Some years back, when Taylor was about three and slowly embracing the idea of sleeping in her own Big Girl bed in her own Big Girl room, we ran into a bit of trouble at bedtime. Monsters, to be specific.
"When you turn off the big light," Taylor told me, "I see monsters on the ceiling."
So, I did what any good mother would do. I mixed up a batch of Monster Spray in a spray bottle I got from the local hardware store. Armed with her monster repellent, and not afraid to use it at the first bump in the night, Taylor slept worry-free. Not long after, we moved into a new house, the Monster Spray did not move with us, and Taylor never asked for it again.
Fast forward six years. Taylor's little sister, Peyton, is almost 4 and less willing to show fear outright than Taylor was at that age. Instead, Peyton takes a more Socratic approach.
"So, Mommy," she asks casually. "Where do monsters live?"
"That's a good question," I tell her one night as we head upstairs to bed. "Some people believe they live far away in the sea, in the really deep part. But I think monsters mostly live in our imaginations, where we keep all the made-up stories and jokes."
"Mommy," Peyton stops and looks at me without smiling. "Monsters live in the closet and under the bed and in the bathroom and sometimes on the roof!" She holds her palms out, wide apart, emphasizing the everywhere-ness of monsters.
Well, if you know all that then why did you ask me? But neither logic nor sarcasm will go over well, so I refrain. "Well," I say, "I've never actually seen a monster in the closet or under the bed, or any of those places..."
Then, as she often does, Taylor saves the day. "When I was little," she tells her sister "I used to think I saw monsters in my room, but it was just shadows." Peyton considers this, snuggling deeper into her covers, sucking her thumb. Her way of saying, "I have bored of this subject. Good night."
But as I tucked Peyton in after a recent monster-related inquiry ("So...do monsters know how to climb?"), I noticed that her eyes widened, almost pleading, and she clung to the top of the comforter instead of sucking her thumb. Her goodnight kiss was reluctant and brief, like she was resigning herself to whatever waited on the other side of the closet door. I knew the time had come to whip up a new batch of Monster Spray.
Would that adults had it that easy. But of course the grass is always greener. Kids want to grow up at warp speed so they can be Big and therefore less susceptible and less beholden to things like monsters and parental rules. Adults meanwhile wax nostalgic about the good-old days when someone else had to decide what to cook for dinner, when mere monsters -- not mortgages and troubled marriages -- loomed large and ominous over our heads.
Over the past couple of years, I've parented through divorce; the uncertainty and rejection that come with freelancing; and grieving the deaths of my mother, father, and grandmother. An adult equivalent of Monster Spray sure would have come in handy.
But like the pain of an old knee injury that flares up when it rains, the ache of these losses is far less acute than it used to be. People continue to ask me, How do you cope? How did you not have a nervous breakdown? Because I kept moving and functioning, it is assumed that I didn't. But if there is such a thing as a walking nervous breakdown, like walking pneumonia, that's what I had. Falling apart completely, outwardly, just didn't seem like an option. While I empathize with any mom who has fallen apart completely, outwardly, I can only speak to my own experience. This wasn't stiff-upper-lipping on my part, and the Christian in me is reminded of the Bible verse, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." But I don't recall feeling particularly strong.
I'm sure I did fall apart completely, inwardly, the pieces disguised by wranglings with the dysfunctional remnants of my mother's family, hidden among a few dating disasters in the wake of my separation and divorce.
Mostly, though, my kids were my saving grace. It was all I could do some days to wake up and be Mommy when what I really wanted to do was burrow beneath the bedcovers and scream. But waking up and being Mommy got me out of bed. And getting out of bed was half the battle.
I know people ask about my coping mechanism in all sincerity, but my imagination takes over, and I conjure a miracle cure, something to be bottled, marketed, and sold to the masses. Imagine the commercials ... Fast-acting Grief Begone! Call in the next sixty seconds to get the new and improved Insecurity Begone, absolutely free!
My kid-friendly recipe for Monster Spray is this: Fill a spray bottle with water, a few drops of citrus oil, and a few drops of vinegar. Spray on monsters as needed.
Unfortunately, ingredients for the grown-up equivalent aren't as readily available. We dig around the dusty pantry shelves of our childhoods, of past hurts, of lost friends and lovers, searching for a quick fix amongst the clutter, an antidote to the real and imagined monsters that keep us awake at night and darken our days.
But for lasting healing, I recommend laughing early and often with the kids, and doing that one scary thing every day that Eleanor Roosevelt said you should do. Mix well, then add a huge dollop of faith; equal parts therapy and steadfast girlfriends; and all the real love and encouragement you can find. Get older; write if you want to be a writer, take dance lessons if you always dreamed of being a Rockette; look fear dead in the eye and realize, truly, that you don't have that kind of time.
Spray on monsters as needed.