The meaning of quality time

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If things people write on the internet are a good barometer for the collective consciousness, absolutely no one was disappointed to see January come to an end. While the latter portion of winter is always rough for me, I don’t remember past Januarys feeling quite this gloomy. For much of the month I found it challenging to create magic or even come up with ways to spend time together that don’t involve folding laundry or yelling at the kids to stop vaulting onto the couch.

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I always feel a strong pull to make the most of the most of our weekends because I feel like we get so little family time. Every weekday morning and evening is a scramble (although that doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful for the additional time I have without a 1.25 hour commute from NYC) so those precious weekend hours feel far too few and carry tremendous emotional weight for me. I’m constantly thinking about how quickly they’re growing up and how important this time is. The twins will be three in a few short weeks, and the other day Jude refused to hold my hand as we walked out of the fabric store because we weren’t technically in the parking lot yet, and he’s a “big boy” now (because he’s very recently potty trained – the last baby to do so).

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The constant cold temperatures make spending time outside less appealing even though every part of me is craving nature. And the short winter daylight (even though Jonah reminded me today, as I wiped tears of frustration, that the days are getting longer) feel like family time hours are being stolen from me and I want to demand them back. Some of my frustration is about light for photography. Our house isn’t great for indoor photos; the windows face the wrong way (save for the full bath which gets nice afternoon light, but that’s not useful) we’re pretty heavily shaded, and I have a tendency to connect moments that photograph well with time well spent (which I know is silly).

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As I cried again this weekend, angry at myself for not taking the right steps to cue up magical quality family time, Kristin asked what makes time “quality” for me. The question stopped me because I’m not sure that I know exactly. On the spot, I told her that I think it usually involves us all being engaged in the same activity with enough time and space and focus to really be present in whatever we’re doing. I prefer activities in which the kids don’t all scatter in different directions (which often happens in museums and indoor play places) but somehow it bothers me less when we’re outdoors. If we’re all enjoying nature together I’m fine with a little bit of curious wandering.

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Filling her pockets with treasures. This might have been the trip that resulted in this haul.

I’m pretty self-aware and I tend to be good at anticipating how a particular decision will make me feel, and I’m also a bit of a control freak when it comes to those feelings. One of the challenges is that while I’m all about going on adventures, and setting up craft or baking projects, Kristin would love nothing more than to stay in her PJs all weekend; that’s what makes her feel best. And if I’m being honest, I value slow mornings on the weekends (because my weekday mornings are such a mess of hurry and yelling and tension), so I make pancakes and we don’t shower till 10 or 11 and the kids play in whatever way they see fit, but when the days are so short if we don’t manage to get out of the house until 1:00 p.m. we’ve lost a significant chunk of the day. To Kristin’s credit, she understands (at least in some sense) what feels magical to me, and she’s always game for an excursion when I need one.

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January weekends have also been complicated by the first real extracurricular we’ve had. Jonah started gymnastics on Saturdays, and to our surprise he’s absolutely loving it. We were concerned because a week before it began the kids attended a birthday party at a different gymnastics gym. Despite knowing all of the kids at the party, Jonah cried and clung to me and didn’t want to join the group for any of the activities. It didn’t bode well for how he might handle a class with total strangers. But amazingly he has loved it from moment one; he tries each and every activity with gusto and always emerges from class completely thrilled with his experience. We’re so proud of him and it’s fun to watch, but it also means that we end up splitting up right in the middle of the day. Since we don’t get home until just before 1:00 and then the kids need lunch, we don’t often feel like we have sufficient time to plan something big for the afternoon.

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I’ve been trying to temper my expectations without letting myself off the hook because I do believe that I’m in charge of how I choose to spend time. But I also know that when I try too hard to control how quality our time is I almost always end up feeling stressed and defeated. I think of this article all the time (not the first time I’ve linked to it), and just the other day I read an Instagram post that was also a good reminder that especially when our children are this young, we have to have reasonable expectations.

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When I was about to fall apart today after Jonah’s sleepover friend went home (his first sleepover! It wasn’t a raging success, but I think they had some fun and at least we tried) and I had no good plans for the afternoon, Kristin reminded me that hey, isn’t Valentine’s day in ten days and don’t the kids need to make valentines for school anyway? Why don’t you run to the store and pick up craft stuff to do art with the kids. It was brilliant and so full of love. So we did, and they made a few, I fretted over the glitter markers that Jonah begged for that I didn’t realize were permanent until they were open, they used too many stickers on too few paper hearts, Vivi unrolled almost the whole roll of washi tape, and they lost interest before we had nearly enough for their friends, but hey there’s always next weekend.

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I’m going to keep trying to identify the themes and currents that run through all of the moments that feel like quality time to me because it feels important to know what on earth I’m even striving for. If it’s possible to be even more intentional while lowering my expectations a bit (or maybe just shifting my idea of what’s meaningful), that’s where I’d like to land. I know that sometimes it’s just about being present and mindful in a passing moment. Maybe a whole afternoon is simply too high of a bar.

