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.

IMG_7079 We packed everyone back into the car and drove out to the lookout point, which was incredible. Sure, it was only about 450 feet above the lake, but it felt like we were looking at the earth from space. The kids wanted to climb and explore and dig; I think that we could have spent all afternoon there if we hadn’t planned to be elsewhere.

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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.

On baptism, rituals, and coming together

This past Sunday evening we attended the baptism of our six-month-old twin nieces. The parents had the ceremony (is ceremony even the right word? Suddenly I have no idea) at their home, outside on the deck in the early evening summer light. They live in a beautiful wooded place so the backdrop really was quite lovely, and while the hour and the day and the drive made it a bit inconvenient for us, I could see why they may have chosen evening over the alternatives.

It was a couple of hours in the car each way for us, and since the kids are all strapped into their car seats on road trips we have a bit more freedom than usual to listen to music or podcasts or just to talk to one another with limited interruption. Especially on the way home, we spent a lot of time talking about baptism: what it means, why people do it, upon what criteria godparents are chosen, and also about rituals and traditions in general but particularly in relation to raising children.

I don’t come from a terribly religious family. My sister and I weren’t baptized, although we did attend church semi-regularly in spurts growing up (or at least that’s the way I remember it). I actually think well of that church, enough that when K wanted to attend this past Christmas Eve, we went there. Kristin grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran family, so she’s much more familiar with the nature and reasons behind all of the rituals and traditions than I am. We don’t attend church now, and I think that I can speak for both of us when I say that we’re spiritual but not religious. Personally, my sense of spirituality is much more tied to nature and beauty and gratitude than it is to anything related to the Bible or any other text. We didn’t choose to baptize our children (and in fact, I don’t remember it ever coming up in conversation) and I have no doubts whatsoever about that choice, although I respect the choices of those who do.

I like rituals and traditions. I like the weight of them, the significance of marking something meaningful to you and your family. I like the history associated with generations before us having gone through the same motions and recited similar sentiments in a shared belief in something. But I’ve never been able to make much sense of the idea of signing your children up for something that they haven’t chosen and aren’t old enough to consent to. That said, I’m sure you could point out dozens of hypocritical things that I am OK with that are somehow similar (piercing a toddler’s ears, for example). But I suppose what’s confusing to me about baptism is that, in my mind, real faith is about what you deeply believe in, often despite challenges to those beliefs. If you’ve been in the world and really lived, and heard all of the different perspectives and opinions and you still believe, that’s faith to me. But signing a baby up for something, it doesn’t feel like it means very much in the grand scheme of faith.

That said, I do understand what it means to be a parent and to want the very best future for your children, and to have hopes and dreams for them and to try to do what you hope will set them on the path for a happy, fulfilling life. I’m sure that for many people who baptize their babies, that’s what they have in mind. I also know plenty of people who have done it because, “that’s just what you do” and/or because it was important to grandparents, and I can see that too. It would water the whole thing down for me, but OK. It doesn’t do any harm.

On the way to the baptism, we listened to an episode of a parenting podcast about multicultural families and how they pass traditions and elements of identity down to their children. We also listened to an episode of On Being with poet Marie Howe, that addressed “the ways family and religion shape our lives.” Perhaps surprisingly, both of these were chosen somewhat at random. We weren’t looking for things that tied into our plans for the day. But both of these pieces, along with an article I found when Googling Howe as we drove, led our conversation about baptism in interesting directions. That article in particular made Kristin and I miss our NY tribe desperately.

So many rituals for babies have to do with who they are and who their parents hope that they will become. It makes sense; we know so little about them when they’re born, so it’s not as if anyone could stand up and give the sort of storytelling speeches we give at weddings or memorial services. At that stage of life everything is about hope and potential. We’ve been to one Jewish naming ceremony, not a bris, but just a naming ceremony months after the child was born, and it was lovely. I recall K and I talking about how much we enjoyed it, this coming together of people to celebrate the life of a little boy. It wasn’t an especially religious ceremony, but it felt like community and celebration of both his place in the world and the significance of his existence in his parents’ lives. In the podcast, one of the mothers talks about this ceremony and how it’s kind of the only option for Jewish girls, since a bris is only for boys, but that a bris is meaningful because (if done by the book) everyone comes together within seven days of a birth to welcome the baby and celebrate. We didn’t circumcise our boys, so that’s also not a thing that we believe in especially, but the idea of your tribe coming together from all over to celebrate the enormity of having a child, showing up to meet that baby and say “welcome,” it makes me wish that there was a tradition like that for everyone, regardless of faith. Not that you can’t make something up, and a friend of ours has recommended this book (which I borrowed at one time, but haven’t read), but I’m not sure that making up your own ceremony and inviting friends from around the world would work in quite the same way. If there wasn’t a tradition already in place that we show up to these things, no matter what, would people show up?

