“Is it today?” Wren, my six-year-old asks for the third time that morning.
“Yes,” I say in a tone meant to convey cautious excitement.
“It’s today, Sammy! We’re going today!” she yells across the breakfast table to her four-year-old brother.
“It’s going to be fun. I know you love this group of friends,” I say as the excitement becomes infectious.
“And it’s been forever since we’ve seen them,” Wren says in an exasperated tone.
Forever in the world of a child is a meaningless measurement that could signify an hour or three years. But in this case, it signifies months. Stretched to its full possibility, it could mean over a year, because our entrance to the world outside our doors has been sporadic since the birth of the twins.
The 20-month-old identical girls, Asher and Eowyn, toddle around the house speaking in a language only they know, and I reflect on all the reasons we’ve been missing from our own social lives: planning around two nap times, nursing, tantrums, and the overwhelmed feeling that crawls into my veins at the idea of taking everyone out in public, only to have it fall apart in a matter of minutes. The familiar creeping starts to rise as I open my mouth to speak.
“Look, we’re going to do the best we can. I mean, I’ve already been trying. I can’t predict everyone’s moods, and when we have to leave, we have to leave. Don’t fall apart when we have to leave,” I say, my eyes finding Wren’s since my son’s introverted personality makes him less prone to fits when it’s time to go home.
“Okay,” she responds, but her eyes are still glowing, and that makes me more nervous than it does happy.
We arrive at the house an hour later after rounding up sippy cups and packing a diaper bag, grabbing enough snacks to feed five full grown men for days, and agreeing on car music to please the masses. Wren and Sammy bolt for their friend’s door, and I balance two anxiety-prone daughters, one on each hip. They don’t like new people; sometimes they don’t like people they already know.
This is a homeschool playdate where the older kids will work on their math skills and the younger will spend time playing with sensory items. Wren makes her way to the math table, Sammy moves to a table with kinetic sand, and the younger two stay close to me.
“Hi! We haven’t seen you in so long. Will you tell me your name again?” I hear from several smiling mom faces.
“We’re just now trying to make it out again. It’s hard with little ones,” I say. “But it’s great! They’re a lot of fun,” I add, not wanting to seem ungrateful for my youngest two, whose in-utero activity was monitored constantly and who, in the beginning, were not predicted to live through the pregnancy.
“I can’t imagine!” a mom says, a familiar reaction. “At least they’re all social!” she says, and I look down to see I no longer have humans wrapped around my knees holding on for dear life. The twins have found the Play-Doh table, and they bounce between it and the one their brother is using.
“Um, I guess they’re trying that today,” I say, reluctant to move from the place my feet are anchored, afraid the slightest breath will break the spell.
A few minutes go by, and all of the kids are still occupied. I make my way to the kitchen island where a group of mothers is congregating. I keep an eye on all four of them, and when I look at Wren, she gives me a mischievous half-smile then turns her head quickly back to her work. The next time I look her way, she is motioning to another mom, asking her to lean over so she can whisper in her ear.
I try to predict when I should give the ten minute warning. We’ve made it for an hour; that’s an accomplishment in this stage of life. When my eyes finally make their way back to Wren, I notice she is coming towards me. All the mothers who were at the art table are smiling our way in anticipation.
“Mom,” she says, “Come here.”
She motions for me to lean down. When I do, she places a necklace made of pink yarn and multi colored beads around my neck. “I made it for you! I had to ask for help tying the yarn, and I measured it on some of the other mommies’ necks.”
My fingers instinctively go to the homemade wooden beads, and as I look up I see the other mothers smiling, hear the words “how sweet” making their way across the room. I wrap Wren in my free arm, and think that what I should feel is happiness that I somehow birthed this considerate child who feels I’m worthy of a gift.
I give the 10-minute warning just as the twins start fighting over Play-Doh cutters. I’m still fingering the beads with my right hand, and I try to feel grateful; but all I feel is shame and exhaustion.
We make our way to the car after finding shoes, saying several rounds of goodbyes, and promising that this time we won’t be out of commission for so long.
“This went so well. They did great!” one mom exclaims as we head out the door.
“I think we’re getting the hang of it,” I say, trying to look enthused.
“Your kids are great. That oldest one was so excited to make you a gift. It was precious,” she adds.
“It was a sweet gesture,” I say, feeling the beads click against my chest as I lean over to grab one of the twins.
