Jonah at five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How quickly time passes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I said so, and other insufficient explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crying over lost chicken

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Two nights ago I went to bed quite late after a lovely family movie night (Moana), and found myself sobbing over a small stuffed chicken. I’d been losing sleep over chicken all week long, ever since we’d been unable to find him as we left for school on Monday, but this was the first time I’d cried about it. I lay there in bed fully cognizant that it was, frankly, ridiculous that I was crying over a lost toy when there were so many more horrible things going on in the world that were worthy of tears, but I couldn’t stop.

Parenthood is so strange and complicated and powerful. I become more and more aware of all of the baggage (both useful and burdensome) that we carry with us from our own childhoods, and even things that our own parents carried into ours. I have a thing about stuffed animals, I always have. I struggle mightily to view them like other toys and to this day if someone steps on one I wince and want to rescue it. I can’t explain this phenomenon exactly, and honestly I wish it weren’t the case. I’ve always hated The Velveteen Rabbit (do any children truly enjoy that story? Do adults?), and when we became parents I tried to avoid stuffed animals, because I knew that once we had them I’d never be able to get rid of them. But then everyone else started buying the kids stuffed animals and now we have dozens that no one plays with stuffed into bins and cradles all over the house.

Jonah never really got attached to a particular stuffed creature; he didn’t really have a comfort item per se (well, besides me). But Jude and Vivi like dolls and stuffed things more, and when Jude got this small yellow chicken in his Easter basket from Grandma Sue this past spring, he took to it. He’s taken it to school on a number of occasions, it travels with us, and he sleeps with it often (though he’s perfectly able to sleep without it, so it isn’t the kind of comfort item that many children end up with). He doesn’t necessarily ask for it every day, but he has been known to say, “I love chicken so much,” and it’s as adorable as it sounds.

When we went to Northern Michigan this past August, chicken came with us. When we stopped to eat lunch in a town somewhere between Traverse City and Mackinaw City, Jude insisted on bringing chicken in and somehow we left him. We were about 20 minutes away when suddenly, from the back seat, Jude yelled, “chicken!” There was panic in his voice. We turned around immediately, called the restaurant, and they retrieved chicken from the table and kept him safe for us until we got back.

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Chicken was probably just out of this shot, sitting on the table in the foreground.

When chicken turned up missing this week, I kept thinking of that restaurant and Jude’s panicked realization from his car seat. I also thought about my green pillow. When I was tiny I had a small green pillow (known just as “green pillow” much like chicken is simply “chicken”) that I took everywhere.

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I know, I look just like Jonah.

When I was still quite small it was lost somehow. Every night when my parents put me to bed I would ask them to look for green pillow, and they would assure me that they would; this must have gone on for months. I don’t know whether they actually looked for it, but probably not because I believe they told me eventually that it was left at a hotel. My parents have talked about this loss for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think that I’ve ever asked them how they felt as I went through it.

My dad has been writing these stories for me lately, memories from his youth about all sorts of things. (I’ll write about that another time, but it’s via Storyworth and it’s wonderful). I’ve noticed in his stories that seemingly small things, anecdotes that others might breeze past, still carry tremendous hurt for him.

We travelled to Kentucky Dam Village at Kentucky Lake and stayed in a cabin Tuesday night before heading to Iowa on Wednesday after breakfast. I recall this because we kids were given the opportunity to buy a souvenir of our trip. I picked out a straw hat with a red plaid hat band with the rim turned up all around. Not your typical souvenir but it was what I wanted. I think we bought it on Tuesday. Wednesday morning we had breakfast in a resort log type cabin restaurant that seemed similar to today’s Cracker Barrel but was a local establishment. We finished breakfast and hit the road for Iowa. I don’t remember how far we had gone when I realized I had left my hat at the restaurant, I just knew it was too far to go back.

Reading this broke my heart for the small boy in the story, and I can tell by the way my dad tells the story now that there’s something about childhood sadness in a moment like this that just hangs on and shapes you. There was this one too.

