Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Tropical Christmas Gift

For the past two years, my husband and I have given each other (and our kids) a very special early Christmas present: a few weeks before Christmas, we get the heck out of town.

Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas almost as much as our toddlers, but now that the Holiday Season seems to begin around Arbor Day even I start to feel the Holiday Spirit begin to turn into Holiday Overload bordering on Holiday AHHHHH! by about the second week of December. Leaving for a week removes us temporarily from the decked halls and we come back just in time to enjoy the final buildup to big day. And did I mention we escape to a beautiful tropical island?

We book the trip early in the spring and look forward to it as the seasons change from summer to fall and to the unspeakable horror that (in my book) is Michigan winter. This year in the weeks leading up to our trip, our 3-year-old was almost as excited as we were, as he's become quite a water lover and couldn't wait to suit up and get his little self soaking wet.

My husband, who happens to be a 3-year-old at heart, couldn't wait to get in there with him. The two of them spent the better part of the week running in and out of the surf, jumping in the waves and splashing through the resort's many pools. Even our baby girl got in on the action, dipping her tiny toes in the water with squeals of delight.

I, however, mostly stayed dry, either watching the action from a not too distant lounge chair or supervising the sandcastle building action on terra somewhat firma. It's not that I don't love to swim- in fact, quite the opposite. I grew up with a pool right in the backyard and spent entire summers in the water, practically growing fins by the time Labor Day rolled around. The ideal summer wardrobe alternated between only two articles of clothing: pajamas and a bathing suit, and sleeping in the latter was not out of the question.

But something's changed since the kids came along. For me, swimming with a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old bares very little resemblance to the carefree, easy going activity I've always loved. Between the gallons of sunscreen, the flotation devices, the swim diapers, the toys, the snacks, and the sippy cups, just getting to the pool practically requires a sherpa. Then there's the stress of it all. Maybe it's the news reporter in me, having covered a few tragedies too many, or maybe it's just the overprotective Mother Hen instinct, but I simply can not let my guard down enough to enjoy the experience. The weight of keeping those two precious bundles afloat is enough to sink my spirits completely. So right now I choose to sit it out, attempting to drown my guilty conscience with a fruity tropical drink.

When you love something dearly the way I've always loved to swim, you tend to assume you will love sharing it and doing it with your children as well, but I'm learning reality is not always on board with that plan. In time, I know the kids will learn to swim and that the family water experience won't always leave me feeling all washed up. But until that happens I'm also learning to be OK with keeping the enjoyment of some experiences all to myself without slapping the scarlet G for guilt on the front of my bathing suit.

The other night at dinner, my husband I were reminiscing about the trip. "What was your favorite moment?" he asked.

I hesitated and had to bite my tongue. I really wanted to tell him it involved family bonding on the beach, or holding hands and watching the sunset over the water, or sharing laughs with our dear friends over cocktails and dinner.

Sure, those were magical moments, memories I'll always cherish, but if I'm going to be completely honest, totally candid, they don't quite float to to the top of the list.

No, my favorite part of our family vacation was the gift I gave myself. One sunny, warm afternoon when everyone had slipped into a post-lunch buffet nap/coma, I suited up, grabbed my towel, snuck out of the room and headed over to the pool. As I slipped into the water I feared the feelings might be gone forever, but after a few awkward splashes it was as effortless as I remembered. Back and forth I swam, letting the cool water take over and do its thing. I don't know how long it lasted, but it was long enough. Because for a moment suspended in crystal clear water and now cemented in my mind, I remembered how it felt to be utterly weightless and wonderfully free.

Merry Christmas to me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Packing for Vacation

My dad always used to say that he knew he was on vacation when he could finally take off his watch and leave it off. A busy doctor accustomed to working long shifts and being paged back to the hospital at all hours of the day and night, it usually took him several days to shake the work world and really and truly unwind. But sure enough, after a few walks on the beach and a few meals by the pool (a few beers never hurt, either) we'd see it: the watch parked next to the hotel bathroom sink. He didn't need to look at his watch to know what time it was: relax o'clock.

For me, vacation is all about the things that never even make it into the suitcase. If you could see into my bedroom right now (which I'm hoping you can't, that's just creepy) you'd probably be wondering what exactly didn't make it in, given the giant, bulging bag we'll be hauling to the airport. Not surprisingly, since we are traveling with our two young kids, my own possessions possess very little of the space inside that bag. I've spent the better part of a week packing diapers, wipes, swim diapers, clothes, toys, books, sippy cups, toys, bibs, toys, snacks and toys for two tots to take to the beach. Did I mention the toys? I think they are actually multiplying in the bag at this moment... I'm pretty sure I saw Thomas the Tank Engine making eyes at a Beanie Baby Bear as I attempted to force the zipper shut.

Still, despite the voluminous nature of the bag there are a few deliberate omissions. My trusty blowdryer and flatiron will not be making the trip south. I'll be subjecting an entire island nation to my giant, frizzy, unruly curls, with a mind of their own, which may explain any strange weather patterns that move through over the next 7 days.

Also not joining us: the laptop. And given that my phone could not be less "smart" that means no internet access for a week (Facebook friends, please pray for me). The gadgets and gizmos will stay home, and hopefully after a week we'll all be recharged with enough juice to get through the hustle and bustle that's still to come.

Given the exorbitant luggage fees the airlines are now charging, I thought it would be wise to leave some of my emotional baggage at home as well. That means I'm not bringing my nearly ever-present Mommy Guilt (the large, slightly haggard bag nagging "Why haven't I done enough to feed their minds, bodies, and spirits today? Have I scarred them emotionally forever with whatever decision I did or didn't make?), the Wife Guilt ("Did I even talk to my husband today about anything that didn't come out of a child's mouth or other orifice?"), the Daughter Guilt ("Maybe if I had just skipped that nap, you know the only one I've had in the past month, I could have made time to go visit my parents before we left?") and the Holiday Guilt ("I'm sure I could make things MORE festive if I just tried a little harder...").

There's no space in our luggage for my ongoing frustration over the lack of Me Time ("All I wanted was 1 freaking hour to get a pedicure before we left, is that seriously too much too ask?"), my neurotic fears ("But we can't go because something bad might happen while we're gone!") and my never ending quest for the "perfect" job that will provide personal and professional satisfaction and a pleasing work-life balance ("HA HA HA HA HA!!!"- that's the sound of the universe laughing its head off at me, in case you were wondering). Nope, no room.

So pat me down and scan me up. It's time to vacate, time for a change of mental and physical scenery. Yes, it's just a week and at the end of it we'll have to return to reality, but I'm praying I'll come home with a bag full of energy and optimism, or at the very least a nice tan.

And maybe, just maybe while we're there I'll find the strength to let go of everything, including my watch.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Confessions

Thanksgiving is upon us and the nation is preparing to loosen its collective belt. Yes, it's the holiday where friends and family gather to feast on heaping helpings of turkey with all the trimmings. They will stuff themselves with stuffing, mash as many mashed potatoes as possible into each mouthful, and slice up second (and third, maybe fourth in my family!) servings of the pie. And I will make myself a small, sensible plate.

People across the country see the day as the single biggest pigout of the year. A day to throw calorie counting caution to the wind and trade the skinny jeans for turkey pants. An all-you-can-eat extravaganza of the biggest kind. But for me, it's just another day to eat small, sensible portions.

Because that's just what I do.

Because I am a small, sensible person.

Which sometimes makes me feel like a big, huge bore.

Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas, Arbor Day, my birthday, or a fancy meal out I am not one to overindulge. Dressing on the side. Baked, not fried. Steamed veggies if available. One small, sensible glass of wine. A few small, sensible bites of dessert shared with my husband. BO-ring.

And it doesn't end there. I don't stay out past my bedtime. I rarely miss an early morning workout. (Have you crossed me off your party list yet?) Along with small and sensible, I am also sometimes described with terms like "dependable" and "reliable." Ooh, fun stuff.

It hasn't always been that way. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence neither small nor sensible. The child of Egyptian parents, I grew up in a culture where food is used as an expression of pretty much everything: gratitude, hospitality, guilt, sadness, you name it, we eat it on a big platter garnished with olives and a side of hummus. Add to that the loneliness of being a not particularly popular, latchkey kid, and I fed my late afternoon loneliness with a daily peanut butter and honey sandwich and whatever else I could find in the cupboard.

