Sometimes the only way to describe parenthood is as a mathematical equation: I was nearing the end of one of those days just a few days ago, when lack of sleep plus loud, somewhat cranky kids equaled get-me-out-of-here; compounded by dearth of fruit and pasta, my great escape turned out to be to Whole Foods.

It was more pleasant than I want to admit.

First off, I wasn’t chasing after a toddler. My toddler, no shrinking violet, no complacent first child she, rarely sits in the cart. She’d rather push the red cart at the River Valley Market, where we usually shop, or roam the wide aisles at Whole Foods. You know how it is, take a few raisins from the bin. Squeeze a tomato. Pull a random item—a bag of chips or maybe a box of cereal—from the shelves. Sample some samples and maybe snack on a bit of a muffin or a piece of a bagel. Wander. Roam. In truth, having contained that first little guy, and to some degree the next two, I kind of love the unruliness of letting Saskia loose at the grocery store. I even let her walk the aisles during our rare forays to Stop and Shop, where I have noticed no children under four seem to be ambulatory. By going together, I get to enjoy that mixture of havoc and charm that is undeniably Saskia and emphatically fun. She’s been so befriended by the co-op staff that it’s a bit like being beloved royalty as so much sweetness comes her way there.

I like to shop with the other kids, too. Now that we’ve got four of them, taking one or two at a time somewhere—even the grocery store—morphs into that silly axiom of Quality Time. Don’t say it all saccharine, though, because it just is so. A trip to the market represents an opportunity to talk about whatever we talk about and to run into people to chat up and to decide to do something particular with cauliflower and to say yes to the special cheese or the popsicles (even during the mini-arctic blast this past week).

Sunday, taking Lucien and Saskia to River Valley Market, we stumbled upon a birthday party… for co-ops (the big, old 165th) complete with cake and ice cream, which brother and sister enjoyed at the café while I retrieved the necessary items (more peaceable shopping!). I can’t really emphasize enough how much I loved coming to a party in acknowledgement of cooperatives’ history. That pretty much sums up why I love belonging to one and living in a place where such a milestone is considered worthy of celebration.

Grocery shopping with a kid or two is definitely a treat.

Another food shopping pleasure—one I hope to make part of my cold weather Saturday routine—is Northampton’s Winter Market. Each Saturday, the basement of Thornes Market (in the space where Dynamite Records used to be) transforms into a non-open air market. There tends to be some live music for at least part of the day and a number of wonderful farms participate, as well as El Jardin bakery (just like Tuesdays in the summer; oh how we miss the friendly scene at Tuesday Market all winter long). For me, the anchoring presence of Michael Docter (and Lynn Baumeister, his wife) with new venture, Winter Moon Farm and of Sarah from Apex Orchards is enough to lure me like a very strong, root-vegetable-and-glorious-apple magnet. (And if it seems that I shop for food often, uh, yeah, I have four children and we eat a lot of food, and we whiz through perishables such as veggies, cheese, milk and yogurt).

Over the past couple of Saturdays, I’ve gone once with Lucien, my 11 year-old. The Winter Market is exactly up his foodie-social-justice alley: fresh, local goat meat (!) and once with Ezekiel, my 14 year-old, who also loves food (massive quantities, please, most especially potatoes, lots and lots of potatoes) and the local scene. The added bonus of the Winter Market experience, like the fair weather farmers’ markets downtown, is that we walk there, extending our actual Quality Time.

Ezekiel and I were talking about how, even with Saskia nearing two (22 ½ months now), the minute-to-minute had begun to relax some. She seems so much more independent than her older siblings did at that same age. We’d just been to brunch at friends’ house and Saskia played with Arella (very nearly three) and their siblings (Remy is seven, Emily the cusp of ten and then Lucien and Ezekiel) and no adult had to be in the living room while the kids played (except once or twice). It’s as if without our complete notice, we’ve turned some major corner.

