Behind ‘Butter' and 'Chaos'

reaching for butter, slipping on chaos

Nothing I can write about parenting+chaos these days can be divorced from the surreal situation of parents during the pandemic. But today I will try to step back first and then consider one feature of the chaos that has swelled, and swallowed so much, since at least March.

Chaos, as a label, came first in my life. Before parenting, but especially after. Chaos isn’t the parenting itself — the parenting is mostly butter, even when it’s chaotic — but it’s what keeps happening when

a) I don’t have my shit together as a parent and I’m running out of space, time, focus or goldfish

and/or

b) my parenting life and other lives — professional life, home life, family life, social life, citizen/denizen life, political life, adulting life, fill in the blank life and (last — least?) inner life — vie for this limited space, time, focus. I’m wearing this stack of hats, mom hat, reporter hat, and then I hit a ceiling fan. (Since each of those hats is its own mini stack at any moment — snack maker, dinner planner, train track mediator, school email checker, spill cleaner, whatever.)

I suspect that “a” is more specific to me and “b” is more broadly experienced by other parents. Chaos, or the way I live it, doesn’t happen as events or episodes. It’s more embedded, as a and b either take turns or gang up. Two examples — “inspired by a true story” but not true à la lettre:

a) I can’t get out the door on time, because I can’t find a kid’s shoe, and as I search for the missing shoe I put my keys down, and when I try to find my keys with the Tile app (anti-chaos insurance!), I see my phone has died, because I didn’t charge it enough overnight and the battery drained in the morning. I gave the phone to the kids to watch cartoons to buy some time “for myself” (make a doctor’s appointment, set up a playdate, unload dishes — but in a quiet kitchen, so it’s now a respite), and it didn’t charge because I didn’t plug in it before bed because I fell asleep watching Netflix, because I was trying to drown out a crying child my husband was putting back to bed and my brain wouldn’t stop, since I was thinking about reasons the child might be awake at 1 for so many nights in a row. And as I look for the shoe and the keys, the other kid’s shoes are now off and something is happening in the kitchen with both kids and an open bag of rice on the counter. Within reach.

Discovery: The sound of 20,000 grains of rice spilling on a kitchen floor is something between a hiss and a lizard tap dancing.

Or, in version b) the kids are playing with trains, a block collides with a train track, I’m hugging one kid and talking with the other about not throwing, when my phone actually rings and I get a call from a not-husband, not-parents, non-spam number (what??). It’s a source who says something that makes my article implode days before deadline: the thing that was happening isn’t happening anymore, so the story is dead (which just cannot happen) unless I find a replacement. I need three hands: one to sprinkle magical quiet dust over the kids, one to talk with the source, one to email my editor. Actually, four. One to pinch my lips before they mouth “Fuuuuuck.”

Does any of this feel like anything you go through on a given Tuesday or am I just especially good at being frantic?

(“Why is everything wet here?” I just heard my husband ask a child, in another room, as I typed the sentence above.)

(Where was her husband when any of the above was happening? Some of you are wondering. Others will stop reading after I’ve introduced this question. In any case: We work as a team. He is making lunches, folding laundry, doing whatever I’m not, and vice versa. When we’re together we usually manage to offset one another’s chaos. But sometimes we’re just a pair of headless chickens trying to keep two downy chicks alive and shoed.)

In some families (Mine. Yours?) chaos descends and swoops away. It might be a stressful morning. A few months. But it’s not usually a big setback. And the things it snatches aren’t devastating. Some peace of mind, tranquility, the ability to think ahead, a general sense of calm and satisfaction, a sense of familiarity with how the day will unfold. These aren’t trivial, but they also aren’t shelter, health, custody. On one hand, we’ve been lucky. So maybe I’m flattering myself by calling it chaos. Chaos is indomitable. It’s the formless void. On the other hand, even if it’s paper cuts instead of a bomb, over months and years, there’s this toxic, slow burn. There are damages. (There was, I realize, one “benefit” to this slow burn early in the pandemic, when everyone’s days were filled with dread and we didn’t know what nightmare or unpredictable delight (“delight”) the next day would bring: I felt strangely on the ball. Things weren’t “that bad,” minus the deadly virus anxiety and a few other macro concerns, because a high level of daily and hourly uncertainty — of crazy — already reigned in our house. We were old hands at crazy.)

