[WARNING: this post contains a Downton Abbey spoiler. I know it seems weird but it comes up. Thanks!]
I don’t care if that blasted groundhog saw his shadow and said that spring was coming. It’s not, OK? I can see well enough out my window, you wretched ball of fur, and here in New England we are still in the deep, bleak, midwinter. And I’m coming out of my own personal burrow, filled with muddy boots and half-heartedly made indoor crafts, to tell you: winter with little kids…sucks. I was trying to think of some other, more elegant way to say it, but it sucks. That’s what it does. So, Punxatawney Phil, you can tell all those old dudes in top hats to just calm down. We’ve got a long way to go.
I know I’m stating the obvious, but can we just commiserate for a minute? Maybe five? Can I ask you to read a few of my invernal complaints? Before I became a mother I used to love winter. The silence of the falling snow, and how it looked blue in the dusk. Cozy evenings in front of the TV watching The Sopranos or whatever drama everyone used to carry on about at the time. I remember, one President’s Day in Cambridge, we got 27 inches of snow. That’s OK! we said, all rosy cheeked and cheery, and we put on our boots and marched out to dinner down the middle of the street. Throughout the harsh winter, our daily routine would just go on, with a little added inconvenience, maybe, and a lot of romance derived from gazing at hushed scenes of trees covered in white.
Now, even without 27 inches of snow, even on just an average winter day, having kids makes winter wickedly more complicated. For starters: tack an extra million minutes on to getting ready for school, or going anywhere, to pull on snow pants, boots, hats, mittens, and huge winter jackets. Remember the scene in A Christmas Story, in which the mother heaves and grimaces as she puts her five-year-old into snow gear? “You can put your arms down when you get to school!” All these years later, and even in these salad days of high-performance heavy weather gear, it’s still just as much of a grind. It’s like a full-on wrestling match before 8 am. And still the geniuses at all the gear companies that produce such beautiful catalogs cannot engineer a mitten that will stay on the mitts of a two-year-old who wants to eat an awful lot of filthy snow on the way to school drop-off.
Now tack on another million minutes, maybe more, for all the additional tantrums that winter brings. I’ve realized, after spending so much time indoors with two little boys in the cold and day-shortened dark, how much good it does them to spend their free hours out-of-doors, as they do the rest of the year. How good it is for their spirits to just throw on a pair of sneakers and run outside, unencumbered by layers of clothes, and patches of ice, and blistering wind that can knock a child down (and did, just yesterday). Plus, a poor two-year-old, no matter how much he wants to go outside and play in the snow, spends much more time out there on his face than romping around. So an intrepid expedition out into the snow, like the one we had this morning, is usually very short and cold and involves carrying a doubly-heavy toddler in boots up and down stairs and over snowbanks that he has just fallen into. Tiring. I may just have a tantrum myself. I wouldn’t put it past me.
Once indoors, and stir-crazy, we are scrapping over toys, doing crafts for five minutes before tossing them aside, or taking magic markers to walls, before it’s Movie Time! Somehow, letting your child watch TV for a while so you can get some peace or do some chores sounds less bad if you call it Movie Time! rather than Several Episodes of Max and Ruby Time! On the bill today, while the little one sleeps and I write this: The Empire Strikes Back. And by the way, I will say this to you since I can’t say it to my son, I SO DO NOT CARE what happens to whomever on the ice planet Hoth! I LIVE ON THE ICE PLANET HOTH and it sucks so I don’t need to hear any more lectures about it thank you.
So there’s the slog of coats and boots and falling over and buried cars and no parking and crowded supermarkets where everyone is shopping for Armageddon and school snow days and weeks on end where we pass the same colds around to each other and cancelled travel and playdates and weak sunshine and then Downton Abbey has to go and end and SPOILER ALERT Matthew up and dies so you have to transfer your crush to Dr Clarkson (you’re too good for her!) and it’s months until Breaking Bad starts again so there’s nothing on and I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! Is it Easter yet?
Still, as wearying and frustrating as winter is, I know that what we go through these days is nothing like what people once suffered before central heating and Patagonia puffer coats were invented. Times when winter meant an autumn of preparing and stockpiling food, which you hoped would last, and might not; when homes and lives were much more vulnerable to the cruel, harsh elements, and were often taken by the deep cold. It makes me think of the old poem Beowulf, which I love, and picture in my mind to be set in a perfectly dark world, where it’s always a cold night in the north of Europe. Where the only brightness comes from within the mead halls, glowing gold with fire and drink, yet still open to attack from beasts, like Grendel, from the edges of consciousness. In the poem, and in those dark days, lives were measured by winters survived. Life was harder. You think I’m in a bad mood? Just look at Grendel’s mother. And who could blame her?
Now, we get through winter, wrapped in blankets of heat, and electricity, and TV weathermen who warn us, with great alarm and fancy graphics, to prepare for every inch of snow and gust of wind that might threaten our cocoons of comfortable existence. But even though that immediacy, that shivering rush for survival, is gone for most of us, winter still gets under our skin. No amount of Gore-Tex can change the fact that nature is still our master. It changes our moods, our outlook; it governs our daily lives. We’ve got cabinets of snacks to sustain us and can go buy watermelon once the winds let up, but those winters of old are still out there, they’re in our bones and the way we bristle at the weather report. With every ice dam or snow drift we battle, we are like the people of Beowulf, “deep in their hearts/they remembered hell.” Even if hell for us now might mean the cable going out.
I know what some of you might be thinking: “Why don’t you move to California or something if you hate winter so much?” No, I’m not doing that. Have you seen Annie Hall? And don’t worry, April and May will pass soon enough and I’ll be on to complaining about schlepping kids around in the heat.