The long-awaited swing set!

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We have been talking to the kids about the possibility of a treehouse / fort / swing set for what feels like forever. Before we ever found a house, Papa Doc had promised Jonah that he would build him a treehouse in our future yard. Of course we didn’t know whether or not we’d end up with a yard that had a suitable tree for an actual tree house (we didn’t) but Kristin and I always had a good-sized yard for play on our wish list, so I was sure we’d have room for something fun. I’ve been dreaming about having a space for outdoor living for ages, so I’ve been pretty motivated to make it special. (Gardening is another thing altogether;  we’ve pretty much ignored the actual plants so far, but one of these days we’ll learn how to take that on too). My dad built us an incredible play house on stilts when my sister and I were kids, so I knew what he was capable of.

I probably looked at hundreds of different treehouse kits online, trying to figure out which features I wanted ours to have, how large it should be, how sturdy one brand was compared to another. It was honestly really tough to tell one from the next with only photos and a few specs listed. A friend of mine from work had purchased one that he was happy with and recommended a blog post with a feature and buying guide. While I’m sure they aren’t the ultimate authority on swing sets, it was actually really helpful to consider their advice. I knew that I wanted swings, a slide, a large deck or fort (not just enough room to get on a slide, but plenty of room to hang out and play), and preferably a rope ladder or climbing wall, it narrowed my search. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if we wanted something high-quality it was going to cost close to $2000 (and you can easily spend far more than that if you get carried away). We don’t have that kind of a budget since we have three kids in full-time preschool, so we needed an alternative.

Fortunately, we happened to drop by a friend’s house on a neighborhood walk one weekend and the kids ran into the backyard when we stopped in the driveway to chat with the dad. When we went back there to retrieve them we saw their swing set, and it was great! I asked about it and found out that they’d purchased the plans and the hardware, bought the wood separately (from a provided lumber list) and DIY’d it. They even had their plans around the house so they offered to share them with us. After giving it some thought, I decided that I wanted to go with a slightly different version of the same set (the Trailblazer) because it had a 6’x6′ deck and all of the other features I was looking for. I ran the idea past my dad (who would be doing all of the work, so he had to be on board). He gave it a thumbs-up, so we went for it.

I didn’t have much of a sense of how long this would take; I’d read that even the kits can take roughly 20-25 hours for two adults to assemble. My dad brought over sawhorses, a table saw, a drill (although he ended up borrowing an impact driver from a friend, and said it made a huge difference), and probably a few other tools I’m forgetting, and set up shop in our garage. He had a trailer full of lumber delivered by a handyman friend who he trusted to pick out good wood (we used pressure treated pine), and went to work last week Tuesday.

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I’m not at all surprised by his handiness, but I’m honestly amazed by how quickly he put this together given all of the other estimates I’d read for a variety of sets. It took him less than a week of some partial and some full days, he estimates around 20 hours or so. On the first day, he asked me if Jonah might like to help him for a bit (he’d been talking about helping Papa Doc on this project for a long time) so I went to pick him up from preschool an hour early. He immediately ran down to the basement to get his toolbox.

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My dad let him ratchet in a bolt or two, but he lost interest pretty quickly and decided to just watch. The next day, when the kids came home from school the platform was up. Every day they’d run back there first thing to see what new progress had been made, and immediately climb on whatever was there. I should mention that it was probably key to progress that he worked on it almost exclusively while they were away at school. The interference and insistence on toddlers “helping” would have slowed things considerably.

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The swing beam and swings went up next, which was very exciting, along with the tarp for the roof. The angle on the a-frame for the swing beam is really wide, which bothers my dad a little bit visually, but it makes it ridiculously sturdy. Had he cut the beams shorter they could have sat at a narrower angle, but honestly I love how sturdy it is. You can set a glass of wine on the cross beam while the kids are swinging and it doesn’t even wobble (yes, I’ve tested this). My dad pointed out that this thing is WAY overbuilt. Literally anyone could climb all over this thing and it wouldn’t move.

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Next came the slide, which wasn’t included with the hardware kit so we were able to choose it. I wanted one with a weight limit that could handle adults as well because I wanted it to be good and sturdy, and we found this one at our local Home Depot. You need a 10′ slide for a 5′ platform, and fortunately it fit in my parents’ Four Runner. My dad showed up with the slide on a weekend morning, so all of the kids were there to watch him install it.

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I have to say that it does get really hot in the sun, so we may be hosing it down a bit this summer. Fortunately we have a shady yard and the set is almost entirely in the shade for most of the day.

The last item on the list was the cargo net, and that went in yesterday (not quite a week from when he started). When the kids came home from school they all fought to climb on it first.

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Oh, and there’s also a hammock! You can see it behind the fort in the photo above. That was only a partial impulse buy at Target this past weekend. We’d talked about trying to attach a hammock to the set somehow but hadn’t quite figured it out. I looked at kid-sized hammocks on Etsy but they were surprisingly pricey for a tiny hammock, but then I happened upon these $19 nylon hammocks in the seasonal section and grabbed one, figuring we’d see if we could make it work. My dad put a hook into one of the posts and attached the other end to the fence and that was it (along with a couple of carabiners and some cute yellow chain for length). It just happened to be the perfect distance from the fence.

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The kids are so in love with all of this. Every morning when they wake up they ask go outside before anything else, and at the end of the evening it’s tough to pull them away to get them into bed.

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On this week leading up to Father’s Day I couldn’t be more thankful for my dad, our loving, handy Papa Doc who put so much sweat and love into making the yard special for the kids. The final step is to get sand into the sandbox under the fort. It’s arriving on Friday; thirty six 50-pound bags to be exact. I still have some grass to dig out, and we considered making it twice as deep, but once we realized how much sand we would need I decided to leave it as-is and see if it suffices.

Here’s how the total budget shook out:

  • Plans and hardware (including swings, cargo net, and tarp): $399
  • Lumber: $280 (which is WAY cheaper than the plans estimate, but maybe that’s a Michigan thing?)
  • Slide: $189
  • Sandbox sand (18 cubic feet): $175 including delivery
  • Labor: FREE (thanks, Papa!)
  • Total cost: $1043

It really ended up being SO much less expensive than a comparable kit might have been.

