Parenting and gender norms: part two

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I’ve had a few more thoughts about parenting and gender norms since writing this post. Not terribly long ago, a friend of mine shared a photo of her young son on Facebook, and in it he was wearing a dress and playing with a toy toolbox and a truck. She mentioned something about “raising a feminist boy” and it made me wonder if gender neutrality or gender non-conformity is synonymous with feminism (in this case, anyway). When I asked, she replied:

I think it’s feminist because we’re teaching him that there is no one right way to be a boy and hence no one right way to be a girl. To me, that is very feminist. I suppose it’s also gender neutral, but I personally embrace the term feminist, and it feels more political and more intentional. I think also not denigrating when he chooses things that are more traditionally feminine such as dresses or saying he wants to be a ballet dancer feels feminist to me because we’re not suggesting those things are “bad” by not allowing that choice.

I really like that answer, and it made me think. In the week or so before this exchange, Jonah asked me if boys could wear dresses. I told him that they could, and he asked, “Can I have a construction vehicle dress?” I told him that was kind of a tall order but that I’d see what I could do. I’d never even seen a construction vehicle dress, and I do all of the kids’ shopping.

When any of the kids do something somewhat gender-non-conforming of their own accord, I’m often both thrilled that they haven’t been trapped in a social construct yet, but also a tiny bit concerned that we could be doing them a disservice by not telling them the truth about America. It reminds me a little bit of a conversation that happened at work between two colleagues, both men of color, about the best way to prepare young people of color for the world. One of them felt that to teach young people of color how to behave in a way that will grant them acceptance by a white supremacist society (as opposed to affirming their authentic selves and culture) is an act of racism, while the other colleague felt that not doing so, not teaching them how to “play the game” and stay alive in the country that they live in right now, is an act of violence. It’s not nearly that extreme, of course, whether I allow our young boys to wear dresses, but for some people in some places gender non-conformity can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

I’m impressed when others don’t react with as much rigidity as I might expect. We took the kids shoe shopping awhile back and as we walked in, Jonah spotted some glittery sneakers on a sale table out front. They were in the girls’ section and weren’t his size. When it came time for him to be fitted and find some shoes, I asked the woman helping us if they had anything glittery in his size. She said, “I’m sure we do. They might be pink.” I told her that wasn’t a concern, and she went off into the back room to find him some options. She returned before long with five or six pairs of glittery girls’ shoes, even going so far as to bring some silver mary janes. We didn’t end up buying any, since the ones he loved were light-up sneakers and Kristin hates light-up shoes of all sorts (she thinks they’re tacky and distracting and I can’t disagree completely). But the fact that the salesperson didn’t bat an eye at our request, and that she enthusiastically brought him so many options was so heartwarming somehow. It gave me hope for America.

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Jude in Vivi’s bathing suit, which he emptied her entire dresser to find

Longer ago, before the construction vehicle dress request, we told the kids that we were all going to be attending a wedding reception (it’s this Saturday, actually). All of them were excited, and Jonah said something off hand about getting a fancy dress for the occasion. I was surprised, because despite all of this philosophizing I’m doing, I don’t think that Jonah identifies as anything other than a boy, full stop. He’s never implied otherwise. What I know to be true, however, is that his only experience with weddings and wedding receptions is seeing his moms wear dresses to attend them. Here’s another example of that: I took him shopping last night to buy an outfit for this weekend’s reception, and he initially told me that he didn’t want to get an outfit because he doesn’t like white. I had to explain that guests at a wedding can actually wear any color they want, and that yes brides often wear white but not always, and they usually wear dresses but not always. He seemed relieved, and ultimately picked out a cool button up shirt with space designs on it and some bright colored shorts.

