Home: Anticipation

The kids’ shared suitcase has been packed, checked, re-packed, second-guessed, items added, items removed. A bustle of tidying-up in preparation for the journey has swept our home: little boy’s hair has been trimmed despite protests and wiggles; little girl’s tiny nails have been trimmed with surprising cooperation to the accompaniment of chortles and chatter.

For my part, it’s a case of long-forgotten skirts hauled out of the farthest corner of the closet, expressing amazement that they fit once again, and a frantic procession of shirts and skirts to find outfits that coordinate and somewhat flatter. Photo texts sent to best friend, who, like me, grew up in a religious commune: Does this look okay? Can I wear this in the kitchen on the farm? Does it look dumb? Opinion begged of my husband: should I wear a camisole under this dress? Which is more important, modesty or confidence? Or comfort?

I’m going home. Home to the triad of Christian farming communes where I was raised. My parents still live there, as do other family members. I’m excited, but there’s still always an element of anxiety each time I go home. How will it be different? What will be changed? Each time I’ve visited over the last decade and a half, the community is a bit smaller, the property a bit more worn down. Flower beds have overgrown and sunk into the lawn; greenhouses have disappeared; paint has flaked off the porch of the tabernacle, the main gathering place. There just aren’t enough people to maintain those things to a level that matches the rosy glow of my nostalgic memories, though photos on my social network suggest there’ve been recent renovations.

Other things have changed, too. Electricity has crept in; nearly all homes now have lights that can be flicked on with a touch of a finger. Bathrooms have toilets that flush, instead of a wooden seat on a bucket or a port-a-potty. Kitchens have running water and sinks that drain to sewers (no more hauling water in buckets to wash dishes, then throwing the dishwater outside). And there are even a few TVs, those tools of the devil that were banned in my childhood. Television! Movies! Flushing toilets! Such changes. Not all the homes have caught up with the times, but more are modernized than when I lived there.

And with these changes comes another: work. The farms are no longer entirely self-sufficient; they haven’t been for a long time, really, but as time passes, and the community and its families shift toward modernization, and there are fewer families contributing both time and income, more money is required to maintain each family as well as the community. So, more and more, people go to work off the farm to earn money to support their families and the community. People who stay on the farm to maintain buildings and lawns, and care for animals, and plant and harvest, and bring in the hay — all the necessary jobs of living on a communal farm — are fewer and fewer. Communal meals are more sparsely populated than before. And the buildings and superfluous gardens suffer, as does my nostalgia.

This time, though, there will be a welcome change: an increase in population. Part of the increase takes the form of an old friend and her family: her husband plus a trio of daughters I haven’t met. They have just recently moved back from a community in northern Canada. There’s been a new baby born to a young family, bringing that family’s number to four, though this family now lives across the road from my home farm, not strictly part of the community. Another family, a friend I grew up with, has moved back recently to another of the three communes, bringing five little ones to inject new life into the farm that is home to my grandparents. Other families from the village have been frequent visitors, contributing to the vibrancy of the life there. These are good and positive changes, bringing an increase in vitality — but changes are changes nonetheless, and to a person like me, dependent on routine and a certain degree of predictability to maintain my equilibrium, even good differences are a bit scary.

The thoughts of these changes run through my mind as I peer at my reflection in the mirror, wondering just how far the changes have permeated. Should I try to wear skirts every day? I can’t remember — do the women wear pants (anathema in my teen years, but more accepted now) even in the main house these days? Will I be criticized if I wear my comfortable old jeans, or is it worse to wear a skirt that shows a bit of knee? My friend who grew up in a similar community echoes my thoughts in a text responding to my assurance-seeking selfie, her amusement at my anxiety evident: “That skirt should be at least three inches longer. And did you remember to bend over in front of a mirror to check for cleavage?” (I did, in fact, and added a camisole to the outfit. Just in case.)

I sigh. Things really have changed. I know my worry is baseless. It’s unlikely anyone will care what I wear, even less likely I’ll be confronted. And the farm isn’t all that’s changed. I’ve changed too, gaining confidence and self-assurance. While I have no intention of disrespecting the farm’s rules, I do know my own mind, and I can defend my clothing choices if need be. I need to stop worrying. Still, I stash an extra skirt in my luggage… just in case.

Meanwhile, I’m armed with both my favorite apple pie recipe for a Thanksgiving celebration, and my sweet children, who are related in some convoluted way to about half of the three-farm community and thus are garnering a bit of excitement with their arrival. And I’m depending on the love of my family — related by blood and not — to welcome me home. Because it is home, no matter how far I’ve gone and no matter how long it’s been. Philosophies change, choices lead in different directions, but the bond of love doesn’t break.