Also this past weekend I put up string lights on the patio, running from the garage to the apple tree and back, and I love the way it makes the whole patio feel: festive, like we’re setting up for a party (except that I’m an introvert so I sat out there by myself till 11:00 the other night and loved it). And we have fireflies! I’ve been dying to see if we would get them. We sat out there with Vivienne when she wouldn’t go to sleep a few nights ago and spotted them with her.

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A week or so ago I heard the poem The Gate by Marie Howe, and the last five lines have really stayed with me.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

I have a lot of “This” moments lately, and the majority of them seem to be happening outdoors.

Potlucks here and there

The midwest continues to surprise me. There are so many tiny, quirky things that I don’t even think of until I stumble upon them and am suddenly reminded of how very different Michigan can be from New York. Like tonight. We went to a free “music in the park” event downtown, and we brought a blanket and some snacks, but when Kristin asked if we should bring the stroller I said no, because surely it would be close quarters and would obstruct someone’s view. Then we got there and this was the scene.

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In case you’re unfamiliar with either NY or the midwest, let me tell you that no one would EVER bring chairs to something like this in NY. It would be totally impractical because you’d be hauling them through the subway or walking with them for miles through the city. I mean, there are chairs in that photo that are not folding/camp chairs! People brought like, patio dining set chairs downtown to a park! To be fair, I’m not exactly judging the midwest here. It’s outrageously convenient to be able to throw tons of stuff into your car and take it with you everywhere. In New York I grew accustomed to trying to figure out what I needed for the day that was entirely portable and packing very strategically. Still, coming upon this scene tonight was entertaining.

But the most amusing moment actually happened last Thursday. We had an all-school picnic for the kids’ preschool. It was held at a different public park, and everyone was asked to bring a dish to pass according to the age of your children: a main dish for 4s, fruit or veggies for toddlers, dessert for 5s. Since we had kids of multiple ages we were given the freedom to choose, and I mulled over my options for awhile (on Pinterest, naturally). With so many preschoolers there I wondered if I ought to bring something simple and kid-pleasing, but ultimately I decided that parents would be there too and they might like to have something a little more interesting. I decided on a quinoa salad with chickpeas, tomato, avocado, cilantro, and spinach.

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Photo from the recipe linked above

While I was shopping for the recipe I wondered, “Does this all need to be organic? Will people mind if it isn’t? Do I have to tell them one way or the other?” I also wondered if I ought to bring the ingredients on a note card to set next to the dish. If this seems crazy you need to understand that in New York that’s just how we do. There are a few major potlucks each year in my office, and everyone knows that what with allergies and gluten intolerance and people eating paleo or whatever the thing is at the time, you must be thoughtful and you must bring a complete list of ingredients to post next to your dish.

I had to scramble a bit to finish work and throw the recipe together, get it all packed up to transport along with some organic grapes and some backup quesadillas for the kids in case they weren’t willing to eat potluck food. We got there 30 minutes late and I was feeling badly about it, and worried that everyone would have finished eating already by the time we added our contributions to the table. I walked into the picnic area and suddenly remembered that we are not in NY anymore. Almost everyone brought pizza or store-bought cookies. There may have been one bowl of carefully crafted fruit salad, and one pan of rice crispy treats, and maybe some sad looking spaghetti, but that was it. I way overthought this one; I totally could have phoned it in.

I told the story to a colleague of mine and she said that I could probably write a book on this by now. “All of the urban mamas would buy it,” she said, “Like that book about French babies. Why are moms in the midwest so much less stressed?” Because they don’t bother with Pinterest meals at potlucks, that’s why. That and probably so much more. But they do apparently bring their own patio furniture to concerts, so maybe it’s all a wash.

On baptism, rituals, and coming together

This past Sunday evening we attended the baptism of our six-month-old twin nieces. The parents had the ceremony (is ceremony even the right word? Suddenly I have no idea) at their home, outside on the deck in the early evening summer light. They live in a beautiful wooded place so the backdrop really was quite lovely, and while the hour and the day and the drive made it a bit inconvenient for us, I could see why they may have chosen evening over the alternatives.

It was a couple of hours in the car each way for us, and since the kids are all strapped into their car seats on road trips we have a bit more freedom than usual to listen to music or podcasts or just to talk to one another with limited interruption. Especially on the way home, we spent a lot of time talking about baptism: what it means, why people do it, upon what criteria godparents are chosen, and also about rituals and traditions in general but particularly in relation to raising children.

I don’t come from a terribly religious family. My sister and I weren’t baptized, although we did attend church semi-regularly in spurts growing up (or at least that’s the way I remember it). I actually think well of that church, enough that when K wanted to attend this past Christmas Eve, we went there. Kristin grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran family, so she’s much more familiar with the nature and reasons behind all of the rituals and traditions than I am. We don’t attend church now, and I think that I can speak for both of us when I say that we’re spiritual but not religious. Personally, my sense of spirituality is much more tied to nature and beauty and gratitude than it is to anything related to the Bible or any other text. We didn’t choose to baptize our children (and in fact, I don’t remember it ever coming up in conversation) and I have no doubts whatsoever about that choice, although I respect the choices of those who do.

I like rituals and traditions. I like the weight of them, the significance of marking something meaningful to you and your family. I like the history associated with generations before us having gone through the same motions and recited similar sentiments in a shared belief in something. But I’ve never been able to make much sense of the idea of signing your children up for something that they haven’t chosen and aren’t old enough to consent to. That said, I’m sure you could point out dozens of hypocritical things that I am OK with that are somehow similar (piercing a toddler’s ears, for example). But I suppose what’s confusing to me about baptism is that, in my mind, real faith is about what you deeply believe in, often despite challenges to those beliefs. If you’ve been in the world and really lived, and heard all of the different perspectives and opinions and you still believe, that’s faith to me. But signing a baby up for something, it doesn’t feel like it means very much in the grand scheme of faith.

That said, I do understand what it means to be a parent and to want the very best future for your children, and to have hopes and dreams for them and to try to do what you hope will set them on the path for a happy, fulfilling life. I’m sure that for many people who baptize their babies, that’s what they have in mind. I also know plenty of people who have done it because, “that’s just what you do” and/or because it was important to grandparents, and I can see that too. It would water the whole thing down for me, but OK. It doesn’t do any harm.

