Monday, March 31, 2014

Lessons from a Pool Toy

I sat on the edge of the zero-depth kiddie pool and watched my girls splash near my feet. Reese filled a miniature watering can and poured it into Allie's open palm. Ah, those precious giggles. Matt sat nearby on the floor of the pool fiddling with a rubber squirt toy. Last fall we talked about spending his spring break in Mexico sans children, but instead opted for the far cheaper - and much less relaxing - family fun day in Peoria, Illinois (just 30 minutes from home). Toddler Splash at the Riverplex and Burger Barge 2 for lunch. Upper class all the way.

We really did have a great time at the pool. Reese finally overcame her fear of getting her face and head wet, and she had a blast going down the miniature water slide and perfecting her crab walk. Allie had not been in a pool since last summer, and her elated expression was well worth missing out on the palm trees and Margaritas. 

Sometimes when I see my kids having so much fun in such a simple moment I wonder where I derailed. I can (reluctantly) admit that I am a bit of a no-nonsense person, and the days of carefree child-like fun seem so far lost. My desire to prevent messes and injuries often overrides my ability to let loose and have fun. Routine. Order. Control. Boring. That's me. And if it doesn't seem that way to others (thank God), that's often how I feel. 

Watching the girls continue to play, I caught a glimpse of Matt raising a now full squirt toy out of the water. Before I could react, he sprayed a line of water down my abdomen. I shot him a "don't you dare" look as he submerged the toy again. This time he shot me in the face. In the face! He roared with laughter as I stared back at him. "Hun, c'mon," I always say in that long, drawn out way that shows my level of irritation with just two words.

Only I didn't say that. I didn't say anything. Instead, Reese jumped up and said, "Daddy, Mommy doesn't want you to do that!" This wasn't the first wake-up call to the reality that I am creating a miniature no-nonsense version of myself. Her personality is mine in every way. She is bossy and controlling. She prefers order to chaos. And she is often intolerant of even the most innocent teasing. 

And, boy, did I marry a teaser. He's the type who likes to give me jumper cables while I'm cracking eggs. (That's when you take your index fingers and poke them into both sides of another person's waist). One year when Reese had the flu on New Year's Eve, Matt wanted to bet on which one of us would come down with it first. I was not amused. That night, I got up from the couch and went to the bathroom. As I hung my head over the toilet, he peeked around the corner and said, "You win." And suddenly there I was throwing up and laughing at the same time. He's witty and sarcastic and his humor has thwarted way more arguments than it's caused. In fact, it tops the list of things I love about him. He's hilarious.

Yet here I am today giving him dirty looks because I don't want to go to a dumpy burger joint with frizzy hair. Really?? 

I realized then that I never derailed. I just don't choose to laugh as often anymore, and for some reason it seems that the older I get, the less laughter wins. I blame stress – and not the I-can’t-pay-my-bills stress or someone-I-love-is-dying stress, but the kind of senseless self-induced, anxiety-driven stress that I can’t seem to pin on any single life event (or even series of events). And isn’t life just too damn short for imaginary stress to override moments of laughter, joy, and soaking-wet fun? 

I think so.

As suddenly as it appeared, my angry expression transformed into a sly smile as I reached for a squirt toy of my own. I pointed it at Matt and squeezed the head of a rubber tiger. A pitiful arc of water dribbled from its mouth. Matt laughed even harder and sprayed my face again. I tried to reload, but I couldn't squeeze the tiger hard enough to reach him. After a few more tries, I dropped my weapon in surrender. Water dripped from my face and hair and our laughter echoed off the walls. 

Reese ran over and sat on the edge of the pool next to me. "Spray me, Daddy! Spray me!" 

Matt squirted her belly. She squealed. "Do it again!"

Then Allie walked over to him and doused him with the watering can, getting revenge for Reese and me. Someday in the future, when I hear a song that prompts a spontaneous mental montage of special moments, this scene at the pool will surely make the cut.

Laughter doesn't always come up against another choice; it just flows naturally from a good happy mood. Other times, it fights tooth and nail just to get you to crack a smile. It’s like the way your response to a messy spill can land anywhere between indifferent shrug and total meltdown depending on anything from hormones to stress levels (real or imagined) to where this spill falls in today’s lineup of mishaps. If I’m in a good mood and Matt gives me jumper cables while I’m cracking eggs, I laugh and turn my head to kiss his cheek. If I’m in a bad mood, or (more often) in a self-induced stress frenzy, I resort to an irritated “grow up” comment and matching eye roll.

What I’ve learned, though, is that – in more circumstances than we may know (or care to admit) – our response is a matter of choice. In the split second that I felt the water from Matt’s squirt toy begin to pelt my face, something inside me wanted to react with anger or annoyance or – at the very least – a pleading, “Hun, please don’t” with forced politeness. At the same time, another part of me urged a different response…

“Laugh. Really, it’s ok. So what if your makeup runs and your hair gets frizzy? So what if you didn’t pack a brush or a hair tie? The annoyance you feel isn’t about Matt or the squirt toy. It’s about other (totally unfounded) fears and worries that have nothing to do with family fun day. What a great chance to let all that go for a while. Now grab that tiger and squirt him back!” 

An hour later, I sat at the Burger Barge 2 with my Moo-Shroom (aka Swiss and mushroom) burger and fries and, seriously, the frizziest hair ever. I took Allie to the bathroom for a diaper change and glanced in the mirror. Cringing at the sight of my, I turned on the sink hoping some moisture would temporarily tame my frizz. From her position on my hip, Allie reached forward and splashed in the water. I gave her a moment of fun (ah, those precious giggles) and then turned the faucet off without touching my hair. I dried my hands and looked in the mirror again, smiling at my wild hairdo and the memory of the moment that created it.

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