Siblings: Partners in Cuteness, Partners in Crime


A few weeks ago I sat down to write a blog post. It began like this: Today they woke up sweet.

Then something happened, I can’t be sure what. Ceci wasn’t cooperating with her big sister’s grand Lego-building plans, or Maggie kicked Ceci in the head while attempting to do some sort of indoor acrobatics. Ultimately someone hit someone, which was followed by much crying, at least one time-out, and sour moods all around. The unfinished post was forgotten in the drafts folder. At any rate, I no longer felt like writing about how cute my girls could be with one other.

At two and five, they argue more than I thought they would. (The baby is a non-issue, for now, unless she’s pulling their hair or barreling through a board game or eating their toys.) As the oldest, Maggie is usually the instigator. She’s used to taking the lead, being the winner, making the rules as they play, and she doesn’t deal well with non-compliance on the part of her little sister.

For instance: On one occasion not too long ago, the two of them invented a tiny imaginary friend named Lainey. She was supposed to be Ceci’s age, and Ceci dragged her all over the play set in our backyard. “I’ve got Lainey right here,” she told me, holding out her two cupped hands as I lifted her into the baby swing. But apparently sharing even an invisible friend can be hard for a five-year-old. Swiping the air, Maggie closed her fist around Lainey. A chase ensued. Lainey was thrown into trees, imprisoned on top of the monkey bars. I used magic to free her and return her to Ceci. The whole thing was completely crazy and ridiculous. The lengths to which Maggie would go to keep this imaginary girl away from her sister were impressive, to say the least. Lord help us all if they ever have a crush on the same boy.


Do you feel the love?

The thing – which I don’t acknowledge nearly enough – is that really, most of the time, they are sweet with each other. When they aren’t getting along, they take turns running into the kitchen every five minutes to tattle on the other one: “Maggie called me a noo-nah!” (It’s always some absurd made-up word, and I can’t bring myself to engage. “That doesn’t even mean anything. Just go play.”) But when they are, I can complete whatever chore I’m doing without interruption, so my attention is elsewhere. When they are getting along, it’s just background noise.

I’m trying, though, to notice the sweetness. Like how, when she wakes up before everyone else in the morning, Ceci turns on the light in the room she shares with Alex, sits next to the crib with a pile of books and “reads” stories to her baby sister. Or the time I came downstairs and Maggie and Ceci were kneeling together in the rainbow glow of the newly decorated Christmas tree, quiet. Just looking at it. Possibly my favorite moments are when Maggie gets proud of the other two. They’ll be coloring at the kitchen table and she’ll exclaim, “You’re coloring in the lines, Ceec!” with real excitement in her voice. Or, “Alex just said her first word!” (Which was “mum-mum”. As in the teething wafers called “Baby Mum-Mums”.)

I come from a family of three girls, as well, all born in about a four-year span. It’s a special gift to watch my daughters interact and be reminded of my own experience growing up. We weren’t always kind to each other either: my oldest sister and I would gang up on my middle sister – who has somehow forgiven us for telling her she was adopted – or they would gang up on me, singing a song they had made up about me over and over until I cried. I was the youngest; for me, being a kid and being a sister were one and the same. My siblings created lush imaginary worlds and I was lucky enough to be invited along to inhabit them, whether it was in the basement with our Barbie dolls, in our backyard fort underneath low-hanging trees, or riding Big Wheels in the street outside our house, pretending to be runaway child rock stars.

They don’t always wake up sweet, it’s true. But it’s good to know that even when my girls fight, they are still doing what my sisters and I did, writing the story of their childhood, together. That despite calling each other “noo-nahs” and stealing imaginary friends and engaging in the occasional little girl brawl, there’s actually a lot of love there. My husband and I made a choice to give them that, knowing that we would be outnumbered, knowing that the wrath of three girls when they band together is something to be feared. We fear it. But we wouldn’t change a thing.

Speaking of Gifts (Or God Gave Me a Voice)

We are three days away from Christmas. As my checklist grows shorter – presents purchased, cards sent, cookies decorated – I’m able, finally, to get into the spirit of the season. For me, this means letting myself sink into a warm well of gratitude for all the of the gifts God has given me. My health. My family. Fulfilling friendships. Everything I need and more, far more. I thank God, too, for words, for a passion to write, for a voice and a story to tell. Please don’t think me vain or presumptuous; I call these gifts not to say that I am “gifted” but to convey the extent to which they have enriched my life, the intensity with which I treasure them. 

IMG_0996 (1)

Just post-second child, blogging away.

In my life, I’ve written for a lot of reasons. As a kid I wrote to be like my older sisters. When I was six or seven years old my family stopped at a restaurant after a day of downhill skiing. We composed poems on white paper placemats while we waited for our food. It was the first poem I can remember writing; it was about winter. I think I drew a picture of a bunny in the corner.

