I’ve often wondered what would happen if I got into my car and just started driving. No destination. Nothing but an open road. The air crisp and free of the familiar scent of spoiled milk and cheese crackers. Everything weighing me down, fading into a blip in my rearview mirror. The stress, fear and regret burning away with every passing mile. A gorgeous sunrise exploding into sprays of pink, purple, orange and blue on the horizon ahead. Or, the light from the high midday sun creating false pools of water that I could splash through without worrying about soggy socks.
No screaming kids fighting in the backseat. No Baby Shark blaring over the BOSE speakers to calm a crying baby. The same speakers used to play the hottest songs that made you feel cool just listening to them, now relegated to toddler tunes stuck on repeat.
No unengaged spouse.
No misogynistic bosses.
I closed my eyes and permitted myself to slip into that blissful daydream. The possibility of it intoxicating. Breathing in deeply, I savored the feeling until a car behind me honked. Forced to face reality, I realized I wasn’t running anywhere. I was stuck.
Rush hour traffic.
Every day the same as the one before.
The reality of it all crashed my temporary high. I couldn’t dwell on these fantasies for long but the brief moments I did allow were enough to transport me far away from my life so I could breathe for a moment.
“Polly’s Pizza where we treat you like the extra cheese you are. This week it’s BOGO on any two large one-topping pizzas! Tell ‘em Gary sent you!” The commercial shifted into the jingle I knew all too well. I’d written it eight years ago. It haunted me ever since.
Bile rose from my stomach as I reached for knob to turn off the radio. That voice wasn’t allowed in my car. That name felt like fire in my ears. “Piece of shit,” I mumbled under my breath.
“Mom!” Barrett shouted from the back. His feet pummeled the back of my seat, jolting me forward. Kick. Kick. Kick. I gritted my teeth and counted to ten. I loathed the day he outgrew the rear-facing requirements. He couldn’t kick my seat then, and I met the approval of the judgmental eyes of social media moms. I glanced in the mirror to confirm that his five-point harness was properly placed at armpit level. It was. It always was just in case I decided to snap a photo of him asleep in his car seat or get a video of him singing along with the radio. Then I knew it would be fine to post without the threat of ten thousand angry mom mob comments. And, of course, it meant he was safe and secure. That was the important part of this equation.
“Do not kick my seat, Barrett James.” My tone was clipped but controlled. He stopped kicking for a moment before grunting loudly and kicking even harder. The breath hissed from my mouth as I held in the four-letter word I didn’t dare utter out loud.
“One more time and you’re going straight to timeout when we get home.” My pulse quickened. An all too familiar sensation drifted up my spine. I snapped in a sharp breath and shoved it back down.
“Carly touched my hand,” he whined. His baby sister giggled from her car seat. In the rearview mirror, I could see both his scowl and the reflection of Carly’s smile in her car seat mirror.
“She’s six months old, Barrett, she didn’t do it on purpose.” The sound of a tiny hand slapping skin echoed through the car. It was immediately followed by the high-pitched wail of a baby sister who already knew how to get her older brother in trouble. The sound reignited the fury I’d shoved away. It bubbled below the surface for a second before exploding into the chaos of the car.
“Barrett!” I shouted in the voice that made even me cringe. The one that started deep in my stomach and burned when it exited my throat. The one that sends flames of guilt burning through my veins, chasing and haunting me well into the night when I lie awake and recall all the ways I’ve failed as a wife, mother and woman.
He retreated back into his seat, farther away from me. His lips pressed together, forming a deep frown. Tears stung my eyes. The light turned green, and I gently pressed the gas as both children burst into a chorus of wails. Once again the tears are my fault. Mommy lost her temper. Again.
“Mommy is very sorry she yelled at you,” I said in my softest mom voice.
“Can I watch Power Rangers when we get home? And I want fruit snacks and milk.”
“Sure, buddy.” I leaned my head into the seat and rubbed my temple with my free hand. “How about we play the quiet game the rest of the way. Winner gets a dollar.”
“Okay!” His eyes met mine in the mirror. I smiled as his mouth flattened into a serious line. His jaw set tight, and his body shifted as he crossed his arms over his chest. Barrett was as competitive as his father. No game or challenge too small for the Harris men.
My phone lit up on the seat beside me. Speak of the devil. “Hey hon,” I said, answering.
A very small part of me was holding onto the comical hope that he was calling to ask what page tonight’s recipe was on because he was already home and wanted to start dinner. Once upon a time that might have happened, but not now. Not when he spent every day trying to prove his worth to the new owners of the company he’d dedicated his entire career to.
