A Different Kind of Church

Dear God,
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As you know, when I became a parent, I had hopes and dreams for my kids. Some of those were the usual growing-up wishes (be healthy, learn to tie their shoes, not get suspended, win a Nobel prize). Others were more specifically related to my desire for them to dig the stuff that I dig.
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I hoped they would love snow instead of curse it. I crossed my fingers they’d like games and puzzles, envisioning late night hands of Hearts or all-family Scattergories battles. Enjoying chocolate fell somewhere between a want and a necessity; I could probably have let it slide if they agreed that bacon makes everything better.
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Ella and Annie have fulfilled those hopes, and then some. They have their own interests, of course. And they certainly don’t like everything that I do. (I had to go through some actual mourning when I finally came to terms with the fact that they are probably not summer camp kids and will likely never sleep away at my childhood haunt.)
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This makes it all the sweeter when they genuinely fall in love with something that makes my world go ’round. I mean, their enjoyment of most things Disney has totally made their teething days worthwhile. But it was what happened last Sunday – and my realization that they share one of my passions as deeply as I do – that made me decide to write to you.
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My girls are musicals maniacs.
Just like their mama (and their grandmama before).
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School of Rock, 2015
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Growing up an hour outside of Manhattan, my family and I were fortunate enough to make it to the Big Apple several times a year to see the musicals on the Great White Way.
My mom was a theater major in college – which, in my eyes, made her all-knowledgeable. Whenever possible, we would sit in the front row of the balcony or mezzanine so that she could point out the stage markings. I was fascinated to learn that miniature Xs indicated STAND HERE, thrilled every time I could see someone waiting in the wings.
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It wasn’t just the performances, however. Before that curtain ever went up, this feeling would begin to build. (Not loathing; trust me.) It began with seeing the show’s name glittering on the marquee, increasing as the ushers greeted us at the door and continuing to grow as we stopped at the concession stand (you think we missed an opportunity to grab Junior Mints, Milk Duds, or Peanut M&Ms? Think again).
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My first Broadway musical, 1980
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Every theater in my memory is adorned in velvet, with plush carpeting wall-to-wall, curving staircases, chandeliers, gilded portraits. Although we scarcely dressed up for other more formal locations (*cough* church), we always wore “something nice” to see a Broadway musical. Which, come to think of it, was kind of like church to me.
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When I close my eyes even now and imagine settling into my seat (always too small and uncomfortable), then hearing the opening strains of the overture prior to the curtain rising… that same feeling, that rush of adrenaline, fills me. Something was starting – something organic, something unique to that moment; an exchange between the performers and the audience, where we could be lead into a world that, minutes ago, didn’t exist. It was redeeming and transcendental. I came alive and was made new, whole, believing.

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Yes, musicals were definitely my church. Sorry, God.
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Meeting the cast of the incredible Lion King touring production, 2011
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Over the years, there were hits and misses. We walked out of at least one production but saw others twice out of sheer adoration. I was in high school when Les Mis and Phantom rose to popularity, which meant I was at that perfect, angsty, drama-prone age where it actually sounded romantic to be seduced/kidnapped by a mystical, abusive, masked madman or ponder being forever on my own (pretending he’s beside me). For hours, I listened to those shows’ soundtracks in my bedroom, poring over every heart-tugging word, every climactic chord change, every piercing harmony.
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I prayed over musicals.
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As luck/fate/You would have it, Nick is not a Broadway fan. He tolerates most musicals and, at least once a year, somewhat grudgingly accompanies me to a show – but they’re really not his thing. (He says this is because he acted in so many musicals growing up, he got them out of system. I say this is because he’s a poop.)
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Despite Nick’s lack of interest, I knew I was going to do everything possible to try and indoctrinate my girls to the wonderful world of Broadway. The soundtracks to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Annie, and The Sound of Music were in regular rotation when they were little. Instead of watching cat videos, we’d huddle around YouTube and watch clips from the Tonys. (And, okay, also cat videos.)
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When Ella was four, my mom, stepdad, and I took her to her first Broadway musical (The Little Mermaid). I think she liked it, but really, what I remember most is how I forgot that traffic would be an absolute bear after a matinee, meaning it would take three times longer than usual to drive home and perhaps packing a snack or taking a bathroom break before loading up for the gridlock drive would have been a good idea.
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My ears still hurt from the screaming.
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BUT LOOK AT HER OMG
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That was the beginning. At least once a year when we visit my mom, we are fortunate enough to take the girls to a musical on “actual” Broadway. The girls’ first joint show was the same as mine – Peter Pan, seen up close from the orchestra with Peter (her)self flying overhead. I’m not sure they were hooked, but it definitely made an impression. Rochester is also a super theater-appreciative city, with excellent touring productions coming through. The girls usually look forward to going, but until recently, I wouldn’t have said they loved it like their mama.
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Dolled up for Peter Pan, 2011
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Within the last couple of months, though, something seems to have changed. Maybe it’s general Hamilton mania… maybe it’s just that they’re older… but their musicals radar has suddenly tuned in. They notice which shows are playing and at which theater. They talk about how they’d like to see a particular production, but they’d “really like front row balcony seats because they’re the best, right mom?”
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(Sorry, God. I’m working on humility.)
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I had taken them to see Wicked when it was here in 2012. At 6 and 8 years old, they liked it well enough, but they didn’t truly get its complexity and humor. When I learned that the touring production would be returning, I knew we needed to see it again.
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In advance of last weekend’s show, we prepped (as we always do) – reviewing the characters and plot, listening to the soundtrack, researching the actors’ biographies. As the Big Day drew closer, Annie’s anticipation intensified. Out of nowhere, she’d be standing in front of me, fists clenched in jubilation. “Mama! I Can’t believe it’s only two days till Wicked! I AM SO EXCITED!!!.”
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Aladdin, 2014
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At last, Sunday arrived (none too soon for Annie). Worried that the production’s intensity might be too much for her, I offered to sit between her and Ella – but they wanted me on the aisle, with Annie farthest in. From the flying monkeys’ appearance to Elphaba and Fiyero’s departure, I couldn’t pry her eyes from the stage. She was entranced, for good.
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Ella, on the other hand, routinely interacted with me, pointing out costume changes, unexpected staging, and raising her eyebrows with approval whenever someone nailed a difficult part. She also seemed to be looking somewhere other than the stage, although I couldn’t tell where until intermission when she breathlessly asked me what “the man was doing with all those buttons.” After learning that he was the gentleman in charge of the sound/mixing board, she was enthralled. “He’s making that happen?? THAT IS SO COOL.”
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When the final bows had been taken, Ella slipped her hand in mine as we exited the theater. “Mama. That was so good.”
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“It really was, kiddo, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I mean… it was really good.”
“I think so, too!”
“Can we see it again?” 
“Sure! Next time it comes to Rochester, we’ll get tickets.”
“No… I mean, like, tomorrow…”
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Ohhhhh. I get it now.
My girls have found in Wicked what I found in Les Mis and Phantom. They’ve been bitten by the musicals bug. SWEET FANCY MOSES.
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In the week since the production, “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” and “What Is This Feeling” have been sung nonstop. They’re researching which show they’d like to attend when we visit London next summer. They and some friends are also working on a full-scale backyard production of Hamilton, complete with choreography, props, lighting, and costume changes.
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Yes, they taped the lyrics to the shower. Multitasking at its finest.
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In short, they’ve come to church.
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Thanks, God, for this glorious turn of events. They may never go to sleep-away camp, but if I can share musicals with them, it’s more than a fair trade.
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A Wicked selfie