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The after-Christmas slump

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I have a hard time in January, and I know that I’m not alone. The holiday stretch from October through December brings me so much joy and opportunity to engage in fun, creative activities with the kids and to make those seasons magical. So once it’s all over I struggle to find a similar source of inspiration and wonder.

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It doesn’t help that New Year’s Eve stresses me out a little. At Christmas it feels so easy and natural to create traditions that are meaningful for us, but NYE always makes me feel like I’m missing something. I have no idea how to spend it and yet it feels high-stakes enough that I ought to be doing something significant to mark the gravity of the occasion. This year I even had a fleeting thought that if I did it wrong that might sabotage my intentions for the year. Ultimately we went bowling, the kids wore party hats for awhile, and I think we watched a movie together (I don’t even remember what it was). It was the kids’ first experience bowling and we had a lot of fun. Later Kristin and I decided that we want to do some sort of family activity every NYE (no matter how unceremonious it may be).

While we were bowling I kept thinking of the NYE when my family went bowling together at the very same place. We may have even done it more than once. I have a lot of wonderful memories of family time on holidays big and small. When I was in college I remember spending my first NYE and also my first 4th of July with friends rather than with my family, and while I tried to enjoy it, fully aware that this was what college kids were supposed to love doing, the secret pain of missing my family on those evenings was huge. While I don’t want to cause our children any pain as they grow up or keep them from their independence, I would love for us to cultivate the kind of environment and traditions that make our kids want to spend holidays with their parents and siblings.

The other day, Kristin and I had a conversation about the concept of a meaningful life (because of this post written by a friend). We attempted to define the meaning of meaning, and I spent some time talking about how I’ve recently come to the realization that parenting, and even sometimes managing a household, is my source of meaning. While I’ve always known that I wanted to be a mom, I think that I’d convinced myself that the work I do around the house was selfless because I was caring for others (and that, by extension, those who were more focused on career or otherwise were being more selfish than I was). It seems clearer now how wrongheaded that was. I told Kristin through tears that I’ve worried ever since our oldest was born how I’ll cope when the kids are grown and out of the house. She took my hand and told me that then I’ll be like the creepy mom in I’ll Love You Forever who climbs into her adult son’s room with a ladder while he’s sleeping. Kristin always has the right thing to say.

We both went back to work over the last week and a half, the Christmas tree came down, and I’m feeling bummed out about all of the cold and grey without something sparkly to look forward to. I’m not much of a resolution person (if I were, perhaps I’d feel more motivated and inspired this time of year). It always feels like too much pressure to come up with them on time. Last year I set some goals on my birthday because that gave me a two-week runway, and I’ve actually done fairly well on two of them: lots of creative activity over the last year, and I finally joined a gym in October and I’m loving being active again. This year I’m still defining what I’d like to focus on personally, but since my sister gave us a cute little letter board we decided to set some family resolutions with the kids. It made taking down the Christmas card wall a little more bearable to know that I had just the thing to hang in its place.

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Watercolor art from the kids added the color that it needed (we’ve been doing a lot of family painting lately, including lots of tiny paintings to stretch the paper a bit further). This series also includes lots of Lisa Frank stickers, so bonus I guess? We came up with the list collectively, with each person contributing at least one item.

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One of K’s gifts to me for Christmas was a set of magnetic cords to hang photos or cards, so a week or so ago I ordered a bunch of prints and this week I hung them up on a blank stretch of wall in the living room. I love how easy it will be to change up the pictures whenever we want, and to get even more photos off of the computer and onto the walls. The kids love looking at them and talking about them, and printing some of our favorite memories from 2017 was a nice way to reflect on the year.

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Completing these two tiny creative household projects was so gratifying for me, so I know that I need to keep up the inspiration if I want to stay out of the winter joy slump. My parents gave me a sewing machine for Christmas and I’m excited to learn how to sew as an additional creative outlet. Now I just need some beginner projects (and probably some You Tube tutorials). I did know how to sew once; I learned in seventh-grade home economics where I made two pairs of shorts which I unfortunately wore to school. Kristin laughed for several minutes straight when I shared that. So maybe not shorts. If you sew, can you recommend any fun beginner projects?

Besides tapping into my creative side, I want to make sure that we get outside more as a family (now that the single-digit temps seem to have abated), maybe pick up a few new puzzles to do as a family (Jonah told me the other night that puzzles are his favorite thing in the whole world, which was news to me), and make sure that we’re finding ways to lift the kids’ spirits too. Jonah mentioned how much he misses summer tonight, so I think that the gloom is beginning to wear the kids down too.

What’s inspiring you and bringing you joy in January? What are you looking forward to?

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Christmas Day, 2017

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I’m so thankful for Christmas-day magic this year. That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for it every year – I’m a serious lover of Christmas. But our Christmas Eve ended on kind of a rotten note, and I was genuinely worried that it might sour the entire holiday for me and everyone else.

