The hissing demand of silence almost masks the crinkling sandwich wrapper. The show is about to start. The hustle of second grade teachers swarm backstage. I take stock of my surroundings.
Exhausted, I silently admit, “I would gladly take the opportunity to blink my eyes and have the next five years pass us by.”
I gaze back to the friends behind us. They are gracious to stifle a snicker. They offer no nostalgic reflection on the beauty of childhood or the precious innocence of young children. Unfolding before them was a battlefield, one that never needed to be remembered.
I glance down the row of folding chairs to my family, each more over-stimulated than the next. We are in a stuffy school auditorium, amid the sticky May heat in Central Virginia. The air conditioning works, but I get the sense that might not be the case for long. The baby is strapped to my chest, jamming her rather strong fists into my sweaty, lactating chest. I paused to wonder if we can still call her a baby, since she’s now officially in toddlerhood. Restraining her might be the only way to make it through this evening.
Immediately to my left sits my spry three-year-old. We’ve dubbed her “the runner”; if, at any point, she decides she’s tired of what is happening around her, she sprints away like she’s broken free from prison.
If this play doesn’t start, and then end, soon, I might follow her lead.
The husband, their doting father, sits next in the line of destruction. He fits in the chairs, but not comfortably. He’s not a large guy; I get the sense these chairs were made for middle school children. His smile wavers as our two daughters, one on either side of him, argue over the best chips to match their sandwich. Trying to calm them is a lost cause, even under the watchful glare of our neighbor’s grandmother two rows ahead.
Our five-year-old, sitting on the edge, spots a friend from preschool. She’s up quickly, grabbing her sandwich and prized chips to show her buddy. One step, two steps, maybe a skip, and splat! The sandwich, along with the beloved sides, are scattered across the floor. This daughter is our toughest; she pauses, not to cry, but to plot how she’ll work her way out of this. She bends down to grasp her dinner, only as the runner child sneaks up to plunder. Elevated voices and impassioned words follow, just as the lights flicker to encourage the unruly to take their seats.
The show is about to start.
Our oldest, soon to complete second grade, beams under the bright lights of the stage. She’s in her element, fighting the balance between nerves and pride. I catch her eye as she searches for me through the crowd. We lock gazes; I muster a smile as I blink back tears. I’m so proud of her bravery. Next, she glances to my left to find her father. The smile switches to a grimace within a second. My eyes dart quickly to the damage.
The middle daughters are in the thick of an argument. Probably over chips, but who knows for sure. Their whisper-yells are getting more heated. Dad is trying to play the peacemaker, though his patience runs thin. The baby takes both arms, pushes with all her strength on my sweating, full chest, and grunts, loud enough for the performers to hear. A row of friends behind us asks if we need some help. Their children, all adolescents save for the one on the stage, sit quietly, heads bowed in prayer to their electronics.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the kind custodian sweeping up chips and sandwich. I must remember to double his end of the year gift card. Like that will be adequate compensation for cleaning up the mess that my family displays on any given night during the school year.
For years prior to this night, a similar scene played like Groundhog Day. Sisters fight, food flies, babies blow out diapers. I plaster a smile while smoke billows from my ears and milk leaks from my chest. “What, don’t I seem abundantly glad to be here? Childhood is but a fleeting blessing. Please let me savor it.” Which, in tired mother speak, loosely translates to, “I just want to go home. No one can see us there.”
Then, probably while I was breaking up another argument, and five years passed. Honestly, I think what happened was I blacked out through a global pandemic, virtual school, tumultuous working conditions, and an attempt to re-establish normal.
The end of the school year pomp and circumstance arrives again, but this time, the invitation arrives with an attached Zoom link. I work to create a theater-like experience, since my children might almost be old enough to behave reasonably. Dinner is set, everyone is seated, and I connect my phone to stream through the television.
The Zoom show begins, and something catches in my throat. I work to identify the sentiment. It’s not nostalgia, or sadness for days gone by. I think it might be relief, pleased that we’ve made it through the thickest of the childhood weeds. Mixed in with relief is another sentiment, not loneliness, but some other form of lack.
I missed the vulnerability. Certainly not the blatant display of what I thought was my unique inadequacy as a mother. But instead, I missed the inherent comradery present when your vulnerability is on display. Dinnertime elementary school theater has the profound ability to perfectly highlight these inadequacies. The combination of tired and hungry children with their overwhelmed and nostalgic parents should only follow cocktail hour.
Friends chatted for hours over all our kids were missing in the wake of the pandemic. We worried they had lost so much more than reading milestones and long division. Their vulnerability seemed focused in the social realm, where they couldn’t seem to figure out how to behave in public again. How do they negotiate with friends, whether on the sports field or at the grocery store?
When things don’t go as expected, how do we teach them to not fall apart?
During this conversation, my mind jumped right back to the sweaty school auditorium, and a strange feeling covered me. Could we even hold it together in public before the pandemic? Should our stakes be firmly planted in the ground at their 2020 location, or can we inch them forward bit by bit? I’m not one who has a lot of patience with ungracious children, but when do my expectations fall into a category too high?
One day, I hope I can sit confidently in an indoor public space with my children behaving with moderate decorum. They don’t have to be engaged, but they can at least follow directions for thirty minutes around dinnertime. By the time our community can confidently leave Zoom in the rearview, maybe my children will be beyond the years where I must worry about their potential public dissent into anarchy.
In the meantime, my utopia may lie in the splices of Zoom, as we celebrate the end of the school year from our couch. If two younger sisters refuse pants and one older one has ear buds firmly in place, I feel confident the dogs won’t be offended. While I exhale, I miss the gentle smiles of empathy from fellow weary travelers on this parenting road. I miss the community acknowledgment of the passage of time, no matter how short, no matter how small an accomplishment may seem.
While I wouldn’t call it misery loving company, it sure is reassuring to find an ally. I do wonder if I’ll stay sweaty well into my golden years, remembering in vivid detail the discomfort associated with trying to appear pulled together when it is quite clear, I am not. Maybe that is alright, just as long as I am not alone.
Maybe, when the parents in front of us at a school play simultaneously wrangle small heathens while trying to appear present and supportive of their performer, I’ll quietly pass them a note.
“No one will miss this when it’s finished, least of all you. And that’s alright. You’re doing an incredible job.”