Things change. The buildings  will look more aged (or perhaps brightly renovated — a change, either way), the gardens won’t be the same, and the new electric lights shine differently than the propane and kerosene lights of long-ago memories. The dress code shifts and even disappears. Children no longer build character through hauling buckets of water for bathing or dishes. Families occasionally rotate from one community to another, moving a few miles or across country, leaving an empty space or bringing new faces. But through the changes, I know I can be assured of love and family.

I’m going home.

 

 

Niko is ready to board the plane.
Niko is ready to board the plane.

Note: I wrote this post as we were leaving for our visit, but decided to wait to post it till we got home, so as to not advertise our absence from our home. So this story is nearly two weeks old now.

Theology for the Very Young

“Mom, what’s a haunted house?”

With Halloween approaching and ghosts popping up everywhere, I was actually prepared for this question, asked — as usual — in the car, en route to preschool. Niko, nearly five now, is a thinker, a ponderer, and a worrier, and these quiet twenty-minute excursions are fertile ground for some deep questioning sessions.

We watched Inside Out last summer, and the concepts in the story have been really useful as we dissect and examine all those complex and intertwined emotions that some kids Niko’s age experience. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful movie about emotions. I mean, literally starring the emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I highly recommend it, though Niko’s age — 4 years old when we watched it — is borderline for being ready to handle the range of feelings and experiences the story covers.) But also in the story was Riley’s observation that her new home, empty and lonely, looked like a haunted house. Niko had mentioned this once not long ago, and I’d deflected the question in a truly skilled manner, but I knew I’d have to face a barrage of questions sooner or later. In preparation for the coming onslaught of inquiry, I did some thinking, pondering, and, yes, worrying of my own.

Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.
Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.

So when the inevitable question arrived, I had a triage of answers ready, and I began with the simplest. “A haunted house isn’t real, but in stories, it’s a house where ghosts live.” There. Simple.

“Why did Riley think her house looked haunted?”

“People sometimes think that ghosts like to live in houses where people don’t live. Riley’s new house was empty when they got there, so she thought it looked like a place a ghost might like to live. But really there weren’t any ghosts there, because ghosts aren’t real.”

“What’s a ghost?” Of course. He was going for the long route. I could tell this was not going to be a short conversation. He’s known about ghosts for awhile, naturally, but it’s recently occurred to him there must be more to them than a silly white sheet with a cheerful grin; otherwise why would people be afraid of them?

Still, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t satisfy him, I went for the next answer on my list. “You know what a ghost is! You’ve seen lots of pictures. They’re little white floaty guys.”

“But what’s a ghost really?” 

I moved to the next response on my mental list, finally shifting into Real Answers mode. “Ghosts aren’t real,” I said (why change a formula that works so well?), “but in stories, they are spirits of people who have died but who haven’t gone to be with God yet.”

“What’s a spirit?”

“A spirit is a special part of a person that God has made that lives forever and can always be with God. That’s the part of us that talks to God. Our bodies don’t last forever, but our spirits do.”

“Why do our spirits last forever?”

“Because that’s the way God made us.”

“But what if a bad guy comes and takes our spirit?”

“A bad guy can’t take our spirit. It’s not something you can see or hold in your hand. Nobody can take it from you. It’s just for you and God.”

By this time (oh thank you God) we were pulling into the parking lot and entering our flurry of unbuckling, collecting lunch box for snack, collecting little sister, putting that special toy back into the car, looking both directions to cross the parking lot… and the questions were cut short.

Really, I thought, I’d acquitted myself quite well. My answers were clear, concise, and to the point, each giving the information requested and no more, never overwhelming with too much. That was one paranormal/metaphysical/ theological discussion of which I could be proud. Right? Right?

Fast-forward to this morning. Aaron was working on the chicken coop; I was puttering in the garden shed, tidying away dried lavender and sweeping shelves and floors and organizing tools and doing all those odds and ends one needs to do if one wishes to actually use one’s gardening shed for gardening. Niko was running the length of the yard, now visiting Dad, now Mom, in his peregrinations.

As I organized, I caught sight of a collection of pinwheels we’d used to deter birds from eating our berry harvest, and realized I was missing one of the sturdy metal ones. I sent Niko running for it.

He returned in a few moments, his face sad and anxious, holding out the pinwheel in two pieces. Its head, made of brightly-colored flower-like spinning blades, had detached from the sturdy stake. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, “I could only bring you its spirit.”

I’m telling you, teaching theology to a preschooler is hard. 

A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?
A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?

 

Photo copyright Pixar Animation Studios, found by me via a blog post called “Mental Wellness in Movies: Inside Out,” from  Projected Realities.

