The thrill of a new sled

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A couple of weekends ago, after a big snowstorm, we took the kids to the golf course to go sledding. There were lots of families there and Jonah immediately zeroed in on a snowmobile-style sled with a steering wheel. He went over to the family and asked where they’d gotten it, and the grandpa told him that he’d had it in the attic. “That’s funny,” I said, “we had the same one when I was a kid!” They let Jonah take a ride on it and he was hooked. I called my dad to tell him the story after we got home and he recalled having found it (with a broken seat) and only having thrown it away within the last year or two. He decided that Jonah should have one, and he ordered a similar model on Amazon and had it sent to us for Valentine’s Day.

It arrived last Thursday but it was still in the box, and for the last few days Jonah has been begging me to put it together. I’d worried that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to use it because it was 40 degrees a couple of days last week and a lot of our snow has been melting, but we had a pretty good base from that snowstorm a couple of weeks ago and on Saturday night we got a new dusting. I checked the weather and learned that it wasn’t going to warm up until around noon on Sunday, so we decided to try to get out early to squeeze in some sledding before everything melts in the 50-degree temps this week.

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We were the first ones to the golf course, which was kind of an amazing feeling. The sun was shining, and while the snow wasn’t as perfect as it had been a couple of weeks ago it was still more than sufficient. And the sled? It did not disappoint.

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I think that Jonah would have stayed out there all day long. We were out for a couple of hours and more families began to show up. Kristin pointed out that one of the best parts of going sledding is seeing so many adults having just as much fun as the kids. At one point we saw two pairs of adults, probably in their 50s or 60s, going down the hill and laughing and I’m not sure that they had any kids with them at all.

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Getting out early to make this happen for the kids (and let’s be honest, for us) absolutely made my Sunday. Quality time? Check. The rest of the day was just icing.

The meaning of quality time

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If things people write on the internet are a good barometer for the collective consciousness, absolutely no one was disappointed to see January come to an end. While the latter portion of winter is always rough for me, I don’t remember past Januarys feeling quite this gloomy. For much of the month I found it challenging to create magic or even come up with ways to spend time together that don’t involve folding laundry or yelling at the kids to stop vaulting onto the couch.

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I always feel a strong pull to make the most of the most of our weekends because I feel like we get so little family time. Every weekday morning and evening is a scramble (although that doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful for the additional time I have without a 1.25 hour commute from NYC) so those precious weekend hours feel far too few and carry tremendous emotional weight for me. I’m constantly thinking about how quickly they’re growing up and how important this time is. The twins will be three in a few short weeks, and the other day Jude refused to hold my hand as we walked out of the fabric store because we weren’t technically in the parking lot yet, and he’s a “big boy” now (because he’s very recently potty trained – the last baby to do so).

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The constant cold temperatures make spending time outside less appealing even though every part of me is craving nature. And the short winter daylight (even though Jonah reminded me today, as I wiped tears of frustration, that the days are getting longer) feel like family time hours are being stolen from me and I want to demand them back. Some of my frustration is about light for photography. Our house isn’t great for indoor photos; the windows face the wrong way (save for the full bath which gets nice afternoon light, but that’s not useful) we’re pretty heavily shaded, and I have a tendency to connect moments that photograph well with time well spent (which I know is silly).

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As I cried again this weekend, angry at myself for not taking the right steps to cue up magical quality family time, Kristin asked what makes time “quality” for me. The question stopped me because I’m not sure that I know exactly. On the spot, I told her that I think it usually involves us all being engaged in the same activity with enough time and space and focus to really be present in whatever we’re doing. I prefer activities in which the kids don’t all scatter in different directions (which often happens in museums and indoor play places) but somehow it bothers me less when we’re outdoors. If we’re all enjoying nature together I’m fine with a little bit of curious wandering.

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Filling her pockets with treasures. This might have been the trip that resulted in this haul.

I’m pretty self-aware and I tend to be good at anticipating how a particular decision will make me feel, and I’m also a bit of a control freak when it comes to those feelings. One of the challenges is that while I’m all about going on adventures, and setting up craft or baking projects, Kristin would love nothing more than to stay in her PJs all weekend; that’s what makes her feel best. And if I’m being honest, I value slow mornings on the weekends (because my weekday mornings are such a mess of hurry and yelling and tension), so I make pancakes and we don’t shower till 10 or 11 and the kids play in whatever way they see fit, but when the days are so short if we don’t manage to get out of the house until 1:00 p.m. we’ve lost a significant chunk of the day. To Kristin’s credit, she understands (at least in some sense) what feels magical to me, and she’s always game for an excursion when I need one.

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January weekends have also been complicated by the first real extracurricular we’ve had. Jonah started gymnastics on Saturdays, and to our surprise he’s absolutely loving it. We were concerned because a week before it began the kids attended a birthday party at a different gymnastics gym. Despite knowing all of the kids at the party, Jonah cried and clung to me and didn’t want to join the group for any of the activities. It didn’t bode well for how he might handle a class with total strangers. But amazingly he has loved it from moment one; he tries each and every activity with gusto and always emerges from class completely thrilled with his experience. We’re so proud of him and it’s fun to watch, but it also means that we end up splitting up right in the middle of the day. Since we don’t get home until just before 1:00 and then the kids need lunch, we don’t often feel like we have sufficient time to plan something big for the afternoon.

