portion of the artwork for Andrew Bertaina's creative nonfiction

The Children Sleeping
Andrew Bertaina

At first light, I lie in bed and scroll through messages on my phone. For a while, I sit in bed, the sun streaming in the window, waiting for the children to awake. I know that I should go read a book, but it’s past 7 and my feet on the stairs may bring one of them awake, so I stay in bed, waiting. Eventually, I cave and go downstairs to read. I’m about two pages in when I hear the boy yell, “It’s not dark anymore. I want to come out.” I trudge up the stairs we had refinished before we moved in, and let the boy out of his room. He’s 2 and a half and doesn’t seem to know that he can leave his room whenever he wants, so he lies in bed, waiting for me.

I put bananas on the table and scoop up a handful of blueberries for myself. The boy says, “I don’t want a banana. It’s too stinky.” Then he leaves the kitchen table and asks me if I’ll snuggle him, and I have to decide whether to continue making breakfast or accede. Your children grow up so fast, or so you’re told repeatedly as though you’d miss it in a flash, when all of raising children happens not quickly, but slowly, chore by chore. But I still feel a tug, and I cross from the dining room into the living room, walking beneath the arched ceiling that separates the two rooms and across the carpet, spattered with play-dough from yesterday that I bought in a huff of excitement at World Market four years ago, thinking of parenting as an abstraction, a future pleasure.

I lift him into my lap, and we sit on the chaise part of the couch, my legs extended. He lies on my chest with his blanket tucked over his round little body. The couch faces the kitchen where his sister, 4 and a half, has wandered down to eat one of the bananas. After a while, he starts turning his head from side to side, jostling my mid-section and ribs in a way that I’ve always found annoying. I don’t like having my ribs touched, so I try to stop his squirming. “Can I have granola?” the girl calls, from the kitchen.

* * *

“I’m sitting with your brother.”

“But I’m hungry.”

“I’m going to go make your sister some granola and yogurt,” I say, and the boy sits up for a moment and says plaintively, “No. I’m still snuggling.” Then he looks across the room and shouts to his sister, “I’m still snuggling daddy.”

The girl says that she’ll snuggle for a minute as well and, miracle of miracles, she’s gentle for once, sidling up along my legs and lying softly while I rub her back.

“She’s lying on me,” the boy cries.

I tell him that she’s actually lying on me and being nice, and he starts rubbing her back as well.

“I’m petting her,” he says.

* * *

Finally, I get them both up and off, so I can go make some granola. My body is not my own, but a cushion, a chair, a thing to be lifted and tugged at. I sift through the canister of granola, extracting the maple-covered bits from the flakes because she won’t eat them, but it’s all we’ve got. Though afterward, I decided that she doesn’t eat the flakes either. She just pulls their yogurt-covered husks out and leaves them on the table, coating it in a sticky mess unless you wipe it up right away, which I never do because I’m too busy doing other things and can’t fathom why maple tastes so bad to her or why you’d ever physically reach into a bowl of yogurt even as a child to discard something that you could just as easily leave in your bowl.

The boy says he doesn’t want yogurt and asks to go back to the couch to snuggle. This time we sit slightly differently, and his head, which is large, is nearer to my neck, he’s calm and soft, and I’m waiting for the girl to get impatient and come over and ask what we’re up to. He moves his head suddenly, smacking my trachea and briefly scaring me into thinking I’m having another neck contraction, a muscle spasm that happened to me recently and a few times in my 20s, which makes swallowing incredibly painful for hours on end and which once landed me in the emergency room. Because I’m a bit scared of it, I was probably exaggerating the extent of the damage caused by his head.

Eventually, the girl comes back over and lies down on the love seat next to me, the boy still half-sitting and half-lying on my chest. I try to remember the last time he pooped. Maybe he’s sick.

“Do you want peanut butter toast?”

“Yeah. I want peanut butter toast,” he says. And so does the girl and I’m back off the couch, through the dining room and into the kitchen. I put the toaster handle down and pull out two carrots to munch on while I wait.