So much of what they believe about the world is because of what we show them and tell them, and when we tell them what we want them to believe about gender not being restrictive, we aren’t telling them the whole story. Jonah is starting to pick up on it, as all of them would have eventually. One night in the bathtub he said to me, “Mama D? I think that maybe there are girl colors and boy colors just a little bit.” I could tell that he added that diminutive out of concern for my feelings. I asked him why he thought that, and he told me that it was because every girl at his school loves pink and purple. Hoping to poke holes in that theory, I started naming off girls one by one, but I don’t think we ever found one who doesn’t love those classic colors. I tried to explain why that might be, the way toys and clothes are marketed, but I didn’t have a well-thought-out answer in the moment. It made me realize that I need to start getting into the nuances of why we believe what we believe, and why others might disagree, and the effect that has on people. We don’t encourage colorblindness, so I suppose we ought to move beyond the idea that gender isn’t a thing.

One of the things that occurred to me during that Facebook exchange with my friend weeks ago was how much the oppression and degradation of women also oppresses men and boys. I hadn’t given that a ton of thought before. All of our wondering about whether or not it’s OK for Jonah to want a dress or glittery sneakers wouldn’t even be a thing if traditionally feminine choices and qualities weren’t so looked down upon. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself whether most people would worry at all over a little girl who preferred pants and trucks and the color red, over dresses and dolls and the color pink. I know people who actively celebrate those kinds of preferences, they almost push them. Being a girl who likes “boy” things is completely OK, but boys who like “girl things? Not so much.

What I discovered following the construction vehicle dress request, was that it’s actually relatively easy to find cool, progressive, somewhat gender-norm-bucking clothes for girls these days, but it’s nearly impossible to find something for a boy. You just have to buy it from the girls’ section, and even then a dress with construction vehicles on it is not easy to come by. If you’ve never searched the web for a dress for a boy, and tried to decide for yourself what the least “girly” dress style might be for a boy, you can’t even imagine what mental acrobatics it requires. By this point I’d decided that I was fine buying him the dress, it was a matter of finding one. I found one on Etsy that was specifically marketed as a “unisex play dress” but while I loved the concept and the politics of it all, I thought that the cut of the dress was actually sort of ugly. I finally found one I liked on some random site I’d never heard of, purple with yellow construction vehicles of all kinds. I was excited about it and showed it to Jonah with Vivi sitting nearby. Immediately she said, “I want a truck dress!”. As I showed him the options, he realized that they also sold shirts and pants in the same pattern, and he told me he’d rather have a tank top and leggings. “Are you sure?” I asked him, “You can have a dress if you want one.” I was worried that maybe he’d picked up on our hesitation somewhere. He told me he was sure.

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So Vivi got her truck dress, and Jonah got a matching shirt and pants, and I need to strengthen my kid-accessible explanation of feminism and sexism and why it’s important to think for yourself.

Enjoying weekend day trips: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Silver Beach

We’ve squeezed a lot of fun into the last week or so, including some things I didn’t photograph well or at all, so they didn’t get any air time. Last week Monday we were lucky enough to crash a Brendan James private house show. He and his band play tiny shows at people’s homes between their venue shows while on tour, and there happened to be one about 30 minutes from here. Despite never having met the homeowners or anyone else at the show (well, except for Brendan), we were allowed to attend and ended up with front-row outdoor couch seats, which was amazing. It was definitely one of the best live music experiences I’ve had.

The next night was the 4th of July, and while I feel kind of “meh” about the celebration of genocide and slavery that underpin the origins of the country, I love fireworks in a big way. I even love neighborhood fireworks, even on random summer nights, and yes, even when my kids are sleeping. I love them because when I was a kid, “big” fireworks weren’t legal in Michigan (that has since changed and grouchy people hate it), but every year my dad would go to a particular liquor store over in the neighborhood where his office used to be, and he would buy illegal fireworks from Indiana that they secretly sold in the back room. Sure, we spent some 4th of July nights in South Haven watching the official fireworks over Lake Michigan, but most of my 4th memories are of amateur fireworks shows put on by my dad in the elementary school parking lot across from our house. This year I wanted to take the kids to the lake (because it really is fun to be there with tons of people and glow necklaces and all of that energy, and to see the show over the lake) but ultimately we decided that it was going to be a hassle, and we were talked into heading to a church parking lot where the country club fireworks are visible across the road. It was actually a lot of fun, and my dad even came through with a few rockets and roman candles of his own. Every kid there was crowded around him, and our kids seemed to love it.