Best Snow Day Ever (Really)

Six days ago, we were slammed by a ferocious windstorm. Not a series of tornadoes… Not a hurricane… Just wind. TONS of wind that barraged the region relentlessly for hours. Topping out with gusts at over 80 miles per hour (yowzers), these were no gentle breezes. Trees weren’t just snapped; they were uprooted, literally. Power was knocked out to over 150,000 homes. Utility poles bent and broke, sending power lines flying. (Amazingly, we never lost power.)
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These were just a few trees within a half-mile of our house; to see truly incredible images, check out this, this, and this.

Our district canceled school for two days; several schools remained without power, buildings were freezing, buses couldn’t be fueled. Ella’s middle school was turned into a weekend shelter; other local organizations (a community center, churches, the JCC, the Islamic Center) became warming stations, offering spaces to charge devices, get water, huddle up.

If you did venture out, everywhere you turned, you’d run into stately pine trees on their sides accompanied by gas and electric (and tree trimming) crews working overtime. We don’t get a lot of natural disasters in Rochester – the lack of hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, earthquakes, tsunamis, and forest fires is a definite plus of living here – so this was a rather unprecedented occurrence.

It was a damned mess.

On the second “wind day,” the girls and I did something I’d been wanting to do for ages: brought flowers and notes of support to the JCC and Islamic Center. When I asked about other places that might need assistance, a friend suggested that we spread a little cheer to local fire stations, who were fielding emergency calls left and right, and gas and electric linemen who were working feverishly to restore the area to power. We did both, to astonished appreciation. It was kind of rad.

The following day was Annie’s Girl Scout troop’s cookie booth sale, which meant three hours of 4th grade girls freezing their tushes off in 18-degree snow while hawking boxes of Thin Mints from the gas station sidewalk. It was kind of surreal, cheerily shouting about cookies while watching people load up on bags of ice and cans of gas; obviously, 72 hours post-windpocalypse, there were still a lot of folks without power.

As a means to both move the cookies along and give us all a greater sense of purpose (not that Peanut Butter Patties aren’t life-changing), we set up a collection for boxes of cookies to be donated to gas and electric crews. The response was overwhelming; our box was overflowing. It seems, when faced with times of crisis, helping feels really, really good.
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Although our troop leader was able to deliver the bulk of the cookies over the course of the weekend, five additional boxes were donated last-minute. I bagged them up and stuck them on the front seat of my car, assuming, one way or another, that I’d come upon some utility folks sooner or later and could hand over the goods.

Because Jesus loves me, school was back in session yesterday. Today, however, we are being walloped by the edges of the blizzard-y storm that is thrashing away at Philly, New York, and Boston. With the governor declaring a state-wide state of emergency that called for no unnecessary travel and 12-18″ of non-stop snow predicted over the course of 36 hours, the district called official snow days today and tomorrow.

Yes, this means four cancelled school days in less than a week. Yes, this also means we have spent a boatload of time together.
Ask me how well my daughters are getting along. 

By 8 a.m., I’d decided that a Starbucks run was definitely “necessary” travel; my survival (and sanity) depended on it. It took me three hours to accomplish the rest of the stuff on my list, but shortly before lunch, Ella and Annie and I braved the roads to make quick stops at Target and Starbucks.

The roads were bad. I would’ve felt really crappy if I’d slid off the side and, when asked by the first responders why I’d ventured out in these conditions, I’d responded, “A latte.”

After explaining to the girls why this would not be a leisurely shopping excursion, I sheepishly admitted we really should get back to the house ASAP, with one caveat: if we happened upon any gas and electric crews, we’d lengthen our sojourn to drop off the cookies.

The roads were all but deserted (yet another sign that perhaps a latte wasn’t really “necessary”). The Target parking lot was much the same, with one notable exception: eight large, flashing-light bearing vehicles, idling side by side. The moment I glimpsed them, I startled the girls with a hearty, “OMG ARE THOSE GAS AND ELECTRIC GUYS?? WE’VE HIT THE MOTHERLODE!”
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Can you see the trucks back there?

We drove slowly by to get a closer look; the cabs of the trucks were empty, save for one guy on his phone and another taking a snooze at the wheel. I didn’t recognize the name of the company (National Grid) but a quick Google search told us they were, indeed, a gas and electric outfit. Gleefully, we took the car back toward them, coming to a stop in front of the gentleman we’d seen on his phone.