When Kristin and I reflect on our wedding, we often talk about one of the most powerful elements being this idea that everyone in attendance is there in support of this life-altering choice you’ve made. And one way or another, their presence is their way of saying “I commit to supporting you in this life together.” There’s often some acknowledgement in the ceremony that the couple will need that support, because marriage is hard sometimes. Having a child is such a transformative experience, so fraught with challenge and uncertainty and fear and sometimes loneliness. It seems like a gigantic miss to me that we don’t have a ritual in place, all faith identities aside, that does something similar when a child is born or adopted. When I imagine what it might have been like to have people we love from around the world show up to meet our babies and welcome them and to commit to supporting us through the challenges of raising children, it’s such a wonderful vision. That’s a ritual that I would carry out without question (well, except for the part about essentially planning a wedding immediately after having a baby, on very little sleep, not having showered for days…that doesn’t sound quite as idyllic).

I feel like we need it though; we as a culture, I mean. A ritual that acknowledges the challenge and transformation that parenthood brings, where we all show up for our people and say, “I’m here and I’ll be here when you need me (for you and your child), and you can do this because you have all of us in your corner.” Becoming parents feels every bit as powerful as getting married, doesn’t it?

Did you baptize your children (or will you), or carry out another ritual for them? Why did you choose what you did?

Dreaming of summer and thinking about school

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I’ve been so excited about summer, which I’m sure is obvious from all of the gushing I do about being in the yard with the kids (I’m pretty sure I started writing about that in February). It got cool again after it was play-in-the-sprinkler hot for about three days in a row, and I was downright grouchy about the change in weather. I’m ready for summer clothes and cold drinks on the patio and hose water everywhere you look. And fireflies, of course. I’m dying to see if we get fireflies in our yard (we moved here in November, so we haven’t seen a summer yet).

The swing set plans and hardware have arrived, the lumber is on its way, and Papa Doc has promised to get started with the lumber prep and to let Jonah help with the building. We’re going with this model, which is going to take up a pretty large section of our backyard, but as Kristin reminded me, “that’s what the yard is for.”

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I read a piece by one of my favorite bloggers the other day on summer hacks for moms and it got me even more excited about coming up with fun things to do, both for the kids and as a family. I really want to set up a “dirt kitchen” in a back corner of the yard where there’s too much shade for any grass to grow. I’d also forgotten how much the kids love to paint outdoors with water, so I need to pick up a few paintbrushes on my next trip to the hardware store. I’ve already whipped up a batch of homemade bug spray, we have plenty of sunscreen, now we just need to figure out some sort of storage for the toys that are always strewn across the patio, but I’ll get there. It’s only May.

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The kids will end their “school year” the same day that Kristin does (by design), which is in three weeks. I am a little bit worried that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, since I don’t actually get a summer off with the kids. Kristin does, and I know that there are more relaxing ways to spend a summer, but I’m still a little bit jealous. We aren’t planning on taking any major vacations this summer because of finances, so I might plan a staycation or two, and we may take some long weekends to do things we’ve been dreaming about that are within driving distance (the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Dark Sky Park, and maybe Chicago by train).

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We’ve been doing a lot of bike riding as a family lately, and this is the twins’ first time doing so since the bikes were in storage all last summer, and the previous year they were too young to ride along. We were fortunate to get a hand-me-down trailer from a neighbor we didn’t even know (thanks, Facebook!) and Jonah still (barely) fits in his seat, so we’ve been able to do some longish rides, both around our neighborhood and beyond. I’ve been loving this, and most nights after the kids get home from school, if the weather is decent, I end up proposing that we go for a quick ride after dinner.

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Even though I’m pretty fixated on summer, I’ve also been thinking a lot about school lately. I may have mentioned before that we love our preschool. We considered sending Jonah to kindergarten this coming fall (he’s too young to make the cut off, but he falls into an in-between group that is allowed to apply for a waiver and attend early). The financial savings of moving him to public school would be huge, but we feel like he needs another year of preschool for a variety of reasons. He’ll be much better off in the long run. As a result, we’re facing an additional year of three-kids-in-private-preschool, which makes up an astronomical portion of our budget. When we crunched the numbers, we gave serious thought to moving them to a less expensive school. I toured a couple, Kristin visited my favorite of the two and agreed that it seemed awfully nice, but in the end we decided not to move them. Why?

