Painted Cars, Monkey Bars


You know how your day can take an utter turn south, just like that? Like, the simplest thing becomes the not-so-simplest thing and suddenly you find yourself in a parked car tearing up in front of your bewildered kids, searching for a crinkled napkin in the glove compartment, mentally reminding yourself “You’re the grownup here, you’re the grownup here, you’re the grownup here.”


It was an art class, you know. One of those darling community classes downtown where an energetic twenty-something in a ponytail hands your kids a tray of paint and a toy car and cleans up the whole big mess afterward. Themed snacks and craft tutorials and primary colored sorting bins; that place where the markers all have lids.

Bee loves crafts, and I’d wanted to do something special with her. She’s grown so much this year – in inches, in spirit – and as Scout’s grown the same, she’s learned to lead him so beautifully. The lady deserved a mini-celebration, is all.

We sit in a room with a handful of other parent/child variations: moms and daughters, fathers and sons, grandparents and grandchildren. Big chair, little chair. Big chair, little chair. One chipper mother pulls out a kids’ smock and I instinctively remember the brochure speaking of messes. As Scout grows fussy in his car seat, the teacher introduces the theme.

Things that go! she says, and she passes out egg cartons to widened eyes as they learn they’ll be assembling a train to paint, complete with a toilet paper tube smokestack.

I take Scout out of his car seat to sit on my lap, but he’s at that age – that aaaaaaaage – where he must move, he must explore, he must be a Things that go!, so as the other parents are helping their kids glue cotton onto the inside of the train’s smokestack, I’m pulling wet crayons out of Scout’s mouth, trying my best to offer hands-free guidance to Bee – Try the left side, nope not that side, your left, no, not that left, glue here, like kind of close to the glob of paint here, no not there, hold on a second…

As I lift Scout to one hip, he grips the tablecloth and the whole slew of supplies – glue sticks, crayons, paintbrushes, water – crash to the floor.

I apologize to the teacher, the one with the energy and the ponytail, the one who sweetly offers to help Bee for the rest of the class. You’ve got your hands full, she says, and I know she’s right, but I don’t want her to be.

I sneak out to change Scout’s diaper and when I return, I hear the teacher introducing the next craft to the class – a boat collage – and I see Bee sitting there, alone, listening, intent, with such serious eyes and she looks so big and so little and all at once I feel like I’ve failed her.

And I see the chipper mom with the smock and the attentive dad and the doting grandmother. And I realize the art class wasn’t just an art class.

I’d wanted to be with her, is all.

I’d just wanted to sit with her, to be there, and for her to know I was there, that I would always be there. I’d wanted to listen to her crafts, her plans, undistracted, with all of my attention and all of my support. I’d wanted her to know I had two hands available to assist – to hold the glue or pass the crayons or help her choose a color when she was stuck. I’d wanted to watch her as she imagined something lovely, from start to finish, without the just a seconds and hold ons and be right theres.

I had given her my leftovers for weeks now – leftover time, leftover energy. Scout has been demanding, and today, in art class, I didn’t want her to get my leftovers.

And she did.

One of my deepest parenting fears is that my kids won’t see me as an available mother. That they won’t find me to be a safe place, because I’d lecture instead of listen, offer correction instead of compassion. That they won’t find me to be accessible, because I’ll be distracted elsewhere – if not with busy babies, then with projects, or errands, the meaningless mundane.

And perhaps that was what this art class had been about all along. I’d wanted to dispel a fear, and instead, I’d solidified it.

I read somewhere that transition is the brief moment when you have to let go of one monkey bar to reach for the next rung.

I have one kid, one baby. But we’re transitioning into one kid, one toddler, and soon enough we will transition into two kids. Two. Sleepless nights will be replaced with sibling quarrels, intermittent silent treatments, then sleepovers or sports or secrets — sleepless nights yet again.

Monkey bars are never easy.

But I have to let go of the rung. I have to let go of the fear that I won’t be fully available, and reach for the rung that promises I will be mostly available.

Sometimes distracted.
Always accessible.

After the class, the cleanup, the car, the crying, we came home to Ken making a late lunch in the kitchen.

Dad! Bee says, as I carry in Scout’s car seat, and I wonder what snippet of the morning she’ll be excited to share most. The tears? The supply spills? The frustration?

We made a stoplight out of a graham cracker, and icing, and M&Ms, and then I ate it! she announces with glee before hurrying off to finish her fairy garden outside.

I fill Ken in on the rest and he listens, nods, offers a hug and some gentle words.

You guys want to get out tonight, just the two of you? he asks.

And so, we do.

We change our clothes, fix our hair. We set out for salmon and a do-over on an al fresco patio, and we talk about everything/nothing as the sun starts to set. She drinks water from a wine glass, unfolds her napkin, orders a burger.

We watch the birds, and she points to her favorites as I notice one flitting from board to board on the pergola overhead. She squawks and chatters, stumble at times.

