Rocket Mom

After 20 minutes in the basement with our 10-year-old son Max, gluing wing-fin D to body-tube B, my husband collapsed onto a kitchen chair and announced that model rockets were not his thing.

My rocket men had begun their adventures with a Level 1 model: the Bandit. Its six parts came pre-painted, snap-together ready, deceiving them into thinking they were ready for Level 2: the Venus Probe.

But after several evenings of sifting through 20-odd pieces of engine mounts and centering rings strewn across the basement Ping-Pong table, the father half of this rocketing duo began to experience energy failure.

Each night's exchange of "Dad, are we going to work on the rocket?" and "It's pretty late, Max" increased the probability that our three-year-old twins would discover the rocket-in-progress. Should they decide rocket-building was their thing, we could expect a big-brother explosion of H-12 magnitude (which, according to Max's dog-eared rocket-supply catalog, could blast a living-room sofa skyward).

My husband's faltering interest, coupled with the volatility of housing a multipiece project in this multichild house, propelled me to a decisive juncture. It was time to fast-forward construction of the Venus Probe or consign it to the Tomb of the Undone Projects, alongside the beginnings of our daughters' balsa-wood doll house, my yet-to-be quilted table runner, the twins' blank baby books, and an untamed unicycle.

The day I became a rocket mom, Max unfolded the Venus Probe instruction booklet on the breakfast table, landing a corner in his Wheaties bowl. He wiped the mess with his sleeve, then poked a stubby finger at Step 12 of 22, the point at which his father had abandoned ship.

If he could just get the fins on straight, only a bit of measuring-gluing-threading-taping-painting remained before he could apply the decals. He flipped the booklet over to show me an enhanced rendering of the finished missile: solid and resplendent, black-and-white with neon-yellow accents, poised to probe Venus, I assume.

I took a deep breath. "I can help, Max," I said. That's one small step for Mom.

One giant leap for Dad, who, discharged of his rocketing duties, began firing advice: "Let Max do the work himself; just supervise. Don't rush."

AS I saw it, my husband's "Don't rush" mentality had been a major source of drag on this project's momentum. I am a mother of six. I have, under pressure, slapped meals on the table in 6.2 minutes. When push comes to shove, I can push and shove four slow-moving scholars onto a school bus in less time than it takes to say, "But I haven't had breakfast!" (provided no one's picky about matching shoes).

My intended contribution to the Venus Probe effort was to provide a little H-12 mother-fire and see this missile launched by noon.

We began with the wing fins. Max squeezed a fat worm of glue onto the fuselage while I held it steady.

"That's plenty, Max," I said as he positioned the second fin and began squeezing enthusiastically on the third. "Plenty," I repeated, "plenty!" my pitch rising as I fumbled to yank the glue bottle from his hand. The fins slithered sideways and plummeted to the Ping-Pong table. I clutched the finless fuselage in one fist, the oozing glue bottle in the other.

"You supervise," I suggested, chucking my husband's let-Max-do-it admonition, "and I'll glue."

With three fins at last in place, I surged with possessive pride, ready to boldly go where no mom had gone before: Step 13.

"It says 'Let dry,' " Max cautioned.

But I was a mother on a mission, and countdown ticked on. I have forced squirming preschoolers into car seats and forced balking big kids to finish homework. I would not shy at forcing glue to dry.

"Get the hair-dryer," I commanded.

THUS proceeded our rocket-paced rocket-building. The blow-dry method scorched our fingers while warping the wing fins and skewing the launch lugs. The paint was still tacky when we taped off the tail section, resulting in a newsprint-smudged fuselage.

But if mothering this brood has taught me anything, it's taught me to lower my standards. I've used my fingers to comb kids' hair. I've substituted Velveeta for provolone. I'm probably the one who showed Max how to wipe spilled milk with a sleeve. To me, the Venus Probe looked pretty good.

My son, however, compared the result of our day's effort to the shiny instruction photo and sighed heavily.

Fortunately, I know how to boost morale. I've coddled kids through last-place swim-meet finishes and bolstered them after piano-recital blank-outs. Surely I could put a little mother-spin on my son's feelings about his rocket.

"How high does the Venus Probe fly, Max?"

"Three-hundred-fifty feet."

"From that distance, it'll look just like the one on the box," I assured him.

And it did, which lifted Max's spirits and impressed the rocket dad whose renewed interest surged, conveniently, just in time for liftoff.

"Can we build a Nova Payloader next?" Max shouted as he raced to retrieve our rocket.

Fortunately, I've had practice saying "No." I've weaned six children. I've stood firm against lobbying for pet ferrets and iguanas. I've rejected appeals to go barefoot in February and drink ketchup from the bottle. I have what it takes to nix what needs nixing.

I looked from the grubby, glue-globbed Venus Probe to the grinning boy who held it.

"Maybe, Max."

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