The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. HA.

The laundry room: the victim of a week of class holiday parties.

The laundry room: the victim of a week of class holiday parties.

It’s December 22, and I am over it. All of it.

I know how I am supposed to be feeling: jingle bells, peace love joy, white lights and warm fuzzies. I’m supposed to be counting my blessings instead of sheep and humming tunes about roasted chestnuts and getting excited about my annual chance to play Santa. I’m supposed to be cuddling on the couch with my kids watching Christmas movies and eating candy canes and whatnot.

But I’m not.

It’s Sunday night, and my kids have been out of school since Thursday. I’m having a panic attack because it’s just about the end of the road for Amazon orders that can arrive before Christmas. A strand of lights already burned out on my tree, and I am negotiating with myself over whether or not to replace them. I’m sick to my stomach from Christmas treats. I’m haunted by the nagging feeling that I have forgotten something or someone, and I am 110 percent certain that I will not remember where all the gifts to wrap are hidden on Christmas Eve.

Most of all, though, I am over my children. They have run over my Christmas spirit like reindeer on a grandma. Between surly tweens and stubborn little people, I am all tapped out of ho-ho-hos.

“Do we have to listen to Christmas music, really?”

“Can we go home now? I don’t want to look at Christmas lights.”

“A cookie exchange?! Mom, I’m eleven. I don’t go to cookie exchanges.”

“Are you seriously going to make me wear a shirt with a collar on it?!”

“Disney? We have to go to Disney? AGAIN?”

Something about working 24/7 to engineer a magical holiday for them — complete with their dearest wishes and every holiday tradition I can pull off while also caring for four children’s various and sundry needs — makes their obvious lack of appropriate gratitude and cooperation glaringly more obnoxious than usual.

Here’s the truth: By Tuesday night, we’ll be on track. The Christmas Train will have left the station, and everyone will cooperate: my kids won’t call each other “losers” and fight over every ridiculous thing. They’ll wear what I ask them to for dinner. They’ll be so excited, I won’t be able to help being excited too. We’ll leave out cookies for Santa and carrots for reindeer, and they’ll go to bed on time and stay there. I’ll wrap presents with my husband while watching Love, Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’ll cry because love is actually all around (also, Colin Firth) and because George Bailey really is the richest man in town. I’ll go to bed exhausted and be awakened before dawn by giddy children, and I’ll watch them tear into brightly colored tissue paper and hug baby dolls and laptops, and it won’t matter at all if I replaced that strand of lights or not. My kids will be grateful and they will hug me and then I will collapse in front of the A Christmas Story marathon on TBS like I do every year and hope the kids don’t tear the house down while I am in my post-Christmas morning coma. It will be wonderful, messy, and perfect in its own way.

But tonight? Tonight, I mentally returned every present I bought my children. I threatened to call Santa and cancel Christmas. I used my foot to push the writhing, whining 6-year-old back into the bedroom he shares with his older brother and I closed the door, telling him I was done and he was to go to bed already. I ignored the tweens’ protests when I sent them to bed early, hoping they might sleep and be nicer tomorrow. Merry Effing Christmas, I thought. And then I cried thinking about how I will get through tomorrow. I really do love Christmas and I really do love my children, but sometimes I don’t know if I will survive until December 25th.

So just in case the holidays aren’t going so magically at your house tonight either, I want you to know you are not alone. And as always, now I feel guilty, and I am swearing I will do better tomorrow to try and keep my patience more — to, you know, enjoy the magic and the wonder of the season. Or something like that. In the meantime, I have a little laundry to attend to due to a week full of class holiday parties and last-minute shopping preoccupation.

Merry Effing Christmas, fellow moms. Hang in there.

At least someone is in the holiday spirit.

At least someone is in the holiday spirit.



The Awakening

All that really matters are our people.

All that really matters are our people.

I drove down the familiar street near my house, trying not to think about where I was going, yet searching the side of the road for the familiar sign. Funeral homes are those places that we pass by and see every day, but we try hard not to know exactly where they are. We try hard not to need to know where they are.

