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.

Because I said so, and other insufficient explanations

Jonah’s teacher called me towards the end of the school day today to talk to me about a couple of incidents. This isn’t a teacher I hear from very often, in fact she pretty much only calls if Jonah hurts someone or is hurt by someone else (both of which are rare). Last year Jonah had a wonderful teacher who sent me photos every couple of days, updated me via text if Jonah made a new friend, and stopped me to talk about how Jonah was doing almost daily at drop off. I felt 100% confident that she understood who our son was and what his unique needs were and was doing everything in her power to support him and us. This year’s teacher has many more years of experience but hasn’t made as much of an effort to get to know us, which doesn’t help when she calls about problems.

The first issue was that Jonah brought a pair of binoculars to school (his own, which I allowed) and apparently hit Jude with them at some point, so a teacher took them away. (It’s worth noting that all three of our kids dispute this story, and have told me that the binoculars weren’t at all involved in the incident – that Jonah simply pushed Jude and it seems the teacher confiscated them perhaps just because she needed a quick punishment, which I’m not OK with, but I didn’t know that during the phone call). The teacher told Jonah that he needed to talk to her about what happened in order to get the binoculars back, he refused, so they were put up high. Later he snuck them down when she wasn’t looking, and they were confiscated again. I told the teacher to feel free to keep them until he did as he was asked and had a conversation about the incident.

I like to think that I’m not the kind of parent who will make every excuse on behalf of my child so that they’re never held responsible for their poor choices. A bad decision is a bad decision and sometimes there are consequences. I didn’t think that Jonah ought to get his toy back simply because he’d managed to maintain his stubborn position until the end of the school day. I told the teacher that she had our support on that one.

The second issue though, gave me pause, and made me wonder if I’m ever going to be able to fully buy into the norms and rules of the public school system. Music class came after the binoculars incident, and at the start of class apparently there was some dispute about where a good friend would be sitting (again, Jonah’s story doesn’t match that of the teacher at all and he’s not much of a story teller). The teacher claims that a good friend of Jonah’s didn’t want to sit next to him, and Jonah was upset about it. Jonah tells me that a teacher moved the friend because they were talking, which is a very different proposition. We’re talking about four-year-olds here. At any rate, Jonah was probably stewing over the two issues and chose not to participate in music, which isn’t entirely unlike him. He never liked music last year and it often took a great deal of coercion to get him to participate. This year though, he’s been better about it, but on this particular day it made sense to me that he was upset, and he chose to sit outside of the circle and suck his thumb. His teacher was clearly bothered by this.

I spoke to Kristin about it when she got home and told her that I was struggling to figure out how to talk to Jonah about music class because I couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation as to why he needed to participate. I mentioned this to his teacher during the call, not by way of argumentation, but because I’d hoped that she might offer some early childhood wisdom that would help me to coach him. She told me that she’d threatened to put him in the other music class with the smaller children (which she knew he wouldn’t like), and I told her that I wasn’t sure threats were the answer, and that I’d like to come up with a way to intrinsically incentivize participation. I also suggested that I might mention kindergarten norms for next year, and tell him that in kindergarten he’ll be expected to participate. She responded that it wasn’t about kindergarten; if a teacher asks you to do something you need to do it. That was where she lost me.

Sometimes Kristin has a hard time removing her teacher hat when it comes to questions of school behavior (and parenting in relation to school behavior) but this time she was 100% with me. Neither of us feel that, “you have to participate in music because you have to do whatever the teacher says,” is a reasonable explanation as to why he ought to do something, nor will it do anything positive for his feelings about school or learning or music for that matter. Had he been running around the room or getting out toys that weren’t a part of the lesson or yelling or doing almost anything else at all, we might have felt differently. But sitting quietly just outside of the circle sucking his thumb? He was wrestling with big feelings and upset from just a few minutes earlier and he was trying to cope without bothering anyone or disrupting the class; where’s the problem exactly?

And this is where my dread about enrolling our kids in school begins to seep in. I just don’t think that this is how you cultivate a love of learning and experiences and curiosity in children. I want to raise children who know how to think for themselves, and are moved by things that they’re moved by, not kids who simply know how to listen to directions and follow them regardless of how they might be feeling. Jonah likes music at home; all three of our kids ask to have music turned on during breakfast and in the car on the way to school in the morning. You develop a love of music when you enjoy music, not when you’re told, “you’ll sing because I said so.”

I’m not suggesting that they ought to let him go do something else that he’d rather be doing, but if he chooses to sit silently and wait for the lesson to end, who cares?

