Launch!

Finally, I can announce some exciting news!

Last January, Lindsey Mead came to me with her idea to gather ten writers to write about the different ages of childhood, from one-year-old toddlers to ten-year-old tweens. We found eight amazing writers to help us in this endeavor, and the results were “This Is Childhood.”

Last summer, the editors of the esteemed Brain, Child magazine, Marcelle Soviero and Randi Olin, came to us with the idea of making the essays a book. They have since used the essays as a launching pad for a sort of journal of childhood where parents can write their own observations about the highlights of each age. It’s a little like a “baby book,” except it’s about our babies beyond their babyhoods.

We are beyond to excited that today, Brain, Child is launching the book, and you can order it right HERE.

Not only will you get all the essays from our series, written by Aidan Donnelley Rowley, Kristen Levithan, Nina Badzin, Galit Breen, Bethany Meyer, Tracy Morrison, Amanda Magee, Denise Ullem, Lindsey Mead, and myself — but you will also have a journal to record your own memories of these special, quirky, exasperating, and magical ages. We were also especially honored to have my friend and mentor, Yahoo’s Senior National Correspondent Lisa Belkin, write the book’s introduction for us.

Thank you so much in advance for supporting our labor of love. I can’t wait for you to see it!

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Never Say Never

That's a long tail and a happy kid.

That’s a long tail and a happy kid.

“I want a pet of my own,” 9-year-old Charlie stated one morning over his frozen waffle. I raised an eyebrow and tipped my head toward the giant designer puppy sitting in the corner of the room, remnants of someone’s Boba Fett figure still stuck in the hair on his chin. “No, I want something that is just mine,” Charlie clarified, shaking his head. “Like a gerbil, or a hamster.”

I groaned. Over the years, as we added one small human being after another to our family until we had a grand total of four to feed, bathe, and parent, we had attempted a variety of pets: parakeets that bit hard and shed seed and feathers everywhere; aquatic African frogs we forgot to feed; hermit crabs we rarely laid eyes on (because they ate each other, OMG); and countless fish. So very many fish. Please note: only parents hoping to teach their children about death should ever try to keep fish as pets.

A quick learner, I finally declared that we never again would have pets that required tanks or cages. I have a hard enough time keeping the children alive and bathed to add cages to the household responsibilities.

Now, there are many “rules” of parenting, but perhaps one of the most important is that one must never make “rules.” Inevitably, you will break your own rule, every single time. Because when your 9-year-old middle son is the most empathetic child you know and wears his big heart on his sleeve, worries too much, and is painfully sensitive to the world in a way that makes him capable of both great sadness and deep love and joy on a daily basis, and that same son asks you for a pet of his own that will love him back?

You become a rat owner.

Actually, a two-rat owner.

I begrudgingly did my research on small animals, knowing that a pet of his own would be valuable to Charlie. We were looking for a pet that would be social, that could love a certain emotional middle child back, maybe, and would want to be held. We needed an animal that wouldn’t be incredibly hard to care for and one that would not aggravate my allergies. After a period of denial, I finally acknowledged that — gulp — rats are widely renowned to be remarkable, social, intelligent pets. Of all the options, they seemed to be, crazy as it sounded, my best bet. So I did what any mom would do (right?): I found a rat breeder on Craigslist. Yes, these actually exist. A few months later, Charlie and I drove two hours to pick up the already-beloved babies from the breeder, who had been meticulous and thorough in her notes and recommendations for cages (size matters!) and bedding (aspen shavings only!) and toys (avoid painted wood!).

I’m not sure what I expected a Craigslist rat breeder to look like. I did not expect to find her to be a 19-year-old community college student with a nose ring living with her parents, a sweet younger brother, and about a bajillion rats. When we arrived to pick up Charlie’s new pets, the breeder’s mother had dinner on the stove, and her father was reading the paper in a nearby recliner. I looked down at the enormous cage in the den full of rats and rat babies, and all I could think was that I am not, in reality, the biggest pushover of a parent in the world after all.

Charlie promptly named his new pets Ginger and Luna, and he held them on his lap for the two hour car trip home. Ginger and Luna love lavender-scented cage liner, multi-grain Cheerios, and cardboard tubes. Charlie just loves Ginger and Luna.

When I posted the picture of Charlie with the rats on Facebook that evening, I received a million comments from my friends that expressed everything from disgust to shock to genuine admiration for me as a mother. “You are a nicer mom than I am,” several of them intoned. But I don’t think I am. The funny thing about being a mother, I have found, is that it enables you to do things you never knew you could. Being a mom means finding strength and fortitude beyond a normal person’s resources. For me, it has meant that I can show affection to large rodents with red eyes and very long tails just because it makes my baby happy. The twentysomething me that lived in Manhattan apartments still can’t believe I willingly and purposely brought rats into my home, but the thirty something mom version of me totally gets it.

I am not thrilled to be a pet rat owner. I still don’t adore cleaning a cage, even with my son’s help, and I’ll never be a fangirl of rodents. I’m just as twitchy about having rats in my house as the next person would be. But the rats thrill Charlie, and Charlie is a child who feels the full weight of the world every day — much more so than my other children do. Charlie needed these rats. It was as simple as that. This is what love is, folks: pet rat ownership.

