by Erin Sweeten
When I imagined myself as a parent, I thought about the hugs, the milestones, the cute outfits. I did not anticipate how often I would decide to do things knowing in advance a) what a pain in a butt they would be and b) how low the chances were for success. Pretty much every day of my life when the kids were little I’d say, in so many words, “Why don’t we do that activity that takes longer to get ready for than to do, and that will cause someone to feel miserable for at least part of the time? It’s going to be great!”
Let’s say a friend calls to invite us on a hike. It’s cool, sunny day, we’re bored out of our minds, we love this friend and her kids. Do we say yes?
Before kids, the answer is obviously yes. Prep is simple: throw on some sneakers and some sunscreen, grab a water bottle, head out the door.
When the invite includes three young kids, I must carefully assess my stock of essential supplies, my mental health, and my emergency reflexes before saying yes.
Prep takes at least 45 minutes: we have to find six pieces of weather-appropriate clothing that fit together in approximate pairs; ditto socks and shoes; someone forgets he has underwear on instead of a pull-up and pees in his clean pants; everyone is sort of blotchy and white from the two gallons of sunscreen we applied and someone got it in her eyes; we have to collect enough wipes and first aid for each child; ditto water cups and snacks; ditto extra clothes and shoes, since there’s a creek on this trail.
The hike itself will be some combination of fun and extremely difficult. Technically, all three kids can hike, but realistically, one of them hikes and the twins just blunder about. I have to keep an eye on the boy who wants to “check” every cactus to see if it is actually sharp. Another one decides that ants are terrifying and refuses to go on until he gets a bunch of almonds and a pep talk. The oldest kid suddenly has to poop when we are half a mile from the car. I talk her out of it. There is some happy splashing around at the edge of the creek, and then crying. Why is that nine-year-old allowed to climb to the top of a boulder but we three-year-olds are not? I apply ointment and a bandaid to the kid who fell trying to climb the boulder anyway. I chat a little with my dear friend. We manage to get 33% through one conversation before it is time to go. Two of the kids are sure they can’t make it back to the car. I bribe them.
We’ll all be exhausted after an afternoon of exercise and emergency interventions. We arrive home in various stages of undress. I put all three kids in the tub even though they don’t fit anymore. They screech and complain as I scrub off their weapons-grade sunscreen. They wrap up in blankets and watch a TV show while I collect all the wet clothes, balled-up socks, bath towels, and mysteriously filthy fresh clothes into a huge pile. It’s a two-washer-load pile. I start a load of laundry and try to figure out a dinner that includes some kind of vegetable. The TV show finishes and the kids start begging to pre-eat dinner before it is plated. They are excited that it’s quesadillas and carrot sticks but one is upset because she has been comparing the sizes of the triangles on each plate and feels she has been shortchanged. One twin takes the opportunity to eat everyone’s strawberries while I am negotiating with his sister.
At dinner, all the kids want to know when we can do that hike again. Remember that crawdad? Remember all the shiny rocks we brought home in our pockets? Did you see how high I climbed? Weren’t those other kids nice? They taught us to skip rocks!
All this goes through my mind in fifteen seconds as I hold the phone to my ear. Do I say yes to the hike? I have the wipes, snacks, sunscreen, waters, and clothes. I got enough sleep, more or less. The more often we get outside, the greater our general happiness, and the more the life of the furniture is extended. It’s a solid yes.
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