Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Auntie Antidote: Storytime for Frustrated, Single, and/or Childfree Adults

"Auntie Susan, what should the sign on our fort say!?"

"I don't know, Sam, maybe something like: Only people whose names that start with 'S' may enter?"

It's questions like these that consumed my waking hours while enjoying a Pacific Northwest beach vacation with my brother, sister-in-law, and two little nephews, Sam and Max. Grandma, too. If you happen to frequent this blog from time to time, you might recall that I often write posts about my experience as a single adult without children. This will be another one of those posts. But hopefully with a happier ending.

It was 4:30 AM, Pacific Coast Time. I could not get back to sleep. I sat on the living room couch reading a People magazine and then, at 5:30 AM on the dot, my 14-month-old nephew, Max, started to whimper. It was time for Max to wake up and start his day. My brother and his wife are always up and at 'em when it comes to mornings with their kids. But, since we were on vacay, I wanted to attempt to allow them a few more minutes (or even hours) to sleep in.

Tiptoeing up the stairs to the boys' room, I intercepted my brother who was already on his way to attend to Max. When he saw me, he gave me a surprised/quizzical/what-the-hell-are-you-doing-up expression. I looked at him with a smile and said,

"You can go back to bed. I got this."

You would have thought I just told my brother that a hot air balloon had landed on the roof. Well - no, - it wasn't THAT dramatic of a look, but it was basically an optimistically stunned expression (which is how my brother would look if I told him a hot air balloon had just landed on the roof).

"Suze, are you sure?"
"Yep, I am. You can go back to bed. I'm fine, this'll be easy for me."

And those were the last words I spoke before three of the busiest hours of my entire life, thus far.

I picked up Max and cradled his warm little body as we walked back down the stairs. Max has the cutest face - he kind of looks like a cartoon - with puppy dog eyes and questioning eyebrows. He is always smiling and saying, "Doo? DOOooo?"

Now. One of the things I've always struggled with as a single, childless (ok, childfree is the proper term these days), adult is when my friends tell me super specific things their kids do, like:

  • "He says Doo? DOOooo?" all the time!" or
  • "She was so cute this morning when she asked for more cereal!" or
  • "You just feel like a completely different human being once you have kids. I can't explain it."

I think one of the reasons I've struggled with phrases like these is because they feel so polarizing. Like, either you get what it is like to be a parent, or you don't (because you don't have kids). I truly don't think that parents - especially new parents - are consciously thinking about childfree adults as though they were second class citizens...but I think sometimes it is impossible not to feel that way. Coupling up and having kids is something that we as humans like to do. We feel compelled to procreate. And, don't get me wrong, procreation is GREAT - it's just hard when you are not one of the procreating ones yet. It's hard not to feel sort of out of it when your girlfriends talk about tips and tricks for breast feeding. I can sort of relate, but not really. I can only listen and sympathize, but not truly empathize. 

So, back to Max. Max is so much fun in the morning. He just recently learned how to walk, so he looks a lot like the snl boss baby and watching him is a mix of delight and terror. I never know if he is about to fall over. Although, he rarely seems to fall over. Max was smiling and 'dooing' and yet I felt obligated to keep him occupied, lest he begin to cry and I ruin my pledge to my brother that "I got this." I walked outside and cradled his little body in the early Oregon morning mist. Max started to squirm and chirp ("Doo? DOOoo?") and I knew he wanted to get down and walk around.

"Oh, no Max. If you want to walk, we need to get your shoes first."

If Max could have rolled his eyes, he would have. Max and Sam are outdoor boys and putting on shoes is not always top of mind. I walked back inside, cradling Max, and began my search for his shoes. I put Max down and he walked over to the coffee table and found ("Dooo?") a little musical toy that he started pushing. It had this overly enthusiastic female voice.


"Oh, Max, no. Sam and Daddy and Mommy and Grandma are still sleeping."

And then, as if on cue, this was when my brother's Black Lab, Lily, started to get ansty. 

"You want to go outside, Lily? Ok, Lily, outside."