“I want some water,” the girl says, and I tell her she can get it herself if she pushes over the step stool and finds a cup.

A few moments later, the boy stands beneath the doorframe of our narrow kitchen and says he wants to snuggle.

“I’m making you peanut butter toast,” I say, turning back to watch the toaster. He walks across the room and buries his face against me, holding my legs tightly. I slide him off when the toast comes up, spread the peanut butter evenly, cut them neatly into four slices, and put them on the table.

* * *

I’m getting hungry now myself, so I get down the olive oil and pour a dollop into the pan. While the pan heats up, I wash the dishes from last night. I didn’t get to them last night after I came home at 9:30 from a day of childcare followed by a nightshift at work that I do three times a week, only to discover that our new nanny is fine with leaving piles of dishes and unpicked-up toys. In the background, I hear the girl say, “Ew, I’m not looking at that,” because the boy has spat out the peanut butter toast.

“Were you choking?” I ask him because he’s had a recent visit to the ER. “It’s fine,” I say to the girl. “He was just choking a little bit,” and go back into the kitchen.

The boy starts crying and says, “I don’t like peanut butter toast,” which is a damn lie, but he doesn’t like it today and throws himself across the chair, curling up on it as though it were a bed.

“I want granola,” he says.

“I’m not wasting any more food,” I tell him. “You’re just wasting food today.”

But I relent and give him a small bit of granola and some yogurt. The girl has left her yogurt half-eaten and stopped eating her toast to search for a coupon that she’s misplaced. One of her favorite activities is to sit for an hour or two cutting out the weekly coupons that come in the mail and then placing them around the edges of her bed as I would have done with stuffed animals. All of which is nice, except when she loses one of them or when you jump into bed to read her a story, and the whoosh of air created by my body sends them fluttering to the ground or behind her bed, and she flies into hysterics about how I’ve ruined things. This morning, though, I send her upstairs, reminding her to get dressed because our house cleaner is coming, which means their rooms will be off limits all morning.

I feel guilty about having a house cleaner. I grew up in a single-parent home where the house cleaning wasn’t precise, but neither was it not done. And yet, somehow, with only two kids, rather than the three my mom had, the two of us can’t manage to properly clean the house without paying someone else to do it. Of course, when I say “we,” I really mean S because I’ve never really understood how or why people deep clean, figuring that a house that is kind of well-picked-up is sufficient, which is why I can’t really argue with paying the house cleaner to do things that I’m unwilling to do myself, though I occasionally badger S with it when we talk about money because it’s an easy target.

The boy is actually eating bits of his granola at first, though, eventually, he says that he doesn’t like granola either, and lies down on the chair again. After breakfast, I tell the boy that he can sit on the couch while I clean things up and get ready to go to the playground, and I move a blanket and give him pillows and, wonder of wonders, even the girl helps, who is usually selfish and involved only in her own amusement. But he complains at her interference and, when I’ve almost got him settled, he says, "But I pooped," and I carry him upstairs, strip his diaper, which he says has been hurting him, and which is perhaps too tight and is another thing I could tell his new nanny, though there’s also the chance that I put on his diapers too loosely, and it’s one more thing I’ll have to ask S or Google, though I’ve been putting diapers on children for 4.5 years, so I probably know something, but I don’t really trust myself.

Downstairs, I quickly scan my phone and start to read a funny article. The boy asks if I’ll read a book, and I remind myself to engage, and pull a book off the floor and start to read. Eventually, the girl comes by to listen as well. The books are stories about a pig that introduce kids to reading longer form books and include repetitious elements to assist them in the reading process, but which I regard almost uniformly as boring. There’s also a second-hand tale about Peter Rabbit written by Emma Thompson and a long story about Abraham Lincoln, though the boy calls him Abee Lincoln and always asks why, on a particular page, Abee Lincoln shot the turkey. The page contains one of those apocryphal stories that we recount about legendary people, this one being that Lincoln swore after that day to never take the life of another living thing, though, on the very next page, he’s clearing the land with his father, cutting down a tree, which is living, I suppose the nuance is probably lost on everyone involved.