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I’ve been trying to temper my expectations without letting myself off the hook because I do believe that I’m in charge of how I choose to spend time. But I also know that when I try too hard to control how quality our time is I almost always end up feeling stressed and defeated. I think of this article all the time (not the first time I’ve linked to it), and just the other day I read an Instagram post that was also a good reminder that especially when our children are this young, we have to have reasonable expectations.

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When I was about to fall apart today after Jonah’s sleepover friend went home (his first sleepover! It wasn’t a raging success, but I think they had some fun and at least we tried) and I had no good plans for the afternoon, Kristin reminded me that hey, isn’t Valentine’s day in ten days and don’t the kids need to make valentines for school anyway? Why don’t you run to the store and pick up craft stuff to do art with the kids. It was brilliant and so full of love. So we did, and they made a few, I fretted over the glitter markers that Jonah begged for that I didn’t realize were permanent until they were open, they used too many stickers on too few paper hearts, Vivi unrolled almost the whole roll of washi tape, and they lost interest before we had nearly enough for their friends, but hey there’s always next weekend.

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I’m going to keep trying to identify the themes and currents that run through all of the moments that feel like quality time to me because it feels important to know what on earth I’m even striving for. If it’s possible to be even more intentional while lowering my expectations a bit (or maybe just shifting my idea of what’s meaningful), that’s where I’d like to land. I know that sometimes it’s just about being present and mindful in a passing moment. Maybe a whole afternoon is simply too high of a bar.

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Celebrating thirty-nine with a special cake and my favorite people

I turned 39 yesterday and I have to say that I feel perfectly at ease about it. Some time ago I expected that when I reached this year I’d have a longish list of goals to achieve before turning 40, but I have surprisingly few. It’s not that I have nothing to work on; there are plenty of things I’d like to be better at (less yelling, being a better partner) and things I’m looking forward to doing this year (learning to sew, improving my photography, learning how to properly edit photos, finally getting some indoor plants for the house) but I don’t feel a great sense of pressure about doing everything before I reach my fourth decade. I feel grateful for every year that I get on this earth and for exactly where I am right now.

There were a few adorable things about my birthday. A few weeks back we went on a very short hike at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. It was really cold out but I was determined to get outside, so I bundled the kids in a million layers and talked up this “walk in the woods” that we were going to take. They seemed enthusiastic, especially Vivienne, probably because they had cabin fever just as much as I did. All morning Vivi asked if it was time to go for our walk in the woods. When we finally got there, however, she walked roughly 15 yards and collapsed in a fit of tears. She was not about to trudge through knee-deep snow. Jude was totally game, but super slow and unsteady in the deep snow, so we decided that he should stay with Kristin and Vivi while Jonah and I went on ahead to a place I wanted to see called The Magnificent Pines. It wasn’t a long walk, probably less than a quarter mile, and it was well worth it.

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Despite the cold, it seemed to make an impression on Jonah too. He remarked on how the trees were swaying slowly way at the top. It made them seem like a different sort of giant living creature.

Some days later we were all painting together (we do a lot of watercolor these days, just the basic Crayola set, but we all really seem to enjoy it), and I decided to paint a tiny little picture of Jonah in those trees. It was very amateur (I’m not a painter no matter how you define it) but Jonah loved it and wanted to hang it in his room.

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The other day, Jonah told Kristin his idea for my birthday cake. They kept it a secret and Kristin shopped for supplies. Apparently he even told her how he wanted to go about decorating it. The night before my birthday the kids baked with Kristin and I went into the other room to read while Jonah decorated. When they finished, Jonah was so excited to show me: The Magnificent Pines, in birthday-cake form.

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Kristin said that when she finished writing, Jonah said, “We need a question mark. Not a question mark, but one of those things that looks like the letter i that makes it seem like we’re yelling.”

I couldn’t love this cake any more if I tried; what an act of love. Jonah is the kind of person who really notices things, including the things that matter to other people, and he seems to truly enjoy leveraging that knowledge to make others happy and share their passions with them. I remember being amazed when he was invited to the birthday party of a classmate we hardly knew. She was new at school and I’d never heard Jonah mention her before. When I asked Jonah what he thought she might like as a gift he didn’t skip a beat before telling me that she loved mermaids (and her mom confirmed how right he was). He also knows how much Mama K loves birds and loves to tell her when he sees interesting ones in the yard.

Not only that, but he knows that our friend Tanya back in New York is an incredibly talented baker who makes beautiful cakes for Cakes on Hudson. As soon as I’d seen the cake, he asked me to take a picture and send it to her. He wanted to share what he’d done because he knew that she loved cake decorating too. (She was very complimentary).

As if it could get any better, the kids also made me a card (with watercolor, of course). Jonah proudly told me that it was a “collaboration” (I’m pretty sure Mama K taught him that word, and he seemed proud to use it).

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Kristin asked them each what they wanted to write as a birthday message, and these are my favorite part.

