In 2016

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2016 was my first full year as a stay-at-home mom. My duties included, but were not limited to: Changing diapers. Preparing meals. Basic housekeeping duties such as vacuuming, dish washing, and collecting slightly-used tissues from communal areas. Wrestling screaming children into pants. Wrestling screaming children into car seats. Wrestling screaming children in various public places. (In general, the wrestling was meant to keep said children from harm – being struck by a car in a parking lot, for example – but often made me feel as if the harm I was trying to avoid might be less traumatic than my face, inches from theirs, hollering, “STOP IT! I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!”)

In 2016 I found myself needing something in my life other than these mother-related responsibilities. I joined a second book club. I volunteered for the leadership committee of our local chapter of MOPS (Moms of Pre-Schoolers). I took up photography in the most intense way possible, by committing to a 365-day photo challenge in which I promised no one in particular that I would shoot, edit, and post photos of my life every. single.day. I spent too much time staring at beautiful mothers and children on Instagram and decided to start a new Instagram community, called Honestly Parents, devoted to sharing pictures of imperfect families.

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It helps that they’re cute.

All of these pasttimes, while fulfilling in their own ways, were attempts to regain the qualities I felt I had lost at some point in my life as mother. In my home, with my children, I felt tired and irritated. The demands of motherhood, the meeting of everyone’s needs but my own, made me feel hopeless and unaccomplished. I would find myself saying terribly unfair things to my young children: How am I supposed to get anything done if you just keep asking me to get you things to eat? or Mommy wishes she could play right now, but she has a bunch of boring grown-up things to do. 

On top of the adjustment to staying at home, 2016 was the year that I stopped nursing our youngest daughter. The calories I was once able to consume were no longer nurturing a child, but collecting along my hips and waistline. I had already, in a triumphant and overly-smug closet clean-out, gotten rid of my post-pregnancy “fat pants”, and I found myself unable to button clothing that had fit me only six months before. In 2016, I was guilty of directing hatred at my own body. Nothing looked right on me. My husband told me I was beautiful and I scoffed. This body that brought three lovely girls into the world became my enemy. I realized, in one of the most depressing moments of my life, that I would need to buy a larger size of underwear. I came home with something (no offense, mom, but hopefully you see where I’m going with this) my mother would wear, and I thought to myself, “So this is what it is to be a mom. Gigantic underwear, a dirty house, and kids that think you would rather fold laundry than play with them.”

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A self-portrait of motherhood.

2016 is nearly over, and a new year is about to begin. We will celebrate birthdays and holidays. We will watch the seasons change. We will fill our calendars with obligations and activities; we will try to pencil in something that brings us pleasure. We will have sleepless nights when the children wake up, one after another, for no apparent reason. We will find scribbles on surfaces we could have sworn were spotless just a moment ago, and decide we are too tired to clean them, because what’s the use anyway? We will feel despair, at times. We will cry at stupid songs and yell at our children when they don’t deserve it. We will berate ourselves when we don’t deserve it.

The year to come will be no different than this one; life will continue as it has been, because the life you lived in 2016 is the life you were given. Sometimes it will be almost unbearably beautiful, and you will think to yourself that this, all of it, is a gift. You will call yourself blessed and post sentimental photos of you and your children, and you will feel happy. Other times you won’t, because the things that make you feel unhappy now are not going to magically disappear. Allowing yourself to recognize the great, great burden of motherhood does not make you ungrateful. It makes you a real, human woman.

I am a person who loves a good toast; it could have something to do with my appreciation for a good glass of wine (related, I believe, to my recent need for larger undergarments). And so, if I am able to stay awake until midnight this weekend to welcome the new year, I will say this: “To 2017: I embrace you, all of you, before I even know you. May I do the same for myself this year.”

Cheers.

 

Fathers, Daughters, and the Bond of Baseball

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When I was young, my dad and I would play catch in the street outside my house, just where the road began a slow decline. It was a gentle slope, perfect for coasting down on a bike or even a sled, if it snowed enough and conditions were just right. But if my throw was wild – as it often was – the softball might go pop-popping off the asphalt and down the hill, and we’d have to take turns chasing it onto a neighbor’s lawn, trapping it with our glove, then jogging, slower this time, up to the top to try again.

Baseball has never been my father’s favorite sport, but it was one he felt he could teach his daughters. He took us to see the minor league team on Bat Night and we all came home with miniature Louisville sluggers. We ate popcorn and nachos and did the wave in the bleachers, giggling wildly. When a foul ball came near I would stick out my glove and scrunch my eyes tight, terrified of the impact. I don’t believe I ever caught one.

