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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The Root of the Problem

Yesterday, I felt human again for the first time in a week. It had been touch and go and there were honestly some moments when I wondered how I would make it to the next… but here I am, alive to tell the tale.

The cause of my near-death defeat and redemption? A tooth. A *&#! infected tooth.

It began last Wednesday on my way to join Nick in NYC to see Hamilton (yes, it’s worth the hype a hundred times over). As the plane descended, I felt some pain – and pressure – in one of my left upper molars. I’d seen my dentist only last month and everything had checked out okay (I had even mentioned to him that I’d had some pain in that area; it still checked out okay), so I thought maybe it was just my sinuses freaking out from the descent. Tylenol and an Advil Cold and Sinus helped get things under control.

Dinner and the show were uneventful, pain-wise – which was a good thing, because our meal was superb and the show… well. You know. It’s Hamilton, for goodness’ sake.

Overnight, I was awakened by more pain; nothing to write home about, but still, annoying to not be able to just enjoy a hotel room – after seeing Hamilton (it was, like, really good) – without my children. As the morning wore on and we returned to Newark, the pain intensified. By the time the plane touched down in Rochester, I knew something was very wrong. I was ready to schlep myself into the nearest Urgent Care but had a nagging feeling that maybe it wasn’t a sinus infection.

While I waited for my dentist to return my somewhat panicked call (see: “I don’t know what’s going on, but this pain is basically the worst ever and I might be dying so please call me back”), I Googled “sinus infection or tooth infection?” and self-diagnosed that I was probably going to get sepsis. When Dr. M confirmed that it was almost certainly a tooth infection, likely “a bad one” based on my description of the pain, he told me we’d schedule a root canal in a few days and immediately prescribed antibiotics and Vicodin.

This was most welcome news; the throbbing, constant, jackhammer pain was so strong, I honestly worried I’d pass out while driving to the pharmacy. Truly unbearable. The closest thing I could relate it to was childbirth – which baffled me, because… a tooth? That much agony from a measly tooth?

Thinking I was either insane or had the world’s lousiest tolerance for pain, I took to Facebook to see if anyone had insight. Their responses confirmed what I had suspected: infected teeth are tiny baby Satans.
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If you’ve dealt with tooth pain, you know what I’m talking about; we’re members of a secret torture club. (Seeing my inability to stand upright or speak clearly, my pharmacist chided me for coming to pick up the scripts [Nick offered, several times, but I requested that he make dinner instead] and said she would have personally delivered them to me because “you don’t mess with teeth.”) It’s like when you’ve finally seen The Usual Suspects and everything changed; you’d heard Keyser Söze’s name bandied about before and it meant nothing, but once you knew, you couldn’t unsee it. (“Poof… he’s gone…” OMG.)

If you’ve never experienced the kind of tooth pain that requires an emergency root canal, you may think this is crazy talk – or, at the very least, an absurd exaggeration. I can assure you it is not. I’ve had knee, wrist, and abdominal surgeries. I’ve broken bones. I gave birth to two children, the second of whom I attempted to push from my body for over 3 hours without any pain meds (not out of choice but necessity) and then had an emergency c-section; the OB-GYN said it was basically like I’d given birth twice. While I cannot conjure the specific feeling of the pain that occurred with each contraction, I can remember the kind of pain it was, how it was – bar none – the most awful, excruciating thing I’d ever encountered, the kind I imagined might literally rip me apart.

This was worse.
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At least a 12. No joke.

There was no escaping it. It was right there, in my head (there’s no getting out of your own head; I’ve tried), affecting my sight, my sense of smell, my hearing. Nothing made it better – not ice, not heat, not Advil or Tylenol or Vicodin, and definitely not trying to claw off my face with my hands. Admitting defeat, I retreated to bed – an almost unprecedented move for me – to wait for my head to explode.

Once the antibiotics began to kick in, there was marked improvement. Come morning, I was still alive, which was definitely a start. I’ll spare you the rest of the details – there were some reeealllly bad hours, several sleepless nights, and many tears over the course of those five days – but I will say that the root canal was a freakin’ walk in the park compared to the pain that preceded it.

I have a thing for lip balm, which is unfortunate when your lips are numb.

Dr. M said that he expected I’d be pretty much back to myself in 36 hours and that I should, barring some unseen complication, be free and clear by yesterday… And, by gosh, he was on the money. SWEET FANCY MOSES.