While in Peoria, I went fishing with my brother and sister and the other kids on the river and I caught my first fish. It was small but I was so proud. Bud and Frannie had just returned so everyone was at the cottage and I remember running up from the river to show everyone my catch. It was a small mouth bass and I recall Bud and my dad telling me it was too small and I should have thrown it back. My mother then pointed out to me that it was young and its mother was probably looking for it. I was crushed that I had taken this small child fish away from it’s mother for all eternity. I just bawled and ran out of the house and hid behind the large propane tank and cried and cried. I will never forget that day.

Do you ever wonder what your children will remember and what will truly shape them? My dad is so sensitive in such a beautiful way, and I know that I get a lot of my sensitivity from him. When he told me the fish story one day recently before having written it down, he cried. That moment hurt him so deeply as a young boy, and sometimes I’m overcome with fear that the mistakes I make with our kids may scar them in ways that never quite heal. I feel like I make at least a dozen potentially significant parenting mistakes every day.

I listened to a podcast awhile back (edit – found it thanks to Kristin) and the episode involved a scientist who also happens to be a parent. The scientist was talking about how much we change over time, not just in personality but every one of our cells. They were also talking about memory. We have memories of significant things that have shaped us, but every time we recall those memories we corrupt them in a way and they change ever so slightly. So even memories of our most significant times begin to change along with our cells. But memories from our very earliest years, we can’t recall those later in life. Most of us can’t remember anything from before the age of four or so. And so the researcher concluded that perhaps that’s one thing that stays with us as we grow. Those very early memories are incorruptible because we cannot recall them and inadvertently alter them, so perhaps they’re always there and always the same.

As the week wore on and chicken still hadn’t turned up, I felt heavier and heavier. Every day I’d comb the house again, go through baskets at preschool drop off just in case he’d been left there, ask the teachers to keep an eye out, and I started to worry that something terrible might have happened. Had he fallen out of the minivan and been left in a parking lot somewhere? With my stuffed animal neurosis that was more than I could take.

In families with multiple siblings it’s easy to feel like there isn’t a lot that truly belongs to the younger one(s), and that feels especially true when it comes to Jude. Vivi has such a big personality that she asserts herself and everyone knows what she likes and what makes her uniquely her. But Jude? He’s so easy going, so easy to please, and he’s happy to play with Jonah’s toys and take Jonah’s hand-me-downs, and to tag along with the things Vivi loves. There are so few things that seem truly special to Jude and that are his alone, and chicken was one of those few.  Despite the fact that Jude didn’t seem all that concerned about chicken’s absence (save for a tiny bit of upset on Monday), I could not let this go. Maybe in the back of my mind I knew that this was more about my baggage, my sensitivity, my worries about not giving enough of myself to each of my children, my attachments and losses, than it was about Jude’s. But I couldn’t let it go. An ocean of parental guilt washed over me when I thought that perhaps my carelessness had contributed to chicken’s disappearance.

At 11:30 on Friday night as I lay in bed sobbing there was no way that I was simply going to sleep. I got out of bed and grabbed a flashlight and began looking everywhere, again. Kristin seemed bewildered by my emotional state and need to find chicken, but she was incredibly gracious and took up the search alongside me. I went out to the van, I searched the basement again, Kristin searched our bedroom closet and Jude and Jonah’s drawers, we both went back into Vivi’s room where Vivi and Jude were sleeping (and where chicken is most of the time) and started going through everything again in the dark. I put my hand inside of the blankets at the bottom of Vivi’s mattress and felt something fuzzy: chicken. I pulled him out, whispered to Kristin, and then collapsed into her lap and cried.