Meow

There are parents out there — you know who you are — who freely, glibly, almost joyfully lie to their children on a regular basis. Behavior modification, comfort, pure and simple fun — all are justifications for these routine lies. They range from “Jimmy Kimmel told me to eat all your Halloween candy” (do a YouTube search for that –there are some heartbreakingly funny videos out there), to “Santa won’t bring you any toys if you pull the puppy’s tail,” to “Yes, sweetie, your purple polka-dot shirt looks charming with those camouflage capris,” to “That green stuff on your plate is elf farts, and if you eat it all you’ll be able to fly! (Oh, how sad, I guess you must have missed some crumbs on your plate.)” Lies, boldfaced lies, and I’ve never truly understood the common propensity toward this parenting approach. It’s one area that brings me perilously close to the brink of breaching my personal life philosophy of non-judgement. 

I guess my near-yielding to temptation to judging others might be why I found myself in a sticky situation a couple of days ago: a demonstration of just why parents might feel moved to act in such ways. 

We’d had a long morning, and opted to stop in for a bite at McDonald’s so we could finish shopping before going home. Immediately inside the door was a display of the Happy Meal toys: wind-up monster trucks, and Hello Kitty toys. Sofia, who will be two in about three months, adores “meows” and instantly recognized Hello Kitty as such, and began hopping up and down in joy as she shouted “Meow! Meow!” I glanced at the options: a little tin with stickers, and several figures. I could see the tin would be too difficult for Sofia’s little hands to manage, so I resolved to request a figure instead. 

After the meal, I realized I’d forgotten to request a Hello Kitty figure. I checked the bag: yes, it was a tin. I carried it to the counter, which was, I was thankful to see, nearly abandoned on the customer side, and apologetically explained the situation. The server was understanding — I guessed she had kids of her own — and did a quick search for a replacement. 

Unfortunately, they were all tins. She had just one figure. She brought it to me, shaking her head, as she showed me that it was even worse — it featured an ink stamp on the bottom. “Let me look in the back.” She was doing way more than she needed to, and I was grateful and by now feeling guilty, but she was gone before I could say I’d just take the tin anyway. 

She returned in a few minutes. “There weren’t any more Hello Kitty toys. I just found this.” She extended a rather adorable purple, bewinged, single-horned, flowing-haired My Little Pony. 

I was torn. I recalled Sofia’s eager bouncing and exclamations of “Meow! Meow!” On the other hand, I couldn’t possibly reject this woman’s hard work to help make a little girl happy. She had had no obligation to try anywhere close to that hard; there was no way I could hand the toy back. I smiled, thanked her for her generous help, and returned to the table. 

I handed the toy to Sofia, pasting an enthusiastic smile onto my face. “Look! A PURPLE PONY!”

Her face fell. She pulled her hands back, shook her head sadly. “Meow?” She looked around, as if expecting a cat to materialize from empty air next to her. “Meow!”

I took a deep breath. I gritted my teeth. I drew on my deepest reserves of parenting strength. And then, my friends, I held up that pony in front of my toddler’s sad little face, and I said, in a voice imbued with the very richest sincerity I could muster, “This is a meow. Look! Meow!” I danced it toward her, making highly authentic cat sounds. 

The light returned to my little girl’s eyes. She squealed with delighted laughter, startling the nearby diners, and grabbed the purple pony with a triumphant crow of “Meow!” 

 From then on, we have referred to the pony as a meow. Even Niko, our literalist, was convinced to adapt the new terminology when he realized what was at stake. 

And I realized, once again, that judging other parents just isn’t kind. You really don’t know why they’re making the choices they’re making, why they’re in the situation you see. I still don’t get the humor in getting  kids to cry as you tell them that Jimmy Kimmel told you to eat all their Halloween candy, but I’m willing to accept that maybe even those parents aren’t actually terrible parents. We all make different choices, based on what our children (and we) need. And maybe what those parents needed after an exhausting Halloween was some side-splitting laughter at their children’s expense. I guess. (No, sorry, I still don’t get that one.)

 So next time I hear you lie to your child, I promise, I’ll try a little harder not to judge, as I remember the transformation from devastation to joy that I saw on my own daughter’s face when I told one tiny little lie myself two days ago. Meow.  

Kissing the Meow

Don’t Get Lost

Last week, I had a doctor’s appointment, and I left the kids home with Aaron. I came home to find drawings taped up all over the house. “They’re signs!” my 4-year-old son informed me proudly. 

On closer examination, I realized that they were, indeed, signs, and each one bore a distinct resemblance to what one might find through that door. The front door’s sign was a green tree, which makes sense, as one might see a tree were one to open it. The door to the sun room bore an image of…a door. Which had a certain logic, after all, since there is another door beyond that one. Every single door had a sign. His room:     

Sofia’s room (he must have been in a hurry, as he actually drew it a few months ago, and it’s been hanging on his wall all this time):   

Every door, and a few windows too, were labeled. He explained confidingly to me that this was to keep us from getting lost when we were walking around inside our house. 

