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.

Another Halloween in the books: Robots and Moana

It’s November 1st and I’m feeling a little bit sad because Kristin just left to spend four days in New York (the first time I’ve been with the kids alone for more than one night) and my parents are heading for Charleston for the winter first thing tomorrow morning. It feels a bit lonely, and then there’s always that slight twinge of sadness that comes after a big holiday for me. I can find things to get excited about many different times of year, but as Kristin said recently, October through December is kind of my jam.

I love Halloween; we’ve established that already, and this year I decided way back in the spring that I wanted to make robot costumes for the kids. They were really into this great show called Annedroids and I thought that it would be a really fun costume project. The first weekend of October Jonah and I went shopping for supplies, I started collecting boxes of specific sizes, and I started spray painting in the garage (which I knew would just remind me of the frustration of this project, but I just kept telling myself that the stakes were lower this time).

Almost as soon as I had the boxes painted, Vivienne announced, “I don’t like robots anymore. I like Moana now.” Despite having a killer robot voice that was part of my inspiration in the first place, she wanted to be her new idol, Moana, and was having none of this robot business. At first I thought that maybe I’d just buy her a cheap Moana costume and let her wear it to school and tell her that she still had to trick-or-treat as a robot, but the more I considered my options the less I liked that. I asked my mom (the queen of whipping things together without a map) if she thought we could make a decent Moana costume, and having only seen a single image of the character she said, “That looks easy enough.” My mom is always such a shining reminder that one way or another it will all work out, and I need that kind of energy in my life, especially when I’m DIYing.

I went to the fabric store one afternoon on my lunch hour on a mission to find the perfect fabrics. I was really pleased with what I found (after talking myself down from a $21/yard fabric that was more than a two-year-old needed for Halloween), and my mom came over that night to get started.

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Meanwhile, in robot-land, I was searching for the perfect lights to make pretend buttons. I ordered these way in advance, and thank goodness I did because they took roughly a month to ship from Azerbaijan (literally) which I didn’t realize when I bought them. They turned out to be kind of cool though, so I’m glad we included them. Most of the lights, however, were these because they blinked which added a really fun element. The tricky part was that the only way to turn them on and off was to squeeze them from both sides, which meant that I couldn’t really affix them to the boxes in a permanent way. I ended up making a control panel out of a shoebox lid and zip tying only the top of it to the rest of the costume so that I could easily flip it up to turn them on. I zip tied the bottom of each light to the back of the control panel and cut holes the size of a Sacagawea dollar for each one.

A friend suggested that we ought to try to work fidget spinners into the costumes as well, which was a brilliant suggestion. They had crappy ones at the dollar store, and my dad helped by drilling a hole into the center of each one and fitting them with screws so that when affixed to the costumes, they would still spin. This was a huge hit while trick-or-treating; lots of big kids wanted to spin the spinners.

I also made each of the robots a set of rocket boosters with felt flames coming out, because why not? I saw it on Pinterest while searching for ideas and it seemed worth the extra effort. The boys were totally into it.

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Late in the project I decided that Jonah ought to have a full robot head. Jude didn’t want a head covering of any kind, which was for the best anyway because I didn’t trust him not to trip and fall while trick-or-treating in the dark. I ended up just getting Jude a set of silver ball deelie boppers (that’s what we called them growing up, but I’m guessing that’s not universal?), and I think they made him look extra adorable. Jonah wanted a slinky on his robot head, so we added that along with a red light and cut out a couple of holes so that he could see and breathe easily and covered them with window screen. We ended up not attaching the head to the rest of the costume because most of the time it rested on the larger box anyway, but it also allowed him to take it off when he felt like he needed a break. I put some 2″ window A/C foam inside the box to make it fit a bit better.

For the boys’ arms and legs we used dryer vent tubing and bought the lightest weight stuff we could find (more like aluminum foil than sharp metal, but both types exist so go to the hardware store and feel it first). I zip tied the arms to the body box and made a set of suspenders out of elastic for the legs (attached to zip tie loops). Walking was a bit of a challenge, but honestly they did great once they got the hang of it (and we did a lot of hand-holding just to be sure).

Back to Moana – I didn’t feel like a midriff-baring shirt was acceptable for a two-year-old, so my mom designed a top based on another summer shirt of Vivi’s. She layered and trimmed the skirt fabric I bought to make a wrap skirt that went nicely around a cheap 12″ grass skirt I found on Amazon. We also bought the necklace on Amazon (because I suspect that making our own would have cost a lot more) and she’s worn it pretty much every day for the past three weeks, so I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth. I bought a few cowrie shells at a bead shop and we sewed them around the neckline. I bought some tropical-looking flowers at the dollar store and hot glued one onto a barrette that we already had, and I think that it made a lovely final touch.