Is this even the tip of the heartbreak-iceberg for any of our children’s lives to come? Of course not, so it’s the sort of episode that makes me wonder if my heart is even cut out for something as emotionally wrenching as parenting. Glennon Doyle Melton has a quote that I love: “We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description for love.” I know that I can’t protect my children from pain, and that doing so wouldn’t really equip them for the world anyway, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I could. I hate to think that my oversensitivity might leave them sobbing over a stuffed creature at midnight decades from now, or that someday they’ll recall a mistake I made or words I chose poorly with tears in their eyes.

The next morning, Jude danced into the room where I lay in bed with Jonah. He was holding chicken and he was smiling, and in that moment everything felt lighter. One tiny crisis had been averted, only a million more to go.

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Are you thinking, “that’s definitely a duck, not a chicken”? We know. At some point it was decided that it’s a chick and that was the end of it.

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.

A snapshot from school

The teachers at the kids’ preschool take a lot of photos throughout the day, and they post them on Shutterfly for parents to view with a login. Last year I clicked through them periodically and asked Jonah who everyone was and what was going on in each one, but there were so many and most were unremarkable, so most of the time I didn’t even bother. This year they’ve started tagging kids in them, however, which is a lot more efficient. Yesterday I got an email that our kids had been tagged in photos, and when I clicked through I found such a wonderful image. It captured everything that I love about our school and made me so happy that we decided to keep them there this year, despite the cost.

Our preschool operates on a modified Montessori model, which we love, but what we love most is the outdoor space. The kids have tremendous freedom to explore and create and get dirty and take reasonable risks. I find the idea of forest preschools and even eccentric playgrounds like this one somewhat inspiring, and while nothing quite that edgy exists around here (to my knowledge) the freedom of the outdoor play at our preschool is largely why we chose it.

Back to the photo; I won’t share it here because it has other kids in it and I don’t have permission, so I’ll do my best to describe it. It was taken in a corner of the play yard where there’s a teepee like structure made of big tree branches, and a pile of old tires and logs sits off to the side. Jonah has his back to the camera, and taped to his back with masking tape encircling his middle is an upside-down Club crackers box. You can see that he’s talking to two boys, pointing to them and perhaps giving directions. They appear to be listening intently, and one is giving Jonah a thumbs-up sign. Both of the other boys also have masking tape wrapped around their middles with cardboard boxes attached to their backs. On the ground in the center of the three boys is a wooden plank, with one end slightly higher than the other. On the low end is a pile of what appears to be action figures of some sort. There’s no teacher in the photo, no one directing or cautioning them in any way. The teacher who shared it captioned the photo with the following:

“We are going to take turns. I am going to go first, then you are going to go, then you are going to go last, then I am going to go again, then you are going to go, and then you again, and yeah, that’s what we’ll do” -Jonah

I couldn’t stop smiling. I replied to the teacher and told her that I was dying to know what was going on, and she told me that they’d made a catapult out of the plank and a log, and were taking turns jumping on the end to launch the rescue heroes into the air. Jonah’s teacher told me later that she had to fish one out of a tree at some point. When I showed the photo to K later and mentioned the boxes taped to their backs, she said without any hesitation, “those are jet packs.” Obviously.

This is exactly the kind of raw, imaginative fun that I want them to have opportunities to engage with. There is so much about their every day that I’ll never know anything about; most of those details are lost, and by the time they come home they don’t volunteer very much when we ask what made them happy that day. It made my day to see this moment captured. It also made me sad when I started to think about Jonah starting public school next fall and all of this magic disappearing. I don’t have a solution yet, but I know that there must be a way for us to supplement what they’re doing in public school with more opportunities for creativity and risk-taking and getting out into nature, because this kind of magic can’t end in kindergarten.

Backyard apple picking and preparing for fall

I’ve been having a tough time saying goodbye to summer, which isn’t all that different from the way I’ll probably feel as fall turns to winter or as the Christmas season comes to a close. (I can’t say that I ever feel that way in April as months of cold, grey, dreariness finally begin to disappear). The long hours of summer daylight that stretch well into the 9:00 hour, the laissez-faire attitude towards bedtime, running through sprinklers, outdoor movies, catching fireflies, and summer vacation road trips – all add up to a way of life that I look forward to all year long.