On the way to the baptism, we listened to an episode of a parenting podcast about multicultural families and how they pass traditions and elements of identity down to their children. We also listened to an episode of On Being with poet Marie Howe, that addressed “the ways family and religion shape our lives.” Perhaps surprisingly, both of these were chosen somewhat at random. We weren’t looking for things that tied into our plans for the day. But both of these pieces, along with an article I found when Googling Howe as we drove, led our conversation about baptism in interesting directions. That article in particular made Kristin and I miss our NY tribe desperately.

So many rituals for babies have to do with who they are and who their parents hope that they will become. It makes sense; we know so little about them when they’re born, so it’s not as if anyone could stand up and give the sort of storytelling speeches we give at weddings or memorial services. At that stage of life everything is about hope and potential. We’ve been to one Jewish naming ceremony, not a bris, but just a naming ceremony months after the child was born, and it was lovely. I recall K and I talking about how much we enjoyed it, this coming together of people to celebrate the life of a little boy. It wasn’t an especially religious ceremony, but it felt like community and celebration of both his place in the world and the significance of his existence in his parents’ lives. In the podcast, one of the mothers talks about this ceremony and how it’s kind of the only option for Jewish girls, since a bris is only for boys, but that a bris is meaningful because (if done by the book) everyone comes together within seven days of a birth to welcome the baby and celebrate. We didn’t circumcise our boys, so that’s also not a thing that we believe in especially, but the idea of your tribe coming together from all over to celebrate the enormity of having a child, showing up to meet that baby and say “welcome,” it makes me wish that there was a tradition like that for everyone, regardless of faith. Not that you can’t make something up, and a friend of ours has recommended this book (which I borrowed at one time, but haven’t read), but I’m not sure that making up your own ceremony and inviting friends from around the world would work in quite the same way. If there wasn’t a tradition already in place that we show up to these things, no matter what, would people show up?

When Kristin and I reflect on our wedding, we often talk about one of the most powerful elements being this idea that everyone in attendance is there in support of this life-altering choice you’ve made. And one way or another, their presence is their way of saying “I commit to supporting you in this life together.” There’s often some acknowledgement in the ceremony that the couple will need that support, because marriage is hard sometimes. Having a child is such a transformative experience, so fraught with challenge and uncertainty and fear and sometimes loneliness. It seems like a gigantic miss to me that we don’t have a ritual in place, all faith identities aside, that does something similar when a child is born or adopted. When I imagine what it might have been like to have people we love from around the world show up to meet our babies and welcome them and to commit to supporting us through the challenges of raising children, it’s such a wonderful vision. That’s a ritual that I would carry out without question (well, except for the part about essentially planning a wedding immediately after having a baby, on very little sleep, not having showered for days…that doesn’t sound quite as idyllic).

I feel like we need it though; we as a culture, I mean. A ritual that acknowledges the challenge and transformation that parenthood brings, where we all show up for our people and say, “I’m here and I’ll be here when you need me (for you and your child), and you can do this because you have all of us in your corner.” Becoming parents feels every bit as powerful as getting married, doesn’t it?

Did you baptize your children (or will you), or carry out another ritual for them? Why did you choose what you did?

Enjoying everyday good stuff

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The last few days have included a few things I’ve really been looking forward to, but upon reflection I can see that they’re not all that big, but rather the kind of everyday joys we hoped to get a lot more of in this new Michigan life.

Last week both Kristin and I decided to take a day off and accompany Jonah on a field trip. His preschool goes on field trips all the time, but this is only the second time we’ve allowed him to go (parents have to leave car seats, and I hate taking it out and putting it back in again, so he only goes if we can take him ourselves). This time it was for Party In The Park, a library event that features dozens of readers going from blanket to blanket (all packed with kids) and reading to them. Lots of the readers were dressed in costume as the book characters they were reading, and it was SO MUCH FUN. No, he didn’t need both of us to drive him, but we both really wanted to go.

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I mean, it kind of felt like celebrity spotting.

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The field trip only went until about 11:30, so we took advantage of the afternoon and went out to lunch and decided to spend the rest of the day planning a summer mini-vacation to northern Michigan. The day felt surprisingly long and full of quality time. I think that we both needed it, both in terms of the special time with Jonah and the time to make plans we’re excited about without interruption.

This weekend was also on my list of things-to-look-forward-to, because it was the annual art fair and Do-Dah Parade downtown. You have to understand, this was a BIG weekend in my childhood memory. I come from a family of art lovers, and we always spent a lot of time at the art fair, but before that we always grabbed a good spot to watch the parade go by. I remember the Do-Dah Parade being chock-full of silly, wonderful, thematic, or just off-the-wall entries, so I’d talked it up pretty big with the kids. I knew that I ought to temper my expectations after the outrageously disappointing holiday parade this past December, but I couldn’t help it. I was psyched. Unfortunately, it really was kind of mediocre; it seems like some of the enthusiasm for creative entries has died down a bit over the past 30 years and there’s a lot more phoning-it-in going on. Even so, the kids said that they liked it and they were pretty rapt throughout.

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We met up with Gigi and Papa Doc just before it started, and then strolled through the art fair with them, which just feels like such a wonderful thing to be able to do. Not only because they’re a big part of why this weekend feels important to me, but just because it’s so nice to be able to spend time with them so easily and casually. They’ve popped over to our house on a few evenings recently, just for a quick hello and maybe a glass of wine, and that’s been absolutely wonderful. The kids can’t get enough of them.

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More moments of everyday happiness: watching these baby birds grow up and get ready to leave the nest.

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Or how about seeing Jonah share his remote controlled tarantula with Jude and show him how to use it? Both horrible and wonderful at the same time.

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Or how about a hula hoop dance party downtown with the kids the night before the parade? We had them out way past bedtime but I loved everything about it (well, except for the meltdowns once we got home, but you know what I mean).

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And finally, those weekend afternoons when everyone else is napping and I suggest to Jonah that we get out the paints and he’s totally into it. Lately he wants to collaborate on a painting with me (something we started by accident), and I love it. Today he wanted to paint outer space and then we painted a forest (he added a fox and a dragonfly). Sure, there may have also been tanks and zombies in at least one of his paintings, but I love these quiet moments with him. I was putting away groceries and I looked over and really noticed him standing there painting, and I knew that the groceries didn’t matter at all, so I left them on the floor and joined him.

