Back in early winter, before the Coronavirus changed everything, I heard my daughter stirring. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon. She wasn’t crying, just babbling to herself. When I opened the door and lifted the blinds to let the afternoon sun spill into the room, I saw her sprawled out in the crib, buried underneath a heap of stuffed animals and blankets. She lifted her head to reveal a sleepy smile.
When I picked her up, she immediately pointed to where a fluffy purple and silver, sparkly unicorn bodysuit was hanging from a hook on the wall. A few days earlier, she and her mom had a girls’ day where they went shopping and came back with all kinds of fun goodies, including the new unicorn suit. Ever since, it was the only thing she wanted to wear.
Holding her in one arm, I grabbed the costume from the wall and draped it around her shoulders. The stuffed unicorn head dangled on her back like a superhero cape. She looked down at her sparkly outfit and grinned gleefully to herself. She gave me the sign for milk, opening and closing her hand. When I handed her the blue and orange sippy cup, she tilted her head back guzzling like she was gunning to win a chugging contest and started gulping hungrily.
We made our way over to the couch and settled in. She’s usually a little groggy when she wakes up from her afternoon naps, so I like to give her plenty of time to ease back to reality. As we sat there, I felt the warmth of the midday sun on my face. It seemed like the first time I had seen the sun in weeks. Minnesota winters can be brutally cold and relentlessly grey, so when the sun comes out you try to enjoy it as much as you can.
It seemed like the first time I had seen the sun in weeks. Minnesota winters can be brutally cold and relentlessly grey, so when the sun comes out you try to enjoy it as much as you can.
I looked down and noticed that my daughter seemed to be enjoying her moment in the sun as much as I was. Her eyes were closed, and she was resting contently on my lap. Normally, this kid is like a bouncy ball after she finishes her bottle and shakes off the PM grogginess. Cuddling isn’t something she normally wants to do. Sure, she will occasionally appease us when we squeeze her for a quick snuggle, but it hardly ever lasts longer than a few seconds before she’s wiggling and squirming to be free.
But today, something was different. As the seconds of cuddling turned into minutes, I realized that this was going to be a special moment. Tuning out the school bus driving by our front window and the neighbor shoveling his sidewalk, I focused on my daughter’s breath and the sweetness of the moment. She held my hand and snuggled closer into the crook of my arm. I tried to stay as still as I could for fear that if I moved, I might disrupt our peaceful serenity. But unlike similar moments in the past, where I’ve let that fear get the best of me, I actually stayed present with the bliss and let the fear of losing it slide past me.
She held my hand and snuggled closer into the crook of my arm. I tried to stay as still as I could for fear that if I moved, I might disrupt our peaceful serenity.
We sat there breathing together in the golden afternoon sun for nearly forty-five minutes. When she finally sat up and crawled off my lap, I could still feel the warmth from the cuddle on my lap, or so I thought….
Slowly, I registered the unmistakable scent of dirty diaper in the air. “Did you make a poopy,” I asked. She caught my eye and scampered behind the couch as though she could hide the answer by going out of sight. Still feeling the warmth on my lap, I looked down to my pants and saw a huge brown stain where she had been sitting. I grabbed her from behind the couch and inspected her bottom. There it was, plain as day. She had had a huge blowout that had soaked through her diaper, her pants, and had seeped onto my jeans.
My mood shifted. I felt a familiar wave of annoyance and frustration swell inside me. This wasn’t my first blowout and it wouldn’t be my last, but any parent knows that cleaning up a blowout is nasty business. Not only do you have the soiled diaper and poopy booty to clean, but you also have the stained clothes to scrub. On top of that, my daughter had been in the habit of violently protesting when we tried to change her diaper, so cleaning a blowout also presented the very real possibility that she would spread the mess around with her resistant kicking and thrashing.
My mood shifted. I felt a familiar wave of annoyance fill my stomach. This wasn’t my first blowout and it wouldn’t be my last, but any parent knows that cleaning up a blowout is nasty business.
I scooped her up from behind the couch and darted for the changing table. Luckily her beloved unicorn suit was spared from the blowout since it had slipped off during the snuggle. I held her out in front of me, arms fully extended, so as to avoid any further leakage. She wriggled furiously, making the task of carrying her even more difficult on my lower back. No wonder I have had to start seeing a chiropractor on a regular basis.
When we arrived at the changing table, I immediately plopped her down on her back and placed my forearm across her hips to keep her from rolling away. With the other hand, I began peeling back the soggy pants. It looked like a brown roman candle had exploded down her right leg, completely missing the diaper altogether. Sometimes I wonder if she can aim when she poops because the accuracy needed to achieve the blowout is akin to threading a needle.