First, Jonah:

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Vivienne:

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And finally, Jude. His might be my favorite because I laugh every time I read it. Kristin said that they really had to coax the second line out of him.

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I honestly laughed out loud when I read these, because they’re so perfect and they represent our kids right now so well.

I love Kristin so much for letting the kids follow their passions and be themselves as they created all of this for me. She’s never one to micromanage or worry about a perfectly Pinterest-worthy end result, and the joy that these brought me was a healthy reminder that backing off and just letting them go can result in something far more magical.

So here’s to thirty-nine with tremendous gratitude for this family. Even when they’re crawling across the table at a restaurant to get from one bench seat to the other while the server takes our order (Jude), or using an outdoor voice throughout the entire meal (Vivi), there’s no one I’d rather spend my birthday with.

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The after-Christmas slump

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I have a hard time in January, and I know that I’m not alone. The holiday stretch from October through December brings me so much joy and opportunity to engage in fun, creative activities with the kids and to make those seasons magical. So once it’s all over I struggle to find a similar source of inspiration and wonder.

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It doesn’t help that New Year’s Eve stresses me out a little. At Christmas it feels so easy and natural to create traditions that are meaningful for us, but NYE always makes me feel like I’m missing something. I have no idea how to spend it and yet it feels high-stakes enough that I ought to be doing something significant to mark the gravity of the occasion. This year I even had a fleeting thought that if I did it wrong that might sabotage my intentions for the year. Ultimately we went bowling, the kids wore party hats for awhile, and I think we watched a movie together (I don’t even remember what it was). It was the kids’ first experience bowling and we had a lot of fun. Later Kristin and I decided that we want to do some sort of family activity every NYE (no matter how unceremonious it may be).

While we were bowling I kept thinking of the NYE when my family went bowling together at the very same place. We may have even done it more than once. I have a lot of wonderful memories of family time on holidays big and small. When I was in college I remember spending my first NYE and also my first 4th of July with friends rather than with my family, and while I tried to enjoy it, fully aware that this was what college kids were supposed to love doing, the secret pain of missing my family on those evenings was huge. While I don’t want to cause our children any pain as they grow up or keep them from their independence, I would love for us to cultivate the kind of environment and traditions that make our kids want to spend holidays with their parents and siblings.

The other day, Kristin and I had a conversation about the concept of a meaningful life (because of this post written by a friend). We attempted to define the meaning of meaning, and I spent some time talking about how I’ve recently come to the realization that parenting, and even sometimes managing a household, is my source of meaning. While I’ve always known that I wanted to be a mom, I think that I’d convinced myself that the work I do around the house was selfless because I was caring for others (and that, by extension, those who were more focused on career or otherwise were being more selfish than I was). It seems clearer now how wrongheaded that was. I told Kristin through tears that I’ve worried ever since our oldest was born how I’ll cope when the kids are grown and out of the house. She took my hand and told me that then I’ll be like the creepy mom in I’ll Love You Forever who climbs into her adult son’s room with a ladder while he’s sleeping. Kristin always has the right thing to say.

We both went back to work over the last week and a half, the Christmas tree came down, and I’m feeling bummed out about all of the cold and grey without something sparkly to look forward to. I’m not much of a resolution person (if I were, perhaps I’d feel more motivated and inspired this time of year). It always feels like too much pressure to come up with them on time. Last year I set some goals on my birthday because that gave me a two-week runway, and I’ve actually done fairly well on two of them: lots of creative activity over the last year, and I finally joined a gym in October and I’m loving being active again. This year I’m still defining what I’d like to focus on personally, but since my sister gave us a cute little letter board we decided to set some family resolutions with the kids. It made taking down the Christmas card wall a little more bearable to know that I had just the thing to hang in its place.

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Watercolor art from the kids added the color that it needed (we’ve been doing a lot of family painting lately, including lots of tiny paintings to stretch the paper a bit further). This series also includes lots of Lisa Frank stickers, so bonus I guess? We came up with the list collectively, with each person contributing at least one item.

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One of K’s gifts to me for Christmas was a set of magnetic cords to hang photos or cards, so a week or so ago I ordered a bunch of prints and this week I hung them up on a blank stretch of wall in the living room. I love how easy it will be to change up the pictures whenever we want, and to get even more photos off of the computer and onto the walls. The kids love looking at them and talking about them, and printing some of our favorite memories from 2017 was a nice way to reflect on the year.

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Completing these two tiny creative household projects was so gratifying for me, so I know that I need to keep up the inspiration if I want to stay out of the winter joy slump. My parents gave me a sewing machine for Christmas and I’m excited to learn how to sew as an additional creative outlet. Now I just need some beginner projects (and probably some You Tube tutorials). I did know how to sew once; I learned in seventh-grade home economics where I made two pairs of shorts which I unfortunately wore to school. Kristin laughed for several minutes straight when I shared that. So maybe not shorts. If you sew, can you recommend any fun beginner projects?

Besides tapping into my creative side, I want to make sure that we get outside more as a family (now that the single-digit temps seem to have abated), maybe pick up a few new puzzles to do as a family (Jonah told me the other night that puzzles are his favorite thing in the whole world, which was news to me), and make sure that we’re finding ways to lift the kids’ spirits too. Jonah mentioned how much he misses summer tonight, so I think that the gloom is beginning to wear the kids down too.