Never a slim child, by middle school I was pudgy. By high school, pudgier still. By college, my hair and my waistline had both expanded to ridiculous proportions. (A health condition and a year in France surrounded by the world's finest pastries were partly to blame.. at least for the pounds. There is no excuse for my hair.) But somewhere over the years that followed I started to take control.

First I tackled the food end of the scale (so to speak). I became a vegetarian and I'd be lying if I said the decision wasn't in part a reaction to the giant plates of meat shoved at me for the first two decades of my life. I started reading labels, cut out the junk, and discovered the joy of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

A passion for exercise came next. I got hooked on step aerobics in the early 90s, became a gym rat shortly after, and finally discovered running while searching out some much needed grad school stress relief. Through a combination of my two new loves, fitness and nutrition, I managed to drop the weight, get in shape, and aside from two pregnancies (where I gained a small, sensible 20-25 pounds) that's where I've stayed.

So what's the problem? Well, sometimes when you close a door, when you lock it tightly and barricade it shut, the effort of holding it closed begins to consume you. Though my weight has barely budged in over a decade (and I don't even own a scale) I devote enormous amounts of subconscious energy to thinking about gaining weight. I don't count calories or fat grams because I don't have to. There's an invisible line in the sand that my brain just won't let me cross. Not even on Thanksgiving. The little devil on one shoulder says "Go ahead, have some more!" but it falls on deaf ears. Though it's not realistic, in my mind, overindulging at Thanksgiving would just open up the floodgates and reverse everything I've worked so hard for. You can take the pudgy girl out of her husky pants, but you can't ever make her feel at home in a small, sensible shape.

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of what I've achieved and the healthy lifestyle I'm working hard to maintain for our family. I know we're living in a time of skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates and I want no part of that. My son could eat fruit until the end of time and one of my little girl's first words was actually "broccoli." Without being too militant about it (I hope) we're a whole grain, non-processed, no fast food, homecooked meals 6 out of 7 days/week kind of a household, and I want to keep it that way. I just wish I personally knew how to dial it back a little for a holiday.

I think there was a time when I was a lot of fun. Yes, that's me in the orange sequined dress, starring in a late night show at the Caribbean resort where I worked. Dare I say it, I was even a bit wild. I was also not a mom. And since that major life change, I've felt the lock in the door turn even more tightly. I feel like now that I have kids, I have a responsibility not just to myself but to them to keep the "bad stuff" away, to stay in control at all times.

But sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to let my hair down (which of course I cut into a short, sensible bob years ago) and just go a little bit crazy. I wonder if with all my sense and sensibility I've lost touch with my senses. I wonder if this Thanksgiving, I could dare to do something different. I wonder if I could show my kids another side, if I could teach them that letting go on special occasions can be... special.

Maybe this year I'll try. Maybe I'll surprise you. Maybe I'll surprise myself. In even just the smallest, most sensible way.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Sound Of Music"- The Soundtrack of Childhood

It's funny how you can't wait for your kids to say "Mama." You coax them constantly to produce those two syllables, and then when they finally do and you eventually get to the point where you wish that every once in a while they'd say something else.

I have two little ones who seem to call out "Mama!" (or something similar like "Mom!" or "Mommy" or "I need YOOOOOUUUU!!") all day long, and often into the night, and right back into the early morning hours.

When I was their age, I was probably just as likely to call out "Teta" as "Mama." That's the Egyptian word for "Grandma," which may seem like an unusual thing to call the Polish nanny who lived with us when I was a child, but she was anything but usual. She was the widow of an Egyptian man, the mother of 5 (including a very close family friend, which is how she came to be with us), real-life "teta" to 21 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. An amazing woman we were blessed to have in our home for several years and in our lives until her passing just a few months ago.

Teta was a marvel, to put it mildly. She spoke more languages than a diplomat and was as devout as any religious figure. Well into her 7th decade she sewed dresses for me and my brigade of dolls with fingers flying at lightning speed. She introduced me to the delicious crunch of steaming hot homemade potato pancakes topped with cool sour cream and applesauce. She taught me the simple power of praying the rosary. I didn't find out until after she died, but as a young girl she survived being held prisoner of war when the Germans invaded Austria, never to speak of the experience again.

One day circa 1978-ish, she decided to take me and my brother to the zoo, and nothing- not the lack of a driver's license or the scarcity of public transportation in the Motor City was going stop her from making it happen. We walked 2 miles before we found a bus stop, rode for over an hour, and on the way back she stopped to pick grapeleaves off a vine on the side of the road for dinner. It was classic Teta.

But there's one thing I remember most of all about our beloved Teta. Every year, around this time of year, she would pull her chair up close to the TV, closer each time as her eyesight faded. "Mon Mon!" she would call out in her deep, heavily accented voice, "Come see! The Zonc of Moosic!"

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music
And there we'd sit watching what became my favorite movie- The Sound of Music. Together we'd see the hills come alive, laugh at the exploits of the Von Trapp children, hum "Edelweiss" along with the gang. In the scene where Maria and the Captain finally wed, Teta would turn to me and say "Mon Mon! One day you will have a bootiful wedding like this!" It took almost 30 years but I'm happy to say she was right, and she was there to see it happen (I'm also happy no one was singing "How do you solve a problem like Mona?" as I walked down the aisle.)

Around the time I started school full-time, Teta left us and went back to her own home. Though she still visited often, I missed her dearly and found little comfort in the string of college and high school babysitters who took her place. To curb the sadness I came up with a fantasy that stuck around for many years: I imagined that every time the doorbell rang, it was Maria Von Trapp from the Sound of Music (or perhaps a slightly more modern version) showing up to be our Governess. No, I didn't want her to fall in love with my dad or take my mom's place, I just wanted her around on a part-time basis to fill the lonely hours after school, someone to keep me company on the weekends when everyone in our house seemed so busy with their own pursuits.

Whenever the loneliness really started to take over, I'd slip into my little Austrian musical fantasy world to sing and dance the pain away. Sometimes I was Gretl, the baby of the family, too young to stay up for the fancy dinner party. Sometimes I was 16 going on 17, with a schoolgirl crush on a boy named Rolf (of course in my fantasy he didn't turn out to be a Nazi). If I could have, I would have crossed the Alps on foot to somehow make it come true. "The Zonc of Moosic" was always calling out to me, always with a heavy Polish accent. I watched the movie whenever it was on, but it just wasn't the same without Teta.

I spent my junior year in college living in Paris and couldn't pass up the opportunity to get that close to the Promised Land.

Salzburg, Austria 1992
Yes, I shelled out for the deluxe Sound of Music Tour in Austria. We danced around the famous gazebo, and ran around the fountain singing "Doe a deer" (you can stop laughing at my giant, triangular hair now, thank you very much). I wanted to stay forever, except that Maria was still nowhere to be found. It was a bittersweet delight.

This year The Sound of Music celebrates its 45th anniversary. I watched the cast reunite on Oprah with great anticipation. I admit to getting a bit misty eyed seeing the Von Trapp children all grown up, amazed that they dared to deviate from the fantasy frozen in my head. But as they showed clip after clip from the movie, I realized it no longer made me sad, no longer left me longing to escape my current life.

I'll always cherish that movie and will no doubt torture my kids into watching it with me. And I'll always hear a loving but firm Polish voice calling me towards it. But now, I've got a new "Sound of Music" in my life, a different song in my heart.

It calls out "Mama" all day long.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Falling Down And Getting Back Up

She bends her legs, grunts, uses every bit of strength in her tiny body and pulls herself up to standing.

The grin that follows says it all: triumphant! So proud of herself, she looks around to see who might be watching. "Check me out! Look what I've done! Have you ever seen anything so impressive?" she seems to say.

As quickly as it happened, it's over. The little legs give out, she topples down onto her bottom, and giggles hysterically.

And then she does it all over again.

There's nothing much more entertaining than watching children learn to stand, or to be more exact, watching them fall. I marvel as I see my baby girl take those first tentative steps toward taking steps, and wish I could be more like her.

For a baby, not only is falling down not a big deal, it's downright enjoyable. In a baby's eyes, falling down is just part of the adventure, another part of the cycle. For babies, failure to stand doesn't translate to failure. Failure as we know it doesn't even exist. (It also doesn't hurt that everyone watching applauds the effort and encourages another attempt.)

At some point that changes. I can already see it beginning to happen with my 3-year-old, as frustration creeps in and tries to block his best efforts. He stacks his Legos into a tower but when it comes crashing down he no longer finds it funny, and needs to be reminded (through his tears and tantrums) that he can in fact put it back together, if he'll just try again.

