It's 5 p.m. It is the dinner hour, and you are looking down the barrel of I'm-starving, yuck-what-is-this-stuff-anyway, I-forgot-my-math-book-at-school, he's-splashing-soap-in-my-eyes, read-me-a-story, get-me-a-drink and can-you-snuggle-with-me. And you are facing it alone.
The remote control, the evening paper, the aroma therapy bath, your Vanity Fair. All are at least four hours away. On a good night.
The dinner-homework-bedtime routine is endless, but seems particularly so to a special brand of widows. Women whose husbands work late.
In the era of tag-team child care, where each spouse takes a different shift, women often find themselves alone and tense, and bedtime can seem a lifetime away. (Why don't I remember any intimate routines from my own childhood? Am I in denial here or did my mother just say, "Good night. Get to bed"?)
My husband does not get home until after the damage has been done. He arrives full of energy and chat and wondering if the kids are asleep yet. I tell him that if he is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem. And if he wakes them up and starts this whole drill over again, I will have the locks changed.
I am not very civil. But how can I be? I am a drill sergeant as I march my children inexorably toward bed.
Clear your dishes to the sink. Let me wipe the kitchen table first. I know you know how to spell those words, but humor me. All the signs on the paper are subtraction signs; you're not supposed to add. I can't read that, and your teacher will think I'm a bad mother if I let you turn it in looking like that. Let's not splash the water all over the floor. They don't look like they've been brushed to me. Just two stories, Mommy is tired. God bless Gramma, God bless Grampa. I will snuggle with you in a minute, Jessie is sad about something. Joe, if you needed to find a picture of fruit, you should have told me before now. Good night. Mommy's day is over.
My sister, Cynthia, has four children, so her days last twice as long as mine. Sometimes, she gets so desperate she starts the routine at 4 p.m. because she thinks she can fool them into bed earlier. Do you know what it does to women like us when they turn the clocks ahead in the spring?
Homework has made Cynthia gray before her time. Her oldest has been claiming for nine years that he did it all at school. Her second child is the kind who remembers at 9 p.m. that he needs 24 Halloween cupcakes or a shepherd's costume for school the next day. Her daughter dissolves into tears if her homework has any eraser marks on it.
When her youngest started school and then acted baffled by some paper he was supposed to color at home, she just lost it, started shrieking: "I'm done with first grade. I have done it four times. I only needed to do it once."
But children are so needy at night. They are tired, and the homework seems impossible. Cooperation is beyond them. Their troubles overrun them. They are sad and angry, and the day's injustices come rushing back to them. And there will be no peace until you soothe them. Maybe your teacher was just having a bad day. Kids say mean things, just ignore them. Tomorrow will be a better day.
I have a romantic, idealized vision in my head of quiet, civilized evenings by the fire. The kids snuggled next to me as I read aloud from D'Aulaires' "Greek Myths." What do I get instead? Emotional meltdowns all around. I want to comfort them. I want them to go to bed with a happy heart. But mostly I want them to go to bed.
Suddenly, they are asleep. I am always amazed at how quickly they drop off. Like throwing a light switch. That fast. One minute, they are giving you their list of demands for breakfast, and the next minute, they are drooling lightly on their pillows.
I stand by the door and watch them sleep. Illuminated by the hall light, Jessie's tumbled red curls shine. Joe's fingers flex slightly in his sleep. Is he shifting the grip on his bat in some dreamland ball field? Their cheeks are slightly puffy and pink. Their foreheads are damp from the exertion of the day's last hours.
I want to wake them and tell them that I love them. That I'm sorry I was cross. That we will have a better day tomorrow. We'll build a fire after dinner, I whisper to them, and my hand on their cheeks does not wake them. I will read you a Greek myth.