What’s inspiring you and bringing you joy in January? What are you looking forward to?

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Christmas Day, 2017

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I’m so thankful for Christmas-day magic this year. That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for it every year – I’m a serious lover of Christmas. But our Christmas Eve ended on kind of a rotten note, and I was genuinely worried that it might sour the entire holiday for me and everyone else.

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For the most part the 24th was OK: we didn’t take on too much, the kids got baths, we went to a Christmas Eve church service, we walked through Bronson Park to take in the lights (for roughly 90 seconds before it was way too cold and we headed for the car) and this was probably where the trouble began: we offered them hot cocoa after dinner. Then dinner happened and everyone refused to eat veggie lasagne so the promise of cocoa was rescinded. Cue a total meltdown from Jonah, complete with throwing things at me, screaming at the top of his lungs, the works. The night ended in me taking two of his wrapped gifts from under the tree and walking them outside to the “trash” while he wailed in disbelief that doing such a thing was even possible. Lately their sense of entitlement has really been pushing my buttons, but I know that I took this way too far on Christmas eve. (Side note, this has been one of my favorite Christmas songs for years despite its dark weirdness, but I swear that isn’t where my mind was going when I threatened to throw his gifts away).

I called my mom and she reminded me that we have great kids who have pretty good manners most of the time, and she told me that she thought it would be fine for me to change my mind and give the gifts back to him in the morning following a serious “talk” about his behavior. I’m so thankful for my mom’s level head and reassurance, because when the kids went to bed (before I called her) I’d honestly lost all enthusiasm for creating Christmas magic. And I love creating Christmas magic, I really do, and it’s only once a year so I was crushed at the prospect of having ruined the night.

Fast forward to Christmas morning and I was feeling much better. Jonah woke up in the 5:00 hour and came in to tell us that he’d gotten up so early because he wanted to see if Santa had eaten the cookies they’d left. Kristin gave him the green light to go check, and he looked around in wonder before running in to wake up Jude and Vivi.

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We always do stockings first, and I do my best to drag out the events of the day so that it isn’t just a whirlwind of torn paper and greed. At some point when things had reached a lull (but still well before dawn) I sat Jonah down and explained that I’d given it some thought and that my decision had been a poor one, that the presents weren’t ruined and that he could have them after all, but that he needed to understand that his behavior the previous night would never be acceptable. We talked about the fact that sometimes the answer will be no, and you won’t like it, but you have to cope with it. I don’t know how much of this he was truly listening to and maybe it was just the Christmas magic, but he was incredibly well behaved and grateful for the next two days without exception.

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One of the things that most impressed me was their ability to open a gift and run off to play with it, forgetting that there were more gifts under the tree yet to be opened. Vivi was a bit more insistent on moving to the next one, but the boys were happy to spend a significant amount of time with each item before moving on.

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They all shared toys incredibly well and played together all day long. Jonah’s favorite gift came from my parents: a bow and arrow set with big padded tips.

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Jude’s favorite was the garbage truck he asked for.

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And Vivi’s was probably a set of fairy wings, which she wore all day.

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The funniest part about the wings is that the Christmas eve church service had costumes available for kids who wanted to wear them. Naturally Vivi spotted girls in angel costumes and wanted to know where they’d gotten them, so I grabbed a pair of wings for her. Soon after both boys wanted wings too, so all three wore them throughout the service. When she saw hers on Christmas, she asked us to be sure to bring them the next time we go to church, because she now believes that you wear wings when you go to church (obviously).

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The collective gift that I was most excited about was a sleeping bag for each kid and a play campfire set. We set them up in the great room and I’d almost forgotten about them until Vivi discovered them some time after opening stockings.

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The kids hung out in their sleeping bags roasting marshmallows and pretending to eat the felt s’mores I made for them for a significant chunk of the morning.

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Breakfast is the only meal that matters for us on Christmas, but because it’s more of a production than your average morning the kids are ravenous well before it’s ready. We let them each have a sugar cookie to tide them over, which was well received.

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After peaches and cream french toast we opened all of the family gifts with the sun finally up. With each gift there seemed to be such joy and such gratitude from the kids; I heard the words, “I always wanted that!” many times that day.

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When all was said and done we bundled up to shovel the driveway while the kids played in the snow. Oddly I was happy to do it. There was something magical about working together and being out there in all of that snow, the sun making it all shimmer from time to time, when just a day or two earlier everything had been green and we hadn’t been at all certain that we would have a white Christmas.

The previous evening we’d talked about doing sparklers (we had some left over from the 4th of July), and Jonah was excited about it, but in all of the chaos and anger we all forgot about it until the kids were asleep and it was too late. I felt badly, as it sounded like such a magical thing to do. I remembered on Christmas though, and asked the kids if they were interested, so they bundled up enthusiastically and we headed out to the driveway.

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Jonah and Vivi were really into it, but Jude was a little nervous.

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Eventually though he did hold a sparkler and seemed proud of his accomplishment.

