Saturday, August 29, 2009

Running on Empty

"Father forgive me for I have sinned. It's been 8 months and 4 days since my last run." So begins my prayer of penitence to Adidas and the other Gods of my favorite form of exercise. For years I have faithfully laced up my shoes, but now they sit dejected, rejected on a lonely closet shelf. And it's time for me to do some serious sole searching.

We're not the most likely trio, me and those shoes. At just barely 5 foot 2, I lack the long, lithe limbs of a true runner, and I spent much of my childhood in either proper patent leather, scholarly saddle shoes, or stark white summer sandals. And then there was the food. Like most middle easterners, Egyptians tend to show their love on a platter, garnished with fresh parsley and a side of hummus. We celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry with heaping helpings of kebabs, kofta, and baklava. So for decades I struggled with my weight (The year I spent studying in Paris and my friendship with an aspiring pastry chef didn't help matters), carrying "baby fat" and all the baggage that went with it well into my teens and young adult years.
Then sometime in the grad school era I finally hit my stride. Maybe it was the fresh California air, maybe it was living where no one from my "fat past" knew me, or maybe it was just my time to run. But a few tentative steps down the path eventually turned into miles at a time.. and I was hooked. In the nearly 15 years since, my shoes and I have logged thousands of miles together, partners both literal and emotional journeys. When love blossomed and when they failed, I ran. When cancer came calling close to home, I ran. In sun, rain and wind (but not snow- I am Egyptian, after all) I ran. Down foreign and domestic streets, across 5K, 10K and even marathon finish lines, I ran. Even through pregnancy, I ran.... OK, I waddled, but in my mind, I was still running!

Less than 4 weeks after our first child's arrival I was back to my pavement pounding ways. The road was slow and painful at first, but within a few months my shoes and I right back where we left off. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky the second time around. Baby Cecilia is now two and a half months old and every night I go to bed thinking "Maybe tomorrow will be the day," but when I wake up those shoes still stare at me from their corner of the closet, and I stare back, neither of us willing or able to make the first move.
"Just do it!" says my husband, unaware that this makes a far better marketing slogan than motivational speech.
"Get a jogging stroller or a treadmill!" says a well-meaning but non-running friend. We have a treadmill in the basement, but since I already feel like I spend my days running in circles, running in place is not exactly an enticing option. And I have a jogging stroller as well. Noah and I logged countless miles with it, but I can't say I ever truly enjoyed the feeling of pushing it down the street and over the hills. Or the tether the manufacturer installed, just to make sure I don't let go of my grasp on motherhood. Besides, I'd need a double jogging stroller now and there's just no room in the garage, or in my life, for such a contraption.
I can't pinpoint exactly what's holding me back, aside from the obvious lack of time or energy. With one child I was able to run right over those hurdles, but now I feel paralyzed. Is it the fear of failure? The demons of a chubby childhood returning to haunt? Or is it the deep, dark irrational fear that creeps in late at night- that feeling of being trapped in a life I still don't quite recognize, the fleeting feeling that if given the chance I may start running and never come back?
As much as I love my babies, I'm learning that motherhood is no easy road, especially when it means taking an abrupt detour from the life and the self you spent years building. Much like finding the right pair of running shoes, until I find that elusive balance between Mom and Not Mom there are bound to be painful blisters along the way. So please forgive me, merciful Gods of the Run. I promise to say 10 Hail Nike's and drink a gallon of Holy Gatorade if you'll just give me the strength to put those shoes back on, and give me back this one small part of what makes me feel like me. I just wish it was as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Northern Exposure

"We're heading up north for the weekend." If I had a dime for every time I've heard a Michigander say that I'd probably have enough money to buy myself a place up north. But growing up in this fair state I often felt like I was the only one who didn't head for that geographically vague location as soon as the sand dunes or ski slopes started calling. The trend was especially prevalent in the summer. My friends and I would play together all week and then suddenly around 3pm on Friday they would vanish into this northerly void, only to reappear (usually a few shades darker) on Monday. They tossed around names that sounded so unfamiliar, so exotic. Charlevoix. Leelenau. Benzonia. What was this "up north" place, and why couldn't I go there, too?

In no way do I mean to imply that I was deprived of fabulous summer experiences. My parents came to this country from Egypt in the 1960's, and that meant our summers typically fell into three categories: church camp with other Egyptians, long road trips to explore the USA with other Egyptians, or going back to Egypt to be with, you guessed it, other Egyptians. At the time I didn't appreciate it, but looking back I know what a privilege it was to have seen so many wonders of both the ancient and modern worlds (that big ball of twine in rural Ohio really did make me wonder) before I even hit puberty. So while I had sailed down the Suez Canal I had never so much as dipped my toes in Lake Michigan. But Egyptians are not exactly "lake people" (not surprising, considering they grew up in the middle of the world's largest desert) and I don't believe the thought of vacationing right in our own state ever crossed their minds. So that quintessential Michigan experience: packing up the family car and jumping on I-75, leaving for the cottage or the lake or the campground is one we never had.