Reading children’s books is boring because they are thematically stunted, linguistically unchallenging, and ideologically simple. Thus, while you are reading, an act I purportedly love, I am in a half-dazed state with both of them leaning against my shoulders, showing them the pictures, discussing whether the distant clouds are imminent thunder, which my boy fears like the fires of hell, or merely the reflection of the sun’s dying rays, which the girl says, and they are pink, and she is both right, smart, and often stubbornly stupid when she is wrong because she is so certain of herself and often right.

I read the stories for nearly an hour, which I feel good about because of how guilty I feel about the house cleaners, paying them to do something we could do while they observe me parenting. At least I look like I’m occupied in the act of parenting, which I am, as opposed to having them watch a television show while the cleaners work, though no one appears ready to give me an award for the act. After I finish the reading, I head to the kitchen to throw together some snacks to take to the playground because, by and large, my children go to the playground and treat it like an all-you-can-eat buffet as opposed to a place to meet friends and get out energy.

Getting outside is a minor miracle, so I feel a vague sense of triumph. So much of parenting is busyness without any real movement forward. It is cleaning up diapers, tables, kitchen floors. It feels good to be leaving. We say goodbye to the house cleaners. The boy says, “Thank you,” and shuffles out the front door and toward the car. “Why they clean my room?” he asks.

“Because it’s nice to have a clean room,” I say.

* * *

Some days I wake up with an insane kind of energy or frustration at being in the world, or maybe it’s just as simple as a mood, and it doesn’t go away until I’ve done something active, physically, intellectually. Today is one of those days when the act of parenting, the endurance of fights over food, blankets, books, space feel interminable. I know this about myself, but I am often unable to stop it. I can’t stop feeling as though within these routines life will fly by, and I will have missed some significant thing, as though a meteor shower happened, but I decided to get to bed early because I wanted an extra hour of sleep. And I know that other people, because I’ve read about them, don’t experience the preparation of snacks, of settling the petty squabbles, as anything other than a blessing, and so I feel guilty, too, knowing that if I could only be willing to engage in domesticity, to frolic and play with these children, instead of merely taking care of them, preparing the food, reading to them, taking them to the playground, if I weren’t only taking care of them but engaging them, perhaps this would all be different. Though just the other day I turned on music early in the morning and spent 20 minutes dancing with them, throwing the girl over my head and burning up that manic energy that sometimes consumes me with their laughter and unselfconscious movement.

“I want to go to the big playground,” the girl says.

“I don’t like it,” I answer.

“But please,” she says. “They have more space and things to play on.”

“Fine,” I say. "We’ll go to the big playground. But I don’t like it because it’s hard for me to watch you. And it has too many people."

“It doesn’t have too many people,” she says.

“Fine,” I say.

* * *

“Why you turning and turning?” the boy asks, because the person in front of me has their left turn signal on but isn’t moving, maybe unaware that they are at a four-way stop and oncoming traffic, slowly drifting through their peripheral, is going to stop. On days like these, I perceive others’ slowness as an obstacle to be overcome, and though I don’t honk, I seethe behind the wheel for two seconds, turning my wheel, wondering if I should edge around them or whip by. I don’t.

“I want to go to the little playground,” the boy says. “I don’t want to go to the big playground.”

“I don’t like it either,” I say, “but Sadie wants to go there. We’ll go to the little one tomorrow.”

I do a poor job of parking the car, at least a foot or two off the curb, but S isn’t here to encourage me to get back in and move the wheels properly, which would burn me up more, so we just get out, except the boy, who says he wants to go to the little playground. And so I ask him if he wants to stay in the car or come with us, and he eventually gets out, and stands by the car door, a forlorn 2.5-year-old right by the street, and I start walking to encourage him to come along, while trying to stay close enough to intervene if he decides to move toward the street, while also trying to be beyond the range of his voice, which has a setting today of persistent whine.