Although we lived in Upstate New York he was a Minnesota Twins fan—something about the games he was able to pick up on the radio as a boy. When I was only six or seven I kept my school papers in a pocket folder with Kirby Puckett’s grinning face on the front; I’m sure my dad was thoroughly proud. He’d root for the Mets, too, and when my oldest sister eventually went to Boston College, she and my dad could talk Red Sox for hours. He was good with pretty much every team but the Yankees; my dad has never been a guy with expensive taste, and money tends to make him angry. “Well of COURSE they’re good!” he would rant.

So he was disappointed when, in college, I adopted the Yankees as “my team”, cheering them on from my common room futon to the World Series in 2001 and 2003, and nearly losing my mind as the Red Sox miraculously defeated them in the ALCS in 2004. (I still feel slightly enraged when I think about Curt Schilling’s bloody sock.)

Then I met my husband, who had been raised in a Chicago suburb with the heavy burden of Cubs fandom. We met while we were both living in the St. Louis area, at the height of Cardinals’ domination. In St. Louis, Albert Pujols was a god who ate Cubbie bears for breakfast. It was a difficult place to root for the Cubs, but at the time, any place was a difficult place to root for the Cubs.

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That’s my husband with his sister and grandfather at Wrigley field in 1992.

This man who would become my husband took his team seriously. He internalized each error; he often had to step away from the TV in frustration. Watching him watch the Cubs (often from a nervous distance), I questioned my own loyalties. The Yankees did not make me feel this angst. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I released my claim to them, and began to cheer, instead, for the team that might someday make my husband happy.

Late on the night of November 2, I sank into my couch and looked on as my husband, the father of my three children, paced. The Cubs were so close to doing the unthinkable. They might just win the World Series. They might just fuck it up – in fact, he was pretty convinced that they were on the verge of just that. Upstairs, our daughters slept. It was a school night for our oldest, who is in kindergarten, and staying up to watch the game just wasn’t an option. She is six, growing up in the heart of South Carolina college football country, where nearly everyone is either a Tiger or a Gamecock. When asked what team she roots for, she’ll answer, “My team is the Cubs.”

The morning after the win, when our oldest woke, I told her that the Cubs had won the World Series. Her eyes grew wide, and she ran from the room. This was a moment to share with her dad.

My husband, like my father, is raising three girls. He is an affectionate person; they know, undoubtedly, that their daddy loves them. They climb on him, chase and pin him, rub noses and give high fives. They also snuggle on the couch to watch PTI, give him their brief attention as he explains innings and outs. In sharing the Cubs with them he is sharing a part of himself. He is creating something that will last. And this is just the beginning: we talk about trips to Atlanta, when they’re a little older, to see a Cubs-Braves series. We talk about taking them to Wrigley someday, where we will tell them the story of the time mommy and daddy went to a Cubs game and daddy drank too much and confessed that he had been ring shopping.

We worry that our girls will pass over T-ball to take ballet, that they will relegate baseball to the realm of boy stuff and lose interest. But perhaps, with Christmas coming, there will be a glove under the tree. Maybe my husband will lead the girls out to the cul-de-sac and they will practice, starting slowly: Here is how you cradle the ball in your glove. Here is how you release it. And when it gets away from you, hurry, run to get it back. This is not something you want to lose.

 

 

A Year in Photos, Or What I’m Doing Instead of Writing

 

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I have not been writing, friends, and while I am not so self-centered as to believe that you’ve missed me, still I apologize.

You see, I’ve gotten sidetracked. Just before my third daughter’s birth I purchased a Nikon DSLR camera. After playing with it for the first eight months of Alex’s life, I made a decision with implications I did not quite understand at the time. A friend of mine was engaged in what is called a 365 Project, an intentional practice of taking, editing, and posting one photo a day. I can do that, I thought. And so I began.

 

In my head, the project would go something like this: As often as possible, I would take my Nikon with me where I went. It would come to the playground, the beach, the skating rink, the grocery store, school drop-off and pick-up, on family walks, even into the bathroom for tub time. It has, in fact, been in all of those places, plus more. Wherever life brought me, my camera would come too. In this way, I would document each day of 2016.

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I did not, however, consider the following things when making this plan:

  • The strange looks from passer-by
  • The dangers of sand, water, and dirt-smeared children to my camera
  • An extra three pounds to carry
  • “I don’t WANT you to take my picture!”
  • My less than basic knowledge of photo editing software
  • My less than basic knowledge of a camera’s manual settings
  • The amount of time it takes to satisfactorily edit a photo, upload it to Google Drive on my computer, download it from Google Drive on my phone, caption, hashtag, and post it to Instagram

My whole family, myself included, is ready for this project to end. As of today, we’re looking at 66 days until I call it quits and find another hobby to consume my days and evenings. But for so many reasons, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. For 300 days I have managed to capture moments that will be precious to my family forever. Not just birthdays and holidays, but all the little details that make up our daily lives, and I have been able to coax out the beauty in each of these. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it, and I’ve become a better photographer in the process.