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When Vivi finally got to wear this to preschool she was probably the proudest I’ve ever seen her. Throughout the month of October we’ve been hearing from her teacher that some days she’ll only respond to the name Moana. Preschool was also the only place we let her wear this without pants and a leotard underneath (because Michigan).

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We actually got incredibly lucky because it was supposed to rain on Halloween, and while it was roughly 40 degrees (or less) it was dry, and trick-or-treating was a huge success. Vivienne was chilly, but agreed to wear a cardigan and zip up hoodie (unzipped, of course) on top of her costume. The boys were pretty well bundled and the robot parts kept the wind off, so they actually seemed to fare well.

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If Vivienne was the star of the preschool costume parade (if only because she spent a month getting into character), the boys were the stars of neighborhood trick-or-treating. I can’t even tell you how many kids and adults stopped us on the sidewalk to ask if they could take a photo or video. I got high-fives from parents I’d never met, and at one house Kristin walked away with a glass of wine after helping Jude up the steps. “Did my robot costumes earn you an adult beverage?” I asked. She said that they probably did.

I had to take a video once it was dark because the lights make it so much more fun. Check it out on Instagram.

It was a ton of work, but I only cried once during construction and I have absolutely no regrets about everything that went into it. It’s funny, in general I tend to be pretty pragmatic about a lot of things. I like things that are useful and practical, I don’t like spending money on things that won’t get a lot of use, I don’t do a ton of whimsy, but when it comes to Halloween all of that seems to go out the window. I spend an entire month (and always more money than I’d planned) working on something made of cardboard and glue that really isn’t built to last and that we’ll only get a few hours use from, but it always feels like the right thing to do in my mind.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote something recently that absolutely nailed it for me:

…let me also tell you that when you see stuff like this–fun parties for kids or holiday crafts and celebrations, for example–on my site or in my social media feeds, this isn’t about attempting to be a good mom. I don’t associate being a good mom with celebrations and details and parties. But I do associate being a good mom with doing things that make me happy and inviting my kids to witness my happiness and be part of it. This is more about me than my kids. Because I like creating things and celebrating parties and making space for the 10-year-old girl inside who never died. It makes me happy. And I think the best way to be a good mom is to do things that make you happy.

I think that’s really what this is for me. I do this for me, because for reasons I can’t entirely explain (tradition, I guess?) this is ridiculously important to me and I love doing it. The kids would happily wear store-bought costumes, but that wouldn’t be any fun for me.

The other night we drove by the elementary school where they seemed to be wrapping up a school Halloween party, and I suddenly remembered that my parents used to put a ton of work into our elementary school haunted house when I was a kid. My dad was Dracula in it, and a few other neighborhood parents who were like family to me were in it too. I went through that damn thing SO many times, giggling every time I spotted a family member or friend in costume. I’m sure no one strong-armed my parents into doing that stuff, they just loved doing it, and I remember it and it brings me so much joy even now. My mom pointed out that we now have a tradition three-years running of she and I collaborating on the kids’ costumes, and I love that it’s turned out that way. It honestly wouldn’t be as much fun without her, so I’m thrilled that my parents are willing to stay in Michigan through Halloween in order to see this effort to the end.

Over dinner tonight both Jonah and Vivienne began to tell me and Gigi and Papa Doc what they want to be next year, so my parents and I may already be passing this tradition along to the next generation, which makes me pretty happy.

A few of our favorite children’s books

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

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

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


Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

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


Mole Had Everything

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


An Egg Is Quiet

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


Sonya’s Chickens

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


The Colors of Us

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


Last Stop on Market Street

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


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

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


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

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


Things to Do

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


The Book of Mistakes

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


Miss Rumphius

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


Strictly No Elephants

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


The Spiffiest Giant in Town

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


I Love You, Stinky Face

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

Ada Twist, Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck

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


Families, Families, Families!

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


A Family Is a Family Is a Family

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


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

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.

The first weekend of “fall”

It’s been at least 90 degrees every day for the past week or so, which is ridiculous since the fall equinox was on Friday. Normally I love spending a good portion of our weekends outdoors, but the weather has been so unpleasant that I went into this weekend feeling a little bit grumpy because nothing sounded like much fun and we didn’t have a plan. I also knew that my 20th high school reunion was on Saturday night, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I was determined to make some family magic happen somehow because I needed to balance out what might be an awkward Saturday night.

Although Kristin was less than enthusiastic about baking in the sun, I dragged everyone to the beach on Saturday morning. Although I have no photos, we had a really wonderful time. We swam, we played in the sand while sitting at the water’s edge, we took the kids to a great playground, and then we headed back home to get ready for the evening. My reunion was actually more fun than I’d anticipated, but Jonah was up really late while we were gone, so we knew that we ought not make Sunday too busy. We did, however, manage to make it to the Fall Fest at the Nature Center (which, again, ninety degrees). We only caught the last hour, but it was a pretty hour and given the weather it was uncrowded. I managed to snap a few beautiful photos of the kids exploring.

