exhale

Rest and Routines and Afternoon Target Runs

“What about this silly thing?” became a game during the last five minutes of our Tuesday afternoon Target run.

“What about this silly thing?” one would ask, and then make a goofy face or point at something, like a rack of clothing, which looked innocent to me but sent all three kids into peals of laughter. The first twenty minutes of calm vanished almost instantly as their energy bubbled to the surface. They weren’t naughty per se, but they weren’t exactly model children, either. They were mostly loud. (As one might expect with two five-year olds and a three-year old who don’t suffer much from shyness.)

We made it through the check out lane (barely - one kid was banished from the cart aka banished from being in close proximity to his siblings) and out to the car. They were nearly hysterical with laughter at this point. I tried to map the quickest route to the dentist in my head, our next stop, as I loaded both kids and Target bags into the van.

“Guys!” I finally cried, pulling out of the lot, “Be quiet! I just need to think!”

Their giggles filled our minivan and set my teeth on edge. My fingers gripped the steering wheel tighter than was necessary. I took what I thought was the turn for the dentists office and realized almost immediately I’d turned one intersection too soon.

“Why did you go this way?” Caden asked, giggling now at my mistake.

“Because I can’t think!” I said. “You can run around and be loud when we get home but right now I need you to figure out how to control your energy!”

And that’s what they should have been doing before this dentist appointment: running around the backyard, being loud. Needless to say, an afternoon trip to Target is not a part of our normal routine.

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Our days have followed a pretty set pattern during the past five-and-a-half years. Routine anchors our days. I’ve read how rhythms and routines are so important for small children, seen how my own kids are thrown off when our groove is broken. Really, though, I’ve created these routines as much for myself as for anyone else. (Enneagram 1, anybody?)

The kids have glommed onto these rituals, too. They know that a 7 on the clock in the am means it’s time for breakfast, while at night it equals bedtime. An 8 indicates it’s time to get ready for the day and a 5 in the late afternoon means dinner is imminent.

They know the pattern of our days: eat breakfast, dress and brush teeth, outing or activity, home for lunch, nap/quiet time, screen time, playtime at home, dinner, bed. They know that Wednesday is grocery day, Saturday mornings are for video chatting with Grandma and Grandpa, that we eat tacos on Tuesdays.

Lunchtime is an important anchor in the day for us all. The kids eat before I settle them in their bedrooms with crayons, paper, puzzles, and LEGOs for quiet time. Occasionally, all too few and far between these days, Nolan takes a nap. I retreat back downstairs to sweep the crumbs off the counter and make my own lunch, sit down and read a book where there was chaos only moments ago. 

These fifteen minutes or so are all mine and I savor every bite. It’s the one meal each day where I’m not interrupted with requests for more water, or more pasta, or more of anything. There’s no spilled milk, no reminders to please sit on your butt facing the table, no pleading to eat just one more bite.

Our post-quiet time TV-watching emerged from my reluctance to let go of the quiet. To return back to Earth and the chaos so suddenly once the clock gave them the go-ahead to stampede back downstairs. Instead I turn on the TV and they watch a show or two to ease our return to the real world. I often join them on the couch again with my book or (reality check) some laundry to fold.

 I hold tight to these daily rhythms, afraid that if I let them go I’ll lose myself altogether.

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Target became a part of our afternoon on Tuesday after Nolan acquired the fifth and final sticker on his quiet time chart, earning him a LEGO set of his choice.

“Let’s go to Target! Let’s go! Let’s go!” he cheered. I couldn’t deny his excitement, especially since we had the time before their dentist appointments. And Target is only a four-minute drive from the dental office, after all.

That Target trip/dentist combo wasn’t the only thing to disrupt our schedule this week. Our routine was also thrown off by afternoon swim camp. Combined with two nights of early evening t-ball games it feels as though our days have both been cut short (dinner at 4:30!) and stretched out longer (bedtime at 7:30...if we’re lucky). I’ve been scarfing my lunch down with the kids, quiet time has been nonexistent, the book I’m reading sits abandoned until I fall into bed at night. 

