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Apologizing for Nothing

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“We’re casual today,” the mom apologized as she pulled boots onto her daughter’s bare feet. “No socks.”

I regarded her daughter, whose flouncy dress, patterned leggings and blue-dyed rabbit fur vest put my own outfit to shame.

“She looks pretty fabulous to me…” I responded.

As mom and daughter gathered their things and left the playground, I tried to figure out what would make this woman apologize to me, a total stranger. But deep down, I knew.

So many of us feel pressured to be it all for our children. We worry about how they behave in public and how they play with other kids; how they eat and whether we’re following the right feeding strategy; how they handle failure and if their weight is on track and how the hell do we know if we’re doing any of it right???

Of course parents feel judged. I can’t go a day without an email, online article, Facebook post or overheard conversation making me question the job I’m doing. I don’t need to take an online quiz to find out if I’m a “Sleep-Deprived Parent” or if I’m “Winning at Parenting.”

I’m winning at parenting in the same way someone marooned on a life raft is winning at not drowning.

Every now and then, it catches up to me: this feeling that, no, I don’t know what I’m doing. There are no evaluations, no performance reports. There’s no right way to be doing any of this vitally important work. And they need so much every. single. day.

One morning, after a night of questioning myself and feeling insecure about the job I’m doing, I found a note from my husband. There’s one line in particular I’ve repeated to myself over and over since I first read it:

Be as patient and positive with yourself as you are with the kids.

I’ve always believed my kids will learn more from my actions than my words. I model kindness and respect for others in the hope that they’ll follow my example. Yet, until I read those words, it didn’t occur to me that my kids are also learning from how much I love and respect myself.

The past 4 ½ years as a stay-at-home mom have been a journey. I’m still trying to find my balance. I’ve been working so hard to be all the things my family needs me to be —mom and wife and finder of lost things — I’ve lost sight of who I need to be the most: me.

Since reading my husband’s wise words, I’m trying to give myself a break. It’s a process, but I’m working to change the narrative in my head from criticism to praise, from snark to positivity.

In addition to seeing me falter, my kids need to watch me soar.

Fellow moms: join me. Let’s open the windows, let’s sing out loud; let’s buy ourselves flowers and do the things that make us feel healthy and strong. We need to care for ourselves in order to care for our families, and that means tending to our souls as well.

We need to stop apologizing to each other for our messy houses and sock-less children. We have to collectively realize that any mom who seems perfect is either working really hard to look that way or just having a good day. We’ve got to stop judging each other and accept our differences, so our kids will learn to do the same.

We’re setting the example. Let’s teach our kids to tune into their own inner voices; to listen to the songs of their hearts and speak kindest of all to themselves.

But first, my kids have to listen to me, singing at the top of my lungs. Because finding myself means ignoring their backseat protests and cranking up my Janis Joplin and Ben Folds. They may be embarrassed by the lady in the front of the car, crooning off-key and dancing in her seat like nobody’s watching.

But I’m not.

18 to Life

Little children

At a party some time ago, I got to talking with a polished, fashionable woman who had two kids. Like me, she had a boy and a girl, but her kids were middle-school-aged.

When I told her my kids were 3 ½ and 1 ½, she said pointedly, “Oh. You’re in prison.”

Her eyes were sympathetic but her tone was matter-of-fact. A woman standing nearby who overheard our conversation agreed emphatically, “Yep. Prison.”

Oh, does it ever feel like it some days.

As my husband likes to say: we’re in the thick of it. We’re thick with noise and mess and toys and who-had-it-first disputes, with sticky surfaces and piles of laundry. There’s a shortage of clean underwear, a surplus of toy cars underfoot. Mealtimes feel like an episode of Wild Kingdom with the dogs lurking hungrily below the kids’ chairs.

It’s loud. It’s chaotic. It’s a bounty.

Yes, at times, it feels confining. But there are so many things I love about having little children.

Lazy mornings. Days free of obligations and filled with possibilities. Boo-boos that need kissing; mornings with my son’s curly head sharing my pillow. Their fascination with everything, whether it’s a seed growing into a flower or a pin-dot of a plane in the sky. Their glee at chasing a spider through the house with the vacuum cleaner. Their eyes growing wide anytime I whisper, “guess what?!” Their little bodies that fit perfectly on my hip; their arms wrapped tight around me.

I hold them anytime they’ll let me.

There’s a scene in a favorite movie of mine, “Elizabethtown,” where Kirsten Dunst’s character snaps an imaginary camera shutter to capture a perfect moment in time.

