crawl across the floor and grab a fistful of Dee Dee’s hair, I’d pry her fingers open and let her sister loose. But when Sylvia wants to use my phone to text the classmate that Dee Dee’s been texting, and Dee Dee’s mad because the girl is her friend, and Sylvia is righteous because she’s her friend, too, and doesn’t she have just as much right to text her as Dee Dee? Well, the right thing to do is far less clear.
I feel for Dee Dee; I really do. All she wants is a friend of her own, and Sylvia’s unsympathetic righteousness about it is missing the point. But I also understand Sylvia’s reasoning: why should Dee Dee be the only one allowed to text this girl? They’re twins in the same class; a mutual friend or two is inevitable.
I stumble through scenarios like this one on a regular basis. Are those jeans Dee Dee’s if she’s been the only one wearing them for months, but they were originally hand-me-downs for both girls from our neighbors? (Um, I think so?) Do I really tell Dee Dee her hair looks great more often? (Probably, but only because Dee Dee allegedly hates her hair and covers it with a hat any chance she gets.) Why does Dee Dee get to be in Clayton’s room on a Zoom meeting with his friends if Sylvia is banned? (I have no idea. “Clayton! Let Sylvia in!”)
The Zoom meetings themselves are another can of worms. In the early months of the pandemic, Clayton used to lie on the living room floor, overcome with boredom. His moods fluctuated wildly and, in his darker moments, I worried about the effects of the social isolation on his mental health and developing brain.
Now, Clayton spends hours a day in his room, messaging and Zooming with his friends and girlfriend. Not only does this mean less conflict with his sisters, but he’s much more cheerful and engaged.
But because I can’t help it, I worry. Isn’t he getting too much screen time? (Aren’t we all?) Why doesn’t he draw pictures like he used to? And how do we stop those messages from his girlfriend from popping up on his screen when he’s trying to do math?
I’ve also felt alone with these questions. Don is typically more laissez faire with the kids’ technology use, and it’s easy to see how tickled he is by Clayton’s new social life. He’s also at work all day. When he sees the kids playing Minecraft in the evening, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal; he hasn’t seen them glued to their devices for the majority of the school day.
When I broach the subject with another mom with kids about the same age, her answer is clear: she locks up her kids’ computers as soon as the school day is over.
“They get way too much screen time as it is,” she says.
She’s right, undeniably, and yet I don’t think the answer for our family can be so black and white. Because, yes, Clayton spends a lot of time hanging out with his friends on Zoom and building his world on Minecraft, but he’s also writing short stories and watching high school Crash Courses on the French Revolution and nuclear fusion. Clearly, not all screen time is created equal. (And here I sit, tapping away at a laptop during my own free time.)
After weeks of passive-aggressive outbursts on my part— “Get off your computers now and go outside!”— Don and I finally had a heart-to-heart and agreed on a self-regulatory plan that we can all agree on. The kids get a set number of hours of extracurricular screen time a week, which they can use only after they’ve had outside time and exercise. They can divvy up the hours as they like, and they’ll keep their own records on a calendar.
My favorite part of the family meeting we had after dinner was the kids’ reactions:
Sylvia: “Oooh, fun! Can you print out the calendars tonight? I’ll feel so professional.”
Dee Dee: “We could put them in picture frames and then write on them with a wet erase marker.”
Me: “Oh, that’s a cool idea.” Dee Dee (shrugging): “Five minute craft ideas on YouTube. Does looking up recipes online count towards my time?”
Clayton (heading to his room to get on Zoom with his friends): “When are we starting this?”
It’s not a perfect answer. Already I’ve had to bite my tongue when the kids were all Zooming with their friends instead of playing outside on the sunniest afternoon we’ve had in a while. (Well, I bit it for a while, and then I shooed them all outside.) We’re also assuming that they’ll accurately keep track of and report their time, which I know is a leap of faith, but it also makes me happy that I trust my kids to do their best. And, there’s still plenty of gray area.
Clayton and his girlfriend are trying to plan a walk together at the park this weekend, but, after two days of the new rules, he’s already over on his daily average.
“If I just email for a minute to try to make a plan, does that count?”
Probably it should, but Don and I are both too overwhelmed by the cuteness to hold the line.
“Go ahead,” we say, lingering in his bedroom as he opens his laptop. “Where do you think you want to go?”
Because, as a parent, there are so many times I stumble through my lines or don’t know what to say, it’s a relief when the answers are clear. Take last Sunday afternoon. The kids were already wallowing in the Sunday evening blues, and Don and I were focused on all the chores we wanted to knock out before bedtime.
“Momma, do you want to draw with me?”
I never want to draw; it’s just not something that would ever occur to me to do for fun. But, draw with Dee Dee? Of course.
We settled in at the kitchen table while Don washed dishes. Dee Dee had searched for a face on my phone and was sketching it out in pencil. I started a watercolor of a recent hike through brown winter mountains under a turquoise sky. I liked the color of the sky, but the rest of the painting was so far from what I wanted it to look like it that I tossed it aside. Discouraged, I retreated to my comfort zone: watercolor sunsets over triangular mountain peaks, a variation of the same picture I’ve been painting since fifth grade. Just to drive home the point, I added a smudgy brown horse in one corner and penciled in a stick-figure girl on its back. And why not add a rainbow, too?
Dee Dee, despite being an actual ten-year-old girl, has never once, to my knowledge, painted a rainbow. That afternoon, she drew a realistic man’s face, complete with stubbled chin and a contoured nose. (She’s way beyond using two ovals for eyes and a less-than sign for a nose, as I would do.) As we drew and painted, Sylvia played one Taylor swift song after another, singing along while she cruised around us on the hoverboard.
The dryer was full of laundry and the floor needed sweeping, but for one blessed hour, I didn’t think about those things. I focused on blending the orange and red of my sunset, content to be with my daughters as they did two of the very things— singing and drawing— that they’re passionate about and that I can’t do at all. Sylvia played my favorite Swift song, and Dee Dee couldn’t help herself and leaned over to add a face to my painting.
And where was Clayton? Almost certainly on Zoom in his room with his friends. We were all ‘in the zone,’ and I was so grateful for this moment, so grateful that when Dee Dee had turned to me with her sad Sunday eyes to ask me if I wanted to draw, the answer had been so easy: “Yes.”