Saturday, December 24, 2011

Yes, There Really IS a Santa Claus

Dear Santa,

I know, I know- this is really last minute and I'm sure you're swamped right now. I realize that it is already Christmas in the Solomon Islands and you don't have a lot of time to check your messages, so I'll do my best to keep this brief.

First, I should begin with an apology. I know we haven't exactly been BFFs the past 30 or so years, so you're probably a little surprised to hear from me at all. It's nothing personal, Santa, and I don't think I ever stopped believing in you, but at some point I did stop believing in me.

You probably remember, I wasn't the happiest, most well-adjusted little girl on the block, and somehow I started thinking at a very young age that the whole "magical Christmas" thing was just for other people to enjoy. Sure, we had a tree and presents galore, and my parents certainly did the best they could as immigrants who were new to this whole western Christmas thing. They never dreamed of a white Christmas in Egypt and I'm pretty sure flying reindeer are not indigenous to the region. In fact, because Eastern Orthodox Christmas is January 7th and not December 25, the holiday always seemed like one more confusing bump on the road that first generation children tread: one more thing that separated "us" from "them."

But I'm not sure that's what put the North Pole-like chill in our relationship. Somewhere in years of watching those I love exhaust themselves with last minute shopping sprees for things we neither wanted nor needed, the giant cooking ordeals for food that is inhaled in 15 minutes flat, I seemed to acquire a rather sad tradition of my own: a knot in my stomach that showed up right after Halloween and wouldn't loosen up until early January. Great for avoiding those holidays pounds, but that's about it.

Then, Santa, you started bringing me these really cool gifts. A wonderful husband who loves me, holiday baggage and all. Three little miracles to deck our halls (and undeck them, and scribble on them with crayon, etc). The chance to create our own family traditions, and to approach the season with joy instead of dread.

So I just wanted to say thank you, Santa. I know I don't have this whole magical Christmas thing down just yet, but I think we're doing pretty well. We've been baking and singing and dancing and laughing by day, driving around looking at lights and snuggling on the couch watching Christmas movies by night. No doubt, it's exhausting being one of your helpers (and I certainly could have done without the Christmas virus currently moving through our house) but I'm loving every minute of it. Last night I went to bed in tears, and for the first time I was sad that Christmas was almost here instead of wishing it would just be over already.

So Santa, I really don't need you to bring me anything this year. You've given me ability to enjoy the holidays, so what more could I ask for? But since you do seem to be a very literal kind of guy, I'd just like to clarify a few things:

The whole "all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" concept really need not apply to babies. If last night is any indication, we're going to need a whole lot more baby Tylenol in our stockings.

And just so we're clear, my kids do not actually want a hippopotamus for Christmas. It's just a song. One that they will not. stop. singing.

Ditto on the the partridge, the turtledoves, and the french hens. Our zoo runneth over.

Not to be picky, but if you're giving out five rings I'm really more of a platinum than a golden kind of girl.

And those maids-a-milking? I've pretty much got that department covered, but do they do windows?

Just some suggestions, Santa- I'll leave the details up to you because you really do know best.

Safe travels, and there's a good chance I'll see you later tonight (see above re: virus, teething baby).

Your (new) friend,


PS- you know that "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus" thing? I checked with my husband, and he says it's OK. So pucker up.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Mornings

I've always been a morning person, but never quite like this.

That's why it's 5:30 am on Thanksgiving and I'm wide awake.

My first day off since starting a new job, and I'm wide awake.

One husband and three children snoring away, and I'm wide awake.

There's nothing but the occasional sound of the furnace to disturb me as I sit writing by the glow of the baby monitor. It is by far my favorite time of day.

In the years B.C. (Before Children) the early mornings consisted of a cup of tea, a daily devotional with my breakfast, and a quick workout before heading to work.

One child only changed the routine a bit. Even before he was sleeping through the night, even when I was working crazy hours and only had a few to sleep, I almost always found a way to get up early and get that time to myself before getting to the rest of the day.

Two children made it tougher. Two children and a collection of part-time jobs that had to be stuffed into whatever free moments could be found made it next to impossible, but still, most days the morning routine remained in place.

Now, with three children and a new full-time job, mornings are a little bit different, but I cherish them all the more. Forget about "bright and early": two mornings each week the mere goal of getting to work by 9am requires a visit to the Dark Side. It goes something like this: get up at 5am, wolf down that tea and breakfast, gobble up a devotional, fly through the shower, throw on some clothes, nurse the baby, wake and dress and feed the two older ones, change clothes because inevitably baby's radar has detected the presence of dry clean only clothing and thus has spit-up, get everyone in the car, go back into the house to change a diaper because baby's radar has detected the need to leave the house and thus has pooped, drive 20 minutes in the wrong direction to preschool/daycare, give at least 4 rounds of goodbye hugs/kisses to each of 3 children, drive 45 miles to work, make milk for baby in the car, walk 3 city blocks to office carrying a laptop, a purse, a lunch bag and a breast pump to arrive at my desk and "start" my day. Phew.

But in the midst of what may seem like chaos, there are moments of bliss. Moments that make it all worthwhile, moments that I savor so deeply I actually wake up even earlier so as not to miss.

First, the baby. My sweet littlest little one is already five months old, and nine nights out of ten will sleep through the night. He no longer "needs" that early morning feeding, and would sleep right through it if I didn't get him up. Maybe he doesn't need it, but I'm just not quite ready to give it up. So on those mornings I creep into his room and take a few minutes to just stand watching in silent awe. As big as he seems the rest of the day, in the early morning hours he's just a tiny spot in the middle of his crib. A perfect little bundle of warmth and love, curled up on his belly with his arms tucked underneath. Every once in a while he lets out a little sigh or a tiny giggle and I pray that sweet dreams are filling up his little head. I pick him up and hold him close, trying to memorize the feeling of his fuzzy little head on my chest and his tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb. If I can just hold onto that feeling, I tell myself, it will get me through the day. Maybe if we both hold each other tightly enough, we can stock up on the love we need to weather the time apart.

Once he is fed and back asleep, it's on to the next child: my oldest, my four-going-on-12-year-old. He, too seems far too big for his age during the day, too grown up, too mature, but in the early morning hours the proportions seem to fall back in place. It's amazing to me that this big boy with his long, lean limbs that stretch across the bed was once a tiny bundle in the middle of his crib.

Sometimes when I come in he's all askew: arms on one side of the bed, legs in two different directions, head nowhere near the pillow and Thomas blanky tangled up in a heap on the floor. I can't help but laugh at the jumbled sight. But most of the time he's a bigger version of the boy in the room down the hall: flipped on his tummy, arms tucked underneath him, breathing slowly in and out. We share a special wake-up song, some silly tickle time, a few snuggles for good measure. I hug him close before he goes to brush his teeth, inhaling his sweet smell. Maybe if I hold him close enough he'll stay my little boy forever.