That’s my son, keeping our family safe and on track, one sign at a time. What would we ever do without him?

Lying to My Son

Before I had children, and even when the older of our two was a baby, I swore I’d never lie to my children. Never. How could I betray their trust, set them up for disillusionment? I would be honest, I promised. At all times. In all situations. Never, I insisted, could there possibly be an excuse for lying to a child.

My husband Aaron agreed, and with the birth of our son, we set out on our adventure of perfect openness and truth telling. We took a policy of plain, simple truth telling, no embroidering or glossing over, and certainly no outright fabrication.

We were honest about the despised food items in his plate –“Yes, those are potatoes. Take one bite,” we’d say. No pretending they were magical unicorn eggs that would turn him into a superhero; they were potatoes, no more, no less.

We were straightforward about the existence of Santa. As our two-year-old son approached his first memorable Christmas, he was fascinated with Santa-themed decorations. We told him that Santa was a nickname for a kind man named Nicholas who had lived long ago, and we remembered him at Christmas time. He was a story, we explained: department store, mall, or bell-ringing Santas were regular people wearing costumes. He appeared to accept this, if grudgingly, and we congratulated ourselves on our honesty.

Our self-congratulation continued as we explained the precise facts about the Easter Bunny: he was a kind person in a costume, we told our three-year-old the next year, leaving candy for children to celebrate spring. How nice! Unfortunately, Niko’s patience with our honesty regarding the world had been wearing thin; he had been indignant that we continued to insist in Santa’s historical accuracy, but at our declaration that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, he was crushed. “But I want the Easter Bunny! I want him to be real!” he wailed.  But it was too late; we couldn’t backtrack. No, our son would know that Santa Claus is a cultural memory of a historical figure, the Easter Bunny is the funny leftover traditional costumed character of an ancient custom, and his potatoes are just potatoes. We remain relentlessly honest, although, I suspect, we may be able to reach some sort of quiet compromise where we don’t insist quite so firmly in these beloved characters’ nonexistence.

But then, one day, there was a hard question. The kind of question for which honesty just can’t do the job.

We were in the car, where so many of these questions come flying at me. Niko, now four, was asking about love. “Will you always love me, Mom?” he asked. This has been a common theme for him, a source of mild anxiety at times, and once — when he discovered there had been a time I hadn’t been his mom and thus hadn’t known him, therefore hadn’t loved him — well, that had been an interesting conversation.

“I will always love you, for ever and ever,” I declared.

“Will you love me if I die?”

“I will love you if you die. People don’t stop loving  their family who die. They miss them, but they don’t stop loving them.”

“What if you die? Will you still love me if you die?”

And there it was. The question. The one I can’t really answer. The one theologians, church fathers, religionists of all sorts, of all creeds and doctrines, can’t really answer. We just don’t know, do we? Many of us believe our consciousness continues after death. We go on — to heaven, to nirvana, to reincarnation, to a place of waiting, to the clouds.  But do we maintain a connection to those we leave behind, or do we continue without looking back? Do we keep on loving, or do we forget? For every dramatic return-from-beyond-the-veil account that suggests one answer, another contradicts; for each passage from a holy book that points in one direction, another passage points another way.

I was raised on the Bible like most kids are raised on peanut butter and jelly, on meat and potatoes. In the communes in which I was raised, we read the Bible at mealtimes, at church three times a week, at school daily, in private devotions. In school, we were expected to use it as reference to support viewpoints in essays on any subject, from history to science to opinions on skirt length. So it’s with a bit of authority that I say: the Bible has not a whole lot to say on this exact subject, that of love after death. The one thing that echoes uncomfortably in my mind on the subject is a song that ought to be reassuring, a song whose melody was written by my mother’s dear friend — someone I consider a second mother — and whose words come from Revelation 21:4-5:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, from their eyes/ There shall be no more sorrow/ No more pain/ No more death. For the former things are passed away, are passed away/ Are passed away/ And behold, He has made all things new.

In my mind, I hear her clear voice singing the simple and beautiful melody, her fingers caressing the strings of the guitar in a way that’s as familiar to me as her smile, her eyes calm with the strength and peace that you only see in someone who’s been through more than their fair share of sorrow and tears and has carried a spark of joy throughout. She’s a woman of unshakeable faith, and that’s why I absolutely believe the words of this song. And that’s why I can’t answer my son’s question honestly.