“I haven’t had any time to myself this week!” I told Tyson on Wednesday night, overwhelmed with writing deadlines and grocery orders and emails - things I usually tackle after lunch during the remainder of quiet time. Instead I was with the kids (including a particularly unruly three-year old) from morning to night without even a screen time break. The only time I had to myself (theoretically) was during swim lessons, where I kept one eye on my two swimmers in the water and another on Nolan in the adjacent activity room while also attempting to create a grocery list with the swim school’s spotty Wi-Fi.

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I realize now that I’ve structured our days to facilitate rest, both for myself and for the kids, to help prevent any of us from getting burned out. The middle part of our day is so important: the lunch/quiet/screen time part. A breather from the morning hours before tackling the afternoon witching ones. Our routine gives me stability just as much as it does them. When these habits are interrupted it throws me off, as though my very center is off-balance.

This week showed me that my fear is a valid one: once I let go of our daily anchors my day does become unhinged. And so do I.

I had a professor in college who would remind us, during particularly challenging courses, that the semester was only sixteen weeks long. “You can do anything for sixteen weeks,” she would tell us.

It’s only for this week, I remind myself. I can do anything for a week.

And I can. I did. We made it to Friday. The next couple of weeks sit heavy in front of us, without much on the calendar before school begins and we fall into an entirely new routine. But at least in the next two weeks there will be time for regular lunches, normal quiet times, and even — glory hallelujah — daily doses of screen time.

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This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Rest."


What Writing Looks Like

“Mommy,” Brooklyn began, as I helped her get dressed. (In a jumpsuit. Five-years old and those can be difficult.)  Her hands were on top of my head, even though I’ve told them all 432 times to use my shoulders for balance instead. “Mommy, when we press on your head, does it push all of your ideas out?”

I laughed and said no, I still had my ideas. She grinned, crinkling up her newly-freckled nose, gave me a hug, and scampered away. 

I thought more about her question as I carried a load of laundry downstairs. Small, marker-stained fingers in and of themselves don’t push out my ideas. Though sometimes it feels that way.

It’s hard to explain writing to someone who isn’t a writer. The struggle to pull together a sentence, add a period, the debate to use a comma vs. a semicolon. The drafts and the edits and the agonization over word choice. I’m not sure I know of a single writer who actually, really, truly enjoys the writing process itself. It’s arduous. To do justice to a story, plodding forward in an attempt to tell the truth, to get to the essence of an idea; it’s work.

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Jen Hatmaker has talked on her podcast about how writing is like dredging up words from the bottom of the ocean. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, says that the act of writing looks like this:

“You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

Throw in picking up your phone to scroll through Instagram for awhile and this is 1000% accurate.

Glennon Doyle talks about a famous writer who was asked if she loved writing, and her response was, “No, but I love having written.”

That sounds about right to me.

Anyway, back to those small children with their sticky, dirt-covered hands who ask about pushing ideas out of my head.

Sometimes writing looks like trying to put words down on a page but my brain has absolutely no ideas and it is all the children’s fault, not because they used my head to balance, but because the only thing I can think of is the LEGO Movie 2 The Second Part Original Motion Picture Soundtrack because it’s on repeat at our house and even when it’s not playing the children are running around singing it at the top of their lungs: “THIS SONG’S GONNA GET STUCK INSIDE YOUR HE-AAAAAD” and it is, it IS stuck in my head and I haven’t had an original thought for two straight weeks.

Writing looks like sacrifice. It takes time and energy. Sometimes it takes money in the form of a writing class or an editor. More often it’s in the form of a $5.35 latte. Mostly, though, it’s time. Since I am not, never have been, and never will be a morning person this often looks like rushing out the door at 6 pm right after dinner until the coffee shop closes at 9:00. It’s time on the weekends when I would truly rather be lounging around the backyard or going on a family adventure but if I don’t take advantage of the next two or three hours who knows when I’ll get a decent stretch of writing time again.