Will I return to words? I hope so. But as I recently told an editor, I’ve been going where the creative winds blow. After a trip around the sun, I hope they bring me right back home.

 

Kindergarten Starts in Five Days- Here is How I’m Doing

The summer has been difficult.

My husband leaves for work and I stare at the clock as if it will somehow solve for me the problem of filling up the day. I have all three kids at home: I am their source of entertainment, their provider of every need. I try to set up playdates but our friends have scattered to beaches and family reunions. Or they work, like I used to. Like I fantasize about on days so hot that the driveway burns our feet and forces us to retreat into our air-conditioned home, where all the blinds are shut. Where the contents of our playroom are slowly dragged from room to room, until I feel like I am living in a murky hell of board game pieces and Barbie clothes.

Needless to say, I’ve been ready for school to start for some time now.

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My summer. Except ALL OVER MY HOUSE.

Still, my immense relief at reducing my daily load from three children to one- especially while grocery shopping- has not eclipsed the monumental fact that my oldest is starting kindergarten. Kindergarten! Like most milestones in my children’s lives, this newest transition is causing some majorly mixed emotions in this mama. Allow me to outline them for you:

Anxiety. I worry about the little things. My oldest is not a morning person. I am also not a morning person. Currently, our process of getting ready in the morning sounds like this:

Me: It’s time to get dressed now.

Me (five minutes later): It’s time to get dressed now. Didn’t you hear me tell you five minutes ago that it’s time to get dressed now?

Me (another five minutes later): Are you seriously still not dressed? 

Then I have to grab the keys and the other children and feign like I’m going to leave her sitting there in only her undies, because girls who would rather do a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle for the 188th time instead of obeying their mothers deserve to be left home alone in an act of gross neglect. There are tantrums; there are tears. Mornings in our house are not the best. God only knows what next Tuesday morning will bring, but it is very possible that my child will be the only kid tardy on the first day of school.

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Wasn’t this, like, yesterday? Are we really about to do kindergarten?

Anxiety. We’ve checked with all of her preschool friends, and none of them are in the same kindergarten class as my child. Now, I’m one of those moms who doesn’t read too deeply into my child’s psychological state. Despite the fact that she’s disappointed not to be with her friends, the kid will get over it. She’ll be just fine. Even so, I know that I’ll think of her that first day and wonder if she’s feeling lonely or left out, and I’ll feel a little squeeze of motherly anguish.

Anxiety. This is my first experience as a public school parent. I know so many people who appear to be experts at navigating drop-off and pick-up, school lunches, PTA, homework, and all the other stuff I don’t even know about yet. Someday I will be one of those people, but right now I feel like somebody walking into their first Zumba class: stupid and lost.

Anxiety. Please let her not be “that kid”. Please let her keep her fingers out of her nose, and use her manners, and stop talking when the teacher says to hush. Please, between the hours of 7:30 and 2:30, let her not use the words “vagina” or “nipples”, which just happen to be two of her favorite terms.  Please let her go out into the world and show everyone what an amazing parent I am.

So yes, perhaps I am a little anxious- not that I would ever convey that to my five-year-old, who certainly has her own anxieties. For her sake, I will hold myself together long enough to send her off into her new classroom with a reassuring hug and a wave. Then I’ll sob a little in the car. Then I’ll drop my middle girl off at preschool and head to the grocery store with the baby, thinking about how lucky I am to have 180 days of this before next summer.

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Don’t let them fool you. They are completely unhelpful.

 

Things I’m Learning (Grudgingly) from My Husband the Phish Fan

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You’d never guess this man is a closet hippie. But wait: check out his daughter’s shirt!

Here are a few facts about my husband: He is a dentist, a business owner. He sings in the church choir. He is just this week finishing up his year-long tenure as President of his Rotary Club. When he’s stressed, he cleans our house with such intensity that I just stay out of his way and let him do his thing. He has, at least once, described himself as “metrosexual”.

He’s a fashionable, somewhat anal-retentive, civically minded, well-respected guy. He doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to be spotted in a parking lot outside a Phish show, waiting in line to make a purchase from a vendor called “You Enjoy My Socks”. And yet, he has done this very thing. He has dressed our three girls in Phish clothing, sung them Phish lullabies, and let them stay up late to watch the live-stream of Phish’s New Year’s Show.