You see, I believe a portion of love is pain and sorrow. A parent can’t see a son’s bewilderment at a friend’s rejection and not share his sorrow. You can’t hold your daughter’s fevered body and not sense her pain. When a loved one suffers, you suffer too. When you’re separated from those you love, that hurts as well. Even in hypothetical perfect, ideal relationships, even if we don’t actively cause pain to those that are closest to us through betrayal or misunderstanding, loving another person involves pain. And so, if God is erasing pain and sorrow from us as we pass through death, the only way that’s possible is if we stop loving those we’ve left behind.

Now, there are still plenty of possibilities. Perhaps we don’t go all the way on at first — other verses in the Bible make reference to clouds of witness watching those still in the daily struggle on Earth, for example. Perhaps this particular description in Revelation is only to the end of times. Perhaps some are even allowed to stay with those they love for a time. That’s what I’d like to believe, even though I don’t actually think it’s true.

When I was fourteen, my protective, almost-seventeen-year-old brother Charles died in a boating accident with a group of other young people and chaperones from our close-knit community. I felt his loss badly, of course, right from the beginning, but it wasn’t till I got older that I began to realize how much we both were missing. He never got to meet my husband, something I regret — they would have appreciated each other, I think. I missed him at my wedding, and he didn’t see me get married. I missed him desperately when my son was born. And I wanted so, so badly to believe what I knew couldn’t be true, that somehow he was still watching over and loving me. That’s why, when Niko protested the Easter Bunny’s status as a pretend creature, I sympathized. And that’s why, when he asked if I’d still love him if I died, I couldn’t tell him what I thought was an honest answer. I couldn’t tell him no. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe.

When Niko was born, I had a terribly hard time transitioning him from bassinet to crib, clutching him and sobbing the first time I tried to lay him down in the crib that seemed long miles from the bed. When I finally managed it, the first time I made the trip at night from our room to the nursery to feed him, there was a not-really-there shadow leaning over his crib. As I said, it wasn’t really there. Not visible, not really. But the invisible shadow had (to me) a clear attitude of protective love. After that, for several weeks, each time I staggered sleepily to the nursery for a night feeding, the not-really-there shadow was faithfully stooped over his crib. Not once did I have any sense of anxiety, fear, or spookiness. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time that it occurred to my sleep-hazed mind to think Wait…what? before I dismissed it, deciding I just didn’t need to know. Eventually, it wasn’t there any more, but for the weeks that it leaned over my son’s crib at night, I felt a sense of peace, of watchful protection.

I know that my friends run the gamut of faith. As they’re reading this, some are thinking, How amazing. God is so good! He sent your brother to care for your son! And others are thinking,  Honey, get some rest and tell your doctor you need better pills, because something is not right with your brain. I’m sure my scientist best friend, who currently bends his remarkable brain to the study of regenerative biology, is shaking his head as he reads this and is exercising all his considerable powers of kindness to not tell me I’m cuckoo. And maybe a few in the middle are just thinking that a sleep-deprived mom in a shadowy room shouldn’t be surprised if she imagines a few strange things.

All I know is, when my son asked me if I would love him after I died, I had a split second to balance those two thoughts: my own irrational desire for reassurance of my brother’s love after he died (and the fresh memory of my son’s sorrow at the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny and panic at his realization that I once hadn’t loved him because I hadn’t been his mommy), and the Biblical assurance that we would experience no more sorrow after death. I could have launched into a philosophical discussion about the uncertainty of the afterlife, about the adventure that follows stepping through the mysterious dark door of death. I could have told him that love is full of sorrow and pain, and we’re assured a life without those in the times to come. I could have been honest, I could have told him: I don’t know.  But he’s four. And I chose love.

“I will always love you, sweetie,” I promised him. “Always. No matter what. If I die, or if you die, I will always love you.” I lied. I lied to my son. And I have not a single regret.

In an unusual turn of events, three photographs I chose for this post aren’t my own. The black-and-white photo of my brother twirling in a striped shirt was taken my my Aunt Martha, probably in 1985; the color photos of my son in a plaid shirt and brown vest were taken by Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography.

Thank You, Little Frog

See this little guy?  

 He saved me today. 

Well, he saved me from turning into the dreaded Mean Mom. You see, for quite awhile now — maybe a month? Maybe two? I’ve been sick more and more frequently with migraine after migraine, till there was no real space between the end of one and the beginning of the next. I wasn’t the greatest mom during that time. I’m pretty sure Niko spent more than the maximum recommended two hours per day watching (usually) educational TV or playing (mostly) skill-building games on the iPad. He came to expect to spend large chunks of time inside, in front of a screen, because both the bright light of the hot summer sun and the movement necessary to keep up with both kids outside caused more pain, nausea, and dizziness than I could handle. 