Well, in large part because the kids love it, and we love it, and they’re comfortable and happy there and we moved them across the country last summer. It just didn’t seem fair to move them again, especially Jonah who will then change schools yet again the following year when he does go to Kindergarten. But it also came down to what we believe education should be. Kristin and I don’t agree on everything (I read this one evening and was practically cheering, while the teacher in Kristin just couldn’t get on board), but we do value a lot of the same fundamentals when it comes to childhood and early learning.

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The preschool that our kids attend operates in a Montessori style. There are multiple rooms that are set up to support specific types of activities, and for nearly all of the day the children are free to select rooms and activities as they please. They go outside twice a day unless the weather is foul, and they have the most incredible outdoor play space I’ve ever seen at a school of any kind. It’s the kind of school that warns parents at the start of the year that when it gets warm, they will fill up a trench with the hose and let the kids sit in the mud if they please, so don’t send your children in clothes that you care about. We also love that a large number of the teachers there have been in early childhood education, many of them at this same school, for 30 or 40 years. There’s a wisdom there that you don’t find at every preschool, and we’ve gained a lot from it.

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The school that we considered moving them to felt more like a charter school (in my limited experience, but also in Kristin’s). Spotless, well-organized classrooms assigned by age, lots of information for parents on “assessment” methods. Jonah has already said that he’s excited about Jude and Vivienne being “upstairs” with him next year (the toddlers are in the basement) and as far as we could gather from the other school, they wouldn’t have crossed paths much. We want them to have that year together. I think that it’s good for their relationship.

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Exploring with total freedom, learning through play, getting dirty, being out in nature, this is the kind of education that we believe in. Kristin made a good point that this may be the last year that we end up educating them in a way that we truly believe in, and that made me very sad, but also gave me the courage to send them back there this fall despite our financial concerns. I read an article just a day or two ago about Germany’s outdoor preschools and thought to myself, yes, that is what I want for our children, but I want a variation of it for more than just preschool.

I recently stumbled upon an Instagram feed called Wild & Free that focuses on home schooling (or maybe unschooling is more like it). While we’re not really in a position to home school, not to mention the fact that we moved here largely for the free college that’s associated with attending the public schools all the way through graduation, I sometimes dream of living in the Montana wilderness and raising and educating our kids away from everything, outdoors more than in, away from the plague of standardized testing and schools that suck all of the joy out of learning. When I see our kids stopping to follow a caterpillar on its journey, and can see Jude’s smile from behind because of his adorable cheeks, I know that it’s that kind of natural curiosity that leads to real growth.

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And the amount of passionate observation and curiosity that has come from a mother robin building a nest on the trellis outside Vivi’s window, the way we all talk about and check on those robins at least 50 times a day,  the way the kids all come running when one of us sees a hungry baby’s head pop up, and all of the things Kristin and I have looked up about robins either to tell the kids or just because we’re curious, it’s all just so authentic and wonderful.

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We didn’t move to a ranch out west and we don’t even own camping equipment, so I can’t pretend to be rejecting modern conveniences or a suburban life. When it comes to our kids and their education, however, I kind of want more, and I wonder what we can do to make up that difference when they most likely end up in public school as planned. We love our home and we don’t really want to move to the wilderness, but many things lately are conspiring to make me think outside of the box and wonder how we can merge the two worlds to bring our children more of this magic, even when they’re trapped in a classroom that may not be very magical.

Until then, there’s summer, and I’m going to squeeze in as much magic and wonder as I possibly can. I’m off to make a summer bucket list.

Things I’m not taking for granted this Mother’s Day

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As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, Jonah leaned over and said, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and gave me a hug. It was so unexpected and wonderful because no one reminded him to say it. He was the first one up and was just waiting for me to wake up. So often lately he’ll pause whatever he’s doing and say, “Mama D,” and when I look at him he’ll hold up the ASL sign for “I love you,” before going back to whatever he was up to.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about things that I don’t want to take for granted. The sentiment feels slightly different (to me) than saying “things that I’m grateful for,” because more than just blessings, these are things that could easily be overlooked. Jonah is such a noticer; we often marvel at his ability to overlook no detail, to forget virtually nothing. His appreciation of beauty is finely tuned. And watching him notice has made me long for those childlike senses that haven’t yet learned to tune so much out. 