This weekend we ended up taking a couple of unplanned day trips that turned out to be absolutely lovely. On Saturday we checked out the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. We’d been told that they have a really nice children’s garden, but it absolutely exceeded my expectations. The boys loved the Great Lakes water tables with boats, Vivi would have played in a little fountain all day, and they went wild in an amazing treehouse structure that made me think of Swiss Family Robinson (although I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually read or seen that, so that association may be misguided).

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There was a lovely old barn in the farm garden, and naturally Vivienne wanted to climb the ladder up to a beam. There weren’t a lot of people around and we didn’t see a sign that told us explicitly not to climb it (although I’m guessing that wasn’t their aim), so we let her go. She’s always been such a climber, so nimble and fearless, and she scrambled right to the top.

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A family came through and seemed surprised to see such a tiny person up there. We mentioned how fearless she is, and they said something along the lines of, “Watch out when she’s a teenager!” We’ve heard that before, but this time when the family walked away Kristin pointed out that no one would ever say that about a little boy at the top of a ladder. I love how brave she is. So brave, in fact, that when we asked Jonah if he wanted to climb, he asked Vivi if she would rub her head against his so that he could have some of her bravery (they did it, but I didn’t get a photo – it was adorable though). He only made it up one or two rungs before he was too afraid, but Vivi did it three or four times, slapping the beam at the top each time to make her success known.

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On Sunday the day was actually off to a rough start; we have a tendency to keep the kids out late in pursuit of these adventures, and then we act surprised the next day when their behavior is out of control. Kristin took the twins to see some live music at a park while I went grocery shopping with Jonah who hadn’t exactly earned the field trip. In the late afternoon however, when I was feeling grouchy and sad about the way the day was unfolding, K convinced me to pack everyone up and drive to St. Joseph (about an hour away) to the beach and the splash pad. It completely turned the day around for me.

I expected the kids to be super into the splash pad since they’d loved the fountain the previous day, but they were a little tentative. Only Vivienne really got into it, although she tried hard to physically move Jude towards the water.

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See the photo above? Every so often, the vertical spouts shut off and all of the kids (and some adults) run into the center of the fountain to wait for giant water cannons to shoot into the middle. That’s what’s happening in the photo above. There’s so much water that you can hardly see the big group of people standing in the center. The first time it happened, Vivi and Jude and Jonah just stood back and watched, but the second time Vivi ran to the center to join everyone. Except that I don’t think she really knew what was going to happen, and as soon as the water rained down on her she began to sob hysterically, but didn’t know how to get out. Kristin the hero ran into the downpour fully clothed and carried her out.

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Believe it or not she wanted to keep playing for a few minutes after that, but before long we headed to the beach for some playground time.

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We aren’t big beach people really, because none of us love getting a lot of sun (hence the 6:00 p.m. trip to the beach), but we went in Charleston in April and we went to Lake Michigan last summer when my sister and the kids were in town, but this is really the first time I’ve seen the kids enjoy the beach in this way. Jude would have thrown handfuls of wet sand into the lake all night long. Vivi loved wading into the water again and again, and Jonah just seemed to take it all in, alternately playing in the sand, dipping his toes into the water, and climbing the lifeguard stand.

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Jude actually fell from that lifeguard stand after making it up another rung or two, which was pretty scary, but luckily he was OK. We all headed towards the bluff for pizza and made it a very late but beautiful evening. Jonah asked if next time we could go to “the beach with the pink house” (North Beach in South Haven) so I’m sure that’s coming up for a future weekend.