I finally parked the car and stepped gingerly through the door. A friendly-looking man leapt from an armchair and directed me toward a guestbook, which I signed a little awkwardly before accepting the card with her name on it and a passage from the Bible. I had only met Bobbie once, in passing, but she was the mother of one of my best friends. I stepped quickly into the main viewing room and my eyes searched for my friend, finally landing on the back of her head.

I almost didn’t go that night. I wasn’t sure I should, since viewings and wakes seem so personal and intimate, and I really didn’t know my friend’s mother. I thought, perhaps, I should just go to the funeral mass the next morning. But earlier that day, I decided I would go. My friend might need to see my face. This seemed like one of those moments when I needed to show up for her.

I have been lucky in that I haven’t been to many wakes; as a result, they still make me feel very unsteady. My eyes were drawn to the video slideshow of pictures of Bobbie and her life, then to the huge, beautiful flowers spilling everywhere, all over her casket and onto the floor. The room felt bright and happy and warmer because of the flowers. In one corner sat an oversized picture of Bobbie in profile, laughing almost coyly.

I found my friend, and when she saw me, she turned and hugged me, hard, and she cried. I held her with both arms and let her cry. Her mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer just a year before, and it had been a year of knowing, a year of fighting, a year of lasts. I could feel her exhaustion.

Still, before the young, handsome priest stood up to speak, it was easy to laugh, to smile, to pretend we were not actually there to begin the process of saying goodbye to someone. We shook hands and talked about our kids. But once the priest began and we were sitting in the pew facing the casket, the pictures, and all those flowers, I could feel my friend begin to quietly lose her composure. I could feel the reality creeping up her back, making her sit straighter, her eyes well. I put my hand on her shoulder. I knew that this moment, this exact second, is when it began to sink in for her. After a year of saying goodbye, suddenly this felt like someone was shutting the door in her face. I know — because I have lost someone I loved to metastatic cancer — that even though you know it is coming and even though you know your dear one is ready, when actual death finally comes, it always feels sudden. It always feels like a slap, like an ambush, like a rug has been yanked from under your feet.

While the priest spoke, I watched the pictures flash by on the slideshow, and they made me cry — a reflex as sure and certain as a rubber mallet to my knee: there was her mother as a toddler, as a young woman, as a young mother, as a grandmother. They were glimpses of a life — a life now completed. There in the images of a woman I didn’t know I saw so much familiar to me, both as a daughter and as a mother. They were the moments that flash by so quickly even in real time, gathered in one place, telling the story of a woman that is no longer here and all she left behind.

My friend turned to me. “This isn’t happening,” she whispered quickly, almost desperately, her eyes a little wild. “This isn’t my mama. This isn’t real.” I clung to her hand hard, a little scared that she might bolt from her seat. I didn’t blame her; suddenly, the room felt small. Though it was not my mother, all I could think was that I was glimpsing things to come I didn’t want to see — realizing how it would feel to lose my mother, my people. My own mother and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she still makes the world make sense to me. Just the thought of losing her made me feel the same desperation that I saw in my friend’s eyes and felt in her restless hands.

In that moment, sitting there by my friend’s side, watching her lose her mother, I felt it — the turn of the tides, the ineffable spinning of the world, how fast this all goes. How fast this all goes: that in one picture we are children, in the next, young women, then if we are lucky, mothers, and then if we are luckier, grandmothers. Then our family members are standing in a foreign room, telling stories about us with tears in their eyes and cracks in their voices, because our stories can all be told. They all have endings.

I did not need to ask for whom the bell tolled that evening. I wept alongside my friend — for all of us. I wept for the beauty of life, for the journey, and for the certainty that it will end. I mourned both because I will be left someday and because of who I will leave. And I realized that in the next chapters of my life, the people walking beside me, literally and figuratively, are the ones who are going to get me through some of the hardest moments of my life. Loss in inevitable; I know it is coming for me too. I don’t feel ready for it at all — is anyone ever ready for it? — and I’m not ready to see my children experience it.

