Bound by Tradition

Have I mentioned that I grew up holiday-free? It’s one of the defining aspects of my character — now, as an adult, I love holidays like a kid because they’re all new and exciting, but I’m never sure how important they are to other people or whether I’m celebrating them quite right. Half the time, I only remember after the day has passed. Both this year, in kindergarten, and last year, in preschool,  Niko had no Dr. Seuss-themed shirt on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and last year he failed to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because I forgot each time that the holidays were approaching. This year I did manage to purchase some St. Patrick’s Day green for the kids and me, and I did remember to get it out on the day, but only because I set two reminders on my phone.

I grew up as part of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, and abandoning both secular and religious holidays was a choice we embraced as part of freedom from the chains of tradition, worldly entanglement, and religious law. Of course,  non-celebration then became a religious law…but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, our abstinence from holidays was a practice that derived from a sincere desire to have lives characterized by simplicity, with our focus on God rather than getting caught up in the frivolity and materialism of celebrations.

However, Easter is a holiday that was embedded in my psyche from a young age, albeit loosely. There were no visible trappings of the celebration in our community; we had no egg hunts, no frilly pastel dresses or spring hats. We did have giant, revival-style church services in the spring near Easter time, forever connected in my mind because of the abundance of seasonal candy for the event, but they had nothing to do with the holiday in reality; they just happened to be scheduled in the spring.  Despite our church’s eschewing of holidays, though,  Easter Sunday generally did feature Resurrection-themed songs and sermons, though the word “Easter” wasn’t necessarily mentioned. After all, unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated at the historically correct time, just after Passover; and its celebration is much less gift-centered than Christmas, thus contributing less to the corruption of the soul. Occasionally someone would get unusually enthusiastic in the delivery of an Easter Sunday message, with a jubilant cry of “He is risen!” from the pulpit, echoed by a wide array of responses from the congregation — from a few sober  Amen’s, to a rousing Glory hallelujah! or two, to a few rebelliously traditional calls of He is risen indeed!

Anyway, what with the appearance of the best candy of the year, the onslaught of songs featuring imagery of rising from graves, and the occasional Easter sermon, Easter is a holiday that has remained on my radar — in the distance, anyway — from childhood on.

In past years, Aaron and I have let Easter pass with barely a nod — we often had a family dinner with his parents, but we didn’t do much ourselves. When we moved to our current home in Oregon, though, we realized that our move-in date would coincide with Easter. The first night we spent here was the Saturday before Easter. So we celebrated with Easter baskets for the kids (Sofia was just a baby, so hers just had enough in it to satisfy three-year-old Niko’s need to include her), and we had an egg hunt — Niko’s very first.

The next year, Niko discovered the joys of dyeing eggs. And decorating cookies. We did both with friends, which made it just that much more wonderful. Sofia was now big enough to tear into her own little Easter basket and even collect a few eggs, with help. We had a special Easter breakfast — Finnish pancake, a childhood favorite of mine. And Tradition was established.

Last year, we went all out in preparation — Aaron and I found Easter presents for the kids together, we bought them both clothes for the occasion, and I, wanting to continue Tradition but caving to exhaustion and a bad cold, bought a sugar cookie mix for Niko. I even made the kids silly little sock bunnies, which I stuffed with rice and barley scented with an essential oil blend of warm orange and cinnamon. DSC01213 (1)

I loved Niko’s excitement leading up to the big day. “Guess what’s happening NEXT WEEK!” he said to me for an entire week, after Aaron had whispered the surprise to him, and “Guess what’s happening THIS WEEK, Mom! Guess!” for another whole week. He kept asking about the Easter Bunny and what he might bring, and where does he get the eggs, anyway? He knows, intellectually, that the Easter Bunny isn’t real, but his heart isn’t in it. When we read Jan Brett’s new Easter Bunny story, he confided that he really did believe in the Easter Bunny.

Niko flung himself into Easter preparations with delight. He was thrilled beyond words when I showed him the shirt I’d gotten him to wear on Easter. He reveled in the anticipation of the egg hunt and Easter basket. Not in the least disappointed by making cookies from a mix instead of from scratch, he happily stirred, rolled, and cut. When I got out the little tubes of writing icing to decorate them (another shortcut that was so very helpful), he authoritatively instructed Sofia in the correct ways of decorating them. We didn’t decorate eggs, sadly — I ran out of both time and energy.