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We spent the entire day at home today (well, Kristin ran to the hardware store to pick up our mower this morning, and then went to get hamburger buns, but the rest of us never left). We’d wanted to go for a family bike ride but our bikes are in the shop for a tune up and weren’t ready in time. We talked about going someplace to do something fun, but after spending the morning in the backyard, the kids had absolutely no interest in leaving. We spent the whole day in the yard and it was perfect. So in honor of Mother’s Day, a brief list of things that I’m not taking for granted today:

Having a house and yard that the kids love so much that they don’t want to go anywhere else. Where Jonah often says, out of the blue, “I love this place. Let’s live in this house for 120 years.”

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Having the perfect apple tree that shades the patio enough that we can spend the entire day out there without worrying about getting too much sun.

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Our kids being young enough in this stage of our lives that they are enrolled in zero clubs/sports/extra curricular activities (and don’t miss them at all) so that we are able to wake up every weekend and have an entirely blank canvas open to our design. We don’t yet need to divide and conquer events and practices, we can spend every moment as a family, and can start the weekend by asking the kids, “what should we do today?”

Being able to sit on the patio and flip through a magazine today, and looking over at this view (I put down the magazine and took the picture and then went back to the magazine without ever leaving my chair) knowing that this life is everything I’ve ever wanted.

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Having a partner who is an amazing mother, who keeps everything together when work takes me away from home, who is willing to do the hard work of trying to be the best parents we can be, who remembers to say “thank you” all the time, who makes up songs and dances better than I ever could, who has the patience of a saint when Vivienne wants to sing and chatter on for 30 minutes past bedtime and Kristin is captive in her bed, and who has Jonah convinced that she truly loves to sit down and play legos with him and appreciates being asked to wipe his bottom, “because you love to help me.”

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Having parents who showed me what it looks like to work hard, take care of a family and household, and do what needs to be done without complaint, but also the importance of joy and family time above a spotless home. Having my parents alive and well and nearby, not only willing but enthusiastic about helping us to make our house a home. They get back to town in a couple of days and we can’t wait to spend time in the yard with them, making it even better. More than that though, I can’t wait to be able to include them in our lives in an everyday, no-big-deal sort of way (but without taking it for granted).

Never having spent a Mother’s Day longing or grieving. I just realized today that we didn’t start trying to get pregnant until late May or early June of 2011, so although our journey to start a family felt long and challenging and included many months of disappointment (10, to be exact), by the next Mother’s Day I was pregnant and we celebrated with brunch and a trip to the baby store to wander through all of the gear that we’d eventually need.

I know that this day is a sad one for so many, either because they’ve lost their own mother, have a challenging relationship with their mother, have lost a child or a pregnancy, desperately want a child but have been unable to have one, have a challenging relationship with their child, or in so many other ways have complicated feelings about motherhood.

I do not take our life for granted for a second. So many people and steps and opportunities made our family possible, from our donor, to employers who gave us the time and space to drive to Connecticut for multiple medical appointments each month, to good health insurance that made those dozens and dozens of visits and procedures possible without us going bankrupt, to our amazing doctors and nurses, to my family who hoped and prayed with us for our dreams to come true (even buying a baby cradle before I was pregnant, because, my dad said, “to become, act as if”) and who showed up to help when those dreamed-of babies arrived, to the midwives who helped bring our babies into the world, and to every member of our “village” both here and in New York who have helped us make it to where we are today. Without an incredible amount of privilege combined with random luck, these three wonderful people wouldn’t be ours. I’m so very glad that we are theirs.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Parenting and gender norms

My friend Jodi over at Dear Sabrina wrote a good piece about raising gender neutral kids in Sweden that got me thinking. It’s actually something that I think about quite a bit, but I found it to be particularly fascinating to read about the norms for kids in Sweden and to think about how her experiences compare and contrast with ours.

When I was pregnant with Jonah I desperately wanted a daughter. Honestly, I can’t even tell you now why that was. I truly don’t remember what felt so important to me about raising a girl. We found out the baby’s sex at the 20 week ultrasound because I felt like I needed to know so that I could prepare appropriately if I were having a boy. My sister had wanted a boy and found out at 20 weeks that she was having a girl, and struggled a bit with the news (it didn’t take her long at all to come around, however, and her daughter is very very loved). I was due only a few months behind her, and I was afraid of what might happen if we waited to find out in the delivery room and I gave birth to a boy. What if I was disappointed when I met him? That would be awful, and I had no experience to tell me how very unlikely that was, so I decided that I needed to know early so that I’d have 20 weeks to turn my attitude around.

Once I met Jonah it didn’t take me long to learn that it wouldn’t have mattered who I’d given birth to – I couldn’t imagine my life with any other child but him. He was exactly the child for us. But I’m not sure anyone could have told me that and had me believe it without me seeing it for myself.

