Sunday, July 29, 2012

Holly Go-Lightly

I have always prided myself on being an excellent packer. I figure out ahead of time exactly what I’ll need, I pack clothes in a single color palette so everything matches everything else, I roll instead of fold, I bring one all-purpose sweater instead of several warmer outfits, I pack socks inside shoes, I wear my bulkiest outfit instead of packing it, I figure out ways to make every item I bring have multiple uses. I can pack for a week in a single backpack and still have room to bring home souvenirs. Just call me Holly Go-Lightly.

Actually, I should have written that previous paragraph in the past tense. Because I USED to do all those things. When I was single and packing for just myself, all those things were true. Now that I have kids, forget about it.

When you’re a single adult, you don’t have to plan for a lot of contingencies. It’s possible that you’ll spill wine on your blouse, it’s conceivable that you’ll break a sandal strap, it’s within the realm of possibility that you’ll catch your heel in the of hem your skirt and tear it. But the chances of anything like that happening are so small that you don’t even plan for it other than maybe packing one extra blouse. But with small children, there’s a VERY high probability that clothes will get stained, or wet, or torn (or, in the case of shoes or socks, lost), usually once a day or so. So instead of packing one outfit a day – or less, assuming you’ll get a couple of days’ wear out of a pair of pants - you pack two for every day plus a couple of spares on top of that. And you never assume you'll get a second day's wear out of ANYTHING.

And that’s only clothes. Now add in the entertainment stuff. The single me might have packed one paperback book (or these days, a Kindle) to keep myself entertained on the road. Now, for each of my kids, I have to pack a stuffed animal, one toy for every hour of airplane time (both ways), a couple of bedtime books (fortunately, these can be shared), a special blanket (for the baby), a coloring book or sketchpad (for the preschooler), and a few emergency snacks.

And don’t get me started on the “personal care items.” Diapers (two sizes), swim diapers (two sizes), baby wipes, changing pad, diaper cream, baby Advil, child Advil, baby Benadryl, child Benadryl, bandaids, first aid cream, baby shampoo (hotel shampoo is rough on little eyes), formula, bottles, sippy cups, child-sized forks and spoons, and bibs.

And that IS traveling light! If we were traveling heavy I’d have to add two high chairs, a Pack & Play, a collapsible bed tent, a double stroller, a jogger-stroller, two car seats, and a full-size changing pad. (Oh wait, we’re bringing the double stroller. OK, scratch that off the “packing heavy” list.)

At least I can still pack lightly for myself. Which is fortunate, since there’s not much room left in my suitcase!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Motherhood Skills I Didn't Know I'd Need to Know

When I was expecting my first child, I thought a lot about the various skills I’d need as a parent. I figured I’d need to know how to sing some lullabies. I figured I’d need to know how to mix formula one-handed. I figured I’d need to know how to have a pretend tea party or build a pretend railroad. I figured I’d eventually have to be able to give a passable rendition of a few dozen fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I even figured that I’d have to learn to drive a minivan. But after nearly three years of hands-on parenting, there are a lot of skills I’ve picked up along the way that I never expected to need to know. Let me give you some examples.

I never knew I’d need to be able to dress and undress a recalcitrant, sticky, poop-covered octopus. The first time I had to change an uncooperative 8-month-old baby in July following a poopsplosion, I realized there were skills involved that I had never even imagined. I had to somehow have enough of my own appendages to hold all of his appendages away from the poop and still have a couple left over to peel his clothes and his diaper away from his sweaty, wriggling little body, plus at least one more to grab the clean diaper before any escaped baby appendages beat me to it.

I never knew I’d have to learn how to make everyday food into something entertaining enough that a two-year-old will eat it without question. I had no idea that the expression “plating,” in reference to a toddler, would mean creating everything from a pancake shaped like Mickey Mouse to a peanut butter sandwich shaped like a pinwheel to a pile of scrambled eggs with a face made from pretzel sticks, Cinnamon Life cereal, and M&Ms. Fortunately, I also discovered that in a pinch, I can just cut everything into chunks and stick a few frilled toothpicks in them.