Then, on that Easter Saturday (Aaron had a business trip for which he had to leave on Sunday),  I followed our year-old tradition and made a batch of Finnish pancake, my own recipe this time, which was so well received we ate almost the entire dish within half an hour. Niko and Sofia got dressed in their new Easter finery, and then we presented the toy-filled baskets. The kids loved their aromatic bunnies and springtime treats. While they explored their baskets and played with their kaleidoscopes, Aaron disappeared outside, as per Tradition, to hide eggs in artistic locations. Niko and Sofia hunted enthusiastically, filling their  baskets with candy-loaded eggs. They ate the decorated cookies. They read Easter stories. In short, they celebrated Easter thoroughly.

And now comes the conundrum. I haven’t just established Tradition. No, it’s worse: I’ve become entrenched in Tradition. My holiday-eschewing self is now trapped in the need to make Easter perfect for the kids — but this need is at odds with the reality of my personality, my history, and my health and general energy level. The obvious solution is to tone it down, little by little, year by year, until the kids are content with a handful of chocolate eggs and a store-bought, pre-decorated sugar cookie.

So, naturally, I’m amping it up this time. This year I started early! I purchased a spring dress for Sofia months ago, and successfully convinced her that it’s a special dress to be worn only on Easter — an endeavor that took more effort than all the cookie decorating and egg coloring of previous years. Finding an appropriate shirt for Niko (one that can be re-worn for school) was harder, as he’s at an awkward in-between size, but after patiently searching for just the right one, I finally found a reasonably suitable one. I have been researching egg decorating, and made an excursion to Goodwill a few weeks ago to find silk ties to dye extra-special eggs with colorful prints. I’m trying to learn how to empty eggs before dyeing so we can decorate eggs ahead of time and enjoy them as decorations, while not getting rotten egg odor. I’ve been eyeing the seasonal toy aisles for the best Easter selections. I’m pondering the virtues of mixing up a big batch of cookie dough and freezing it for later. I’ve halfway decided to sew the kids bunny stuffies from some of their baby pajamas, using a pattern I saw online. I even bought an Easter wreath at 50% off several weeks ago.

In short, I’m finding — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m anticipating the holiday almost as much as the kids are. Instead of the preparations being an energy drain, I find that they’re a bit invigorating. While I acknowledge that I feel somewhat bound by the tradition, I’m realizing that not all bonds and not all traditions have to be negative. As I’ve discovered over the last few years with Christmas celebrations, allowing myself to succumb to these formerly forbidden (or at least discouraged) activities is strangely freeing.  This formerly holiday-free mom is embracing the Easter spirit, and it’s so much fun.

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Sock Bunnies

Last year, as I was thinking of filling Easter baskets, I decided I wanted to make special stuffies for the kids.  As I scanned the internet for easy ideas, I came across a pattern for a sock bunny. I loved the idea, because Niko had a thing for collecting and playing with socks at the time, so we had quite an assortment of socks that were either worn or had lost partners. The bunnies were so easy to make, and so loved by the kids, that I thought I’d share my process. I made a few changes to the original pattern, which you can see by clicking here. 

First I chose two socks, one for each bunny, that were tall enough to work with and not too worn. Of course, you could use new ones, but I liked the idea of upcycling what we already had.

I wanted the bunnies to be heatable, so instead of using regular stuffing, I used rice, because it works well for heating in the microwave. You can see in the picture that I used two types of rice, arborio and jasmine. This wasn’t for any creative reason, I just didn’t have enough rice to use only jasmine. I used the socks to measure the rice ahead of time to make sure I had enough.

To give them  a comforting aroma, I scented the rice with a couple of drops of essential oil. Lavender oil is traditional for bedtime and relaxing, but since we all had miserable colds, I went a different route. Niko’s first, beloved babysitter always used DoTerra’s OnGuard oil when Niko or anyone else in her home was feeling under the weather. She would dab it onto the bottoms of his feet, avoiding the sensitive skin of his face, or put it into a diffuser. It has a warm orange-and-spice scent, and it’s supposed to improve immune response and help with congestion. I have no evidence for the immune part, but I can testify that it does help open up congested sinuses. Remembering how comforting that scent was to someone suffering from a cold, I added a few drops to the rice and mixed it well. I made sure not to use too much; any essential oil has a powerful aroma, and the orange and cinnamon in OnGuard is especially strong.