When Jonah was a baby, I was pretty adamant about not covering him or his room in stereotypically “boy” themes. I picked out bedding for him that had a pattern of teal and blue floral elephants, we refused to buy him clothing or even PJs with things like trucks or sports equipment or even dinosaurs on them. When he was not yet two, a friend from the UK brought him a cute little book called Digger and Skip, about construction vehicle friends working together to solve a problem. From that moment on, he was completely hooked. He couldn’t get enough of construction vehicles, and before long that led to John Deere vehicles and farm equipment. It was kind of amazing to me because he’d seen books on lots of different things before, but this was the first passion that was truly his. We didn’t hesitate to follow his lead, so from then on we were happy to buy him construction-themed clothing and toys, make his Halloween costumes in alignment with his interests, and so on.

 

For his first birthday, some good friends gave him a baby doll and he just never took to it. He never showed much interest at all in traditional “girl” toys, despite my desire to raise him a bit more gender neutral than most boys. On the rare occasion that he did express an interest in something more gender neutral, I sometimes found myself hesitating more than I’d expected to. When he was two, we were picking out a backpack for him for an upcoming trip, something for him to carry a few small toys in, and I showed him a number of different colors online and he chose pink. I was truly surprised, and wondered if he’d be happy with that choice. Doubting it, I ordered three different colors and figured he could choose in person and we’d send the other two back. He saw them and stuck with his original choice. I was actually kind of proud of him, but also a little bit concerned. For that same trip he’d also chosen shoes that were purple with a pale orange (nearly pink) stripe around the bottom. I remember worrying that if people saw him they might think, “oh, of course the lesbian moms bought their son a pink backpack and purple shoes.”

When Jonah was two, he also started asking us to paint his toenails. I remember tossing the question out to my mom group because I had to ask myself: if he were a girl, would I let him have painted toes at age two? Or would I feel like that was somehow sexualizing a two-year-old girl, having her grow up too quickly? I didn’t want to have a double standard at play, so I had to ask myself how I would feel if the tables were turned. After some deliberation we decided that it was fine, and he’s had his toes painted many times since, including a couple of weeks ago. It’s something that I honestly really love about him and I’ll be sad if/when he stops asking. I remember, however, sending him to day care one of the very first times we’d done it. He came home and told us that he’d asked Gladys if she liked his toes and she told him that no, she didn’t. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I picked up the phone and called her immediately and explained that it wasn’t her place to judge him for something so benign. She could talk to us if she had a problem with our choices. She was very apologetic, and it never happened again.

Recently when we were shopping for clothes for a trip, I was asking him his preferences and he told me that he wanted rainbow striped leggings like one of his classmates had. I honestly did look for them online in a few places, and had I found any that were a truly primary colored rainbow I probably would have bought them, but I kept finding pastels and neons and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know whether I was worried for him or worried for us, but I can’t say that I feel good about it (now I feel like I should make more of an effort and find him some). We were also buying shoes again recently and for a moment he expressed an interest in some pinks and purples and I was kind of excited to see him thinking outside of the boy box, but in the end when he had to choose just one, he went with red. On the same shopping trip he did pick out pink shorts, however, and I was tickled. They’re now my favorite thing in his wardrobe.

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When the twins were born I cared far less about the sex of the babies than I had the first time around. We both thought that it might be nice to have a boy and a girl because we’d get a daughter while Jonah would also get a brother and not be too outnumbered by girls in his family, but we both felt pretty good about any combination. We got our boy and girl, and watching them all grow as people has been even more fascinating as I think about gender.

It didn’t take Vivienne long at all to adopt that baby doll of Jonah’s. She absolutely adores baby dolls, and plays pretend with them all the time. When we were in Charleston she even told me at one point that she was nursing the baby in the hammock.

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Well before she turned two, she started carrying around this little toy barn with a soft handle. She’d hook the handle over her elbow and carry it around like a handbag. Both K and I were flabbergasted – neither of us carries a purse on our elbow, and her day care provider certainly didn’t do so. Where was she getting this? Also before she turned two, she started asking to have her ears pierced (without knowing the words). I’d pick her up and she’d reach out and touch my earrings, then touch her own ears and say, “I want some.” She’s also had very strong preferences about her clothes in the last six months or so (again, before age two). On a couple of occasions I laid out a pair of jeans that Jude had outgrown, and she flat out told me that she didn’t like them, and went into her drawers and replaced them with leggings. You might assume that it’s because leggings are more comfortable and flexible, but she’s happy to wear two other pairs of jeans that have a floral pattern. She’s also given me grief about khaki joggers, and will always choose pink and purple polka dot leggings over a neutral.