Thankfully, rats only live about three years. So I have that going for me.

This post originally appeared on Scary Mommy.

 

 

 



How We Write

photo credit: Aidan Donnelley Rowley

photo credit: Aidan Donnelley Rowley

My friend, the stealthily witty and sometimes devastatingly candid Jamie Krug, tapped me to participate in a blog tour exploring our writing process. I said yes without even seeing the questions, and once I saw them, I was a little intimidated. The past few months, I have felt quiet. I’ve sort of been in the midst of what I call “The Nothing,” a reference (of course!) to The Neverending Story, which I watched only about a million times as a child. Lost in the sea of everyday life and a freelance project that has dragged on forever, I have felt like I am a dry sponge, sapped of my energy and my writing juice. Still, I remind myself, I have been a writer — or at least a person who writes — my whole life. That doesn’t change.

Without further ado…

1. What am I working on?

Everything and nothing. I am working on life at the moment, as we have finished our spring break and I am now on the fast descent into Worst End of School Year Mom Ever Status. I don’t have a singular project I am working on for myself, but like most writers, I think, I can’t help but always be writing even in the middle of my life. I’m always noticing details, words, moments, and sensations that might fuel writing later. In the meantime, I am sporadically publishing in my usual places, like HuffPost Parents and Scary Mommy. I also just wrote a post for Mamalode, which is a new relationship for me and very exciting, as I respect the writing there. I’m going to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop next week, and I’m really hoping I will leave inspired and energized. When I was in elementary and middle school, I stole my mom’s copies of Erma’s books and read them over and over again. She has definitely been a big influence on me, and I am looking forward to spending time around others who feel the same way.

2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

That’s the million dollar question for me. Writing about parenting is the new black. One of the thoughts that runs through my head daily — and one that, I know, beckons The Nothing I mentioned above — is the thought that my writing is just like so many others’, and everything has already been written. I keep on not because I think I have something unique to say, but because writing is the only way of processing this experience that makes sense to me, and writing online makes me feel less alone in the journey. I think that I have a relatable voice, and that is one of my biggest strengths as a writer. However, I am not sure that sets me apart. I guess all I can say is that I am writing my own experience, and no experience is exactly the same.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write about myself and my experience as a woman at this moment in time and in this particular place, and that experience is shaped completely through my role as a mother. Parenting has become such a loaded writing topic, full of navel-gazing and hair-splitting and Bossy McBossiness and Judgey McJudgeypants. I wish I could write about, say, pop culture (another love of mine) and be happy in that space alone and not actually open myself and my family up to the scrutiny of all the people everywhere. The truth is that while I can be inordinately and maybe unjustifiably passionate about pop culture, the experience of parenting and the process of “growing up” — when done both by my children and myself — is what changes me and moves me and makes me want to write, so that is what I write about. That might evolve as I do. I just don’t know.

4. How does my writing process work?

“Process” is a strong word for what I have. As I mentioned above, I am always noticing. That, I think, is the biggest part of my “process.” Without the details and sensations and words that I take note of and remember, my writing does not exist. It starts in my head, where all these “notes” knock around and stick with me until I finally sit down and release them. When I am writing something more structured or prescribed, I am not much more formal about my process, I am afraid. My life is about winging it, and so far, that has applied to my writing, too. Some nights, I escape to Starbucks and write there, a soundtrack of songs that are important to me floating through my earbuds (the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon, Billy Joel). But most of the time, I’m writing in my bed, my laptop perched on my knees, while children run amok through my bedroom and my husband watches procedural TV shows ad nauseam. When a post is burning in my brain, it doesn’t matter — I can focus amidst the chaos. I have tried getting up insanely early to start a writing “habit,” like so many of my writer friends (including Jamie!). But then I need a nap by 10 am, which doesn’t work in my life or with my toddler. I also stay up past my bedtime many nights and write once the house is finally quiet and settled. That seems to be when my brain allows me to access the areas not directly related to diapers, first grade homework, and laundry. Bottom line: my “process” is not really a process, but it mostly works for me. I think I am afraid to mess with that.

Part of the blog hop is asking two more writers to answer these questions. I immediately thought of Kristin Shaw of Two Cannoli, a woman that I adore both as a writer and a friend. Kristin is a rare, genuinely wonderful soul and in the words of my favorite Anne of Green Gables, a kindred spirit. She writes beautiful, emotional essays about relationships on her blog and elsewhere, and she somehow does it while working part-time and and acting as a wife, mother, and active community member in Austin. Currently, she’s producing Listen to Your Mother in Austin, which is a perfect role for her because she is a great connector of writers and women and makes everyone feel safe and welcome to share their own gifts.

I am also excited that Anna Whiston-Donaldson of An Inch of Gray accepted my invitation to write about her own process. I first heard of Anna when The Mom Stays in the Picture ran on the Huffington Post and she submitted a picture of herself with her children, Jack and Margaret. It was the last picture she had with both her children, as Jack passed away soon after the picture was taken in a terrible accident. I have immense respect for Anna and the way she has processed her grief, sometimes through writing, sometimes through acts of charity. She has strength and grace that awe me. I am curious to know how she writes about topics that I cannot imagine confronting and writing. Her writing is truly a gift.