One of my writing spots is a coffee shop, just a five-minute car ride away. It’s quiet. Not that it isn’t busy, but the overall atmosphere is studious. I realized recently that there are virtually no children there. Like, ever. One day I saw an eight-year old in line with his mom and it dawned on me: this is the first time I’ve seen a kid here. Mind. Blown.

I’m not against kids (I managed to have three of them) but they’re not exactly quiet. If I could concentrate with small children around I wouldn’t have to leave the house. Their babbling words interrupt the ones I’m working to construct in my head, so it’s hard to concentrate on things like writing an entire coherent sentence

I do enjoy watching the high school students who congregate here, though, the teenagers who are thoughtful and friendly, showing their friends their latest Snapchat (or whatever, I mean I don’t really know) and giggling. They sit with their large extra-pump-of-caramel frozen concoctions at their sides because they don’t need to worry yet about ingesting that amount of caffeine or sugar at 8:30 pm.

Other times writing looks like heading to my favorite spot in downtown Minneapolis. It looks like double-checking that I’ve locked my car because there are signs warning me to: “LOCK YOUR CAR. HIGH PROWL AREA”. But it’s worth it because then I enter into the most magical workspace in town, where they make chocolate croissants as big as my head and the eggs benedict is the best combination of salty/sauce-y/butter-y I’ve ever had and it takes all of my restraint to not order everything on the menu. (Those days writing costs me about $18.46.)

Writing looks like creating my very own writing nook. I’ve been sitting here often now, despite the children, instead of heading to the coffee shop. Sometimes a little boy sits on the floor next to me and plays with his LEGOs, and every time he starts to talk, I say, “Mommy’s working remember?” and he says, “Oh yeah I forgot” in a whisper.

There used to be times when writing looked like typing up words at 2:32 am, since I was awake anyway and it didn’t matter whether it was 2:32 in the morning or 2:32 in the afternoon, I was probably nursing a baby, either way.

Sometimes writing looks like rushing home from the store and abandoning the groceries on the kitchen counter so I can rush upstairs to type up the narrative I’ve been constructing in my head the whole way home. It looks like not being able to keep up with the rush of words and hoping I get them all down on the page in the exact order they came to me on University Avenue in my minivan.

Other times it looks like not being able to abandon the groceries, because they really do need to be put away so we can eat lunch, and by the time I get to a computer hours later, they’ve completely vanished. “I’ll remember this later,” I lie to myself. But I never do.

Sometimes it’s leaving myself a voice message of an idea I’m certain is genius and then listening to it later and wondering what on Earth I was talking about.

Some of the best times are when I leave a draft for my friends, the fiercest, strongest group of women and mothers I know, and they leave me comments and edits. And depending on the piece, sometimes I hate them for awhile and I abandon writing for awhile (forever, if I get dramatic in my head) until I come back to it and realize they were all so very right. Entire essays have been born because of them. Entire essays have been saved because of them.

There are nights I can’t wait to escape, where the day has been long or a deadline is looming or a story is in my head and it’s all I can do to not plop the kids in front of the TV to type up some words.

Other days all I want to do is stay home, to do the bedtime routine and snuggle them in. To answer questions like, “Is the sun always a star?” and read their books. Sometimes writing looks like being surrounded by children and stuffed animals as I take note of the rhyming patterns in “Rosie Revere, Engineer” or the foreshadowing in Harry Potter.

Those ideas in my head get pushed in and poured out all the time. Sometimes it’s like grasping at air to try to reign them in, to put them down on the page to create something meaningful and intelligible and maybe even beautiful. And sometimes those ideas are initiated by a little freckle-face five-year old wondering if she’s pushed all the ideas out of my head, and instead I can say, no — you’ve added to them.

Eight Years and Three Tables

“Mommy I only like the oranges,” Caden tells me. I look across the kitchen table to see his plate untouched but for the oranges.

“You need to eat something else,” I say, “Then you can have more oranges.”

He scowls behind his plate. “I already tried everything and I don’t like it,” he says, though I know he’s lying. (That he’s tried it. This is an end-of-the-week scraps-for-dinner kind of meal so it’s probably true he doesn’t like it.)