I never knew I’d have to be able to create toys from nothing but the detritus in the passenger seat of my car, while driving. Who knew that an empty plastic water bottle, an oversized Dunkin Donuts straw, the lid of a yogurt tub, and a piece of tinfoil that was once wrapped around a gas station hotdog could occupy a small child for enough time to get to a reasonably hygienic highway rest stop with a child-friendly restaurant and changing table? Not to mention the fact that I also had to develop the power and accuracy in my throwing arm to get said detritus into the hands of the child in the back seat, using only the rearview mirror to aim. If I ever decide to make baseball pitching or dentistry my next career, I’ll be well ahead of the game.

I never knew that I’d have to learn how to make up stories on the spur of the moment based on subjects like, “the camera on my ceiling,” “a bulldozer,” “a smokestack and a silo,” and “my wall.” (All of these are actual story topics requested by my son within the past few months. And yes, I managed to come up with a story that had not only a coherent plot but also some kind of useful message for each one.) This particular skill happens to come in very handy when I’m blogging, as it gives me plenty of practice in having to expand a very simple or even vague idea into an entertaining story with a useful point.  

Wanna hear the one about the bulldozer that pushed over the smokestack and the silo which then knocked over the wall while being recorded by the camera on my ceiling and thus learned how to be gentle when playing with his toys?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cuteness Counts

One of my favorite commercials shows an adorable baby laughing and playing while a woman’s voiceover says, “When my kids were small, I just wanted to eat them up.” The image then changes to a laughing toddler dropping a large bunch of keys into a toilet, and the voiceover continues, “Sometimes, I wish I had.” This commercial is the story of my life.

My kids, like most kids, are a constant mixture of cuteness and trouble. Luckily for them, their cuteness has saved their lives on many occasions. I sincerely believe that cuteness is an evolved survival tactic. Think about it: When your toddler finds a sharpie and writes all over your computer monitor, you’re ready to kill him – but then when you see how cute he looks with his self-inflicted sharpie mustache, you relent and allow him to live.

This morning was a prime example of life-saving cuteness on the part of my daughter. For some reason, for the past few weeks she’s been waking up several times a night, wailing. Last night was the absolute height of bad sleep: she woke up every hour between 11:30PM and 4:30AM, screaming. Which meant that I woke up every hour between 11:30PM and 4:30AM, feeling like screaming. But after she got back to sleep that last time, she slept through until 7:30AM, and when she did wake up, she happily (and adorably) cooed and played and giggled in her crib for nearly an hour before she finally yelled to get up. Had she woken up making yet another pouty face and wailing crankily, I’d have treated her much differently that I did after seeing her beaming and waving to me while babbling cheerfully. Because she’s cute, I greeted her with a hug and a kiss instead of crabbily and wordlessly pulling her out of her crib for breakfast. Her cuteness got her much better treatment than she would have gotten otherwise.

Is it fair? Maybe not. But then, is it fair that I would have treated her less lovingly because she had a hard time sleeping last night? If my husband treated me badly every time I had a sleepless night, we would have a much less successful marriage. So maybe cuteness is just God’s way of evening the odds for a child who can’t help crying when she needs something that she can’t express, a child who isn’t intentionally naughty but whose curiosity sometimes leads to things getting broken.

And I hate to cut this entry short, but I hear some suspicious noises coming from the playroom. Let’s hope the kids are being especially cute!

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Nap with Me

Naptime with my son is often a struggle. Naturally, he would much rather keep playing with his toys than lie down in his bed and be quiet. When my husband manages naptime, he has a remarkable ability to give my son The Look and immediately son lies down and falls asleep. Alas, I have yet to master The Look, so my approach is a combination of cajoling, scolding, bribery, and resignation.