Again, the message came to me: in the end, all we have are our people. They are all that matter. I left that wake wanting to go hug my mother, but also wanting to go hug my friends, my husband, and my children. We said goodbye to Bobbie that night, but with her, I think I said goodbye to more. I felt the big chill, and I have been trying to shake it ever since. Does it ever go away once you have felt it?

 

 

 



Working Holidays

My grandmother, the matriarch, and my baby girl, the youngest member of the family.

My grandmother, the matriarch, and my baby girl, the youngest member of the family.

Confession: I really didn’t want to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year.

I have managed to get out of cooking the meal the past two years. Two years ago, I was pregnant and barfing and just really didn’t feel like taking on the job. Somehow, I persuaded my brother and sister-in-law (who was, for real, nine months pregnant — but NOT barfing) to do it instead. Last year, I asserted myself and declared I was taking back Thanksgiving because I was just too overwhelmed to handle it. We had dinner at a nearby lakeside inn instead: beautiful scenery, good food, and I didn’t need to cook a thing. Perfect.

This year, I am neck-deep in home repairs and renovations from a burst pipe in our home last summer. We have had no kitchen at all for a month; my oven is in the dining room along with a million boxes, my cooktop is in the garage under a rug and a hand-drawn sign warning of fragile glass. I’m tired, overextended, and stressed out from dealing with a trillion contractors and plumbers on top of everything else you might imagine in a normal life with four kids and two dogs. My grandmother struggles with arthritis and cannot cook much anymore, my mom does not cook, and my brother and sister-in-law were traveling to us and couldn’t bring much this year. It seemed like a lot of work to fit in cooking dinner for sixteen people when I was dealing with so much at home and would need to cook in someone else’s kitchen. So I asked my mom to make a reservation instead, and she did. Good enough, I thought. It’s just Thanksgiving.

One day in early November, my children were in the car with me after car line pick-up at the elementary school, and one of them asked me who was coming to Thanksgiving this year. I told him, and I mentioned we were going back to the inn for dinner.

“Nooooo!” wailed my 9-year-old, Charlie, which surprised me. Usually, my children are fans of buffets, because it means many, many desserts and beige foods with minimal parental intervention.

“You didn’t like the inn, Charlie?” I replied, my eyes on traffic and only half listening. My kids protest everything, so I wasn’t giving him my full attention yet.

“You’re not supposed to eat Thanksgiving in a restaurant,” Charlie grumbled. “We just go, eat, and leave. We’re supposed to spend time with our family. It’s not a real Thanksgiving at a restaurant.”

I was a little bemused and a little shamed. I like Thanksgiving at a restaurant — because it means no cooking, no dishes to clean, no fuss, no muss. It means not braving the crowds at the grocery stores, not worrying about pleasing the palates of both my grandparents and the toddlers, and being home in time for football and naps. I like that kind of Thanksgiving because it is less work for me.

But when Charlie voiced his reasons for wanting a Thanksgiving at home, I could not deny that he had a point. I just really hadn’t thought about it that way. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the details — the grocery lists, the clothes, the timing of the dinner, the the sixteen people with sixteen different sets of needs — that it overwhelms me. Family and holidays can feel more like obligations and demands. As I drove home that day, I realized that in an effort to simplify and streamline my stressful life, I might have been cutting out the very heart of what the holidays are to my kids and what they could be for me: time in the kitchen with other generations; strategizing and coordinating with my husband on the cooking (something he loves and rarely gets time to do); watching my kids tear through my parents’ house and yard with their cousins with dirt streaking their faces and laughter spilling down the hallways; footballs lobbed in high arcs between my brother and my boys.

We canceled the reservation.

My family’s holidays are not perfect. We are a rag-tag group, with just as many children as we have adults and even more personality quirks between us. The afternoon of Thanksgiving, after spending the morning trying to cook in my mother’s kitchen on a cooktop with broken knobs and an oven that is usually used for storage, I practically had to sit on my kids to change into collared shirts for the meal. So festive and heartwarming (not). But I looked around the room that night at dinner, and I saw the faces who have been present for the most important moments of my life. I felt the strings pulled taut between us. We’re just a small pride of imperfect people, but we’re all we’ve got. This is our family, and these same faces are now the ones making the memories in my children’s lives. It’s not “just Thanksgiving.” It’s more than that. And while being a parent at the holidays means a whole bunch of work — much of it thankless — that doesn’t mean that the work isn’t worth it.