I let Lily outside and she walked out and did nothing. She did not go potty as I had implored her to do. 

"Lily! Back inside!"

Then, I figured it out. Lily needed to be fed. She needed her morning cup of food. I scooped up her dry food and even found her daily pills (vitamins? I have no idea what they are for) and put those in her metal dish, too. It was kind of loud when I poured this in. As she was munching away, little Max looked at me with imploring cartoon eyebrows, then waddled over to his high chair and looked back at me as he slapped the white plastic table.

"Aw, Max, you must be hungry too."

It's interesting. When you are so focused on taking care of a child, you don't realize how much you talk out loud. This is another one of those things that has been hard for me when it comes to my friends with kids. It can be so weird to be around them as they talk baby talk to their kids and kind of (what feels like) ignore me. The other thing is that you find yourself absent-mindedly singing every other phrase.

"Max-xxx! Let's eat some blueberries, blueberries, blueberries and some cottage cottage cheese. Let's have some break-fast, break-fast, break-fast..."

Just as I was getting Max strapped into his high chair (he won't fall, right? Like it's OK that there is no strap holding onto him??), Lily had finished her breakfast and started to do her low, breathy, bark. I've heard that when couples have kids, their dogs suffer and actually do kind of become second class citizens. I've never understood that. Like, why does the dog have to suffer? After all, the dog is innocent and used to be the baby of the family. But, in that moment, I completely understood. The survival Auntie in me was so raging mad at poor Lily who only wanted to go for a quick walk and take a poop. I very quietly whispered my rage at her.

"Lily! Are you kidding me? Please be quiet."

The sleep-deprived part of my brain was so mad at Lily and I was appalled at her selfish need to bark. How could you do this to me, Lily? Not now, in my time of need. Fine. I made a mental note to take Lily on a walk to the beach once my brother was up to take over with Max. Speaking of, what time was it? When will the hand-off begin? In my mind, I had a goal of making it to 7:00 AM since I knew that would almost be considered 'sleeping in' to my brother. I looked at the clock.

6:15 am

You're kidding, right? I feel like I have been up for two hours managing Max and the dog and it's only been 45 minutes.

Back to Max. Max was now making that low kind of whine that let me know something was wrong. Something was starting to bother him. Is he done? Is he all done with the blue berries? Should I be feeding him with a spoon instead of having him pick it up with his hands? There were so many things I wanted to know and made a mental note to ask my sister-in-law once she was up. Being in charge of this little guy had heightened my interest-level in Max's little isms. It was fascinating. And, maybe because I am his Auntie, I sort of instinctually felt that I could read his mind. Again, maybe it was the sleep deprivation. 

"Are you done, Max? Are you allllllll done? Aldin!" (you sometimes find yourself making up new words based on the way, say, your 3.5 year-old nephew Sam says them)

One of the amazing things about child rearing these days is that, they have figured out kind of innovative ways to raise them, like using sign language. Max can barely say one word (he is actually working on 'Garbage Truck') but in sign language I think he knows how to say more complicated concepts, like:

  • "All done" (hands in front of face, open and waving back and forth)
  • "More" (hands with fingers pinched together and tapping)

Max indicating in sign language that he is definitely ALL DONE

So, Max is showing me the international sign for "Aldin!" and I undo the plastic table top, only to find cottage cheese curds all over his onesie. He looks at me with a quizzical expression and lifts his adorable cartoon eyebrows. "Dooo?" This is when it dawns on me. Does it matter that Max is covered in food? Like, will this threaten his wellbeing or safety? I suppose not. No. Eff it. (wow, now I totally get how 'messy' is all relative when it comes to parenting. Maybe I shouldn't have judged this in the past...) We have more critical elements at play here, like the fact that I can barely think straight because I have not yet had any coffee.

Coffee. One of the many lessons I learned during this three-hour period is how important coffee is to the parenting community. I like coffee, but it has never held the importance that it did at that very moment at 6:45 am (...fifteen more minutes...fifteen more's almost seven, you got this, Susan...) However, making coffee for myself now feels like a complete luxury. Can I leave Max for a moment while I go make the coffee? Of course I can. Max is so good at playing by himself.