He exited his cab as we rolled down the window. (Considering we’d basically stalked him in the Target parking lot, he was understandably wary.) “Can I help you?”

So we explained – about the booth sale, the donations, driving around with the cookies. When we handed over the bag, his face registered only shock.

“For me? For us? You’re sure?”

We told him we were – very sure, in fact – but he was still incredulous. “You don’t understand. We’ve been here for a week. We’re eight hours from home and still can’t go back yet. This is the first time anyone has done anything like this. I honestly can’t thank you enough.”

He looked, standing in the wind-whipped snowstorm, as though maybe he might break down. Over a bag of Girl Scout cookies. Over people showing gratitude.

We explained further that it wasn’t so much us delivering the cookies and our thanks; it was the community, everyone who had donated the boxes and wanted to help. He truly could barely believe it. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and thank-yous and then were on our way. (Hey – at least now, if I slid off the road, I could say that I’d gone out for a latte and to hand over cookies.)

After the girls and I finished our shopping, I was placing our Starbucks mobile order (what? You thought we’d skip out on the lattes?) when I wondered aloud if I could put in for one of those ginormous box-o-coffee dispensers to bring to the National Grid crew on our way back… but there was no sign of them. They’d gone.

The rest of the (slow, slippery) drive home, we talked about the kind of person it takes to leave their families and travel to help others in times of crisis… how we wished we could do more to thank them… And then, just as we turned into our neighborhood, less than a quarter mile from home, there they were.
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I kid you not: a veritable fleet of National Grid trucks were lined up behind one another, lights on, crews out. (We soon discovered two more trucks were parked in our cul-de-sac.) The very same guys! It was our turn to be astonished. This one little crew from eight hours away… working in the Rochester area for a week… less than 30 minutes after we’d seen them in the Target parking lot and wished we could do more… was working on our street?? WHAT WERE THE CHANCES?

Slim, I tell you. VERY, VERY SLIM.

Since Fate had clearly spoken, we knew what we had to do: get these men a warm beverage. Which is how we found ourselves dispensing hot chocolate to the National Grid crew in the middle of a snowstorm.
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The guy said to us, “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate this. Some people have been really rude to us. This is so nice.” WHY ARE PEOPLE RUDE TO FOLKS DOING THE HELPING?? WTF??IMG_1225

Best. Snow day. Ever.
(It’s also Pi Day and we have two chocolate pies for dessert, so there’s that.)

I know there’s a lot of scary, mean, selfish stuff going on right now. I know – I do – how easy it is to slip into frustration, anger, despair. But I also know a really easy way to feel better: thank someone. Help someone. Do something for somebody else. It’s clichéd, but it’s true. Doing good feels good. Really simple math.

No, it won’t solve everything (and with another snow day tomorrow, my cherubs might face off, Hunger Games style). But I am positive that if we were all just, I don’t know – NICER – that we really could change the world. Or at least our windy, snowy corner of it.

Tuning out and tuning in

I hadn’t realized I needed the break until we were there. That may sound a bit daft – how could I not know I needed to get away? That some time off would be a good idea? Wouldn’t I understand my own self?

The answer, apparently, was no. I knew I was looking forward to our trip to Puerto Rico, to sharing the island that Nick and I loved with Ella and Annie, introducing it to my dad and Meg, celebrating my dad’s birthday. I knew I was psyched to be on vacation for six delicious days(!). But I didn’t discover just how stressed and anxious I had become, nor how liberating it would feel to lose that stress and anxiety, until we arrived.
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Fresh tropical popsicles at check-in make everything better.

IMG_0161So does the local rum in your hotel room.

It wasn’t until then, when we were essentially forced to take a break from life as we know it, that I understood not only that I had been feeling tense, but why: politics. More specifically, the ever-present coverage of politics on the news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, every time I turned on the radio.

Politics. Every. Where.

 

In our house, this is not business as usual. Until this last presidential election, Nick and I discussed politics basically never. (Obviously, social justice is a big deal in our family; I know that LGBT concerns, racial prejudice, and women’s rights have become political, but to me they’re just human issues.) It wasn’t that we didn’t care; we did. We had opinions. But, by and large, we trusted our politicians – even those with whom we disagreed – to take care of politics.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.”

For the past 16 months or so, I’ve thought of politics virtually daily. And I don’t like it. It’s exhausting; it’s maddening; it’s disheartening; and, without my realizing it, it was seriously stressing me out.

When we got to Puerto Rico, we got out of the news cycle. I unplugged and breathed.
It was glorious.
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Yes, I still checked in; I was aware of what was happening on the mainland. But I didn’t take time to dwell.

Avoiding politics became a deliberate decision. My dad and stepmom, Meg, are often at opposite ends of the political spectrum from Nick and me, so it would have been simple to fall into a debate, even accidentally. We chose not to let it happen. This was a family trip to celebrate my dad’s birthday; that was our focus. (I mean, if I hosted myself a party and someone went on about how awesome the Red Sox are, or started dissing the Yankees, I’d be pissed, y’all.) On this – my dad’s birthday trip – I had no desire to do that to him, to us.

At first, it was actually somewhat challenging; for months now, politics has been dominating my daily life. (And if I believe the news or my Facebook feed, politics is the only possible topic worth discussing or contemplating.) I didn’t know what else to talk about. We began with some slightly pregnant silences…  but they soon abated. How refreshing and renewing it was to consider books, family, movies, school, work, music, travel, food… You know – life outside politics.

IT DOES EXIST.
Sweet fancy Moses!
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Some liberal folks might say it’s my duty to bring up politics, to continually acknowledge that our current political environment is not normal, not okay, should be challenged. I agree that we cannot sit back and do nothing. We must remain aware, engage, keep at it.

But sometimes, it’s okay to sit one out. My friends know how I feel. My family knows how I feel. My dad and stepmom know how I feel. Staying quiet for a few days was not only acceptable, it was necessary.