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At the very end, as Vivi held one of the ones that cycles through different phases (which Jude never wanted to come near) he walked over, put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Wow Vivienne. You’re so brave, just like Moana.” It made me melt to see how proud he was of his sister. The way that they enjoy one another’s company lately is one of my favorite things.

It was a good day, and they continued to show me what kind, polite, grateful humans they can be on the following day as well. Maybe I just needed the universe to remind me that none of us are perfect and that I’m going to make horrible parenting mistakes just like they’re going to make ordinary kid mistakes and that yes, it’s OK for us both to have high expectations for one another, but that we also need to offer a whole lot of grace and try to focus a little more on the beauty and the goodness that’s there too. Christmas is about forgiveness, after all.

Sugar cookies, snowmen, and Santa

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Over the last year I’ve created a bit of a sugar cookie tradition. We have cookie cutters for most of the major holidays, and it all started with last Christmas. The kids love helping to roll the dough and decorate the cookies. If I’m being completely honest, the photos make it all appear much more peaceful than it truly is: there’s generally a lot of me barking orders and asking them repeatedly not to touch that or squish that or eat the sprinkles and did you just have your fingers in your mouth? Go wash your hands again, with soap please!

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Despite my desire to control the uncontrollable, the kids truly do seem to love being a part of this. I feel like last year they lost interest at some point and I ended up doing most of it myself, but this year they cut every cookie and decorated until they were gone.

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Rolling might be their favorite part, so we take turns.

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It’s a constant battle to get Jude to put the cookie cutters in sharp-side down, and to get all three of them to work from the edges and not from the middle, but we’re getting there.

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I love that baking together is becoming a family tradition, and tonight we walked around to neighbors’ houses and dropped off bags of cookies. We’ll make more later on this week so that the kids can take them to school for their holiday party, and so that we’ll have a few extras to distribute to friends. I may do that batch myself in the interest of efficiency and sprinkle-control, but I’m glad that we did this one together.

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Whoa, sprinkles.

After cookie baking we went outside to play in the snow a bit. It had warmed up just enough for the snow to be fairly wet, which was perfect for snowman construction. Last year we attempted one when it was far too dry and ended up with a horizontal snow person, but this year we nailed it.

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Tonight Vivi insisted that we remove the hat because Olaf (from Frozen) doesn’t wear a hat (or a scarf, but I kept it anyway).

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This afternoon we took the kids downtown to see Santa, which isn’t something that I ever thought that I would do. Kristin has fond memories of the magic of visiting Santa, but strangely I seem to have none at all. I honestly don’t know if it’s something we even did as kids (but we probably did?). This particular element of Christmas isn’t one that I like to emphasize for the kids, but peer influence has taken over and it is what it is, and I’ve always agreed to let that magic run its course as it may (but without a great deal of additional theatrics or maintenance). Kristin expressed interest in taking them, and Jude had even written in his letter to Santa that he wanted to meet him, so I could hardly disappoint a two-year-old.

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I wasn’t at all sure how it would go. I’ve seen more photos of crying, terrified children on Santa’s lap than I’ve seen happy ones, and it wouldn’t be unusual for at least some of our kids to change their minds about it once the opportunity was in front of them. At least in our case it didn’t cost anything besides the time spent in line (thanks, Downtown Kalamazoo!). When we first rounded the corner and Santa was in sight, Jonah immediately said that he’d changed his mind; he didn’t want to go. I convinced him to join us in line and watch Jude and Vivienne and he seemed fine with that.

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Jude and Vivi seemed fascinated immediately. They waited in line for awhile before planting themselves on a bench where they had a clear view of every child who visited Santa, and were rapt with attention. To my surprise, as we got closer to the front of the line Jonah changed course again and decided that he did want to visit Santa. He said that he would stand to the side, and I was truly shocked to see him do it so comfortably. Vivi was singularly interested in making sure that Santa appreciated her tutu choice for the day. She ran up and began chattering immediately, and Santa was sure to tell us that we ought to be concerned about her shyness.

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At the start of the weekend we took the kids for a drive to see Christmas lights. I turned the twins’ car seats around to face forward because it seemed like a perfect occasion (and believe me, the work of moving car seats is way more worth it when you get to see their amazement at the brand new view of holiday lights). At some point, Jonah said from the back seat, “When it’s close to a holiday my heart turns into a smiley face.” So does mine, buddy.

We’re headed into the final week of school before the holiday break and I’m excited to do more wrapping, a little more crafting, and a lot more soaking in the season.

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Kicking off a month of Christmas

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I recently read an article in which I was surprised to learn that traditionally Christians and Catholics did not decorate a tree or put up any Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve. I don’t remember when we used to get our tree as a kid but I remember going to the Kmart parking lot to pick one out in the evening, and I remember loving Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I used to put those plug-in candles in the windows of my bedroom (and I feel like I hung on to them much longer than just the Christmas season) and I’d bring my family’s Christmas CDs upstairs to my room and listen to them when I went to sleep at night. I remember thinking that it was wonderful the year that my dad got fancy lights for the hedge out in front of our house that had multiple blinking and twinkling modes to choose from.