An average naptime goes something like this:

Me: Ryan, lie down and go to sleep.
Ryan: [lies down; immediately jumps up again]
Me: Ryan, lie DOWN and go to SLEEP!
Ryan: Mama, I need my toy.
Me: No, you don’t. Lie down and go to sleep.
Ryan: Yes, I do! YES I DOOOOOOOOO!
Me: Nope. It’s naptime now, not toy time. Lie down and go to SLEEEEEEEP!!!
Ryan: [squirms and tries to get up]
Me: You may have the toy after naptime, so the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can play.
Ryan: I want to play NOW! [gets up yet again]
Me: [grabs him bodily and wraps my legs around him so he can’t wriggle]
Ryan: Mama, LET GOOOOOO!
Me: If you can lie still and not say a word for 30 seconds, I will let go.
Ryan: [wriggles and yells after about a second and a half]
Me: [continuing body wrap and adding head lock]

This may continue for several hours, until one or both of us falls asleep.

Yup, it is very common that I actually fall asleep during his naptime. Hey, I’m exhausted, I’m lying in a bed, I’m listening to quiet music, I’m thinking sleepy thoughts – sometimes the subconscious just takes over. (Before anyone worries, my subconscious is very aware that I have another child and will never let me fall asleep unless she is either also napping or being watched by my husband at the time.)

And it’s actually really nice to join my little guy for a nap. He is so high-energy when he’s awake that he rarely wants to snuggle for more than a second or two at a time, so it’s a rare treat when I can hold him in my arms and run my fingers through his beautiful hair and feel his warm, chubby legs and his still-soft little boy skin. And I love the way he relaxes in my arms when he finally decides to give up the nap battle. He knows he’s safe in my arms, and I love hearing his breathing relax into the deep exhausted sleep that only small children can throw themselves into so completely when they feel safe and secure.

And when I know that he’s safe and secure and relaxed, how can I help but feel the same way? There’s nothing so satisfying as relaxing into dreamland knowing your children are safe and relaxed as well. Why would I ever want to resist that?

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Boo-Boos and Band-Aids

My son is at that age when boo-boos are fascinating. Which is good, because he’s constantly covered in them. At least once a day he comes to me and announces that he has a boo-boo or a “scwatch” that needs kissing, rubbing, or just general consolation. Occasionally, after studying his wound carefully, he will proclaim that he needs a band-aid. If I happen to agree and give him a band-aid, it is guaranteed that within the first 30 seconds of band-aid application, he will have removed said band-aid a minimum of half a dozen times, thus rendering its adhesive useless. He will then come to me in great distress and request a replacement band-aid. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What’s getting really fun about these boo-boos is that he’s starting to understand that they heal. So now, every morning he gives me the rundown on each of his boo-boos. The best part is his absolute astonishment that each scratch is disappearing. He peers at a scratch on his foot and shouts in excitement and delight, “Mama! My boo-boo is getting BETTER!!! I’m HEALING!!” It’s like he’s at some old-fashioned revival meeting at the feet of a faith healer. I half expect him to throw his hands in the air and shout, “Hallelujah!”

I don’t know why his surprise comes as a surprise to me, though. Every else in his world that gets broken or damaged needs to be fixed externally, and most of the time it’s never quite as good. If he scratches one of his toy racecars, it has a scratch forever. If he breaks the snowplow off the front of his snowplow truck, he has to wait for Mama or Daddy to pop it back on, and even so, it falls off more easily than it used to. If he breaks the boom arm off his toy backhoe, it’s gone for good and the backhoe is now just a tractor. If he cracks a CD, we have to throw it away. But if he’s not careful with his own body, all he has to do is wait and it miraculously heals itself. No wonder he’s astonished. That’s pretty astonishing!

It’s wonderful to see the world through the eyes of a child, and to be reminded of just how astonishing some parts of life are. Like the fact that our bodies can fix themselves. We’re even better than Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, and Legos, combined. After all, we were made by a much more skilled Toymaker.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

It Was an Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny...

