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Be Patient With Him

Learning through imperfection

Every time I look out the window and see the twisted waistband of his shorts bunched below his underpants, I have to resist the urge to go outside and fix it.

Be patient with him, I tell myself.

In just over one brief month, my little boy will turn 4. I remember reading a study that found kids are at “maximum cuteness” age at 4, and I can see how this might be true.

My golden-haired boy is still sweetness and innocence, but he’s quickly moving into another stage of his life. His cheeks have become leaner; his body seems to grow taller every time I look at him. He craves responsibility and independence and is eager to learn about the world around him.

It’s my job to let him go and let him learn.

What I’ve learned over the past (nearly) four years is that parenting involves so much more than keeping them clean, fed and safe. As they grow, it becomes about teaching them to navigate the world with competence and confidence. Hard as it is, parents have to let their kids make mistakes and do things their own way.

Sometimes I fix his shorts when he doesn’t get them on quite right, but not always. Sometimes I force myself to resist the urge to fix, to adjust, to correct. I don’t need things to be perfect and he doesn’t need me following behind him, redoing what he’s done.

There’s a chill in the morning air lately. It’s the season of No. 2 pencils and crisp new notebooks. I always get sentimental this time of year. It’s as if my kids are growing up right before my eyes and a part of me wants to grab hold of them tight and never let go. But letting go is part of the job.

He takes my hand when we sit together on the couch. He brushes my hair away from my face when I bend down to talk to him. His hugs are enthusiastic and still given freely. I don’t know how long any of these things will last, so I soak up every instance of his youthful sweetness and attention.

He sits next to me as I type these very words, his hand on my wrist. I never want to move from this spot.

Toddler love

But soon we’ll get up and I’ll let him help me fix dinner. It can be maddening to wait for him to do things I could do so quickly myself, but I know it’s important.

Be patient with him, I tell myself.

When he wants to fill the dog bowls himself by making 13 trips with a tiny cup between the water dispenser and the porch, dripping water on every route: be patient with him.

When he struggles to get a zipper fastened: be patient with him.

When he insists upon getting into his car seat on his own, performing each step at an excruciatingly slow pace.

When he gets frustrated with his inability to do things as proficiently as he’d like.

Be patient. Important things are being learned.

So much of parenting is daunting: teaching compassion alongside self-confidence, generosity alongside ambition. Teaching about recycling and danger and hygiene and inequality and taking chances and being careful and how vast and bountiful is our world. Answering “what is a booger?” just before being asked, “what is dead?” It’s a never-ending learning experience for us both.

And yet, amidst all the challenges of parenting, patience can seem like the most difficult skill of all. How can I expect them to learn something I myself haven’t mastered?

So I remind myself often: Be patient. Be understanding. Hesitate. Observe. Listen. Breathe.

The season of learning is upon us.

 

You’re Doing a Great Job

Happy Dog Last night, while my husband was working late, I loaded my two kids into the double stroller, strapped leashes on the dogs and headed out for an evening walk.

It had been a long day. Nothing had gone as planned and by the time I got everyone out the door it was practically bedtime.

The trials of the day had taken their toll, fraying my nerves and eroding my patience. I felt leaned on and used up and just plain worn out.

So many days as a stay-at-home mom feel like yesterday did. Two young kids and two rowdy dogs provide a fair amount of chaos inside my home. Nothing’s ever clean enough, we’re never punctual enough, no one gets to bed early enough and my son could definitely use a few more baths throughout the week.

There are so many jobs to do as a stay-at-home mom that it’s hard to feel like I’m ever doing enough. There are days when I feel I’m doing great as a parent, but that’s usually when the dishes sit in the sink unwashed. And on the days when the house gets a good cleaning, dinner may get neglected. It’s not often I feel like I’m succeeding on all fronts.

So as I negotiated the heavy double stroller down our steep driveway, I exhaled a deep, long breath. Not your best day, I said to myself, letting it all go.

It takes some concentration to steer the kids with one hand while gripping two dog leashes with the other. Countless things can disrupt the careful balance: a toddler removing and hurling a shoe, a dog walking toward us, a loose hair tickling my face. But we found our rhythm and picked up the pace.

The breeze felt good against my skin and the sky was darkening just enough to provide glimpses of families inside their lamp-lit homes, preparing for the end of the day. Eventually, we passed a middle-aged couple out for an evening stroll. I saw them eye my cumbersome load and, instead of offering up the usual remark (“you’ve got your hands full!”), the woman nodded to me and said matter-of-factly, “You’re doing a great job.”

Just like that. You’re doing a great job.