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I’ve always loved the lead up to Christmas and on many occasions have felt really sad when the day was finally over. I’ve read before that for most people, having something to look forward to contributes to well being, and that the looking forward is often better than the actualization of that something. So rather than downplaying the fun of Christmas in an effort to avoid that let down, I’d rather play up the period of anticipation to make the most of it. If I love the decorations and the lights and the preparation and the countdown, then let’s make a month of that. The day will come and go no matter what, but why not fill more of the dark and gloomy days of winter with decorations and twinkle lights and anticipation?

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The first Christmas-related activity that I allow myself to indulge in each year is our Christmas card. I love Christmas cards; I love making them, sending them, receiving them. I hang them all up on a cabinet in our kitchen and I love walking by them all season long. I can always justifying kicking this part of the season off really early by telling myself that I want to have them out shortly after Thanksgiving (so that I can focus on other things for the rest of the month, naturally; it’s all about efficiency) so we need to plan and take photos well in advance so that we have time to order them. This year that didn’t pan out exactly as planned, because the photographer we’d hoped to work with flaked at the last minute, so I decided that surely I could do this myself. My dad recently let me borrow his tripod and we have a suitable enough backyard, so why not?

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The only hiccup was the 30 degree weather (not to mention having to use a timer and then run into position and try to get the kids to look at a camera with no person behind it to grab their attention). My cousin Aimee does this almost every year and I have NO idea how she gets such wonderful photos of her family of six. This is almost an impossible task. The cooperation bribes this year went from hot cocoa, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows and Halloween candy. We eventually got something we could use, and despite the struggle the challenge was kind of fun.

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Because we went to Charleston for Thanksgiving we weren’t around to get a tree that weekend, but I’m fairly certain we would have had we been home. Since I knew we’d be gone I’ve had the following Saturday blocked off on our calendar for quite some time.

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In addition to stretching out the period of joy and anticipation, I also like to weave in Christmas-related family activities throughout the month because I want our enjoyment of Christmas to be about more than just presents on Christmas morning. I want the kids to look forward to getting a tree, and decorating that tree, and driving around to look at the lights, and making Christmas cookies, and all of the other traditions that we haven’t even thought of yet. This year we also got an advent calendar for the first time (the kind with magnetic ornaments that the kids can own completely). I have big dreams of making my own advent calendar in an heirloom sort of way if I ever get a sewing machine and figure out how to do that, but this will do nicely until then.

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I always forget how stressful it can be to decorate the tree with the kids. Naturally most of the ornaments are breakable, and they don’t really understand how to hang them so that they don’t tumble off immediately. They tend to put multiple ornaments on a single branch and only on the very bottom branches of the tree. We do a lot of redirecting and redecorating, but I still love it.

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It just feels right for our tree to be in the front room of the house, the living room where the fireplace is and where we hang stockings, but it’s not a room that we actually spend a lot of time in. So this year I asked Kristin if we could get an inexpensive artificial tree for the great room as well – the room where we do the most living. She was happy to oblige, and after a lot of back and forth about how we wanted to decorate each of the two trees we decided that we would keep the living room tree colorful (the kids love rainbow lights, and I grew up with them) and give the great room tree a bit more of a stylish theme by using only white, wood, and metallic ornaments along with white lights.

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On the same Sunday that we decorated the tree we went to Holidays at the Homestead at the Nature Center. For some reason it feels especially fun to step back in time around Christmastime: making yarn dolls, watching a blacksmith work on his craft, going on a horse-drawn wagon ride complete with jingle bells. I’ve been itching to take everyone to an old-timey holiday event at Greenfield Village, but it’s two hours away and goes from 6:30-10:00 p.m. and I can’t decide whether the kids will be able to handle the late hours in the cold.

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Two mornings ago as I was making breakfast for the kids and trying to get them out the door to school, Vivi asked me if she could write “a note to Santa like the bear in the book.” I had no idea which book she was referring to, and wasn’t even sure where she’d learned about letters to Santa. She ran over to grab the book Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise and flipped to the picture of the bear working on his letter to Santa. I hesitated for a moment because I have mixed feelings about that whole part of Christmas, but I said yes and got her some paper and crayons. She went right to work, and soon after Jude wanted to do the same.

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Once she’d completed her portion she asked me to help, and I wrote while she dictated her list. She actually completed three different letters to Santa (all with slightly different items) and was ready to launch into a fourth when I told her that it was time to get ready for school.

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I loved watching their joy and their investment in the task. I know that no matter how much I want to push them to find magic in specific elements of the season and perhaps steer them away from others, I don’t get to choose the sources of their joy. I can share mine with them and sit back and enjoy the glow of theirs, and carve out time and space for family traditions. But ultimately they will develop their own preferences and cling to the parts of the season that they love the most. And that’s the way that it should be, and probably the way it has always been whether the tree goes up on November 24th or December 24th.

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Jonah at five

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You are five now, and in lots of ways I marvel at how much of who we are is clear from the very beginning, but in other ways I’m amazed by the ways you’ve grown and changed over the past year.

At five you seem a bit more sure of yourself, more willing to try new things (unless it’s food) even if those things might be challenging, you seem comfortable in your skin and where you are.

