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He crawled through a hole in our fence; the one created by our former dog. The one we thought we had fixed.

The irony was not that Paco escaped using Andie’s old escape route, rather, it was that he bothered to use the hole at all. You see, the fence around our rectangular yard has been three-sided ever since we purposefully felled the two enormous pine trees that threatened to accidentally blow over onto our house.

Paco made his move when Liam took him out for a Q.P. (quick pee)–without the leash. Like the Pied Piper, he led Liam and Henry on a merry dance across our neighbors’ lawns, down the street and into the woods, while I washed dishes, blissfully unaware that half of my family had run off.

I rinsed the last plate, felt that small sense of accomplishment from completing a task, and opened the back door. My stomach lurched as the silence gripped me. I scanned the empty yard. Nora was standing on top of the bulkhead, next to the open gate. “Where are your brothers?”

She paused and let her arms relax from their ballet pose. “They’re off chasing the dog,” she said using the aggrieved tone she uses when one of us interrupts, plagues or otherwise annoys her.

I sprinted around the corner of the house. “Stay put!” I called to her over my shoulder. At the end of our driveway, I spotted Henry two houses away, his hands jammed in his pockets, trudging along the side of the road. I breathed a sigh of relief. In my mind, a loose four-year-old is a more combustible situation than a loose nine-year-old. I put Henry and Nora inside the house and went back out, armed with a leash and a bad temper.

I spotted Liam half a block later. I could not make out his face, as he was lit from behind by the late afternoon sun, but his small shoulders were slumped in self-castigation and defeat. He had chased the dog in his bare feet and when I got closer, I saw that tears were leaving tracks on his dirty face. My heart ached and my anger dissipated.

“He’s gone,” Liam hiccuped. “He ran away and now he’s lost in the woods and he won’t know his way home. It’s not fair! We’ve only had him a month! And he’s only five and he’s too young to survive on his own and it’s all my fault! I almost caught up with him but I’m not wearing shoes ’cause I didn’t know he’d run away from me and then he saw me and I was like, five yards away and he took off again and I couldn’t catch him and I was yelling ‘Paco! Paco!’ and then he went into the woods and when I got there, I didn’t know which way he went! It’s all my fault…” His words gave way to wrenching sobs. Gathering his slight little string bean body in my arms, I held him.

The pain a mother feels when her child is in pain is elemental. You become a sponge; you try and absorb the hurt the same way you wipe away their tears. You become a supporting beam; you attempt to transfer the weight of their burdens onto you. You become love itself and wrap them in it, hoping they will remember happiness. You are whatever your child needs, in that moment, to make the pain go away.

Gradually, he stopped crying, started hoping and making plans. We would find Paco or someone else would. We’d put up posters. We’d do that thing I learned to do when I was young and hardly ever do now: we’d pray.

We were talking with a neighbor who witnessed the whole scene when Paco came trotting towards us, tongue lolling, a sheepish look on his face. “See, he knows where he lives,” the neighbor consoled Liam.

The three of us turned and went to that place we call home. Together.

I have been debating whether or not to post this as I want to maintain custody of my children. I’m only half-joking. No judging.

The babysitter hasn’t shown up, the older kids are still in their pajamas, and I am running late. Although I managed to get Henry dressed, he found—and is enlarging—a previously unnoticed rip in his pants while regarding his uneaten breakfast, now congealed and unappetizing. Today is Henry’s first day of preschool; the one I picked based on the school’s reputation (excellent) and proximity to our house (close).

I am feeling a bit apprehensive on his behalf in spite of my confidence in his social skills. After all, until recently, he has attended an all-day daycare, four days a week. He’s a social butterfly—I’ve witnessed it. No, my butterflies must stem from something else. Perhaps my awareness that a responsible parent eases her child through the transition to a new school. Henry missed both of the school-sponsored playdates due to our family’s packed summer schedule. He knows no one and hasn’t even seen his classroom. The closest we came to visiting this school was to look at the outside of the locked building from the inside of our vehicle. Sure, I talked with him about leaving his old daycare and tried to excite him about going somewhere new. But talk is not action. Any anxiety he is now experiencing is my fault. My plan is to make-up for my deficient parenting by spending the morning with him exploring his new space, facilitating conversations with his peers, helping him accept this change that was out of his control.

Of course, things do not always go as planned. Reality dissipates my vision. My choices: 1) Leave Medium and Large seated comfortably in front of the television at home; or 2) Bring Medium and Large with me and allow them to bicker and complain in the school’s parking lot. Neither of these options appeal, but I am out of time.

I hastily run through the list of admonishments: Lock the door behind me; do not answer the phone; do not answer the door; do not operate the stove; do not touch the computer; stay away from the windows; and remember to dial 911 if there is an emergency.

Henry protests that he wants to stay home and watch TV too. Tossing him into the vehicle, I buckle his seatbelt (I am not wholly irresponsible) and then recall that I have forgotten to tell Liam that I will be back in half an hour. I race up the front steps and ring the doorbell. I hear the patter of little feet and then the door is unlocked and opened. “Yes?” Liam asks.

I unthinkingly do a poor imitation of Edward Lewis: “I told you not to open the door.”

“Oh, right,” he says, before slamming the door in my face.