I've had a few setbacks recently, I've taken a few falls both professionally and personally. There was the job that was offered that I couldn't take. Another job I dreamed of that was never even offered. The phone call I waited for that never came. Frustrations with a family member that don't seem to be easing up. Surprising behavior from someone I thought was a friend. With each stumble, it's been feeling harder and harder to get back up and start over again. I like to think of myself as a positive person, I like to believe I've learned how to pull myself back up when need be. But right now it's a struggle. I find myself thinking it's easier to just sit still rather than risk another fall.

As we get older, falling down seems to become so much more painful, and getting back up so much more of an effort. Is the ground really that much further away? Or do we just know too much about the risks of what lurks below?

I've never been one who suffered from a fear of failure, or someone who shied away from an opportunity. I don't want to start now- what message would that send to my kids? It's time to get back up, to focus on standing without overthinking the whole act.

So as I watch my little one on a seemingly endless loop of scrambling to her feet, tumbling down, laughing it off and starting over, I make a promise to that sweet baby girl:

I will hold your hand and help you to stand, I will try to always be there to cushion your fall, if you will keep teaching me how to get back up.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The infamous cup.
It's just a cup. Now breathe.

That's what I tell myself four times a day, as I scrub out a certain little red sippy cup with flowers on the side. It's just a cup. Keep breathing.

It's not a symbol of what my life has become, it's not a force of evil in the world, it's not something I want to throw against the wall. Much. It's just a cup. So relax.

But I can't relax, because it's the only cup my little girl will drink her milk out of (yes, I realize I am indulging this particular bit of pickiness on her part but you pick your battles, and no, I can't find another cup like it because believe me, if I could I would buy 37 of them), so I have to keep it clean, I have to keep scrubbing it out. Over and over. All day long. Week after week. Which turns into months. And then I close my eyes and see myself 30 years from now, gray haired and wrinkly and still standing over the sink scrubbing out this stupid cup which is of course ridiculous because by then my baby girl will be 31 and if she's still living at home and drinking out of a sippy cup we have big issues and now I'm feeling dizzy so I really need to just breathe....

It's just a cup.

But it's also a constant reminder of the routine that has taken over my life. And just how routine that routine can sometimes feel.

Experts tell us that routines are good, even essential, for kids. The predicability of a routine (bath, bottle, bed for babies; dinner, homework, family time for older kids, etc) teaches kids about expectations and outcomes, and helps them build confidence and a sense of security while reducing anxiety. Routines are healthy, routines are important. And sometimes routines make me want to throw up.

Our two kids are now 3 years and 16 months old and it's hard to argue with the results of the structure and routines we've provided them with. They eat well, play well, and sleep well, and I'm sure much of that is due to the fact that those things happen on cue at the same time almost every day. Sure, there are exceptions and adjustments for special occasions, but for the most part we stick to the routine.

Routines are definitely not something that were part of my own childhood. With 2 busy, working parents my brother and I were often left to fend for ourselves with a teenage babysitter who occasionally glanced up from watching General Hospital to make sure we didn't climb out any windows. Aside from church on Sunday, our lives didn't have a whole lot of structure. And that was OK with me.

As it turned out, I never became a big planner or or one to stick to a firm routine, and working in TV news fed my unstructured side perfectly. From the sublime (helping bring injustices to light) to the ridiculous (I once covered the rescue of 7 ducks from a sewer), every day was different (often changing in the middle of the day), I never knew what to expect walking in the door. And that was more than OK with me.

But balancing that routine with family life proved untenable for me. I spent a difficult year after our first child was born trying to prove I really could have it all, really could do it all. In reality working weekend nights and swing shifts so we could afford a nanny, never having time off with my husband, prepping dinner in the dark at 6am, and trying to cram all my Mommy Moments into 48 hours (along with cleaning the house, visiting my parents, and going to the grocery store) was slowly sucking the life out of my life. It took a confession to my husband- that I sometimes fantasized about having to have my appendix removed or a minor car accident so I could get some rest- to make me realize this was not at all OK with me anymore.

Shortly before our second child was born I made the decision to leave the full-time work world. Over lunch with one of my stay at home mom neighbors I attempted to share my fears about the transition but found myself running into a mental wall. "But you'll be so busy running after two kids!" she insisted. I told her I honestly worried about the monotonous nature of life with two kids might turn my brain (what was left of it) to mush. I've barely heard a word from her since.

Now, I've been home for 17 months and life has never been more routine. Make breakfast, clean up breakfast. Make lunch, clean up lunch. Nap time. Laundry time. Snack time. Dinner time. Bed time. Fill the sippy cup, scrub the sippy cup. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yes, our days are filled with love and laughter, giggles and bubbles, trips to the park and the zoo and all sorts of different adventures. But there's also a whole lot of the same.

Something has to change, and I'm not just talking about the sippy cup. Somewhere between "footloose and fancy free" and "If it's Tuesday it must be time to clean the toilets" there must be a middle ground. I am finding myself bored and restless, in need of a challenge, but lacking the time or energy to even begin to figure out what that might be. The kids need their routine, and I'll do everything in my power to keep them in it, but I need more as well. Admitting that may make me less of a mom in the eyes of some, but it makes me more of myself in my own and that's all that matters.

I don't know what the solution is yet, but I'm committed to finding it. Somewhere there must be a routine that will work for all of us, at least most of the time. Somehow, the (sippy) cup can be half-full again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just One Of Those Days

Noah and Cecilia in Non-Grump Mode
It was just one of those days.

One of those days when the occupants of the house included a grumpy preschooler, a grumpier baby and the grumpiest mom. It seemed we had all woken up on the wrong side of the bed (or crib). At least one of us was sleep-deprived (gotta love working nights), another was cutting a tooth, and the third, well, he's 3, so enough said. Together, our grumpy trio grumped through the day, feeding off each others negative energy like a child (at least my child) tears through Goldfish crackers. By mid-morning we could have hung a sign outside designating our house as Tears R Us. Most of lunch ended up being thrown under the table, which is also where I considered throwing myself at several points. By naptime it was all I could do not to scream "GO TO SLEEP, #$%& it!!!" but somehow managed to tuck them both in with a story, a kiss, and a weak, shaky "Sweet dreams."

Finally, a break.

It lasted about 6 minutes.

The little angel who naps 3 hours/day and sleeps 12 hours/night (yes, I know- we are spoiled) decided to Just Say No to naptime. Repeatedly. And loudly. I calmed her down and gently placed her back in the crib. Nap, Take 2.

This time, it lasted about 6 seconds.

After a seemingly interminable stretch of rocking, back rubbing, singing and shushing, we had a breakthrough. Nap, Take 3. I tiptoed backwards out of the room, quietly opened the door and was instantly greeted by shrieks of "MAMA!!!!! I HAVE TO GO POOPOO!!!!" from the room next door.

Scream went the baby! Scream went her brother! RUN FAR AWAY! went the little voice in my head.

Noah's current favorite nap location

Another 20 minutes and the screams had been calmed, the poop had been pooped, and the now relieved preschooler was tucked back on the floor. Yes, the floor- it's where he currently insists on napping. Like I said, he's 3.

Baby, however, was adhering to the "3 strikes and you're out of the crib" rule. In her mind, there was no going back.

I tearfully stood there holding her, unable to move. I was so very, very tired, so thoroughly in need of a little downtime, a few peaceful minutes with no one pulling at one of my appendages. Defeated, depressed, and downtrodden, I carried her to my room, crept into bed, and held that little one to my chest. Within 2 minutes we were both sound asleep.

Seems like only yesterday
My little baby girl is now almost 16 months old. Though I still call her a baby (and in my heart she will always remain my baby), I can see clearly that she no longer is. At some point I blinked and she turned into a talking, almost walking, highly opinionated little person. When awake, she's a constant ball of motion, but yesterday I got to once again feel her at rest. It had been months since I held her sleepy little form in my arms and felt her heartbeat next to mine, her little chest rising and falling against my own.

I only slept for a few minutes, as her jerky little sleepy twitches woke me with a start. But for a time I wished could have gone on and on I breathed in her sweet smell, ran my fingers through her hair, and just held on to that precious baby girl. It was the best non-nap I've ever had.