Most of Vivienne’s clothes are hand-me-downs (from girls), so we honestly haven’t done that much thoughtful selection of her wardrobe. I really don’t mind putting her in tutus because she adores them (and she loves pink), and it’s fun to see our children excited about something they love, even if it does align with gender norms. Still, I’ve been surprised by how powerful some of her “girly” tendencies are. That said, she’s totally fearless, clearly adores and looks up to Jonah, and is just as happy to play trucks with her brothers.

When Jude took to baby dolls before he turned two I was totally charmed. Since Jonah hadn’t been into it I think I’d started to assume that maybe Jude wouldn’t be either, but he started bringing an old Cabbage Patch doll with us on stroller walks whenever Vivi would bring her doll. By Christmas we knew that he needed his own baby, and watching him love it is the sweetest thing.

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Jude doesn’t seem to be at a point yet where he shows much interest in what he’s wearing, so we’ve always put him in pretty standard boy clothes without much thought. Our neighbor actually remarked recently how amusing it was to watch them play in the yard: Vivienne was sitting in the driveway drawing with chalk, and Jude and Jonah were hitting a tree trunk with sticks over and over again.

I’ve also been amazed (and frustrated) by the emergence of Jonah’s fascination with guns and shooting. Is this a boy thing? Another boy mom warned us that it would happen. No matter how pacifist and anti-gun you are, she told us, they will at some point turn anything into a pretend gun. With Jonah it didn’t happen until preschool this year (the first year he’s been in school with boys his age), and he talks all.the.time about his friends who have Nerf guns. We’ve told him time and again that we don’t like guns (and why), that we don’t buy toy guns at our house but that his friends who have them aren’t bad people and neither are their parents, they just believe something different than we believe. When he plays with those friends he cannot wait to play with the Nerf guns. He’s also really into robots lately and walks around pretending to shoot a laser at things all day long. In Charleston he borrowed a squirt gun from his cousin for the week and just adored it. When he had to give it back he tried to reason with me so that he could get one. “It only squirts water,” he said, “so it can’t hurt people or animals so it’s not the same as other kinds of guns.” I finally caved at Easter and put a squirt gun in his basket, but I still cringe when he plays with it in the bath.

Parenting has surprised me in many ways, but watching our children’s personalities and passions emerge and wondering what’s nature and what’s nurture has caught me off guard on more than one occasion. I’m a feminist who majored in women’s studies and thought that I could resist caving to gender norms or buying into the idea that nature weighs heavily on their personalities and preferences, but here I find myself waffling over the tiniest things. I do think that part of it has to do with American culture. A huge part of me takes great pride in watching the kids be completely, unselfconsciously themselves, and another part of me worries about how they’ll (or we’ll) be judged. We’ve told Jonah many times that there’s no such thing as boy clothes and girl clothes, or boy toys and girl toys. He’s even called us on it when we’ve slipped up. One day Kristin mentioned to me that she’d seen some cute clothes at Target in the Cat & Jack line. She said something along the lines of “I only had time to look at the boys’ clothes, but they were cute.” Jonah piped up from the next room “There’s no such thing as boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes.”

Unlike my friend’s experiences in Sweden, I feel like the norms for boys here at school (more so than for girls) are somewhat rigid. I’m actually thrilled when I walk into the brown room at school (the room with dress up clothes) and see a little boy in Jonah’s class wearing a skirt. There have been mornings when Vivienne wants to wear a bow in her hair, and Jude has to have one too, so Jonah asks to join in. We pick out bows for everyone, but when we get to school, Jonah always decides to remove his and asks me to take it home. Every time it’s happened I wonder if he’s starting to learn what’s acceptable for boys and girls, and it makes me a little bit sad. Am I contributing to that?

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Despite my desire to be progressive, I think that maybe I’m a little too happy to be able to tell people that Jonah loves construction vehicles, and to dress Vivienne in dresses and tights that I think are adorable, and to have Jude planted firmly in the middle: our cuddle bug boy who takes his baby for walks and also gets excited about watching basketball. As a non-traditional family, it’s easy to feel like we’re already under a microscope and there’s pressure to show the world how typical and well-adjusted our children are. Still, it’s not fair to project our fears onto them. Gender expectations are powerful and we’re living in a world that reinforces norms constantly. It requires much more intentionality and confidence to go against the grain than I’d assumed.