So tonight I’m feeling sad and kind of angry about it, and it doesn’t help that Jonah turns five in a few weeks and for some reason that makes me want to cry. I’m not ready for him to be a kindergartener (which I realize won’t happen until next fall, but still, there’s something about turning five), partly because I want him to stay little forever, but also partly because I don’t have a lot of hope for the public school experience. I want to believe in it, but I just don’t. I went through public school and turned out fine I suppose, but I also developed study habits that were entirely about my grades and had very little to do with actual learning and curiosity. Even once I was in graduate school and had the self-awareness to know that my motivations were misguided I couldn’t seem to re-program the way that I studied. I want more for our kids, I want them to learn because they love learning, to discover passions because things inspire them, and to participate because life is more interesting that way.

I’m a pleaser. I hate to disappoint others and find it gratifying to help someone when asked, but I’m also someone who has always asked, “why” and needed a logical explanation as to why something ought to be done. To me, “because I said so,” just doesn’t hold water, especially when we’re trying to teach a four-year-old about the world.

Another Halloween in the books: Robots and Moana

It’s November 1st and I’m feeling a little bit sad because Kristin just left to spend four days in New York (the first time I’ve been with the kids alone for more than one night) and my parents are heading for Charleston for the winter first thing tomorrow morning. It feels a bit lonely, and then there’s always that slight twinge of sadness that comes after a big holiday for me. I can find things to get excited about many different times of year, but as Kristin said recently, October through December is kind of my jam.

I love Halloween; we’ve established that already, and this year I decided way back in the spring that I wanted to make robot costumes for the kids. They were really into this great show called Annedroids and I thought that it would be a really fun costume project. The first weekend of October Jonah and I went shopping for supplies, I started collecting boxes of specific sizes, and I started spray painting in the garage (which I knew would just remind me of the frustration of this project, but I just kept telling myself that the stakes were lower this time).

Almost as soon as I had the boxes painted, Vivienne announced, “I don’t like robots anymore. I like Moana now.” Despite having a killer robot voice that was part of my inspiration in the first place, she wanted to be her new idol, Moana, and was having none of this robot business. At first I thought that maybe I’d just buy her a cheap Moana costume and let her wear it to school and tell her that she still had to trick-or-treat as a robot, but the more I considered my options the less I liked that. I asked my mom (the queen of whipping things together without a map) if she thought we could make a decent Moana costume, and having only seen a single image of the character she said, “That looks easy enough.” My mom is always such a shining reminder that one way or another it will all work out, and I need that kind of energy in my life, especially when I’m DIYing.

I went to the fabric store one afternoon on my lunch hour on a mission to find the perfect fabrics. I was really pleased with what I found (after talking myself down from a $21/yard fabric that was more than a two-year-old needed for Halloween), and my mom came over that night to get started.

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Meanwhile, in robot-land, I was searching for the perfect lights to make pretend buttons. I ordered these way in advance, and thank goodness I did because they took roughly a month to ship from Azerbaijan (literally) which I didn’t realize when I bought them. They turned out to be kind of cool though, so I’m glad we included them. Most of the lights, however, were these because they blinked which added a really fun element. The tricky part was that the only way to turn them on and off was to squeeze them from both sides, which meant that I couldn’t really affix them to the boxes in a permanent way. I ended up making a control panel out of a shoebox lid and zip tying only the top of it to the rest of the costume so that I could easily flip it up to turn them on. I zip tied the bottom of each light to the back of the control panel and cut holes the size of a Sacagawea dollar for each one.

A friend suggested that we ought to try to work fidget spinners into the costumes as well, which was a brilliant suggestion. They had crappy ones at the dollar store, and my dad helped by drilling a hole into the center of each one and fitting them with screws so that when affixed to the costumes, they would still spin. This was a huge hit while trick-or-treating; lots of big kids wanted to spin the spinners.

I also made each of the robots a set of rocket boosters with felt flames coming out, because why not? I saw it on Pinterest while searching for ideas and it seemed worth the extra effort. The boys were totally into it.

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Late in the project I decided that Jonah ought to have a full robot head. Jude didn’t want a head covering of any kind, which was for the best anyway because I didn’t trust him not to trip and fall while trick-or-treating in the dark. I ended up just getting Jude a set of silver ball deelie boppers (that’s what we called them growing up, but I’m guessing that’s not universal?), and I think they made him look extra adorable. Jonah wanted a slinky on his robot head, so we added that along with a red light and cut out a couple of holes so that he could see and breathe easily and covered them with window screen. We ended up not attaching the head to the rest of the costume because most of the time it rested on the larger box anyway, but it also allowed him to take it off when he felt like he needed a break. I put some 2″ window A/C foam inside the box to make it fit a bit better.

