The price of sanity: $6

July 09,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We all know that MasterCard ad where they sum up the values of various things or events and then conclude that the intangible total is infinitely more priceless than each tallied part. Well, I felt like that yesterday, after forking out $4.00 for two snow cones, and $2.00 for parking and some preposterous amount for gas, I'm sure, so I could take the two housebound/tired/fussy/grouchy and bouncing-off-the-walls children to our local science museum while Scott headed off for a much needed tennis match. On the way to the front doors of the museum, L. and T. spied a colorful snow cone cart, with gleeful kids hauling away huge cups of colored ice. Nothing turns the tide on damp spirits faster than a cup of ice enjoyed under the shade of a tree, with the promise of the cool museum just behind you, through the glass doors. The kids sat on a low wall, scooping ice and crunching it and, now and again, someone would walk in or out of the museum and send a blast of cool air our way.

I used to really love summer, until we moved south. Summer is tough around here. The weather has been so hot and oppressive lately that really the only outdoor thing you can do with small children is take them to the pool. But on a day like yesterday, when the sky hung heavily and even the mosquitoes seemed to have difficulty buzzing through the thick atmosphere, even the pool didn't seem quite so appealing. The kids obviously needed some outlet--that fact was painfully clear the minute I walked in the front door from work, because it was one of Those Afternoons--you know the kind, where you have to fight the urge to turn around and leave again because clearly the kids have lost their minds. Most days I just roll up my sleeves and dive right in, but yesterday was tough. Scott was tapped out, and the kids were in anticlimax mode from all the fun and attention of this past weekend--as well as just plain tired. I ran through a list of all the possible activities for the afternoon:

Crafts? Time at the pool? An errand or two? Maybe a trip to Ben & Jerry's? The library? The museum?

My solution for dealing with exhausted kids has always been, from the time they were babies, to gather them up and flee the confines of the apartment or house immediately. This might seem counterintuitive, but there is nothing more frazzling then being trapped inside with kids who circle around and around you, fussing and whining and getting on each other's nerves all day long. And the worst of it is that you often have to do major battle to convince those same kids who need to get out that they do, in fact, need to get out. Right away.

In the old days, when L. was a year or two and would skip his nap (a frequent event), I would mind-numbingly contemplate the long afternoon ahead and feel a sense of almost overwhelming despair. But then I would load him up into the car and take him out--to the playground or the free science museum we found ourselves at yesterday, or even to the mall, where L. could ride the mechanical cars and ice cream truck for a mere .50 cents. I needed those outings just as much as L. did--they preserved my sanity, made me feel human again, and gave me a chance to enjoy some special, memory-making time with a child who otherwise would have just been sleeping. My parenting principle has always been that if a child won't sleep, then we must make something of the time--a sort of combination of the philosophies of making lemonade from lemons, and carpe diem.

All in all we were gone from the house for no more than two hours, and spent only $6 dollars total. At the museum L. watched a seven-minute documentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls, while T. helped herself to long drinks from the water fountain behind us. We watched a massive striped fish with ridiculous front teeth watch us from behind his scuffed glass. We marveled at the fossils and meteorites, and the acacia tree ants display. I let the kids pick their paths through the museum while I trailed behind, this time marveling at the little people my own children have become, and at the power of a simple outing to turn things around--all the tiredness and ill feeling of the day left outside the door with the heat, the sagging trees, and the heavy, restless, hearts.

The $6 spent to get all that? Priceless.