I walk over to the coffee maker and get the water in the pot. I get the Starbucks bag and take an inviting sniff. This coffee, it's going to be so good. I hear the familiar slap, slap, slap of Max walking into the kitchen. Omg, he is so cute. Again, I think of snl boss baby. Back to coffee, ok, ok - wait. Where are the coffee filters? They must be here somewhere. I start opening cupboards. The coffee filters are no where to be found. A small panic rises in my chest, as now it appears there are no coffee filters. Or, maybe this is one of those coffee makers that is eco-friendly and doesn't need a filter? (Observe how my sleep-deprived brain is going through the classic coffee stages of grief, or what some might call a withdrawl craving which, remember, I have never experienced until this morning of pretend-parenting). 


I look over at the clock on the stove. 7:00 am. What? Yes! I made it! I can go wake up my brother and ask him where the coffee filters are! The victory of this realization is intoxicating. 

"Maxxx. Let's go wake up Daaaady. Let's go wake up Daady!"

I pick up little Max, and that's when I pause. He is looking at me with that cute cartoon face. "Dooo?" I absent-mindedly put my nose into the folds of his soft-as-can-be baby neck. He smells so good. A mixture of baby scent and cottage cheese scent. Yes, I know cottage cheese doesn't normally smell good but on him it does. 

And that's when it hits me. In this moment of loving Max, in this moment of reveling in the fact that, even though I am not Mommy, I am Auntie. Max and I actually share DNA and I am going to help raise him, too. Yes, I often lament over not being a parent, but, maybe for now, that's OK. Because Max is sort of "mine" too.

I make a mental note about that (at this point, the whole pretend-parenting morning has been so profound that I know that I am going to write a blog about it later) and I practically skip up the stairs to wake up my brother.

"Paul. PAUL."

My brother arises from his bed, a little out of it but smiling at dooing Max. He looks at his watch.

"Whoa. Suze. Seven? That's HUGE. Thank you."

I feel triumphant. I feel euphoric. I have made it through one and a half hours of filling in for my brother and my sister-in-law, allowing them the luxury of sleeping in. This calls for a celebration! How about some coffee, everyone!?

"Paul. Where are the coffee filters?"

Paul and I walk downstairs and he pulls the coffee filters out from the back of the cupboard (who was dumb enough to hide these way back there in my time of pretend-parenting need?) and the dripping coffee starts. I let Max down and he slap, slap, slaps over to the table to look at books and toys. I smile at Paul, feeling so useful and responsible as an Auntie. This morning wasn't THAT bad. I could do this. I could take care of a little one. I mean I can practically read his mind...

At that moment I hear a door creak open and some soft feet shuffle out. Oh yeah. I had literally forgotten about Sam. Don't get me wrong, I am obsessed with Sam, the first born in the family and so smart and funny and caring. But, during this jam-packed morning of focusing on Max and ignoring Lily, my sleep-deprived brain had temporarily forgotten that my brother and sister-in-law do, in fact, have two kids, not just one. 

"Hiiii Sam." 

Sam shyly turns his head to the wall and asks for some cereal (for Sam, sometimes morning cereal is his coffee equivalent, and he doesn't really get going until he's polished off at least one bowl of O's). 

"Hi Sam."

Sam smiles, and after getting a few O's down, snaps into his wonderful excited voice, already planning out the day.

"Auntie Suuusan. Today we are going to go to the BEACH!"

I love Sam's enthusiasm. Yes, today we will go to the beach and it'll be great and - wait. Where's Max? Oh, good. Little Max, still standing by the coffee table, innocently picking up toys and books and 'dooing' away. I look at Paul who is also smiling at Sam. I make a mental note that I am completely exhausted and might not yet be ready to handle the intelligence of a 3.5 year-old. Right now I am still on Max speed, and, Paul's here, so technically we can kind of share the responsibility now, right?