It looked like a brown roman candle had exploded down her right leg, completely missing the diaper altogether.
Soon enough the mess was clean, and a fresh diaper was secure around my daughter’s waist. I let out an audible sigh as she scampered off to find a book. As I sat on the padded multi-colored floor-mat of her nursery, I noticed that my heart was racing, and my breathing was quick and shallow. How abruptly the peace that I felt during our sun-soaked cuddle had vanished, replaced by stress and anxiety. Could a blowout really change my mood that suddenly? How could something as simple as a poopy diaper disturb my tranquility so easily?
Every day, my daughter gives me opportunities to see myself and where I can grow. She shows me how to let go. She is like a mirror, reflecting back everything that I haven’t seen about myself until now. Sometimes this is embarrassing. Like when I dropped the yogurt covered spoon on the carpet this morning and yelled, “Damnit!” in exasperation. I knew immediately that she heard me, and I knew that I showed her a part of myself that I wasn’t proud of. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me very quietly with a knowing grin, taking in the moment. But her observation made me feel self-conscious in a way that I wouldn’t if I was just by myself.
Normally, I’m calm and collected. I tend to stay fairly even-tempered with her, even when she loses her cool. But I have my moments, and they usually happen when she makes a mess, or I’m worried she is going to ruin something. Like lately, she’s been really interested in our family record collection. Part of me is really happy and proud that she’s into our music. In some ways, her mother and I started this collection for her. Each album has meaning and significance from a time in our life, and we want to share that with her. Another part of me can’t handle her sticky fingers clobbering all over our collection because each time she picks up a record, she comes dangerously close to tearing the cover or scratching the vinyl.
Normally, I’m calm and collected. I tend to stay fairly even-tempered with her, even when she loses her cool. But I have my moments, and they usually happen when she makes a mess, or I’m worried she is going to ruin something.
I know that she doesn’t understand and that she just wants to explore, but I can’t help but feeling a sense of panic when she reaches for our vintage James Taylor or Ray Charles albums. When she does, I snap at her and pull the record out of her hands. And then she cries, a lot. I try to explain that the albums are valuable and that I want them to be in good condition so that she can listen to them when she’s older, but again, she’s only seventeen-months-old, she doesn’t understand.
So then, it seems that the lesson here is really just for me. Like I said, my daughter is a mirror, reflecting back everything that I cannot to see about myself. She forces me to think about why I care so much about these records. Without saying a word, she seems to ask, “What is this really about? Why are you so upset? They’re just records, daddy.” And, I know she’s right. Sometimes I wished she wasn’t so persistent in her teachings, but how can I complain? She’s helping me become more conscious, and more aware. She’s helping me see what really matters and what I can choose to let go of. She’s teaching me how to be fully present with her, instead of getting carried away by my desire to control everything, all the time.
She’s helping me see what really matters and what I can choose to let go of. She’s teaching me how to be fully present with her, instead of getting carried away by my desire to control everything, all the time.
Back at the scene of the blowout, I was still flustered when my wife got home later that evening. She asked me what was wrong, and I recounted the whole story from the beginning. In my retelling, I quickly skimmed over the peaceful cuddles and detailed the dramatic blowout. Mostly, I was looking for empathy and validation. I wanted to hear my wife reflect how much it must have sucked to deal with that by myself, but instead she was jealous. “She let you cuddle with her for forty-five minutes?!?” she asked incredulously. “That sounds amazing.”
At first, I was dumbfounded. How was it that she heard this story and saw a moment of pure joy? For my wife, the poopy blowout was just a side note and the main highlight was the blissful afternoon sun and the warmth of the cozy cuddle with my daughter. Why was it that when I told the story, I had focused so intently on my own pain and suffering?
The truth is, I have a choice. Life is full of messes — dirty diapers, spilled yogurt, and scratched records. No matter how much I try, I cannot prevent them or make them go away. But life is also full of beautiful moments of exquisite happiness. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I have very little control over whether life gives me a poopy diaper or a sun-drenched snuggle.
What I do have control over, however, is how I choose to respond to the ups and downs of parenthood. Sure, I can choose to focus on how shitty it is to have to clean up a blowout (pun intended), and I wouldn’t be wrong. But I can also choose to focus on how amazing it is to spend an afternoon cuddling with my daughter in the sun. And I’ve found that concentrating on the negative brings me more agony, while letting go and focusing on the positive brings me even more joy and gratitude for my daughter.
*This essay was originally published at www.kyleashlee.com on 4/7/20.