I ignore him; I don’t want the fight. I’ve already gotten up to get Nolan some milk and then my own water where I’d forgotten it on the counter. Nolan suddenly jumps up and runs over to play with his new LEGO set in the living room. Caden follows.

“Boys!” I say, “Put your butts in your chairs! It’s time to eat.” This happens again, once, twice, three times before the LEGO set gets taken away for good for a full 24 hours. This is all punctuated by Tyson joining us at the table (delayed because he was fixing the sprinkler system outside), another request for oranges (only oranges), Brooklyn telling me she doesn’t like dinner, either (sigh). I’m out of my chair more than not. Five minutes into dinner and I’ve eaten three bites.

“Hey Google, set a timer for five minutes,” I call across the room, “Okay, everyone needs to sit here until the timer beeps. I don’t care if you eat. You just have to sit here and talk to us.”

Cue more general anarchy, moans, groans, spaghetti-limbed bodies draped across the bench. I get in another few bites.

Once Google relieves them, the boys dash off to play. Nolan, frustrated by the whole experience of needing to actually sit in his chair to eat dinner, grabs the long, thick, wooden pole we use as a security measure to keep the patio door closed and locked. He starts swinging it around, though this is something he knows he’s not supposed to touch, much less flail around the room. Tyson and I corner him around the kitchen table - me on one side, Tyson on the other - and I almost take a pole to the face before grabbing it away. (“Goddamnit” is something that may have come out of my mouth.) Tyson walks him over to the bottom step for a three-minute time out.

“Well this was enjoyable,” I say to Tyson, the first words I’ve said to him since dinner began, “I’m leaving.” And I abandon my mostly-untouched dinner and step over Nolan to walk out the door.

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We’re eight years into marriage and this is our third dining room table. Our first table wasn’t really a dining table. Which was fitting, since we didn’t really have a dining room.

It was a card table, black, the kind with legs that fold in. We had black folding chairs to match, just to keep it classy. It sat on the carpet and wobbled a little when we cut chicken or pizza slices.

We only had four chairs: more people than that and someone had to sit on the futon, an arm’s-length away in the living room. Though we rarely had company. We were newlyweds and a state away from anything familiar; it was usually just us at the table.

I remember how silent our whole apartment complex was, how we sometimes turned on the TV while we ate just to hear someone talk besides ourselves. Eight years ago and our table was the antithesis in every way of what it is now.

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Our second table was gifted to us by my parents for our first anniversary. I’d been eyeing the set at Target, a small, square table and chairs. We’d moved across town and despite having a larger apartment, it didn’t really have a dining room, either. We shoved the table against the wall, pulled it and the fourth chair out anytime we had guests.

And we had guests, now. After our move we joined a small group, made friends. We hosted our small group and baby showers and Thanksgiving and Downton Abbey watch parties. Our early memories around this table involve lots of friends and bottles of Spotted Cow.

Two years later we brought our twin babies home, setting their carseats on top of that table. The same table where we ate foil-pan casseroles dropped off by friends, our dinners now punctuated by cries. Many nights I walked back and forth during the dinnertime witching hours as I tried to eat and nurse two babies simultaneously. Later I would set my laptop on that table (and often a beer) as I began to write again, stretching out my rusty fingers and brain to put words on a page.

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This table moved with us to the Twin Cities, along with my 20-weeks pregnant belly, just a year and a half later. We brought that table and the memories of friends and new babies seated around it with us.

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We’re on our third kitchen table now. The second one was absurdly small for our new space: our first house that, yes, has an actual dining room. This table has a stainless steel top: smooth, flat, easy to clean. Any hesitation I felt about the coordinating cream-colored, upholstered chairs with three kids under three vanished when I saw how easy it would be to wipe that top down.