A few years later I bought a diary with a lock and a picture of a gumball machine on the front.I filled it with hideous insults about my fourth-grade teacher. It was the year I discovered curse words, and I used them liberally, if not always correctly. She’s such an asshole. I hope she fucking falls in the ocean and gets eaten by goddamn sharks. It was the same year I started writing horror stories, one about a killer doll (titled “Hug Me”), another about a gun that flew around on its own, shooting people. My “asshole” teacher always gave me an A++ and a smiley face.

In 6th grade my boyfriend, whatever that meant at the time, gave me a journal. He didn’t last, but the journal did. When its pages were filled I replaced it with another, then another. Throughout high school and into college, my journals were a place to put my darkest thoughts, the things I didn’t want anyone to know. Also, they served as a catalog of the names of all my crushes, which I believe will serve as important historical documentation one day.

I majored in English, with a focus on creative writing, so I wrote constantly. I was- am still, I suppose – a person who loves academics for the sake of academics. I would highlight and highlight every text I was assigned, then pore back through the pages looking for a common thread to all the neon yellow. I knew my thesis statement was in there somewhere. I also started writing for the school paper, the Tripod. My weekly column was a tongue-in-cheek examination of party life at the school, and probably should have been titled, “Underage Moron Finds it Unnecessary to Disguise the Fact That She Routinely Breaks the Law”. Luckily my editor’s insertion of the word “hypothetically” saved me from arrest and utter disgrace.

The pen, the page, the keyboard: whatever the tool, they were all extensions of myself, and I’m lucky they were, because I needed them. A few months shy of my 21st birthday I watched one of my friends die. He was ejected from his car when it was struck by a tractor-trailer on our way to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. We were caravanning, and I was in the car in front of his. Needless to say, I was broken. Having flashbacks, sobbing myself to sleep, hysteria triggered by any reminder of anything related to the accident- broken. (Read more about this experience in my post “The Transformation of Loss“.)


This is Sean. He was awesome. He left us too soon. Merry Christmas, buddy.

Thank God for writing. Thank God it was something I knew how to do and that I did, twice a week in an advanced poetry workshop taught by a grizzled Quaker named Hugh Ogden. Each day he wore a red bandanna around his matted white hair and sat on the stoop of the English building between classes, smoking. When he grinned, he looked like a maniac. The first time I workshopped a poem about the accident, the room stayed silent after I finished reading. “Oh Jen,” said Hugh, with more kindness in his voice than I could bear, “Thank you.”

I wrote a lot that year, poems that honored Sean’s memory and sought to give his death meaning. “What beauty can be salvaged out of pain?” I wrote. “Life lives, and brings me to myself again.” I wrote poems for his mom, for his girlfriend of six years, who thought that he would one day be her husband. I wrote a poem for the driver of the tractor- trailer that killed him, expressing something like forgiveness.

I healed, mostly. I moved forward. I moved to St. Louis, where I volunteered with AmeriCorps for a year as a mentor in an inner-city middle school. I got interested in teaching, and was hired at a private school to teach 7th-grade English. I met the man who would become my husband. I was happy, and busy. I would try to write, but it felt stupid and hard. I didn’t like any of it, so I stopped.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized how much I needed the written word again. I was working about thirty miles away at the time. Each morning I woke my daughter up, nursed her, and then got in the car and left. By the time I picked her up from daycare I had time to feed her one more time before putting her to bed. I was miserable, exhausted. I truly felt that I was failing as a mother, a wife, and a teacher, that spreading myself so thin couldn’t possibly be the answer. I wanted to scream, but I wrote instead.

I started my own blog. (You’re reading it!) It was only for me, a place to voice my frustrations so that they wouldn’t consume me. After posting once or twice, I included a few of my close family and friends, and eventually I felt comfortable enough to share on Facebook. I know it shouldn’t matter what people say, but positive feedback is encouraging. People I barely knew have become part of this amazing support system of mothers who have all had experiences similar to mine.

And now, at Christmas- and really, every day of my life, I’m thankful for that.


So, I Guess This Is the Kind of Parent I Am?

If I had the time, which I don’t, I’d go back to all of my previous posts and count how many times I used the word “principle”. As in, I am a person of principles and so here is an example of an excellent parenting choice I’ve made based on those principles. I’d guess the number is somewhere in the vicinity of a crapload.

I have to hand it to myself, I got at least a solid A- in principled parenting for a good while. I watched what my daughters ate, steering them away from refined sugar and processed foods. Not wanting them to always expect flashing lights and robot voices, I controlled what toys they played with in our home. And I pledged, I vowed, that even if she had to spend years two through five in time-out, my kid would learn how to act without having to be spanked.


Are you hungry? Here’s a marker!