See, at some point, this political cycle will end. Change will occur. I don’t know how or when or what it will look like, but I do not believe, in ten years, that the world will look as it does today. What I do know is that I adore my family, both my immediate family and my extended family. We may disagree politically, but they’re good people; in fact, they’re some of the goodest people I know. I respect them. I love them. When all is said and done, I want them in my life; I need them in my life.
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Decked out in our matching night kayaking jackets…

Sometimes, the right choice is talking things out. Other times, the right choice is taking a knee. This time, we knelt.

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the awesomeness of our our trip and my taking a break from contemplating politics, but there’s no doubt that it played a significant role. How magnificent it was to not be consumed by fear and anxiety, to not fight the urge to check the New York Times homepage or refresh my Twitter feed – to just be, to enjoy the moments.

How delightful to savor my daughters running in the surf; my dad knocking on our patio door just to say hello; my stepmom being the first to brave the ziplines, despite her fear of heights; my husband being pooped on by a seagull (<– maybe savor is a strong word).

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IMG_0684Zipline-ready!

I ignored my timeline updates and instead presented my dad with his birthday video, discussing it for days thereafter. There was no news, no politics, getting in the way of hearing Ella’s delighted gasp as she dipped her hand in the glowing lagoon of the bioluminescent bay.

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I was able to revel in Annie holding an enormous, rainbow-colored conch during our night snorkeling adventure.

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Night snorkeling: awesome. Also: TERRIFYING.

I gave no thought to the latest headlines when Nick and I took everyone to our favorite restaurant in the world, our hopes high that they would enjoy it too, nerves dancing as we waited for them to take their first bites… followed by relief and glee (and ridiculously full stomachs) as they agreed with our assessment.
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It mattered not what the president was Tweeting when my dad and I got ridiculously tiny (but delicious) coffees at an Old San Juan cafe. I didn’t care what the pundits were saying as I immersed myself in Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography.

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There was no newsfeed calling my attention away from watching the girls make memories with their grandparents: laughing as they sat on bubbling jets in the pool; splashing each other in the ocean; sharing dessert (or sometimes not sharing; hey – it’s dessert); exploring 400 year-old fortresses; .
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Instead of my pre-bedtime ritual of scanning the day’s Top Stories, I sat with my legs in the plunge pool, the ocean 25 yards away, listening to the omnipresent chirping coquis.

I can’t remember the last time I truly missed being on vacation; I’m always bummed to leave, but usually the relief of being in my own bed and returning to routine makes the trip a happy memory. This time, I actively missed it. I’d awaken in the night and think I was back in the hotel, feeling the crushing weight of disappointment when I remembered where I was. It took me several days to even want to look at our photos and videos; I was too sad that we were no longer there.

Looking back, I can easily pinpoint the reason for this: pure. joy. Remarkably, I enjoyed every single minute with my family, my dad and Meg. We had no arguments. No disagreements. For six whole days, we relished one another’s company. The entire trip! (Seriously, what were the chances?) What an absolute gift it was to be able to spend time with these people who I love so fiercely and cherish every moment of it.

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I know that experiences like this are few; next time, the girls may not want to look at us, much less have fun with us. So I’m appreciating the heck out of this one.

Maybe some of that was coincidental. Maybe some of it was luck. But maybe a lot of it had to do with making the conscious decision to tune out and tune in. Yes, it’s a luxury to be able to do so; I know many people cannot afford to turn off politics… which makes me so grateful that I can, and so glad that I did. (Plus, now I feel far more energized to continue persisting and resisting. WIN-WIN.)

In the end, I missed nothing – it was all waiting for me when we returned, believe me – but what we all gained by focusing in instead of out is immeasurable.

Yes, we’ll always have Puerto Rico… but even more than that, no matter what, we have each other. Muy delicioso, indeed.

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Ready to Know

Santa is a big deal in our house. Letters are written and given to Hermey, our Elf on the Shelf, for safe passage. Santa’s personality and lifestyle choices are hotly debated (“Where do you think he vacations? Does he brush his teeth?”). Notes for Santa are left at bedsides.

Over the years, I have done nothing to diminish Ella and Annie’s belief in Santa; on the contrary, I’ve encouraged it. Stocking gifts are wrapped just so every Christmas and placed outside the girls’ bedrooms. Hermey has brought back letters from St. Nick bearing the North Pole postal cancellation. If a gift wasn’t able to be procured, Santa has provided a written explanation. He might even get “caught” in our living room Christmas photos every year.
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See, I love Christmas. I also love magic and wonder and hope, all of which continue to bloom and surround the girls every Christmas season. For that, I am thrilled. There is so damned much in the world today that is all too sad, practical, and heavy. Despite how hard we try to protect our kids from losing loved ones, financial difficulties, work-related stress, divorce, etc., we cannot. Beyond our own homes, our 24/7 media make it all but impossible for even children to avoid at least some exposure to natural disasters, refugee crises, racial tensions, gun violence, diseases, deaths of celebrities, politics.

Allowing our girls to put aside the all-too-real world, allowing them to experience awe and joy and delighted anticipation through Santa, allowing them to believe in something magical – to just be kids for a little while longer (while simultaneously celebrating the happiness that is Christmas) – has been one of my most important and fulfilling decisions as a parent. That they have so adored Santa and all he represents to them – love, mischief, kindness, generosity – and that they have felt so loved in return has made that decision even more wonderful.

Because Santa is so special to Ella and Annie, I have gone to great lengths to protect him. Questions were answered with deliberate and measured responses that were never misleading but never laid everything on the table, either.

The girls are normal human children, however, so as they’ve grown older, doubts have understandably crept in. The details that were easily glossed over as kindergarteners (How can Santa possibly reach everyone’s house in one night? If these gifts came form the North Pole, why does it say they were made in China?) were harder to ignore in 3rd or 4th grade. With each passing year, though, even as they posited and became dubious, it became clear that they did not want Santa to be something else; they still wanted him to be real. Despite their curiosity and occasional downright skepticism, they told us – literally and figuratively – that they did not want us to answer the question they’d been throwing at us: “Are you and Daddy really Santa?”