Every parent reaches his or her breaking point, and every parent deserves a break. The lucky ones have a network of grandparents, friends, and babysitters at the ready to provide that much needed pause. The rest of us find ourselves waiting (sometimes desperately) for that moment of solitude that with kids becomes so elusive (remember when going to the bathroom was a private affair?).

But sometimes when the unexpected happens (as it so often does), it helps to remember that what we so desperately crave can be found in places we might not usually think to look. It happened to me. I found peace, comfort and strength in a non-nap with a wriggly, wiggly non-baby.

It was just one of those days.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Parenting and social networking

There's no use beating around the bush, so I'll just come right out and say it: I spend a lot of time on Facebook. This will not be shocking to most of you, who are my Facebook friends (Hi, by the way) and are reading this via an update on my Facebook page, since you also spend a lot of time on Facebook. Let's face it, social networking is slowly taking over the world. It has changed everything from pop culture to corporate culture and it's certainly having an influence on parenting. We're now sharing the scores of soccer games via mobile updates and posting our albums of memories online for all (of our friends, and potentially friends of our friends depending on our account settings) to share But I've noticed that not everyone Facebook parents in the same way, not even on the same day. So I've taken the liberty of putting together a list of some of the types and styles of parents you might find in your friend list:

1. Super Moms. They tend to post in the very early hours of the morning ("14 mile workout done, now on to whip up a fresh veggie strata before taking the kids to Japanese class! Growing my own hydroponic produce saves soooooo much time! Konichiwa, friends!") or very late at night ("What a day!!! Had to finish sanding and varnishing the scenery for the preschool play before work and was late for my big lunch meeting! Who knew 3 former presidents could get so snippy?") The Super Moms make me laugh, mostly because I'm completely certain life on the other side of the status update is not nearly as perfect as it may seem. Unfortunately, the Super Moms seem to be coming at parenthood from a competitive (albeit passive aggressive) place, which can bring out the insecurities (and the claws) in the best of us. I try to hold back, but sometimes I admit to firing back out of spite with a Slacker Mom comment of my own ("Baby is eating 3-day old peas coated with dirt off the floor. Bonus: extra fiber!" or "Someone remind me, is letting your child run with a staple gun also a no-no, or is it just scissors?").

2. Way TMI Moms. I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg never imagined the level of sharing his social network would create, but for some reason this group feels the need to let it ALL out. "Send good thoughts our way- Hubby's finally having that hemorrhoid procedure today and that sucker is the size of a concord grape!" AHHHH! STOP! And for the love of all that is private, step away from the Mobile Uploads! Boundaries, my friends. We all need them, even on Facebook.

3. New Moms. As new of a parent as you might be, and as lost as you may feel someone out there is newer and lost-er. It's all a matter of perspective. So when New Mom posts that she's packing up to take her 8-week-old baby to the park for the first time and is terrified, go ahead comment. New Mom will benefit from your experience, and you will benefit from not feeling like such a clueless moron for 3 seconds of your day. And when New Mom complains about never being able to get anything done, despite the fact she has just 1 child... who naps... you will want to yell, "Seriously???" but hold back, because we have all been there, and done that. Which brings me to...

4. BTDT Moms. They have Been There, Done That, and the phrase tends to dominate their comments. Your post that your baby puked on your favorite suit as you were rushing to work. "Yup, been there, done that." Up all night with a feverish child. "Been there, done that, still doing that 10 years later!" Your toddler painted some lovely "artwork" on the bathroom wall while making a "deposit" on the potty? "Been there, done that, buy stock in Clorox ASAP." That's the amazing thing about parenthood: no matter how stressful, how disgusting, how difficult it gets (and it certainly does), all those who went before us are proof that it is completely survivable.

5. The Sanctimommies. They have a strong opinion on every aspect of raising a child, with supporting evidence and a citation from a parenting book to back it up. They are preachy, preachy, preachy and judgy, judgy, judgy. Most of the time they make me want to hurl, but occasionally they raise a valid point. Very occasionally.

6. Non-Moms. They will LOL at your funny child stories, they will OMG at your adorable baby pics. And bless their child-free hearts, they will remind you that there is in fact a world where everyone wipes his/her own butt and that "date" is not necessarily preceded by "play." You, in turn will be their best form of birth control.

7. Dads. It's 2010 and certainly we've made great strides toward equality of the sexes, but it's still amazing how little a man needs to do on the domestic front for us to ooh and ahhh over his accomplishments. "Took the kids to school today" will instantly generate at least 7 "likes." When Dad so much as hints that he is attempting to put in a barrette in his little girl's hair, the heavens open up. Just roll your eyes and hold your tongue. They're sensitive creatures who require lots of encouragement.

8. Your own mom. Yes, she will have trouble navigating the site (When my mom received a number of birthday greetings on her wall, she angrily accused me of letting the cat out of the bag, unaware that her friends all saw it on their news feeds) and yes, she will comment on all your pics in her own special way (THE KIDS ARE GETTING SO BIG WHY DON'T YOU EVER BRING THEM TO SEE ME I GOT SOME BANANAS FROM COSTCO FOR A VERY GOOD PRICE I WILL SAVE YOU SOME LOVE MOM), but there's something very circle-of-life-ish to having your mom in your social network. Enjoy it, be entertained by it, and be thankful she's still around to drive you crazy.

So what's my parenting profile pic? Maybe a little bit of each (aside from those which are genetically impossible) on any given day, in any given status or comment thread. For me, Facebook is about as social as I want to get about parenting. On Facebook, I have 717 friends, many of whom are moms. In the "real" world I don't (largely by choice) associate much with other moms. I don't do Moms' Groups, playgroups or support groups. I don't have any desire to do lunch with the ladies and dish about our kids. I know there are many women who crave and need that kind of interaction- I just don't happen to be one of them. Perhaps it will change as my kids get older, but right now I still feel like a novice in this parenting adventure, and I've always preferred to fly solo. Facebook allows me to have it my way. When I'm online and the judgy judgers start getting too judgy, I "hide" them. This is not so easily done over grilled cheese sandwiches. When it starts feeling like every mom is more accomplished, more productive, more everything than I am, their children so much more whatever than mine, I log off. In the real world I watched two moms nearly come to blows over a sign-up list outside the preschool classroom and wanted to run screaming and never return. Social networking gives me the outlet I need to vent, to laugh, and to share, but on my terms, and I think I'm a better parent as a result. Maybe that's not reality, but this is: parenting is hard work, and right now I get by with a little help (or maybe a lot, depending on my mood) from my (Facebook) friends.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

But I don't want to be a Soccer Mom!

Noah Shand at his 1st soccer practice
As a news reporter I've been called a lot of things, many of them not fit to print. Right now I answer to some kinder names, among them Mama, Mommy, Moooooommmm (said with hands on hips and eyes rolling- and he's only 3, Lord help me!), Meemee (when a certain 15-month-old really wants my attention), and on those very rare occasions when I'm able to converse with a bona fide adult, Mona. But there's one name I was called recently that made me shudder. It shook me up and made me stop in my tracks. It rocked me to my very core. That 4-letter word which actually contains 9 letters and comprises 2 words was none other than Soccer Mom.

Now you should know that we live in a soccer town. It's a place where every Saturday morning the town with no real traffic develops a major traffic jam, as hundreds of uniform-wearing, cleat-clad kids, their parents, and their parents vehicles descend upon the fields with one "goal" in mind: soccer. When we first toured our town with our realtor, it was yet another thing we loved. There was even a soccer supply store on Main St., for goodmess sakes! At the time I was pregnant with our first child, and my husband (a former soccer player) and I happily moved to Soccer Town with dreams of the day we'd join the Saturday herds.

A few weeks back we sealed the deal: I signed our 3-year-old son up with the local recreation league and picked up his uniform. "Congratulations, you're now officially a Soccer Mom!" the woman behind the desk called out cheerfully as we turned to leave. Frozen, my brain tried to put together the words "Thank you," but think it came out more like "Whabba wifup." Soccer Mom? Me? I think not.

I tried to brush it off but the frustration began to eat at me, so I took the issue to the modern day therapist's couch: Facebook. "Mona just picked up Noah's soccer uniform and his first practice is Saturday," I updated, "but so help me if you call me a Soccer Mom I will kick your teeth in."