Last it's on to wake a tiny princess from her sleep. My 2-year-old ball of sass: she is funny, she is feisty and she is SO 2 years old. But in the mornings all I can see are her tiny little toes peeking out from the bottom of the blanket and a wild mane of hair sticking out the top. She sucks on one thumb and twists her hair around the other, never motionless, not even in her sleep. When I wake her, she smiles. Her sassy side doesn't get up this early, so she's still all cuddles and giggles and hugs and kisses. I pick her up and brush her hair out of her eyes while we rock together in her chair. Maybe if I hold her tightly enough she'll know how much I love her, sassiness and all.

The rest of the day is a blur. The new job is still so new, with so much to learn. Evenings are so busy, with meals to prepare, dishes to wash, laundry to do, baths to take and bedtime stories to read. By nighttime it's all too much for me: I'm too tired, too worn out, too worried. Worried about the kids, worried about the parents, worried about the job, worried I've forgotten something I should be worried about. Sometimes I just lie awake waiting for morning.

And so on this Thanksgiving I give thanks for mornings: the lazy ones, the crazy ones, the hazy ones.

Yes, I've always been a morning person, but never quite like this.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On feathers and letting go

When October hits Michigan you can usually count on a sharp chill in the air, dragging out the sweatshirts, and maybe even some frost on the grass. But not this year. This year we've been blessed with nearly two straight weeks of sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and even 80s and extended time with our shorts and t-shirts. In the heat of the afternoon, if you ignore the changing leaves and close your eyes you can almost trick yourself into believing it's still July, so that's how we've been acting: going barefoot in the grass, soaking up the sun on the deck, and eating ice cream in the afternoon.... just because.

Late last week we decided to head to one of our favorite spots for people and duck watching: the Mill Pond in downtown Brighton. With the big kids back in school, we found we had the place virtually to ourselves (not counting the feathered population). We spent a glorious few hours there just watching the ducks go by, playing tag around the rocks and savoring sweet treats from a local shop. At one point, my 2-year-old became quite preoccupied with picking feathers out of the grass and throwing them into the pond.

"Here you go, Mama!" she said, holding a feather out for me. "This one for you!"

So I slipped it in, somewhere between the lollipop wrappers, my cell phone, a 4-year-old's pet rock and a kleenex of questionable cleanliness, fully expecting to throw it away when we got home.

But somehow that feather made its way out of my pocket and when I got in my car the next day, I found it sitting on my seat, waiting for me. And as silly as it may sound, I think that feather was trying to tell me something.

You see, I've been walking around with my head in a bit of a fog lately, and not just the usual sleep-deprived-mom-of-three variety. It's been a heavier, heartier fog, the kind that comes with a major life change.

Tomorrow I'll be starting a new job, a new career even. It's an unexpected opportunity that came along at the most unexpected time, the kind that makes you sit up from the couch where you were happily nursing your baby boy and say "Maybe I should turn my life upside down and figure out a way to make this work thing work!"

It's been two and a half years since I left the full-time work world, not completely by choice. Like many moms, I faced a situation where the financial and emotional cost of having children just didn't compute with anything I'd be bringing home. Since we're blessed to be able to make ends meet on one salary, I decided I'd give the whole stay-at-home-mom thing a try.

It lasted all of about two weeks. That's when I began accumulating part-time job after freelance gig, working nights, middle of the nights, weekends, and many places in between. I felt guilty when working, guilty when not working, guilty when thinking about how guilty I felt about working or not working. Guilty for secretly loving the times I left the house for work, guilty for not wanting to spend every waking moment with my kids, guilty for wanting more. Guilty for being more. Or not being more. Guilty for being me.

So when this opportunity came along I weighed all the options, considered the pros (including an arrangement to work two days/week from home) and cons (including dragging a breast pump around the rest of the time), and eventually decided to give it a try. But instead of alleviating the guilt, it seemed the decision has only intensified it. Now I feel guilty for pursuing my own passion, guilty for leaving my kids, guilty for the seismic change this decision, MY decision would bring about in our family routine.

And then there's the fear: fear of failing at this new venture, fear my kids won't love me anymore, fear my husband and I will become strangers, fear of forgetting that grown-ups close the door when they use the potty... er... bathroom in public, fear that maybe, just maybe, I'll end up with exactly what I've wanted and then what will I complain about?

Between the guilt and the fear and the stress and the thoughts and the decisions and the blah, blah, blah... I'm over it! I'm over myself. I'm over the over-analysis and resulting paralysis. It's time, in the words of my favorite running shoemaker, to Just Do It!

So as this new chapter begins, I will carry that feather with me to remind me of sweet, carefree days- the ones we've already had and the ones that lie ahead....

To remind me that our hearts and minds don't need to be so heavy....

That time does fly, but if we don't get so hung up on the clock it will take us on a pretty amazing ride...

And that we need to let go of the guilt and the fear and all the rest, because deep down, we're all meant to fly.

Monday, August 8, 2011

This too shall pass

I made it almost eight weeks.

Eight weeks into life with a newborn, a toddler and a preschooler. (That's three kids ages four and under, if you're keeping score.)

Eight weeks which also included 3 birthdays, one anniversary, a large family wedding and a new job working from home.

Eight sleep-deprived weeks of nursing a baby on the playroom floor while refereeing a fight between two toddlers over a plastic caterpillar that neither one cared about until the other touched and it became the most important toy EVER....while working from home.

Eight socially-deprived weeks that lacked what had come to pass for stimulating adult conversation, as no one in the confines of my home cared to ask if I preferred paper or plastic. And did I mention I started a new job working from home?

Yes, I held it together for almost eight weeks before having a massive, Chernobyl-style meltdown. Or maybe it was more like a Category 5 hurricane: bands of tears gathered strength and eventually morphed into ugly sobs. Flailing arms and angry words carved a path of destruction through the house. I took shelter in the bathroom shower, where finally alone, I sank to the floor and curled up in a ball. Seconds later, I heard a gleeful giggle and looked up to find my 2 year old with her tiny button nose pressed against the glass door.

"Mama so silly!" she laughed. "Why you have you clothes in the bafftub???"

I opened the door and brought her into my cave, burying my head in her soft, wavy hair. I was just about to tell her something deep and meaningful about how sorry I was for the Mamapocalypse she just witnessed when she got very still, looked right into my eyes and yelled "BEEP BEEP!" as she pushed on my nose and ran away with a squeal.

I took a deep breath, gathered up my thoughts and my weary bones, and silently repeated the words that lately have become my mantra: "This too shall pass."