When I made the first bunny, I filled the sock about two-thirds full, then sectioned off a large bottom part with my fingers and cinched a thread around the dividing line. This was a little difficult, because the top kept wanting to fall over and dump out the rice. The second time, I ended up pouring out the rice in the top section before tying it off, leaving the heel empty. Then I firmly tied the thread just above the rice. This approach was much easier. I put a dab of fabric glue onto the knot so the kids wouldn’t accidentally untie it later.

I made sure each heel, above the cinched thread, had as much rice as I could pack into it while making sure this section was smaller than the bottom part. I used thread to tie this section off. This time, I used fabric glue both on the knot and on the inside of the sock where the thread pulled it tight, to prevent rice from falling out later.

Next, I oriented the bunny with the round heel, which would be the bunny’s nose and face, toward me. I carefully cut down the middle of the empty top of the sock, with the cut lined up with the center of the heel. I cut away a diagonal, slightly curved piece at the end of each half of the fabric. Now the top of the sock looked roughly like bunny ears. The ears were open and prone to fraying, and I wanted to give them a more finished look. I didn’t have access to my sewing machine, and that miserable cold had exhausted me, so I used the fabric glue one more time. Folding each edge of the ear under, I ran a line of glue along one side and used clothespins to hold the edges together, and let the bunny dry overnight. Besides making the ears more durable, securing the edges also gave them a more defined, less floppy look.

I’d put off my project so long that the next morning was Easter. Before the kids woke up, I got out my fabric markers and gave each bunny a face on the rounded heel of the sock: eyes, heart-shaped nose, and smiling mouth. I tied some ribbon over the thread that defined the neck,  with the fluffy bow just under the bunny’s chin. I finished just in time to add a bunny to each Easter basket.DSC01213

I was gratified by the kids’ responses: they immediately hugged them, and Niko was instantly reminded of his babysitter. He said, “It smells like Joey!” as he inhaled deeply. Despite how rushed the end of the project had been, I was satisfied.

A year later, I’m pleasantly impressed with how much sturdier the bunnies are than I’d expected, given that they are held together with ribbon and glue. I had to mend each one recently because Niko bit holes into them (yes, really), but the construction remains intact. And both kids still adore them and ask for them to be warmed up at bedtime, even though they each have a store-bought microwaveable toy. It was a project that was both insanely easy and durable, which is a win in my book.

 

 

I Was a POOPCUP

Not long ago, I came across a new phrase in an article from the Scary Mommy site: POOPCUP, or “Parents of One Perfect Child Under Preschool Age.” I chuckled, because it wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I fell into that category. I distinctly remember my parents-in-law declaring that our son was a perfect child when he was a baby. He seemed never to misbehave. Delightfully affectionate, quick to learn, always obedient, never throwing tantrums — at least, when they were watching. They were convinced that he was perfect, and even occasionally mentioned this conviction to Aaron’s sister, the mother of four beautiful, amazing, active, well-disciplined children (and who is an inspiration and wonderful example). We tried to explain that he wasn’t perfect, that he had occasional fits and temper tantrums and moments of disobedience, but they rarely saw that side of him, so they continued to happily believe that Niko was perfect. And, despite those little hiccups, we privately agreed that we had this parenting thing well in hand.

Yes, when Niko was a baby, Aaron and I were blissful POOPCUPs.  We didn’t know it, of course. We thought we were very hardworking, well-scheduled parents who were generally nonjudgemental of other parents whose children were sometimes less angelic. We knew that Niko was unusually mellow and easy to teach, and we knew that his manageability had more to do with his temperament than with our own skills as parents. We also knew that much of what others saw as his amazingly calm and sweet temper was a result of our knowing when he would be at his best, and taking advantage of it. We made sure he was fed and ready to take his first nap of the day in the car on the one-hour drive to see Aaron’s parents, and we made sure we left immediately after dinner so that his evening grouchiness could happen away from everyone else. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, we took a similar approach: we went out after a nap, snack in hand, and made sure we were done before it was time for the next round of eating, sleeping, and eating again.

Despite knowing that much of Niko’s sweetness was his own lovely personality, it was hard not to take some credit for it. We’d watch sympathetically as another parent attempted to wrestle a rigid or thrashing child into a shopping cart, and then when the duo was out of sight, we’d murmur, “That must be so hard. I’m sure glad we waited till after Niko’s nap to shop.” We didn’t think we were being judgmental. But deep down, we were thinking, Too bad that mom didn’t do the same thing. Scheduling is everything!