So now that I have my own family, we own a Michigan home, we pay Michigan taxes, I figured it was high time we partake in this most Michigan of family endeavors. With a toddler and a newborn in tow we knew there probably wouldn't be much "vacation" for us, but there was one place we could go. That's right kids: jump in your car seats, fasten those 5-point harnesses, and pack up the Pack and Play, because the Shands are going "Up North!"

We rented a condo between Petoskey and Harbor Springs for one week at the end of August. With visions of cascading waterfalls and shimmering sand dunes running through my head I frantically packed for our Pure Michigan vacation. And then I packed some more. Then just a few more things. We might as well have been heading for Cairo (or for a nuclear fallout shelter) given the amount of gear I felt compelled to take. There's something about traveling with kids that brings out my inner pack rat. Even though I was really certain the great unknown Up North land did in fact have stores, everything in the house suddenly seemed essential. How could Noah survive the week without his favorite book? Or these other 12 books? If Cecilia goes through an average of 3 onesies/day, then for 1 week I should probably pack.... 247. Math was never my strong suit. Still, we managed to cram it all in the car and point ourselves in a northerly direction.

Whoever said life is a journey not a destination clearly did not travel with kids. My vision of a luxurious travel nap was rudely interrupted by reality: active 2-year-olds do NOT enjoy being strapped into car seat purgatory for hundreds of miles at a time. After 4 hours of appeasing him with games, snacks, toys, and songs, Noah finally fell asleep. Of course this was about 5 miles from our final destination. But no matter, we had arrived Up North! And it was.... raining.

Aside from one, beautiful sunny day, it rained the vast majority of our week Up North. Not a nice gentle rain but a cold, angry downpour. 60 degrees in August cold. We did our best to get out during the breaks in the deluge, strolling the streets of Charlevoix, gazing at the boats in Harbor Springs, savoring Polish goodies at the odd but charming Legs Inn. And Mark and I even had one "grown-up" date alone together at Chandler's in Petoskey, thanks to a visit from Grandma and Grandpa Shand (wouldn't you know it, I married into a family that regularly goes "Up North"). Perhaps the most memorable moment was the first time Noah set eyes on the beach at Petoskey State Park. While he traveled to Florida and South Carolina beaches as an infant, this was the first time he really understood what he was seeing. I knew the trip was worthwhile when he grabbed my hand, those blue eyes big as saucers and said "Look, Mama! A sandbox!"

Mostly though, we spent the week in our condo. With a newborn who still only sleeps a few hours at a time, dinner to cook and laundry to do (turns out we probably needed 485 onesies) I can't say it truly felt like a vacation, at least not the kind I was used to. I won't hold it against Up North, given the unseasonable weather and the fact that it was our first major foray with both kids. We had a lovely time and made plenty of memories, but most of them were within the walls of the condo. From building Lego towers on the floor with Noah (of course I packed them!) and hearing him giggle every time he knocked them down, to seeing Cecilia's first tentative smiles (maybe that was just gas?) turn into all out gleeful, gummy grins, those are the moments I'll cherish.

Watching my kids grow and seeing the world through their eyes is by far the best trip I've ever taken. Despite the baggage (emotional and physical) I may drag along, it continues to take my breath away. The road certainly isn't easy, but whether it leads "Up North" or any other direction, I feel blessed to be along for the ride.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Growing Pains

I'll never forget the day: April 4, 2008. He was about nine months old and after weeks, maybe months of coaxing, pleading and prodding, Noah finally looked right at me and said it: Mama. Is there any sweeter music to a new mother's ears? It was his first "real" word and just like every other milestone in a child's life, with the obvious joy came the bittersweet, undeniable fact: my baby was growing up.

He's said it at least a million times since that morning. When he runs into my arms after a long day, they are the two most joyous syllables I've ever heard. Mama. When he's crying and needs comfort after falling down and scraping his knee, there's a raw vulnerability that nearly brings me to tears. Mama. At 6am when he decides he's ready to jump start the day, there's an innocent eagerness that makes me smile in spite of the fog of fatigue clouding my brain. Mama!

But out of the blue this past week, 2-year-old Noah changed the tune of my favorite maternal melody. As I dropped him off at daycare, he wriggled out of my arms, bolted for his waiting group of friends, and called out "Bye, Mom!" with a cursory wave in my general direction. "Mom?" I thought? Where did that come from? Surely not out of my baby's mouth?

And that isn't the only change. Over the past several weeks, my sweet little boy has gone from stringing five or six words together to keeping up his end of a full-on, all-out conversation. His clothing size is no longer measured in months, but years. He's gone from eating crayons to actually coloring with them. And we're even inching close to the Holy Grail of toddler milestones: ditching diapers for big boy pants. Has anyone seen my baby boy?

Doctors say when children go through growth spurts it puts pressure on the joints that can cause a great deal of pain, but most medical textbooks don't address the issue of parental growing pains. They are the aches that come as you realize your child has reached a new level of independence and will never need you in the same way again. It's the game of tug-of-war that pulls at your heart: pride in the accomplishment and a twinge of sadness as you welcome a new stage while simultaneously knowing there's no going back.