When we piled into my car late that night, my kids were coated in a fresh layer of sweat and dirt from a game of “Manhunt” with their cousins by the light of the moon. They leaned back in their seats in heaps, exhausted and full and happy. “That was the best day ever,” Charlie said. “I can’t wait for Christmas so we can do it again.”

Me neither.

 



The HerStories Project

Some of the women who keep me alive.

Some of the women who keep me alive.

“Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends.”

– Anna Quindlen, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

I’m a fan of men; after all, I am raising three little ones. Men are awesome. But women — women are essential to me. It is true that without my girlfriends, I just wouldn’t make it. I am blessed with good, true friends, near and far, who quite literally keep me from losing my ever-loving mind some days. Other days, they are the ones who tell me that I have lost it, and who pull me back to myself. I’m not sure what I would do if I didn’t have my friends on the other end of the phone, the text message, or the table telling me that they see me, they hear me, and they understand, no matter how crazed and irrational I might be at the moment from the daily chaos that is my so-called life.

But that doesn’t mean that the course of my friendships always runs smooth. Women are complex, layered, wonderful, and nuanced, and sometimes, they are difficult — and that of course includes me. I have had horrible, gut-wrenching arguments with friends. I have lost friends. I have ended friendships. I have been dumped as a friend, sometimes for reasons I understood, and sometimes for reasons I did not. Friendship takes work, commitment, and a whole lot of patience and tolerance and forgiveness, and there are seasons in our lives when we have those qualities in abundance and then others when we do not. But one thing I know for sure: women, and their friendship, are worth it. When I am with my friends, it’s as if my lungs can fully inflate — as if I am breathing pure oxygen. Especially since I became a mother, I appreciate my own little Red Tent, my collection of people that love me even though they don’t have to. [Read more...]



Head Over Heart

1467687_10151698278186493_1763227436_oThe darker days of November have set in and settled hard in our house. We are deep into our school year, just past science fair projects and dioramas, with book reports and state-mandated testing still in front of us. Holidays and parties and birthdays and the tasks and busyness of ordinary life are taking up our days so that we barely breathe.

Yet life keeps happening, busy or not — and the “busy” parts are not actually life. The boys outgrow their shoes. Their jeans don’t cover their ankles, and their T-shirts don’t pass the “raise your arms” test. The toddler is beginning to acquire some words (finally, just when I was starting to really worry): pizza, uh-oh, down, and her favorite, NO!

I’ve been on solo parent duty more than usual this fall, and I can’t lie: it’s tough. It’s tough because just when I am reaching my daily limit of patience and energy — just when I could really use back-up and another adult to take on a bedtime ritual — I realize that I’m it. I’m the only adult available with four kids to feed, bathe, coach on homework, and put to bed. It’s daunting, and all my glaring parental imperfections rise to the surface in those moments when I am strung out, touched out, exhausted and just plain done. [Read more...]



Doing the Math: Thoughts on Having a Baby Later in Life

My baby and me.

My baby and me.

Last summer, there was an article about women’s fertility that appeared in the Atlantic called “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” It kind of left me breathless. Though her conclusions are up for debate, Professor Jean Twenge asserted that fertility issues might not be as much tied to age and declining fertility as we have been led to believe. She proposed that if you have fertility issues when you are 38, you might have been just as likely to have them at 28; age might not be the problem in every case. If what she wrote is true, it might take a little bit of psychological weight from some “older” women trying to have a baby and offer hope to women whose biological clock is beginning to thump instead of tick.