They didn’t really want to know. So we didn’t tell them.

It was complicated too, though, because keeping up the myth of Santa in the age of live streaming and Google searching and school bus taunting is, quite frankly, exhausting. Still, we’d made it through this holiday season with the girls writing letters to Santa and placing them beside Hermey, leaving food for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, and genuinely being thrilled that “he remembered” everything they asked for on Christmas morning. They believed for another year. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought no more of it.

Which was why it caught me by such surprise when – last week, a full 11 days after Christmas – Ella interrupted our otherwise non-Christmas dinner conversation with an extremely direct, “So. Tell me the truth. Are you guys the ones who buy the gifts we ask for from Santa and put them in the living room each year?”

Her well-crafted question left little wiggle room to spin the response in such a way that it didn’t tell her what she didn’t want to know: the truth. Spinning my wheels, I gave her one of my standard Santa deflections. “Hm. How come you’re asking?”

She sat up a little straighter and enunciated clearly, as though maybe she’d practiced beforehand, “Because when I was on your computer today on Amazon, right there under Stuff You’d Bought were the exact gifts I’d asked Santa for. So I’m thinking that, yeah, you guys are the ones who buy the Santa gifts and give them to us.”

Welp.
Shit.
THANKS A LOT, AMAZON.

Apparently, despite maybe not wanting to know the truth, Ella was ready to hear it after all. There was only one (big) problem: Annie, who was sitting three feet away. At two years Ella’s junior, Annie still very much believes – and, despite her curiosity and bravado, it was quickly obvious that Annie really, really, really did not want to hear the answer to Ella’s question.
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Christmas morning breakfast-making

After volleying back and forth for a bit, Ella agreed to table the discussion for a later time. I was relieved – not only for Annie’s sake, but also because it meant I’d have the opportunity to prepare for how I’d planned, for years, to break the Santa News… via a letter I’d seen on the internet.

The gist was this: explain that we are not, in fact, Santa – but we act as Santa and fill her stocking, buy her “Santa” gifts, etc; let her know that we think believing in Santa and acting as Santa are tremendously important and are about sharing love, kindness, wonder, and hope; and that, now that she was “in” on it, we would like her to preserve the magic of Santa for those who still believe (see: Annie).

I was not at all sure how this would go over. I’ve heard stories of kids who were furious with their parents for, as they saw it, lying to them. I’ve heard of others who were so upset and heartbroken, they fell apart. Nick and I crossed our fingers that Ella would see it as we did: that believing in Santa felt so amazing and brought her such happiness, and “real life” is so pressing and heavy, we wanted to preserve this bit of childhood for as long as we could.

At bedtime, we checked to see if Ella wanted to hear a more detailed answer to her earlier question. She hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that yes, she did.

She was finally, truly ready.

Rather than read the letter herself, Ella asked me to do it. When my voice hitched at the part about how we hoped she would continue these traditions for her own children someday, I discovered the other reason I’ve gone to such lengths to keep Santa all these years: because I loved it so much.

I loved how earnestly the girls debated which reindeer was Santa’s favorite. I loved how carefully they looked over the cookies each Christmas Eve, selecting the ones that were just right. I loved the twinkle in their eyes as they flew down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager to see if he’d actually come. Simply, I adored the deep-seated joy that Santa brought them; playing a part in cultivating that joy was one of my favorite parts of Christmas, of being a parent.

After I’d finished reading and we asked if she had any questions, the first words out of Ella’s mouth were directed at Nick: “Wait. So you drink the whiskey every year?? Is THAT why we leave whiskey for Santa?”

(Nick told her this was one of his more brilliant parenting decisions. Why we didn’t decide 13 Christmases ago that Santa needed chocolate and a Starbucks for the journey home is a solid failure on my part.)
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Cookies… milk… and whiskey

Ella had a few other queries, most of which we answered. I did, however, flat-out refuse to explain how Santa’s image appears in our photos each year or how I create Hermey’s handwriting; some things are meant to be kept secret.

To our delight and relief, after some time to process and assimilate, Ella seemed to feel exactly the way we did about Santa. Although I’m sure she was disappointed that a plump, omniscient, bearded elf does not, in fact, deliver her presents each year, she took in our explanation and made it her own.

As we were finishing the conversation, I told her that, despite this new information, I planned to continue all of our traditions every year – from putting stockings the hallway to moving Hermey to scattering reindeer food. Before I could complete my sentence, Ella chimed in with, “Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without those!”

She also informed me that she will still be leaving a letter with Hermey to deliver to Santa… because that’s just what we do, and that’s the truth.
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‘Hamilton’ style: Hermey will be back…

Twelve : The Gateway Year

Twelve isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy age. It isn’t 10 (double digits!). It’s not yet 13 or 16 or 18, all of which carry special significance. There was no magical owl to arrive, either. Just… twelve.

As I searched my memory for twelve, one of the first things to come to mind was The Hunger Games. Although most of the characters in the series are older than 12 (and, in the case of the second book, much older), I nevertheless remembered that 12 is the age at which tributes from each district can be chosen.

Starting at twelve, these boys and girls are thrown into a literal life or death situation. They forage for food, sleep outdoors with no provisions or cover, create and wield weapons, and fight to save their own lives… while simultaneously killing other children. At age twelve. This is, of course, Suzanne Collins’s fiction; that doesn’t necessarily make it less jarring.

Ella turned 12 last weekend. She had been eagerly anticipating it, not so much because 12 is so special, but because her birthday fell on a weekend and, for the first time ever, she was able to celebrate with friends on her big day. This past summer, I remarked to Nick that Ella seemed so much older. In fairness, she’d just graduated elementary school, so perhaps there was a natural transition from “kid” to “a bit older kid”… but still, she just seemed different – more mature, more confident, more poised.
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After her first band concert of the year; I wish I could rock a white parka like this.