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As we left (a little past closing time), I asked a staff member about a couple of terra cotta pots of cherry tomatoes that were sitting on a workbench by the entrance. “Take them,” he said, which thrilled Jude and Vivi because they pick those from the garden at school and the neighbor’s house across the street every chance they get. Then he gave the kids a golf cart ride to the parking lot just because. Jude and Vivi ate tomatoes the whole ride home.

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I don’t know why I get so worried about not squeezing enough quality time and joy into our weekends. I guess the time just goes by so quickly and I see the kids growing faster than I can believe. Somehow though, most weekends at least, it all works out better than I could have imagined.

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.

Animal lovers

We found out on Friday that there was going to be a neighborhood picnic this evening just a block and a half from our house. One of the two churches that flank the elementary school hosted it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Families were asked to bring a dessert to pass, so earlier in the afternoon the kids and I picked apples in the backyard, and after their nap I made an apple crisp. Jonah is always eager to help bake treats, and I loved watching him help today because the light in the kitchen was just right and I’m loving his long hair these days.

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We walked over to the picnic and the kids immediately went into a fun-scatter. I ended up separated from Jude and Kristin for awhile, so sadly I have no good photos of Jude with the animals. I did hand him a chicken at one point, but he got a little scared and wasn’t into it. Vivi and Jonah were the animal whisperers, however. I feel like the handlers kept handing critters to V, maybe because she’s tiny and that’s funny and adorable and also because it was clear how much she loved it.

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I love this one (below) because she’s clearly talking to that tortoise.

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And Jonah would have sat with that bunny in his lap all night long. He was in love.

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We saw a couple of the kids’ preschool friends, and while many of our friends nearby didn’t make it, we made some potential new friends after being introduced by an acquaintance, so that was a lovely bonus.  I really love our neighborhood and events like this are such a nice surprise.

Summer’s last hurrah

We’re three days into the school year and the weather already seems to have shifted completely into fall mode. For a lot of people, September 1st is a time for celebrating permission to break out the fall tchotchkes and begin wearing boots and sweaters, but every time the seasons change it’s as if I’ve forgotten how to get dressed. I always end up floundering as I ask myself what on earth I wore the last time the weather was like this. So far this week I’ve managed to lay out out all of the kids’ outfits before I go to bed, but we’ll see how long I’m able to keep that up. I failed to do any back-to-school shopping for any of them, and so far we’re cobbling things together from their summer wardrobes, but the 50 degree mornings are calling for a bit more already. There is a giant pile of clean, unfolded laundry taking over our living room, and both K and I already feel way too exhausted to deal with it. A day or two ago I suddenly realized that we’ve been in our house for almost a year and there are home projects that we started last October that haven’t moved at all, and I was suddenly overcome with the urge to finish the trim, and paint and reinstall the fireplace doors before we reach that one-year mark. The start of the school year probably shouldn’t feel like such a dramatic change, but for some reason it does.

This week’s early mornings definitely have something to do with how I’m feeling, but so does our jam-packed Labor Day weekend. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew came to town from Charleston, wrapping up a summer of wonderful visits from friends from all over. When we lived in New York we were frequent guests but only very occasional hosts. We just never felt as if we had the space to host a proper get-together, and we had lots of guilt about how unbalanced it felt to take advantage of friends’ homes so often and rarely give back. We always dreamed of having more space to spread out and make friends feel at home on our turf, and this summer we’ve finally been able to do that a bit. We’ve had friends visit from New York, Seattle, Detroit, Oakland, and now Charleston.

My sister is nothing if not a planner, and as a result we managed to squeeze a huge amount of activity into a long weekend. By the time K and I climbed into bed on Monday night Kristin said, “I feel like no one sat down for four days.” We were worn out, but it was an awfully good time.

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My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the end of July, and since my sister and her family were planning to come to town anyway, she suggested that we throw a small surprise celebration. We invited some close family and friends nearby and Kristin and I were thrilled to finally be able to host. The funny part was that just days beforehand, my mom suddenly approached me with the idea of having a BBQ with all of those same people, and wouldn’t it be more convenient to have it at our house rather than theirs? Naturally we agreed to host, and lots of amusing back and forth ensued between my sister and I as we re-planned a BBQ that had already been planned, this time with my mom coordinating the menu and the guest list. The night before, one of our family friends accidentally ruined the surprise, but it worked out for the best because my dad ended up bringing along the actual banner from their wedding (who knows where it was all these years) and taping it up on our garage. It made everything feel more complete, and the evening was lovely.

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On Monday, we squeezed in one more family outing before everyone headed to the airport.

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Last year when they visited we somehow managed to get such a cute photo of all of the cousins together (and believe me, we have some hilarious doozies from attempts in the past) but this was the best we could do this year. I still love it for its imperfection and chaos. When we’re all together it’s never quiet or still, but it’s full of love and lots of happy.

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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?