For the boys’ arms and legs we used dryer vent tubing and bought the lightest weight stuff we could find (more like aluminum foil than sharp metal, but both types exist so go to the hardware store and feel it first). I zip tied the arms to the body box and made a set of suspenders out of elastic for the legs (attached to zip tie loops). Walking was a bit of a challenge, but honestly they did great once they got the hang of it (and we did a lot of hand-holding just to be sure).

Back to Moana – I didn’t feel like a midriff-baring shirt was acceptable for a two-year-old, so my mom designed a top based on another summer shirt of Vivi’s. She layered and trimmed the skirt fabric I bought to make a wrap skirt that went nicely around a cheap 12″ grass skirt I found on Amazon. We also bought the necklace on Amazon (because I suspect that making our own would have cost a lot more) and she’s worn it pretty much every day for the past three weeks, so I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth. I bought a few cowrie shells at a bead shop and we sewed them around the neckline. I bought some tropical-looking flowers at the dollar store and hot glued one onto a barrette that we already had, and I think that it made a lovely final touch.

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When Vivi finally got to wear this to preschool she was probably the proudest I’ve ever seen her. Throughout the month of October we’ve been hearing from her teacher that some days she’ll only respond to the name Moana. Preschool was also the only place we let her wear this without pants and a leotard underneath (because Michigan).

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We actually got incredibly lucky because it was supposed to rain on Halloween, and while it was roughly 40 degrees (or less) it was dry, and trick-or-treating was a huge success. Vivienne was chilly, but agreed to wear a cardigan and zip up hoodie (unzipped, of course) on top of her costume. The boys were pretty well bundled and the robot parts kept the wind off, so they actually seemed to fare well.

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If Vivienne was the star of the preschool costume parade (if only because she spent a month getting into character), the boys were the stars of neighborhood trick-or-treating. I can’t even tell you how many kids and adults stopped us on the sidewalk to ask if they could take a photo or video. I got high-fives from parents I’d never met, and at one house Kristin walked away with a glass of wine after helping Jude up the steps. “Did my robot costumes earn you an adult beverage?” I asked. She said that they probably did.

I had to take a video once it was dark because the lights make it so much more fun. Check it out on Instagram.

It was a ton of work, but I only cried once during construction and I have absolutely no regrets about everything that went into it. It’s funny, in general I tend to be pretty pragmatic about a lot of things. I like things that are useful and practical, I don’t like spending money on things that won’t get a lot of use, I don’t do a ton of whimsy, but when it comes to Halloween all of that seems to go out the window. I spend an entire month (and always more money than I’d planned) working on something made of cardboard and glue that really isn’t built to last and that we’ll only get a few hours use from, but it always feels like the right thing to do in my mind.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote something recently that absolutely nailed it for me:

…let me also tell you that when you see stuff like this–fun parties for kids or holiday crafts and celebrations, for example–on my site or in my social media feeds, this isn’t about attempting to be a good mom. I don’t associate being a good mom with celebrations and details and parties. But I do associate being a good mom with doing things that make me happy and inviting my kids to witness my happiness and be part of it. This is more about me than my kids. Because I like creating things and celebrating parties and making space for the 10-year-old girl inside who never died. It makes me happy. And I think the best way to be a good mom is to do things that make you happy.

I think that’s really what this is for me. I do this for me, because for reasons I can’t entirely explain (tradition, I guess?) this is ridiculously important to me and I love doing it. The kids would happily wear store-bought costumes, but that wouldn’t be any fun for me.

The other night we drove by the elementary school where they seemed to be wrapping up a school Halloween party, and I suddenly remembered that my parents used to put a ton of work into our elementary school haunted house when I was a kid. My dad was Dracula in it, and a few other neighborhood parents who were like family to me were in it too. I went through that damn thing SO many times, giggling every time I spotted a family member or friend in costume. I’m sure no one strong-armed my parents into doing that stuff, they just loved doing it, and I remember it and it brings me so much joy even now. My mom pointed out that we now have a tradition three-years running of she and I collaborating on the kids’ costumes, and I love that it’s turned out that way. It honestly wouldn’t be as much fun without her, so I’m thrilled that my parents are willing to stay in Michigan through Halloween in order to see this effort to the end.

Over dinner tonight both Jonah and Vivienne began to tell me and Gigi and Papa Doc what they want to be next year, so my parents and I may already be passing this tradition along to the next generation, which makes me pretty happy.