Kristin and Anna will post their own answers next Monday on their own blogs. In the meantime, be sure to also check out my friend Lindsey Mead’s answers to the same questions today at A Design So Vast. Lindsey is an incredible writer, and I am eager to peek inside her process!

 

 



The Day Someone Threw Me a Rope

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With my 5-week old first baby. Photo by Michele, outside a restaurant where I stood swaying and shushing because he started crying soon after we sat down.

 

I can still remember where I sat on the floor in the room, the Southern California light pouring in that way it does, diagonally through the plate glass windows and bending through the blinds. There were about twelve of us sitting in a circle, leaning back against folding cushions, our knees popped up in front of us. Each of us held a fairly new babe in arms —  some nursing, some sleeping, some propped up on our legs trying hard to keep their eyes open or to produce an effective burp. The mothers surrounding me were different ages and different shapes and sizes, but all of us shared a common quality: a wild look in our eyes, perhaps a button askew on our shirts, hair thrown up in messy buns or that lay rumpled on our shoulders, the hallmarks of sleep deprivation and the exhaustion of new motherhood that soaked our very bones.

It was a breastfeeding support group for new mothers, and it had taken me three attempts to get there. The first morning, I gave up quickly. I hadn’t slept at all, and the baby — my first — had finally fallen asleep on my chest that morning in the navy blue recliner my visiting father had bought me when I was 36 weeks pregnant and unable to sleep horizontally in my bed anymore. We slept in that recliner together, my firstborn and I, for the first 17 weeks of his life. But that day, he was only six weeks old, and I was still deep in the throes of not knowing what to do, what to expect, or what to think. So when he slept, I did not move.

The second time I tried to make it to the group, I got as far as trying to dress myself and the baby before I gave in to frustration. He cried whenever I put him down — deep, keening wails that shamed me and made me feel like I was doing everything all wrong, along with making me leak. My postpartum hormones and my new mother anxiety paralyzed me. I finally sat on the floor of my bathroom in my underwear and half-washed, wet hair and just held him in my lap, sobbing along with him. I didn’t know what else to do. By the time we were both calmer, I had missed the class.

But that third attempt, I began several hours before I needed to leave, and I finally managed to dress the both of us and get us to the small, humble building in Santa Monica that would become a lifeline for me, The Pump Station. I stumbled in and found my place on the floor, gingerly putting the infant seat behind me by the wall and configuring myself so I could nurse while we talked. As our leader — a maternal woman with long brown hair and a soothing, calm voice — began the discussion, I exhaled. I had tried to have brunch with a friend that week, but the baby had screamed through lunch. I had fumbled with my shirt in the middle of California Pizza Kitchen, willing him to stop screaming, praying I could get him latched and calm without all of Los Angeles as an audience. But here in this quiet, sunny room, I could relax. I could fumble, he could cry, and no matter what, it was okay. I was safe.

When our leader came around the circle to me and asked me about my week, I didn’t know what to say. My eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know what I am doing wrong,” I admitted. “He cries all the time. He chokes and sputters. He won’t calm down at night. We walk the stairs with him, we shush him and we sway and we swaddle. But he just keeps crying. I can’t do anything or go anywhere and I don’t know what I am doing.”

She took her time with me, with input from the other moms, showing me a new way to hold my baby so he wouldn’t choke when he nursed and asking me questions about his crying and how we were dealing with it. I tried to describe the hours every night when nothing worked, when we bounced on exercise balls and drove in circles in the grocery store parking lot at midnight with him in the backseat just to get a break from holding him. None of the parenting books could tell me what to do; I had read every single one of them. My pediatrician was at a loss, unable to explain this crying in an otherwise healthy infant. He called it colic. I felt duped. This was not what I expected — not at all — and there seemed to be no end in sight. No one could tell me when this would get better or if it would get better. I felt myself sinking. I felt myself failing.

Then my very wise group leader — a woman I would come to love in the way you love someone who saves you from drowning — said something to me that I will never forget. “One thing I have found that helps with babies like yours,” she said, quietly and slowly, “is to take them out in public.”

My eyes widened. Did she not understand? Maybe she did not hear me when I told her that if we went to a restaurant, the moment his eyes fluttered open, I shot like a bolt to flag down my server and yell, “Check, please!” This baby was not fit for the public.

“I know it sounds strange, or maybe scary,” she acknowledged, reading my face. “But if you can just take him somewhere outside, where you can be around people… well, sometimes it helps to hear strangers tell you how sweet and wonderful he is. Sometimes it helps to remember that he is really a special little guy.” She paused, and she looked directly at my firstborn, who was — of course, since we were actually in a safe space for him to fuss — sleeping like a proverbial baby in my lap. “He really is beautiful.”

I looked down, bewildered, and I saw him, really saw him, for the first time in maybe weeks. For so many hours of our days then, he was a squalling, squawking blob or he was a new appendage that made me ache. For the six weeks since he had emerged from my body, all I had really known was exhaustion and a feeling of being broken. My fervent, fevered need to take care of him better — to handle my new body and my new baby and my new life — had clouded and consumed everything else for me. But he was, in fact, a beautiful baby. He was everything I had hoped for and everything I wanted. I just needed enough calm and enough sleep to see that again. I needed my hope back.