I knew she was referring to my command of two dogs and two kids, but in that moment it felt bigger than that. I let her words wash over me; let them soak through my skin and into my core.

You’re doing a great job.

Before I became a stay-at-home mom, I thought this job was easy. I admit it: I did. The realities of this vocation blew my expectations away.

Raising children is physical, emotional, patience-testing work.

It can be painfully lonely. It can be demeaning. It can leave you aching at the end of the day, exhausted and wired at the same time. Some days, it can make a person wonder if she’s up to the task.

And yet, here was a total stranger, telling me I was doing a great job when, most days, I can’t say those words to myself.

It’s so hard to let go of the laundry that didn’t get done, the dinner that didn’t turn out as hoped, the tufts of dog hair that waft across the floor just after the vacuum’s been run. Every time I start to feel like I’m succeeding in this job, one of the dogs chews up a precious toy and throws it up in the middle of the night or my toddler reacts with total disinterest to a fun surprise I’ve planned.

You never know when something’s going to pop up out of nowhere to make you feel like a big, fat failure. Last night, the opposite happened.

This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I don’t know that I’m always doing a great job, but maybe I ought to tell myself I am a little more often. In parenting, you’ve got to celebrate the successes and let go of the flops.

I’m doing a great job. (Now excuse me: I’m pretty sure there’s some dog vomit around here somewhere.)

How Do We Keep Them Safe?

At the airport, before our flight

The feeling I have can only be described as “heavy.” My heart is heavy, weighed down by sadness for all the kids impacted by the school shooting that took place yesterday in my home state of Ohio. My head is heavy too; cloudy and confused by yet another tragedy involving our nation’s kids.

There are so many things to feel when a kid becomes so desperate, or unhappy, or murderous, or lost, that he opens fire on a group of his peers. I think it’s natural to feel anger, but I primarily just feel sad.

It’s a hard time right now for kids. And, consequently, a hard time for parents as well. What do we tell our kids in a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is so great? When there’s so much pressure to look a certain way, to have certain things?

I attended 12 years of Catholic school, which meant I wore a uniform for nearly every school day of my life. We were told that the point of these uniforms was to level the playing field, to take the focus off of which kids had more or less, thereby putting all the focus on learning.

This suited me fine. My clothes started their life in my cousin Kim’s closet. From there, they went to my cousins Kathy and Kristin, and then to my sister before finally reaching me. (Not that I was the end of the line — from me, they went to my cousin Karen, and sometimes ended their journey with my poor cousin Robert.)

We had no cell phones, no iPads, no laptops. The only opportunity we had to distinguish ourselves was with our footwear. I spent a lot of time obsessing over my socks and shoes, putting just the perfect amount of scrunch in my socks and feeling on top of the world when I had the “right” shoes.

But really, there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure. My head spins when I try to imagine what high school is like today. It seems that every day we’re hearing another report of a kid who was bullied so badly as to wish herself dead. Or a kid who felt so much pressure to succeed that his life was a private hell.

Or a young man whose home life is so bad, he does the unthinkable.

How do we, as parents, protect our kids in this confusing time? How do we help them navigate this complicated world?

How do we keep them safe?

I recently took my 4 ½-month-old son on a plane for the first time. Overall, the trip was a great success. But during the flight home, we went through a 45-minute stretch of turbulence that was the scariest I’ve ever experienced.

With my son sleeping peacefully in my lap, the plane began to lurch. The flight attendants scurried to their seats, the pilot instructed us all to prepare ourselves for a period of severe turbulence. I’ve been through turbulence many times before, and wasn’t fazed — at first. But then, things became more serious.

The plane began to shake violently, and then suddenly dropped, causing me to leave my seat and strain against my seat belt. A collective scream rang out throughout the cabin. Ice and ginger ale rained down from above, as the woman next to me lost hold of her full cup. I gripped my son as tightly as I could, feeling more vulnerable than ever before.

My god, I thought. How do I keep him safe?

I didn’t know the answer to that question then, and I don’t know it now.

At the time, I simply held him close. The turbulence passed. We weathered the storm together. And through it all, amazingly, he slept.

Maybe I won’t be able to keep him safe throughout his life. Maybe I can only prepare him as best I can, comfort him when necessary and — from time to time, when the going gets really rough — hold him close.

Dear Sweet Baby Boy


Cute Baby Boy

Today, you laughed. You looked into my eyes and tossed your head to the side, letting out the most joyful noise I’ve ever heard. Already, you’ve turned me into a slobbering pile of emotional mush — even more so than during my pregnancy. And then, you laughed. What a beautiful sound!