So why does one term, one combination of sport and relationship evoke such a visceral response? At the suggestion of one of my therapists (OK, a Facebook friend), I decided to explore. Wikipedia defines the term as "a middle-class, suburban woman who spends a significant amount of time transporting her school-age children to their sporting events or other activities," (OK, I don't see anything terribly wrong with that) and goes on to talk about the rise of the Soccer Mom as a political force circa 1995 (still OK... power to the moms!), including various permutations like the post-9/11 Security Moms (now we might be pushing it) and the Sarah Palin-inspired Hockey Moms (not my cup of tea, and certainly not my kind of tea party, but OK).

Urban Dictionary is not quite as kind, including in its definitions of Soccer Mom "The downfall of human society," "a waste of body cells," and "usually seen screaming at people from behind the wheel of her SUV." Wow.

While that is certainly extreme, but to be completely honest the real issue for me is that Soccer Mom is a little too close, maybe even synonymous with another term I've been unable to accept: Stay At Home Mom. Believe me, I don't think there's anything wrong with staying at home, in fact quite the opposite. When I was working I convinced myself that I wasn't missing much at home, but now that I actually am home (and only working part-time, mostly at night and on weekends) I realize how wrong I was. It's simultaneously incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding, but it just isn't how I ever pictured myself. Despite having lived and worked in 6 different countries and nearly every part of this one, the move to Soccer Town and Stay At Home Momville has been the most difficult so far. Try as I might to hang with the SAHM crew, a little voice inside keeps screaming "But I'm not like you!" I've playdated, pampered my inner chef and gone (book) clubbing with the ladies, but the voice is still there. And I'm pretty sure the other women have voices of their own screaming "But she's not like us!" Anyone who says the Mommy Wars are over needs to come spend a few days in my 'hood. But maybe if we stopped screaming at each other from inside our heads and started talking about it out loud, we'd make some progress toward a ceasefire.

As a coping mechanism, I think I've started to subconsciously reject anything that smells of that unfamiliar world. Baking cookies? Gross. (Even though I do in fact love to bake.) Driving an SUV? Disgusting. (Even though I drive the SUV's first cousin, the crossover.) Carting my kids around to activities in the hopes of enriching their minds and bodies? I don't have time! (That's of course because I have to drive my son to preschool and then go to Story Time at the library with my little girl.)

So does Mom + Soccer = Soccer Mom? Does Mom + Home = Stay At Home Mom? And even if that's the math, do the labels matter? In an ideal world, I'd say no, but that's not where we live. For now I'm working on accepting where I currently am, instead of dreaming of being somewhere else. And I don't want to be late for soccer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Driving in a new direction

When I first met my husband, he had 3 vehicles: one zippy little car he drove on a regular basis, a truck for when conditions called for a bit more zap, and a classic car (aka The Green Beast) that was in need of zip, zap, and ze other before it would even consider starting up. Early in our relationship I pointed out his car-to-human ratio seemed a bit askew, but he was quick to note that I was pushing the limits with the feline population of my household. So when Car Guy married Cat Girl, we vowed to love, honor, and not acquire anything else that purred or hummed.


Groom's cake

At the time, I drove a dime-a-dozen silver SUV. Despite growing up on the outskirts of the Motor City, cars have just never been my thing, never anything more than a way to get from Point A to B. But when you say "I do" to an automotive engineer, you soon develop an appreciation for the finer points of the vehicular world (at least you try really, really hard not to let your eyes glaze over completely during car-related conversations), and eventually find yourself snapping photos of the parts your loved one designed like they are newborn family members, because they kind of are. You resign yourself to the fact that you are a Garage Widow on many weekend afternoons, but feel comforted knowing that if the new issue of Car and Driver magazine happens to arrive on the same day as the Victoria's Secret catalogue, those women might as well be wearing burqas for all he sees.

Fast forward 7 years and my how things have changed. The truck is gone, and sadly so is one of our feline family members. We traded in the SUV (with nearly 200,000 miles on it- thank you, Ford!) for a safe, reliable, family mobile, to which Car Guy insisted we add 20-inch wheels for a bit of style. And a few years back, the zippy little car was upgraded to a sleek, high performance piece of machinery affectionately dubbed "The Blue Rocket." It was the car of Car Guy's dreams, the one he'd always coveted, the one for which he had reserved one of the deepest tokens of modern day male admiration: he had made it his screensaver.

Though it was born to race on the Autobahn, the Blue Rocket adapted well to life in Metro Detroit, keeping Car Guy company on his short-in-distance but long-on-traffic commute. The two were inseparable and Car Guy spent many long hours just gazing at the Rocket's innards. It was not unusual to find two size-10 feet sticking out from underneath the vehicle, and I learned after my first panic attack that silence simply meant he was in awe. I even tried not to get too jealous of the caresses exchanged in the weekly sponge bath. Yes, for a time the Blue Rocket fit nicely into the Shand family fold.

And then one day, it didn't. Looking back, it wasn't really all that sudden, just something that happened over the course of one move to the 'burbs, two kids, and a few job changes. Turns out the back seat of the Blue Rocket isn't actually designed to comfortably hold a rear-facing baby and a front-facing preschooler in their respective car seats. Also turns out the orange, highly adhesive substance formed when child slobber meets goldfish cracker is not so easily removed from a Blue Rocket's pristine interior. With the move, Car Guy's commute to work was now a long distance haul, and the high performance, premium fuel only vehicle became a massive money suck. And speaking of sucking money, repairing one's high performance, premium fuel only vehicle will set your family budget back a pretty penny (and by that I really mean the cost of cruising the Caribbean...in a deluxe cabin...twice). It was time to sell.

In the meantime, Car Guy managed to get the old Green Beast (which was the first car he ever purchased) up and running, and decided to sell that, too. Though at one point he had dreamed of future tinkering with his son (aka Car Boy, who at age 3 can already name the make and model of most cars he sees), he realized he get more enjoyment out of being able to give a tricycle its very own parking spot in the garage. The Green Beast was just taking up space, both physical and emotional.

Buyers for both cars came quickly, and before we knew it we faced the possibility of being sans car for Car Guy, as his fuel-efficient, family friendly vehicle of choice wouldn't be available for a few months. Enter my dad's car, which is currently sitting unused in his driveway, as he is no longer physically able to drive. We arranged to borrow it and drove over to pick it up last week. As we returned home that evening, Car Guy in my dad's car, me and the kids in mine, I found myself feeling unexpectedly emotional. It started with a tear as we backed out the driveway and picked up speed to a sob nearly as fast as the car cruised down the highway.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not upset over the loss of these cars. While I do feel a little sad my husband is giving up something he worked for and loves, I'm proud of him for recognizing it's time to move on, and I know he wouldn't trade the life we have today for anything on 4 wheels. But much like a certain car company that will remain nameless, I think I'm having trouble with life's sudden acceleration. As I watched my husband drive away in my dad's car, I realized the person who has always sat in the driver's seat no longer can. As I looked in the rearview mirror at my sleepy babies, I suddenly felt completely unprepared to take the wheel. All I wanted to do was stop the car, crawl into the comfort and security of a rear-facing seat and fall fast asleep, dreaming of the way things once were. But it's my responsibility now to drive on, and so I did, tears and all.

I've seen firsthand that holding onto things when they no longer serve a purpose in your life doesn't do any good. My parents still insist on staying in the house we grew up in, even though it no longer physically suits their needs. It's now far too big, far too cluttered, far too much to maintain, and on the verge of needing massive repairs. As I watch them struggle to even walk up the stairs and see the patio where we use to play crumbling away, it no longer feels like a place that honors happy memories- it's become a sad reminder of what no longer is.

I remember when my dad taught me to drive, more than two decades ago. "Your main focus is what's in front of you," he said, pointing at the road. "But you need to keep glancing right here," he warned as he adjusted my rearview mirror, "or you will be hit from behind." Now I understand exactly what he meant.

In some ways we're currently driving through unfamiliar territory and sometimes I'm quite frankly terrified of the road ahead. There's no map that explains how to grow up, how to raise your kids, how to cope with the suffering of a parent. I don't know exactly where we're heading, but I do know it sure feels good to have a Car Guy by my side.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Noah's First Day of Preschool

Once upon a time there was a sweet, towheaded little 3-year-old boy. By all accounts he was an exceptionally happy little guy, precocious and bright as they come. The little boy was adored by his family and spent many blissful hours at home with his trains and trucks. But then came the day that would begin to change and shape the little boy's world forever: his first day of preschool.

His mommy was told she was supposed to be sad. She was told she was even supposed to cry. She read many a post and saw many a picture on Facebook describing this tearful moment in detail. But the little boy's mommy felt a bit like the Wicked Witch because she was not sad, not at all.