I did something yesterday that was either very brave or very foolish. I didn’t have an awful lot of choice in the decision, although I suppose I could have chickened out entirely. But I took a deep breath and I did it.

I wore a bikini in public.

Not just public, but in front of people ranging from strangers to acquaintances to close friends. In other words, a bunch of people most of whom know me and are likely to see me again.

This might not seem like a big deal, except if you recall that I’m 43 years old, had two children after the age of 40 (one of them less than a year ago), and have not darkened the door of a gym in my entire LIFE. Also, the only time I have ever publicly worn a bikini was on my honeymoon, by request of my husband, and when I was at pretty much my lowest adult weight. (Which I am NOT currently at.)

But I have to say, although nobody would confuse me with a supermodel, given the factors above, I looked pretty damn good. And it was probably good exercise that I kept my tummy sucked in for a solid four hours.

To back up for a moment, I have to admit that the reason I wore a bikini is that I could not find any of my other three full-coverage bathing suits, because I am a mom and when I get out of the pool and change from my swimsuit into dry clothes, I am generally rushing to get two small children out of their swimsuits and swim diapers into dry clothes and regular diapers before they pee on the couch. So my suits generally get tossed wherever. Bottom line being that it was my own fault I had to wear the bikini or forego swimming at all, but there you are. Bikini.

My point, however, is that I was dreading doing it. I didn’t want people to look at me and think, “Ugh, does she really think she looks good in that?” or “She looks like an ad for liposuction.” But once I did it, and forgot to worry about it, I didn’t really care what people were thinking. And, based on the comments I did get (or overhear), they were more along the lines of, “Wow, she looks great,” or “You’d never know she had a one-year-old,” or “Good for her!”

I’m sure there were a few youngsters thinking, “I’ll never wear a bikini if I look like that!” but you know, who cares? My friends thought I looked great. My husband thought I looked great. I thought I looked…not horrendous. (I’m a tough critic; “not horrendous” is the equivalent of about 4-1/2 stars). So at the end of the day (both literally and figuratively), I ended up facing my fears and discovering that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of, after all.

And isn’t that usually the case? Once you face your fears, you almost always either conquer them or find out there wasn’t anything to be afraid of in the first place. So the next time you have to face something you’re afraid of, think of me in a bikini. It’ll either give you courage or a good laugh. Win-win!

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Two Great Tastes

Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups jingle, “Two great tastes that taste great together”? And they were soooo right. Peanut butter is good; chocolate is good. Put them together and they’re better than good – they’re great! This is a prime example of the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This concept is on my mind today because yesterday I was shopping at Target and a bag of Oreos jumped right into my cart. I can’t remember the last time I had an Oreo cookie, but when I got home from the store, I poured myself a big glass of cold milk, got out a little stack of Oreos, and started dunking. Milk is good; Oreos are great; the combination of the two is spectacular.

This is true of a lot of foods, if you stop and think about it. Particularly with desserts and junk food, many foods just naturally complement each other. Coffee and donuts are better together than either is alone. Cake is best with an ice cream accompaniment. Graham crackers are kind of boring and so is milk, but put them together and WOW! And let’s not forget the dessert trifecta of graham crackers + marshmallows + chocolate that is a s’more.

But it can true for savory foods as well as sweet. Pork chops and applesauce. Eggs and bacon. Tomatoes and basil. Bagels and cream cheese. Lamb and mint jelly. Pretzels and Dijon mustard.

But what is it that makes these pairings so complementary? What is the common relationship between the two members that makes each pair so delicious? I think what makes them all work so well together is that they’re different.

Oreos are very sweet and a bit dry. Milk is bland but wet. The two combined are the perfect balance of taste and texture. Same with coffee and donuts: coffee is bitter and donuts are blandly sweet – taken together, the sweetness level hits just the right note and the donut is infused with the rich coffee flavor. Ditto for a savory example: tomatoes are acidic but sweet; basil’s freshness mellows the acidity and brings a layered flavor to the sweetness. Salty bland pretzels mingle with spicy, overly-strong Dijon mustard to enhance the best flavor qualities of both.