This past weekend my baby boy spent his first ever night away from home- a trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house. It's an experience I never got to have as a child so while I was thrilled for him, I still couldn't hold back the tears as I packed up his little Elmo suitcase. And once he left, once the unfamiliar sound of silence took over the house, I was more than a little bit lost.

I realize now that for the past two years I've subconsciously defined myself through my children. New Mom. Working Mom. Busy Mom. Mom of Two. Somewhat reluctant Stay at Home Mom? But as our children grow ever more independent we're forced to confront ourselves as ourselves. When you strip away the "Mom" or "Mommy" or "Mama" what remains? In my case, it's loneliness.

With the hectic noise of daily life it's been all too easy to drown out the truth, but somewhere between leaving my job, moving away from friends and family and a series of seemingly endless sleepless nights I've found myself isolated from pretty much everyone and everything I once knew. I haven't had the time or the inclination to make new friends (not the easiest task when you're in your mid-30s and one of the only "Career Women" on the block) and my husband and I have forgotten what it's like to talk about anything other than the kids. As difficult as it is to constantly be Mom, right now it's even harder to be Mona, and that's not healthy. So as my children slowly develop their independence, I'll have to find time to work on my own. No one ever said growing up was easy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Games We Play

Inside my son's toybox lies a world of fantasy. There are the blocks that transform into skyscrapers, toy airplanes just waiting to be flown to far off imaginary lands, dinosaurs ready to belt out prehistoric roars. Noah is only 2, so he's just starting to discover the wonderful world of make-believe. It's undeniably one of the best parts of childhood: escaping the confines of reality to be and do amazing things.

I can remember hours spent in my parents' backyard, digging for "fossils" in their rock garden. My childhood friend and I were no longer typical 7-year-olds, but paleontologists on a very important dig. Or all the rainy days we devoted to building "castles" out of pillows and couch cushions, donning our "princess gear" of blankets and sheets, only to have my older brother and his gang of guys bulldoze the entire village. As I now watch my son begin to explore his own imagination (he goes to "work" every morning. I'm not sure what his occupation is, but part of the job description appears to entail repeatedly opening and closing every door in the house.) it makes me nostalgic for those days of wonder, and makes me wonder why growing up means the end of make-believe. Or does it?

The more I think about it, the more I realize being a new parent involves a whole lot of playing pretend. Take sleep. On a good night my 6-week-old baby girl will go 3 hours between feedings. Of course it takes 30 minutes to feed her and another 30 for her to fall back asleep, then another 30 for me to fall back asleep so if I'm really lucky I can get a few 90 minute blocks of slumber. But after each sleep deprived night, when morning shows its not so lovely face, I pretend I actually have the desire to get out of bed. It's clearly a game all parents play, because when I'm asked "How's she sleeping these days?" and I answer honestly, I'm congratulated on this wonderful accomplishment. "Wow, 3 hours! That's great!" they say, slipping on their make believe masks. Yes, and in other fabulous news I may need a root canal, and it looks like we could have black mold in the basement! Oh, happy days!

When 2-year-old Noah drops his breakfast toast on the ground, I pretend the cleaning fairy has recently mopped, making a "5-second rule" feasible. When we watch Sesame Street, I pretend to not be totally creeped out by that bizarro Mr. Noodle, because of course my son adores him. And I accidentally drop a member of the Really Useful Crew who has wandered off the Island of Sodor and onto my kitchen island, I pretend to actually be able to differentiate between two seemingly identical talking, grinning tank engines. Of course that one is Gordon!! He thinks it's funny when I call him Thomas!

The fun and games don't stop there. There's the grown-up game of "Dress Up" which doesn't require a single sparkly tutu or fireman costume. Just close your eyes and pretend there's something in the closet that actually fits and doesn't have shoulder patches of spit-up. And then pretend that a t-shirt and sweat pants constitute real clothing! I find this is best played after pretending a quick swipe with a fresh diaper wipe is just as good as an actual shower, or that bouncing a colicky infant for an hour is comparable to a 6-mile run. The Samsonite-sized bags under my eyes? No problem-I just pretend I am half raccoon. And when I'm really in the mood to stretch my imaginary muscles, I pretend to actually recognize the woman in the mirror when I dare to glance that way.

But there's one thing I'll never have to pretend: I know for certain that as weary as I may feel and as dreary as I certainly look, my life is infinitely better for having these two tiny creatures in it. Even at the height of my make believe days, while playing "house" with Barbie and Ken and their imaginary offspring, I never could have imagined the kind of pure love my own children would one day bring to my real home. In all the games of "school" I played with my stuffed animals as students, I never dreamed that one day the little ones would lead the class, teaching me lessons about myself I never knew I needed to learn. So a big thank you to the world of make believe for allowing the dreams to begin, but the real world is where they truly come alive.