But then a day arrived (today, actually), when I found myself… BUYING OREOS. And bringing them into my home. And letting my children eat them. Earlier this week, I bought Pop Tarts. I don’t know what’s come over me. It’s like I suddenly don’t care AT ALL about my children’s welfare. Apparently I’m not the kind of parent I thought I was; the proof is in the pudding … in my refrigerator. (Just kidding- things haven’t devolved THAT much.)

What kind of parent am I? Apparently I’m the kind of parent that does, in fact, threaten to spank her child. And, occasionally, does. However, this does not occur very often, because I don’t believe in spanking out of anger. And, apparently, I’m the kind of parent who lets her kids’ bratty behavior get to her. So yeah, only a little spanking. Principled discipline with a side of spanking.

I am also, apparently, the kind of parent who does sneaky things to avoid being interrogated by her children. Like buying ice cream and forgetting to mention it to the kids, or burying their pre-school worksheets in the bottom of the recycling bin. Unfortunately, my children seem to have superhuman powers of observation.  This morning, when my five-year-old opened the freezer to get out a waffle, she shouted, “Hey! When did we get ice cream in this house! Can we have it for dessert?” And today- this was stupid of me, I admit – this same child came with me to the recycling center to empty our bins. Upon finding her The First Thanksgiving booklet in a heap amongst Target receipts and toilet paper rolls, she looked up at me accusingly. “Why are you throwing this away?” It is now back on my dining room table, and will apparently be in my house for some time to come.


Sure, go ahead and do gymnastics on the furniture!

At some point I apparently became the kind of parent who adheres to the philosophy of, If you are playing quietly, I am not even going to check to see what you could possibly be doing that would result in such desirable behavior. If said behavior allows me thirty minutes to fold laundry, shower, or blog in peace, then you go right ahead and empty the contents of your dressers into a pile on your bed and then pretend that they are a swimming pool. Then go do something else destructive, quietly, so I can put the contents of your dressers back in.

When I first embarked on this journey I envisioned myself being the FDR of motherhood: solving problems creatively, leading my household with confidence, taking the necessary steps even when circumstances seem impossible, and earning the devoted love of my constituents. Turns out I’m more like Herbert Hoover, and people are going to start referring to their messy houses, full of grimy children, as “Prayvilles”.


The play room on a good day.

So this, apparently, is the kind of parent I am. I’m a parent who bends, a parent who changes. I’m a parent who recognizes, now, the difference between idealism and reality. I’m a parent who keeps a sense of humor about the poop-show my life has become. (Did you like how I creatively avoided cussing there? Maybe I do have a tiny bit of FDR in me.) I’m the parent I have to be in this particular place and time of my life. And, apparently, that’s good enough.

A Particular Place and Time: The Bug

For more information about this series of posts, click here.

December 3, 2015. 11:30 p.m.

I wake to one of my children crying out for me, but I am deep in a dream. She’ll go back to sleep, I think, or come into my room; they always do. I nuzzle my head deeper into my pillow, but the cries persist – shrieks of panic, I realize, so I give myself a metaphorical slap in the face and dash across the hall.

I take in the scene. It is straight out of the book of parental nightmares: My two-year-old is sitting upright in her bed, covered in vomit. She has woken the baby, who sleeps sometimes in a crib in their shared room, sometimes in a pack-and-play in our master bathroom, depending on what is most convenient. Both children are beside themselves. I do the first thing I can think of, which is to call for backup.

The baby is contained, but the mess needs to be dealt with. My husband gathers the bed sheets, pillows, and stuffed animals while I usher my middle girl into the bathroom and into the tub, where her tiny frame shivers as I try to spray her clean. Her face has lost all color. It is a moment when everything inside of me reaches for her. I want to hold her and enfold her and lift her up and make her well. But first I need to make sure there is no more unchewed macaroni in her hair.


I prefer her healthy and her hair macaroni-free.

My husband takes over putting her back in bed while I take care of the baby. She’ll be in the pack-and-play for the rest of the night, obviously. As I nurse her, I hear more retching from across the hall, and another round of changing sheets and pajamas. I think of something a former colleague told me years ago. I was only recently out of college and he was maybe ten years older than me, with two young children. One of them had been sick with a bug just like this one, and he said to me, “Since becoming a parent, I’ve done things I never thought I would do.” He didn’t elaborate.

Once the baby was asleep again, I relieve my husband of duty. I make myself a nest on the floor by my sick darling’s side and listen to her breathing. I can tell from the speed of her breath when I need to gather her up and hold her over the tupperware receptacle we have placed by her bed. Every time, she tries to push me away. “I done! I done!” she mumbles. But my job is to be there, even if she doesn’t want me to be. Even if I don’t want to be. We do what we must do when it must be done. This is what it means to parent.