Then we had Sofia.

Long pause for effect.

By the time Sofia arrived, we’d been noticing that our little boy, still as sweet and compliant as ever, was becoming more and more… well… active. Hyper. Distracted. He was at the age that we expect a toddler to be able to follow not just one simple direction, but two or three in a row, but not Niko. “Put your clothes in the laundry, put on your jammies, and go potty,” we’d say. He would cheerfully run off to obey, only to forget what he was supposed to do. Sometimes he’d come back to ask what we’d told him to do. Other times, he’d forget entirely and become distracted by a book, or a toy, or his reflection in the mirror. Even one simple instruction was often more than he could manage, and his sometimes almost manic hyper behavior was often more than I could manage in my enormously pregnant state.

So, when Sofia arrived, we were already starting to experience a little parental adversity. But none of that was enough to prepare us for the reality of welcoming our little girl home.

Sofia was as different from her brother as a lion is from a kangaroo. While Niko had a regularly scheduled Fussy Time for a couple of hours in the evening for about two months, Sofia was fussy all the time. Niko slept through the night before three months; Sofia still woke up several times a night at nearly eighteen months. When I was pumping and freezing milk for Niko, absolutely nothing I ate bothered him. When I was nursing Sofia, a single accidental swallow of milk or bite of cheese would magnify her constant crying to unbearable levels. Niko loved being held by absolutely anyone; Sofia hated being held by anyone but me and, occasionally, certain relatives. If I put tiny Niko in a bouncy seat while I worked in the kitchen, he’d kick his legs happily while watching me. If I put Sofia down anywhere at all, even if I was right next to her, she’d scream as if she were being tortured.

When you have just one baby who takes regular naps, eats on a schedule, and has predictable times of being fussy, it’s pretty easy to plan visits and outings to maximize on his good nature. When you have a baby who cries constantly, often even while being fed, who seems to constantly want to nurse but hates bottles and reacts painfully to every formula you try, who panics when she’s set down even for a moment, it becomes a little harder. And, when you add to that mix a toddler who has outgrown morning naps, is in constant movement, can’t remember instructions no matter how badly he tries to please you, and has to be constantly monitored because his impulsiveness often causes damage… well, it’s safe to say you’re no longer POOPCUPs.

Now we had to manage two kids, with different schedules and needs. Now we were the ones being eyed by strangers as our baby shrieked and our son ran in circles. We now understood why some kids seemed a little out of control: they simply had active bodies and exhausted parents. It turns out, much to our astonishment, that not all babies can be scheduled.

Since we’ve left the happy land of POOPCUPs, we’ve learned to cope. We often split the kids between us. Niko stays much calmer when he’s on his own with an adult, and Sofia by herself isn’t very demanding. In fact, in some ways, they’ve switched roles; Sofia is now, at three, mellow, cheerful, helpful, and capable of following directions. Niko is also cheerful and helpful — he tries to be, anyway — but no one who spent more than five minutes with him would call him mellow. We’ve learned ways to help Niko remember instructions, and ways to help him stay calm. That easily-scheduled baby is now a routine-dependent boy; depart too far from the expected progression of a day, and he becomes anxious and hyper. We’ve learned to warn him in advance when something will change, and let him know what to expect when we do something new. With Sofia’s newfound cheerfulness and a better understanding of how Niko works, life is generally a bit easier now. 

Still, no matter how many coping techniques we learn or how many management methods we adopt, and no matter how successful we may appear to observers, we now have a constant awareness that we’re just one missed snack away from those hassled parents we pitied back when we were POOPCUPs. Adding a second child has been humbling and eye-opening.

So, to all you parents out there who have children who are a bit less than perfect: it’s okay. You’re in good company. There are plenty of us out there, and we’ve got your back.

And to those still happily traversing the POOPCUP road: you’ll understand. Whether it’s after you’ve had a second child, or when your single child reaches tweens or teens, at some point, you’ll understand that even the best-parented child will have moments of imperfection, usually at an inconvenient and embarrassing moment. When that happens, the rest of us will be here, ready to listen sympathetically. We’ll have your back, too. And until then, please — don’t judge us. We’re doing our best.

