I checked my e-mail yesterday morning and found a message from a friend who is an at-home mom, like me. She has a three-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son. She was desperate for advice on how to get through the day since her baby was too sick to go out and her big girl was going stir-crazy and becoming really naughty and annoying. I recognized the desperation in her e-mail — oh yes, I thought, been there, done that.
Here’s what I told her:
* On days like this you just have to say to yourself, well, I’m totally screwed, and do whatever it takes to get through. Any coping mechanism that doesn’t attract the attention of Child Protective Services is fair game. Relax your usual parenting standards, and remind yourself that not every day has to be intellectually enriching, or emotionally satisfying, or even nutritionally balanced. Some days are just about survival.
* It’s perfectly okay to leave the little ones in pajamas all day. (It’s such a fine line, anyway; who’s to say what “pajamas” are and what “regular clothing” is?) You probably ought to put some clothes on yourself, although if you’re like me, half the time you never managed to change into pajamas the night before anyway, so except for the fact that your clothes are dirty, rumpled, and possibly smelling of sour breast milk, you’re all set.
* Brushing hair, brushing teeth? Umm, maybe later. You shouldn’t have to deal with this right away. You need some coffee first, my friend.
* Get yourself and the kids to Starbucks if you can, because a nice big latte can help you handle the fact that you have about ten more hours of this day to go. Too bad Starbucks doesn’t have an even bigger size than venti — so, like, there’d be tall, grande, venti, and arrhythmi. It’s best to avoid eye contact with the other Starbucks patrons, who are probably looking at you with distaste since your kids are still in pajamas, you’re wearing wrinkled clothes with spit-up stains, and none of you have brushed your hair. Try not to knock the barista unconscious with your breath.
* At home, keep a few unopened containers of Play-Doh on hand for just such a day as this. In general, I despise Play-Doh because it’s sort of like a nasty little pet: it makes messes on the carpet, you have to pick up its crusty little droppings, and it stinks up the house. You have to remember to return it to its cage after you play with it, and you have to give it water — but not too much — to help it stay perky. Who needs that kind of responsibility? Not me, so I rarely let the kids play with it, and then only outside. But when I’m staring down the barrel of a bad day, Play-Doh is my friend. I’m willing to put up with any amount of mess to buy myself some peace.
* Try to get the kids to watch as much TV as possible. Four hours straight? Great. They may look askance at you when you turn on the tube because they know that you’re violating your own rules — but trust me, they won’t complain. If they start getting restless, making popcorn can keep them planted a little while longer. Sometimes you can catch a quick nap on the sofa before they realize you’re not sharing their viewing experience and wake you up. And sometimes the kids will even fall asleep with you, sprawled on the sofa with their knees in your ribs and their arms across your face and their warm popcorn breath in your ear. This can actually be rather cozy, right up until the point when your arm falls asleep because it’s pinned under someone’s butt.
* When the kids get tired of TV, try giving them a bath. I suggest this not out of any deep-seated regard for personal hygiene, you understand, but because it can be a low-effort way to kill another hour. It’s especially effective if you let them take in something special to play with — like vacuum cleaner attachments, kitchen tongs, or underwear. Or you can tell them that their Play-Doh needs a bath, too. It could be fun watching them drown the wretched stuff and then rinsing the whole mess down the drain. Bye, bye, Mr. Play-Doh. Maybe this day will be emotionally satisfying after all.
* A beer in the afternoon can be most helpful. Do try to wait until a respectable hour, though — say, 2 pm. That’s right about when the latte starts wearing off.
* If the day drags on and you just can’t take it any more, call your spouse at work and try to convince him or her to come home early. (If you don’t have a spouse or equivalent, then this will be a VERY long day, and you’re automatically eligible for another beer.) It’s important not to sound too desperate, though, because that can make them skittish. Say to this special person, “Come on home, babe, we’re having popcorn and beer!” If you sense hesitation, feel free to add in your huskiest, sexiest voice, “And I’m wearing Saran Wrap . . .” Saran Wrap, spitty t-shirt — whatever. It’s a fine line.