The sandbox, and an affordable DIY sandbox cover

The one element of the swing set that hasn’t been complete since I posted about it was the sandbox. I know that there are a lot of strong feelings among parents about sand boxes and even sand at playgrounds. Lots of people seem to feel that they’re dirty and full of bacteria since they can easily become litter boxes for neighborhood cats, and some parents just don’t want the sand coming into their houses in every shoe and fold of clothing day after day (the struggle is real). I can understand both of those arguments, but for me the tradeoffs are worth it because our kids love sand play so much. I want to make our backyard a place where they have lots of options for entertaining themselves, and giving them a great sandbox as an option was important to me. Some good friends of ours in New York have a wonderful sandbox that was SUCH a hit with all of the kids, so that was my vision.

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Our friends’ sandbox in New York, and my reason for wanting a great one

When we chose our swing set plans, I chose it in large part for the size of the fort deck, which also turns out to be the size of the sandbox below. We went with 6’x6′ because I wanted to make sure that all three kids had plenty of space to play. Once my dad completed construction I figured that we could get sand in there within a couple of days, the easy part, right? We ordered a pallet full of “play sand” in bags from Home Depot, only to find a California 65 warning label that informed us that the sand contained known cancer-causing chemicals that were proven to cause organ damage. Naturally we were alarmed. As it turns out, silica (which is in all sand, more or less) is dangerous when inhaled, so the safety of play sand has a lot to do with the particle size. We talked to a number of people we trusted and decided to return the bagged sand to Home Depot (they were very gracious about picking it up and even refunded our delivery fee) and instead have washed sand delivered by a local landscaping company. Who knows, it could be exactly the same stuff, but psychologically it felt better. We also figured that if sand is dangerous, it’s the same stuff we played in as kids, so how awful could this really be?

We had one cubic yard delivered, dumped into our driveway, and borrowed a neighbor’s garden cart to transport it to the back. A cubic yard of sand is a lot of sand, y’all.

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Jonah was a big helper. He was totally into helping me shovel the sand into the cart and then into the sandbox.

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To try to avoid the neighborhood litter box problem I made a cover for it. I found a number of places that sell custom sandbox covers, but they cost roughly $80 and I just wasn’t willing to spend that on it. Instead, I bought a roll of affordable shade fabric that came with a lacing needle and cord, two six-foot pieces of PVC with end caps, and put it together in an evening after the kids went to bed. It cost around $30 total and it works great. Even better, I ended up using the same material to provide a barrier between the dirt and the sand (so that the kids wouldn’t mix the two if they dig all the way down). That saved me from having to buy a huge roll of landscaping material when I only needed six feet.

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Sewing two ends of the shade fabric onto the PVC was easy, and the needle and cord that it came with was perfect.

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The cover lays across the sandbox nicely, with the PVC weighing it down on two ends. It’s lightweight enough that it’s easy to roll up when the kids want to play, and it’s breathable, which means rain will go through rather than pooling on top and causing a mess when we want to remove it, and the sand can dry out beneath as needed. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and especially the price.

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The kids are loving it and have spent a lot of time in it over the past two days, and we look forward to sharing it with friends.

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Summer carnival fun

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There are so many things that feel like iconic pieces of the Michigan summer childhood experience, and carnivals are one of those for me. I’m weirdly ambivalent about them; on one hand, I have a number of happy childhood memories from fairs and carnivals from one summer to the next, and I get genuinely excited about taking our kids to share some of those same experiences. On the other hand, almost as soon as we arrive I’m reminded of a slice of midwestern culture that I’m not exactly keen to align myself with (a snobbiness that has caused me to utter the phrase, “I’m not sure that I want our kids to grow up to be Michigan-people” before). I won’t try to describe exactly what I mean, but if you asked Kristin she’d tell you that it has something to do with the prevalence of calf tattoos. My dad took Jonah to see a monster truck show at the speedway tonight and reported back that the crowd was much of the same, which I could have guessed.