“Daddy!” Barrett. The quiet game was officially paused. “Mommy said shit today”
I rolled my eyes. There was no point in arguing with him. Aside from the fact that he was right, he was also a toddler. Even the most naive of mothers knew not to argue with them. There was no way to win. If mansplaining made me crazy, toddlersplaining was on a whole other level. It’s kind of like arguing with a troll on Twitter. There is no reason, and no matter how wrong they are, they adamantly believe what they believe. Facts be damned.
“Amanda,” Stephen scolded. I detected a slight chuckle in his response. I was quite certain Barrett heard far worse when Stephen drove them to daycare in the morning. My son had told me as much.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Barrett sang in the backseat.
“Listen, babe.” My body slumped into the seat. I knew that tone. It was new but had become all too familiar in recent weeks. That was the tone that said he was working late. Something more important than his family had come up.
“What time will you be home?”
“Eight?” His answer was more of a question than a statement. “Maybe nine. The transition team is here, and they need me to walk them through some app functionality for a meeting with investors tomorrow.” He sounded more strained than normal, and I could hear his boss shouting in the background. Stephen sighed. His job used to be the calm predictable one.
I wanted to offer sympathy. Instead, I said, “It’s bath night.”
“I know,” he replied. There was no guilt in his voice. “We can do them in the morning.”
“We can’t. I have my morning meeting, so I have to leave early.”
“Oh, I forgot.” Obviously. “I’ll try to get out of here as quickly as I can. Can you just wrap up a plate for me?”
“No,” I replied. “I am not making dinner, wrangling two kids in the bath and doing bedtime solo. I’ll pick them up McDonald’s.”
“What will I eat?”
“I don’t know, Stephen. Figure it out.” He exhaled sharply. Painful silence settled over my car’s Bluetooth. I could sense his hesitation. He wanted to respond as harshly as I had.
“Okay. Love you.” His was voice barely above a whisper. He’d given up and let me have the last word. This, our typical fight. Ending before it began. Resentment building.
“Love you, too.” I hung up before he could say goodbye.
“Bye Daddy!” Barrett said, unaware that I’d already hung up the phone.
“What do you say we pick up some Happy Meals and have a picnic in the living room?” I asked. My son replied enthusiastically and started singing a song to himself.
Nothing like fast food and the promise of a cheap toy to flip a kid’s mood.
After a lengthy debate in the drive-thru over whether he wanted chicken nuggets or a hamburger with cheese—not a cheeseburger, he does not like cheeseburgers—we finally pulled into the garage at a quarter to seven. I quickly set him up at the dinner table with Power Rangers playing in the background before hurrying to get a bath started. If I timed it right, I could bathe Carly and get her to bed before Barrett finished eating dinner. Using his Happy Meal toy as leverage, I hauled his sister into her room.
“Da da da,” she cooed. She’d yet to utter Mama, but she had Dada and BaBa down pat. It figured she’d take to the father who never woke up with her at two in the morning and the brother that tattled on her over the mother that birthed her and kept her fed.
“Mama,” I said.
“Dada,” she replied. I shook my head and silently scolded her. I’d win her over eventually. After all, my breasts provided milk where her father’s only offered hairy nipples.
In the bath, she played with the water and kicked her feet, splashing me with enough water to classify as my daily shower. She giggled and splashed until I had to rinse her hair then she screamed and swatted me. She’d been cursed with a head of fine, thin blonde hair like me. If her hair followed the path mine did, she’d be dying it in a few years desperate to have it back to the blonde of her youth, rather than the dirty shade that popped up once the days of recess and endless sunshine ended. Barrett took after Stephan with his deep brown eyes and hair. My girl and I had matching blue eyes. At least for now. Stephan liked to joke they could turn brown at any given moment. He already had their first words, the least he could give me was their eye colors.
Much to my surprise, my plan played out exactly as I’d hoped. Barrett ate his dinner and turned into a TV zombie and Carly fell asleep in record time. I knew better than to celebrate my mini victory, though. Motherhood was a constant loop of I told you so moments. Just when you thought your night was on track, your almost-four-year-old finds his way into the laundry room while you’re putting your daughter to bed and manages to pour an entire container of Tide laundry soap all over the floor. I found him lying in the pool of blue liquid pretending to swim.
“Look, Mama!” he proudly announced when I found him. “I made the beach!”