It's been comforting during these past eight weeks to remember that these tough times won't last forever. That there will come a time when my services are not quite so in demand at every moment of the day. A time when everyone in the house can wipe his/her own bottom. Now that's something to look forward to.

But later that night when I dragged my tired bones to bed for the four hours that currently constitute "nighttime" I stared at my sweet baby boy's tiny chest moving up and down as he slept in his bassinet and it hit me: this too shall pass. All of it.

This is most definitely our last child, so this time around when the baby phase is done, it's done for good. No more diapers and wipes, but also no more gummy, toothless grins or naps on the couch with a tiny little body swaddled against my chest.

I know that there will come a time, sooner than I might expect, that the little boy who begs for just one more, PLEEAASSSEEE one more hug at bedtime will be embarrassed by the very thought of embracing his mother in public....

That his constant stream of talk from the backseat of the car that never, ever seems to end (no, I do not know the name of the driver in the lane next to us on the highway, and I'm really not sure how many pieces of brick it took to build our house, or the name of the dinosaur with spiky things on his head) could someday be replaced by grunting and the sound of thumbs texting "OMG, my mom is sooooo annoying."

That the little girl who is right now attached to my side for 95% of her waking hours and can not seem to start a sentence without "Mommy!" will one day put her hands on her hips and roll those big blue eyes skyward with an exasperated "Moommmm!" because I have said/done/breathed the unthinkable.

That the kids who sob at the door on the rare occasion I leave the house to go somewhere very exciting like CVS will one day ask me to drop them off a block away from wherever their friends have gathered so that I do not risk contaminating their images with my inherent lack of cool.

That the baby boy who keeps me up all night with feeding and crying might one day keep me up all night with worrying and crying.

That I will no longer be able to pin my lack of muscle tone in the abdominal area on children unless I legally adopt Ben and Jerry.

That the boo boos will one day be too deep for bandaids and too painful for me to kiss away.

That the kids who right now seem to need me for everything one day won't.

Yes, all of "this" too shall pass, and when it does, there's no getting it back.

And as difficult, as demanding, as exhausting as it can be, I know that I shall miss it when it does.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An anniversary promise to my husband

Recently some family friends told us they will be renewing their wedding vows in honor of their 10th anniversary. They are doing it up Las Vegas style, complete with the drive thru wedding chapel and all the essential Elvis accoutrements. That, and the fact that today my husband and I celebrate our 8th anniversary (and by "celebrate" I mean he is at work and I am at home with our 3 kids), got me thinking that maybe we could use a little renewal of our own.

"Renewal," however would not be the right word, as we never exchanged vows in the first place, at least not in the traditional Western World sense. We were married in a traditional Eastern Orthodox ceremony in which there is no exchange of vows. It is a ceremony rich in symbolism and packed with ancient traditions, none of which include the bride or groom speaking a single word. (But you do get to wear a very cool cape and a crown, which allowed my husband to finally live out his super hero fantasy.) There's no discussion of having or holding, we don't actually believe that death will do us part, and because the sacrament is considered to be between God and the couple, just showing up constitutes your "I do."

So we did, 8 wonderful years and 3 beautiful children ago. And we still do. But what relationship couldn't use some freshening up around the edges, a little spritz of marital Febreze if you will? So while they're not traditional vows, I thought I'd take this occasion to examine a few issues and make a few promises to the one I love.

So here we go. I, Mona Shand, being of sound mind (OK, I realize we're already off to a shaky start, given the toll that the 4 nonconsecutive hours of sleep I am currently getting each night is taking on my already tenuous grasp on sanity) and body (and 5 weeks after giving birth to baby #3, let's not even go there), do hereby promise:

To continue to stick it out in sickness (our own and that of others, which of course includes but is not limited to stuffy noses, earaches and heartaches, diapers of pooptastrophic proportions, boo boos and ouchies, bruised knees as well as egos, and that disgusting green gunk that showed up on the baby's sheets, and the exact source of which we're yet to identify), and in health (especially those 3 days in winter when everyone in the house is actually healthy at the same time), for richer (I think it's best if we just focus on being rich in love, because let's face it this economy stinks) or poorer (did I mention I stopped at Target today?)

And I promise that:

I will always be your wife,
I will love you all my life.
I will love you in the rain,
I will love you on a train.
I will love you at our house,
I will love you with a mouse.
I will forsake all others here and there,
I will forsake all others everywhere.

And I also promise that next time we're at the library, I will get myself some books that were not written by Dr. Seuss.

I promise to love (OK, how about "try to appreciate"), honor (OK, maybe "not mock so loudly"), and cherish (OK, that one's a stretch) your inexplicable fascination with UFC wrestling matches on pay-per-view.

I promise to try much harder to obey a Closed Door Policy when it comes to the bathroom, because as close as we are, there really are a few things that should be left to the imagination, and when I said I wanted to know what was going on "inside" I really meant your head and heart more than your intestines. And there's just no justifiable scenario in which a grown woman should ever turn to a grown man and say "Mama has to go potty." I'm also guessing my giant pink plastic shower cap doesn't exactly make you want to have or hold so maybe we should try to return that time in our lives when there was a tiny bit more mystery and a whole lot less hair removal cream between us.

And I hereby promise, before the dearly beloved gathered here today (which at 4am include one stuffed moose, 2 teddy bears, a naked baby doll and a basket of dirty laundry) in the warm glow of our love and my laptop, from this day forward, to do my best to focus on the better and not the worse, because my life is so much better and Lord knows I never dreamt I'd find someone to put up with the worst of my worse. So that means more listening and less talking over you. More days when I don't use up all the good, squeezy, super tender hugs and kisses on the kids and leave you with just the little pecks. More "Thank you for putting away the laundry" and less "Where the *&^) did you put my blue tank top?"

Because I couldn't and I shouldn't and I wouldn't imagine a life without you in it.
No I couldn't and I shouldn't and I wouldn't for a minute.

(But I can and I should and I will follow through on that whole "reading books that don't rhyme" thing, I promise once again.)

So, unless anyone gathered here has any objections (Zip it, Moose.) I'm going to go ahead and kiss the groom.

Just as soon as he comes out of the bathroom.

Happy anniversary, my love.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bringing Home Baby: When Time Means Nothing

There's nothing quite like having a baby to make you lose all track and all concept of time. I took my watch off in the delivery room, as per the nurse's orders, and haven't put it back on since. In fact it's still tucked in my purse, right alongside other things I haven't touched since the big arrival, like my favorite lipstick and one of the many rolls of Tums that got me through a whole lot of heartburn.

Partly the watch has stayed put because I fear it will scratch the baby in all the picking up, putting down, changing, rocking, bouncing, and cuddling my watch-wearing arm is once again engaged in. And partly it's because time, as measured by my watch, just doesn't seem to accurately reflect the current state our life.