I knock and yell for him to re-open the door. When he does, I tell him not to worry and that I will be right back.

Henry sucks his thumb in the backseat. He clutches Piggy to his nose and inhales what I suspect is the scent of sweaty little boy with undertones of yesterday’s entrees: pizza, peanut butter and banana. He is silent.

Starting the engine, I murmur a brief prayer to whomever might be listening to protect my children from the monsters that hide in plain sight.

My guilt is monstrous. I have never left my children alone in the house before. I know that if my husband did this, I would be furious with him. I try and convince myself that the kids are safe; that I am not a bad mother.

Is it acceptable to assuage one guilt by accepting another?

My internet addiction has spawned Henry’s television addiction. When Medium and Large are off at school, it is oftentimes too easy to start my morning with a cup of joe, Facebook, and the New York Times online.

I closed the laptop. “I’m going upstairs to fold laundry, Henry. When this show is over, please turn off the TV, come upstairs and get dressed.” His drool output was low; he must have heard me. Guilt battered my heart. “I love you,” I said.

Unable to tear his eyes away from PBS’ Dinosaur Train, he mumbled, “I wuv you, too.”

At what age do the adorable -isms become less adorable? I worry that he’ll be twenty years old saying things like, “I want you to meet my famiwy. They’re jutht gonna wuv you.”

“Henry, say ‘love’.”

He removed the thumb plugging his mouth. “Wuv.”

“Not ‘wuv,’ love.” I knelt in front of the armchair in which he was sprawled. “Look at my tongue. I put it on the roof of my mouth–behind my teeth–and say l-l-l-ove.”

Our faces were inches apart. His dark brown eyes searched mine. He was earnest. “I wuv you, I wuv you, I wuv you, Mommy.”

There is no other response to an expression of adoration like that, except: “I love you too, buddy.”

Bawbawa Walters did alright for herself.

We spent the weekend in Boston with the kids—packing in the memories like sardines in a can. The Children’s Museum. The Barking Crab. Nantasket Beach. The Red Parrot. U2 at Gillette Stadium (this last was only for Liam and Brendan). We stopped fifty miles from home to return the borrowed stroller to my in-laws and to pick up our other car. I offered to drive the sedan in a selfish ploy for an hour of peace and quiet.

“Anyone coming with?” I called, hurling myself from the still moving vehicle. “No? See you at home!”

I was opening the car’s door when I heard the van pull in behind me. It had been too good to be true.

“Medium and Large are coming with you,” my husband announced, gripping the steering wheel with one hand and his Blackberry with the other. He continued perusing his email inbox and didn’t notice the glare I gave him.

“Are you kidding?”

“Nope. They want to be with you.”

I am almost never alone. This is one of the hard truths I have faced while morphing from Woman-With-A-Career to OINK. I am constantly accompanied by, or in the company of, others. Usually very small others. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a people person. I like people and I like to believe that they like me. But there are times when I pause to think longingly about closing the door to my office and sending the calls to voicemail; about the rental cars where I listened to whatever caught my fancy on the radio; about the airports where I sat blanketed in anonymity—just a speck in the endlessly amusing spectacle of humanity.

In those spaces, no little voices were ordering me to turn up the volume on “Crazy Frog,” whining about needing a snack ten minutes after we finished breakfast, sobbing that someone had poked them. And while I had other voices in my head—the ones reminding me to finish this proposal or that brief, nagging me to return phone calls and emails, chastising me for being the parent who was always late picking up her kids from daycare—they were all my own.

I miss my own company.

My husband interrupted my reverie. “Liam didn’t want you to be lonely.” The side of the van slid open and Liam jumped out, followed closely by his sister. In spite of myself, I was touched by my son’s thoughtfulness. He gave me an awkward, one-armed hug and ducked his head. He and Nora scurried off.

“Well, that was sweet of them.” I tried to sound positive.

My husband chuckled. “Nora is only coming with you because she wants to be with Liam. When Liam worried you’d be lonely, she told us, ‘Mommy’s not lonely–she’s fine! Liam, you stay with me!’”

Either she knows me better than I realize or she is more like me than I know.

I love my kids, but what I need is a Fortress of Solitude.

She’s only 75 feet away from me but I know that she has gone further. Much further.

She’s with a group of kids we met just a few days ago. This amalgamation of youth is camp magic: 5 + 2 + 3 + 1 = 11 children, ages 3 to 12; separate clusters now established as a pack. I hear her voice lifting above the indistinguishable murmur of sopranos and altos. They are gathering sticks to roast marshmallows. Her words are an incomprehensible string, but her timbre is unmistakeable. She sounds thrilled.bonfire

The screened porch is my observation deck. I trust that I am unseen in the shadows of the gloaming. She is holding hands with two girls, a forever friend and one newly minted. They are skipping together. Their giggles tinkle on the breeze.

She is delighted by this spoonful of independence.

I am struck with melancholy for the baby she was. She who clung to my breast in what I grimly referred to as my “fourth trimester,” who flatly refused to acknowledge strangers’ salutations even when prompted by a parent, whose outraged screams reverberated in my head long after I had departed from her daycare.

She’s growing up. She’ll need me less in some ways, more in others. My heart swells and minutes pass as I stand motionless.

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