I myself can prove Twenge’s point — it took just as much effort for me to conceive my first child at 27 as it did for me to conceive my last child at 37. There was not a smidge of difference in my fertility. However, some in the medical profession might remind us that it’s an immutable fact that at 40, our eggs are considerably older than they were at 27, and that difference alone affects the process. While some aspects of our fertility might not change with age, some inevitably will. Mother Nature has some house rules that can’t be broken. [Read more...]



Sometimes Good Parents Miss the Class Party

My son, happy on a class field trip to the environmental center  that I had to miss.

My son, happy on a class field trip to the environmental center that I had to miss.

The day after Halloween is never an easy day for anyone associated with children. I have never understood why schools don’t just give up the (Halloween) ghost and make the day after Halloween a teacher work day. Should we really subject teachers to classrooms full of exhausted children with sugar coursing through their veins, makeup smudges and colored hairspray still faintly marking their faces and hair? It’s kind of cruel and unusual. On the other hand… well, I am always excited to drop them off at school that morning.

In a wise move, my first grader’s hero of a teacher, the wonderful Mrs. Hoot (not her real name — I’m protecting the innocent, and she loves owls), decided to make the day after Halloween a Fall Fun Day. So at 8:45 AM on November 1, I stumbled into her classroom along with a few of my mom peers, feeling hung over even though I hadn’t had a drop to drink the night before and dreading the inevitable table of seasonal crafts. I am not an arts and crafts mom.

The children were seated on a rug expectantly, their eyes big and their legs in constant motion. As the moms and I negotiated which centers we would claim — I happily escaped stringing autumnal bracelets and instead took candy corn bingo — Mrs. Hoot discussed with the children how they would divide up and rotate through the centers.

As is their way, the children began eyeing the moms and watching the classroom door. “My mom said she could come,” one little boy said plaintively, watching the door. “Maybe she’ll be here soon.” [Read more...]



The Threenager

My youngest boy at 3. This picture about sums it up.

My youngest boy at 3. This picture about sums it up.

Truth: Three is my least favorite age.

Everyone always talks about the “Terrible Twos,” but I have never taken issue with 2-year-olds. Two-year-olds need to fire their publicists. Sure, they can be irrational, impulsive, or indignant, but, really? They’re just babies stretched out into slightly longer bodies. I could forgive their tantrums because they didn’t have much control over their communication skills yet. I could understand their impulsive behavior because they genuinely, and obviously, couldn’t control it.

At 3, they can communicate better, and they can control themselves more. They just choose not to. They choose not to, and they might just give you a figurative middle finger every single day of their threenagerhood. [Read more...]



The Tell-Tale Mustache

My new headshot, courtesy of Tracy Hougham Photography. Can you see the mustache? I hope not. Thank you, Bobbi Brown and Photoshop!

My new headshot, courtesy of Tracy Hougham Photography. Can you see the mustache? I hope not. Thank you, Bobbi Brown and Photoshop!

I turned 39 this summer. Thirty. Nine. It’s kind of a big deal, this whole aging thing, huh? Stuff’s gettin’ real here now. It’s now markedly harder to lose weight, my knees creak, and I’m a big old sissy about needing my sleep. Depressing.

Luckily, I’m not yet experiencing many of the symptoms of aging my friends have reported. I’ve yet to flash hot, to wake up sweating, or to suffer headaches of hormonal origin. But right around my birthday — seriously, within a week of turning 39 — I noticed something disturbing that no one had warned me about even once: I now have a mustache. [Read more...]



Raising Giants

RaiseaGiantLogo

 

Dear Little People I Love,

When I was your age, I came home one day from school and told my dad about the funniest thing that happened that day — something that involved a group of kids playing a prank on an unpopular girl in my class.

Granddad was not amused. In fact, he was angry with me. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that the prank was not funny. He reminded me of his brother, my uncle, who had struggled his entire school life with bullies and teasing. I had never seen Granddad so angry with me before. I even saw a tear roll down his cheek when he made me swear I would never do anything like that again. “But it wasn’t me,” I protested. “I just watched.” He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in my eyes. “That’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s the same thing.” That’s still the only time I have ever seen Granddad cry. [Read more...]