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Dreaming of summer and thinking about school

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I’ve been so excited about summer, which I’m sure is obvious from all of the gushing I do about being in the yard with the kids (I’m pretty sure I started writing about that in February). It got cool again after it was play-in-the-sprinkler hot for about three days in a row, and I was downright grouchy about the change in weather. I’m ready for summer clothes and cold drinks on the patio and hose water everywhere you look. And fireflies, of course. I’m dying to see if we get fireflies in our yard (we moved here in November, so we haven’t seen a summer yet).

The swing set plans and hardware have arrived, the lumber is on its way, and Papa Doc has promised to get started with the lumber prep and to let Jonah help with the building. We’re going with this model, which is going to take up a pretty large section of our backyard, but as Kristin reminded me, “that’s what the yard is for.”

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I read a piece by one of my favorite bloggers the other day on summer hacks for moms and it got me even more excited about coming up with fun things to do, both for the kids and as a family. I really want to set up a “dirt kitchen” in a back corner of the yard where there’s too much shade for any grass to grow. I’d also forgotten how much the kids love to paint outdoors with water, so I need to pick up a few paintbrushes on my next trip to the hardware store. I’ve already whipped up a batch of homemade bug spray, we have plenty of sunscreen, now we just need to figure out some sort of storage for the toys that are always strewn across the patio, but I’ll get there. It’s only May.

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The kids will end their “school year” the same day that Kristin does (by design), which is in three weeks. I am a little bit worried that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, since I don’t actually get a summer off with the kids. Kristin does, and I know that there are more relaxing ways to spend a summer, but I’m still a little bit jealous. We aren’t planning on taking any major vacations this summer because of finances, so I might plan a staycation or two, and we may take some long weekends to do things we’ve been dreaming about that are within driving distance (the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Dark Sky Park, and maybe Chicago by train).

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We’ve been doing a lot of bike riding as a family lately, and this is the twins’ first time doing so since the bikes were in storage all last summer, and the previous year they were too young to ride along. We were fortunate to get a hand-me-down trailer from a neighbor we didn’t even know (thanks, Facebook!) and Jonah still (barely) fits in his seat, so we’ve been able to do some longish rides, both around our neighborhood and beyond. I’ve been loving this, and most nights after the kids get home from school, if the weather is decent, I end up proposing that we go for a quick ride after dinner.

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Even though I’m pretty fixated on summer, I’ve also been thinking a lot about school lately. I may have mentioned before that we love our preschool. We considered sending Jonah to kindergarten this coming fall (he’s too young to make the cut off, but he falls into an in-between group that is allowed to apply for a waiver and attend early). The financial savings of moving him to public school would be huge, but we feel like he needs another year of preschool for a variety of reasons. He’ll be much better off in the long run. As a result, we’re facing an additional year of three-kids-in-private-preschool, which makes up an astronomical portion of our budget. When we crunched the numbers, we gave serious thought to moving them to a less expensive school. I toured a couple, Kristin visited my favorite of the two and agreed that it seemed awfully nice, but in the end we decided not to move them. Why?

Well, in large part because the kids love it, and we love it, and they’re comfortable and happy there and we moved them across the country last summer. It just didn’t seem fair to move them again, especially Jonah who will then change schools yet again the following year when he does go to Kindergarten. But it also came down to what we believe education should be. Kristin and I don’t agree on everything (I read this one evening and was practically cheering, while the teacher in Kristin just couldn’t get on board), but we do value a lot of the same fundamentals when it comes to childhood and early learning.

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The preschool that our kids attend operates in a Montessori style. There are multiple rooms that are set up to support specific types of activities, and for nearly all of the day the children are free to select rooms and activities as they please. They go outside twice a day unless the weather is foul, and they have the most incredible outdoor play space I’ve ever seen at a school of any kind. It’s the kind of school that warns parents at the start of the year that when it gets warm, they will fill up a trench with the hose and let the kids sit in the mud if they please, so don’t send your children in clothes that you care about. We also love that a large number of the teachers there have been in early childhood education, many of them at this same school, for 30 or 40 years. There’s a wisdom there that you don’t find at every preschool, and we’ve gained a lot from it.

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The school that we considered moving them to felt more like a charter school (in my limited experience, but also in Kristin’s). Spotless, well-organized classrooms assigned by age, lots of information for parents on “assessment” methods. Jonah has already said that he’s excited about Jude and Vivienne being “upstairs” with him next year (the toddlers are in the basement) and as far as we could gather from the other school, they wouldn’t have crossed paths much. We want them to have that year together. I think that it’s good for their relationship.

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Exploring with total freedom, learning through play, getting dirty, being out in nature, this is the kind of education that we believe in. Kristin made a good point that this may be the last year that we end up educating them in a way that we truly believe in, and that made me very sad, but also gave me the courage to send them back there this fall despite our financial concerns. I read an article just a day or two ago about Germany’s outdoor preschools and thought to myself, yes, that is what I want for our children, but I want a variation of it for more than just preschool.

I recently stumbled upon an Instagram feed called Wild & Free that focuses on home schooling (or maybe unschooling is more like it). While we’re not really in a position to home school, not to mention the fact that we moved here largely for the free college that’s associated with attending the public schools all the way through graduation, I sometimes dream of living in the Montana wilderness and raising and educating our kids away from everything, outdoors more than in, away from the plague of standardized testing and schools that suck all of the joy out of learning. When I see our kids stopping to follow a caterpillar on its journey, and can see Jude’s smile from behind because of his adorable cheeks, I know that it’s that kind of natural curiosity that leads to real growth.

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And the amount of passionate observation and curiosity that has come from a mother robin building a nest on the trellis outside Vivi’s window, the way we all talk about and check on those robins at least 50 times a day,  the way the kids all come running when one of us sees a hungry baby’s head pop up, and all of the things Kristin and I have looked up about robins either to tell the kids or just because we’re curious, it’s all just so authentic and wonderful.

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We didn’t move to a ranch out west and we don’t even own camping equipment, so I can’t pretend to be rejecting modern conveniences or a suburban life. When it comes to our kids and their education, however, I kind of want more, and I wonder what we can do to make up that difference when they most likely end up in public school as planned. We love our home and we don’t really want to move to the wilderness, but many things lately are conspiring to make me think outside of the box and wonder how we can merge the two worlds to bring our children more of this magic, even when they’re trapped in a classroom that may not be very magical.

