just what we needed

Recently, I’ve been feeling a little despondent over the changes in our family life. Now that the older kids are either out of the house or heading off to work or holed up in their rooms, and I’m often off at work or wrapped up in a writing project, it feels like we’re fragmenting. I know it’s natural for kids to go their own ways, and I know much of this draggy angst is due to COVID (social events, how we miss you!), but sometimes these changes feel more like a disintegration rather than an evolution, especially when I view them through the eyes of my youngest. His experience of our family — each person in their own world — is leagues different from my oldest’s at the same age. 

Just the other week, venting to my husband about this problem, I said, We need to be more intentional. We need to stop letting things slide. We need to make a point to do things together. And then, desperate for a fix — any fix — I resolved to do a better job prioritizing a real meal at suppertime (most nights), and to be more consistent about our family night read alouds. 

And then some friends of my parents (and, therefore, of ours) called to see if one of the girls would be willing to babysit their toddler. My younger daughter about flew out of her skin with excitement. She’s been begging us to foster babies for years (when I’d been her age, I’d begged my parents to foster, too) and now here was the next best thing: a baby for her to take care of, fulltime. 

Even though I liked the idea — the parents are immigrants from Tunisia and Sudan so this would be a concrete way to support the (relative) newcomers and it’d give my daughter purpose — I hesitated. My daughter was starting up at Magpie as a dishwasher. Would two jobs be too much?

As a family, we talked it over. The other two kids agreed to take turns filling in on days she was at Magpie and, next thing we knew, a little boy started showing up at our house every morning at 7:30. 

Right away, I felt a shift in our home. Suddenly, instead of hiding out in their rooms, the kids were gathered in the living room, studying and reading while keeping an eye on the kid.

They put chairs in front of the wood stove so he wouldn’t fall against it, and they’ve taken to walking around behind me in the kitchen closing cabinet doors and drawers I leave hanging open so he won’t bonk his head (he still did — note the puffy eye in the first photo, oops). 

It’s been fun watching the kids incorporate him into their routines. He loves being outside, so even when it’s freezing cold, my older daughter takes him with her when she does chores at the neighboring farm.

He likes to chase the chickens, she says. And ride the golf cart. And sit on the tractor. And play with the cats. At our house, he feeds Charlotte and collects eggs (today he fell on one and smashed it) and talks to the cows and throws the ball for Coco.

He’d spend the whole day outside, if he could.

Occasionally, the girls run errands with him (our van now boasts a carseat), showing up at Magpie to say hi to me (and to beg a failed bake), or take him along when my older daughter goes riding.

Off on their little excursions, the girls take little videos of him and then in the evening after he’s gone, they show us clips — of him in the car singing Baby Shark, of him kissing Coco, of him running in circles and giggling — and we all laugh.

What a peach.

Inside, he solo plays for long stretches of time, chattering away to himself. The kids sometimes plop down beside him and vroom matchboxe cars around on the rug. One afternoon I came home to my younger son and the baby having a rolicking dance party to “If you’re happy and you know it.” He repeats every single thing the kids say, and imitates them constantly, which thrills them to no end.

After lunch (my kids marvel at his wholesome packed lunches — fresh fruit, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, rice, salmon, boiled eggs, pasta and chicken), there’s story time and then he zonks out for a couple hours.

And then, POP! He’s awake and ready to play some more.

Having a toddler around is not a big deal, really — he’s a dream child, truly — and yet it’s made all the difference.  

Turns out, he was just what we needed. 

This same time, years previous: turkey broth jello, in praise of the local arts, Italian wedding soup, hot chocolate mix, constant vigilance!, light painting, the quotidian (12.12.11), Sunday vignettes: human anatomy.

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