A lot of life is like that. You can find a balance by combining two things that are overly strong and letting them cancel each other out a bit, or by combining two things that are a bit bland and letting them bring out the best in each other. It works for jobs, it works for people, it works for situations. You like your job but it has frustrations. You like your hobby but it has frustrations. Doing both somehow cancels out the frustrations of each and enhances the enjoyment of both. You’re a bit shy and inhibited and so is your best friend, but when you’re together you give each other courage to try new things and go new places and meet new people.

And if you can’t figure out exactly what you need to complement your life, just sit down with a big glass of milk and a bag of Oreos. Your life might not quite be perfect in the big picture, but for those few moments of dairy-infused chocolate nirvana it will be.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

The Hair Up There

Last night, I gave Katie her first haircut.

Before I get demands for before and after photos or a blow-by-blow description of the grand event, let me clarify. I didn’t give her bangs, or trim off inches of length. All I did was cut off her annoying little rat tail, the one remnant of her newborn hair that stubbornly refused to fall out with the rest of its kind.

Why did I do it? For one thing, because it ruined the line of the rest of her hair, kept getting stuck in her collar, was straight next to the rest of her cute curls, and was the only part of her hair long enough to actually get tangled. But the other reason is that it just reminded me too much of the bad hairstyles that ran rampant when I was growing up.

I was born in 1968, which meant that I spent my younger childhood in the fashion black hole of the 70s, when hair was long, straight, and limp, and I spent my more fashion-conscious years of high school and college in the 80s, when the popular styles were big hair, bigger bangs, spiral perms, mohawks – and rat tails. At the time, we all (myself included) thought they were totally cool and fashionable. I recall a classmate with beautiful thick curly hair who cut it crazy short but grew a braided rat tail that by graduation must have been 18 inches long. Boy was I jealous of her coolness.

My own hairstyles were rarely the height of fashion, even at the time. I had a pixie cut as a toddler, long straight hair in my early childhood that I cut off into a Dorothy Hamill cut in first grade, grew it long again with bangs and the occasional disastrous home perm, cut it all off again in 7th grade, somehow ended up with a few tragic femullets through junior high and high school, and eventually settled into a semi-fashionable short cut all through college. I think my wildest hair thought was a passing desire in 9th grade to dye a single lock of hair on the side of my head magenta –my mother, to her dying day, was convinced that I had wanted to dye my entire head of hair magenta.
My 1976 school picture: the long hair years, just prior to the one trendy haircut I ever had, the Dorothy Hamill
It makes me wonder what horrific hairstyles my kids will come up with over the years. My husband probably doesn’t agree, but hair cuts and colors aren’t a hill I care to die on. Hair grows back, after all, unlike, say, piercings and tattoos. No matter what a girl does to her hair, it can’t be overly revealing or sexualized. No matter what a boy does to his hair, it can’t be anything that can’t be remedied with a razor (or a hat). The most unfortunate haircut in the world won't lead to infections or hepatitis. The worst result of a hair tragedy (whether accidental or by choice) is a class or yearbook photo. And don’t we all have those anyway?
My 1983 (failed) attempt at 80s big hair
So it Katie wants to grow her rat tail back someday, so be it. And if Ryan was to chop off his glorious curls into a Mohawk or a flattop, that’s his choice. I’ll be standing by with the camera.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dancing with Daddy

I adore my daughter, and in some ways I am (and will always be) closer to her than her daddy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In some ways, he is (and will always be) closer to our son than I am. Say what you will, I am a firm believer that there are just some commonalities of gender that create a natural bond with the parent of the same sex.