The little boy's mommy was also told she was supposed to subject herself to much stress and consternation in selecting a preschool for the little boy, but she didn't do that either. The little boy's mommy has faith in the fine school district in the little boy's town, and thus feels confident the community education preschool program will be just fine. More than fine. The little boy's mommy was typically a major Type-A, overachiever personality, but found herself increasingly annoyed by the concept of parenting as a competitive sport that seemed to run rampant in this particular corner of the kingdom.

In fact, the little boy's mommy almost lost it at her book club when some other little boys' and girls' mommies gasped and insisted a certain preschool was "the BEST!" and that the little boy's mommy needed to put her little boy's name on the big long waiting list immediately. But when the little boy's mommy questioned them about what made it the best (curriculum? accreditation? student-teacher ratio?) the other little boys' and girls' mommies could not provide anything other than "because everyone knows it's the best." So the little boy's mommy waved her magic wand and poof! She made the book club disappear from her calendar.

So why wasn't the little boy's mommy sad about this momentous milestone? She was too excited, and so was he. Well, there was that slight misunderstanding when the little boy's mommy told him he would be in the "Bear Room" at preschool and the little boy cried and cried because he feared he would be the only little boy in a room full of bears. But the little boy's mommy dried his tears, explained the situation and whipped up a mystical, magical concoction of chocolate and dough and all was forgotten.

The little boy's mommy was excited because she just knew this was the start of something amazing. You see, the little boy's mommy still feels butterflies when she sees a brand new box of Crayola crayons, the one with 64 different colors and the built-in sharpener on the side. The little boy's mommy's toes still tingle when she remembers slipping her feet into a new pair of Stride Rite saddle shoes, carefully measured to ensure at least one thumb's room to grow. The little boy's mommy smells the exhaust of a passing school bus and is transported back to a faraway land where the coolest of the cool kids sat in the WAY back (the little boy's mommy sat in the front) on the ride to that other kingdom.

And though the little boy's mommy knows all too well that the other kingdom is not always ruled by the kindest of rulers, and though she dreads that moment the little boy bumps his head or skins his knee and she is not there to "fix" it with kisses, though she fears the loss of control that comes with sending him out of the confines of his stuffed animal filled room, the little boy's mommy remains so excited about what is to come.

That's because the little boy's mommy knows that school is where he needs to go. The little boy's mommy knows that the journey that begins with brightly colored blocks and little seeds growing in paper cups and line leaders will help build the little boy's future, nourish his mind, and direct his future.

And while the little boy's mommy hopes she will always be the little boy's primary teacher, she acknowledges that she herself has so much to learn. The little boy's mommy will always love being his playmate, but knows her job is not to be his best friend. As the little boy's mommy prays the other little boys and girls will be nice to her little boy, she knows the world is not always kind, and that is one of the most important lessons and difficult lessons the little boy will ever learn (aside from how to diagram a sentence, which the little boy's mommy really hopes is still taught because the little boy's mommy fears that the way things are going the little boy's first spelling word might be LOL or OMG). The little boy's mommy wants her little boy to fill his little head with as much information as it can hold, and still come back wanting more. Forever and ever, happily ever after school and before school and during school.

So the little boy's mommy will load up his Thomas the Tank Engine backpack and pack some kleenex for herself, just in case she changes her mind about the whole crying thing. And then, hand in hand, the little boy and his mommy will set forth on this grand adventure called school.

And thus this tale concludes without a typical ending, in fact with no ending at all.

Happy first day of school, little boy.

The Beginning.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Encountering Giraffes

If you live in the metro Detroit area, you've probably seen some form of the ad campaign launched by the Detroit Zoo regarding its "Giraffe Encounter." The photos depict happy, smiley children standing face-to-face with nature's tallest creatures in the rare opportunity to feed a giraffe- who wouldn't want to do that? I pictured my children, 3-year-old Noah and 14-month-old Cecilia grinning brightly as they broke bread (or the giraffe equivalent) with their new giant friends. I could even picture the pictures I would take! Perhaps this would solve the annual Christmas photo card dilemma! What could be cuter than my two little monkeys happily feeding a giraffe? Perhaps I would caption the photo "Merry Christmas from our neck of the woods!" But first back to August, which is when my brother and 4-year-old niece decided to come to Michigan for a visit, and we knew what we had to do: Encounter Giraffes.

I had not yet taken my animals to the Detroit Zoo as it is quite large and I feared it might be too much for them (and me). But we had made several trips to the smaller, more manageable Potter Park Zoo in Lansing with varying levels of success. In general, Noah loves animals, as long as they don't get too close. Or make too much noise. Or sudden movements. So basically he likes pictures of animals in books. So he generally enjoys our trips to the zoo, but he's exactly begging for more. Cecilia on the other hand, would like to reach out and cover every animal she sees in copious amounts of baby slobber. She managed to maximize her budding vocabulary by efficiently dividing the animal kingdom into 2 categories: Bears and Ducks. Anything furry with a face (including, but not limited to bears, cats, dogs, bunnies, certain family members) is a "Bea," while hairless creatures (ducks, frogs, hippos, certain other family members) are in the Ducky species (pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable: /duk-EE/). She really seems to love going to the zoo, except for the whole being trapped in the stroller thing. But of course they will love the Giraffe Encounter, I reassured myself.

Coordinating this excursion took slightly less advance planning than the invasion of Normandy. My brother and I exchanged a series of emails, mostly trying to decipher the vague information given on the zoo's website. Between the two of us we have over a dozen years of higher education, yet we were still unable to figure out how to have a Giraffe Encounter. You'll note that the website doesn't actually indicate when the giraffes actually eat, only that 50 people/session will be allowed to feed them the special $5 "giraffe food item." Urban legend (other moms) had led me to believe we had to be at the zoo promptly when the gates opened if we wanted to secure the highly coveted tickets to Encounter Giraffes. But what if it turned out the giraffes weren't hungry? What if they sold out? I spent 45 minutes listening to hold muzak trying unsuccessfully to get those answers. The more I dug for information, the less clear it became, and the more crazed I began to feel. It might as well have been a Tickle Me Elmo on Christmas Eve. Oh, you better believe we would Encounter Giraffes.

Eventually, my brother was able to get an actual human on the phone who explained that the giraffes are fed at 11am and 1pm, and thus our battle plan emerged: my brother and niece who had a much shorter commute to the zoo, would get there right as the gates opened and purchase our Giraffe Encounter tickets. Noah, Cecilia and I would join them just as quickly as I could pack up all our diapers, wipes, sunscreen, hats, spare clothes, water bottles, sippy cups, snacks on 3 hours of sleep, as I was working late the night prior. As I loaded up the car and rallied my mini-troops from their slumber, I was no longer sure if we were heading to the zoo for a few hours or on a 10-day trek through the Himalayas. But none of that mattered: we had a date with destiny. I mean a Giraffe Encounter.

Upon arriving at the zoo we found my brother standing next to the Giraffe Encounter ticket booth, which was inexplicably empty. I felt panic and rage surge through my body: had we missed it? But my brother explained that when he tried to purchase a ticket he was told that on this particular day you didn't actually buy the Giraffe Encounter tickets from the Giraffe Encounter ticket booth (because, I assume that would make far too much sense). No, you had to instead find the Giraffe Encounter ticket salesperson wandering through the zoo, and purchase tickets from him/her which I could only imagine requires knowing the secret Giraffe Encounter handshake and perhaps a digital thumbprint or a retinal scan. Next time I will know to check WikiLeaks for any classified Giraffe Encounter documents before leaving for the zoo. But none of that mattered: we had our tickets for the 11am feeding, so only 2 hours separated us from Encountering Giraffes!

2 hours is just about what it takes to push a double stroller from the entrance of the Detroit Zoo to the point where you actually see an animal. Don't get me wrong, it is a lovely, wonderful zoo but it is big. Really, really big. And it was hot. Really, really hot. And the stroller was heavy. Really... well, you get the point. Still, Noah and his cousin seemed to enjoy seeing the animals, as much as toddlers with toddler-sized attention spans are capable of enjoying seeing far away creatures that were for the most part, asleep. Cecilia occasionally popped her little head out of the stroller to yell "BEA!" or "DUCKY!!!" depending on the particular exhibit. But 2 zoo hours are just about all 3 kids ages 4 and under can handle, and as the clock ticked closer to our Encounter time I began to worry they wouldn't make it. Still, we pushed on....