Freedom

A few days ago I wrote a post about my son’s upcoming first day of kindergarten and my resulting angst. As with many parents, that first day of “real” school is a huge letting-go milestone. I wrote about my fears and worries, the difficulty of handing him over to someone else.

However, upon a few days’  worth of thoughtful consideration, I’d like to recant those statements.

Today is the day. And the truth is, now that the time is upon us, I’m finding a strange joy bubbling up from some hidden source deep within. To my surprise, I find that I’m ecstatic that my wiggly, high-energy, million-questions-a-day, Neil-Degrasse-Tyson-watching boy will be someone else’s responsibility for six and a half hours a day. I’m delighted that I will be able to focus my attention on my two-year-old, who’s sometimes overlooked in favor of her big brother — maybe she’ll finally learn the difference between pink and purple (though I’m beginning to suspect she just likes the word “purple” more than “pink”). I’m thrilled to consider the possibility of occasional quiet time at home.

In fact, to be honest, I’m nearly tremulous with anticipation at the (perhaps too optimistic) thought of getting STUFF done! I have a whole list in my mind. Ready?

  1. I will SEW! I will finish fixing both the kitchen and dining area shades, which I made a year ago but are not perfect. The dog ate the string of one, and the string of the other is threadbare and lumpy and no longer catches properly. They both need dowels added so they rise smoothly without drooping. Possibly I will make them workable before my husband gets around to ordering more modern, sturdy wooden blinds sometime in the next few months, rendering my shades redundant.
  2. More sewing! I will make adorable appliqué bird pillows for the kids’ beds, to go with their future beautiful fairytale forest bedroom. I’ve never appliquéd, nor have I ever sewn pillows, nor have I yet found a pattern. Still, it’s on my to-do list.
  3. I will perfect the garden! Weeding! Trimming! Pruning! Mulching! Fall planting! Naturally, my two-year-old will follow me about like a well-trained puppy, pulling only actual weeds, never picking up my pruning shears and definitely never using them to chop into my roll of landscape fabric.
  4. Writing! I will catch up on multiple projects. Possibly I’ll write a chapter or two in my embryonic book, or edit the already-existing chapters. Maybe I’ll do some writing for the kids. Maybe I’ll keep up on this blog. Who knows? Anything could happen.
  5. I’ll shop! JoAnne Fabric, here I come! With only one toddler, firmly secured in the cart, I will stride through the aisles like a boss. I will gracefully promenade between rows of calico with not a single pause to dash after an errant child. The glassware and faux gardening tools will have no need to fear questing fingers. We’ll shop with confidence, just me and one small person whose arms are still too short to grab for interesting paint kits.

I’m sure you get the idea. Yes, I’m still anxious about my son’s future career as an elementary school student. Yes, I’ll be thinking about him all day. I’ll miss him and wonder how he’s doing every ten minutes. Still, I can’t help thinking ahead to all the time I will have with just one child for six and a half hours, five days a week. I’m a little bit excited.

What’s more important than all that freedom I so optimistically anticipate, though, is my growing belief that all this missing each other and hours away from each other will make our time together a little less stressful and more joyful. I think that my son will benefit from a more relaxed mom, a more refreshed mom; one who, after a daily break that might feel a little too long, will be more than willing to answer endless questions about the intricate workings of octopus tentacles or ant mandibles or crystalline structures. I think that I might be a little less “touched out”, as mom lingo has it, and more welcoming of my sweet boy’s need for hugging and contact. I’m excited that I’ll see him learning and growing in kindergarten, and I’m excited for the refreshing break each day so that I can be a better mom to a boy who deserves my best.

It’s going to be a great year.

Inside Out

This week, my life is turning inside-out and upside-down. I’m viewing my future from a new, uncomfortable perspective.

What is this event that’s triggering such a torrent of emotion? My son is starting kindergarten. In three days, I’ll be depositing him in his new classroom, leaving him in the hands of a stranger. A kind, compassionate stranger with both a degree in and experience in special education — but still, to my anxious mother’s mind, a stranger.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska for five years, three of which were in second grade. Each fall,  particularly in second grade, I watched with tactfully-hidden amusement as the parents lingered next to their little ones’ desks — giving one last hug three times, snapping photos, checking to see that supplies fit into desks. I bit my tongue to keep from telling them, Just go! They’ll be fine! I kept my amusement to myself and refrained from giving advice, knowing (in theory) how hard it is to walk away from our little ones. After my son was born, I had a bit more understanding of what it was like to leave a beloved child with someone else. But then, he was just a baby, his personality undeveloped, and our babysitter quickly became like a member of our family. I didn’t have as much difficulty leaving him as these parents did with their children.