By morning, she is nearly herself again. She chatters and smiles, upset only by my refusal to let her have a cup of milk. I tell her we need to wait until her tummy is ready, but it’s probably me that isn’t ready. I don’t like  thinking of her hunched in the tub, white and shaking, wet and afraid. We will both need some time to recover.

A Particular Place and Time: Alone with Alex

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December 2, 2015


She is in her high chair, which I’ve pulled up to the counter so she can be closer to me. She’s eating puffs. This is a new development, her picking things up and eating them independently. She’s seven months old, soon to be eight months. I don’t remember when my other two started being able to feed themselves.

This time of day, mid-morning, when the others are at preschool, is when I “get things done”. Right now that means washing dishes. I realize, after several minutes of scrubbing, that I haven’t looked up and out of the window, even once. Or at my child, whose high chair tray needs refilling. I often have this problem; I can focus intently on one task at a time, but I have difficulty dividing my attention. This can be problematic, as parenthood is never one thing. It’s one eye on the clock, one searching for a lost shoe, hands occupied zipping up a jacket when they’re also needed down the hall, where the baby just got stuck crawling over a pile of Duplos.

Now, with the other two at school for three hours, I have only one child here to demand my attention, and she rarely does. (Even now, hours after I first started writing this, the other two are in their rooms for nap and quiet time, and Alex is crawling on the floor below my stool, pushing around a marker and a Barbie. When I look down at her she scrunches her face at me and smiles.) She’s a third child, like me, an observer, a tag-along, thrilled when one of us shows her special attention. I’m thankful  she understands that I’m only partly hers, even though it breaks my heart.

Still, this is more than I was ever able to offer my first two, when they were babies. Alex is still exclusively nursing. I was supplementing with formula by the time Maggie was five months old, and with Ceci, I just couldn’t face the thought of pumping in my classroom during my planning periods, and I gave up. She was eight weeks old when I went back to work. So there’s something to be said for making it this far, and for my relationship with my youngest. In a way, she needs me like the others didn’t.

The time we have together goes by quickly. When I’ve finished the dishes there is dinner to prepare and place in the crockpot. The laundry needs to be switched. She’s tired now, and I can check off those tasks while she naps. When I set her in the crib she doesn’t make a sound, just rolls to the side and sucks on her middle and index fingers, her way of self-soothing. I tell her I love her, I love her, I love her. Forty-five minutes later I wake her. It’s time to go get her sisters. Unsurprisingly, she makes no complaint.


December 1, 2015: A Particular Place and Time

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The way our day begins.

Mornings are the least structured part of my day. Ever since Alex was born in April, sleep takes precedence over anything else that might occur early in the morning: a workout, a shower, a quiet cup of coffee. I get up when I hear one child crying or another one crawls into bed next to me and starts feeling my face like that girl in the Lionel Richie video.

IMG_2954Today it’s a hungry Alex first, then Ceci, who drags in two blankets, a pillow pet, and a copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Pretty soon the three kids have taken over our bed and are being way cuter and happier than they normally are at this time. They take turns sitting in each other’s laps with their arms wrapped around one another like a much less awkward version of a prom picture.

During breakfast, Maggie wants me to read them books. This request always annoys me; I really don’t want to. I already need to feed the baby and myself, and reading The Berenstain Bears and the Prize Pumpkin in between bites feels like a little too much. At the same time, I don’t want to kill the happy mood, so I oblige. Maggie wants me to wear a tiara while I read, but Ceci wants the tiara too, and in the end I end up taking it from my two-year-old and placing it on my own head. Mom wins this time; it doesn’t happen that often.

Ceci starts complaining that her teeth are hurting her. I don’t doubt it. Her molars are working their way in, making my girl miserable. I grab a teething ring from the freezer to humor her. “Is cold!” she keeps squealing, holding her hands out for us to feel. Of course Maggie wants one too. They listen to me read with the pink and orange rings hanging out of their mouths like door knockers.

I tell them that it’s time to brush teeth and head out to preschool. They beat me upstairs. They have a new hiding spot, in Ceci and Alex’s closet, where they climb into Huggies value boxes full of clothes that they’ve outgrown. All I have to do is follow the giggles.

While I finish getting dressed (Yoga pants, obviously. It’s possible I might get to work out at some point today… ), the older girls play a game of their own invention that involves tossing the teething rings onto my bedroom floor, which is lava. At one point Maggie screams, “Mom’s a can so we can eat her beans inside her!” It’s not the strangest thing she’s ever said, but it’s up there.

Next year Maggie will be in kindergarten, and we’ll have to get our acts together. Alarms will need to be set. Outfits will need to be laid out ahead of time. Lunches will need to be made. We won’t have as much time for reading or playing or hiding.  This is what I tell myself when the crazy starts to get to me. Just let it happen, mama. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.