Jonah and the dentist; or when it rains, it pours

 

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They’re not as good at dental hygiene as this photo makes them appear

We’ve known for roughly a month or so that Jonah needed dental surgery, and it’s been a source of anxiety for me every since it was scheduled. Way back in July last year, I took an afternoon off and brought Jonah into the city with me to visit my office and do a few fun things down in lower Manhattan, just the two of us. My co-workers are amazing and lots of them love when kids visit; he was goofing around with a beloved colleague of mine (they were rolling hula hoops and running after them – that’s the kind of office I have) and ended up falling and banging his teeth on the tile floor. He screamed and cried like I’ve never heard him scream, but there was no blood and no visible damage so I did my best to calm him down and, when I couldn’t, we ultimately left. We were two weeks from moving to Michigan, and he’d literally just been to the dentist, so we didn’t take him back for x-rays. I should also mention that he’s what pediatric dentists seem to refer to as “noncompliant.” He usually won’t open his mouth, he bites dentists, and up until yesterday had never had a cleaning as a result (not for lack of trying). About two weeks after the fall, literally the day we set out to drive from NY to MI, we noticed that one of his front teeth was turning grey.

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Once we were back in Michigan, Kristin drove two hours to try to get him x-rays from a dentist who knew her father (we didn’t have local insurance at the time and he’d offered to do it for free). Predictably, Jonah was noncompliant and the x-rays didn’t happen. A couple of months later, Kristin took him to a local pediatric dentist recommended by my parents. Once again, the x-rays didn’t happen. When the gums above that tooth suddenly started to look like there might be a more serious problem, I took him back to the same local pediatric dentist and by some miracle of bravery on Jonah’s part, we got the x-rays. As it turned out, the root above the grey tooth was completely gone and it needed to be removed, but the tooth next to it was also broken above the gum line and also needed to come out. We don’t even know when that injury happened, but it may have been the previous day when he bashed it on a classmate’s head while in a bouncy house.

The dentist said that they both needed to come out, for fear of infection and damage to the adult teeth behind them. We discussed a couple of options and ultimately decided that, given his proclivity for noncompliance at the dentist, he needed to be under anesthesia. We also really didn’t want to put him through the experience of having teeth extracted while awake since he’s already terrified of the dentist. We’ve had a lot of anxiety about the whole thing because, despite the low risk, anesthesia can be dangerous. They also gave us a ton of warning about how he had to be in perfect health or it wouldn’t be safe, and he had to have a pre-surgery physical to prove that he was healthy enough to endure the procedures. We all really wanted to get this over with, and getting on the hospital schedule takes some notice so the thought of having to cancel due to illness was awful.

We’ve been doing our best to keep Jonah healthy, and then naturally on Monday of surgery week the twins came down with pink eye. Then on Tuesday he returned home from school complaining of a terrible earache (so severe he couldn’t sleep that night) but thankfully my cousin and his wife are amazing chiropractors who live blocks away and they let us come over and get Jonah adjusted (in the morning the pain was gone!), and then on Thursday night, the night before surgery at 9:15 a.m., Vivienne came down with the worst stomach bug she’s ever had. She threw up all night long, roughly a dozen times. Neither Kristin nor I slept much at all, I slept in Jonah’s bed just to keep an eye on him so that we would know if he seemed unwell, and Kristin slept with Vivi and caught puke in a bowl all night long. In the morning, there was no way that Kristin and I could both accompany Jonah to the outpatient surgery center because someone had to stay with Vivi, so I dropped Jude at school and took Jonah on my own.

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The windowless waiting room gave me the creeps and felt more like a methadone clinic than an outpatient surgery center, but ultimately I have to hand it to the staff; they were lovely and compassionate and took good care of Jonah. When we went back for the pre-surgery prep, they already had Paw Patrol playing on a portable DVD player. Somewhat surprisingly he seemed to have no fear whatsoever leading up to this. We’d told him very clearly that they needed to remove his two front teeth, and every time we brought it up he’d say “OK” or “Yeah I know” and seemed totally comfortable with the idea. I think a big part of it has to do with a lack of knowledge about surgery or tooth extraction. We’d told him that he would be asleep when they did it, and that I’d be there when he woke up. We went through all of the pre-surgery stuff and the only upsetting moment for him was when he had to take an oral medication to make him sleepy and calm so that he would be OK going back and being put under. He fought us on it, but once it started to kick in he asked me sleepily if we could go camping sometime. It was kind of sweet and totally unrelated to anything on the show that was playing, so who knows where that came from. I told him that we could.