After that day, I made it a point to take my baby out in public as much as I could possibly muster, and my leader was absolutely right — as strangers would stop and coo at him, I felt that cocktail of hormones and love course through my veins and give me strength and endurance to make it through my day without resorting to sobbing on the floor in my underwear. My firstborn had colic until he was five or six months old, and he proved to never really be an “easy” baby. But he was my baby, my beautiful baby, and our outings helped me remember that. And it did get so much better.

That once colicky newborn I took all over Los Angeles is now 11. So these days, I make it a point instead to stop and tell mothers of tiny babies how beautiful and special they are, even if they are in mid-squawk and especially if the mother looks flustered. I am paying it forward, because that advice and those words I received at my support group saved me. My leader threw me a rope that day, just when I was feeling the tide pull me under. We all need to be ready to throw ropes to other moms when we see them struggling; we are, after all, the ones who know how long the rope needs to be to reach them, because we have been there. Have a rope ready, just in case.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

 



This Is 39

photo credit: Aidan Donnelley Rowley

photo credit: Aidan Donnelley Rowley

I am feeling my age. Age is a loaded word and concept, but in my case, what I mean is that I feel this year of 39 completely: this is not just another year in the life. When I was younger, the milestone birthdays seemed to be 13, 16, 18, and 21. I remember announcing what I believed to be the last of them at 25, a birthday I felt marked the beginning of when “everything counts” as well as my ability to finally rent a car on my own. But 39 has been a milestone too — maybe even more than 40 will be. I feel as if I am standing in a more significant threshold, leaving one place and entering another.

This is <em>my</em> 39, here at the beginning of 2014:

At 39, you splurge on Justin Timberlake concert tickets because you love him in a way that almost feels inappropriate — even though you still remember his hair circa the ’90s — but then you find that his concert homage to Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” thrills you even more than “Suit and Tie.”

You do all your Christmas shopping on Amazon — not because you are all savvy and techy, but for the simple reasons that you cannot bear to deal with crowds and parking at the shopping malls and you don’t have time to shop on foot anyway. (I once spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I went to Woodstock in ’94. When did I become such a wimp and so “busy?”)

People you love have cancer. <em>Way too many</em> people you love have cancer. It makes you angry. And scared.

Thus, you look at moles differently. You start staring in the bathroom mirror for long bouts of time, trying to figure out what is going on above your upper lip and what to do about your forehead and WTH that tiny bump on your temple is.

You dish with your college girlfriends about miracle devices that remove chin hairs and the most comfortable yoga pants for school pick up. Because, you know, that is <em>hot</em>.

Your husband remarks to you that Taylor Swift seems like “she’d be a really cool girl to have… as a daughter.”

You find yourself keeping the car running so you can finish hearing that Guns ‘n’ Roses song on the radio — on the easy listening station (the hell?) — because it reminds you of college. Hall and Oates take you straight to the backseat of your parents’ car on road trips to the beach when you were a child, and Paul Simon and Billy Joel sing the songs that you hold sacred, the songs that your parents used to play <em>on a record player</em> at parties that went past your bedtime. You might tear up now when you recite all the lyrics to “Paul Revere.” (R.I.P., MCA.)

You cry at commercials and flipping You Tube videos. You don’t want to watch violent movies. You wonder how the teenagers at the mall have parents who let them dress that way. You realize with a start that although you believed you were Carrie when you watched <em>Sex and the City</em> on HBO, you now think of Carrie and her friends as “young,” and they totally wouldn’t hang out with you now that you drive a minivan.

You hear through the grapevine about friends separating and divorcing, a stark contrast to your 20s and early 30s when there was another wedding every weekend. It feels surreal; divorce seems like such a grown-up thing to do, even more than mortgages and babies. It’s threatening, like a tornado that might randomly hit you or someone you love. Even though divorces are not random at all, they <em>feel</em> random — which is terrifying.

You spend lunches with friends comparing local memory loss facilities and living wills for your parents in the same breath as preschools and tennis lessons for your kids.

Everyone you know is training for some kind of race — whether it’s a half-marathon, a full marathon, or an Ironman (<em>overachievers</em>). Your friends wear CrossFit T-shirts and Zumba pants at the grocery store because they actually <em>do</em> those things. Fitness is the new mid-life crisis.

Still, you very possibly might drink a Diet Coke with your lunch of kale and quinoa salad. Details.

Speaking of beverages: hello, hangovers. Every drink after your first is now some huge risk and gamble on whether tomorrow will be absolutely miserable.

You squint more. You consider appliances a viable gift option. You don’t know any of the bands playing on <em>New Year’s Rockin’ Eve</em> — and you don’t want to — but you can totally beat your kids at Just Dance (and only Just Dance). It ticks them off in a very satisfying way, but you are pathetically sore the next day.

You find yourself wondering whatever happened to Winona Ryder and Natalie Merchant. You hope they are okay, because they feel like distant cousins you grew up with once upon a time. You have a soft spot for Ethan Hawke and John Cusack and you always will, like the boys next door growing up that you can’t forget. Jake Ryan will always be the hottest boy who ever lived, and no, you don’t want to see a picture of what he looks like now. Thanks.