You’re also more patient and sometimes more generous. Gigi and Papa Doc got you a big new crane truck for your birthday, a toy that you said was, “the best toy I have” and one morning when Jude stumbled into the kitchen still sleepy, the first thing you asked him was, “Jude, do you want to play with my crane truck?” then turned to me and said, “he likes to crank it up and down.” When he inevitably did it wrong and pulled the string out of the spool, you walked over calmly and said, “he always breaks it.” Fixed it calmly, and went back to what you were doing, leaving him to continue his play. A year ago you would have yelled, perhaps grabbed him in frustration and anger. This is a beautiful turn.

Your independence is also growing and you’re much more willing to do things yourself without help, like picking out your clothes and getting yourself dressed (things you used to insist on help with). You seem quite proud of the things you’re able to accomplish, and it makes us proud to watch you.

You care about rules and how things are done or how they ought to be. You get upset when Vivienne sings the wrong lyrics to a song, or when someone plays with a toy or a game incorrectly (according to you). It’s clear that you’re detail oriented and truly believe that there’s a right and a wrong way. You remind Jude and Vivienne of house rules when they break them, and if someone forgets to switch laps at bedtime story time (the one who chooses the book sits on the reader’s lap) you remind everyone of the proper process. More often than not you do exactly what we ask.

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You’re compassionate. In the Detroit airport in the early morning you took Mama K’s hand and asked her to go with you to find a staff member to help some birds trapped in the terminal. When the man behind the bar told you that they have names and that he leaves food and water for them under the bar because they’re too difficult to catch, you were satisfied with his answer. I don’t know if any of it was true, but I know that you wanted those birds to be OK.

You can still be brooding and pensive and quiet at times, but when your friends came over for your birthday party it was almost a surprise to see the silly energy that they seem to bring out of you. When you’re with other little boys at school there’s a different goofiness in you, and it’s a fun new version of you.

You love books and being read to. When you opened a pop up dragon book for your birthday when we were in Charleston you stepped away from the chaos of the family party with your cousins to sit on Mama K’s lap while she read it to you. When a colleague of Mama K’s gave you and your siblings an early Christmas gift yesterday you said, “I hope it’s a book!”

You love to bake with us, and are proud of the apron that Gigi made just for you. Rolled sugar cookies with me, and apple crisp; pancakes with Mama K.

You love machines and different parts that can be linked together and tinkered with. Ropes or cords with a hook, things with magnets, strings with carabiners, suction cups that can be affixed to the ends of things.

More often than not you seem to really enjoy playing with your brother and sister. You play with them on the playground at school, and while you all fight sometimes, as siblings do, very often the three of you keep one another happy for long periods at home without interruption. Being a big brother suits you.

You’re still my baby in a few ways. Still a snuggle bug who needs to touch my belly whenever you’re feeling tired or cuddly. You still come find me halfway through each night, sometimes stroking my face until I wake up before asking me climb into your bed with you. You’re loving and kind and still like to sit in my lap. On the morning of your birthday, when I told you that I loved you you said, “Every time you say you love me I feel like the only cutest kid in the world.”

It’s hard sometimes to see you grow up so quickly, but I’m so proud of the person that you are. You’re the best thing I’ve ever done.

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Thanksgiving and turning five in Charleston

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Back in September, my parents offered to fly us down to Charleston for Thanksgiving as our Christmas gift. It was a lovely, generous offer but we waffled because travel with kids when there’s less than a week to work with always feels less than relaxing. Our kids are good travelers, mostly road-trippers, but in this case the thought of having to haul three car seats, luggage, and kids to a rental car lot after a long morning of air travel did not have any appeal. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between having two small children versus having three, it’s fitting in someone else’s car. We’ve made it work before with infant seats, but we just weren’t sure what was possible at this stage.

My parents talked to my sister and they determined that between the two families they had enough spare car seats and enough room to make it work so that we wouldn’t have to bring any car seats or rent a minivan. That tipped the scales for us, so we were in.

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We love trips to Charleston. Even though I love a magical white Christmas season, it’s such a joy to step out of the Michigan cold and into warm southern weather for a few days. My sister and brother-in-law host an epic Thanksgiving dinner every year but we’ve only been once, well before we had kids. Since that year it’s grown significantly, and they’ve been setting up the dinner table in the long driveway to accommodate everyone. If that sounds casual, believe me it isn’t. For some reason I never took a photo of the table spread, but it was gorgeous. Kira and Dewey are SO good at this.

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It was an unusually cold and wet Thanksgiving this year, which caused my sister and brother-in-law to have to make some challenging last-minute modifications to the plan. They rented a tent to cover the table (the running joke was that it was more like a wedding reception than a Thanksgiving dinner). Kira was worried that it would hurt the ambiance, but the twinkle lights and gorgeous tablescape were plenty festive.

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My rough count (from memory) is 30+ adults and 10 kids, and it was full of love and gratitude and energy and noise and chaos in all of the right ways.