Until then, there’s summer, and I’m going to squeeze in as much magic and wonder as I possibly can. I’m off to make a summer bucket list.

Things I’m not taking for granted this Mother’s Day

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As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, Jonah leaned over and said, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and gave me a hug. It was so unexpected and wonderful because no one reminded him to say it. He was the first one up and was just waiting for me to wake up. So often lately he’ll pause whatever he’s doing and say, “Mama D,” and when I look at him he’ll hold up the ASL sign for “I love you,” before going back to whatever he was up to.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about things that I don’t want to take for granted. The sentiment feels slightly different (to me) than saying “things that I’m grateful for,” because more than just blessings, these are things that could easily be overlooked. Jonah is such a noticer; we often marvel at his ability to overlook no detail, to forget virtually nothing. His appreciation of beauty is finely tuned. And watching him notice has made me long for those childlike senses that haven’t yet learned to tune so much out. 

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We spent the entire day at home today (well, Kristin ran to the hardware store to pick up our mower this morning, and then went to get hamburger buns, but the rest of us never left). We’d wanted to go for a family bike ride but our bikes are in the shop for a tune up and weren’t ready in time. We talked about going someplace to do something fun, but after spending the morning in the backyard, the kids had absolutely no interest in leaving. We spent the whole day in the yard and it was perfect. So in honor of Mother’s Day, a brief list of things that I’m not taking for granted today:

Having a house and yard that the kids love so much that they don’t want to go anywhere else. Where Jonah often says, out of the blue, “I love this place. Let’s live in this house for 120 years.”

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Having the perfect apple tree that shades the patio enough that we can spend the entire day out there without worrying about getting too much sun.

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Our kids being young enough in this stage of our lives that they are enrolled in zero clubs/sports/extra curricular activities (and don’t miss them at all) so that we are able to wake up every weekend and have an entirely blank canvas open to our design. We don’t yet need to divide and conquer events and practices, we can spend every moment as a family, and can start the weekend by asking the kids, “what should we do today?”

Being able to sit on the patio and flip through a magazine today, and looking over at this view (I put down the magazine and took the picture and then went back to the magazine without ever leaving my chair) knowing that this life is everything I’ve ever wanted.

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Having a partner who is an amazing mother, who keeps everything together when work takes me away from home, who is willing to do the hard work of trying to be the best parents we can be, who remembers to say “thank you” all the time, who makes up songs and dances better than I ever could, who has the patience of a saint when Vivienne wants to sing and chatter on for 30 minutes past bedtime and Kristin is captive in her bed, and who has Jonah convinced that she truly loves to sit down and play legos with him and appreciates being asked to wipe his bottom, “because you love to help me.”

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Having parents who showed me what it looks like to work hard, take care of a family and household, and do what needs to be done without complaint, but also the importance of joy and family time above a spotless home. Having my parents alive and well and nearby, not only willing but enthusiastic about helping us to make our house a home. They get back to town in a couple of days and we can’t wait to spend time in the yard with them, making it even better. More than that though, I can’t wait to be able to include them in our lives in an everyday, no-big-deal sort of way (but without taking it for granted).

Never having spent a Mother’s Day longing or grieving. I just realized today that we didn’t start trying to get pregnant until late May or early June of 2011, so although our journey to start a family felt long and challenging and included many months of disappointment (10, to be exact), by the next Mother’s Day I was pregnant and we celebrated with brunch and a trip to the baby store to wander through all of the gear that we’d eventually need.

I know that this day is a sad one for so many, either because they’ve lost their own mother, have a challenging relationship with their mother, have lost a child or a pregnancy, desperately want a child but have been unable to have one, have a challenging relationship with their child, or in so many other ways have complicated feelings about motherhood.

I do not take our life for granted for a second. So many people and steps and opportunities made our family possible, from our donor, to employers who gave us the time and space to drive to Connecticut for multiple medical appointments each month, to good health insurance that made those dozens and dozens of visits and procedures possible without us going bankrupt, to our amazing doctors and nurses, to my family who hoped and prayed with us for our dreams to come true (even buying a baby cradle before I was pregnant, because, my dad said, “to become, act as if”) and who showed up to help when those dreamed-of babies arrived, to the midwives who helped bring our babies into the world, and to every member of our “village” both here and in New York who have helped us make it to where we are today. Without an incredible amount of privilege combined with random luck, these three wonderful people wouldn’t be ours. I’m so very glad that we are theirs.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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A patio furniture makeover (or “why buy it when you could spend three weeks ruining your garage floor”)

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When it comes to home projects I wouldn’t say that I’m especially handy. When the people on home shows are searching for a fixer that they can “put their stamp on” I’m genuinely perplexed. Sure, I have a small and modestly equipped toolbox and a cordless drill, and according to Jonah that makes me a construction worker, but I cannot imagine why anyone would want to spend every weekend engaged in manual labor if they didn’t have to.

Now that I’m a homeowner, however, I’m beginning to see the appeal of learning how to care for and maybe even improve our space a little bit. And if I can do it myself while saving some money, that’s even better, right?

We were fortunate to get a number of money-saving hand-me-downs from my parents when we moved into the house, and one of those was a patio set that my parents have had since I was around Jonah’s age. I have lots of memories of it in the backyard where I grew up, and I love that it has so much history. It’s a nice sturdy wrought iron set, but two of the chairs were broken, and the whole set had some rust and a lot of wear.

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When my parents gave it to us, my dad suggested that we could paint it if we wanted to, and both K and I thought that sounded like a fun way to brighten up the backyard. I’ve never spray painted anything in my life, so I had few appropriate expectations going into this project. I did a little bit of Pinterest exploration to gather tips, chose a color that we were excited about (Rustoleum Lagoon), and went shopping for supplies.

I was thinking of painting it on the patio, and I’m so glad that I called my dad beforehand to say, “How on earth do I do this? Isn’t it all going to end up covered in leaves and flower petals?” He told me that the garage was a far better choice (no kidding) so I spread out a number of plastic tarps across the center of the garage, moved the furniture inside, and got to work. After washing it and letting it dry, I started with a coat of Rusty Metal Primer, which turned it all a solid rust color.

