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.

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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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.

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.

A few of our favorite children’s books

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Can we talk about libraries for a moment, and how wonderful they are? The other day I carefully read through a post on a favorite blogger’s favorite picture books, made a long list, looked them all up on our local library website, and put a whole bunch on hold. A day or so later I walked to the circulation desk and picked up a huge pile of books with my name on them. As I walked out with this armload of wonderful new books I honestly felt like I was getting away with something I could hardly believe. Thank you, libraries and the tax dollars that support them!

All of our kids love books, and both Kristin and I love reading to them. Clever picture books with wonderful illustrations, beautiful stories, thoughtful messages and life lessons, jokes that make both adults and children laugh – there’s almost nothing better. I should say that when it comes to children’s books I do have a bias: I love storybooks and really don’t care much for activity-style books. The ones with stickers or moving parts, or the ones you shine a flashlight through – not a huge fan. I find the activities to be distracting and we end up spending more time on the activities (often when I’m trying to get kids to bed) than the act of reading and listening, which is the part that I love. That’s just a personal preference, however. I guess the one exception to the rule would be the “That’s Not My…” book series from Usborne books. Those are all pretty cute as baby books go.

Without further ado, a list of a few of our my favorite children’s books right now:


Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

K and I bought this book years before we had kids. We loved the naked mole rats at the Bronx Zoo (sadly, the World of Darkness exhibit is no longer there) and when we saw this one at Powell’s Books in Portland we had to buy it. It’s a wonderful story about a mole rat who is different from the others – he likes to get dressed – and his peers tease him about it, until the whole group learns that it’s OK for everyone to do what works for them.


Mole Had Everything

We’ll stay on the mole theme for a moment. My parents bought this one for us at a cute little shop in Woodstock, NY when I was pregnant. It’s the story of a simple, nature-loving mole who starts to wonder if he needs more stuff, and then discovers that having a lot of things in his home doesn’t leave him time or space to do the things he truly loves to do. A great way to teach kids that having more stuff won’t make you happier.


An Egg Is Quiet

A science-teacher colleague of K’s gave this to us at the baby shower before the twins were born. The illustrations are gorgeous; it might be the most beautiful science book I’ve ever seen. The first couple of pages are filled with eggs all labeled with the name of their creature, and the back two pages have the same creatures labeled, and when Jonah was three he used to love to look at the egg page and ask me which creature came out of each one and we would flip back and forth, back and forth. We would take turns choosing which eggs we thought were the prettiest. I also just realized that apparently this is a series and now we need to get our hands on the rest of these.


Sonya’s Chickens

This one is new to us and I’m in love. The illustrations are so vibrant and beautiful (how did I not know about Phoebe Wahl?) and it’s a really accessible story about death in nature and the circle of life, so to speak. I think that it’s a beautiful story and maybe it also appeals to the part of me that sometimes wishes that we lived in the mountains and had chickens and goats for the kids to tend to. It also features an interracial family which I always see as a huge plus in kids books.


The Colors of Us

Speaking of diversity, we try to talk about the subject of race early and often with our white kids because being silent about it is a common mistake among white families. This book is a very simple one that helps children to understand that people come in a huge variety of beautiful colors. There’s no real discussion of the subject of race, per se, but it’s a good introductory book that’s cute. Jonah (age 4) chose it one night at bedtime and said to me, “I picked this one because I know that you love books about race!” So maybe we’ve been a little heavy handed 😉


Last Stop on Market Street

An award-winning story about seeing your world with an eye towards appreciation and gratitude, and how we can help our children to see wonder and beauty in everyday things, even if others appear to have more than they do.


This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World

This is a bit of a long read, but it’s really fascinating. It starts by introducing readers to seven real children (but illustrated in the book) from around the world, and then walks through their day section by section: this is what I eat for breakfast, this is where I live, this is how I get to school, this is what I learn at school, this is how I play…all with illustrations of each example for each child. Our kids seem especially interested in the illustrations and descriptions of meals for each child, and I found the variation in the dinner hour to be really interesting. At the end there are photos of each child and his or her real family, and a picture of the night sky that they all share.


All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon (2009-09-08)

This one is another new favorite of mine, maybe tied with Sonya’s Chickens. The pictures are dreamy, and for some reason our kids immediately found K and I and each of themselves in an illustrated character that they follow through the book and locate on various pages (the characters are never named, as the words are more poetic and universal and less of a character narrative). The words are as lovely as the pictures. It’s hard to describe this one but it’s wonderful.


Things to Do

Another poetic one that walks through things that all sorts of natural elements do. The language is beautiful and playful. For example, “Things to do if you are dawn. Shoo away night. Wash the eastern sky with light. Wake the sleeping sun: rise and shine! Rouse resting roosters. Set songbirds singing.” This one is Kristin’s favorite from the huge stack of library books I brought home.


The Book of Mistakes

More incredible illustrations here. An abstract and amusing look at how sometimes mistakes can lead to even more wonderful ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. If you have a kid who gets discouraged by mistakes, this is a good one to pick up.


Miss Rumphius

I’m pretty sure that I can remember this one from my own childhood. I can’t even explain why I like it so much. Maybe it’s because it tells the story of a female protagonist who was inspired by her grandparents and went on to independently create the life of her dreams, and took great pride in making the world more beautiful.


Strictly No Elephants

A completely adorable book about the importance of including everyone, and how it feels to be left out. Our kids seem to especially love the page on which all of the kids with unusual pets (who weren’t allowed to participate in the neighborhood pet club meeting) are walking down the street with critters like a bat flying along on a leash and a narwhal in a fishbowl being pulled in a wagon.


The Spiffiest Giant in Town

It’s actually really difficult for me to choose my favorite Julia Donaldson book. Vivienne used to be completely obsessed with Stick Man and The Gruffalo is incredibly clever. And I love A Squash and A Squeeze, but I think that this one is special because it’s about being kind and generous just because, and how appreciated that is. It still makes me tear up when I read it.


I Love You, Stinky Face

This is just plain silly, imaginative fun and all about the enduring love of a mother. We recently discovered that there are more of these, including Happy Halloween, Stinky Face which the kids are really enjoying this month.

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The illustrations and writing in these are all incredibly clever and funny and they all have wonderful messages about pursuing your passions no matter what. I can’t wait for them to write one about every student in the class.


Families, Families, Families!

We bought this one when Jonah was two and we realized that we had zero books that featured families like ours. This is a cute little book with funny illustrations of animal families that represent the wide variety of families in the world. Our kids always shout when we get to the koala family and say that it’s our family because it happens to have two moms and three baby koalas, and they love to point out who’s who. Accessible for even the youngest children.


A Family Is a Family Is a Family

Slightly more subtle in its illustration of different families, this one is also wonderful and I love the illustrations. A teacher asks her class what makes each of their families special, and each child shares something unique that isn’t always about the composition of their families but manages to communicate that anyway, for example, “Both my moms are terrible singers, and they both like to sing really loud.” The last page is an awesome nod to foster families and it made me want to cheer.


These are a lot of my current favorites, but the kids would probably pick a few that I didn’t include, so there’s a lot of mom-loves-reading-these-to-us bias going on in my list. We’re always searching for more amazing books, so I’d love to know what your favorites are. Please share them!

Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.