Now, as my almost-six-year-old is entering kindergarten, I believe I finally understand what my class’s parents were going through. I think constantly about that moment three days from now, when I’ll walk away from my son and leave him till 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m nervous — terrified, to be honest — for him and for me.

My son is a quirky little boy, with foibles and idiosyncrasies in plenty. He received a  diagnosis of ADHD and began receiving special education services at his preschool in the spring. The diagnosis helps his dad and me understand some of his qualities, and he now takes medication, which makes him both easier to manage and happier. But despite these positive developments, I worry. I worry that someone he encounters won’t recognize or appreciate the curious, bright little boy disguised under his twitchy and excitable exterior. I worry that his teachers won’t be willing to try unusual methods to help him focus, like giving him extra breaks or letting him stand up to work. I worry that his busyness and impulsiveness will alienate both the adults and children at his school and prevent him from making friends.

As a teacher, I knew my own capabilities in the classroom. I knew that I worked well with many “special” kids. I tend to project a gentle, calming atmosphere. Having ADHD myself, I have an inside knowledge of what tends to work for these brains. I’ve put many hours of research into learning about the world of autism. I worked hard to find support for students for whom our regular curriculum wasn’t working. I also knew about the amazing staff in our school, and to whom I could go for advice and support for students that weren’t as easy to help. So from my perspective, I had no doubt that these small ones were going to be in good hands from that first day of school on. I knew their parents would soon relax, as they saw that their children were doing well.

As a parent, though, I find it hard to automatically accept this same knowledge. I’ve met with staff at Niko’s new school; I attended the Kindergarten Roundup with its overwhelming onslaught of information; I met his new teacher at the Open House this past week. All of these encounters were completely positive. I’ve heard rave reviews of the school from adults who have fond memories of attending there as children. Of course, I’ve also seen the excellent ratings available online. Objectively, I know that there’s every reason to trust the teachers and other staff to care for Niko and provide a good atmosphere for his education.

Still, there’s that quiet terror striking into my soul. I’m about to send my son to school. Not for three hours, three or four days a week, as we’ve been doing the past two years of preschool — no, this is the real deal. From 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week, he’ll be launching into his educational career. For six and a half hours a day, he’ll be out of my reach. He’ll be learning from someone else, subject to another person’s disciplinary methods, and influenced by another person’s opinions and beliefs.  I feel that I’m on the brink of an entry to a new world: the world of parenthood of a school-aged child, that until now I’ve only seen from the outside.

Suddenly, I’m both terrified and humbled. Finally, I know what those parents of my second-graders were feeling. I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher interaction now. It’s my turn to send my little one off into the big world of elementary school, trusting his teachers to support and guide him in ways I can’t do. I only hope I can be as brave as the parents of my second-grade students were each year, as they gave their children encouraging smiles and backed out of the classroom to leave them in my hands. Now it’s my turn to remember: Just go. He’ll be fine. It’s my turn to put on a brave face and an encouraging smile, to walk away, to let him take his first steps to growing up. It’s time to let go.

The Joy of Natural Consequences

I’m not a perfect parent; really no one is, but I particularly am not. How do I know that? I’ll give you the first two reasons that come to mind:

  1. When a child (especially the oldest, age five) encounters a natural consequence of poor choices, I am filled with a deep, bubbling glee. Sometimes I manage to refrain from laughing. Sometimes I don’t. Always, I make a point of quickly detailing the cause and effect involved in the situation. I’m pretty sure a perfect parent, or even a really good one, would respond with sympathy and compassion in the discussion of the action and consequence. I don’t manage this.
  2. When a child finds themself* in an uncomfortable circumstance, my first response is not rescue or assistance. My response is to pull out the phone for a picture. Only after it has been duly recorded do I smother my giggles and help them.

    DSC06931
    Photo first. Rescue later.

This week, my son has been particularly difficult. I could count on one hand the number of times he’s obeyed immediately this week. Dawdling, forgetting what he’s been told, not hearing what he’s been told, outright disobeying… as many parents can attest, this gets exhausting. Time outs, scoldings, loss of privileges, loss of possessions, vigorous expression of irritation (yes, I’ve been guilty of yelling) — all to no avail. He’s continued to drift through life completely unaware of the instructions of his parents.