This trend has only continued. The girl who once had to be hounded to complete her homework now finishes everything during study hall or immediately upon arriving home. Where as she had, only last spring, being hesitant to talk to her teachers, she now maintains full and open relationships with them, asking questions, advocating for herself, and holding her own. She takes full responsibility for everything she needs for school and swimming, with her bags and lunches packed before I can even remind her.

Ella’s not only more mature on the “doing stuff” front; she’s also somehow more grown-up in her behavior as well. She is easy to talk to and offers keen insights. She has a dry wit and makes fantastic puns. She is also quick to laugh at herself, something that only a few months ago was not really happening. She considers other people’s opinions and is excellent at owning her own mistakes – not necessarily in the moment (because, really, none of us does a good job with that), but upon reflection, she is remarkably astute at dissecting a situation, figuring out what emotions were in play (“I was nervous that I wouldn’t make it on time, so I got mad when you asked if I was doing okay”), and determining where to go from there. I know adults who still suck at this, so Ella is pretty much an emotional mindfulness guru.

Nick and I have begun to share movies with Ella that we’ve been dreaming about since before she was born – The Birdcage and Mission: Impossible were our first picks – and she not only got them, she enjoyed them. I no longer worry about introducing her to stories and songs with swear words or more adult concepts (thanks, Hamilton!), because she understands their context and we can talk about what’s going on.
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Birthday cannoli! 

So, I guess, in many ways, twelve is a turning point – for Eleanor, anyway. She can cook and bake. She babysits. She can stay home alone (for a bit), be trusted to do the right thing, and knows what to do in an emergency. She’s curious and smart. She is a tremendously empathetic and supportive friend. She is cautious but determined, quiet but bold. She is Shakespeare’s famous, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” and all that.

I suppose, reluctantly, I can see why Suzanne Collins decided that twelve was a reasonable age for Hunger Games tribute-hood.

And yet… Twelve is still but little. At 12, Ella still reaches for my hand. At 12, she and her friends giddily discuss the latest update of an animated hair design app. Twelve is still wanting to be tucked in. Twelve is arguing with your sister argue over who has to shower first. Heck, at 12, there is still opposition to showering, for the love;  apparently, twelve year-olds dislike being clean.

Despite Ella’s awesome desire for knowledge, at 12 there is still so much she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why people are fighting over Aleppo (then again, in fairness, most of us don’t know that, either). She doesn’t know how to set aside time to complete a big school project. She doesn’t know how to navigate social media. I mean, just a few days ago, we had to explain to her that it’s not safe to put metal in the microwave – after she removed a metallic travel mug from a 30-second nuking – because she simply had no idea. No one had ever told her: metal + microwave = bad.
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You can see her holding the offending mug in this birthday morning photo… Close one, y’all…

Somehow, I feel like maybe Eleanor wouldn’t do so well if she were dropped in the middle of a biosphere and forced to battle to the death. I suppose this mature-childlike dichotomy is exactly why Ms. Collins decided to use 12 as a starting point… but when it’s your own child you’re imagining, the Book Club discussions become a lot less fantastical.

Twelve is a gateway year. It is the only thing standing between child and teenager. And, oh, how people dread the teenager thing… Everyone knows that teenagers are, like, terrifying, angst-ridden, dramatic, trouble, troubled, hell on wheels, exhausting, always hungry, sarcastic, withdrawn, moody, know-it-all (go ahead and fill in the blank) creatures whose sole purpose seems to be to antagonize their parents. At least, that’s what society has us believe… Which means that in about 361 days, Ella will instantaneously morph into a hormonal, self-centered devil-child with whom I will argue every moment of the day. OH YAY!

If twelve is the precursor to teenage-hood, you’d think that Ella would already be showing at least some characteristics of The Dreaded Teenager. But here she is, twelve years old, still delightful, still utterly herself – every day wittier, kinder, more full of gratitude. Perhaps – just maybe – the buffer of twelve isn’t a last hurrah before morphing into a new, defiant, sweaty, completely unfamiliar human… but a merely gradual transition into an older, more mature, more certain version of the children we already know.

I’ll be the first to tell you that Ella has her moments. We have, um, clashed on more than one (like, many more than one) occasion. I am under no illusions that we will make it to adulthood without the stuff that accompanies virtually all of us on that journey. That’s not only a healthy (and inevitable, so I’d better get used to it) thing, it’s a good thing – because if the growth Ella has shown in the past six months is any indication, I don’t want to miss out on this.

So far, I really like twelve.

Happiest 12th Birthday, E-Bean. You embody the “tween” stereotypes and smash them, at the same time. Can’t wait to see what comes next!

Why I Brought You To Susan B. Anthony’s Grave

My dearest girlies,

I know you weren’t thrilled to go with me to the cemetery on Tuesday. You were hungry (we really should’ve stopped at Tim Horton’s before rather than after; sorry about that). You were frustrated that you were missing certain classes at school. You were annoyed by the long wait.
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In any case, I know this wasn’t how you wanted to be spending the morning, and I really appreciate you tagging along. I know you don’t understand the historical significance of being able to vote. I’m not sure that I really understand, to be honest. Even though I know it isn’t a right for everyone in the world and that I should be grateful, there are times when – admittedly – I forget. So I understand why going to that gravestone wasn’t high on your list.

But someday, I think it will mean more to you.
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We brought all the girls for this historic day… including Jitter

As you grow older and travel, meet more people, and learn new things, you’ll come to live the lessons you only heard about in school. You’ll see how people of color are treated differently than people who are white; heck, given that you are biracial, you’ll probably experience it personally. You’ll see how gay folks are mistreated and disrespected – even though, to you, doing so makes absolutely no sense. You’ll see differently-abled persons mocked and vilified and entire regions maligned even though our faith teaches us acceptance and love for all. You’ll see, while we have more than enough, exactly how hungry and disadvantaged people can be; inequities and injustices of the world will blow your mind and break your heart.

