My 5-year-old pushes his little arms above his head, ducking to the side under the baby swing, and Xavier squeals, his mouth open in a wide baby smile. He giggles and claps when the swing loses its smooth arc trajectory and veers off course, wobbling left and then right.
“Not so high, Nate. Gently,” I remind my youngest son from my perch on the curb around the playground. The sun fades behind the soccer fields where my daughter runs drills with her bright pink ball and a northwest September chill settles over us.
“He likes that,” the mother pushing the adjacent baby swing says to Nate.
“He's my foster brother,” Nate volunteers instantly. “He's going to be adopted but his momma doesn't know how to take care of babies so we're taking care of him.”
“Your mom works hard,” she says.
“No,” Nate corrects her, confused, “her husband works.” I choke on my Facebook scrolling. My husband? His loving father? The man who was there when I conceived him, bore him, pushed him into the world?
“It looks like you take good care of him,” the mom says with a smile.
“We had his birthday last week—it's his only birthday with us.”
She lifts her daughter out of the swing and leaves. I watch her, imagining them heading home to a home cooked meal of some sort. All four food groups. Milk. The whole family around the table. No babies that come and go. No uncertainty. I wince because for the fourth night in a row, I plan to feed my five kids in the car on the way home. I have muffins with strawberry jam and cold chicken nuggets in Tupperware containers. We had swimming and then soccer and the baby is tired and hungry. Matt doesn't get off until 6:30 p.m. I'm pretty sure the good families of the world are sitting down to wholesome dinners and conversations that do not include mothers who can't take care of their babies.
At the car, buckling all the buckles, passing the nuggets and the muffins, seem like monumental tasks. The sweet blue-eyed baby we all love doesn't sleep well and my arms are heavy with the effort of the final hours of the day. Xavier fusses and my four other kids bicker.
“Harry bit me today and had to go to the principal,” Nate tells me for the 15th time.
“I'm sorry, that must have hurt your feelings,” I say. “Why do you think he did that?”
Answers fly at me from all corners of the car.
“Maybe he doesn't know biting isn't okay?”
“Maybe his family doesn't have enough to eat.”
“Maybe he's lonely and he wanted Nate to play with him.”
I've been learning about meditation and this semi-Buddhist principal called mindfulness. At its root, is the idea of being present in a given moment with loving compassion for oneself and others. I feel like I fail at it hourly, but for a golden moment I hear that compassion I seek in my children's awareness of another child's struggles.
It occurs to me that there are a lot of ways to nourish a child, a family, a life. Muffins aren't the worst thing that can happen.