Your parents are slowing down and retiring. Some of your friends are losing their parents. It feels like some kind of seismic shift to realize that our generation is now up to bat. <em>We’re</em> the ones leading our countries and churches and corporations and the world. It’s us. Donna Martin graduated and has four children now — and so do I. The same people I drank with in college are now in charge of universities and hedge funds and corporate giants and Homeland Freaking Security. <em>Gulp</em>.

That blows my 39-year-old mind, because I feel like a teenager in middle-age clothing. I still feel like someone else should be the grown up. Still, I do feel ready to take responsibility for life and my place in it. I am not afraid to speak up for what I believe. I make mistakes; people are not always going to like me, but I have learned how to accept that. I know I am never going to be perfect, and I no longer even want to be. I feel like I know what I want from my life, regardless of the expectations of others; unfortunately, I also know that my own expectations for myself are the hardest to bear and the least forgiving. I’m still getting used to the idea that this blur around me is my <em>life</em> happening, but I am getting there.

So, I’m happy to wear ballet flats instead of stilettos (stilettos hurt my feet, and I finally feel like I don’t have to wear them to be “enough”), and I have decided that Spanx are not actually worth it to me — I don’t care who is going to be at the party. And I have realized that I am the only mother my kids are going to get, so I better treat myself well and let them know that as imperfect as I am, I’m still valuable . Someday, they will all be imperfect, valuable 39-year-olds too.

I cannot lie: 40 scares me a little bit. This is the big-time. But it scares me in a good way, the kind that feels all tingly and full of possibility. If this is 39, I think that there is a lot to be hopeful for in my 40s. As long as I can figure out that whole what’s-going-on-above-my-upper lip thing.

<em>Last year, Allison and nine other writers wrote about the different ages of childhood for their “This Is Childhood” series, soon to be available as a book. Her partner in that series, <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lindsey-mead-russell/” target=”_hplink”>Lindsey Mead</a>, wrote about the age of 38 last summer in her post, <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lindsey-mead-russell/this-is-38-this-is-midlife_b_3451293.html” target=”_hplink”>This Is 38</a>. </em>

<em>A version of this post originally appeared on <a href=”http://www.scarymommy.com/this-is-39/” target=”_hplink”>Scary Mommy</a>. </em>



Five Reasons to Have “One More Baby”

Photo credit to the awesome Cynthia Graham.

Photo credit to the awesome Cynthia Graham.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a parent is that I cannot plan everything. Before I became a parent, I thought I would have two, maybe three, children, and I would space them out exactly three years apart and be done giving birth by age 33 — an age I deemed “right.” That decided, I read every parenting book, I talked to all my friends who were parents, and I spent hours scouring the Internet for everything I could find on parenting.

Then I became a parent, and I found out that none of that preparation really mattered. Parenthood, it turns out, requires on-the-job training and has a super steep learning curve. I also found out that I really didn’t know what I wanted or when after all, which was good: after barely surviving my firstborn’s colic, I ended up having my second son only (surprise!) 21 months after my first.

Our decisions to later have a third, then a fourth, child were long-debated and often came down to leaps of faith. If you had told me before I had any children that I would end up having four, I would have called you crazy. And yet, here I am. I didn’t mean to personally overpopulate the earth or go all Duggar style; in the end, our family just worked out this way.

I have been in the position of trying to decide whether or not to try to have “one more baby” — which is really the decision to try to have one more child and one more tween and one more teenager and one more PERSON with gifts and flaws and quirks and needs in your life forever — and I know it can be emotionally and mentally draining. I’m a big fan of doing what is best for you, whether that means one child, two, four or more, or none at all. But assuming you are not faced with medical implications or financial issues that would make having “one more” child unfeasible, and assuming you are somewhat inclined or intrigued with the idea… I am going to make the case for you to go for that one last baby:

1. You are already good at it.

We bumbled our way through babies one and two, but by babies three and four? We had that stuff down, man. Once you have children of school age, you really appreciate how relatively easy it is to fulfill a baby’s needs. It really is true that bigger kids have bigger problems. (Captain Obvious caveat: babies do, in fact, grow up to be bigger children with bigger problems.) Still, sometimes when I am faced with the intricacies of navigating social media and puberty with a tween or the social hierarchies and stumbles of fourth grade, I am really happy to have a chance to snuggle up with my 1-year-old for some Sandra Boynton board book action. The relative simplicity of babies’ needs can be a salve for a mom’s battered soul.

2. Babies are miniature goodwill ambassadors.

With my last baby, I marveled at how strangers were drawn to her just because she was a baby. Most people, it turns out, love (happy, non-screaming) babies. Significantly, my other three children adore our baby; she is the one thing they all consistently agree on, and it actually helps our overall family dynamics. The boys’ admiration for their baby sister unites them when nothing else does. It’s hard to be angry when there is a baby in the room doing irresistibly adorable things and watching us all with big, observant eyes.

3. Babies dilute surly attitudes and diffuse jaded world views.

Recently, I took my boys to Disney World, which is a local trip for us. Children who grow up in Central Florida take Disney for granted, and my older children rolled their eyes at a few of the rides. But with our toddler along, they agreed to It’s a Small World and even a ride on the carousel. I caught the boys smiling from ear to ear when she waved at the characters and squealed with glee when they pointed out a new surprise to her. And the thing with babies and toddlers is, everything is a surprise. I had forgotten what it was like to visit Disney with a child who had never seen it before. Her enthusiasm and genuine delight made a difference to all of us.