Every day you smile and smile, as if life is handing you a series of delightful moments, one right after the other. And every day you seem to grow a little more into yourself, becoming a little person. You are such an easy, happy baby.

I take pride in seeing you grow big and healthy, but find myself wanting desperately to slow it all down. You’ve left newborn diapers far behind and are quickly growing out of the impossibly small outfits I first dressed you in, when I hardly knew what to do with you. I want each moment to last twice as long, each night to stay with me for just a bit longer before it’s gone forever.

So many things about motherhood have caught me by surprise: how challenging (and time-consuming!) breastfeeding can be; how defined your personality is already, even at such a young age; how much poop can come out of you at one time (where did that all come from??); how different I feel.

But what surprises me most is how much more I value my life. It’s not that I didn’t care before, just that I suddenly feel so important now that another human being depends on me. It struck me one day when I was driving home from an errand. What would happen to you if something happened to me? I sat a little straighter in my seat, drove a little more carefully. Smiled a private smile as my stomach fluttered.

Being a mom makes me feel unique and irreplaceable.

My heart pounds with the rush of so many complex feelings — gratitude for your existence, amazement at your tiny features, even a strange and fleeting fear that you’ll somehow be taken from me. I am perpetually exhausted, frequently overwhelmed and often intimidated by the job of raising you to be a kind and responsible young man.

And yet.

My love for you astounds me.

Cute Baby

Dear Sweet Autumn Baby

Autumn Wedding Day

Our perfect autumn wedding day in November 2008

Dear Sweet Baby,

After a long, hot summer, the weather has finally started to turn cool. It’s beginning to feel like autumn: the season of your birth.

Your father and I were married in this season, on a gorgeous fall day nearly three years ago. There’s something so peaceful about this time of year, so mature and deliberate. Spring, with its wild abundance and infinite possibility, has always been my favorite season. But autumn seems like such a perfect time for you to come into our lives. It’s certainly become a special time in my life, and becomes more so with every passing day as we draw closer to your arrival.

I’m fully in preparation mode now, doing all I can to feel ready. It never seems like enough. I know there’s nothing I can do completely prepare my heart for the day it grows huge with love for you. Nothing in the human body can expand that quickly without some pain involved — without aching at least a little bit. I already feel my heart swelling and being stripped raw at the same time, just by having you inside me.

People talk so much about crazy pregnancy emotions, but rarely about why expectant women get so soft and vulnerable to everything around them. Perhaps it’s a kind of practice run for how fully and helplessly we love these babies when they finally arrive.

This pregnancy — the process of creating you and growing you into something real — has not been brief or fleeting. It feels like I’ve been pregnant for ages and I still have more than a month to go. I can feel my body readying itself to bring you into the world; now it’s just my heart that needs to get itself into shape. I fear it will truly burst when I finally lay eyes on you.

It’s been more than 10 years since your dad and I first met. We were so young — in years, but even more so in spirit. We took our time growing up: moving to new cities; changing jobs and careers; collecting experiences and friends along the way. It took a long time for us to get here, and a lot of people haven’t always understood why.

But we know.

We know it took every one of those years — every week, every month, every season — to bring us here today. We anticipate your arrival with hearts that have grown broader and stronger with every passing year. And still, we know you will turn us upside down and inside out. That our lives will never be the same again.

Ten years. Ten autumns. And now, the autumn of you. Of new feelings, new experiences — a whole new chapter for us. I wait for you with bated breath, knowing this is only the beginning of the rest of our lives.

The Fierce, Rabid Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

Courtesy of Shel Silverstein

Recently, a friend sent me a note in which she mentioned that “The Giving Tree” is her daughter’s current favorite book. Before reading my friend’s letter, I hadn’t thought of my favorite Shel Silverstein work in a while. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about why I love this story so much.

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy.”

According to Silverstein’s website, this touching story “offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.” The tree loves the boy without condition, never thinking about what’s in it for her. When it seems there’s nothing left for the tree to offer the boy, still she finds more to give. It is a poignant story, and a beautiful concept.

Some people think the tree represents God. I don’t know how I never noticed it before but, to me, the story chronicles the relationship between a mother and her child.

Until now, I didn’t think too much about how mothers give their flesh and blood in the most literal sense possible. Just as the tree provides her fruit, her branches and even her trunk, women share every bit of themselves; all with the goal of helping their babies grow strong enough leave and forge their own way in the world.

My mother did this for me, and her mother for her and so on. It’s an incredible thing when you stop to think about it.

From my earliest visions for the nursery, there’s been one part of the décor that I’ve consistently imagined: a mural climbing up the wall and arching over the crib. Without really knowing why, I always pictured a tree, with or without birds, leaves or fruit, but always forming a protective canopy over where the baby will sleep.