I see the progression of a couple, of a life and a marriage in these three tables in eight short (long) years. I can trace our path from baby newlyweds to very young family to house in the suburbs. Sometimes this life is everything I’ve hoped it would be and other times I’m dodging my three-year old brandishing legit weapons at the dinner table. Sometimes we have to make use of Google as a timer, remind them to put their dishes away, clear away piles of markers and paper and masterpieces before we can sit down to a meal.

Still, we make a point of sitting down here most nights as a family.

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“Mommy I like this dinner!” Nolan says as he runs down the steps the very next night, seeing the plates of food on the table.

“Me, too!” Caden and Brooklyn chorus, joining us. Tyson follows them down the stairs and gives me a quick kiss before sitting down next to me.

Tonight we pray and pull out the set of dinner table questions at the kids’ request. Everyone eats their panko-crusted chicken and broccoli and asks for seconds, thirds.

Caden pulls a card from the stack in the middle of the table and I read it to him. “What is your favorite place to eat?”

“Hmmm,” he thinks, and I wait for it, the answer of McDonald’s or Chick-fil-a or the restaurant we go to with the trolly inside that serves their favorite spaghetti and meatballs.

Then: “Here! At home. I like the food you make, mommy.”

I don’t know if they’ll remember the nights we yelled, the nights they “didn’t like” any of the food, the nights I let four-letter words pass my lips, when they bargain and whine and shout and cry over each other. I don’t know if they’ll remember eating naan with rice and curry, homemade pizza, or Happy Meals around this table.

But I’ll remember what happened here just like I remember the meals and the life we built around its two predecessors. The good, the bad, and the in-between. I sure hope they remember nights like this. I hope this table makes up a piece of their story, too.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Remember This."

I Don't Know How You Do It

I pulled up and parked in my favorite lot: the side mall entrance. There were usually plenty of spots available, especially mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. A couple of afternoons a month I would take the twins, then babies, to the mall to walk around. If I timed nursing just right I would have about an hour and a half to spend there. Fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes back meant I would return home in time to nurse them again. (Because nursing twins in public is a whole other level of stress, y’all.)

The mall was the perfect spot to stretch my legs while I pushed the stroller, especially with the chilly spring weather outside. I liked to look at the sale racks at JCrew and Banana Republic, though we didn’t really have the money to buy anything. Instead, I’d treat myself to a consolation pretzel (cinnamon sugar) and lemonade from Auntie Anne’s, then sit on a bench and hope the babies wouldn’t cry because we’d stopped moving.

On this particular Tuesday, I hauled the frame for the double stroller out of the trunk of our Prius, released one carseat and strapped it in, then another. I threw the overstuffed diaper bag over my shoulder and headed to the entrance, pushing the handicap button to let us in.

Nothing happened.

I pushed it again, harder this time. And again, at a slightly different angle.

The door didn’t budge. I stared at the door to the mall entrance, now my enemy. I shoved the diaper bag higher up on my shoulder and pulled the door open, balancing it with my legs splayed while I pulled the double stroller inside. Once in the vestibule I pushed the button for the interior door. It didn’t move, either. I glared at the second door. We were basically trapped since the in-line double-stroller took up the entire entry from door to door. I sucked in my stomach, moved around the stroller as best I could, and managed to open the door a few inches before it hit a stroller wheel. I scooched and inched my way in, wiggling first the stroller, then the door, until we made it inside.

I pushed my hair out of my face and looked around at the bright lights inside the department store as I caught my breath. My enthusiasm for this outing had waned during the whole door debacle. I was startled when I realized a woman stood next to the rack of shirts beside us, staring down and smiling at me and the babies.

“Twins?” she asked sweetly, “I don’t know how you do it!”

Well, I thought, I sure could’ve used a hand with the door. Had she been there the whole time? I felt annoyed at her, at the malfunctioning doors, at the fact that no one had come to my rescue. Bothered that she probably wanted to stop and coo at the babies, taking up my precious non-nursing time.

I’m sure I gave her a faint smile, though I know I had absolutely no response. I heard this often. And every time the answer that popped into my head was because I have to.