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This phase of the project gave me a pretty solid understanding of how unpleasant this whole experience was going to be. I learned a number of valuable lessons, which I will now pass along to you, dear reader.

  1. Have appropriate protective clothing, gloves, and footwear. I failed to buy/have appropriate painting clothes (I tossed a lot of old stuff in the move) so I started in an old t-shirt and leggings, with plastic grocery bags tied over my shoes. It didn’t take long to realize that when you step in paint on a thin plastic tarp while wearing grocery bags as shoes, your feet will stick to the tarp and tear it to shreds. Also, if you have a lot of exposed skin, you’ll end up scrubbing paint off of your face, arms, and ankles with industrial hand cleaner like I did. It was only after the first day that it occurred to me that I should probably also have a mask on, since the fumes are absolutely awful, and that eye protection wasn’t a bad idea. Those also prevented a lot of the face paint issues.
  2. Buy way more paint than you think you’ll need. The first challenge was that no one seemed to carry the color that we wanted in gloss, which is what we were interested in. We initially bought the six cans that our local Walmart had in stock, thinking that surely it would be sufficient (which is so completely laughable at this point, since this project required so much paint), and ultimately ended up also buying the last four on Amazon as well as an additional four at a Walmart two hours away. I also used a clear gloss coat because the paint guy recommended it and…I mean, it can’t hurt, right? I had no idea what I was doing, but I can tell you first-hand that running out of paint when you’re all suited up and just want to finish this beast is not a lot of fun.
  3. Tarp everything. I’m so glad that we didn’t do this on the patio because our house would probably be teal right now. While I put tarps down on a pretty wide area, a huge portion of the garage floor (a perimeter of at least a couple of feet on all sides) is teal now, as is a portion of our driveway, the threshold of the door to the mudroom, and a plastic car of Jonah’s is covered in a fine layer of rusty metal primer. I had no idea how far spray paint spray would fly, and I’m sure that being outdoors only exacerbated the problem. Fortunately K has been very understanding about this.
  4. Budget lots of time. I waffled about including this one, because if you’re a skilled spray painter and you’re highly efficient, you can probably do this far more quickly than I did. Here’s the thing though: spray paint is weird. You either have to finish the job within an hour (or so) or you have to wait something like 48 hours to put on your next coat. Because we kept running out of paint I wasn’t able to finish very much of it in one block of time, so I’d get a layer on and then know that I had to wait at least two days before I could come back to it. The whole thing took me two or three weeks of very spread out painting sessions.

When I was in New York, a friend asked me what project I was working on that I was really excited about. I asked her if it was possible to be excited about a project but also hate everything about the process. After finishing the table and knowing that I had four chairs ahead of me, I declared that we should have just bought new, colorful patio furniture. I’m not sure that we saved all that much money ($60 in welding to repair the broken chairs, roughly 25-30 cans of paint, plastic tarps, rubber gloves, disposable masks, safety goggles), and the process wasn’t the slightest bit enjoyable, but I do really like the end result. It makes the patio a lot more fun, and the kids seem to love it. They wanted to eat dinner at the table the first night that it was back out on the patio (even though it was something like 55 degrees out).

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While the furniture was in progress in the garage, they would come home from school and tell me how pretty the chairs looked, which was surprisingly gratifying.

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I’ve been looking forward to making our yard more playful, and I feel like this is a big step in that direction. My parents return from Charleston in a week’s time and the next big project on the agenda is a swing set (despite Jonah’s faith in my construction worker abilities, that’s way out of my league – we need to call in Papa Doc for that one). I’ve been debating between a kit and a total DIY approach and you would think that this experience would have made that choice clear, but since I expect a swing set to be a ton of work no matter how we slice it I’m still undecided. More to come on that one when it happens.

Mama K’s sneaky Mother’s Day surprise project

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I just got back from another work trip to NYC this afternoon. Since it was the second trip, we all went into it with a tad more confidence that we could get through it, but that didn’t make leaving easy. I was eager to get back to my family, and I knew coming home that today was going to be a little bit hectic because I’d be taking Jonah to a bouncy-house birthday party almost as soon as we left the airport. He fell asleep in the car on the way to pick me up, and I let him stay there and sleep while I ran into the house to quickly put on a clean shirt and throw my hair into a ponytail. At some point I stepped towards the great room and Kristin told me that I wasn’t allowed to go near the backyard because there was a surprise, but Jonah wanted to show me.

I took him to the birthday party and when we got back I mentioned that there was some sort of surprise. He remembered, and took me to the windows to show me two pretty blue planters (a hand-me-down we’d claimed from my parents old house when they sold it) full of flowers. Kristin knows how excited I’ve been to get our backyard and patio ready for a season of outdoor living, one of the most significant reasons that we moved back to Michigan in the first place, so she took it upon herself to do a planting project with the kids this morning as an early Mother’s Day gift for me. I got teary when she told me that they all participated and that she even made sure to take photos of the process because she knew how meaningful that would be for me. She was right. There’s nothing better.

I can’t narrate this project for you because I wasn’t here, but I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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See that table? It’s going to get its own post sometime soon. It’s my contribution to the patio-beautification effort and while I’m hating nearly every second of the actual process, I’m hopeful about the results. More to come when I finally finish.

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Naturally there were construction vehicles involved in the transferring of soil.

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There aren’t as many photos of Jude because, as K tells it, this project went the way most projects go: everyone started strong, and Vivienne was by far the most dedicated (although I feel like the photos show a pretty strong effort from Jonah as well). Jude was on his scooter for much of the planting, it seems.

Kristin even told me that now she feels energized to do lots more of this and really dig into gardening (see what I did there?). I hated yard work as a kid but I too have been feeling somewhat inspired and interested in figuring out what’s out in our yard and trying to make it beautiful. We’re total amateurs and right now the garden portion of the yard is about 80% weeds (we think – we honestly have no idea) but this Mother’s Day project is so inspiring and full of love, I can’t wait to do more with the kids. K knows me so well, and the photos put the love right over the top.

