Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Leaving My Kids in the Dark

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I scoot Brennan and Liddy in through the front door, drop the groceries in the kitchen, grab my cell phone and dial the power company's customer service line for the third time today. Liddy shrieks as I wrestle her wet boots from her feet and I strain to hear the prerecorded message, which is the same one I heard six hours ago: "...reports of limited outages in your area... expect power to be restored in one to two hours." Shit. I reach under the sink and pull out our one flashlight, clicking it on and off to find the bulb depressingly weak.

It's four p.m., the witching hour, on a day that has already gone on far too long. Tonight is also date night-or at least, it was supposed to be. John and I have started a semi-regular evening out with another couple or two, and we've just begun to reap the rewards of spending a few hours together talking about something besides our kids. Time off from parenting, it turns out, makes us better at it.

Today, the promise of adult conversation, grilled mahi mahi and red wine has kept me Zen through preschool drop-off and pick-up, backseat tantrums, a grating hour of music class, and a halfway successful trip to the grocery store. But instead of dinner out with John I am now staring down a long cold night with no light or heat, two temperamental preschoolers and-it dawns on me-a pair of geckos whose lives depend on an 80-degree heat lamp.

I carry the flashlight to Brennan's bedroom and the kids thump along after me on their hands and knees: "Meow meow! Meow meow!" they call, raking at my ankles with claw-like fingers. I aim my dying beam of light at into the geckos' tank, where they huddle together on a rock and stare back accusingly. A lone cricket-lunch leftovers-joins them. The tank's temperature gauge reads 64.

Back into the kitchen, I open the fridge and check the milk, which feels warmer than the geckos' tank. I haul the groceries back outside and onto our slushy porch and stare at the darkened streetlights. The only thing keeping me going is the prospect of date night. But as much as I need a break from the kids, I know I can't just leave them with a sitter, fumbling around in a cold, dark house. Right?

"Okay guys," I say, trying to fake enthusiasm. "Let's go to the hardware store for more flashlights!"

They must hear the desperation in my voice. "No way," Brennan says.

"I want to stay home!" Liddy wails, falling on the floor and throwing an arm dramatically across her eyes.

In the driveway, I feign calm as I pin Liddy's convulsing body into her car seat and work the straps over her arms in the move John calls the Vulcan Death Grip. "Tired girl," I say.

"I AM NOT TIRED!" she shrieks. She repeats this the whole eight minutes to the shopping center as she kicks off her boots and socks.

Brennan covers his ears and complains, "Too loud!"

"No socks!" Liddy screams when I unbuckle her. "Please mommy, pleeeease don't! Don't do it!"

I carry her, barefoot, through the dark, icy parking lot, gripping Brennan's hand like a vise.

A grandfatherly man holds the door for us. "You've got your hands full!" he says kindly. "I don't know how you do it."

"Not very well," I say, grateful for his sympathy.

"Toughest job in the world," he smiles back. Then he sees Liddy's feet and, in an instant, his expression changes. "Someone's...lost her shoes," he frowns disapprovingly.

"Her boots are in the car," I say.

He frowns harder.

I try to smile, though I am beginning to sweat as I feel Liddy pushing from my grip. "It's been a long day."

Liddy wipes her snotty face on my shoulder. "I want a purple lollipop. I WANT A PURPLE ONE."

Grandpa exchanges looks with another customer and shakes his head. We now have the critical attention of all five or six people inside the small store. People with heat and light in their quiet, child-free homes. People with dinner plans.

I spot a clerk. "Do you have any of those battery-powered lanterns? Or a really bright flashlight?"

He launches into a speech about the virtues and mechanics of LED lighting. Brennan dumps out a container of refrigerator magnets ("Oh wow, lizards! Mom, you HAVE to buy these."). The clerk keeps talking, pointing at different flashlights and saying something about a built-in radio. I am frozen in place until Liddy begins to beg me for the yellow one. I grab it along with a lantern, a fat package of D batteries, two green lizard magnets and two grape lollipops. I wait in line while Liddy lies on the tile floor, barefoot, sucking her lollipop, her eyes swollen nearly closed with exhaustion and crying. Please, let there be light, I pray.

When we get home the house is dark.

Brennan and Liddy are thrilled. Lollipopped and flashlighted, they run into the dark, now cold, house and tear off their jackets, flipping at light switches and screaming, "The power's out! The power's out!"