Monkey bars are never easy.

Mom? Did you see that one go into the nest? she asks.

Sometimes distracted.

I missed it! I say. Tell me about it.

Always accessible.

Well… she begins, and the night becomes lovely.

  • This post made me sob, big ugly tears! I have a 4.5 yr old and a 2 year old and what you just described is my life every day! I long to have time with just my son so he can see I’m not always trying to put him second. But the 2 year old is just becoming more independent and often needs just as much attention as she did as an infant…making sure she doesn’t turn the water on too hot while washing her hands, standing beside her at the park as she climbs up the mountain wall etc. I constantly feel that my older child get my left overs and when we have time for just us, he often just wants to be with daddy instead of mommy. Which I understand, he gets me all day even if he doesn’t have all my attention, it’s more than the 2-3 hours he gets with daddy every evening. It’s hard to not feel guilty. Your words both broke my heart and gave me encouragement. Thank you for this honest post, I love your writing!

  • Beautiful post and a reminder that not all we see on the web is reality. Thanks for sharing the struggle so many of us relate to.

  • You’re doing such an amazing job, momma.

    I started this and had to stop in the middle to distract myself from tears pouring down my face while I sit here at my desk at work, wishing I was at home with a little one again and at the same time knowing the grandma time and preschool time is just perfect for Forrest, and also knowing there is so much I want to get done around the house when we’re there, for me, for us, for the house, that I’m not always available to play without distractions. But I’m always accessible, always loving, and always willing to listen.

    Erin, you’re doing SUCH a good job, momma.

    • oh jamie, thank you. i 100% hear you, and i think forrest has absolutely everything he needs (and then some!!!) in you as well. :)

  • My kids are all grown up but reading your blog post brought back all of the emotions of the early years. I wish I could have known then what I know now and how allowing myself a big ole dose of GRACE makes the mommy guilt so much more tolerable. If I have one nugget of wisdom to share from my experience it’s this, it gets easier as the Little’s get older and it gets harder… and it’s ok :-) You will do your best and Gods grace will cover the rest.

  • This is so beautiful and brought tears to my eyes multiple times. I have a 4 1/2 year old and a 2 year old and THIS. IS. MY. LIFE. I’ve never been good at monkey bars :)

  • Oh Erin, thank you for being so honest about your current season of life! I’m not looking forward to this “tug-and-pull-between-littles” part of mothering. Thankfully, I’m not there yet and I have the wisdom of moms like you to guide my steps early and encourage me before I get there. <3 Hugs to you and all the other mamas who are blazing the trail.

    • thank you, kendra! it’s a really beautiful waltz, mostly, if we allow a few stumbles in there! ;)

  • This is so beautifully written. I have experienced these moments so many times that it hurts. I have two toddlers now and two teenage girls and I feel like I never get a quiet moment between them. It is hard. Thank you for shedding that light

  • Erin, this past got to me…. Loved it so. Swinging from the monkey bars here too, it takes a strength I didn’t know I possessed!

  • Great post! I feel this many days as well, for both my kids at different times. I don’t get much one on one time with either and it’s something that I’d like to change. In the meantime, I try to stop and really listen, be present, and start with love. It’s a practice, right? Always a practice. You’re doing it right, mama.

  • So beautiful! I have a 15 year old and a 20 year old but your post took me right back. Or perhaps I’m still right there, holding on to the monkey bars, letting go with one hand and reaching out for the next. Motherhood creates a lifetime of holding on and letting go, doesn’t it? A bittersweet cycle of celebrations for what is, with tears in our eyes as it slips into the past.

  • This is lovely! And so true. I wish I had been more mindful and when God prompted, I wish i had listened. Busy is a four letter word. But alas…God redeems it all anyway! IF we let Him grow us with a humble heart and submitted spirit.

  • oh, I just feel every aspect of this essay. Thanks for putting to words what I know so many of us feel in our hearts! xx -megan

  • This was just what I needed today! I’m transitioning from a working mom (teacher) to a staying at home mom with my two boys- 4 and 10 months. I’m excited about the change but it’s hard still. I love your emphasis on being patient with yourself and do overs and realistic expectations – sometimes distracted but always available.

    • oh, our kids are precisely the same ages, and yes – it is a tricky tricky season right now. sending prayers your way! :)

  • Anyone who’s been there is wiping away tears after reading this post.Real and raw and beautiful.

    I have three teens right now. And miraculously, they truly seem to have missed or forgotten the mothering fails that I recall as epic. Keep giving yourself a big dose of grace. You’ve got this:-)

  • My biggest is graduating from 5th grade tomorrow and I purposely made sure his two siblings aged 4 and 1 aren’t there so he gets all of me to himself. A rare treat for him. I totally get what you’re saying. Glad you and Bee were able to have dinner together at night. You’re such a good mom.

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