Now that I’m on the other side and have had some time to contemplate the ridiculous set of affairs that is Teeth Infections, I’ve drawn a few conclusions. To wit:

  1. Screaming in pain scares the children. It just does.
  2. Moaning in pain alarms the children. And your husband. That’s why doors were invented: to prevent your families from becoming undone when Mama has a tooth infection.
  3. When you are in so much pain that you physically cannot get out of bed and get everything ready for the following morning, the world will still spin and the sun will still rise. INCREDIBLE, I KNOW.
  4. When your spouse (who has never had any trouble with his teeth and therefore can not relate to the death spiral you’re in) says, time and time again, “Babe, that sounds just awful. I’m so sorry. How can I help?” and actually means it and makes good on the helping part… it helps your heart and almost helps with the pain. Almost.
  5. Chronic pain not only hurts, it also makes you feel off-kilter pretty much all the time. There is a quiet (or sometimes really loud) desperation and anger that accumulates when you cannot banish pain. The desperation you understand; the anger is unexpected. (I have new empathy for those with truly chronic pain. Ugh.)
  6. Being angry – and in agony – for days on end is really debilitating and exhausting.
  7. Being chronically angry means being chronically cranky (and certainly not up for things like “games” or “children making loud noises” or “being a good listener”) and prone to tantrum-throwing (see: when the ice cream I’d ordered arrived with Hershey’s syrup instead of hot fudge; blasphemy). This, in turn, makes your children rather cranky. When both of them break down around day three and you recognize that it’s because Mama is there, physically, but otherwise nowhere to be seen, replaced by a moaning, shhhh-ing, complaining wretch, it really sucks.
  8. A canker sore heightens tooth pain. This is a scientific fact.
  9. If you are accustomed to chewing gum or consuming hard candy as a pastime (or maybe to help you not eat that second bowl of ice cream before bed, just saying), being unable to do so will make you lose whatever is left of your mind.
  10. Sometimes, the drugs used to treat the problem cause others – like, for example, an upset stomach. Did you know that pooping requires pushing, and that pushing creates pressure in your head and that that pressure hurts infected teeth like nobody’s business? IT DOES.
  11. Root canals are really no big deal and will come as a welcome relief after the pure hell of the infection.
  12. With that said, tooth infections can really, um… smell. Like, disgusting. Rotting flesh, durian fruit disgusting. I do not recommend it.
  13. This too shall pass. Either the root canal will do its job or you’ll pull a Tom Hanks a la Castaway and decide you have a future as a stunt double. Either way, win-win.

Now that the pain is gone and I can actually chew on both sides of my mouth, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Tooth pain = perspective. Huh. Further, I’m considerably less cranky (well, aside from my usual crankdom), which is welcome news to everyone.

Also reassuring: my lip balm game? VERY SOLID.
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When half your mouth is numb, smiles are… wonky…

 

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!

Becoming a Parent

I knew that having a second child would change things. I knew instinctively that no two children are alike. But I’d never fully understood what it would mean to parent siblings until having Annie (funny how that works…).

As I’ve mentioned before, Annie’s pregnancy was not planned. To say that I was less than thrilled when we got the news is a significant understatement. Although I eventually grew excited for her arrival (it took 8 months, but I got there), it was a distinct kind of excitement because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

I’d given birth before. I’d held a freshly born baby on my chest. I’d cared for a newborn. I’d raised a baby into toddlerhood, the whole shebang: sleepless nights, leaky boobs, dirty diaper testing via bum-sniff, teething, sleep training, making bizarrely chipper noises while “zooming” lovingly pureed sweet potatoes into my cherub’s mouth (and then scraping at least half of it off her sweet potato-spackled cheeks). I’d oohed over head control and sitting up and pulling up and crawling and walking and talking.

I had this mothering sh*t down.
(HAHAHAHAHAHA. I know. I KNOW.)