I finally call Erin, our sitter, and leave a message explaining that the power is off, and so-- (I wince as I speak the words) I have to cancel date night.

"Bleh heh heh," the kids say in evil voices, illuminating their little faces with the flashlights and twisting them into grotesque expressions in the darkness.

Our friend Bruce, a talented builder, calls, and I fantasize that he will offer to rig some elaborate system of lights and generators. Instead he says, "I heard you're going to dinner with Mark and Angie. I'm coming too!" and I groan.

Then Erin calls and says, unbelievably, "It's silly to cancel. Of course I'll still babysit. It will be fun." (Or maybe she says "Fine." The moment my brain registers her calm voice expressing willingness to come to my cold, dark house and tuck my crazed kids into bed, my ears filled with the sounds of margaritas splashing into glasses.)

Erin has known my kids for years. She loves them. And at this point in the day, they are better off with her. I would not have believed myself capable of this kind of move a few years ago. I am a catastrophizer: I envision terrible things happening and think, almost always wrongly, that I am the one person who can prevent them from happening. I Instead, I make things worse when I insist on staying in control. If there's one important thing I've learned in five years of parenting, it's that letting go matters. Good parenting sometimes means stepping away.

I call John and tell him date night is back on. He hesitates, but he doesn't actually argue.

John and Erin arrive simultaneously and chaos ensues. Moments later, Mark and Angie ring the bell and burst out laughing when we open the door and peer out at them through the dark.

An exhausted Liddy begins to cry. "I don't want you to go."

I toss some pajamas at Erin, hug both kids and clear out. I feel sick leaving, but I know the crying will stop when the door closes behind me and my sympathy only prolongs it.

John and I climb into the backseat of Mark and Angie's car, which makes me feel, for a moment, like we are teenagers. Puppy love. I squeeze his knee. "I need a drink."

John has been having a bad day of his own. "Yeah," he says. "Apparently you need a drink more than your kids need you."

Ouch. Spell broken. Thanks, honey, I think, for saying the exact wrong thing.

And then we turn the corner onto the main street that cuts through our neighborhood. There's nothing but block after block of eerie darkness, punctuated by the dizzying lights of police cars as they direct traffic through the unlit intersections. I want to scream, "Pull over!" and run back home to my kids. Or at least suggest a closer restaurant. But I don't.

John says that on the way home he saw a guy from the power company point a flashlight up at the utility poles along our street, squint at them, shrug, and hop back into his truck. It's going to be a long night.

At the restaurant we make a plan to bunk at Bruce's for the night. Bruce talks happily about the extra room with a bed and a pullout couch. It will be great fun, he says. I don't mention the geckos.

We eat, we laugh. But I barely sip my wine. Bad things happen during blackouts. What if Erin trips in the dark over a toy and knocks herself unconscious? I imagine Brennan cold and crying in his bed, with only the sounds of his dying geckos to keep him company. What if someone in the apartment above us lights candles and knocks one over, burning the place to the ground? I take out my phone and start texting Erin.

"What are you doing?" John asks.

"I'm just checking on them."

He shakes his head at me. He's relaxed now, so he reassures me, "She'll call if they need us." Here, then, is the magic of date night. If only he hadn't already chastised me out of it enjoying it.

I sit, anxious, watching my wine glass remain depressingly full while our friends order another bottle. John says, "You could call the house and see if the machine picks up."

I do. It does. Relief washes over me. "The power is on," I say, just as my phone buzzes with a text from Erin: "Everyone's great. Your power came back on about 20 minutes ago!"

Everyone's great. I raise my glass for a toast and we order another bottle of wine.

We almost all survived.

The next evening, we are happy again, in our warm, brightly lit house with our two (still manic) preschoolers, when John calls to me, "Hey, is this garbage?" He holds up a large rectangular-shaped block of knotted grocery bags.

"Don't open it!"

"Oh," he says, holding it out at arm's length.

"Casualties of the power outage," I say.

The geckos made it -- but I had forgotten the crickets. The geckos need a steady supply, so we keep fifteen or twenty of them in the basement, tucked beside the (usually) roaring furnace in a storage container with their own water and food supply. The morning after the blackout, I remembered. I ran downstairs and raised the plastic lid to find them all dead, in dramatic positions, feet-up, like they were pretending.

Karen Dempsey’s essays have appeared in publications including NYT Motherlode, Full Grown People, Brain Child, Babble, and Literary Mama. Read more of her work at

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