Finally, the appointed time arrived! We hurried over to take our places and Encounter Giraffes.... where we were told to wait some more. Turns out we were just in the Pre-Giraffe Encounter Holding Area (PGEHA), where at least the view was better. "Giraffes!" yelled Noah and his cousin in tandem. "Ducky!" Cecilia exclaimed.

We stood in line for what felt like hours, but was really only about 30 minutes. 30 minutes under the hot sun with 2 children boisterously jumping up and down, crying out, "Is it time to feed the giraffes? NOW is it time to feed the giraffes???" and one baby now restlessly squirming against the stroller restraints and impatiently imploring, "Ducky!" In a classic move from the amusement park/attraction handbook, we found ourselves forced to stand directly opposite the Giraffe Encounter souvenir booth, where every color and size of stuffed giraffe dangles directly at toddler eye level. Well played, zoo folk.

About 15 minutes into our stay in the PGEHA, a kind zoo docent came through the line to educate us on the Encounter that awaited. She shared with us that giraffes have powerful jaws and very long, purple tongues. Noah shared with her that when he goes poo-poo on the potty he can have 4 M&Ms. Cecilia dozed in and out of a fitful stroller nap, occasionally waking to mumble, "Ducky?"

Then it was our turn. Our long awaited Giraffe Encounter. I half expected to hear the Hallejulah chorus as we stepped to the platform, but instead heard "NEXT!" as we were jostled into place. Now I don't know if the giraffes woke up with indigestion that morning, or if they had a really big dinner the night before, or if they're hoping to get into a cute outfit this weekend. But I do know that each child in our group was handed 2 scrawny little leaves. If you look at the photos on the website, you'll note that the happy, smiley kids are feeding the giraffes entire branches, which I'm guessing takes a little more time for a giraffe to eat than a leaf. No disrespect to the zoo folks, but it seemed a bit ridiculous. While the money we paid to feed the giraffes doesn't grow on trees, leaves in fact do.

I didn't get to see my niece feed the giraffe as I was unbuckling Cecilia from her stroller in the 2.5 seconds during which it happened. When it was Noah's turn, he walked tentatively up to the giraffe and just as he extended his arm toward the giant creature he turned back toward me and said, "Look, Mama! I'm going to feed the giraffe!" Of course, that's when the giraffe saw the leaf coming (and was probably thinking, "A leaf? Are you serious?") and snatched it up, oblivious to the fact that Noah's back was turned. And before he had finished turning back toward the giraffe again, it had already snatched the second leaf out of his other hand. Giraffe Encounter over. Good thing I had time to snap this lovely photo:

"NEXT!" boomed the Giraffe Encounter person.

"But I want to feed the giraffes MORE!!!!" Noah screamed as we were unceremoniously ushered off the feeding platform.

"DUCKEEEEEEEE!" Cecilia shrieked with her tiny arms outstretched toward the giant object of her affection.

My brother and I looked at each other in disbelief. I was torn between laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and joining my toddler in a tantrum. But we dried our tears, focused our thoughts and conversation on all the fun we had had, and waved goodbye to the Giraffes we had (very briefly) Encountered. Hot, tired, hungry and covered in zoo residue, it was definitely time to go home.

As we drove home I got to thinking about what had just happened. It wasn't quite how I envisioned it, but maybe that was part of the problem. It wasn't the Encounter of a lifetime, but maybe it wasn't supposed to be. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Which is why from now on I'll try to stick to what I call The ABC's of Young Child Encounters (with giraffes, museums, fairs, etc):

Accept the experience for what it is. If your toddler is happiest picking dandelions out of the grassy areas between the animal exhibits, do not label your outing as a failure.

Be realistic about what activity will be most appropriate, and thus most enjoyable for your children. You don't have to get in every educational, enriching experience before they hit age 4. You will have many, many years to expand their worlds, but a very small window during which you are the center of it. I'm pretty sure my kids are just as happy going with me to the pet store to buy cat food as they were going to the zoo.

Check your expectations, along with your grown-up cynicism at the door. The experience likely won't turn out exactly how you expect, but remember- your kids didn't have the same expectations.

Later that night I kissed Noah's smooth little cheek, tucked him in with his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, and told him I loved him. He hugged me tight and said "I love you too, Mama. And you know what? The giraffe licked me!!!" He broke into the sweetest giggle, which turned into a roar, which ended in the two of us laughing so hard I cried. What a day. To borrow a word from his sister, it was all just ducky.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rethinking the family shopping experience at Costco

There's a place we often go on Sundays. A place so big it seems to hold the entire world between its walls. A place that's so vast, you can't help be awed in its presence. A place so overwhelming that some believe miracles can be found. A place I'm simultaneously drawn to and yet fear. I'm talking of course about Costco.

Ah, Costco. Where else can you pick up a lawnmower, a new couch, and a rotisserie chicken all in one visit? Only at Costco do you find a tank of live lobsters just a stone's throw away from a 12-pack of men's boxer briefs. (I'm guessing that's as close as most men would like live lobsters to get to their underwear.) Costco, the place where you can supersize your entire life.

3 years ago when we left the mean streets of Royal Oak, MI behind for the tree-lined, idyllic looking enclave 40 miles to the west called Brighton, I never imagined warehouse shopping would become part of my life. Probably because I was too busy fantasizing about the Brighton Woman I would become. (Keep in mind, I was 7 months pregnant with our first child, so hormones no doubt played a role in these delusions). I imagined myself pushing the stroller down the city's quaint Main Street, joyfully combining errands with playdates at the park with all my new Brighton Mom Friends and their children. Yes, Brighton Mona would shop local to supplement the vast harvest of produce Brighton Mona would grow in her backyard garden (I'm not sure what Brighton Mona's plans were for winter?). Brighton Mona would tiptoe lightly down Brighton's streets, ever conscious of her carbon footprint. That was before Brighton Mona knew there was a Brighton Costco.

Fast forward 3 years and our actual Brighton Life is somewhat different from my prenatal fantasies. We're now a family of four and as for shopping on Main Street, I've learned that man, woman and toddlers really can not live on bread alone, not even if it's that delicious High-5 Fiber stuff from Great Harvest Bread Company, and not even when topped with an artisanal gouda from the local cheese market. We do in fact have a backyard garden which provides delicious summer produce for many of Brighton's finest bunnies, chipmunks and squirrels, who are kind enough to leave us the occasional shriveled zucchini or half-chewed tomato. And we shop at Costco.

To get to our local Costco you must first drive around the nation's first double roundabout, two treacherous traffic circles placed back-to-back which I usually refer to as "The Ring of Fire." Local city planners claim it moves traffic efficiently, but I believe it might be God's way of setting up a final pre-Costco roadblock, His way of asking "Do you REALLY want to go there?"

If the answer turns out to be "yes" and you survive your go around the 'bouts, you will gain access to the Promised Land (assuming you've paid your $45 membership dues) and blink several times as your eyes adjust to the environment. I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame by the dozens of giant, flashing, flashy, flat-panel TV screens right at the entrance. They are enormous but in the enormity that is Costco, it's easy to lose perspective when it comes to size. Inside Costco, a 72-inch flat panel doesn't appear all that big. Just wait until you get it home and it turns out to be larger than any wall, or any room, in your house. Same goes for the 50-pound bag of cat litter, the 2-gallon tub of hummus, the muffins that are the size of my head, and the oversize bottle of laundry detergent which nearly causes a dislocated shoulder every time I attempt to pour into the machine. Those "Take and Bake" pizzas sure look delicious, don't they? Too bad they don't fit into my oven. I think Costco needs a giant rearview mirror-like warning: "Objects in store are larger than they appear."

If warehouse shopping is hereditary I'm in big trouble because my mom is Costco-obsessed. My Egyptian parents, who live alone, have turned their 2-car garage into a mini-version of Costco itself. There is enough Gatorade to rehydrate the entire USA Track and Field team (all the more odd given the fact that my parents are in their 70s and not exactly exercise enthusiasts) and enough toilet paper to build a full-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
And they're not alone- Costco-philia runs rampant in their social circle (translation: other Egyptians). The Egyptian men often go to Costco together or meet up there after church. There's a running joke that goes: "Why did (fill in the name of the Egyptian woman) cross the road?" "Because Costco was on the other side." Maybe it's an immigrant thing: they came to this country with nothing and thus are drawn toward a place that allows them to stockpile. Or maybe they just really like the free samples.