By the clock and the calendar, our baby boy is two weeks old today. Two weeks? How can it be that I have soy milk in my refrigerator that has been with us longer than this sweet little creature? Maybe it's the 13 nights of sleep deprivation, but I already have trouble remembering a time he wasn't part of our family. His movements, those jerky arms and legs, the way he rests his left arm against his head... it all just seems so familiar. Granted, he and I did spend 40 weeks together in rather close confines, so technically this I guess this is week 42 of our lives together. But even that doesn't seem like long enough. No, there is definitely something about having a child that reaches beyond the weeks, months and years. Something that makes you say with absolute certainty, "I have always known you."

This is our third child and my husband and I are much more relaxed in our role as parents. The "baby" side of the equation, while still a physical and emotional ordeal, is infinitely easier than in the past. I no longer need my watch to count every minute baby's been nursing or to mark the exact time of the last poopy diaper. What I do need is a third arm to work a puzzle with a 4-year-old and a 4th arm to help a 2-year-old dress her doll while nursing said baby from the comfort of the playroom floor. And as long as I'm dreaming, how about a 5th arm to make dinner, a 6th to get that unidentifiable sticky gunk off the kitchen floor, a 7th to tackle various forms of DNA in the laundry basket and an 8th to type should a coherent thought actually enter my sleep deprived brain? Apparently I want to be the Octomom.

The weight of it all began to set in shortly after the euphoria of delivery (and that lovely epidural) wore off. I sat stoic in my hospital bed, listening to the doctor explain that for the next several weeks I should really just devote myself to caring for the baby and leave everything else to "everyone else." I double checked the painkiller prescription she scribbled out to see if by chance it included housekeeping and babysitting services. Seeing none, I tearfully turned my attention to the discharge instructions she handed me before saying goodbye. Surely they contained some words of wisdom to help navigate what would lie ahead?

"Resume your daily activities at home when you feel ready. Let comfort guide you." Really?? Comfort??? If that's going to be my "guide," we're in big trouble. We'll just skip that one.

"Avoid heavy lifting (anything weighing more than your baby) until you feel up to it." Once again, this could prove problematic, and not just due to the combined weight of roughly 56 pounds of children who have patiently (and not so patiently) waited several months for a bona fide Mommy cuddle. The burden of physically lifting the three of them is still far lighter than the weight of lifting of their little spirits, of carrying their hurt and shouldering their hearts. My arms, already weak from several months of gym neglect, nearly fell off at the thought.

"Nap when possible. Sleep when the baby sleeps." I'm not even going to go there.

"Keep baby away from second-hand smoke." Well finally, there's one I can do. Second-hand smoke, consider this fair warning: I am your arch enemy. Baby, since I seem to be incapable of doing much else, I will devote myself to shielding you from second-hand smoke. Now if only I could do the same for off-handed comments that leave a sting, split-second reactions that go wrong, and smoking hot tempers.

Feeling more terrified than ever, my husband wheeled me out of the hospital and into the bright sunshine of the outside world. Hands shaking, heart quaking, and head throbbing, we tucked the papers away and loaded this precious miracle into our car. And then, we did the only thing we could: we went home.

Back to our same house, but a whole new home.

The place where we'll have to make our own rules to get by.

The place where time now means nothing.

We'll just have to take it one long, short, mixed-up, confusing, messy, exhausting, but wonderful day at a time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"Look at me!"

"Look at us, Mama!"
The first time it was cute. The fourth, fifth, and maybe even 18th time: still cute. But when your child yells out "Look at me, Mama!" for the 847th time- that morning alone- it becomes remarkably easy to overlook the cute factor and lose your temper. Or your mind. Or both.

It happens a lot when I'm cooking dinner. "Look at me, Mama!" he calls out excitedly. So I leave the pot on the stove, pop my head into the playroom and oblige him with the requested look. Usually he wants to show off a big accomplishment in Almost 4-year-old Land, like how high he can jump, or a particularly impressive bit of chalkboard art, or (unfortunately) something that came out of his nose. Or some other exit hole.

It happens when we're outside. "Look at me, Mama!" he yells with every slide down the slide and each bubble blown.

And it happens when we're driving in the car. "Look at me, Mama!" I hear from the backseat, despite numerous explanations of how Mama really needs to keep her eyes on the road. (Forget texting- I say parenting while driving is the ultimate distraction.)

Sometimes the verbiage differs; there's "Watch this, Mama!" and "Mom!!! COME SEEEEEE!!!!" Even his not quite 2-year-old sister gets in on the action, with her own version of the call to action. "Yook-ah-meee, Mama!" she yells, usually when she's just standing there sucking her thumb in her particularly adorable way. The words may differ slightly, but the underlying message is always the same: do you see me? Aren't you proud of me?

And yes, I absolutely am. I am so proud of the beautiful little spirits they possess, the amazing people they continue to grow into every day. I am humbled and amazed to think that I had any part in any of it. But honestly, there are times when I just can not muster up the excitement at the sight of a little boy who has just figured out how to stick three fingers into one ear.

"AND?????" I sometimes want to yell out of frustration over the fact that we did not buy a house with an open floor plan and so the journey from kitchen to playroom now means we will be eating The Black Substance Formerly Known As Marinara on our pasta.

Usually I bite my tongue and try to be pleasant and encouraging as I catch sight of his eager, expectant little face. "Nice job!" I tell him. "Now see if you can get your elbow in there while Mama finishes making dinner."

It's just part of being a good parent, I tell myself through clenched teeth. But sometimes I worry, am I creating little monsters? Applause junkies? Kids who desperately need approval to validate their very existence? Kids who are never told the cold, hard, truth about their performance until one day they show up on the audition episode of American Idol singing "Shebang, Shebang!" completely unable to grasp why the judges won't put them through to the next round?

I remember a time shortly after our first child was born when my husband and I spent most of our time shouting "Look at him!" to each other. As a new parent, everything, and I do mean everything your first child does, tends to amaze.

"Look at him! He sneezed!!!" (Translation- "He's a genius!")

"Look at him! He put a crayon in his mouth!" ("What a brilliant artist!")

"Look at him! He's sticking his fingers in his...!" (OK, that's just gross. But we still felt the need to ooh and ahh over it.)

And just "Look at me" now. Most days by the umpteenth shout-out I find myself wondering when the "Look at me, Mama!" phase will end.

And then one day I realized, it really never does.

I like to think of myself as pretty independent. My parents could not have been further from the "helicopter" model that hovers over many schools today. They had demanding careers and trusted that life would go on if they were not in attendance at every orchestra concert, school play and science fair. And they were right. Add to that a different cultural model of parenting that does not include heaping praise upon a child and "Look at me!" was not even an option.