That’s why this imperfection of mine has come up, twice in the last two days. Twice now, Niko has been brought up short by an immediate and uncomfortable consequence to his actions. And my glee has overwhelmed me.

We have a creek, a drainage ditch really, running across one end of our property. In summer it’s dry, but in winter it’s full and overflowing from the rainfall. Niko knows he’s not allowed in it. Even with not much water in it, it’s deeper than his boots. With the recent heavy rains, it could actually be dangerous, with its swift flow combined with the slippery rocks on the bottom. So I’ve explicitly told him, of course, not to go in. Multiple times.

Yesterday we had snow. Just a bit, but enough to make the kids enthusiastic about going outside. After approximately thirty minutes’ worth of donning warm clothes, we went down the hill toward the creek, where it’s open and has plenty of space for running. Niko made a beeline for the creek. “Stay out of the creek,” I called, as he raced toward it. “Don’t go into the creek,” I repeated as he continued. I was answered by a liquid plop. He had jumped in.

As I hauled him out, his boots full and his pants soaked to the thighs with icy water, I couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious. “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the creek?”

“Yes.”

“And now you have to go inside while Sofie plays.”

“Whyyyyyyyyyyyy?”

“Because you’re soaking wet and your boots are filled with water.”

Wailing with sorrow, he trudged inside with Aaron, while Sofie and I played in the snow for another ten minutes or so. Sadly, I failed to get a photo. All I got was one of Sofie, preparing to throw a handful of snow at the house, an activity made more thrilling by her conviction that she was getting away with something.

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Enjoying the snow, minus her soggy brother.

However, this was not the most satisfying such event of the past two days. That honor falls to today’s dramatic demonstration of natural consequences. You see, I’ve been working on a new skill with Niko, one that he really should have learned by now, but which he’s been resisting on the grounds that it’s much too hard to do. What is this terribly difficult skill? Snapping his own pants. Yes, I have been asking my five-year-old to learn to fasten his own pants when getting dressed — a tyrannical demand, to be sure, but what can I say?

Efforts to teach him to snap his pants have been marked with considerable frustration from both of us. He gets floppy-arm syndrome, moaning “I can’t! It’s too hard!” while pawing ineffectually at his waistband. Neither of us have enjoyed these training sessions, but I’ve continued to nag him. “Snap your pants, please!”

Today Niko and Sofia accompanied me down our driveway and to the end of the lane to haul out the trash. They puddle-hopped their way down the road, helped me investigate the mailbox, then splashed back up. Midway up our driveway, as I urged Niko to hurry UP, because I needed him through the gate so I could close it, he obediently broke into a halfhearted jog. As he jogged, his waistband began to slip. “Wait –” I called, but I was too late. The pants plunged to his knees, and he sprawled flat on the muddy gravel.

I was immobilized with mirth. I feel a little bad for this, but I truly could not move, I was trying so hard to keep my laughter from bursting out. He also couldn’t move, bound at the knees as he was by those pants. I finally got myself under control enough to capture a couple of photos, then extended my hand to help him up.

“This is why you should snap your pants,” I pointed out. “Haven’t I been telling you to snap your pants?” Dripping with muddy water, cold and exposed, he nodded reluctantly. “Well,” I told him sternly, “this is why. If you’d snapped your pants, this wouldn’t have happened.” The sternness was spoiled just a little by a snicker I couldn’t restrain. I mean, honestly, it was pretty funny. As you can see:

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This, ladies and gentlemen, is why learning to snap your pants is worthwhile.

So, there you have it. I’m not a perfect parent. I rejoice when natural consequences remove the necessity of scolding and imposing my own mean-mom consequences. I laugh when my kids find themselves in pickles. And I take photos when I should be helping.

And then I post those photos on a public blog.