Our kids go back to school (preschool, that is) the day after Labor Day, which I realize is later than most of the country so we’re lucky in that regard. But I’ve been doing a lot of hand-wringing over how on earth we’re going to get them back into a normal sleep routine (and what my mornings will be like getting them out of the house each day if they’re crabby and overtired), and just generally feeling sad about the end of a season that I love with kids who are at a really fun age for the enjoyment of that season. I’ve read a couple of wonderful things recently from other nostalgic moms, bloggers I love, who have reminded me not to hang on too tightly to time. Kelle Hampton (who lives in Florida but spends the summer in Michigan with her kids) wrote:

…it isn’t their littleness that makes me happy. It isn’t Michigan or summer or having a kid who still totes stuffed animals on our adventures (although, that’s perfectly lovely and heck yes, I get joy out of it)…It’s ME that makes me happy. It’s loving the season I’m in. It’s realizing that joy and all the simple pleasures of life that inspire me are not confined to specific seasons

With this in mind, I’m trying to get myself excited about all of the joy that I can pack into fall. First stop: apple picking in our backyard.

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We have a lovely apple tree right in the middle of everything in our backyard. It kind of separates the patio from the yard, and provides the perfect kind of shade to sit on the patio on a sunny late afternoon. We have no idea what variety of apple tree it might be (but if you know how we might find out, please share), and we also had no idea whether the apples would taste good once they were ripe (although the deer and squirrels seem to love them). Even so, I was excited to do a little apple picking and make applesauce from scratch.

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Jonah and I went to Michael’s the other day in search of the perfect apple-picking buckets (I may have gotten an eye roll from Kristin, but she lets me do my thing). While we were there, he couldn’t get enough of the Halloween aisles and begged me to buy “spooky stuff” but since it’s not yet September I told him that we should probably pump the brakes, and that maybe we could pick out some yard decor on a day when the whole family could join the fun. I was pretty jazzed that his Halloween spirit is as big as mine though, so even while I was saying no I was complimenting him on his enthusiasm.

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Jude didn’t show much interest in the picking, but he was happy to munch on the results. He and Vivi passed that apple back and forth, bite after bite.

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We started with just one basket, not knowing exactly how our backyard applesauce might taste, and as I began to core and peel, Jonah pleaded with me to be able to help chop. I hesitated, but ultimately handed him a knife and gave him a tutorial and let him go. He did cut his thumb once, but didn’t give up and went right back to it once he’d been patched up. I’m so proud of his focus and dedication to helping; I think that he was pretty proud of himself too. We talked about what it means to make something from scratch, and for a few moments I felt like I could pretend to be just like Nici from Dig & Co. who never ceases to inspire me with her photos and stories of beautiful homemade things and raising kids in the glorious outdoors.

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When he went to bed tonight, with the applesauce simmering on the stove, he told me that he couldn’t wait to have some for breakfast. I can’t wait to watch him enjoy it.

While I’m somewhat sad to send the kids back to school, Jonah is truly excited about returning and I think that Vivienne and Jude are going to love this year too. The start of this school year feels SO different from last year when we were new to Michigan and hadn’t yet learned what a good fit their new school would be for them. I have a feeling it’s going to be another year of huge leaps for all three of them.

My Pinterest Halloween board is slowly filling up with ideas (let’s be honest, I’ve been thinking about their costumes since March), I’m putting every fall festival that I can find on the calendar, and I’m feeling a little more ready than I was a week or two ago. This weekend should be a perfect toast to the end of summer as my sister and brother-in-law and my niece and nephew come to town, the last of a string of summer visitors from across the country who have brought SO much love and laughter into our house and yard. The kids can’t wait to see their cousins and I can’t wait to see them all together again. If the weather cooperates we might just get a beach day and a BBQ. What could be better?