After putting on my seatbelt, I check the rearview mirror to assess the emotional situation in the backseat. Sammy and Wren are both looking out the window longingly, trying to figure out if everyone is about to leave like I told them as I rounded them into the van.
“Mom, when will we see them again?” Wren asks.
“Soon, baby. I know you had fun. The twins are about to need food and nap, though. And I’m pretty sure everyone else is about to go home,” I lie.
“It doesn’t look like anyone else is leaving.”
I inhale slowly. Upon exhaling, the words I’ve been trying not to say all morning finally escape. “You could say thank you. For the fact that we’re trying. That I’m trying,” I say, more forcefully than I mean to. The beads around my neck hit each other as I turn to look in her face and continue my lecture. The sound of them stops me short. “And I want to say thank you. For the necklace. It’s beautiful, and I don’t deserve it.”
Wren’s face lights up. “I wanted to make you something! You brought us on this great playdate. Do you really like it?” she asks expectantly.
“I’ll wear it all the time,” I offer.
“Can I wear it, too?”
“Well, I do share my necklaces, right?”
We pull away from the curb and the longing the kids have for the companionship we just left rises in me, a place to hide from the solitary sinking. But lunch and naps are pending, and we made it out without a major catastrophe. We have the necklace, a token of our time out in the world, evidence we survived.
The disappointed faces still stare at me from the rearview mirror when I check it again as we park in the garage.
“Thanks, mom. For everything,” Wren says.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Sammy chimes in, trying for a smile.
“You don’t have to thank me,” I say, contradicting the demands I made less than 20 minutes ago. “I’m your mom. This is what moms do.”
Wren gets out of her seat and comes to face me, her fingers gripping the yarn still around my neck.
“And what Wrens do is make necklaces for their mom!”
I smile and try to hide the sinking feeling of failure taking over. “You did good, little bird.”
It’s a year before I find the necklace shoved in the back of the junk drawer, forgotten. It is tangled with the hairpiece I wore at my wedding, a multi-pronged silver comb that I would gladly rip to shreds if I thought I could release the necklace without ripping the yarn. I work for many frantic minutes trying to untangle the two with no success.
Defeated, I take the unintentional hybrid creation back to my jewelry box instead of leaving it in the junk drawer. Racking my brain, I try to remember how it even got there in the first place, but the tangled web of days between then and now offer no clues.
Things got busy. I got careless and forgot. I forgot my promise. I forgot how hard is to be a kid and to have to wait. I forgot that my life was not the only one in transition. I forgot my previous statements and contradicted them with my next words.
I’m not sure how any of us even made it down the road a year to where we are now, the now when we can make the library, the park, and the grocery store in one morning, where we have standing playdates at least three days a week, where getting out of the house is the first priority after teeth are brushed. We made it, but in a very haphazard, sloppy way that condensed building a family into surviving the basic tasks, no frills.
The beads, yarn, and hairpiece remain a tangled mess. My daughter hasn’t found them yet, and I’m not sure what to expect when she does. Anger at the careless way I let all the pieces tangle, the sharp points of the beads now making the necklace unwearable? Or relief that I kept them at all since I primed her to expect disappointment, and cancelled plans, and generally all-consuming chaos whenever I was concerned?
I keep them because she made them, and because the feeling I get when the hard, wooden beads touch my fingertips is so strong it leaves a weight sitting heavy in my chest. It’s not the pure, unadulterated joy I want to feel. The feeling is rich and multilayered, and like the yarn tangled in the comb, I can’t pull the emotions out strand by strand, put them in their proper places, focus only on the good. There’s regret and shame, pride and sadness, and joy, yes, it’s there somewhere under all the reasons I feel I didn’t deserve a gift during this season of my life.
When I pick the necklace up every week to make another attempt at releasing the yarn from its captor, the beads bump into each other, making a gentle melody of hollow sound. I may never be able to wear it again, but I hope one day to explain to my daughter that this fact in no way diminishes what she gave me. If anything, the complicated position the necklace is now stuck in represents the me I was when I first held it in my hands more than a year ago: tangled and weak, stretched too far with no way out.
The necklace reminds me of how far we’ve come and how much I’ve been given, that the emotions connected to life are not tidy and precise but knots of happiness tied into strings of anxiety, chords of laughter sewn into a tune of melancholy. When I hear the beads beat out their rhythmic sound as they try to escape their current predicament, I hear a song from my little bird, the song of absolution and undeserved grace.