It’s only just now occurred to me that I’ve been picturing the Giving Tree all along.

I recently came across another thought-provoking perspective on motherhood in a book called “Sister Mine” by Tawni O’Dell. According to the book’s protagonist, a mother’s love “is not warm and cuddly like a soft blanket, as it’s popularly portrayed. It’s a fierce, rabid love, like having a mad dog locked inside you all the time.”

Already, I get it — I don’t want to think of this baby ever feeling sadness or fear, loneliness or pain. And if any person threatens this baby’s safety or well being, I suspect there’s a rabid, frothing dog lurking inside me, just waiting for the moment she’s needed. (Suddenly the term, “bitch” seems so perfectly apropos.)

I guess my interpretation of motherhood falls somewhere between Silverstein’s and O’Dell’s versions, but doesn’t align perfectly with either.

I can’t wait to let this baby swing from my branches and nap in my shade, but I don’t plan to end up a felled stump, happy only when I’m serving my child. Similarly, I know I’ll ferociously protect my baby from the pain in the world, but without teaching him or her to turn a blind eye.

I want to be a Giving Tree for this baby and I hope the world will be one too. And yet, I don’t want the world to simply drop apples into his or her outstretched hand. I’d prefer to watch my child climb the world’s highest limbs and learn that the sweetest fruit is sometimes the hardest to reach.

And the tree was happy.

Listen to the Oompa-Loompas

Blueberry Baby

"I feel funny!"

Apparently, I’ve “popped.” That’s what I’m told, anyway.

When I look in the mirror, suddenly I see Violet Beauregarde staring back, with a horde of Oompa-Loompas dancing around me in a circle.

Recent developments include:

1.     I’ve become unable to perform any activity without making a loud grunting sound, like Monica Seles delivering a game-ending slam. This happens whenever I’m getting in the car, getting out of the car, getting out of bed or trying to lift my foot.

2.     Basic activities cause me to break out in a body-drenching sweat. Like typing. Or breathing.

3.     I’ve started to walk with a distinctive pregnant-lady swagger: a lazy waddle that involves tilting the shoulders back, jutting the belly forward and moving slower than a toddler who’s just learned to walk.

All these things add up to one thing: my pregnancy has become impossible to ignore. People are now comfortable assuming my inflated girth isn’t just from an increased consumption of jelly doughnuts. As a result, I’ve been getting some pretty bizarre comments. Reference the conversation I had with one of the cooks in the cafeteria at work:

Cafeteria Guy: That thing doesn’t even look real!

Me: Huh?

CG: Looks like you got a pillow stuffed up under your shirt!

Me: Oh. Yeah, it’s definitely real.

CG: Gonna be a big baby!

Me: Well, I hope not. For my sake.

CG: I was a big baby. I was so big my mom had to have a hip replacement after giving birth to me!

What is it about pregnancy that brings out so many inappropriate comments? It’s nice when people congratulate me or ask me when I’m due (as long as they don’t assume it’s within the next 24 hours). But there are a lot of weird exchanges too — like when strangers call out, “Hey, mommy!” And can someone please tell my male co-worker to stop referring to me as “Preggers” (this is the same guy who asked me the other day if I “stopped at Denny’s for a big-ass breakfast” on my way into work)?

I’m often reminded of the scene in Juno when, referring to the very public nature of her pregnancy, the knocked up title character tells her baby daddy, “At least you don’t have to wear the evidence under your sweater.” Like Juno, I have days when I wish this big belly were one of those fake pregnancy suits forced upon unsympathetic husbands and promiscuous teenage girls, just so I can take it off for a little bit.

It’s been hard to get used to my new reflection in the mirror. Inside, I still feel like me: a friend, a daughter, a career woman, a wife. Most of the time I feel like a kid, just trying to figure it all out. I can’t get used to the idea that I’m going to be someone’s mom. That word carries a lot of weight.

Being pregnant creates more questions than answers. I feel like the most common phrase out of my mouth these days is, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if this baby is a boy or a girl. I don’t know what direction my career will head after he or she is born. I have absolutely no clue how we’ll ever choose a name. But, thankfully, this little one doesn’t give me any uncertainty about its vitality; there seems to be a party going on inside of me all day, every day (and night).

If only those Oompa-Loompas would sing me a charming little song with a helpful moral at the end.

Oompa Loompa, do-ba-dee-doo,
What do you do when your belly gets huge?
Oompa Loompa, do-ba-da-dee,
Try to relax and let it all be.

I’ll try, Oompa-Loompas. I’ll try.

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