Northern Michigan Vacation

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It’s Sunday night following a week of vacation, so naturally I’m feeling sentimental and sad knowing that it’s back to work for me tomorrow, but it’s also a good time for me to reflect on the past week. Since we spent thirteen years living in New York, nearly all of our vacation time has been spent visiting family. Many of those weeks were also spent in glorious vacation-like ways, but they almost always involved staying with family. This was the first vacation that we’ve planned as a family of five that had nothing to do with visiting anyone, and we had a lot of fun plotting it out in advance.

Although I grew up in Michigan, we didn’t do a great deal of Michigan road-tripping when I was a kid. It may be because my dad’s family only took long road trips to visit family, so he was determined to give us a different sort of vacation experience (which I totally appreciate). We spent many summer weeks on Lake Michigan in South Haven, and I love having that tradition as a part of my childhood, but there are lots of quintessential Michigan vacation spots that I’ve never seen. We decided to do a Northern Michigan trip and hit a few places on my list, and it was wonderful.

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We started out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. A few years back, ABC News voted it the most beautiful place in America, and I’d been wanting to see it ever since. Kristin’s sister had taken her kids not long ago, and warned us that we may as well skip the dune climbing portion since the kids would surely whine and refuse the walk, but advised us to check out a particular lookout point on the drive. We didn’t budget very much time there, but really wished that we had. As soon as we got out of the car and the kids saw the sand, Jude said, “I forgot my diggers.” We had a picnic lunch at the bottom and then all tackled the climb. The kids were absolute champs! Jonah practically ran up, with Vivi close behind. Jude was slow but determined, holding Kristin’s hand along the way. Everyone made it to the first plateau, and I think that the kids would have kept going but Jude’s pace and our schedule led us to call it quits and head back down.

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From there we headed to Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. Our first experience with Great Wolf (which is a chain) was in the Poconos. We were driving back to New York from Michigan a few summers ago, and desperately needed coffee late at night. The only Starbucks we could find happened to be in the lobby of a Great Wolf Lodge. Kristin came back to the car with two coffees and a dazed look on her face, and told me, “You have to go in there. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese on crack.” This is probably my brother-in-law’s idea of a nightmare vacation (they take totally amazing vacations, so I have nothing but respect), but for some reason I really wanted to do this for the kids. Great Wolf is a waterpark hotel, but it goes way beyond that. The indoor water park is incredible, but it also has things like a kids’ spa, a bowling alley, character appearances, story time, dance parties, a cute camp-themed restaurant, and this complicated magic game that runs throughout the entire hotel. Jonah got a wand and played the game, and Jude and Vivi both got stuffed animals that connect to a simpler game for little ones, all thanks to Kristin’s parents who paid for those activities in advance.

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The week before we went on the trip, I was in New York for work and met up with good friends. As I was telling a wise friend about our plans, and how we’d chosen Great Wolf entirely for the kids, she gave me some sage advice. “Try not to make it just for the kids,” she said, “or you may end up disappointed if they don’t react the way you’re hoping. Instead, tell yourselves that you’re doing this because you want to do something new.” Oh the wisdom of mom friends, and how right she was. I knew this going in, and still made some terrible mistakes that I can’t quite let go of many days later.

Jonah wasn’t as interested in the water park as we’d hoped, and if I’m being honest with myself I should have expected that. He did go into the water a couple of times, and liked the lazy river and the toddler area, but he wasn’t interested in much else. On day two I told him that I really wanted to do one of the big waterslides with him. He’s tall enough to do them with an adult, and after giving it some thought he said that he would. We walked up the stairs, and I made sure to show him all of the details as he went so that he’d feel comfortable. We chatted with other families in line, many with kids his size who were also lining up to ride with their parents. They told us about the ride, how fun it was, but when it came time for Jonah and I to climb into a tube he wouldn’t budge. I tried to convince him for a number of minutes before we finally walked back down. This is where I should have told him that it was fine and asked what he wanted to do instead, but I didn’t. I told him that I was disappointed because I’d really wanted to ride with him. I told him that I felt like he was missing out on an opportunity, and we went back to the room. It didn’t take long for the guilt to set in. He took a nap, and by the time Kristin came back to the room with the twins I was in tears and feeling incredibly remorseful.