My husband has been to a total of 21 Phish shows, which in the Phish community is nothing to write home about. But if he wants to stay happily married, he knows that his Phish exploits must be limited to no more than four, maybe five shows a year. I’m sorry, Phish world, if that seems like a major bummer. It’s just that I have three small children- I like having my husband around.

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Mmm hmm. Yeah. Somebody bought him PHISH CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS.

Come with me! he always says, when the tour schedule is released. (I have somehow been subscribed to Phish emails, which is actually great because I have a heads-up when my husband is about to approach me with his grand plan for the season.) It would be more fun with you there! It’s a sweet sentiment, and I love that he really believes that. The fact, though, is that I am not a whole lot of fun at a Phish show.

Case in point: the last show we went to was in Atlanta in August. It was 800 degrees in the parking lot and, with a four-month-old at home, I had brought my hand-held breast pump with me. Sitting in a camping chair under the one shred of shade available, covered in my nursing shawl, manually expressing breast milk while a stranger offered me Molly? Not my finest moment. (Although certainly not the strangest thing happening in that particular parking lot at the time.)

I’ve been to a total of three Phish shows, and each time my husband is desperately hoping that THIS time, I will get it. A 24-minute jam will stir something sleeping deep within me. I will dance with abandon. I will think that a middle-aged man wearing a dress and playing a song on a vacuum cleaner is the BEST THING EVER.

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Is something incredibly exciting about to happen? Probably not.

But I don’t. I just don’t. And on the eve of another Phish-scapade, one I have agreed to be a part of, I’m trying to figure out how not to be a buzzkill. I’m trying to take my husband’s love of this band and their music and channel it into something that feels relevant to me. He really is enthusiastic and supportive about my writing – the least I can do is try to appreciate this thing that makes my professional, responsible husband grin and dance himself into a sweaty frenzy and forget about all his troubles.

So here’s my takeaway, my Life Lesson from Phish, in brief:

I will dare to embrace the unpredictable, disorderly nature of Phish’s music. It’s hard for me; because of the kids, my life is already full of disorder and unpredictability, and so I like my music tidy. But I know, just as any mother does, that there’s beauty in the chaos. I will do my best to remember this, to be open to the unexpected.

I will let my husband’s devotion to Phish inspire me. His borderline obsessive behavior (he just logged on to his Phish.net account to show me his show stats) is proof that being a parent and having a passion outside of that role are not mutually exclusive. Phish may not be for me, but I do have my own interests- book clubs, blogging, yoga, photography- and it’s okay to be unapologetic about the time I spend nurturing myself and my creativity.

I will make an effort to find meaning in a lyric that my husband has called his “Call to Action”, this repeated line from the song “Chalkdust Torture”:

Can’t I live while I’m young?
Can’t I live while I’m young?
Can’t I live while I’m young?
Can’t I live while I’m young?

I have only been to three Phish shows- soon to be five- but from my limited experience I can still hear the crowd singing along in hearty agreement. All of them, from the itinerant who hawks geodes on Shakedown Street to the tie-dyed frat boy to the suburban dad, are there for the same reason: to be part of a common experience that makes them feel alive.

Or so I’ve heard. I’ll just be there to support a spouse who can’t seem to live without Phish. There are worse things. With this in mind, I’ll try to enjoy it. Who knows, I might even dance.

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The Phish robot shirt moves on to child #2, who is fully, bravely, living while she’s young. 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m Suddenly Writing Haiku

So here, friends, is what is currently going down in my life:

It is summer. It is hot, miserably hot. I have three people between the ages of 1 and 5 asking me for things, begging me to feed and entertain them. Oh how I want to write, but I can’t. It seems that’s just what this summer is: The Summer of Not Blogging.

My children have my creativity on a leash, and it is wrapped around their little fists.

But I have a solution- a temporary one, at least. You see, I have these haikus. The goal, for me, was to take a particular parenting experience and metaphorically put it into that Willy Wonka machine that made a Thanksgiving dinner into a tiny piece of gum. To distill what it means to be a parent into seventeen syllables.

I wrote them quickly, dreaming big dreams of the prestigious parenting websites that would agree to publish them. How creative! they would gush. How cute! Yes, a million times yes! I thought they were pretty good; I was proud of them. Certainly someone else would appreciate them.

After silence, more silence, rejection, rejection, rejection, I came to a decision. I am declaring this summer The Summer of Haikus that May Not Be Good Enough for the Washington Post but Dammit, I Like Them and I’m Just Going to Put Them Out There and See What Happens.