Perhaps the first clue that Annie, and my relationship with her, would be different from Ella was when she became stuck in the birth canal and I gave birth via emergency c-section. Instead of holding my freshly born baby on my chest, I stared at her from across the operating room as Nick stood beside her and declared that she was definitely an Annie (not a Katie, our other contender). It took hours for me to finally have my baby in my arms and once I did, I didn’t want to relinquish her (in part out of new birth haze and in part because lifting her up out of the bassinet hurt my stitches).
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The next clue came immediately; I’d been expecting it, but it hit me hard nevertheless. As I cozied up with baby Annabelle at the hospital, Nick returned home to nearly two year-old Ella. When she came to visit the next day, I remember being so overwhelmed, I could hardly stand it (yes, a lot of that was probably hormones, but whatever). Because of my surgery, I couldn’t pick Ella up; it devastated me. Seeing how much I wanted to hold her, Nick (or one of her grandmothers) lifted her onto the hospital bed beside Annie and me. I had prepared for this – for loving two children with the very same heart that, a day ago, had only loved one – but it felt so unfamiliar. Not bad; not hard; just uncharted territory. Despite my emotional pep-talks, I was unprepared.

As the oldest of our siblings, Nick and I have only experienced what it’s like to be a firstborn. We both share that stereotypical firstborn trait of Doing Things The Right Way, of Following The Chosen Path. We play by the rules and we expect others to do the same. Growing up, I was always a bit mystified by my friends with older siblings. They were constantly playing catch-up; someone else went to middle school first, got braces first, drove first, left for college first. Like nearly all eldest siblings, I was the leader and the guinea pig, all in one. I knew nothing else.

Ella is, in many ways, a stereotypical firstborn. She, too, likes to Do Things The Right Way (and finds it irritating when other people don’t). I absolutely relate to this. The sign says No Parking, so don’t park – yes, we’re talking to you (except not really ’cause we hate confrontation). The rules say that your knees must bend naturally at the edge of the seat in order to be safe, otherwise you still need a booster; OMG SO MANY PEOPLE ARE UNSAFE. This is not so hard, you guys!! Ella and I are so in sync on this.

Whether due to birth order or personality, or simply because I’d already had (nearly) two years to get to know her, I knew I’d be empathetic toward Ella once her baby sister arrived. I’d grown up with a younger brother; I understood the challenges of sharing, of having someone pester you when your friends came over, of a little sibling continuing to make faces in the car after Mom had told us we weren’t even allowed to look at one another anymore. And so, when Ella was confused and jealous after Annie was born, I was ready for the pang of recognition and empathy.

I didn’t expect to feel that way about Annie.
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Birthday breakfast.

Yet I did. If Ella wanted my attention while Annie was being put down for a nap, I made sure to finish up with Annie first – not out of obligation, but because I genuinely felt a tug on my heart. As they grew a little older and Annie began reaching for Ella’s toys, I empathized with Ella’s frustration that her little sister was all in her business… while simultaneously empathizing with Annie’s desire to enjoy the same fun stuff as her big sis. When Ella needs space but Annie wants to play, I can almost physically feel my Mama heart encompass Ella’s desire for alone time and Annie’s desire to be with her sister.

Although I hadn’t planned to, like, give Annie the shaft after she arrived, I simply assumed that I’d instinctively understand Ella more.
It hasn’t worked out that way at all.

From the moment Annie was born, I’ve been just as fiercely empathetic toward both of them. It’s been a fascinating and unfamiliar experience, putting myself in the shoes of the younger sister. The seeming injustices that were endured as an older sibling are now seen through both the big sibling’s eyes and the little one’s, and I find myself growing maybe a little wiser (and needing more wine) every time.

Ella made me a mother. Annie made me a parent.

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Annie’s birthday was yesterday, and she could not wait to be ten. Double digits! The big time! I’d worried that her hitting this milestone might make me wistful or even sad; can my youngest daughter really ben TEN?! Instead, I just felt happy that she was so excited. Perhaps that’s because, in many ways, she acts older than her years. She makes dinner, she does her homework without being asked, and I’m pretty sure she could pick a lock if she needed to (or, heck, if she were bored). But also it’s just been a really fantastic experience being her Mama, so rather than being upset that she’s hit a new decade, I’m thrilled to see what her coming decades will bring.

This isn’t to say it hasn’t gone by in the blink of an eye. Last night, we watched the video I made for her first birthday and I cried more than once – some for the people we’ve lost, but some for just how viscerally I remembered the way she used to watch Dora; when she crawled for the first time; how she fit in my arms. It’s so, so fast, this growing up business.
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But if the next ten years of Annie are even half as marvelous as the first, it’s going to be worth it, no matter how fast it goes.

Happy 10th Birthday, Nini. We adore you so.

She got this light-up skirt for her birthday. Pretty rad.

 

 

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.