4. That last baby will remind you that all your now impossibly grown up children were once babies too.

My kids regularly kick my butt — not literally, but figuratively — and leave me emotionally and mentally depleted. When I lie in bed at night, unable to sleep because I am tormented about how I parented that day (or not), it is never about the baby. When my kids’s behavior make me look at them and think, “Who ARE you and what have you done with my child?!” the baby reminds me of who they used to be, just a few short years ago. I find myself able to find that last little reserve of patience, the last dregs of my sanity, by looking at her sweet face and remembering when they also had full, round cheeks and could fit in my lap and when many things could be solved by a nap. I am a better mother to my older children because I am her mother.

5. A baby just might teach you all a thing or two.

When you have already taken the parenthood journey before, you can get cocky. You might think you know what to expect when you’re expecting. The best thing about babies #2, 3, and especially 4, for me, have been what they have taught me about parenthood that I would have never known from parenting my firstborn alone. I learned that some babies do sleep well early (and then maybe not so well later), that some children are easy to potty-train and some, holy mother, are really not. For us, our last baby was also our first and only little girl, and what she has taught me more than anything else is how having a sister affects my boys. I am convinced that having a sister has changed the way they will treat the women in their lives — and how they treat other people in general. They are a little more forgiving, a little more patient, a little more tender than they used to be before we had her. I also never expected that having a much younger sibling would bring my children so much joy. But when I caught one of my tweens sitting in the nursery, toddler in his lap, reading her every board book she owns and singing the Frozen soundtrack to her — well, I know we have done a good thing giving my kids one more sibling.

I completely understand families that call the game and quit while they are ahead. More babies mean more money, more space, more sleep deprivation, and more tolls on your body. They mean more demands, more stress, and more risks. No one understands this better than a mom of many children. However, I often find myself, amidst the chaos and the exasperation and the mess and the bills, looking at my family’s pint-sized boss and feeling overwhelmed with gratitude that we took the leap and received her in return. So if you are on the fence like I was once was, I’m just here to say — it could be great. It could be more than great.

This post originally appeared on Scary Mommy.

 



Five Inevitable, Slightly Harrowing Truths of Parenting

I have four children. I have been a parent for over eleven years. That’s why I know that, like death and taxes, some things are certain in a parent’s life. Here are just five slightly harrowing but ultimately inevitable truths of parenting, from my experience — and if you have managed to escape these thus far, please don’t tell me. I want to believe that everyone is in the same body-fluid filled, Sharpie-markered boat that I am in, so don’t burst my bubble (and don’t jinx yourself).

1. You will be barfed, pooped, and peed on by your child. Maybe in the same day. Possibly in the same hour. Rarely, but sometimes, in the same minute — that is known as the Hat Trick of the baby and toddler world. Though you will never get used to it, at some point, you will be less fazed by it. That is the moment when you will wonder how you got to this point in life and whether or not you might need to go buy yourself something completely impractical — like a white leather purse or a red Lamborghini — to make up for the fact that other people’s body fluids are not at all a cause for pause. But then you will remember you are covered in someone else’s pee, and you will settle for a shower.

2. Your child will get jumped/bitten/mauled by another kid. When toddler meets toddler, it happens. Recently, at an otherwise uneventful My Gym play class, my 18-month-old girl had a run-in with another 18-month-old girl. It did not end well for my little girl. The other girl pulled out approximately four fistfuls of her hair and clawed her face up a bit when they ran into each other’s way in a maze formed by gym mats and covered with a parachute. The other mother was justifiably mortified as I de-shedded my daughter’s dress of approximately a third of the hairs that had been on her head — she even teared up. But although it was unsettling and I felt really sorry for my little girl, I also felt sorry for the other mom and didn’t blame her toddler. That’s because…

3. Your child will jump/bite/maul another kid. When my firstborn was 2, he was bitten by another toddler at playgroup. That set off a week-long frenzy of his own explorations into the display of power that is biting. In his week of terror, he managed to bite a chunk out of a classmate’s arm at preschool and, even more horrifyingly, the face of one of my friend’s 3-year-olds when said child did not immediately hand over a Thomas train. We could actually count each of my child’s teeth in the impressions left on the poor boy’s cheek. My husband and I were both horrified and paralyzed. What kind of animal were we raising?! We just had to hope that our friends, also veteran parents, would understand and forgive him. And us. Someday. He hasn’t bitten anyone since, so apparently that was not a sign of a life-long issue with cannibalism.

4. You will have to take your child to the ER. As the mother of three boys and one toddler girl, I have now been to the hospital ER for the following: high fevers, falling off playground equipment, split chins, stomach virus-induced dehydration (x 3), an arm torn open by running it through a kitchen window and then dragging it back out through broken glass, a split lip/busted front teeth combo, an infected toe, head injuries (x 3), and probably many other maladies I am not prepared to remember right now. I never get used to the split-second difference between Everything Is Fine and Here We Go to the ER. I do not do well with blood. But I have come to accept that this is part of my life. Also, I am very blessed to have health insurance.