Elizabethtown

I do this often, in my head.

In fact, I’m sitting here this very evening snapping away at the scene before me: clouds of balloons hanging above a neat little tower of presents, prescient in their anticipation of the morning.

My little boy, my first baby, turns 4 tomorrow.

Tears roll down my cheeks as I type these words, not because I don’t want him to grow up — although I do struggle with that concept. What I’m struggling with tonight is the hardest part, the very hardest part, of parenting:

The time is going by like water through my fingers.

I don’t know how to slow it down, how to grab hold of the moments that make it all worthwhile. Sometimes I can hardly remember them at the end of the day.

Recently, I came across one of those moments I had captured in an unfinished essay. I had forgotten about it completely until I discovered it on my computer a short while ago.

It was a lovely fall day, too beautiful to miss out on by going home after school, so we met Dad for lunch.

Dining out with small children is always an adventure and this day was no exception. Yet there it was, at the end of our meal: a perfect snapshot moment.

“Against the Wind” played from the restaurant speakers as we got up from our chairs to gather our things and leave. I don’t think I heard the song at all until I looked up to see our nearly 3-year-old son dancing in the middle of the dining room with an empty carryout box on his head.

Against the wind … against the wind. Still running against the wind …

My heart grew tight; my eyes filled. My husband and I met eyes as we watched our goofball son dancing to the music in a nearly empty room. Everything around us stopped as we watched his perfect moment of joy and basked in how young and carefree and blissfully un-self-conscious he is.

It lasted only a moment. The song ended and my son skipped across the room to take my husband’s hand. I snapped back into mom mode and tried to tidy up the mess we left. But the song played on long after we loaded the kids in the car and drove away.

I hear it now, playing in the back of my mind.

That was over a year ago now. It was just a moment in time, but it was one of thousands I wish could last forever.

It’s been four years now since my son came into our lives and changed everything. It feels like the blink of an eye. It feels like an eternity. I can’t decide.

What I know is this: I’m a better person for having known him for four brief years.

It may feel like prison some days; it may feel like we’re running against the wind. But I’m grateful for this sentence. It won’t last forever.

Happy Birthday, Hudson Wells.

I’m New Here

Old friends are the best

Allow me to confess: nearly four years into being a full-time mom, I still feel like a novice.

Before I put my career on hold to stay home with my kids, I felt confident and competent in every job I held. Even when I was first trying to master school nutrition reimbursement structures, Web development jargon or nuclear power technology (seriously), I always felt fairly on top of things.

That changed when I became a mom. I’m still waiting for the day to come when I feel like I know what I’m doing.

But for a full-time parent, does that day ever come?

We’ve all had that feeling: the dizzy uneasiness that comes with being new at something. You wonder just how long you can get away with saying those lovely words that instantly excuse you from judgment: Sorry, I’m new here.

In the workplace, you eventually stop saying those words. And little by little, you stop feeling like you need to. You get used to the rhythm of the office and the demands of your job and you learn what’s expected of you. You go home at the end of the day feeling like you’ve done your best.

In parenting? Hardly.

At some point of nearly every day I want to shout, “I’m new here! I have no idea what I’m doing!” And the funny thing is, it’s true. As the mom to two small children, I wake up every day to an entirely new job.

What they happily devoured last week they refuse to eat this week. What launched them into hysterics yesterday elicits blank stares today. And as for the strategies I employ to help them get along? Those have to change by the hour.

I’m constantly asking myself, when will this get easier? When will I feel like I know what I’m doing? But, secretly, I know the answer.

It never gets easier. I’ll never feel like I have all the answers. I’ll never truly master the art of parenting, because it’s not something that’s supposed to be mastered. Like many things in life, it’s a journey.

Too often, I compare myself to other moms and allow little seeds of self-doubt to take root. I find myself tallying other mothers’ kids and thinking, how does she make it look so easy? I look for any sign that this vocation is as relentlessly challenging for other parents as it is for me.

At some point in nearly every day, I let myself feel inadequate. It’s such a pointless exercise. And yet, I do it regularly.

Maybe you do too.

What I know is this: tomorrow, my little ones will be a little older. What’s moving quickly today will only move faster as time goes on. I can embrace the chaos and enjoy these moments or I can spend my time thinking about what I should be doing better.

It’s my life. I get to choose.

I can see the dirty dishes as proof of my insufficient housekeeping skills or evidence of kids well fed.