So there: I bring you my haiku of the week, volume 1. If any of these haikus speaks to you, please share them. Share with anyone and everyone who understands what it is to be creatively tethered, or to have to find ways to get creative within the confines of motherhood. Share them with those who have so much they would like to say, but cannot find the time to say it. These haiku are for you.

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What Teachers Really Want at the End of the Year

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This would be nice.

One would think that the end of the school year would be a teacher’s favorite time of year. Because, you know, school is ending, and we all know that teachers have only chosen a woefully low-paying and difficult profession for the perk of having summers “off”. (See this post for more about my take on the teaching profession.)

This is not, in fact, the case. When I was in the classroom, the end of the school year was filled with stress and anxiety. There were angry parents to deal with. (Well, Johnny’s mom, I understand that you are upset that your son might fail social studies, but remember the 800 emails I sent you about how Johnny was drawing tiny stick-figure Hitlers instead of taking notes?) There were awards ceremonies and field days to plan, locker clean-out to supervise. There were days, far too many days after the state tests were over, to fill with activities that would keep spring-feverish adolescents happy and occupied. The hallways were filled with an air of crazed giddiness that simmered and threatened to explode.

It was all a bit much, really, but it felt manageable (well, manageable-ish) because it was also the time of year when I felt most appreciated. There were years when I received a lot of end-of-the-year gifts. There were years when I received fewer. But it was always special to watch a quiet kid come forward with his or her offering and wait while I opened it. It made me feel good to know that there were students and parents out there who felt I was deserving of a small token of gratitude.

If you are a parent who purchases end-of-the-year teacher gifts, read on. If you are a parent who gives your child’s teacher nothing at the end of the year, please stop reading now and go immediately to church. There is nothing you can do now but pray that God will forgive you and spare you the agony of hellfire.

Let’s be clear here: teachers are thrilled to receive any gift at all. We aren’t picky. You could give us an imprint of a raccoon’s foot in a piece of concrete (an actual gift given to a teacher friend of mine) and we’d be like, “Wow, that kid is telling me that I made an imprint on his soul. That is SO nice!”

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A 7th grader gave this to me and my heart melted.

Now that I’m no longer a teacher, I feel I can put it out there: All teacher gifts are not made equal. So pay attention, because these are the end-of-the-year gifts that teachers really want:

1. Alcohol. Sometimes your children drive us to drink. As this is, however, unacceptable in most cases, let’s move on.

2. Gift Cards. Give a teacher a little plastic rectangle loaded with money and they will spend it. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are always, always a sure thing, but feel free to get creative. One of my favorites was when a student gave me a gift card to the movie theater. I almost never go to the movies, but it gave me an excuse to get out for a date night, which is a precious gift in itself. A bookstore, a restaurant, Target… honestly, it doesn’t matter. Teachers heart practicality. And did I mention that they don’t get paid enough?

3. Baked Goods (to Share). When I taught the children of a local restauranteur, he and his wife used to send in a cheesecake for the teachers to eat at lunchtime one day toward the end of the year. This was amazing because it was cheesecake, obviously, but also because unlike when I was given a personal bucket full of cookies just for me, I couldn’t stash it in my desk drawer and binge on it for a week straight.

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I’ve been known to bake banana bread for my children’s preschool teachers. If it’s terrible, they haven’t told me.

4. Something They Can Actually Use: You can always tailor it to the teacher and what you know about him or her. Is he a coffee-drinker? Is she always searching through her bag for a tube of Burts Bees? One of the cutest gifts I ever received from a student was nail polish. It was clear that she had picked out each color specifically for a certain teacher, like she was trying to match the teacher’s personality. Doesn’t work for most male teachers, but you can give them, I don’t know, a beard trimmer or something. Other gifts in this category: throw blankets, nice hand soap (teaching is a germy profession), a mug or tumbler, a beach towel, stationery.

5. Good Old Appreciation: If you want to give your child’s teacher a gift, then by all means, do it. They will be grateful. They will not turn it away. If nothing else, give them an old-fashioned thank you, in whatever form you wish that to take. Give them a drawing that your child made just for her teacher. Send her to school on the last day with strict instructions to verbally express to her teacher just how much she learned this year. Maybe even throw in a hug, if everyone involved is cool with that.

I received a lot of gifts when I was in the classroom, but a hand-written note from a student or parent expressing sincere thanks for the impact I made on their child and the work I did in order to teach them? I mean, that would be worth at least three cheesecakes. Maybe four. And I would binge on those words all. summer. long.

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Seriously, even if this is all your kid can write. The teachers will EAT IT UP.