I have a recurring nightmare. It haunts me every few weeks and is so terrifying that it causes me to shoot out of bed and lurch toward the door, yelling “No! No! No!” as I struggle in vain to fight against the imagined terror.
Is my whole family being attacked by wolves? Is one of my children about to run onto the freeway? Is the entire house slowly being engulfed by lava?
I’m dreaming that one of my kids is holding a big bowl of something sloppy, and they are about to spill it all over the place. Usually it’s applesauce. During these cold months, hot chocolate has made an appearance. But it’s always one of my younger three sons, holding a cup or bowl, and just letting it tip slowly, slowly, to the side as their mom thrashes from side to side in her bed, spiraling into the nightmare that she might have to clean yet another thing even in her sleep.
One of those sons, 9-year-old Henry, came to me one recent morning and told me that he had had a nightmare about a monster with orange hair that was chasing him. In his dream, his dad stayed behind to fight the monster, and Henry had run to me, the best mom in the world, to save him.
“You told me to get in the back of the car and duck down so the monster couldn’t see me, and then you drove me away and saved me,” he told me.
I bent down and looked into his sweet little face.
“I had a dream about you too,” I said. “You were holding a cup of hot chocolate and not paying any attention and were about to spill it all over the counter, which would have made me completely crazy, so I yelled at you so loudly that I woke up your dad, and eventually launched myself down the hallway to stop you, and then I woke up.”
He looked at me like he wished he had a different mother, then he finished eating his breakfast (which he also spilled).
I know it’s odd to have nightmares about messes. But after an entire day of taking care of my kids (and animals!), cleaning up another mess is just about the worst thing I can imagine.
I have been brought to tears by a child coming into my room at three in the morning to tell me he’d wet the bed. I’ve wiped baby spit-up off the carpet with a dirty sock that was laying on the ground within arm’s reach because I was too tired to do anything else. And once, when a frisbee ended up on an insanely high windowsill in our living room, it took me a full 10 months to muster up the gumption to get it down.
When I was growing up, I had a friend who had seven children in her family. And I noticed, even as a child, that every time I went over to her house to play, the kitchen table was sticky. “Why doesn’t her mom just wipe it down?” I wondered.
And now, six kids later, I know.
THE WOMAN WIPED IT DOWN. She wiped it down to within an inch of its life. It just kept getting wiped right back up by the millions of hands she was constantly putting food into.
Did I ever stop to feel grateful that this mother of seven was welcoming me, yet another rambunctious child, into her home after school? Did I notice that she stood in the kitchen, shuttling PB&Js to the table while we sat there and snarfed them down? Did I care that I wiped my sticky jelly hands on her table and then left to play with her daughter as she continued to stand there and clean up our messes?
I didn’t notice. My kids don’t notice when I do it now.
But I’ll keep doing it anyway because even though the messes make me nightmare-level crazy, I know if they weren’t there, that would mean my kids weren’t there to make them. Childhood is messy, but the growing up and leaving part – that’s the part that scares me most of all.
Julia Ditto shares her life with her husband, six children and random menagerie of farm animals. Her view of family life is firmly rooted in the Spokane Valley. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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