4. Something you love will be ruined by your child. Pro Tip: Having a baby? Throw out every Sharpie in the house right now. Consider it like a vaccination for your home. Take it from me, small children have Sharpie homing devices built in to their tiny brains. At this moment, there is Sharpie on the walls of my backyard patio and doors, neon green marker covering my children’s train table, “BEN WAZ HERE” written in pencil on my family room wall (and not by Ben), a random letter (not the initial of any of my children) carved into my kitchen chair, and green crayon on my bedroom dresser drawer. Picture frames have been broken, paint jobs destroyed, and walls dented. There are toy sticky hands stuck to the (very high) ceilings of my bedroom. This is why I cannot own nice things. But I tell myself that I love my children most, and a house like mine — a “working farm,” as I call it — should look like children live here too. And oh, it does. IT DOES.

5. You will have to deal with an impossible potty emergency. There’s a very long bridge in Florida that connects Tampa to St. Petersburg.  Once on a road trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, my then very young firstborn decided that the very moment we were in the middle of that bridge in rush hour traffic was the one in which he could no longer hold his pee inside his body any longer — pee I had heard nothing about for hours before that. In my desperation, I introduced him to the empty water bottle method of pottying, which is a dangerous, intricate endeavor for a 3-year-old boy, but sometimes your only hope. Another time, we were trying to get home from batting practice at 7:30 on a school night with three kids in my car when my son decided, again, that the situation was dire. That time, I had no water bottles to speak of, and I was completely exhausted and strung out from entertaining two overtired younger brothers while he practiced for hours. We were stuck between cars trying to exit the ball field, and there was nowhere to pull over. “Just pee in your booster seat,” I finally ordered, resigned. “Um, really?” he asked, incredulous. What other choice was there? Moral of the story: Parents are in such a hurry to potty train their kids, but in my opinion, the diaper and/or pull-up is highly underrated. Without them, the chances of  Parenting Truth #1 happening are exponentially greater. Trust me.

This post originally appeared on Scary Mommy.



28 Days of Play!

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This month, I’m participating in the 28 Days of Play project over at Rachel Cedar’s You Plus Two Parenting & Beyond the Basics site. Rachel asked 30+ writers to explore the idea of playing with our children –the honest truth. Do you do play with your children? Do you like to? How do you play with your kids?

It should be an interesting array of answers, and all Rachel asked was that we be honest.

Today is the kick-off for the project, starting off with a post from Dana Talusani, also known as The Kitchen Witch: Playing for Stone.

Hope you will follow along!



When He Doesn’t Love Me

1369412_10151592942171493_1882753289_o“Have a good day,” I said as my firstborn stumbled out of the minivan door, significantly encumbered by a giant Jansport backpack loaded with textbooks and a lunchbox packed with my own hands. “I love you.”

“I don’t love you,” he answered confidently, each word measured and punctuated by his eyes piercing mine. He slammed my passenger door and stalked off toward his friend awaiting him at the end of the sidewalk at our carpool drop-off, his exit less dramatic than he wished due to the way he had to shift his own 90 pounds of body weight to hoist his ridiculous backpack.

I watched his back for a few moments. I saw his friend glance furtively in my direction as he exchanged a few words with my angry son. Finally, I set the car in motion and drove away, down the street, so that we could both start our days without each other. The subject of our disagreement was nothing special; the problem is that these small, tedious disagreements happen almost daily, and they wear on both of us.

This is how our story goes these days. When he was little — when all of them were little — I found myself frustrated and sad because being The Mommy was not very fun most of the time. Once we left their infancies and entered their toddlerhoods and beyond, I felt even less like I was on the same team as my children. I was the bummer, the fun sponge — the one who had to enforce the bedtime, end whatever dangerous activity was occurring that moment, or announce the next transition that would frustrate them. I tried hard to provide discipline and guide them without being their adversary, but in the end, it’s too often Them vs. Me. I am their primary caregiver and the parent most often on duty. And, frankly, it can suck. It makes me feel hard to love.

But it sucks in a whole new way with my  tween. I’ve been told these middle school years can be harder than the high school years in some ways, and I am hanging on to that thought — that if I can just eke through these next few seasons of not-awesomeness, it might get better, or at least smoother, afterward. Then I get to do it all over again. (And again. Oh, and again, because I thought once that four kids would be a grand adventure. Woo-hoo! Adventure!)

In the meantime, I have the privilege of being the one to drag my firstborn out of bed in the morning, all the while struggling to remember days when he woke me up way too early almost as if for sport. I have to usher him, however reluctantly, through the morning routine and make sure he gets to school on time. I have to receive him in the late afternoon when he is tired and cranky after a long day in the jungle of middle school. Then the real fun begins: the constant dance of do-your-homework/is-your-homework-finished/I-told-you-to-do-your-homework, with him pulling and resisting the entire time, desperate for just a little more time to play, to decompress, to resist thinking. The truth is, I don’t really blame him. That makes it even less fun to be The Mom, the Enforcer, Buzzkill-in-Chief. I’m on his side, and I can’t even tell him so, because I’m not ready to take on the whole school system and the way it doles out homework.