Why is she less work (at times) for the parents? The truth is a mishmash of truths: she wants to keep up with the big brothers; they play with her so generously; dear, exhausted papa and I are both more relaxed and more lax (no choice about either). Ezekiel remarked, “Saskia changed things.” I asked how so. He replied, “Things are much less controlled than they used to be; you don’t pay as careful attention. It can be a bit wild at times.” I felt my heart sink and my guilt meter rise. Before she arrived, when we were worrying about how it would be, I’d suggest to dear, terrified husband that four is the new three. It sounded good, right? Ezekiel continued, “I think that’s a great thing! It’s not a bad uncontrolled, it’s a good uncontrolled.”

Less controlled, he thinks?

Well, the middle two kids are into watching television with me while I exercise, and sometimes, I can’t say the programs are exactly age appropriate (I’ve drawn the line at Law & Order, any version. True confession: the then six year-old Remy did watch some episodes of Rescue Me over the summer, because I could not wait to see what happened). Our hands-down shared favorite show is In Plain Sight, which follows two somewhat quirky (Mary’s famously cranky, actually) US Marshals (one, named Marshall Mann on the show, is played by our pal Gabriel’s uncle, Frederick Weller, and we think we are his biggest fans). Overall, it’s a somewhat (somewhat) lighter-hearted touch on a crime show, with plenty of zaniness on the part of various characters. Lucien and Remy play “Marshals” sometimes, fashioning their fingers into guns and shouting things like, “US Marshals! Freeze!”

The television time with them is generally win-win in our household: I get to exercise—and watch television, a perfect combination—and occupy them (can I bring myself to call this Quality Time?). Never mind that the first two children barely knew what a television set was before they were at least five and that they also would never have been allowed access to crime shows of any stripe. Once we went down the slippery slope—imagine Remy, our darling third child, reciting Monty Python at age four—the slope proved to be rather steep. For Halloween this year, we put a neon green band-aid around Saskia’s finger and dubbed her Harry, older brother to You Tube sensation Charlie, of Charlie Bit My Finger, because she does such a spot-on British accent, quoting, “Ouch, Charlie. That really hurt.” The emphatic point is this: what is win-win now—or what goes now—resembles not at all what was considered acceptable years—and numbers of children—ago.

Indeed, we would—and do—give Saskia ice cream for breakfast (if she asks; if you’re looking for a great, wacky kids’ CD try Mister G’s Pizza for Breakfast). She recognizes the book covers of Diary of a Wimpy (Winky to her) Kid and Harriet the Spy. She has access to the bigger peoples’ world, mostly because we cannot completely shield her from it. At the same time, the bigger kids get to read board books and scoot around on her little tiny Radio Flyer tot bike and spend a ton more time on the floor than their peers without toddler siblings. I guess, like the positive aspects of our uncontrolled new family order, the bigger kids’ access to littler kids’ worlds is another pretty sweet feature of learning that four is most certainly NOT the new three.

My favorite grocery store moment with Saskia recently was this: we were in the frozen food aisle at River Valley Market. Saskia was pushing her little red cart. She was wearing her beloved orange clogs (she has quite a shoe collection, thanks to her slightly older pal, Amartya). One fell off. “Oh, f*&k,” she declared. “Oh, s^%t.” I asked, “Do you want me to help you get that shoe back on?” She replied, “Yeah!” And we got the shoe back on, me grateful no one else was in the aisle at that exact moment. She will be the kid parents of first or only children fear later on in preschool or elementary school, the one bringing all the dirt and smut and curse words and NPR news into the mix.

Back at Whole Foods the other evening, beyond getting some food, I managed to find a couple of gifts and most importantly, I took my time; I strolled through the crowd rather than trying to race. I even brought a little paperwork and sat at the café. While there were other things that sound much more indulgent and relaxing—massage! Movie! Dinner out—the truth is, this was enough. I caught my breath, which is what every parent needs—no matter whether there’s one kid or staggeringly large brood—every once in a while.