Last month we threw a double party for our kids whose birthdays are about 2 weeks apart. Having heard great things about Costco's bakery, we decided to give it a try for the cake. As I've mentioned before, our 3-year-old is a tad obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, and wanted a train on his cake. But Costco is not in the business of making a 3-year-old's dreams come true, so their cake designs are somewhat limited. We settled on a happy sun and flowers, which was probably appreciated by my 1-year-old daughter, who does not necessarily share her brothers railway passions.

Then there was the size: at Costco you have a choice of Giant, Gigantic, or Ginormous. We chose the smallest possible, which feeds 50 and costs $17.99. That is far cheaper than any other cake, we reasoned, even as we knew we only needed cake for about 25 people, several of whom have fewer than 4 teeth.

At the last minute, I felt bad about the lack of trains on the cake and stuck a ridiculous cardboard cutout into the frosting to assuage my personal guilt. Then, once the candles were extinguished and the party was over, we pawned off cake on everyone we knew. We ate leftover cake until cavities formed (does Costco offer a dental plan?) and we still ended up throwing out nearly half of it. Happy disposable birthday. Our "cheap" cake left me feeling... cheap.

Yes, we've made all the requisite financial calculations, and yes, we do indeed save money buy buying certain items in bulk, but I'm beginning to feel like we're selling a piece of our souls in the process.

Buying in bulk was supposed to free up all this time and money for us to spend on the things that really matter to us, but has it really? When we get back from Costco (a trip guaranteed to take at least 2 hours and $200) we spend at least another hour unloading the loot and dividing it into real people portions, which we still often find ourselves unable to use. I fear we are teaching our kids that more is better, just because it's more.

Once upon a time, families of four (and five, six, seven) got by just fine without 10-pound bags of Goldfish crackers. I'm all for saving a little money especially given the current state of the economy, but sometimes shopping Costco's crude, cold aisles, stripped of every consumer comfort leaves me feeling empty. We're a family, not a business venture and we don't need to "cut out the middle man" on every transaction.

I'm not quite ready to give up the membership for good (at least not until we're out of the diapers and wipes phase, since bulk is the ONLY way to go on those) but I think it's time we gave our Costco purchases more careful thought. No more blind devotion, no more bowing down before the altar of the almighty dollar. And maybe from now one we should go on Saturdays instead.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thoughts on attending my 20 year high school reunion

Hair straight or curly? Dress or pants? Or blouse and skirt? Which one best says "I'm not the awkward geek you might remember" and "I've got my act together now" with a touch of "I just threw this fabulousness together without trying too hard" and of course does not make my butt look fat? These are the questions I ponder as the clock ticks down to Saturday night, a date that will definitely go down on my permanent record: my 20 year high school reunion.

This will be my first reunion. I think there was a 5-year but I missed it. 5 years just didn't seem like long enough apart to merit getting back together. Also, I was living on a Caribbean island, working for a resort company, putting my degrees in French and International Relations to very good use leading relay races on the beach in multiple languages. I'm pretty sure there was a 10 year reunion but I missed that one too, probably because I was living on yet another island (Kauai). But life takes funny turns and one of them took me away from the islands back to the Michigan's lower peninsula, so I have no geographic excuse not to go. We don't have any other plans and we do have a babysitter. We bought the tickets, put it on the calendar, so I guess it's now official: when the Lahser High School Class of 1990 reunites Saturday night, I will be there.

I still find it ironic that I'm attending, much less even had a minor role in planning this event, since I have spent much of the past two decades trying to distance myself both mentally and physically (hence the islands) from my 1-12 experience. No "K," as I skipped kindergarten, which is the equivalent of having a scarlet G for "Geek" branded on one's forehead at age 5. Maybe that was the reason, or maybe it was my mass of frizzy, dark curly hair in a sea of shiny blondes, or maybe it was just my bad luck, but from the early days of elementary school when the Great Divide opened up between the Cool Kids and the Others, I was on the wrong side. At least it felt wrong at the time.

I don't have the happiest memories from those early school years. I had a few close friends (who remain close today) but for the most part, was a bit of a loner. I remember being teased- the painful name calling at the playground, the even more painful name calling I suspect happened behind my back. I remember the loneliness of lunchtime in the cafeteria, and the sinking feeling every time a teacher said it was time to pick teams. I remember burying myself in books, befriending the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, making my own playdates with Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby and the Judy Blume crew. I remember the kindness of teachers, their sympathetic looks as I'd drag my feet on the way to the playground.

And I remember the Cool Kids. They seemed so very, very cool. They were the trend setters, the style mavens, and I was always a few steps behind. They had mothers who ran the PTA, lead the Girl Scout troop and baked cookies for class parties. My mother was a university professor, but at age 8 I failed to realize how truly impressive that was. I was too busy watching the Cool Kids go running off the school bus into the waiting arms of their mothers as I sulked away to a babysitter waiting at home.

A few weeks ago my all-American, captain of his high school soccer team, Cool Kid of a husband and I were at my parents' house and dug out my old middle school yearbook. He got a kick out of reading the loopy, dot-your-i-with-a-heart cursive signatures in the back until he came across the spots I'd gone over with thick, permanent marker. "What's that about?" he asked. "Oh, that's just where the mean kids wrote nasty things that I crossed out." His pitying look reminded me that my experience was not exactly normal.

High School was not much better. I fancied myself quite the thespian, so I tried out for the lead in the school play, and was instead cast as Nurse #2. I tried to follow in my star swimmer of a brother's footsteps and suffered through a miserable season of ear infections just hoping not to drown. Academically I excelled, but AP Calculus is not exactly the express train to Coolsville. In perhaps a nod to a future career in broadcasting, I won a speech contest to deliver the Commencement Address to my fellow graduates of the Class of 1990. The crowd was large, the applause was polite, and the looks on their faces seemed to say, "Umm, OK. Who are you?" I was glad to be done.

As a defense mechanism, I began in childhood to coat myself in nearly iron-clad armor: a giant smile (a decoy to ward off the appearance of unhappiness), a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor (why not beat them to the punch and make fun of myself), and a mental strategy I'll call "When-Then." As in, "I may feel like a nobody right now, but one day when I'm older, things will be different and then I'll show them. I'll show them I'm somebody." It's a philosophy I've clung to through much of my adult life: When I lose 5 pounds, then I'll be satisfied. When I land that dream job, then I'll feel fulfilled. It's a sneaky method of delaying happiness in the present, always envisioning a happier (thinner, richer, etc.) future. But it doesn't work, because "then" never happens, it's always pushed aside by another "when."

A few years back the idea of attending this reunion would have terrified me, as I was still living in that When-Then world. But 20 years does wonders when it comes to perspective. I know I'm not the timid, awkward girl I once was, and I'm no longer trying to prove anything- not to myself, and certainly not to the Cool Kids. I know that the labels we carry as children (and sometimes assign ourselves) don't have to follow us the rest of our lives. I've come to realize that the Homecoming King and Queen don't actually wield any political power. The prom date who dumped me before the last song even played with the "It's not you, it's me" speech? Turns out he was telling the truth: he's not so into girls.

Thanks to the wonders of social networking, I've already "reunited" with dozens of high school classmates. Online we've shared everything from the joys of new jobs, new babies, to the painful losses of jobs and loved ones. In cyberspace we've established something we may not have had in person: a friendship. As nice as that is, I have found myself replacing my "When-Then" thinking with "If Only." As in "If only we had been friends back in the day, just think how different things would have been!" I find myself imagining walking down those high school halls with my head held high, greeting friends right and left, making plans for weekend parties and late night phone calls. Maybe I could have skipped all that angst-ridden, finding myself stuff in my 20s and gone right for the well-adjusted 30s? Maybe I could have been happier.

But that sort of "If Only" thinking is just as toxic and counterproductive as "When Then." While "When Then" allows us to live in the future, "If Only" is a way to reinvent the past. Neither one deals with the here and now, or gives credit for where we've been. I am who I am today because of what's happened, good and bad. And that includes high school.

So come Saturday night I will head to the reunion with just a few butterflies in my stomach. I'll do my best to enjoy the chance to reconnect not with the kids that we were, but with the people we've become. We will eat, we will drink, we might even dance. I will put away my "When-Thens" for good and I will raise a glass to the Lahser High School Class of 1990 with this final "If Only": If only I had known it would all be OK.