We still have our moments, and I hang onto them with both hands: when a new book arrives that I ordered without telling him, and he eagerly scoops it up and begins reading it immediately with a genuine, “Thanks, Mom!”; when he comes back to my room a second time before bed because he “forgot to give me a hug,” even on the days that started out with a door slamming and icy words; when my husband is away on business and I let him stay up with me, his nose deep in a book while I finish working on my laptop in my big white bed. He’s fun to be with when our internal agendas align, and I want so desperately to be able to enjoy him more and nag him less. We’re just not always there yet.

He is my firstborn. There is no one in the world that holds his unique place in my life. He is the boy who made me a mother, the boy who has challenged me unlike anyone else. He knows exactly which buttons to push; he knows the nuances and personalities of our little family better than I do. He is still my heart every bit as much as he was the first day we brought him home from the hospital. But sometimes, in hormone-filled (me), puberty-rich (him) moments, when his assertions of independence and will meet my obligatory parental push-back, he doesn’t love me. I have to be okay with that, and I will be, as long as I have hope he will always come home at the end of the day loving me again.

So far, he has.

This post originally appeared at Brain, Child. 

 



The Rocks in His Pockets

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Photo by Cynthia Graham

They started appearing about a month or two ago by the handful. Every day, after school, my youngest son would show me when he hopped into the minivan and dropped his backpack into the backseat. “Mom, you will never guess what I found today!”

They are all alike, the rocks he finds on a public elementary school playground in suburbia: white, generally nondescript, and sometimes, clearly, chunks of concrete. “Conglomerates!” he yelps with excitement. “This one might be limestone. I mean, maybe. Did you know chalk comes from limestone, Mom?”

Somehow, some way, his magical teacher — the famous Mrs. Hoot — has instilled a love for rocks in her little classroom of first-grade academics. They have all become playground geologists. Now, Ben will turn down a pair of shorts I lay out for him in the morning with a shrug. “Those don’t have pockets. I need pockets for my rocks.”

And yes, every day, Ben’s pockets are full of rocks. Unfortunately, with the amount of laundry I must go through in any given week, this fact slips my mind. Inevitably, I open the washer or dryer — especially the dryer — and a handful of white, chalky rocks fall out with a clatter. They are now constantly filling my lint tray and knocking around in the bellies of my machines. In the rush of my every day, I bend down to open the dryer door, hear the familiar noise, and curse under my breath. Again. I forgot to check his pockets again. I know it is only a matter of time before Ben’s rocks break my washer or dryer.

We have asked him to empty his pockets, but, being six, he has a certain hierarchy of priorities and thoughts. These include, in no particular order, which of his friends were at school today, whether it was chicken sandwich day in the cafeteria, if he had two dollars to spend on luxuries at the school store, whether his brothers have already scored the last of the best snacks or the plum seat in front of the computer after school, and if he has seen this particular episode of Adventure Time. Distinctly absent from his list of priorities: where he took his shoes off, if he has homework to complete, whether he left the door open so the dog can bolt out into the neighborhood, and yes, if he emptied his pockets of rocks.

Lately, it is beginning to drive me crazy. I have been picking tiny pebbles out of the dryer lint tray and depositing heaps of rocks on my laundry counters, uncertain whether to throw them away or keep them for some undoubtedly valuable collection of nondescript white playground rocks? I caught the toddler trying to hurl one into my bathtub one day, and I fished another out of the dog’s mouth. But though I grow increasingly bitter about the piles of rocks, I can’t bear to say anything to the boy they belong to other than a weak, “Hey, buddy? Think you could try to empty your pockets for me when you come home?”

Something in my heart just won’t let me do anything to discourage this hobby. He is my last little boy, the one who is such a Third Brother that he regularly skips the innocent phases most little boys go through, racing straight to the more mature or savvy interests of his older brothers (Minecraft, RoBlox, Pokemon Y) instead of meandering through Thomas the Train or  pirates or Star Wars at his own pace. The fact that a rock kit was his favorite Christmas present this year — that he spent time taking each different specimen out of its pocket, announcing its name, and passing it to both my husband and me for inspection instead of solely burying his face in an electronic device — is so wonderful and rare and classic childhood to me, I cherish it. I won’t chide him for the rocks in his pockets. I can’t.

Instead, I have decided to see the rocks that tumble out of my dryer each day as small symbols of the abundance in my life. They are physical reminders of how blessed we are:

– We are lucky enough to have four children, including this charming, unbelievably stubborn, incredibly spirited little boy in our midst;

– He has a bright, creative, motivating teacher and a cadre of like-minded soul mates in his first grade class;

– He is so unburdened by other cares that he feels free to spend his precious recess time selecting his daily collection with his friends, and

– My life is so full — of laundry, at the very least (ha) – I don’t even remember to empty his pockets myself.

So for now, I will look at the ever-growing pile of rocks on the laundry counter and smile and shrug. Someday, I won’t have any 6-year-olds leaving me beloved treasures in their pockets. I will remind myself of this, just as I (repeatedly) try to convince myself  when I look at my bathroom sink — perpetually smeared with children’s toothpaste and Spongebob band-aid wrappers — that someday I might curse a clean sink.

I’m just wondering if my old-school, somewhat crotchety appliance repairman will have the same attitude when I ask him to come clear the nooks and crannies of my dryer of a bunch of rocks. I am thinking not so much.