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The next day Jonah turned five, which I’ve been dreading for weeks, but it’s such a blessing to have my anxiety balanced out by a five-year-old’s birthday joy all day long. He woke up and asked Mama K for gingerbread pancakes, and she was happy to oblige so they made those together. Then we headed out to meet everyone at a trampoline park with ninja warrior courses and inflatables and an arcade. I don’t have any good photos, but somewhere there is a slow-mo video of me awkwardly dropping into a foam pit from a trapeze. The kids had a blast.

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In the late afternoon we met up again at Folly Beach for a walk along the water. I love the Charleston beaches. I’m not a beach person by the traditional definition, but I love beach walks when it isn’t really beach weather.

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And one of my favorite parts of the trip, always? Seeing Maris and Jonah together. They just love each other so much, and it makes me so happy. I feel like they have this wonderful twin-cousin thing going on and I hope that it never goes away.

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On Saturday morning we met up downtown to walk to a hotel and shopping area where they have a big Christmas model train display in the lobby. Everyone seemed to enjoy it (is there anyone who doesn’t like searching for details in a miniature scene?).

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We did a pretty good job of kicking off the Christmas season between the train display, helping to decorate Gigi and Papa Doc’s tree, and checking out the Festival of Lights at John’s Island County Park on Saturday night.

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A friend from New York who moved down to Charleston this past summer joined the twelve of us for the festival of lights, and thankfully she loves the kids and is totally comfortable with holiday family madness.  The lights were beautiful, we roasted marshmallows, we waited in line for a train ride that I think surpassed everyone’s expectations, and it felt like a perfect closure to our trip. It was sad to say goodbye to family when we know we won’t see them at Christmas. I know what a lovely, simple Christmas we had last year on our own and I’m looking forward to that while also wishing that we could watch those cousins wake up and dig into their stockings together on Christmas morning.

How quickly time passes

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My first baby turns five a week from tomorrow, and I’ve been dreading it for some time now. Not because five is a horrible number, or because it means he’s reached some awful turning point, but just because time passes too damn quickly and I wish that he could stay little forever. I also associate the age of five with kindergarten, and I have all kinds of feelings about the kids graduating from preschool and moving into the public school system that I don’t exactly think well of.

I’ve also decided this week that I’m going to try to finally make the twins’ baby book as one of their Christmas gifts. I have a Chrome extension that allows me to have a to-do list on a new tab, and pretty much ever since we brought them home from the hospital it has said, “Start the twins’ baby book” but I have yet to start it; they’ll be three in February. So of course I’m going through old photos and of course those also include Jonah when he was tiny, so I’m feeling sad and nostalgic about how quickly they’re growing up. I’d also intended to make a year-one baby book only, but once I started looking through images I realized that they’re all in New York. So now I’m thinking that it needs to be a birth-through-the-move baby book, because I want them to remember New York (not remember it exactly, but you know what I mean).

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I didn’t start blogging until we were leaving New York, which means that while I did an OK job of capturing little notes about Jonah when he was tiny (because I worked on his baby book one month at a time as he grew) I still didn’t write a lot of narrative or get everything down. And then the twins came along and suddenly we had three kids under three and I stopped taking notes on anything at all. There are so many things that as a parent feel so significant and memorable about your children, and it’s astounding and crushing to me how easily they can be forgotten as time passes.

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It makes me feel like I can never write enough to record everything that I want to remember. Like the way Jonah, who has been very articulate since he was like one and a half, makes up words every so often by blending other words (and doesn’t realize he’s making them up) and they’re cute and funny and I never want to correct them. Words like “laundry hamster” (hamper) and “prickamore balls” (sweetgum seed pods) and “skyser” (geiser).

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We’re headed to Charleston for Thanksgiving next week, and the other night I was thinking about all of the people who will be there with their small children and I imagined someone throwing a child gleefully into the air, and I realized that I don’t know when I last threw Jonah into the air. When did he get too big for that? How long ago was it? And Kristin pointed out recently that Jude has stopped sucking his first two fingers and we don’t know quite when he stopped, or why.

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For years I’ve had anxiety about not spending my time in a quality-enough way, even well before having children, and while I’ve worked on moving past that fear and being more mindful about what’s happening right now, seeing how quickly children grow brings all of that fear back up again. I want to get it all right and I mess up about a million times a day and I feel like there isn’t enough time to get it right for them, and they deserve to have the best of us.

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This morning I ended up yelling and lecturing again, because no one would listen even though I asked them to do things like finish their breakfast and get dressed and put their shoes on a million times, and then Jonah told me as we were finally getting into the van that I needed to ask more kindly (something he’s surely heard from K and I over and over) and I just about lost it. Because I had asked kindly, dozens of times while they ignored me. And then we got to preschool and as I was helping Vivienne put her things into her cubby one of the teachers came up to me and said, “I just have to say, you are so patient with them, you and Kristin both.” I almost burst into tears. I thanked her, but admitted, “you should see me in the morning trying to get them out of the house.” She said that everyone yells sometimes, and I told her that being a mom is my absolute favorite job, even when I do lose my temper. She replied, “It shows.”

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I wish that I could slow down time though; I want so much more of this. And while I know that the people they’re becoming are just as wonderful as the babies that they were, I’m not ready to let this phase go.