But deep down, I know I've always yearned for, and not often known if I had, my parents' approval. Before getting married I lived on my own for many, many years, in many, many different parts of the country and the world. I'd like to think they watched with a mixture of fear and slight amusement as I continent and career-hopped across the globe. But most of the time I felt like the black sheep of the family. No focus, no direction. I was proud of myself for being willing to take risks, to push myself far beyond any physical or mental comfort zone, but always worried I was letting them down. It wasn't anything we ever talked about (see above re: cultural differences) but I always felt my lifestyle didn't scream "Look at me!" as much as "Don't look now!" If only I could have been a doctor or a nurse or a teacher or an engineer, or anything on the Parental Preferred List of Careers. Maybe then I could have shouted "Look at me!" and known for certain they were beaming with pride.

I convinced myself over the years that I didn't need anyone to look at me. I was confident in myself and told myself that was all that mattered. Put on a thick skin that has served me well in my chosen career (which doesn't even come close to the Preferred List, or even the Understood List). Look at me if you want, I told myself, but if not, I'm OK.

Eventually, I did settle down (with an engineer, no less) and had two...perhaps by the time you read this...three kids. And I've found that there's nothing quite like becoming a parent that makes you want to shout "Look at me!" to your own parents.

There are the lessons you learned from your parents that you consciously or unconsciously pass along to your own children. There are the things you choose to do differently. And then there are the things you swore you'd never do when you became a parent that you now realize just have to be done. It's hard not to want to show off this newfound wealth of information and understanding in the form of your little ones.

My own parents still lead busy lives and we don't see them nearly as often as we, or our children, would like. But when we do, and when I see my dad with his grandchildren, I see a look in his eyes that tells me all I need to know. Maybe I've finally become confident enough in myself to not need to hear it, or maybe I just know He sees what I see, and through those kids, I finally have no doubt, he sees me.

So the next time I hear my son yell out "Look at me, Mama!" I will do my best to respond appropriately. No, I can't drop everything and run to him every time he puts crayon to paper. And no, my little girl doesn't need a round of applause to know she's done well sticking the wooden cat in the designated puzzle slot. No one wants a child with skin that thin.

But there's got to be a balance, because I've been looking at myself a lot more lately and realizing that at some point, a thick skin becomes a barrier to keep others away. And that wanting to be seen doesn't necessarily make you weak.

As it turns out, sometimes it really does feel good to know that big brother, or Mama, or someone you love is watching.

Sometimes it just feels good to be seen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ice Cream Moments

There's nothing quite like that first really warm day of the year, the first time you shed those layers and let your skin soak up the sun. And there's nothing like celebrating it with a cool, creamy treat: an ice cream cone.

We had just such a day a few weeks back. It wasn't exactly hot, maybe 72 degrees, but after the cold, snowy winter and virtually non-existent spring we've endured in the Midwest, it was enough to send us scurrying through drawers, desperately seeking shorts and t-shirts, before frantically running to the local ice cream parlor.

My husband, son and I all dug immediately into our treats, but in between greedy bites I noticed our little girl staring at her baby-sized cone somewhat quizzically. It occurred to me then that while she's tasted ice cream off a spoon before, this was her first ever cone, and she wasn't quite sure what do to with it. A little coaxing from her big brother (at almost 4 years old, an ice cream cone veteran), a few tastes of the sweetness and she was on her way. Big, sticky, drippy smiles all around. It was another "Ice Cream Moment" in progress.

The term came to me last summer while watching my little boy eat ice cream with my dad. He was staying with us for a few days while my mom was out of town, and we were enjoying a carefree, delicious moment together. It was probably past his bedtime, it was certainly not the healthiest choice, but WOW did it taste good, and I don't just mean the Moose Tracks.

There's just something about eating ice cream, particularly off a cone, that brings out the kid in all of us. It's hard to worry about much, if anything, other than slurping up each delicious bite before the dripping sets in. It's one of those rare moments we suspend our usual routines, forget about our typical rules and simply enjoy. They are moments so sweet and yet so fleeting, so deliciously simple and rich.

There's a large portion of being a parent that involves imposing structure and rules, and that's not a bad thing. Kids tend to thrive on a predictable routine and certainly need to learn right from wrong. Not to mention that between work and all our other responsibilities, our "free" time seems to consist of a whole lot of errand running on a parent's part and time spent in shopping carts for the kids. It's the Ice Cream Moments that help balance it all out. Every once in a while when we're playing together with abandon, when we're out for a walk, when we're in the middle of a major tickle session, I think to myself "This is an ice cream moment. Eat it up."

I don't remember having too many of those moments with my own parents, who remain so serious, so hard to break out of their routines. As immigrants who came to this country with nothing but their educations, the majority of their energy went toward building a future, which didn't seem to leave much time for eating ice cream. Even today, it's difficult to get them to just relax, to just come over and BE with their grandchildren. To savor a second chance at an Ice Cream Moment. Perhaps that's why seeing my little boy share such a rare instance with my dad was all the sweeter.

My aunt passed away last week at the very young age of 54 after a horrific (but blessedly brief) battle with cancer. In her final weeks one of the few things she could stomach and actually requested to eat was a milkshake. Melted ice cream. Rationally, I know the creamy texture was all her broken body could handle, but in my heart I like to believe she wanted to share a few more Ice Cream Moments with us before she left.

So as summer finally begins to arrive my wish is that we all savor the Ice Cream Moments we've been given and strive to create more delicious memories. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the grass. Blow bubbles just because. Ditch your dinner routine and have a picnic in the park. Just don't let the chance to savor an Ice Cream Moment pass you by, because just like the real thing those times will melt away far before we're ready.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dancing my way through motherhood

When I was 5 years old, my mom signed me up for ballet lessons. We bought the pink tutu, the tights, the shoes, the whole works, and I couldn't wait. I twirled around the kitchen in my finery, spun my way from room to room. The Big Day couldn't come quickly enough.

Then two days before the Big Day, disaster struck in the form of the chicken pox. I was covered from head to dancing feet in the ugly, itchy rash. Still, on the appointed day I donned my dancing gear (itch! scratch!) and optimistically informed my parents I was ready for class (ITCH!!!! SCRATCH!!!) When my dad calmly tried to explain there could be no dance lessons due to the highly contagious nature of my predicament, I did what any 5-year-old would do and called his decades of medical training into question, demanded a second opinion with a "real" doctor, and then burst into tears.

We missed that whole session of ballet, and somehow signing up for a new one got lost in the shuffle. I'm not sure if we just forgot to do it, or if like most kids, my interests changed, but I can thank the chicken pox in part for scratching Prima Ballerina off my future career list.