Max is over at the coffee table and he picks up a book and hands it to me.

"Aw, Max, you wanna read a little?"

So cute. This is so simple and peaceful. I can do this. Even in my sleep-deprived state, I can read to little Max. The book he has selected has a charming title. Good Dog, Carl. Ha. A dog named Carl. Cute. I snuggle Max into my lap and we get all cozy. I open the book, preparing to read...Wait. Where are the words? There are no words in this book. What's more, the entire book is just pictures of Carl the dog doing very un-dog-like things, like taking care of the baby. What? What is this nonsense?

Carl the dog, doing impossible things that a dog cannot possibly do, like taking out the trash and feeding the baby.

This almost makes me mad. There are no words in this book so I have to make up the story and then the story is so ridiculous with this genius dog who couldn't possibly do these things. Does the author know how much effort it takes to multi-task and take care of a baby? A dog could never do this. WTF. Before I have time to fully process this, Max is already sliding off my lap and slap, slap, slapping back over to Paul where he is having a nice 3.5-year-old discussion about how a dinosaur probably could eat a garbage truck, but he may bite you. Then Sam breaks into song, his perfect pitch voice streaming through the house,  "Thhhe wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round..."

My head is spinning. I am so tired. I look at my brother who is smiling and calmly petting Max's head while chatting with Sam. How does he do this? How does anyone do this? Manage two kids AND a dog?...

The dog. I forgot we even had a dog. I look at the dog bed and Lily is practically smiling at me, thumping her tail and being oh so patient. 

Hey, I get an idea. I need a break. It is now 7:30 am and I need some fresh air. It dawns on me that I could get the leash and take Lily for a walk to the beach. This sounds luxurious. This sounds like a fabulous idea to take a break and walk the dog.

"Paul? I am going to take Lily on a walk."

"Really, Suze? You don't have to do that. I mean, she would love that but..."

I can do this. I can continue this morning of Super Auntie and walk Lily to the beach. I stand up and put on some flip flops and a fleece. I am still in my pajamas and my hair is crazy and I have no make-up on, but, who cares? Who has time for these frivolous things, right!? I make a mental note of how I now kind of finally understand why my friends who are parents will talk about taking showers as a complete luxury. 

When you become a parent, showers are a hot commodity and not a must-have. Even though I am not a parent, I now understand how new parents rejoice over the possibility of getting a shower in. Once a week.

I put on Lily's harness and leash, and we start to head out the door.

"Suze? You're gonna need a plastic bag for Lily. In fact, you should take two plastic bags. Sometimes she has a second poop."

Oh, yeah. 

Plastic bags. Because dogs poop. Ok. I find one of the very nice plastic bags that we had snatched up the day before. We got it from the dog-plastic-bag-box thingy from the beach (these bags are super nice because after you turn them inside-out there is a handle on them). But, I cannot find a second plastic bag. That's ok. There should be some more plastic bags at the beach. And, I highly doubt that Lily will poop a second time. Paul said that only happens sometimes.

"Ok, bye Paul! I'll be back in...(um, I'm going to take as long as I can with the dog at the beach) about an hour."

Lily and I step out into the fresh, misty morning air and we both inhale the salty scent of the ocean. We start off on our walk, and I smile at the peaceful luxury of taking the dog for a walk. I've been wanting to get a dog for several months, and I can totally see how I could do this. 

Lily and I approach the beach and she starts to do a bucking broncho thing and bark.

"Ok, Ok, Lily! Geeze."

I hesitantly let Lily off her leash. No matter how much I see my sister-in-law effortless let Lily off the leash without concern, I can never seem to get used to this. In the cities I've lived in, you don't really let your dog off his leash without getting in trouble with authority or at least without getting shaming looks from other dog owners who have their dogs securely leashed. But remember that this is Oregon where Portlanders treat dogs like kings and queens. I know, so totally Portlandia.