When the dentist came in to talk to me, he went over the plans for the day. We’d already discussed that he would get a full set of x-rays (they only got his front teeth the last time), a cleaning, and that they would fix any cavities that were present, in addition to the extractions. What I didn’t know until that moment was that the plan to fix cavities in molars was to put crowns on. Crowns for baby teeth are stainless steel and pre-made, so presumably less expensive than the gold and porcelain variety, but still. I was shocked, but didn’t really have enough time to debate the issue or do any research or even consult K on the matter. I just hoped that his teeth would be in good shape and it would be a non-issue. I should have known better; I have terrible teeth, and a lot of dental health is based on predisposition and bacteria passed from the mother.

A nurse carried him back and he didn’t object at all, and I didn’t cry until he was out of sight. I’d been determined to be a rock for him so as not to pass along my own fear, and I feel like I succeeded. I got to the waiting room and called K and we both cried, and I promised to keep her posted. At some point they sent a nurse out to tell me that he went under the anesthesia just fine, really well actually, and that he did have cavities that they would be fixing. She didn’t know how many off hand, she’d just been sent to give me that message, so I didn’t have any idea what we were looking at. At some point during his procedure, a different dentist came out to talk to parents sitting behind me. They were engrossed in The Price Is Right, and when their dentist told them that their son had received six crowns and two fillings they seemed completely unfazed. I, on the other hand, was horrified, and immediately texted K. She replied with “Eek! Hopefully it’s not so bad for J. Praying.” I was honestly more shocked at their comfort with the news than with the results of their kid’s treatment.

When the dentist came out to tell me that Jonah was finished, by some miracle he decided to take me into a room to talk to me. I don’t know if that’s because he expected a poor reaction or if that’s just his approach, but I’m incredibly thankful. He told me that Jonah ended up with crowns on all of his molars: eight crowns. His cavities weren’t severe, but they were between the molars (his entire chewing surface was in great shape) and they prefer to crown them to prevent future decay (and to avoid having to put Jonah through this again). I immediately burst into tears. I felt like a horrible parent for not flossing his teeth regularly (I’m learning that few parents do, but whatever), and I was incredibly concerned about how Jonah might feel about his very obviously stainless steel teeth. What if his peers made fun of him? Would everyone think that he had terrible hygiene and was a total freak? I let the dentist know that I was really disappointed that he hadn’t given us more than ten minutes notice that this might be the plan for cavities. I cried and cried and did my best to focus on the post-surgery instructions, but it was clear that my reaction had totally thrown the dentist for a loop and he felt terrible. He told me that he felt like he’d failed me. I confessed that my feelings weren’t really about him exactly; I felt like a terrible parent for letting this happen to Jonah (and for passing along my predisposition for bad teeth), and I worried about how it would affect him socially. Honestly if we’d had time to research it we might have consented to it anyway, but not being given that choice was really upsetting.

I knew that I needed to pull myself together before seeing him, so I did my best (but I went to call K and began crying again), and then in a moment a nurse came out to tell me that he was awake. This is the other part that I was entirely unprepared for. I could hear him yelling before I saw him. He was thrashing and yelling but couldn’t really hold his head up, and there was blood running from the corner of his mouth. I went to him and picked him up and held him on my lap, but he fought me and kept yelling “I want to go home!” They offered him a popsicle and he refused, demanding to go home. He then tried to rip out his IV and continued to fight me, but I knew that I couldn’t set him down or he would hurt himself. When we finally got out of there I carried him to the car and I drove home telling him how brave he’d been. He seemed angry and disoriented, and I was completely overwhelmed by how much he seemed to be suffering. We offered him soft foods, water, and TV but he refused it all and just wanted to lie down. I lay down with him and reminded myself to just meet his needs and to try not to overthink it all.

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He slept for a long time, and when he woke up he seemed to have transformed back into himself a bit. He was still clearly unwell, but he was now interested in eating and watching his favorite show.

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Vivienne was still in a terrible state (and still is a day later) and was limp and whimpering all day long, needing to be worn or carried, so she needed someone’s attention at all times. Kristin was exhausted from the lack of sleep the night before, but wanted to do everything she could to care for Jonah since she felt awful for not having been with us that morning. I was actually glad to see her get in a short nap when they both collapsed from exhaustion.

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Poor Jude definitely got the short end of the attention stick. With all of our attention on Vivienne and Jonah for two straight days, he’s pretty much been fending for himself. At least he did get some screen time out of the deal.

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I was actually amazed by how “himself” Jonah was by the end of the first day, and even more so the second day. He may be on soft foods for a little bit longer (he wouldn’t object if that never ended – he would live on chocolate pudding), but he seems to be bouncing right back. I have yet to get a picture of his new smile, but I think that I can love it as much as his previous one. He’s still my lovebug.