But there are some special things between my husband and our daughter that I will never have. Like dancing together.
Of course, I can dance with her, too. But dancing with your mom is just not the same as dancing with your daddy. That’s why everyone cries at the father-daughter dance at weddings. It shows that very special bond between a man and his little girl (doesn’t matter if she’s 17, 27, or 47 when she gets married, she’s still his little girl) that is now changing forever, as a new man becomes the focus of her life.
A little girl dancing with her daddy is something special. She will never feel safer, or more loved, or more cherished, than she does in the arms of her daddy. She will never feel more beautiful or more graceful than she does in the arms of her daddy.
And I will never feel more proud of them both than I do when I see my littlest sweetheart dancing in the arms of my biggest sweetheart. After all, his daughters are the only girls other than me that he dances with with that much love in his eyes.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Midnight at the Oasis, or, When the Children Are Asleep

When the children are asleep we sit and dream,
The things that every other dad and mother dream.
When the children are asleep and lights are low,
If I still love you the way I love you today,
You'll pardon my sayin', I told you so...
When the children are asleep, I'll dream with you
We'll think what fun we have had and be glad
That it's all came true.

These are the lyrics to a lovely song from the musical “Carousel.” I love it because it’s a reminder that no matter how many children you have or how long you’ve been a parent, sometimes you need to take a break and be husband and wife again for a bit – even if your conversation is still mainly about your children. And that’s what my husband and I did last night.

We had spent a wonderful day playing and swimming in the pool with the kids, and once we got both kids fed, tubbied, and tucked snugly into bed, it was grownup time! A relaxed candlelit dinner with a nice bottle of wine to share, quiet chat uninterrupted by small demanding voices, and a midnight swim for dessert.
I love being a parent – I even love being a stay-at-home parent (well, most of the time). And I love playing with my kids, and talking to them, and listening to them. But there are times when I yearn for adult conversation, for more than 2 minutes of peace and quiet at a time, and for eating a meal without interrupting myself to feed someone else at the same time. So nights like this serve to rejuvenate and refresh me, and to give me strength for the ongoing battle. Nights like these are my oasis.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

In-Laws: The Family I Never Knew I Didn't Have

When I got married, I had no idea what I was getting myself into in the in-law department. My mother-in-law is the youngest of eight children, all very sociable and outgoing, so the number of new in-laws with whom I would be in regular contact numbered in the dozens, maybe even the tens of dozens. My husband has cousins, second cousins, and even third cousins who are within ten years of our age, and since he has both a 20-year-old and a less than one-year-old, we can identify with the least three generations of family who are at roughly the same stage of life as we are.

And when I say “in regular contact,” I mean not only tons of Facebook postings and e-mail updates back and forth, but actually seeing these people face-to-face several times a year. For literally decades, my extended in-laws have had a Christmas party and a summer picnic every year, with anywhere from 50 to 100 family members in attendance. And that doesn’t even count other family events like weddings, funerals, and graduations.

Now, for a lot of people, going to a party with all your in-laws can be a bit of a trial – something to be endured rather than something to be enjoyed. But to me, an in-law party is just about as fun as it can get. I never have any fear of awkward silences, or of being left out of an in-joke, or of accidentally sparking a family squabble. In fact, as soon as I walked into the yard at this year’s summer picnic, my niece was offering to bring me a cold drink, my sister-in-law relieved me of both my bag and my baby, and a number of people were hugging me and striking up conversations. My daughter was delighted at all the attention from aunts and uncles and cousins, my son was thrilled to play in the pool with the big kids, and my husband and I happily regaled all interested parties with stories about my stepdaughter’s experiences in Army boot camp.

Ryan playing in the pool with his second cousin (I think) Brian
I love my own family, but I think it’s wonderful that I love my family-by-marriage just as much. Growing up in a small family, even the family gatherings where everyone in the extended family was there amounted to maybe 30 people. So being in a group of 50 to 100 family members – especially a group bearing very strong family resemblances – is a special treat for me. My in-laws have become a part of my family that I never knew I didn’t have. And I love them all for it.

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