You see, I can be a control freak about lots of things, but vacations tend to dial things up for me in a really unhealthy way. I’m so determined to make the most of every minute, so aware of how quickly time passes and of the power of regret and disappointment, that I’m always on high alert trying to determine whether I’m using the time wisely, or if there’s some better way to set up conditions for success and happiness and quality time. When I read this piece years ago it really struck a nerve. My approach is totally bonkers and almost counterproductive, and yet I’m not very good at reining it in.

I apologized to Jonah more than once, telling him that he always has permission to change his mind and choose not to do something if it doesn’t feel right or safe or good, and told him that my reaction was based on nothing more than my own selfishness. I promised to try harder, and he forgave me, but I’m still stewing in regret. The next morning I asked him what he wanted to do most before check-out. He said that he wanted to play the “wand game” and Jude and Vivi chose the waterpark, so we split up again and I reminded myself that it’s OK for kids to have different ideas of fun. As we packed up for our next destination the kids watched TV, and on our way out of the hotel we asked them about their favorite moments over the past couple of days. Jonah immediately said that his was watching cartoons in the room, and despite my friend’s wise advice and my decision to honor his perspective, I was fuming again. This time I really only vented to Kristin, but I was disappointed. Why spend all of this money on a vacation when he could stay home and watch TV? A friend pointed out today that despite the value of asking questions like this, and helping kids to reflect on experiences and focus on gratitude and highs and lows, a four-year-old may not be fully capable of answering the way I expect. There’s often a recency bias at play and cartoons were the very last thing he’d done that was enjoyable.

We hit the road and headed to Mackinaw City, where we stayed in a cabin at Mackinaw Mill Creek. The kids have been looking forward to “camping” ever since we told them we had this all planned. And no, staying in a cabin with a bathroom isn’t truly camping, but it’s the first campground experience they’ve ever had and it was unlike anything they’ve ever done. This place was wonderful. Such a lovely contrast with the chaos of a waterpark hotel. We got in towards evening, but still had a good bit of daylight due to the long Michigan summer nights. We biked to the camp store where we bought firewood and matches, and spent some time at one of the playgrounds (there are three or four).

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It was an old playground with equipment I’ve never seen before, but there was something so charming about that. Like what is this spinning thing in the photo below? Does anyone know what that’s called? It was awesome.

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The kids were totally into the loft bed in the cabin, and while none of us slept there they were up there quite a bit. My parents had given my sister and I some lovely old quilts in a house clean out a year or so ago, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to pull them out. My parents seemed thrilled that we were actually going to use them, and my dad encouraged us to, “use them up.”

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That night we built a fire and Kristin and Jonah went to pick up a pizza, which we ate at the picnic table outside. When they came back, Kristin told me that in the car totally unprompted Jonah said to her that he loves vacations that I plan, and that he’ll go on any vacation that I plan. When she told me, after all of my mistakes over the past day or two, it made me cry with relief.

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We made s’mores by the fire, which the kids had been waiting for for days, and then we drove out to the dark sky park. All five of us love the night sky; the kids love looking for the moon and Jonah loves telling us what phase it’s in and pointing out constellations in the sky. I was so eager to spend time gazing at the stars with them, but unfortunately it was cloudy and you couldn’t see a thing. Kristin was so sweet about it, packing everyone up and going anyway just in case, but we didn’t stay for more than a few minutes before we headed back out.