I can hear the blood-curdling screams they let out as they chase each other through the house as nerve-jangling noise or the music of happy kids who are comfortable and wild and free.

I can look around my house and see perpetually sticky floors, clutter on every surface and a fine layer of dog hair over everything in the room.

Or, I can see the house where my family lives.

I just came back from an annual girls’ trip I take with my 10 college roommates, some of whom I’ve known now for 20 years. After all these years, I’m proud to say we can still commandeer a dance floor and make our party bus driver blush.

We do our fair share of vacation activities, but most of our time is spent simply enjoying each other’s company, reminiscing about the embarrassing things we did in our college days and talking about our families.

This year, I realized what is so special about our group. While we fondly remember the silly college girls we used to be, we’re able to see each other as someone new, as more than we were back then. We’ve matured into career women, wives, mothers and daughters of aging parents. We’ve come a long way from the class-skipping, day-drinking, I-won’t-mention-what-else kids we were when we first met each other.

If I can see what capable and competent women my friends have grown into, I certainly ought to be able to do the same for myself.

Tomorrow will bring a crop of new challenges. My kids will amaze and confound me anew and something will undoubtedly knock me off balance. But I believe in my ability to handle whatever it is like a boss.

And if not, well, give me a break. I’m new here.

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.

 

The Day Parenting Broke Me

My kids, making it all worthwhile

Days like this, they make it all worthwhile

For those of you who saw the three-way meltdown that happened today as I tried to get my kids from the school playground to the car: I apologize. We did survive.

Despite the whole house having a terrible night’s sleep due to my daughter’s several budding molars, I tried to be the fun parent. I smiled as my 3 ½-year-old ran through calf-deep muddy water in the playground’s sandbox. My 1 ½-year-old was content to go up and down the steps a thousand times and I was happy to let them play and explore. But when a fine rain began to fall, I decided I had had enough.

Call it my fault for not giving two toddlers the five-minute countdown, but I announced we were leaving and started moving toward the car. I know: amateur move.

After finally getting them both off the playground, every mud puddle between the playground and the car called my son’s name. At least two of those puddles claimed his backpack as well. My strong-willed daughter was insistently moving me in the opposite direction and refusing to be picked up. I felt outmanned and frustrated and fed up.

I hate to be the yelling parent. I hate to be the mom whose kids are blatantly not listening. No matter how many times I tell myself that everyone’s been there, it’s still embarrassing and humbling.

It sucks.

By the time we made it to the parking lot, I realized we had a diaper crisis on top of a mud crisis. When they still wouldn’t cooperate, the last straw broke. I covered the remaining twenty yards with a screaming kid under each arm. Both were stripped clean of their clothes and wrestled into a car seat. By the time I tore out of the parking lot, all three of us were in tears.

Yes, in a moment of weakness, humanity and exhaustion, I cried right alongside my children, all the way home.

There are days when I don’t want to be the mom. Days when I just don’t have the energy to answer questions like, “why is that baby a baby?” and “why won’t my arm come off?” I don’t want to cut grapes in half or make sure the car seat straps are adjusted just right or read one more book or put on shoes or wipe butts. (Oh, the wiping of butts.)

Some days I just want to throw my hands in the air and quit.

In the throes of our family meltdown, as we collectively sobbed our way home, my son — my little empath — quietly talked to himself in the back seat.

“You has to calm yourself down. Just keep trying and don’t give up. You has to just calm yourself down.”

And then:

“You’re just the best mommy ever. You has to calm yourself down because I love you and you’re the best mommy. Can I give you a hug when we get home?”

Sigh.

It’s just not possible to be “the best mommy ever” every single day. But I don’t think I failed them completely today. I believe it’s good for kids to see their parents having emotions. In our house, we talk about our feelings and let our kids see that we’re human.

Some of my best moments with my kids have come from me talking to them honestly and telling them that I make mistakes.

Now, just a couple hours after our little Armageddon, both kids are sleeping peacefully in their rooms. Although my son has “quiet time” every day, he only naps sporadically, so this is a rare treat.

Somehow, it makes everything better. Just a couple hours off is enough to make the question answering and grape cutting and seat belt adjusting and book reading and shoe installing and butt wiping — yes, even the butt wiping — amenable.

It certainly has its challenges, but I love having young children. I love being the center of their universe, the kisser of their boo-boos, the person with the answers to life’s questions. I love their little bed heads in the morning; their sleepy hugs at night. I love watching them play and seeing how much they’re learning every single day. And when they play together? My heart positively melts.