Even so, as soon as I heard about the Battle Creek Air Show coming up I put it on the calendar and told K that we were going, and invited my parents to join us because every one of my carnival and air show memories includes my parents, of course. On this particular night there weren’t actually going to be any flight demonstrations (I had mixed feelings because they were doing a big reenactment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor complete with pyrotechnics and I’m not big on the glorification of war, so I figured it made more sense to attend on an evening without all of that). There were supposed to be hot air balloons, which we love and got to see at a different event last summer, as well as some motorcycle stunts and a lumberjack demonstration (pure Michigan!). As it turned out, the weather was rainy so they didn’t end up flying the balloons, and we missed the motorcycles, but we did see the lumberjacks (Jonah enjoyed the axe throwing).

Mostly though, we hung out at the carnival: eating elephant ears and corn dogs, watching the kids grin through ride after ride, and being reminded how much of our own joy comes from watching their joy, no matter where we are. And some of those rides? I swear I remember riding the exact same ones when I was a kid. They didn’t have the giant slide with the burlap sacks, but it was still a pretty good lineup.

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The rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and we didn’t get home till roughly 10:00 p.m. Jonah would have ridden those rides all night if we’d let him.

Summer fun – outdoor movies and a zoo visit

Nothing too profound today (although I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about kids and gender norms lately, so there may be a part 2 to this post coming up soon). I just want to log a little bit of summer weekend family fun.

We kicked things off on Friday evening by heading to a movie in a nearby park. Our first experience with an outdoor movie (actually, I think it may have been our first experience taking any of the kids to any movie ever) was this one last summer. Jonah asked if this one was going to be shown on a barn, a sensible conclusion for a four-year-old, but it actually took place at a park we’d never been to that was less than a mile from our house. We arrived at about 7:45, having stopped for candy and brought some popcorn from home, and got settled on our blanket. There was a playground nearby so we spent some time there, and by about 9:00 I was starting to get very grouchy and impatient. I know that Michigan is on the other end of the time zone from New York, but somehow I expected the parks department to have a projector that’s capable of operating in some daylight. But then the fireflies came out, and the kids all ran towards them.

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At first I caught and handed them fireflies, but before long they’d all caught their very own first fireflies (confession: I actually grew up calling them lightning bugs, but fireflies sounded better in the blog title, so now I go back and forth). They were all SO proud and Jude and Jonah even ran over to Kristin on the blanket to show her.

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I think that I may have seen Jude and Vivi give theirs kisses. Everything about it was adorable. And just to add to the sweetness, there was an older boy there (maybe a few years older than Jonah) who caught them just to hand them to the little kids repeatedly. It was darling.

Then the movie started and by some magic, everyone stayed awake and no one got cranky! Jude and Vivi were fast asleep at the movie last summer, and despite this one ending at nearly midnight they made it all the way through.

On Saturday we’d decided that we would check out the Binder Park Zoo. I hadn’t been in decades, and we had low expectations. We know that we were spoiled by the Bronx Zoo, and a friend warned us that Binder Park really ought to be called, “Trails, With Animals” because mostly it’s just a boatload of walking with periodic animal exhibits. It was more or less what I expected, but the kids had fun.

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See that photo above. That’s what happens when you really want to be in a picture with the kids for once, but two out of three are trying to get away and would rather be doing anything else but that. Thanks guys.

More than anything else, the kids were into the train ride and everything that was climbable. We asked Vivi later that evening what her favorite animal had been and she said, “the choo choo train”.

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They all seemed to enjoy the children’s zoo, and Vivi really loved the goats until she got nibbled.

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On Sunday we mostly hung out at home because the kids’ exhaustion seemed to have finally caught up with them (midnight bedtime Friday and nothing but car naps on Saturday? I can’t imagine why) and they were crabby, but when I came home from a grocery run with Jonah, Kristin and the twins were in the front yard with the gator and shortly thereafter the neighbors across the street invited us over the blow bubbles. It was a lovely way to end the weekend.

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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 (1 cubic yard): $75 including delivery
  • Labor: FREE (thanks, Papa!)
  • Total cost: $943

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.

We eventually put sand in the sandbox, and that post is here.

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.