At the playground, the boy sits in my lap and starts eating snacks. He opens and closes the cucumbers, the cheese, the hummus sandwiches, scavenging some before moving on. The girl eats for a while, and I feel myself crumbling internally. Here we are at the damn playground and the only thing the children want to do is sit in my lap and eat food like overfamiliar pigeons. Finally, the girl leaves, but the boy doesn’t move. He sits in my lap, exchanging one container top for another, idly chewing food.

Most days the boy is much easier than the girl is. He’s 2, but you can convince him to do things. Earlier that morning, he’d been standing on a step stool in front of the silverware, and I said, “Excuse me,” and even though he’d been in a rough mood, he’d said, “OK,” gotten off the stool, and moved it away. The girl would rather lose a limb than actually move. Sometimes, getting her to do the simplest things is an elaborate process. But here, right now, I appreciate that she’s at the top of the slide, and now at the bottom, talking to a girl and pointing over to me. I can see her mouthing the words, “That’s my dad,” and eventually she swings by with the girl and says, “This is my new friend. That’s my dad,” and then they turn, and I hear her say, “What’s your name?”

After 30 minutes or so, the boy finally drags himself off my lap and ambles away, the sun practically gleaming off his pale white skin.

I don’t know whether your children are your own, a product of the nature they’re born with or the nurturing that comes from time spent with their parents and their environment. I wonder, as I watch him toddle away, if we’re doing something wrong. The rest of the kids at the playground are in some kind of camp. It’s all multi-ethnic, and I think, “At least we’ve done that right; my children don’t even notice,” but what I also notice is how free the kids at the camp are with their bodies, how unrestrained.

The boy, I can already see it, is too cautious. He’s emotionally intuitive and sweet but observant. These are not qualities that I’ve instilled in him through careful parenting, but rather, at 2.5, qualities that have been around since the first few weeks of his life. S and I will often talk about the children, or did for quite some time, arguing over moral minutia since I’ve become more liberal in the last decade or so about many things. Yet, as I watch him walk away, or witness the girl making a friend in seconds, I see that the children, though they share my DNA, are some amalgamation that differs from S and I, entities of their own. There is something in the boy that tells him to stop when he reaches the top of the rocks and to ask me to help him down. This, despite the fact that a boy of similar age jumps from the lower ledge, and whose mother says, “Be careful of the baby,” about the boy, who is not much younger, but more cautious. I do not like the uncertainty he feels in his body and the world, though I was similar. Yet, what a gift it was to discover the things my body was capable of. I was good at soccer, basketball, and baseball, good at throwing and catching a football. I worry when I see this cautious boy that he’ll take no joy in his body, which is how parents both try to live through their children and secretly hope they’ll avoid their own mistakes. I know that I need to take him out and kick a soccer ball, or buy him a tennis racket, but I also know that he and the girl will lose interest quickly, that I’ll be frustrated that they aren’t really trying the sport, which is to say, it would be harder, and everything with children often feels too hard already.

The girl asks to move to the smaller playground that she didn’t want to go to in the first place.

“Won’t you miss your friend?” I say, pointing to the girl who looks forlornly down at her.

“I’ll make another friend,” she says, and then looks up at the girl and says, “I’m leaving now.” She implores me, but I settle back down. I’m not letting her win this particular battle of wills.

The girl is occasionally batshit crazy. She doesn’t really listen to people when they’re talking because she’s so busy trying to insert her own opinions and thoughts into the conversation. S has said that “bossy” is a pejorative term to describe females, but the girl is bossy, prone to fits, and unable to regulate her emotions. She is easily frustrated by things and easily frustrated by people. She is also very intelligent, capable of memorizing books and pronouncing encyclopedic words at an early age. She wants to wear dresses and princess shoes, and one cruel thing that I did today was to tell her that she didn’t look like a lady because her dress wasn’t tied. She didn’t like how I’d done it, and she said she’d just wait for S to get home, but we’re standing in front of the playground, and I told her that with her dress untied and her hair uncombed that she didn’t look like a lady, so she turned around and let me tie her dress, and then she pushed her hair behind her ears and asked if she looked more like a lady, and nearly broke my heart, with her flushed cheeks and pink lips and brown eyes, the girl’s face reflects my own, and I tell her that, of course, she looks like a lady.