Parenting broke me today. But my kids fixed me. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

 

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.)

To My Second Child


Second Child

I forgot to take your picture last month.

You turned six months old — a considerable milestone — and I didn’t mark the occasion.

I took your brother’s picture each month of the first year of his life, without fail. I even coordinated outfit changes and creative poses and extensive digital retouching.

I had a lot more time on my hands back then.

I confess this now because I fear someday you’ll notice. You’ll see the disparity in pictures and think it means something. You’ll look for the inconsistencies in how we were with you and your brother, and you’ll wonder if we feel the same for you both.

Let me address your feelings now, before you’re able to have them: The day you were born, I learned to love more than I ever knew I could.

On that day, I checked into the hospital fairly convinced that you were going to be a boy. Your dad and I decided to wait to find out, but I thought I knew. My second pregnancy felt so similar to my first that I thought the gender had to be the same. On top of that, I thought my doctor had slipped and accidentally revealed you were a boy.

I tried hard not to care whether you were a boy or a girl since it was so completely out of my control. I knew there would be wonderful things about either gender and I truly was just grateful you had been declared healthy throughout my pregnancy.

But secretly, buried deep inside me was a tenacious desire to have a daughter.

And yet, in that moment when you first came out and clung to my chest, I was so overcome with love for you that I didn’t think about gender. After a few moments with no reaction from me, your dad finally said, “Hon? Do you see?”

I looked down at you and could hardly believe my eyes. “It’s a girl,” said your father, and I understood he knew just how happy those words would make me.

A beautiful, dark-haired baby girl. A daughter.

We bestowed upon you a lovely, old-fashioned name that carries a measure of dignity and grace. We introduced you to your aunts and grandparents and great, whooping cheers erupted throughout the room. Tears flowed from everyone’s eyes and your brother climbed into the bed to get a better look at you. You: the perfect addition to our family.

I’ve learned so much from you already. Mostly, I’ve learned the love in a parent’s heart isn’t divided when another child comes along. Rather, my capacity for love grew when you came into my life. Like the fabled Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day. I love everything more because of you.

In my eyes, you aren’t second. You’re more.

Yes, more laundry and diapers and medical expenses. More spills and messes and Goldfish crumbs in the car. More sleep-disrupting cries in the night. More to worry about; more to support.

But more of the most wonderful things in my life, too.

If I forget to write down all your milestones and moments in a gold-lined baby book, I apologize. I’m a second child myself, and I understand how the smallest injustice or inequality can be perceived as indifference. So please know it’s merely that I want to spend every extra moment I have just being present with you and your brother, soaking in all the wonderful things about you both.

These are golden days in my life: you, at seven months old, pleasant, bubbly and cherubic. You offer a wide, toothless grin to anyone who smiles at you, but you seem to reserve your purest smiles for me. Your brother, at two and a half, funny and sweet and affectionate. Waving and talking to anyone he sees; ready with a kiss or a song or something to make his audience laugh.

Golden, precious days that will pass all too quickly.

I know there are slammed doors and stomped feet ahead. I know that, before long, I’ll be at the periphery of your universe rather than the nexus. And if I frustrate, irritate and enrage you, that only means I’m doing my job.

I’ll deal with all that when it comes. For now, we are kindred spirits, blood sisters, a mutual admiration society. We are connected in the most organic, intimate way possible, and I’ll hold you close for as long as I can.

Today, we’re outside together on a gorgeous summer day. You’re rolling around on the quilt that once lay atop my childhood bed and your sharp, observant eyes take in all that surrounds you in our garden green back yard. You turn your head toward the chirping of the birds in the trees and your wispy hair blows with the wind. Every few seconds, you look behind you to see if I’m still here.

Of course, I am. I always will be.

You travel to the edge of the blanket and your tiny hand plucks a blade of grass. You study it, turn it, feel it. And then you let it go, watching it fly away in the breeze.

Someday I’ll do the same for you. For now, you are mine and I am yours. Totally, utterly, completely yours.

I conclude this love letter to you, my second child, with a promise: I rescind all the hopes and dreams I had for you. I vow to let you be yourself, to follow your own path without judgment or disapproval. I’m already perfectly content with who you are; all you have to do is keep being yourself and I’ll be proud of you every day of your life.

I’ve only known you for seven, lightning-fast months, but I already know you’re a special, beautiful person. You have a happy heart, an easy smile and a quick and curious mind. I’ll move heaven and earth to keep the world from taking those gifts from you.

Thank you for coming into my life.

Love always,

Mom

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