The migraines came to a climax three Fridays ago — on Aaron’s birthday, no less — with a trip to the emergency room, my very first. If it hadn’t been so terrifying, it would have been great fun, being wheeled around and zipped down hallways and buzzed through a CT machine. At that point I wasn’t in pain, but I also couldn’t speak, had little strength or dexterity in my right hand, couldn’t write cursive or my usual script/print hybrid, could hardly move my right leg, and couldn’t remember how to navigate steps. My face felt like I’d just visited the dentist, numb and tingly. 

I communicated by writing on a notepad at first, taking long seconds to form each letter, sometimes agonizing in an attempt to remember the correct shape. (The nurse in charge of me, who hit an excellent balance between compassion and good humor, complimented me on taking the time to add the apostrophe to “can’t” despite it’s adding at least a full second to the time it took to write the word.)

 Later I got my phone and used my Notes application to type, which was much faster despite my continuing clumsiness.

It wasn’t a stroke. It was a hemiplegic migraine. They’re rare and debilitating. And scary. 

I got my speech back about four hours after I lost it. By that time I could walk on my own, very very very slowly, and could even, with great triumph, navigate two steps: one up and one down on a step stool. The doctor reluctantly let us go home, since all the tests demonstrated I really was okay. 

I didn’t lose my speech again, and I never got that weak again, but for the next week and a half I had some symptoms every day: tingling and numbness, weakness, difficulty walking. A few times I got a small stroller from the garage to use as a walker just so I could get around at a reasonable pace. I had trouble with forgetting words. Sometimes I couldn’t understand when people spoke to me — I knew they must be speaking English, just as clearly as they had been moments before, but I was as bewildered as if they’d broken out in ancient Aramaic. I continued having difficulty writing, especially struggling to manage my signature. I occasionally had trouble getting food into my mouth, and once I got it there, I sometimes couldn’t remember how to use my lips, tongue, and jaw together to get it off the fork and chew. Every day I was tired, so tired. And then there were the typical migraine symptoms: dizziness, vertigo, nausea, light/motion/noise sensitivity, periodic intense neck and jaw and head pain. 

Oh yes, I was a mess. For the most part, I managed. I had migraine pain most days, but usually only for a few hours; the seemingly endless symptoms I listed above were intermittent and only happened a few at a time. Generally I was just slow and dull, unable to do a whole lot beyond cuddle the kids and provide basic care. Niko, who is not yet five, didn’t really get that I was sick. Mostly, he just understood at first that he was watching more TV than usual. Then he came to expect to have the TV or iPad several times a day. 

Last Wednesday, four days ago now, we saw a neurologist to follow up on the ER visit. He prescribed a daily preventative medicine and a new, safer abortive (migraine-stopping) medicine. 

I’m delighted to say that the preventative medicine is working. I did have one migraine the day after starting it — but it had a distinct starting and ending point. I’ve felt entirely normal since. And poor Niko has been comparatively bereft of screen time. He’s been forced to play with toys, run in the yard, help pick vegetables, draw pictures. 

This morning, after breakfast, I was working on processing some of the zillions of zucchini we’ve harvested. I noted that the day appeared pleasantly sunny. I paused to put Sofie on the potty and lay her down for a nap. Then, with Sofie safely out of the way, I called Niko. “Go play on the porch for awhile.”

“Noooo! I want to watch Dinosaur Train!”

“No,” I said firmly. “It’s a good day for being outside. It’s sunny and not too hot. Come on, I’ll get you some bubbles.”

My TV-deprived son flopped on the floor and continued to whine while I headed out to the porch to get the bubble mix out of the toy box on the porch. 

That’s when I saw this little guy, a small green savior in need of rescue. His skin a shade too dry, his body chillier than was comfortable here on the shady porch, he awaited a helping hand. “Niko!” I called. “Come look!” He rushed out, excited to see whatever mystery I was advertising. The frog brought complete satisfaction. I let Niko be in charge of delivering him to the pond, where he wasted no time frog-kicking his way to a safe hiding place on the far side of the water.  

 
Yes, that little green peeper rescued me today. Having put the frog back into the pond, my son was more than happy to stay outside in the fresh air, blowing bubbles, hanging from the tree, and drawing with chalk. Thanks to a thumb-sized amphibian, I didn’t have to put my foot down and be Mean Mom just to get my screen-habituated son some fresh air. Thank you, green frog. 

Why Moms Don’t Get Bathroom Breaks

Recently I came across another mom’s list of things she “can’t even…” now that she’s a parent. Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or one who works outside, if you have small children, you probably have your own litany of Things You Can’t Even. I thought I’d become resigned to mine. After all, the trade off — my two beautiful, bright, constantly learning and changing little people — is worth the loss of child-free independence.

