Like a Rat in the Kitchen

art via

Over the last two months, Stump, my two-year-old, has come to hate diaper changes. Also eating breakfast. Also getting dressed and getting in the car. In short, he resents—deeply—any of the things that need to happen in any given morning. He resists by screaming, by kicking, by clawing at my face with his tiny sharp nails, by calling out to the dog “Wally save me!” or telling me to “Go away forever!”

The solution has been a simple one. I carry him, flailing, to the bed. I tell him to let me know when he’s ready. I close the door. I listen to him cry alone; I restrain myself from intervening. Finally, after thirty seconds or ten minutes, I hear him call “I’m ready.” I open the door to find a calm and smiling but tear-stained child.

Though our solution is simple, it isn’t easy. I go through the morning bracing myself for conflict. I go through the same thing all over at bedtime. My problem isn’t that Stump is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day. I move through my home life holding my breath.

This week our summer ended. Smoke began first grade, and I am gearing up to return to work full-time next week. This means that all of a sudden we have places to be at a certain time. This means that now, when I close the bathroom door, I’m praying that Stump takes one minute instead of ten to calm himself. Obviously I have no control over this. Tantrums and deadlines are not a good fit.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a few other complications.

  1. Our water heater died last week. Our new one is taking a long time to get here. Last time I checked, it was on a truck leaving Lenexa, Kansas.
  1. A few weeks ago Kellie began pulling up tiles from our bathroom, trying to locate a short circuit in the heating system. This week she finally discovered that the problem was directly beneath our toilet, so she had to pull it up. We’ve been urban homesteading this week in the un-sexiest sense of the word: heating water in a pot for dishes and spit baths, eliminating in a rocket box.

    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box
    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box
  1. Please note that home maintenance issues 1 and 2 are unrelated. It’s a total coincidence that we can’t shower in our own home or pee in a flushable toilet. But item 3 is possibly related to item 2: We now have a rat living in our house. Kellie thinks she came in through the pipe that normally connects to our toilet. We haven’t seen her, but she leaves evidence for Kellie every morning. She poops in several places on the bathroom floor, or licks the butter that I accidentally left on the counter, or feasts on the crumbs from our toaster. So far she’s ignored the peanut butter in the trap.

A year ago, when Smoke started kindergarten, we were in a strikingly similar situation. Kellie was finishing a bathroom remodel and our bathtub lay upside down on our living room floor. I wrote then: “I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.”

This year I’m returning to that thought and concluding that perhaps it is neither. What if we’re not choosing chaos, nor are we its victims? What if instead of chaos this is order, the alignment of my emotional and physical landscapes?

Or, to put it another way: I could be shuffling my children through the world without these extra complications. We could have warm water and a functional toilet. We could have a rat-free house. But that wouldn’t feel quite right. I actually find some small relief when my physical world illustrates how crazy I feel. When someone says “How’s your week going?” I can say “Well we have a rat in our kitchen, no toilet, and bathing is a challenge but we’re coping,” and somehow that better captures my state of mind than if I said “Stump throws many tantrums and I’m tired.”

Also, the beginning of the school year is always about performance, about putting on our best faces, and so it feels meaningful that I must contend with my less-polished self: my unwashed hair and unshaved legs. I join the other parents in the pick-up line, take a breath, and trust that they can handle my humanity.

My mind keeps returning to this mysterious rat who so far I’ve only heard about. Kellie wakes up before me, and so she finds the evidence, cleans it up, and then reports to me. For all I know she does not exist. But she just feels right, this rat does: she is a reminder that something beyond my control is always lurking, scurrying around in the darkness, tipping things over, climbing through pipes and chewing on wires, creating havoc because this is life and because she can.