*The Washington Post‘s Bill Walsh recently wrote a piece, filed in Opinions, regarding this year’s language adaptations. One of them was the surrender to the inevitability of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. That is to say, when a writer needs to refer to an individual, unknown or unidentified, who may be male or female, the WP is now accepting “they” to fill this need. For example, “If a student talks during a test, they will be given a zero.” As Mr. Walsh pointed out, this is a far from new development; it’s been used, he says, by Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the translators of the Bible, to name just a few cases. And it has a precedent: the word “you” was once solely plural, the singular pronouns being “thee” and “thou.” We’ve long since accepted “you” as a singular pronoun. Now that the WP accepts “they” likewise as a singular, I feel perfectly comfortable using it in my own writing. So there.**

**Yes, this addendum was mainly for my mother. You’re welcome.

 

 

A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

“Oops!”: Time For Honesty

Lately, I’ve been considering honesty in my writing. It’s not so much that I’m concerned about a personal habit of lying. It’s more that I suspect I may be guilty of contributing to a common Facebook phenomenon: by presenting only the best of my life, my stories may make readers feel inadequate.

Let me give an example. On November 30, I posted a glowing report of writing 50,000 words of my very own novel! Some of my friends shook their heads and marveled at my accomplishment. How on earth do you do it all? they wondered. Well, it’s time for honesty. For the entire month of November, I folded laundry once. That’s right. By the end of November, I had three weeks’ worth of unfolded laundry piled in baskets, overflowing onto my washing machine. I also allowed my kids to watch far too much TV. I neglected the garden, and left the kids (and myself) in PJs for large portions of the day. I didn’t have my son write thank-you cards for his birthday gifts — a fact brought home by the arrival of a thank-you card from a friend whose birthday was a few weeks after his.

Here’s the truth: every time I accomplish something of which I’m proud, something I wish to share with the world, or even just any task outside my daily routine, something else remains undone. Yesterday I worked my way through nine months’ worth of photos, deleting 1600 of them as I went, and I also wrote a post for this blog. What that means is that I failed to accomplish the following jobs: folding this week’s clean laundry, emptying and refilling the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, vacuuming the carpet, cleaning dog-nose-slime off the window, filling out paperwork to renew the tags on our car, and watering my baby beet seedlings. Oh, and helping Niko write thank-you cards!

All of these ponderings on honesty have been simmering on the back burner of my mind for some time now, until this morning when I came across a WordPress tool I didn’t know existed: a weekly writing challenge. This week’s challenge is “Oops!” The goal is to post a story that includes a photo that is decidedly not Instagram- or Facebook-worthy. The challenge jogged my memory of a photo I took some time ago — a failure of perfection.

So, my dear readers, here is my “oops” moment. The setting is the making of a batch of cinnamon-swirled bread from my own recipe. I shared a photo of my loaves on Facebook but didn’t end up making a blog post from it, because I didn’t knead the dough enough and the odd texture shows up clearly in the photos. Also, even though I included cinnamon in this particular attempt, I didn’t use enough, so it just shows up as a faint streak in the sliced bread. I didn’t know any of this as I was making the bread, of course, and I was planning to write up the recipe for my blog, so I was taking photos as I went. In the photos, there’s no hint that anything is amiss. The counter is clean and shiny, and the bread practically glows with homemade goodness.

However, as I was photographing all this domestic bliss, I happened to step back and take a look at my kitchen. Oh. My. God. It was a disaster. The only clear space on the counter was the one I’d cleared for photographing the bread! The floor was unswept. The sink was piled with dishes. Just awful. On impulse, I snapped a picture. In fact, this is far from the worst my kitchen has been when I’m in the throes of creativity, but it’s the only photo I’ve taken of the mess.

But, honestly, that’s my life. If I’m putting extra time into writing, or cooking something special, or making an interesting project, other things are left undone. I’ve learned to accept that. I can catch up while the kids nap or after they go to bed, or I can set aside a day later in the week to focus on cleaning, or whatever it takes to recover from a day of focusing on projects.

Still, the truth is that this mess-making and catching up doesn’t show in my blog posts or Facebook status updates, and too much of that kind of omissions constitute a dishonest representation of my life. It would be easy to read the highlights of my life and see a perfect mom and housewife, gliding through life with grace and good humor. Nope. Not me. I’m the one with a disaster of a kitchen and stacks of unfolded laundry, sitting the kids in front of the TV so I can finish my project, and clearing six square inches of counter space to take a photo worthy of showing off. That, my friends, is the truth. I’m normal, human, disorganized, messy. Far, far, far from perfect.

I’m taking this opportunity to push back against the deluge of Facebook perfection. I don’t want to contribute to someone else’s sense of inadequacy. We all struggle; we all make compromises. We’re in this together, even if our social media accounts indicate otherwise.

Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.