Once free from her harness and leash, Lily excitedly dashes ahead toward the ocean. I feel kind of nervous. But, at least she had already pooped a super huge one and I was already carrying that like a little black purse with my forearm through the fancy plastic handle.

"Lily! LILY!"

My nervousness grows as Lily sporadically dashes here and there, eating mysterious beach flora and fauna. What's she eating? Geeze, I can't let her eat old crab legs or something on my watch and have her get sick..."


Lily looks back at me and I swear she is smiling. She looks back at the ocean and bolts. 

"Shit. Lily! LILY!!!"

Lily starts running straight toward the surf and she is not stopping. 

"Dammit, LILY!!!"

I take off running toward the beach. My heart is pounding as Lily is now in the actual surf, jumping up and down doing that biting the water thing that dogs do. What if she keeps going? What if she doesn't stop walking into the water and she drowns!?

Lily doing apparent death march straight into the ocean.

"Lily!? Lily, Please come back."

At this moment, Lily turns around and trots back to me, as if on command. So, maybe this off-the-leash-thing does work. My relief rushes in. But then, Lily starts to sniff the ground and do the circle poop thing that dogs do. Oh God. I never picked up a second bag and now - no, she's not - is she going to take a SECOND POOP? Oh Lily, please no. I remember my brother's warning that sometimes Lily does take a second poop. I also remember having a discussion with my sister-in-law about what to do if Lily poops and you don't have a bag with you.

"Ah, I don't know. It's frowned upon to just leave it there, but sometimes you just have to bury it."

I run toward Lily and yes, she is indeed starting to do the unmistakable dog squat and take another poop. Oh, man, Lily. You have no idea.

Lily comes back to me and she gives me a smile. I mean, it seemed like she was smiling. I walk over to her poop and dig a hole in the sand with my foot and kick sand over her poop until I think it is sufficient enough for no Portlandia-type person to judge me. Sigh.  

At this point, I am beyond tired. I consider taking an actual nap on the beach. I walk back toward the grassy knoll and flop down onto the powdered sugar sand. I am getting sand all over my pjs and in my hair, but I don't even care. 

Wow, how do they do this? How do my brother and sister-in-law get up morning after morning after morning, managing not one, but two kids, and a DOG?

Lily plops down next to me and I give her a pet. She is a good dog, really. But, man. We take a collective deep breath. I look down at Lily and smile at her. Maybe I will hold off on getting a dog. 

Ok, Lily, I forgive you.

But, for this moment, I am with Lily and she kind of is my dog. Like a niece, really. I am her Auntie. And then, that's when it hits me again.

Yes, I want a family of my own. And someday, I will have that family. But, for now, I can have this family. I can be the best Auntie I can be to this family. I never like it when parents say things like, "Oh. Enjoy your life right now, because, it gets so hectic with spouse/kids/dog." I never like this because it almost feels like an insult. But, maybe it's not. Maybe my friends who are parents genuinely mean that I should enjoy this time, because once I cash in my chips, there is no turning back.

And, maybe that is the moral of the story, you guys (I'm talking to you, frustrated, single, and/or childfree adults. But, all you parents out there can appreciate this, too).

The moral of the story? So, maybe you don't have a family of your own. But, if you get creative, you can have a family. Right now. 

Sure, you might not be lucky enough to be an Auntie, but, what about everyone you know with kids? What about your former best friend who you've totally grown apart from since she had kids? Go spend some time with her and her family. Go appreciate family time. And then go home, and try to enjoy the peace and quiet and FREE TIME you have right now. Because you owe it to them. You owe it to the brave, the strong, the coupled up (or, god bless them, single) parents out there who are fighting day in, day out to love their lives and yet also maintain the endurance it will take for the rest of their lives. 

Go offer to walk one of those ignored dogs who used to be the baby of the family.

Stop feeling like an outcast. Because, we are not outcasts. And, for all you parents out there, stop feeling envious of our seemingly glamorous, adventurous lives as foot-loose-and-family-free adults. Grass is always greener. We want to be included in your family, too.

And we all lived happily ever after.


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