We’d planned to take the ferry to Mackinac Island the next day, but the forecast called for rain on and off all day, so we chatted about an alternative. Kristin proposed that we move the island visit to Friday, the day we planned to drive home. We could drive late, she said, if it meant better weather for the island. I was incredibly thankful since Mackinac Island was also high on my wish list and the dark sky park hadn’t worked out. What to do on a rainy Thursday in a totally blah city, though?

We drove across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for breakfast, just because it was fun to say that we’d been there and tell the kids about it. Breakfast was frustratingly long, the kids were restless and hungry waiting 40 minutes for their food, and when it arrived Jude suddenly didn’t seem like himself and wouldn’t eat. We noticed that he seemed warm, and before we finished breakfast he clearly wanted nothing but sleep. We headed back to the cabin where it became clear that he was under the weather. We tried to get all of the kids to nap, but failed and ended up arguing about the day and yelling at Vivi and Jonah for disturbing Jude’s sleep. Fortunately we’d bought a puzzle in Traverse City so Jonah and I did that for a bit, and when there was a brief break in the rain we all went to a playground, but the day still felt like a bit of a bust. We worried that Jude might not feel better by morning and that our plans might have to change.

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At some point Kristin suggested that I could get Jonah and Vivi out of the cabin and away from Jude by walking with them to find the water’s edge. We hadn’t even looked for it, and I was curious. It turned out to be no more than a block away (if that’s a thing when you’re at a campground), and it was gorgeous. A row of pines and a beautiful shoreline and the bridge in the distance. Watching Vivi and Jonah wade into the water and be so present and joyful in the experience was one of my favorite moments of the whole vacation. I told them that this was my favorite moment of the day, and Jonah said something funny like, “That’s good, Mama D. You should be proud of yourself!”

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He waded out to get that rock from a pile, and didn’t even cry or get upset when he fell into the water unexpectedly. Even his hair was wet, it was quite a wipeout.

The next morning, we woke up early to pack everything up and check out of the cabin before heading for the ferry. By some miracle Jude was himself again, and the weather was cloudy but dry. We managed to get on a ferry that went under the Mackinac Bridge (which is unnecessary to get to the island, but certain ferry times take you under just for the experience). We found seats on top to maximize the view, and while it was chilly I think that the kids loved it. As the island came into view we pointed out lighthouses and beautiful old buildings, and I think that we were all excited.

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A neighbor and friend had warned me that the island was just a lot of touristy crap, so I tried to temper my expectations. But my favorite blogger takes her kids annually and seems to be completely in love with the place, so I knew that there was beauty there somewhere. The kids loved seeing all of the horses, and the lack of cars was such a novelty.

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We started with breakfast at a cute little pancake place, before deciding to get off of the main strip (which, while architecturally pretty, really is just tacky t-shirt shops, fudge, and ice cream) and bike all the way around the island. I’m SO glad that we did, especially since I had a moment of hesitation before we left town in which I wondered if bringing our bikes all that way was really worth the hassle. I imagined us carting them around all week long just for one short ride at our final destination. As it turned out we used them a lot over the last three days of the trip and even if we’d only biked the island it still would have been worth it. The back of the island was stunningly beautiful; almost no buildings, just a bike path and eight miles of rocky coastline and crystal clear waters. We stopped at least twice for the kids to play at the water’s edge, which they absolutely loved. As we biked, Jonah said again and again how much he loved Mackinac Island.

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One of our last stops was at the playground of the public school, which couldn’t have a more breathtaking location as playgrounds go.

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After a brief stop at the cute little public library, and the requisite stops for ice cream and fudge, we headed for the ferry back to the mainland. Kristin said that she would splurge to stay on the island on a future visit. On the ferry back I felt somewhat triumphant about the week, having experienced so many moments of beauty despite some frustrations and mistakes. The kids were happy; we made it possible for them to see and do some new things they truly enjoyed, and so much of my joy came from watching them engaged in those experiences. Hopefully I’ve learned some lessons for next time, but this felt good and I truly wish that it could have gone on much longer.

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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.

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.