I know that you do not – cannot possibly – fully understand these yet, which is why your dad and I are doing our best to help give you even the smallest bit of perspective. It is why we volunteer at homeless  sheltersmarch in the Pride parade, assist women and children in need, openly discuss race in our home, attended the rally in our little town after the white supremacist flyers were delivered to neighbors’ driveways, and why we put a sign in our yard says, “Our Differences Make Us Strong”.

I didn’t have any understanding of these things, of the world beyond my own, until I was much older. I think I turned out pretty well (shout out to Grama and Papa!), but I’m hoping to give you a different start – a chance to see the problems beyond our cul-de-sac… but also how we’re all connected and how, by reaching out, working hard, being kind and generous, remembering that we belong to one another, and being willing to truly listen to those who disagree, we can make a change. Our differences really do make us stronger.

Maybe you’ll look back on all this stuff and groan with annoyance (okay, who’re we kidding, this is so totally happening). But I also hope that maybe you look back on it with, if not nostalgia or fondness, at least an indulgent understanding of why it meant so much to me, and what I hoped to accomplish.
As for why I took you with me to vote and then had us stand in line to see Susan B. Anthony’s gravestone on election day?

You moaned with annoyance but I did it anyway. ‘Cause here’s the thing: I have no doubt that you will experience difficulties, setbacks, and roadblocks simply because you are women. You will, as every woman I have known, be harassed, demeaned, or – at the absolute minimum – significantly underestimated simply because you are female.

When that happens, I want you to be able to look back at moments like Tuesday. I want you to remember how you asked if you could wear a pantsuit in honor of Hillary Clinton, our nation’s first major party woman candidate for President, and were so keen to don the blazers I found at Goodwill (it seems pantsuits are difficult to come by for the 12-and-under set). I want you to remember how eagerly you got out of bed today, so excited over the mere thought of a woman having the ability to become President.

I want you to remember how it felt when we exchanged smiles with the other women in their pantsuits at the polling place, members of a not-so-secret club. I want you to remember the woman who ran by every one of us in the more than hour-long line at Mount Hope Cemetery, hand aloft, gleefully calling out, “High fives, everyone, high fives!” and how we all laughed and held our hands toward her. I want you to remember the beautiful fall day, the red leaves of the trees, and the feeling of electricity in the air. (I know you’ll remember the name Mary Smyles Butts on one of the tombstones; I’ll admit, it made me chuckle, too.) 

I want you to remember how we allowed the woman using the walker to bypass us, even though we had all waited in line, too, because her companion asked if we could let them through. And we did, every last one of us: because that is what we women do for one another – lift each other up, support, cheer. I want you to remember the woman ahead of us who stood for 60-plus minutes with the full bouquet of white flowers… But when she arrived at Susan’s headstone, she had only three blooms remaining – because she had given away the rest to those standing around her, including you and me.

I want you to remember how we practically skipped back down the cobblestone pathway, saying aloud in hushed tones, “Do you really think she can do it??” (For the record: remember, also, that we do not want Secretary Clinton to become President solely because she is a woman; we had many other reasons. But the woman thing is exciting as hell.) That it is  even a possibility for a woman to come this far is because of the efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony and we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for our hope and optimism.

(Given how we make it a point in our family to discuss difficult things, this seems like a good time to point out that Ms. Anthony, while absolutely doing transformative things for women’s rights, was not, herself, supportive of people of color. This is complicated and messy, as all history is. We will keep discussing it. I still felt it important to visit.)

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The simple answer is I brought you to the cemetery on Tuesday so you could pay respects to the women who came before you. I brought you so that you can have a better understanding of our past – which, I hope, will give you a better understanding of our future.

More immediately, I brought you so that you would believe. Not necessarily in a Hillary Clinton presidency, but in yourself as women. I brought you on Tuesday so that, when you doubt yourself because you’re a girl, when you’re told that you can’t because of your chromosomes, when you’re disrespected for being female – maybe even by our President-elect – you will remember the line of people stretching for ages, sharing high-fives and flowers and letting those who were struggling cut ahead, to honor a woman who risked everything simply so we could have a say – a say! You will remember a world beyond your own, and that we are all connected.

Although Hillary did not end up becoming our President, that she made it this far, that this actually happened, is absolutely, astonishingly wonderful. Because if a woman was able to come this close to President of United States, then you, my dears, can truly do whatever you set your hearts on. And that is something worth celebrating and waiting in line for, regardless of the election result. (Take note: we’ll definitely be making this pilgrimage again; you can start groaning now.)

Yes, Hillary lost. I’m devastated and, quite frankly, terrified for our country (but that’s another post). I’m heartbroken that you, my courageous, loving, kind, intelligent, wise daughters still do not live in a world where a woman has become President. But we’ve seen it on election day and every day: women are brave. Women are strong. Women help one another. Susan and Hillary didn’t give up and neither will we. If not this year, another. We’ll fight together to make it so.

I brought you to the cemetery so you will remember that it only takes one woman to change the world. Her name is Susan. Her name is Hillary.

And her name is yours, too.

Love, Mama

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Making Allowances

Long before October rolled around, Ella knew what she wanted to be for Halloween: Eliza Hamilton (from, um, Hamilton the musical). After scouring the internet for the perfect dress, she fell for a beautiful replica in an Etsy shop.

It was expertly made, exactly like the one worn in the musical – and, therefore, cost more than double what we would normally spend on Halloween costumes. Seeing how an 18th century gown isn’t exactly something one wears to school or while running errands, we told Ella that spending so much on a costume to be worn once was simply out of the question.

Enter: her allowance.
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Ella inquired how much we’d be willing to spend on a costume. Then she inquired as to whether, if she chipped in more from her allowance, she could get the dress. We agreed. As soon we placed the order, Ella forked over the cash and waited impatiently eagerly for the package’s arrival. When it finally came, she was in heaven – and more than a little pleased with herself for deciding it was worth the money.

This, really, was the point of her allowance: to give her the opportunity to learn how money works, and more specifically, how it works for her. What does she want to procure? Does she want it enough to spend her own money on it? What is a fair price? Is she willing to wait for a bargain or does she want something immediately, so she’ll willingly pay more? When is something worth saving for? Does it feel better to blow through money to buy things that make her happy or to let her stash accumulate?