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"So what's it like to have twins?" is something I’ve been asked dozens of times. It’s diminished over the years, after we added a third to the mix and I was no longer accompanied everywhere by two babies in carseats. More often now I’m asked if my kids are triplets.

I never knew how to answer the question. What is life with twins like? I have no idea. Exhausting, I guess? I might as well ask you what life with one baby is like since that’s something I’ve never known. The concept of one baby is as foreign to me as multiples is to everyone else.

I would usually shrug, give a little laugh, and say something like, "Well, it's all we've ever known!" Or, the ever-vague answer of “busy!” Which was true, if not detailed.

However the conversation went, it was often followed up with the whole “I don’t know how you do it!” thing. I got it from everyone: grandparents, baristas, friends’ spouses. I never knew what to say to this, either.

And maybe I never needed to say anything. Maybe my postpartum hormones were working in overdrive while my sleep-deprived brain tried to make sense of the process of engaging in adult conversation. But every time I heard, “I don’t know how you do it!”, it bothered me. It implied I had a choice.

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And what choice did I have? Quitting my job was non-negotiable, for starters. There was no money to put two babies into daycare when the cost of daycare would have eaten up my entire paycheck. Then there was the state of my mental health - I couldn’t wrap my head around working all day and coming home to (literally) take care of two babies all night. When you factored in the cost of formula, disposable diapers, take-out, and the value of both Tyson’s and my mental stability, the decision was clear.

At night when one woke up to nurse, so did the other. Neither Tyson or I had a choice then. He would rock a baby while I nursed the second. We were the definition of two ships passing in the night while we wore a path in the upstairs carpet, each walking back and forth with a fussy baby, sometimes for hours at a time. While friends of ours bemoaned having to trade shifts at night and couldn’t get more than a three-hour stretch of sleep with their one baby, I bit my tongue. The idea of “shifts” didn’t exist in our house. If one was up, everyone was up.

After the very early days of pure survival, I began to leave the apartment again. By the time they were three months old, this was a necessity. I couldn’t breathe in our tiny space day after day. “I don’t know how you do it!” people would say when I showed up to a social outing with two babies in tow. Do you really expect me to stay home all the time? I would think.

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Lest I sound ungrateful, I do realize this was intended as a compliment. It just always seemed so vague. “You’re such a good mom to those babies!” would have been more helpful - at the very least it would have been an easier compliment to respond with a smile and a “thank you”.

The thing was, I didn’t really want people to say anything to me when I was out with the twins. Anytime I was stopped I could only think this person was taking up the precious little time I had without a baby attached to my breast. What I wanted more than anything was help. I craved acknowledgement, to be seen. For people to understand that this was hard. That’s what they were saying to me after all. “I don’t know how you do it...because it’s so hard” is what was implied each and every time.

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But I didn’t want them to wonder how I did it. I wanted them to let me go ahead of them in the checkout line. I wanted them to ask how they could help, not just wonder aloud at how hard my life must be with two small babies to care for.

I didn’t want them to wonder how I was able to nurse two babies. I wanted them to entertain one while I nursed their sibling at the library.

I didn’t want my friends to wonder how I got out the door for a playdate. I wanted them to pick up an iced vanilla latte for me on the way.

I didn’t want a stranger to marvel at my ability to get through the door. I wanted them to hold the damn door.

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Hearing “I don’t know how you do it,” taught me what I actually needed - what any mother needs in a difficult stage in her life.

She needs someone to give her a gift card for coffee when the toddler melts down in the middle of aisle 11.

She needs someone to watch her kids for a couple of hours so she can take a nap.

She needs someone to drop off dinner on Thursday evening, just because she’s a mom of young kids and it’s Thursday.

She needs someone to say “let me help you with that” while she loads bag after bag of groceries in the minivan while also herding small children to their carseats.

She needs someone to give her a nod and a smile, just a little bit of encouragement to get through the day.

She doesn’t need anyone to wonder how she does the work of nursing, changing diapers, sweeping up crumbs, tackling mountains of laundry, and getting up night after fussy night. We’re mothers.

It’s what we do.

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This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series on "Rewriting the Script."