Parenting and gender norms

My friend Jodi over at Dear Sabrina wrote a good piece about raising gender neutral kids in Sweden that got me thinking. It’s actually something that I think about quite a bit, but I found it to be particularly fascinating to read about the norms for kids in Sweden and to think about how her experiences compare and contrast with ours.

When I was pregnant with Jonah I desperately wanted a daughter. Honestly, I can’t even tell you now why that was. I truly don’t remember what felt so important to me about raising a girl. We found out the baby’s sex at the 20 week ultrasound because I felt like I needed to know so that I could prepare appropriately if I were having a boy. My sister had wanted a boy and found out at 20 weeks that she was having a girl, and struggled a bit with the news (it didn’t take her long at all to come around, however, and her daughter is very very loved). I was due only a few months behind her, and I was afraid of what might happen if we waited to find out in the delivery room and I gave birth to a boy. What if I was disappointed when I met him? That would be awful, and I had no experience to tell me how very unlikely that was, so I decided that I needed to know early so that I’d have 20 weeks to turn my attitude around.

Once I met Jonah it didn’t take me long to learn that it wouldn’t have mattered who I’d given birth to – I couldn’t imagine my life with any other child but him. He was exactly the child for us. But I’m not sure anyone could have told me that and had me believe it without me seeing it for myself.

When Jonah was a baby, I was pretty adamant about not covering him or his room in stereotypically “boy” themes. I picked out bedding for him that had a pattern of teal and blue floral elephants, we refused to buy him clothing or even PJs with things like trucks or sports equipment or even dinosaurs on them. When he was not yet two, a friend from the UK brought him a cute little book called Digger and Skip, about construction vehicle friends working together to solve a problem. From that moment on, he was completely hooked. He couldn’t get enough of construction vehicles, and before long that led to John Deere vehicles and farm equipment. It was kind of amazing to me because he’d seen books on lots of different things before, but this was the first passion that was truly his. We didn’t hesitate to follow his lead, so from then on we were happy to buy him construction-themed clothing and toys, make his Halloween costumes in alignment with his interests, and so on.

For his first birthday, some good friends gave him a baby doll and he just never took to it. He never showed much interest at all in traditional “girl” toys, despite my desire to raise him a bit more gender neutral than most boys. On the rare occasion that he did express an interest in something more gender neutral, I sometimes found myself hesitating more than I’d expected to. When he was two, we were picking out a backpack for him for an upcoming trip, something for him to carry a few small toys in, and I showed him a number of different colors online and he chose pink. I was truly surprised, and wondered if he’d be happy with that choice. Doubting it, I ordered three different colors and figured he could choose in person and we’d send the other two back. He saw them and stuck with his original choice. I was actually kind of proud of him, but also a little bit concerned. For that same trip he’d also chosen shoes that were purple with a pale orange (nearly pink) stripe around the bottom. I remember worrying that if people saw him they might think, “oh, of course the lesbian moms bought their son a pink backpack and purple shoes.”

When Jonah was two, he also started asking us to paint his toenails. I remember tossing the question out to my mom group because I had to ask myself: if he were a girl, would I let him have painted toes at age two? Or would I feel like that was somehow sexualizing a two-year-old girl, having her grow up too quickly? I didn’t want to have a double standard at play, so I had to ask myself how I would feel if the tables were turned. After some deliberation we decided that it was fine, and he’s had his toes painted many times since, including a couple of weeks ago. It’s something that I honestly really love about him and I’ll be sad if/when he stops asking. I remember, however, sending him to day care one of the very first times we’d done it. He came home and told us that he’d asked Gladys if she liked his toes and she told him that no, she didn’t. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I picked up the phone and called her immediately and explained that it wasn’t her place to judge him for something so benign. She could talk to us if she had a problem with our choices. She was very apologetic, and it never happened again.

Recently when we were shopping for clothes for a trip, I was asking him his preferences and he told me that he wanted rainbow striped leggings like one of his classmates had. I honestly did look for them online in a few places, and had I found any that were a truly primary colored rainbow I probably would have bought them, but I kept finding pastels and neons and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know whether I was worried for him or worried for us, but I can’t say that I feel good about it (now I feel like I should make more of an effort and find him some). We were also buying shoes again recently and for a moment he expressed an interest in some pinks and purples and I was kind of excited to see him thinking outside of the boy box, but in the end when he had to choose just one, he went with red. On the same shopping trip he did pick out pink shorts, however, and I was tickled. They’re now my favorite thing in his wardrobe.

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When the twins were born I cared far less about the sex of the babies than I had the first time around. We both thought that it might be nice to have a boy and a girl because we’d get a daughter while Jonah would also get a brother and not be too outnumbered by girls in his family, but we both felt pretty good about any combination. We got our boy and girl, and watching them all grow as people has been even more fascinating as I think about gender.

It didn’t take Vivienne long at all to adopt that baby doll of Jonah’s. She absolutely adores baby dolls, and plays pretend with them all the time. When we were in Charleston she even told me at one point that she was nursing the baby in the hammock.

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Well before she turned two, she started carrying around this little toy barn with a soft handle. She’d hook the handle over her elbow and carry it around like a handbag. Both K and I were flabbergasted – neither of us carries a purse on our elbow, and her day care provider certainly didn’t do so. Where was she getting this? Also before she turned two, she started asking to have her ears pierced (without knowing the words). I’d pick her up and she’d reach out and touch my earrings, then touch her own ears and say, “I want some.” She’s also had very strong preferences about her clothes in the last six months or so (again, before age two). On a couple of occasions I laid out a pair of jeans that Jude had outgrown, and she flat out told me that she didn’t like them, and went into her drawers and replaced them with leggings. You might assume that it’s because leggings are more comfortable and flexible, but she’s happy to wear two other pairs of jeans that have a floral pattern. She’s also given me grief about khaki joggers, and will always choose pink and purple polka dot leggings over a neutral.

Most of Vivienne’s clothes are hand-me-downs (from girls), so we honestly haven’t done that much thoughtful selection of her wardrobe. I really don’t mind putting her in tutus because she adores them (and she loves pink), and it’s fun to see our children excited about something they love, even if it does align with gender norms. Still, I’ve been surprised by how powerful some of her “girly” tendencies are. That said, she’s totally fearless, clearly adores and looks up to Jonah, and is just as happy to play trucks with her brothers.