And then, with my littlest’s weaning and subsequent champion nap-taking and nighttime sleeping, I started pushing my limits. I began questioning my biggest Can’t Even. Maybe I CAN use the bathroom alone, I thought. If I hurry. If they’re distracted. If they don’t see me leave, don’t hear the door shut. After several successes, I grew complacent. I can do this! I thought. I reveled in the freedom, at least once a day. Sometimes twice. Just me. Alone. In the bathroom.

Until today. I left them painting at the small table. I tiptoed away. In the bathroom, I kept an ear alert for suspicious sounds. Nothing. I hurried out, camera in hand, to capture the picture of colorful youthful creativity I was sure I’d find.

Creative, yes. Colorful, indeed. A living canvas, one might say:

  I can’t even. I can’t even use the bathroom alone. Ever.

Eating Humble Pie Gratefully

I know kids pretty well, I think. I’ve been babysitting other people’s kids since I was old enough to be left on my own — age eleven or twelve. During my senior year in high school, I used our tiny church school’s senior Independent Study program to teach a combined first-and-second grade class three subjects (two of them were split over half the year, so it was an hour a day of teaching). I spent two years as a preschool teacher in a daycare. In my favorite pre-teaching job ever, I spent five years working mostly in the children’s department at Anchorage’s Barnes & Noble. I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and I have five years of teaching under my belt.  I’m the parent of an active four-year-old and a firecracker 18-month-old.  So, really, I’m not new to the whole dealing-with-kids thing.

The problem is, there’s knowing kids as a general category, and then there’s knowing how to deal with one particular child. My one particular child, Sofia, is a darling, bright, engaging little girl who, at 15 months, appeared to simply never want to ever sleep. She fought it like no one I’ve ever known.

As a tiny baby, Sofie had colic. She showed every sign of being in pain nearly all the time. She cried most of every day; she screamed most of every night. Around 1 or 2 in the morning, she would calm down enough to fall asleep, only to wake after 45 minutes needing to nurse. For the first four months of her life, I was lucky to get three or four hours of disconnected sleep nightly… and that nifty idea of napping when baby naps? She never napped. She would sleep in our Ergo carrier, strapped to my chest, and that was it.

We found that part of her colic-like symptoms were the result of a milk protein sensitivity, which meant that she was calmer and in less pain if I stayed away from dairy. It also meant she couldn’t handle formula, even the “gentle protein” kind; and for some reason the milk I pumped was souring immediately, so bottles were no go. I simply resigned myself — more or less — to having her attached to me constantly. I carried her in the Ergo while I cooked, cleaned, weeded, and did everything else that needed to be done. Until she was about six months old, she would panic if I set her down for more than five minutes; around that time, I could set her down for about half an hour at a time before I had to pick her back up. I rocked her to sleep each night before gingerly laying her down each night; she took most of her daytime naps, or started them, in her Ergo carrier on my back or chest. I believe the term “high-needs baby” could correctly be applied here.

Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.
Seven-month-old Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.

At fifteen months old, she was almost a year past her colicky stage (though too much dairy in her diet would still keep her awake at night). We were weaning, but I would still nurse and rock her to sleep each night, spending 45 minutes or so putting her to bed. She would wake anywhere from two to five times at night; most nights, she’d sleep in about two-hour increments before waking, and I’d nurse her back to sleep each time. It was exhausting, but was — I thought — what she needed.

I knew I couldn’t do this forever, and with a 2-day trip coming up during which Aaron’s mom would stay with the kids, I was on a deadline to figure out a better way to put Sofia to sleep at night and nap during the day.  I was determined not to use the Cry it Out method — despite my exhaustion, I just couldn’t face the idea of ignoring my baby’s cries. But I needed a solution.

I asked my mom how she night-weaned my brother and me. She told me that once we were eating solid food, she reasoned that waking up during the night was just habit, and she simply let us cry for a little bit till we learned that we wouldn’t be fed. At that point, we stopped crying at night. “How long did we cry for?” I asked. “How long is too long? Twenty minutes?”

“I’d say twenty minutes is too long,” she agreed. “You didn’t cry that long. Maybe ten minutes, and then you just went back to sleep.”

Well, that settled that. Sofia is more than capable of screaming in rage for two solid hours. She stops, not when she’s exhausted, but when her situation changes. It’s now been months since she’s done this, but the memory is still raw. Her screams are piercing, literally painful to the ear. So letting her cry at night didn’t seem like a workable solution — after all, the rest of us, including her four-year-old brother, needed to sleep too. Back to the drawing board.

Not long after my conversation with my mom, Aaron and I went on a rare evening date. Our babysitter, Alyssa, arrived with her own newborn just as fifteen-month-old Sofia was waking up from a nap. We discussed bedtime routines. “I honestly don’t know how well she’ll sleep for you,” I confessed. “I nurse her to sleep, and it takes forever. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry — I’ll put her to bed when we get home.”