Every family handles money differently. Some folks give kids an allowance on a case by case basis when it’s earned for chores (or something similar). Others give a set allowance that is contingent on children doing certain tasks. Others base it on grades.

When the girls were little, Nick and I decided we wanted their allowance to mean something else. We wanted Annie and Ella to learn the value of a dollar, to learn how to spend and save money, and to have an understanding of how economics work. We both know kids who, upon graduating college, hadn’t ever had a chance to figure out how to save or spend money, and the results weren’t pretty; we didn’t want that for our girls.

An allowance was also a way of giving the girls a little autonomy. I remember how frustrating it felt being completely dependent on my parents for absolutely every purchase, from a pack of gum to the latest fashion trend (Benetton shirt, anyone?). Nick and I wanted to give the girls the ability to purchase things they wanted, when they wanted to, without relying on us.

I hadn’t expected that ability to garner so much ownership and pride.

Sometimes, of course, we say “no” even if they spend their own money; there are just things we don’t allow. But more often than not, if the girls want it and can afford it, it’s theirs, whether it’s a tin of Pokemon cards or sugar-laden gum or an Eliza Hamilton dress.

This is not, in any way, to say that Annie and Ella are not expected to do chores; they are. But Nick and I decided ages ago that we didn’t want to tie together chores and money. For one thing, we didn’t want to make it an option to just skip chores if the girls decided they didn’t feel like earning their allowance that week.

Even more importantly, we wanted to instill in them the idea that being part of a family means helping one another out, pitching in, and making things work together. That means everyone is expected to do their age-appropriate share; it’s simply what we do as a family, period, and no one gets paid for it.

If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you know I love me a good chart or whiteboard, and we’ve used a lot of different chore-type charts over the years. This seems to be the earliest…

chore-chart-extrasThese are circa 2009, when they were 2.5 and 4.5 years old; we start ’em early ’round here!

A couple years later, a chart and red stamp were used. Teeth brushed? Stamp. Bedcovers pulled up? Stamp. Trashcan carried to the hall the eve of trash day? Stamp. Within a couple of months, the girls were incorporating the tasks into their daily routine and no official chart was needed, so it and the stamp were retired.

(To be fair, Ella also got ahold of the stamp one day during rest time and stamped her wall and stuffed animals and bedsheets and clothes and I was so upset about the sea of red I encountered when I went into her room that I had made her shower fully clothed to prove the point that everything was so ink-stained, the only solution was to soak it. Not over-the-top at all. Good parenting times.)

Sometimes, the charts were very specific, with points to be awarded for checking items off the list and “prizes” to be redeemed after accumulating enough points.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-2-10-06-pmI believe these are circa 2013.

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More recently, we’ve employed a system  where they earn points for being kind, helpful, etc. (putting away groceries without being asked, feeding the dogs without complaint, offering a favorite chocolate to a sister…) and can then “spend” those points on things that hold meaning for them. It’s far from perfect, but it does a good job of encouraging them to not act like schmucks.
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As for their “regular” chores, like doing their laundry, clearing their dishes, making their lunches, and the like? They still have to do those – but there’s no tangible reward, unless Not Making Mom Irritable counts. It’s just part of being a family. There are no salary negotiations on these matters nor can anyone decide to skip the labor and forego a paycheck.

Their allowance is still doled out every week, regardless of how cheerfully they followed through on tidying the bathroom or how many points they earned. Because the point of the allowance is to teach fiscal responsibility and give them some autonomy, not to offer them an incentive to pitch in.

I’ve heard it said before that the reason allowances and chores are tied together is to give kids a realistic sense of how life functions. People get paid to do their jobs; if they work, they earn money and if they don’t work, there’s no money. I absolutely appreciate that for adults; money doesn’t just fall from the sky. Neither does it for my kids.

But see, that’s the beauty of the auto-allowance: it takes me, the Mommy ATM, out of the equation. If Annie and Ella desperately want Target dollar section Halloween socks, the money for that will not rain down upon them from mama’s purse so they can wear pumpkins on their toes. Even “just a dollar” adds up, both monetarily and otherwise. No; they’ve received their allowance. If they choose to spend it on jack-o-lantern fuzzier, so be it, but I’m not involved.

We do think it’s important to (try to) instill in them a healthy work ethic, to make them aware of the connection between doing a job and getting paid for it. Hence, the girls frequently have the opportunity to earn additional money to pad their allowance – by helping out with things around the house that are usually outside of their responsibility. Mowing the lawn, weeding, mopping, etc. are all “extras” that are rewarded monetarily. When they’ve got their hearts set on particular items they can’t afford, the Jobs For Hire are completed daily. Other times, the jobs go undone for weeks and the money just lingers, but that’s okay because these were just bonuses; the mandatory family chores have already been completed (for free).
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I have no illusion that this is a foolproof system, but it does seem to be accomplishing what we’d hoped – which is to say, Annie and Ella have a pretty decent understanding of how money works, what’s important to them monetarily, and how/when to save vs. how/when to spend. Considering I barely learned these until I was a young adult, I think we’re off to a reasonable start.

I think the chore thing is doing what we hoped, too: creating a sense of ownership and pride in our family, and helping foster the idea that we’re in this together. Because the girls have been learning basic household tasks for so long, they’re also fairly competent and capable at most of them, so fingers crossed that when they, like, head to college, we won’t have any last-minute Oh My Gosh You’ve Never Done A Load Of Laundry panicking. Or not as much, anyway…

Last night was the school book fair. I happily bought the girls a couple of novels, but when it came to the crap trinkets near the checkout, I drew the line. Receiving that news, Annie calmly opened her purse and handed over the cash – her own cash. She walked out feeling mighty fine that she’d been able to get exactly what she wanted… and I walked out feeling mighty fine that I hadn’t shelled out for a periodic table bookmark.

Win-win.