Now more than three decades later, despite my lack of formal training I've become a dancer of a very different sort. I find myself performing this dance with the kids, dancing alone, dancing even when I don't know that I'm dancing. At church, in the grocery store checkout line, you name the place, and I'm probably dancing. It's become a part of who I am, a physical manifestation of the movement and shift that's taken place in my life. The steps are simple- it's just a gentle back and forth, back and forth sway. I call it The Mom Dance.

There's no course to take to learn the dance- it happens on the job as soon as a child is placed in your arms. That's when seemingly endless days that blur into nights of rocking, cradling, bouncing and soothing eventually come together to form a recital of sorts and voila: The Mommy Dance is born. After that point, you'll often find yourself swaying whether the "music" is tears or laughter, whether you're holding a child or not. Back and forth, back and forth.

I've slipped into the habit of watching and listening to other moms with great interest these days, and many of them seem to move just as effortlessly back and forth through the journey of motherhood. Maybe it's all for show, but they seem to be capable of going from "Mom" to "Not Mom" mode with relative ease, while I've found myself pretty much stuck in one gear for the past four years.

I know, I know, the grass is often greener on the other side of the diaper bag, and we are definitely not among those blessed with a host of family/friends/help nearby to relieve us from the everyday-ness of everyday. Still, as I sit in a rare moment of solitude and catch myself swaying back and forth in my seat, I can't help but wonder what it will take for me to follow Stella's lead and get my groove back.

One of my favorite courses in graduate school was applied linguistics (I'm weird that way) where I first learned the term "code switching." It's usually applied to bilingual children who have the ability to seamlessly navigate their different languages. They almost never make the mistake of using one language with speakers of the other. They intrinsically grasp and efficiently use the phonology, syntax and mannerisms of each linguistic variety. I, on the other hand, forget that it us customary to close the bathroom door when in a group of adults.

Sure, my husband and I go out "sans enfants" from time to time (a 2-hour interlude during which we usually end up talking about the kids) and we even recently took our first child free trip. But I still feel clumsy when I'm away from my main post, fumbling through what has suddenly become unfamiliar territory, despite the fact it was my stomping grounds for nearly 34 pre-baby years. And when I am home with them, which is basically day after day after day, I still at times feel resentful of the times I must put on a happy face and dance whether I'm in the mood to boogie or not.

But despite my awkward dance steps, despite my occasional shock when realizing my current dancing shoes lean more toward sensible than strappy, the older I get (I'm still not so sure about "wiser") I am coming to realize that the dance is inherently unique. Every parent needs to find his/her own rhythm and pace. What works for the mom down the street, or the one down the Facebook status update list (you know, the one who hit the parent-teacher conference on the way to the Kid Rock concert, with an apparent wardrobe change in a telephone booth), may or may not work for me, and I'm working on being OK with that.

The important thing is to just keep moving, back and forth, back and forth. To keep trying to find a way to stay balanced, to find a chance to recharge, all while constantly in motion. The struggle to maintain an individual identity while maintaining devotion to children will always be there, and it may never get any easier.

My children, for all the tantrums, the tiny fingerprints on newly Windex-ed windows, and the mommy guilt that comes with them, have done the seemingly impossible- they've turned a not-so-graceful, not so sure-footed, untrained woman into a dancer. And for them, for their sweet smiles and their silly questions and their sticky fingers, I will throw my heart into this challenging, precarious, not-quite-ready-for-primetime performance.

Because the dance goes on.

And deep down I know I don't want to miss a step.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The manicure- a mom's weeklong experiment

I think I can probably count the number of manicures I've had in my life on the unpolished fingers of both hands.

I have a vague memory of getting one right after I met the man who would one day become my husband, and I know I had one before our wedding, but other than that I can't "nail" down specifics.

The few times I have gone, rather than find it relaxing, having all the attention focused on me feels stifling and uncomfortable. I actually feel guilty sitting still while someone else is working. I find it hard to resist the urge to jump out of the seat and fix the manicurist a sandwich or straighten up the magazine rack or something. I guess I'm just not a manicure kind of girl.

But lately I've been feeling that more that my whole life could use a little buff and shine, that my cuticles aren't the only ragged things around here. Perhaps it's motherhood taking its toll, perhaps it's the isolation of largely working from home, or perhaps I'm just getting freaking lazy. While I've never been a Glamourpuss, I used to manage a fairly decent impression of a semi-stylish, sufficiently groomed modern woman that at least didn't break anyone's TV when I showed up to report the news. But lately I seem to have taken up residence in a fleece-friendly comfort zone somewhere dangerously close to Frumpsville, and it's been driving me crazy.

Maybe if I started with a manicure, the rest would fall into place. Maybe Manicured Mona would be the kind of stylish, pulled together, mom I find myself ogling at the playground. The kind who wears yoga pants to actually practice yoga. Maybe I would remember how to converse with adults. Maybe I could manage to wear socks that match my outfit. Or each other. Maybe I could nail it.

So one Saturday afternoon after work, I walked into the nail shop and boldly requested a manicure. It was the launch of what will henceforth be known as Operation Polished Image (OPI*), a 7-day hands-on experiment.

* No sponsorship or promotional ties to the nail polish brand by the same name.

Day 1

First dilemma: picking a color. In my limited manicure experience I've always stuck with clear polish, not wanting to draw too much attention to my hands. But this was Operation OPI! New territory! I was turning over a new leaf! Manicured Mona needed a bold start. A color to convey my newfound togetherness. So I went with a very pale pink.

I survived the scrapity scrapity scrapity of the cuticle picker, sat still long enough for the polish to dry, and carefully loaded my lovely, soft, polished, elegant hands into my car. A small plastic Tigger fell off the dashboard and was heading right toward my polish, but miraculously seemed to change course in midair and move away from the heavily guarded Green Zone around my nails. All hail the power of OPI.

At home, my sweet, caring husband scored big points by spotting the change right away.

"It's a whole new me!" I explained.

"Hmmmm? OK?" (He is, after all, a man.)

Day 2

I've turned into Vanna White. I find myself wanting to show off my manicure to anyone who cares to look, which of course, is no one. At brunch after church, I dramatically gesture to my husband and children over the menu at our local diner.

"Would you like these lovely pancakes that come with your choice of either sausage OR bacon?" (Attempting to use my elegant hands to make air pictures of pork products.)

"Hmmm? OK?" says my 3-year-old, every bit his father's son.

"Want dip dip!" says my baby girl, which happens to be her word for ketchup, which happens to be what she squirted all over my dress. The cute one I wore to go with my new manicure. As I bend down to wipe it off, she sticks her ketchup hands into my hair. The hair I actually took the time to blow dry this morning to go with my new manicure.

