One of my children’s wails filled the air. I turned my head from the sink full of post-dinner dishes to see Anders dart into the kitchen with a guilty look on his face.
“What happened?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level and resist the urge to say what I was really thinking: What did you do this time?
“Nothing,” Anders’ face flashed an impish grin, but it faltered under my gaze. “Ellis fell.”
“No,” corrected my husband Kyle, entering the room with Anders’ sobbing sister in his arms. “He pulled the blanket out from under her and she hit her head on the floor.”
“Anders! Why did you do that?” As the words left my mouth, I knew they were pointless. My oldest—a child of rash impulses and wild energy—rarely knows why he does things. Yet sometimes I can’t stop myself from asking.
“I dunno,” he said, the return of his grin infuriating me.
I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath. Anders had been relentless in his provocations all day—pushing his younger siblings, defying my instructions, and generally wreaking havoc on our day and my sanity. I could feel 12 hours’ worth of tension pulsing through my forehead like a heartbeat, but instead of shouting “Go to the stairs!” for the 164th time since breakfast, I hissed, “Go outside. Now.”
Anders’ eyes blinked in surprise, but he didn’t stop to ask questions. “Ok!” He raced to the back door.
“Wha—?,” Kyle started. His confusion was understandable—I’m rarely a mom (or person) who deviates from the plan. Going outside after dinner was definitely not our normal routine.
“We didn’t get outside at all today,” I said, massaging my temples with my fingertips. “I had a bunch of meetings, and he has way too much pent-up energy. I’m going to run him before bed.”
Kyle slowly nodded, “Ok. Probably a good idea.”
The warm summer air ruffled my hair as Anders and I stepped onto the deck. He ventured a glance back at me, still not sure if he was in trouble. I put my hands on his narrow shoulders and bent down to meet his eyes. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to run up the hill to the calf barn and I’m going to time you.”
“Ok!” Already coiled like a spring, he leapt into action before the words left my mouth. I pulled out my phone to start the timer.
As Anders sprinted up the grassy hill, his shirt flapped up and I saw the outline of bones on his small back. A wiry six-year-old, he barely tipped the scale over 40 pounds. Yet he was strong enough to carry two gallons of milk up from the basement by himself, veins bulging in his arms and neck. Every inch of him was bone and muscle. My heart tightened as I realized—not for the first time—that my first baby was growing into a boy.
Anders slammed into my waist after another circuit from barn to back door, his skin flushed red. “Was that faster than last time?” he gasped.
I glanced at my phone. “You cut five seconds off your time,” I pushed his sweaty blonde hair off his forehead. “Good job, bud.”
He breathed heavily and I couldn’t help but notice all the malice was gone from his jawline. His face was soft and open—the same face I had adored since he was born. I squeezed his shoulder.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” I said, surprising us both for the second time that night. I gestured to the berm between two of our alfalfa fields.
“Really? At bedtime?” He looked up at me with cautious hope, arms still around my waist.
“Sure. Why not?” I said with a grin.
“Yes!” he said. We broke apart and walked side-by-side up the same hill he had been running. The sun was obscured by a bank of clouds, but it was still warm enough to be comfortable in our t-shirts. After the murky humidity of the afternoon, the breeze was cleansing.
I felt like I could breathe for the first time in days.
In the golden evening light, Anders’ steady stream of chatter was a blessing instead of a barrage. When was the last time I did something with just him? I wondered with a twinge of guilt as he dashed under the old dead tree. Before his siblings were born, we used to walk on the farm together every weekend. Now, years later, it was rare for him to have my complete attention.
“Run, Mom!” Anders’ voice startled me out of my reprieve. “You don’t want a branch to fall on you!” I laughed and obeyed. As he dashed ahead, I wondered if four months of quarantine had crushed his spirit as fully as it had my own. The walls of our house seemed to be closing in most days as I unsuccessfully juggled three kids and a full-time job that had gone fully remote.
We drew closer to the edge of the alfalfa field and Anders reached out. “Mom, I’m gonna have to hold your hand when we get to the road,” he said, twining his fingers through mine and pulling me forward. I smiled and rubbed my thumb along his hand, noting the lack of baby fat.
“Are you tired of being at home?” I asked as our feet hit the dirt road and we headed east.
“No,” he said after a pause, clicking his tongue and exhaling quickly—a habit whenever he’s thinking hard. “I like being with my family.”
I winced slightly at the sweet honesty. “I’m so glad, bud.” My fingers tightened around his as I asked the question weighing heavily on my heart.
“Is there anything I can do to make things easier? To be a better mom?”
Anders brow furrowed. “I guess you could try not to yell so much,” he said distractedly, watching a brown toad hop across the road. “Like, you could say, ‘Please don’t do that’ instead of yelling. Because sometimes your voice is kinda mean and I get a little scared.”
“That’s fair,” I murmured as my heart twisted. Clearly my stress was visible to everyone around me. I remembered a few nights before when I told Kyle I thought Anders’ bad behavior—the hitting, pushing, his short fuse—might be my fault. After months of 24/7 family togetherness without a break, I was struggling to cope too. Most days I felt like a pot on the verge of boiling over. My temper flared easily, and I lacked patience and grace. Kyle listened and empathized, but he also pointed out that I was doing a lot of good things too. “You take walks. You do crafts. You’re giving these kids a great life,” he said. “You don’t have to be perfect to be a good mom.”
Kyle’s words danced in my head as Anders and I cut through a field of tall grass on our way back to the house. Surely that’s what I wanted my impetuous, strong-willed firstborn to know too: You don’t have to be perfect to be good.
“We’ll work on it, together, ok?” I said, squeezing Anders’ hand. “I’m sorry for getting angry sometimes. Just remember I love you no matter what.”
“I love you too, Mom,” he said.
He released my hand and raced ahead, whooping and waving his arms. I couldn’t help but think that I always wanted to remember him like this: bright eyes and windswept hair, a spring in his step and a gentle face. Pure energy and joy.
When I started running after him, I felt my own face soften too.
Posted today in celebration of Anders’ eighth birthday.