Since March, I’ve further categorized our chaos into two other subgenres: BCE (before the covid era) and CE (covid era). Early CE, for a while, time in our household was thick and slow and sweet like molasses. We stayed put, we didn’t stack activities one after the next. We stopped rushing to birthday parties, stuffing tissue paper into gift bags and scribbling a birthday card in the car as we pulled into the YMCA. We played for hours and didn’t think about the next thing on our agenda. There was no to-do list. We just did. We went cabin crazy (even if we were grateful to be sheltered and employed and healthy), we got nervous around mail and groceries, but at least the stuffed schedule, zero-margin kind of chaos subsided. But too soon, a new chaos started, the kind that has been a defining feature of the pandemic experience for working parents. Your break from parenting is paid work, and your break from paid work is cooking, and your break from cooking and cleaning is sleep. It’s the permashift of pandemic parenting, and it has emerged from the collision of the two kinds of chaos I outlined above — you’re wearing all these hats, plus you’re operating with minimal time, space, sleep, resources. And you never get a break.

I’m not sharing anything you haven’t thought about already. This next part, though, might be a little more “me” than “us”: One difference, for me, between the chaos from before versus after the pandemic is that BCE, I felt I partially chose and enabled my chaos. My complicity: stuffing my days, rarely saying no, doing things because they could be done instead of because they were the right thing to do, not pausing to first ask “is this good for me or my family?” There was also a shared accountability, i.e. with the way we’ve set things up in America to make things hard for parents in ways that they don’t necessarily have to be; the similarity of demands that is made upon women and parents (mothers) to not take space, to accommodate, to please; the ways we measure worthiness for women, and women professionals, who happen to or not be parents (there are no winners); and more! But my role in making or accepting chaos was key.

The CE chaos feels harder to opt out of. We had childcare before. And overnight we didn’t. For the abounding stress and difficulty, it was easier to blame things other than myself, my ineptitude, the choices I’ve made. It was less my doing. And so, it felt fairer, more justified, to seek and offer commiseration. The pandemic has given parents a new (unprecedented?) permission to vent. Before, if I openly talked about the chaotic parts, it felt brave and a little naughty. Like I was confessing something heavy, raw, deep. We had distinct and not often intersecting spaces for these conversations — reddit, academic mamas* on Facebook, a particular friendship — but there were these thick, clear borders. Now we’re “relating” with people we might not have even mentioned we’re parents to, before, over work zooms and at the grocery store.

But, surprise, these two types of chaos are not that different. We may need or be asked to do more, now, to the point of the absurd, the self-destructive — but many aspects of parenting in America were already largely absurd, long before someone smuggled a pangolin, or however this thing got started.

Butter, as a label, is much more recent. I was in the kitchen a while back. I remembered how one kid will grab any stick of butter within arm’s reach and just eat it. God, do they love butter. I smiled inside. I smiled outside. They’re so fucking cute. I adore them. I can be standing in the middle of a kitchen that is way too messy considering how minute my other achievements are these days (cause that would make a messy kitchen more OK, right?), I can be worried about more than I can wrap my head around — and all I can think about is that this is THE BEST!!! I LOVE MY BABIES!!!!

Butter is the word for that sublime appreciation, joy, pleasure, levity.

Butter makes chaos tolerable. Butter without chaos is still butter. Butter is the why.

Chaos, maybe, helps you not take butter for granted. Chaos can scar you, make you anxious whenever the hours start to get to cramped or as the unpredictability starts to wear you down again. Chaos is, for now, the how.

Or, as my husband put it: Chaos is what happens when melted butter meets laptop.

Today I wonder: Is a binary, butter vs chaos, lazy and convenient packaging? Does some chaos suggest a struggle, ambition, reaching beyond what is comfortable, in a way has its own virtue? Is the kind of chaos I described above rather a sign of incompetence? Is any bit of butter good enough, a supreme gift, and is it futile (and/or misguided) to wish and strive for less chaos? An action-oriented question: Chaos can’t be controlled by definition, but what in (around) the chaotic (of daily life/family life/mom life) can be?

Can I ask you, in turn: What is “butter” for you, what does your “chaos” look like? Do you think the chaos of pandemic parenting is same or different from before? To what extent do you think your chaos is a choice? And has the pandemic changed how you think about the chaos in your life?

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photo credit: Aline Ponce