Around 9:00, I sent Alyssa a quick text — “How’s it going?”

“Just fine!” she answered. “Everyone’s asleep.”

What? Everyone? “Sofia too?” I asked.

“She’s been asleep for about half an hour. She hardly cried at all. She went down really well.”

Over the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder what magic Alyssa had worked. How had she gotten Sofia to sleep? Finally I couldn’t stand it any more. I texted Alyssa: “Do you think you could tell me what technique you used to get Sofie to sleep? I could really use some help figuring out how to get her to sleep without being nursed.”

She called me back. “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you, but I really didn’t do anything special. We just did all the bedtime stuff, read a story together, and then I put her into her crib and closed the door. She cried for about a minute, and then she went to sleep.”

Waaiiiiit a minute. She put her into her crib…and then walked away? Just like that? Impossible. She must have worked some wizardly mind magic on her. Still, the thought seemed full of potential. I might not have Alyssa’s touch (she also got Sofie to take a bottle when I couldn’t), but I do know how to use my legs to walk.

That night I braced myself to unleash hell. “I’m going to try it,” I told Aaron. “I’m just going to walk away.” We read a story in Niko’s bed, I tucked Niko in, and then I carried Sofia to her own room. “It’s time for bed,” I told her. “Niko is in his bed. Mama and Daddy are going to go to our bed. And you’re going to sleep in your bed, too.” I kissed her, wrapped her in her favorite soft blanket, and laid her down. To my amazement, she immediately rolled over onto her belly, stuck her little bottom into the air, and cuddled down into the bed without resistance. Her bright eyes watched me calmly, a peaceful smile on her face. I tucked her warm yellow crocheted blanket from Grandma around her, said good night, and walked out of the room. Then I stood outside her door, holding my breath. There was a soft wail. Another. And then…silence. Silence stretching on for minutes. I finally tiptoed away from the door, reeling with the shock. Realization was slowly dawning: for who knows how long now, Sofia hadn’t wanted to be rocked to sleep. She had been wanting to go to sleep on her own. Her resistance to sleeping at bedtime had been resistance to being rocked. And it took an evening with a babysitter for me to discover this.

Sofia rests peacefully at nap time... all by herself!
Sofia rests peacefully at nap time… all by herself!

Yes, I know kids. But what I’m learning is this: no matter how experienced a parent is, how in tune with a child’s needs, at some point, we all need a fresh perspective. The most dedicated parent sometimes misses something essential. This rather humbling experience was one of the best things that’s happened to our family. Sofia, now eighteen months old, has blossomed into a joyful, loving toddler. Putting her to bed without rocking or nursing paved the way for night weaning. I was finally able to take my mom’s advice and let her cry when she woke up at night — and just as my mother predicted, she cried for less than ten minutes before she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. And weaning turned her into a different child. She now runs to her dad when she sees him, rather than withdrawing. She no longer panics the moment I leave a room. She explores, climbs, experiments with new words, waves to strangers, gives hugs to her dad and big brother. She is…fun. I’m enjoying her like I never truly did before. And it all started with a babysitter who just tried doing something a little differently than I’d been doing it.

I’ve never been so delighted to devour a giant slice of humble pie.  Mmmmmm, delicious.

Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.
Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.

Mama Birds

About a month ago, I was weeding a garden behind our house with the kids when I caught sight of Sofia in the garden (forbidden territory), wielding a little Frog House like a banner. As I hurried toward her to rescue the fragile house and any nearby flowers, I heard an odd rattle. Sofia giggled and shook the Frog House again, and again I heard the rattle, this time noticing some dry grass sticking out of the bottom.

IMG_3239
Abandoned dark-eyed junco nest

Oh, no. Someone had built a nest on the ground inside the Frog House, and now my child was rattling the poor little eggs inside as if it were a maraca.

The mama bird never did come back. I was able to identify the eggs as almost certainly belonging to a dark-eyed junco, and I eventually took it to Niko’s teacher to use in a little nature center.

After the disappointment of not being able to let the kids witness the eggs hatching and seeing baby birds, I was delighted to look up not long after that and see, up in the large vine maple behind our garage, a new nest — complete with a patient robin. I’ve been watching the nest ever since, hoping to get some photos when the mama was away.

Today I thought I had my opportunity. I climbed up a very high ladder to get a picture of what I thought was a momentarily empty nest, only to find mama very much in residence! I didn’t want to scare her, so I just snapped off a couple of photos from a bit more of a distance than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled that we have an active nest.
Here’s Mama Robin, guarding her babies so patiently:

Mama Robin in her nest
Mama Robin in her nest