I feel cracks forming in my new Polished Image. And is that a crack in my polish???? Deep breaths.

Day 3

It's a new day and Manicured Mona is ready to tackle the world. Another day of ditching the sweats for what the What Not To Wear crew often refer to as a "Cute Mommy On the Go" outfit. Except that we had nowhere to go.

Meanwhile the dishes had been piling up in the sink, as I had feared the damage they might inflict on my nails. I know I own some rubber kitchen gloves... but where are they?

45 minutes of searching in vain under the sink and in the closet (while mediating minor skirmishes on the toddler front) turned up nothing. Nothing except dust bunnies all over my Cute Mommy outfit and is that another freaking crack in my polish????

Day 4

And on the fourth day, the stomach bug hit. And there was much vomiting throughout the land. And much laundering and scrubbing and Lysol and Pedialyte and Motrin drops and popsicles. And much comforting of feverish little ones who just needed to be held by the hands that love them and didn't care at all about polish or image or anything else. And there was much anxious placing of big hands against hot little foreheads, followed by anxious hands pressed together with silent prayers of "Please, please, please just let them feel better."

Day 5

See Day 4.

Day 6

The 48-hour plague has lifted but we are all a little worse for the wear. The house is a mess, the cupboards are bare, the work is stacked up. I have frazzled nerves, frizzy hair, and yes, that is in fact a fleece sweatshirt. As I pulled my arms and my nails (which now have so many cracks they look like a relief map of the Grand Canyon) into those familiar sleeves I felt simultaneously at home and lost.

Day 7

The polish is gone, literally. I scrubbed it off this morning, with a bit of a heavy heart and some acetone that probably dates back to the Reagan administration. Sure, I could, and I probably should, invest in more regular manicures. It's not an expensive indulgence, I like the way it looked (for the first 2 days) and I know I need more "me time" than my semi-annual dental cleaning currently provides. But I also feel like OPI was a bit of a failure. Or more specifically, that I was a bit of a failure.

Couldn't I keep my act together for one stinking week? How naive was I to think that a little bit of color on my nails would somehow transform me into Super Mom. OPI didn't come with backup troops in the form of a cleaning lady, a nanny, a stylist, or even the promise of a nap. I was still the same Mona, still the same mom, still a little bit of a mess, now with smeared nail polish remnants to remind me of my shortcomings.

Later that night during a family get together I sat quietly away from the crowd, unable to shake the frustration, wringing my unpolished hands. I watched my sweet little boy put his arms around his sister to comfort her when she fell. I marveled at his thoughtfulness as he played with his cousins, aunts and uncles. I listened to a goofy giggle and felt it warm my heart. Then I held my baby girl's hand and walked her over to her grandfather's waiting, open arms.

For a brief moment, all three of our hands connected. One was small, unlined, smooth, and so much stronger than its tiny size implied. One was marked with deep grooves, the slight shaking of age and disease, and was far stronger than its condition implied. And one was caught somewhere in the middle. Not as smooth as it once had been, and certainly not as polished.

But, I realized with a smile, far stronger than I ever knew.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Building and Rebuilding

I am not crafty, let's just be honest about that. I think after 37 years on this planet it's the least I can do in the name of self-awareness. Pots of glue, boxes of crayons, new sets of markers... I buy them, and then have no idea what to do with them. When I hear "craft" used as a verb I want to throw up a little bit. A mere trip to Michael's is enough to bring back painful memories of 6th grade art class and as a result, break out in hives. I've tried scrapbooking, stamping, painting classes and here's the unsweetened truth: I stink at them.

I'm trying very hard not to pass on my craftophobia to my children and to instead encourage their budding creative spirits. They both love to color, draw, paint, and squish Play Doh into whatever crevices they can find, and I think that's wonderful. I will happily set them up with their (gulp!) craft of choice and let the mess... er... magic happen. It's just not something I participate in. Which is all fine and good, but sometimes we need to do something together.

The last few weeks it's felt like one of the few things we've done together is bicker. My 3.5 year old son has been bent on asserting his independence. Loudly. My 1.5 year old daughter has been asserting her throwing arm. Now 25 weeks pregnant, my hormones have been asserting their domination over my life. Throw in a few snowstorms, stuffy noses and long nights at work and you've got the recipe for Frustrated Family.

So that's why I got out the blocks. They've been sitting on the shelf for the past few weeks, ignored in favor of other toys, as often happens with kids' varying preferences. But whether they are Mega Bloks, Legos or no name generic blocks, Noah loves to build towers, forts, houses, towns, you name it, and his sister loves to knock them down. And I've always found something therapeutic in the snapping and unsnapping of colorful plastic pieces. I didn't do much of it as a child, as I was afraid to compete (and fail yet again) against my Lego-obsessed champion builder of a big brother. Now, though I may curse the errant piece that impales the sole of my foot at 5:30am, I do find some strange comfort in those big bins of blocks.

We'd been getting on each other's nerves all morning and the mood was still tense as we plunked down on the playroom floor. Ceci was content to repeatedly make and unmake her stack of blocks, while Noah and I worked together on a garage for his fire truck. The tension was still evident as he dumped out the bin and I began snapping pieces a little too forcefully.

But then we both reached for the same piece at the same time. I smiled as our hands connected, his tiny smooth palm intertwined with mine. The smile became a giggle, the giggle turned into a laugh, which then turned into a 5-minute ticklefest that left us both out of breath. And then, with the fog lifted and our hearts happy, we got back to the business of blocks.

As I cleaned up the playroom that night I turned those pieces over in my hand and mentally ran through the day. And I said a silent prayer we would always work together to rebuild what might seem broken.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of a bad mom: I don't like ultrasounds

When your OBGYN calls at 4pm on a Friday following your ultrasound and says "Don't worry, but..." the natural reaction is of course to worry. A lot.

From what I remember, the rest of the conversation came in whooshing bits and pieces. "We found a small issue"... "Nothing to be alarmed about".... "Just need to monitor."

It took a few seconds but when my brain stopped spinning enough to process those pieces it did in fact realize everything was more than likely going to be OK. Just a little hiccup on the last ultrasound, a very common issue called a "placental lake" that rarely, if ever turns out to be a true complication.

"And the good news is, you get to have lots more ultrasounds!" my doctor enthusiastically cheered into the phone.

"Oh, that's... uh... great," I lied, through clenched teeth.

