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Pace Yourself: When You're a Parent, There's No Finish Line

It's approaching 10 p.m., and the children have been safely tucked away for two hours. I should be safely tucked away reading or indulging in bad television, but instead, I am downstairs in our toy room furiously cleaning and sorting in anticipation of our once-a-month indulgence, the cleaning lady. I'm not a cleaner by nature, but I am a sorter, and when propelled by the fear of the cleaning lady arriving the next day, it's shockingly therapeutic for me to kill a good evening putting that toy room back together. All toy condiments in a row. A full box of markers. All game pieces present and accounted for.

The cleaning lady is enormously helpful, but her job description doesn't include meticulous toy sorting, nor should it. But the randomness with which things get tossed if we don't put them in the right place to begin with can often resort in not finding things for weeks or even months. This is completely our fault and almost always is not really a big deal. Honestly, we should put our stuff away on a daily basis, but we don't, and it piles up.

And now I'm here.

I have found seven pieces of the Melissa and Doug pizza, and I feel like, as I search with bleary eyes, that the missing eighth piece is mocking my obsessive compulsive desire to find all the pieces to the set. The thought that it might be perpetually unfinished irritates me. So many of our toys and so much of this stage of life feel perpetually unfinished. As a parent, you don't ever really cross the finish line. Parents so rarely feel that sharp sense of satisfaction that children take for granted when there's a natural start and finish rhythm to your life created by culturally imposed structures like school and bedtimes. It's nice the way childhood constantly gives you that slow drip of satisfaction that tells you when you're done with things. You don't realize how special and fleeting the feeling to cross something off your proverbial list really is.

Nowadays, I almost never taste that feeling—the one that tells me something is done.

I survey the room. Nearly all the toys are missing parts. The rainbow colored rings no longer have a red. The doctor's bag has some overstretched glasses and an ear checker thing, but the thing that checks your blood pressure has been gone for a while now. Back when we put this room together for the kids, there was some order to it. There was a place for the cars, the blocks, and the baby dolls. I open the baby doll bucket and find the cash register with no money. Everything is just a bit askew.

My daughter's masterpiece sits in the middle of the floor. I have a harder time dismantling it. I know how hard she's worked on it, and I'm kind of loving the Pet Shop hotel she has made out of the Little People Barn and Zoo and some building tiles. Super Mario is checking people in at the front desk. It's actually all pretty fantastic. All the toys live together now in this strange and wonderful world thanks to extended periods of lapsed cleaning and poor sorting. Even in my own frenzied sorting state, I can't help but admire the beautiful haphazardness of it all. I slide it to the side of the room, unsorted and not put away.

The next day I make my way downstairs and find my youngest banging the train tracks on the floor. With a most unlikely generosity of spirit, I presume she's using them to make her own special brand of music. My daughter is using the tool bucket to make a model iPhone. My oldest, far too quickly approaching 8 and a much less frequent visitor to the toy room, is carefully undoing all of my hard work in the play kitchen to prepare me a tray of food. I see that he has dumped out the pizza I so carefully put back together to use the tray to pile high wooden donuts, plastic cupcakes, and ice cream. It's his masterpiece, his vision of the ultimate dessert experience. It's kind of fun to remember how a little boy thinks about dessert, like it's legitimately the greatest thing ever. Somehow it's easy as a grown-up to forget how great kids are at appreciating small things and elevating randomness to a near art form. I suppose that's really the whole purpose of play to begin with: random bursts of creativity and enjoyment, punctuated by the occasional prop.

I sit down at the kitchen table and take a pretend bite of my son's dessert surprise. I can almost taste its pretend sugary sweetness, a combination of childhood whimsy and a desire to deeply immerse myself in this increasingly rare moment of fantastical play between him and me. I look down at my feet and find a stuffed animal, a baby blanket, and that missing piece of wooden pizza.

I know one day this house will be clean. I know one day the toys will be sorted and put away. I know that one day I will hate it.

I inhale deeply and focus not on the finishing but on the part where I am there in that moment with them, suddenly acutely aware of just how much closer I am to crossing a particular finish line then I'd like to be.