I’m frustrated, though. We sit in the shade of a single oak tree that is delivering some of the shade on the playground. The campers on this side of the playground have put their bags all over the benches, making it impossible for me to sit on a bench in the shade. So I sit on the ground, but the boy goes nowhere, and the girl starts rooting around for food.

“Why did we come here?” I ask. “You guys are supposed to be playing, not sitting around. We could do this at home on the couch.”

The girl looks at me and says, “This was your idea,” which it was, originally; the idea of a playground, of movement, sounded nice. I remember my childhood as full of laughter and playing.

“You should be running,” I say, but she lies back on the ground and eats a hummus sandwich, staring up through the limbs of a tree and rolling around for five minutes, until I, in a great huff, say that we’re leaving the damn playground because we aren’t doing anything.

“We can just sit around and eat at home,” I say, which doesn’t really register for them.

The boy then says he wants to go to the little playground, and I tell him that we’ll do it tomorrow, but he starts crying, so I relent, and say that we’ll drive over to the little playground, but for a short while.

* * *

The little playground is more manageable and both kids do a reasonable job playing. Though the girl keeps standing under a tree or going off in the grass by herself, and the boy walks around on top of the wooden siding before coming back to ask for snacks.

I get at least a couple of minutes to read. Once they’ve left, though, I’m looking up after every few sentences, scanning around for them to make sure they’re safe even though they are now effectively leaving me alone. Still, the duty isn’t discharged, so I read a few pages, looking up constantly before we head home.

* * *

After a television show, I tell the boy that he has to go to take a nap.

“I didn’t eat lunch,” he says, but I remind him that he did.

“I pooped,” he says, and I can smell the evidence wafting out and enveloping the room.

As I wipe his bottom, I’m still chewing on two bits of turkey that I’m eating for my attempt at a paleo lunch, trying not to retch, I wonder how anyone could write essays about the joys and wonders of parenting, how anyone could regard being elbow deep in shit and childish emotions as some sort of profound joy. It is something to be endured and, at times, done well, but a joy? I take joy in my children, but I do not take joy in the majority of the processes throughout the day. I find joy in small moments, a ball thrown for a minute, a dance party, but these are moments, not hours or days, or years, and the sheer accumulation of time that we spend together will certainly mean something if books are to be believed. And yet, watching the boy cautiously ask me to help him down from a small rock, or watching the girl say she’s got to move on to make new friends, I wonder what all of these moments, these gestures, these wiped bottoms and packed lunches will mean to them? I know that they won’t remember any of them. All that I can offer them is a feeling of childhood, but I can’t be sure of what their feeling will be. Will it be that their father loved them or that he was constantly disengaged? Will it be a memory of magic and playing and books, or will it be something else? I don’t have access to their feelings, nor they to mine. At best, I can hope that we’ll all be OK. Most days, it’s all I can handle, just being OK.

Andrew Bertaina’s Comments

The piece I’ve written about my children is really a simple distillation of a very frustrating day. As most parents know, many days can be frustrating when you have very young children. It’s the constant need for your attention, attention for things like picking up a rock or looking at a dump truck that aren’t all that interesting to you as an adult. And this is a record of a day that felt oppressive. Of course, other days exist, too, days in which enough runs smoothly that you’re convinced you’ve solved some mystery of parenting. That said, most days it’s the small moments that hold the whole edifice together, the goodnight kiss, the warmth of a hug, the wild abandon of a child at play. Would I trade the all the difficult moments for something else? I don’t know. This is life now, and it’s more difficult, more complex, and, yes, more full.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019