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For the most part the 24th was OK: we didn’t take on too much, the kids got baths, we went to a Christmas Eve church service, we walked through Bronson Park to take in the lights (for roughly 90 seconds before it was way too cold and we headed for the car) and this was probably where the trouble began: we offered them hot cocoa after dinner. Then dinner happened and everyone refused to eat veggie lasagne so the promise of cocoa was rescinded. Cue a total meltdown from Jonah, complete with throwing things at me, screaming at the top of his lungs, the works. The night ended in me taking two of his wrapped gifts from under the tree and walking them outside to the “trash” while he wailed in disbelief that doing such a thing was even possible. Lately their sense of entitlement has really been pushing my buttons, but I know that I took this way too far on Christmas eve. (Side note, this has been one of my favorite Christmas songs for years despite its dark weirdness, but I swear that isn’t where my mind was going when I threatened to throw his gifts away).

I called my mom and she reminded me that we have great kids who have pretty good manners most of the time, and she told me that she thought it would be fine for me to change my mind and give the gifts back to him in the morning following a serious “talk” about his behavior. I’m so thankful for my mom’s level head and reassurance, because when the kids went to bed (before I called her) I’d honestly lost all enthusiasm for creating Christmas magic. And I love creating Christmas magic, I really do, and it’s only once a year so I was crushed at the prospect of having ruined the night.

Fast forward to Christmas morning and I was feeling much better. Jonah woke up in the 5:00 hour and came in to tell us that he’d gotten up so early because he wanted to see if Santa had eaten the cookies they’d left. Kristin gave him the green light to go check, and he looked around in wonder before running in to wake up Jude and Vivi.

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We always do stockings first, and I do my best to drag out the events of the day so that it isn’t just a whirlwind of torn paper and greed. At some point when things had reached a lull (but still well before dawn) I sat Jonah down and explained that I’d given it some thought and that my decision had been a poor one, that the presents weren’t ruined and that he could have them after all, but that he needed to understand that his behavior the previous night would never be acceptable. We talked about the fact that sometimes the answer will be no, and you won’t like it, but you have to cope with it. I don’t know how much of this he was truly listening to and maybe it was just the Christmas magic, but he was incredibly well behaved and grateful for the next two days without exception.

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One of the things that most impressed me was their ability to open a gift and run off to play with it, forgetting that there were more gifts under the tree yet to be opened. Vivi was a bit more insistent on moving to the next one, but the boys were happy to spend a significant amount of time with each item before moving on.

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They all shared toys incredibly well and played together all day long. Jonah’s favorite gift came from my parents: a bow and arrow set with big padded tips.

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Jude’s favorite was the garbage truck he asked for.

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And Vivi’s was probably a set of fairy wings, which she wore all day.

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The funniest part about the wings is that the Christmas eve church service had costumes available for kids who wanted to wear them. Naturally Vivi spotted girls in angel costumes and wanted to know where they’d gotten them, so I grabbed a pair of wings for her. Soon after both boys wanted wings too, so all three wore them throughout the service. When she saw hers on Christmas, she asked us to be sure to bring them the next time we go to church, because she now believes that you wear wings when you go to church (obviously).

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The collective gift that I was most excited about was a sleeping bag for each kid and a play campfire set. We set them up in the great room and I’d almost forgotten about them until Vivi discovered them some time after opening stockings.

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The kids hung out in their sleeping bags roasting marshmallows and pretending to eat the felt s’mores I made for them for a significant chunk of the morning.

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Breakfast is the only meal that matters for us on Christmas, but because it’s more of a production than your average morning the kids are ravenous well before it’s ready. We let them each have a sugar cookie to tide them over, which was well received.

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After peaches and cream french toast we opened all of the family gifts with the sun finally up. With each gift there seemed to be such joy and such gratitude from the kids; I heard the words, “I always wanted that!” many times that day.

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When all was said and done we bundled up to shovel the driveway while the kids played in the snow. Oddly I was happy to do it. There was something magical about working together and being out there in all of that snow, the sun making it all shimmer from time to time, when just a day or two earlier everything had been green and we hadn’t been at all certain that we would have a white Christmas.

The previous evening we’d talked about doing sparklers (we had some left over from the 4th of July), and Jonah was excited about it, but in all of the chaos and anger we all forgot about it until the kids were asleep and it was too late. I felt badly, as it sounded like such a magical thing to do. I remembered on Christmas though, and asked the kids if they were interested, so they bundled up enthusiastically and we headed out to the driveway.

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Jonah and Vivi were really into it, but Jude was a little nervous.

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Eventually though he did hold a sparkler and seemed proud of his accomplishment.

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At the very end, as Vivi held one of the ones that cycles through different phases (which Jude never wanted to come near) he walked over, put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Wow Vivienne. You’re so brave, just like Moana.” It made me melt to see how proud he was of his sister. The way that they enjoy one another’s company lately is one of my favorite things.

It was a good day, and they continued to show me what kind, polite, grateful humans they can be on the following day as well. Maybe I just needed the universe to remind me that none of us are perfect and that I’m going to make horrible parenting mistakes just like they’re going to make ordinary kid mistakes and that yes, it’s OK for us both to have high expectations for one another, but that we also need to offer a whole lot of grace and try to focus a little more on the beauty and the goodness that’s there too. Christmas is about forgiveness, after all.

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?