When Jude took to baby dolls before he turned two I was totally charmed. Since Jonah hadn’t been into it I think I’d started to assume that maybe Jude wouldn’t be either, but he started bringing an old Cabbage Patch doll with us on stroller walks whenever Vivi would bring her doll. By Christmas we knew that he needed his own baby, and watching him love it is the sweetest thing.

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Jude doesn’t seem to be at a point yet where he shows much interest in what he’s wearing, so we’ve always put him in pretty standard boy clothes without much thought. Our neighbor actually remarked recently how amusing it was to watch them play in the yard: Vivienne was sitting in the driveway drawing with chalk, and Jude and Jonah were hitting a tree trunk with sticks over and over again.

I’ve also been amazed (and frustrated) by the emergence of Jonah’s fascination with guns and shooting. Is this a boy thing? Another boy mom warned us that it would happen. No matter how pacifist and anti-gun you are, she told us, they will at some point turn anything into a pretend gun. With Jonah it didn’t happen until preschool this year (the first year he’s been in school with boys his age), and he talks all.the.time about his friends who have Nerf guns. We’ve told him time and again that we don’t like guns (and why), that we don’t buy toy guns at our house but that his friends who have them aren’t bad people and neither are their parents, they just believe something different than we believe. When he plays with those friends he cannot wait to play with the Nerf guns. He’s also really into robots lately and walks around pretending to shoot a laser at things all day long. In Charleston he borrowed a squirt gun from his cousin for the week and just adored it. When he had to give it back he tried to reason with me so that he could get one. “It only squirts water,” he said, “so it can’t hurt people or animals so it’s not the same as other kinds of guns.” I finally caved at Easter and put a squirt gun in his basket, but I still cringe when he plays with it in the bath.

Parenting has surprised me in many ways, but watching our children’s personalities and passions emerge and wondering what’s nature and what’s nurture has caught me off guard on more than one occasion. I’m a feminist who majored in women’s studies and thought that I could resist caving to gender norms or buying into the idea that nature weighs heavily on their personalities and preferences, but here I find myself waffling over the tiniest things. I do think that part of it has to do with American culture. A huge part of me takes great pride in watching the kids be completely, unselfconsciously themselves, and another part of me worries about how they’ll (or we’ll) be judged. We’ve told Jonah many times that there’s no such thing as boy clothes and girl clothes, or boy toys and girl toys. He’s even called us on it when we’ve slipped up. One day Kristin mentioned to me that she’d seen some cute clothes at Target in the Cat & Jack line. She said something along the lines of “I only had time to look at the boys’ clothes, but they were cute.” Jonah piped up from the next room “There’s no such thing as boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes.”

Unlike my friend’s experiences in Sweden, I feel like the norms for boys here at school (more so than for girls) are somewhat rigid. I’m actually thrilled when I walk into the brown room at school (the room with dress up clothes) and see a little boy in Jonah’s class wearing a skirt. There have been mornings when Vivienne wants to wear a bow in her hair, and Jude has to have one too, so Jonah asks to join in. We pick out bows for everyone, but when we get to school, Jonah always decides to remove his and asks me to take it home. Every time it’s happened I wonder if he’s starting to learn what’s acceptable for boys and girls, and it makes me a little bit sad. Am I contributing to that?

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Despite my desire to be progressive, I think that maybe I’m a little too happy to be able to tell people that Jonah loves construction vehicles, and to dress Vivienne in dresses and tights that I think are adorable, and to have Jude planted firmly in the middle: our cuddle bug boy who takes his baby for walks and also gets excited about watching basketball. As a non-traditional family, it’s easy to feel like we’re already under a microscope and there’s pressure to show the world how typical and well-adjusted our children are. Still, it’s not fair to project our fears onto them. Gender expectations are powerful and we’re living in a world that reinforces norms constantly. It requires much more intentionality and confidence to go against the grain than I’d assumed.

Easter Fun

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For the last couple of years we’ve spent Easter morning with friends, complete with an egg hunt for our kids and a handful of others in a park near their home. I knew that we would miss that this year, and honestly we didn’t have much in the way of plans until some things fell into place at the last minute. It turned out to be a surprisingly lovely holiday weekend, both because the rain we’d expected turned into beautiful weather both days, and because we squeezed in plenty of Easter activities with people we love.

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On Saturday morning we dyed eggs with the kids, the kind of craft project I always visualize idyllically, but which always ends up somewhat marred by my anxiety and control-freak tendencies. It’s not that I really care what their eggs end up looking like (OK, I sort of do, but only in that I want them to stay in the dye long enough to have visible color and to end up with a variety by the end). This is actually the first year Jude and Vivi have dyed eggs. I’d forgotten that last year we did it while they were asleep (good move). They totally enjoyed it, but Jude really wanted to dunk his eggs aggressively, splashing dye everywhere, and Vivi wanted to dunk her hands in the dye because she’s really into hand-print art lately. We did end up spilling an entire cup of yellow dye on the wood floor (no stain, fortunately), and Jude did manage to stain a chair seat (our mistake for not putting him on a metal stool), and I was way less relaxed than I’d hoped to be, but I do think that they all had fun.

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One of K’s colleagues also gave the kids a set of foam eggs with stickers to decorate, so we also did a little bit of that before nap time.

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Some good friends invited us over for dinner and an egg hunt that evening, which was perfect because the weather was gorgeous and they have the most incredible yard for an egg hunt. The kids had a blast.

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We left much later than we’d planned, well after the sun had set, but the kids were still going strong out in the yard. Vivi and her friend Kate were busy building a tiny house out of sticks and mud, and she was not happy to leave her project to head home. I told Kristin that it’s exactly the sort of childhood I want them to have: out playing in nature for as long as we’ll let them. I’m so glad they have that now.

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On Easter Sunday we started the day with Easter baskets filled with tiny toys they seemed thrilled with, and drove out to Canton to have lunch with K’s family. I’d been dreading more time in the car, not yet having fully recovered from the drive back from Charleston last weekend, but I’m glad that we went. It was important to K and the kids had fun with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

We have way more candy in the house than we ought to, and it took the kids hours to fall asleep tonight surely due in part to all of the jellybeans and marshmallows their grandmother fed to them this afternoon (well, that and the car nap on the way home). But I’m trying to let that all go and be thankful for their delight.