Worried that I was still worried, she did her best to continue to reassure me about the growing baby's health. I finally had to interrupt. "I believe you, Dr.X., really I do. It's just that...." (deep breath) "You see I don't really..." (how do I put this so I don't sound like the worst mom in the world?) "Ummm...." (come on, just spit it out) "I don't actually enjoy ultrasounds. They really creep me out. The baby looks so waxy and see through and bony and then there are all those TEETH, I mean, who knew that fetuses have teeth? It's the stuff nightmares are made of. Really scary nightmares!!!" It was like a geyser erupted: I couldn't stop gushing about my neurotic, Bad Mommy feelings about a diagnostic exam.

And there was silence on the other end of the phone.

I steeled myself for the inevitable, certain she was about to call Protective Services to have my children removed from my custody, or at the very least refer me to a psychiatrist. But instead, she burst out laughing. While this was her first experience with Ultrasoundaphobia, she did seem to understand where I was coming from, and didn't judge. The same is not true for the rest of the Mommy Universe. I've tried explaining myself to my ultrasound-loving friends and I'm either greeted with blank stares or flat out hostility. Moms are a tough crowd.

This is now my third time round the pregnancy carousel and in my experience, ultrasounds are one of those things that moms-to-be are just "supposed" to love. The same way you're supposed to bring baby home to a fully-decked out nursery (oops) and you're definitely not supposed to ever have a sip of alcohol while pregnant (oops...hiccup).

I'm not sure when it happened but ultrasounds have become quite the cottage industry. The pictures you get from your appointment now come with instructions about proper care for scrapbooking purposes. I have seen those pictures used as cell phone screen savers, even Facebook profile pics. The test is available in 3 and even 4-D (I have no idea what the fourth "D" even is, but it still scares me). There is a whole chain of "drive-thru," non-medically ultrasound businesses that have popped up, including one in my town, to offer parents-in-waiting another opportunity to sneek a peak at baby in his/her cocoon, often set to music and available for your purchase. It's Glamour Shots: Fetal Edition.

And that's all fine and good. I'm thrilled for those of you out there who love your ultrasounds. Frame those pictures! Pop some popcorn and pop in that souvenir DVD one Saturday night, or every Saturday night if you so desire. Just don't judge me if I don't turn into a puddle of goo every time that goo is applied to my belly and the fuzzy images begin to appear.

With Baby #1, my husband took the morning off work so he could attend the ultrasound with me. The brochure from the office said we could bring up to three additional people with us. I remember thinking that was odd, since I couldn't think of one, much less three, other people for whom I would raise my shirt and show the outside of my belly, much less the inside. Maybe it was a Mardi Gras special?

After I was appropriately gooped up and the exam was underway, the technician turned to us and excitedly said, "Oh, the baby is staring right at you! Quick- take a look!"

I turned my head toward the screen, naively expecting to see a chubby, waving Gerber baby holding a sign that said "Hi, Mom!"

"AHHHHH!" I gasped, a little too loudly. It was Casper the Friendly(?) Ghost in fetal form. Since then I've typically gone solo to appointments, and have even endured questioning glances and what feels like scorn from the office staff.

"Are you sure there's nobody else coming?" one tech asked at my last appointment, as she looked behind me in surprise.

"Oh, I did bring this baby in my belly, is that OK? I couldn't find a sitter." I tried to joke. Silence.

Don't get me wrong, I am nothing but grateful for the advances in modern medicine and imaging that make ultrasounds possible. They are incredibly valuable diagnostic tests that provide a host of critical, often life-saving information on the health of both baby and mother. But so does a colonoscopy, and I don't happen to get mushy about that either. I believe that if God had intended ultrasound images to be a necessary part of the mother-child bonding process, He would have equipped the uterus with a partial window, much like the one on my oven.

I know many women say the ultrasound makes them feel more connected to the baby or makes the pregnancy finally feel "real," and again, I'm happy for you if that's the case. For me, the 9 straight months of nausea, fatigue and banging on my internal organs is about as real as it gets. Believe me when I say that not loving ultrasounds has nothing to do with how I feel about my children. There will be plenty of time for photos once this precious child is on the outside. I don't need to see an image of developing limbs to look forward to the day I'll one day hold tiny hands in mine, or play piggies with little toes. For now, I'll just close my eyes and rely on a combination of good old fashioned imagination and pure love to conjure up images of this growing piece of my heart.

Now that's my kind of picture.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Defense of Valentine's Day

Candy hearts, paper doilies and boxes of cards emblazoned with loving images of cartoon characters. It all used to turn my stomach. Yes, I was an anti-Valentinian for years. Make that decades.

In fact, I can't remember a time in childhood or young adulthood I actually liked the big red holiday. Even in elementary school when every child was required to give a Valentine to every other child in the classroom, I didn't get it. I had a few playmates but for the most part I was a loner, and while we didn't use the term back in the day, I endured more than my share of bullying. Was a little piece of paper with a picture of Strawberry Shortcake hastily signed "Love, X" or a chalk-flavored candy heart with the words "Be Mine" supposed to change that? Even a 6-year-old wasn't born yesterday.

It was never a big holiday at home, either. My Egyptian parents are probably the most generous, loving people you will ever know, but the particular expression of love in the form of balloons, cupcakes, cards and other assorted sundries is just not part of their cultural vernacular. It was a quiet day at our house, much like any other.

In high school, I remember the infamous flower deliveries that would take place on February 14th. At some point during Algebra II a student from the National Honor Society or Key Club would show up at the door bearing a bundle of red and pink carnations they'd been selling at a table outside the cafeteria. They'd call out the names of the lucky recipients, with the pretty, popular girls ending up with a veritable bouquet on their desks. That's when I'd start fumbling through my Trapper Keeper, trying to look busy in an attempt to hide the obvious fact that I wasn't getting any of those blossoms.

So I quickly learned to loathe the annual February love fest and began dreading it as soon as the Christmas merchandise hit 75% off and the store shelves turned red. In college and grad school I buried myself in my textbooks and did my best to pretend it didn't exist. One year, the pipes burst in my apartment on Valentine's Day (an appropriate homage to the gushing tears of loneliness?) Another time I arranged to have my wisdom teeth pulled on February 14th. It seemed like the perfect occasion for a painful procedure (in particular one accompanied by prescription drugs). But the year my neighbor's Valentine bouquet was accidentally delivered to me was the last straw. Stupid Hallmark holiday, I muttered to myself as I transported the giant blossoms back to their rightful owner.

So that's how I came to be a Valentine hater. By the time I was in my late 20s I was fully convinced the day was a commercial conspiracy designed largely to make me feel like a lonely, incompetent fool. Until one day I realized, it wasn't. I'm fuzzy on the exact date but I think it was around the time I lost a friend in a horrible accident. Or maybe it was when my mom was diagnosed with a horrible disease. Or when my dad was diagnosed with a horrible disease. It might have been the year I finally said "no more" to a relationship that was painful and unhealthy. No, I didn't have a boyfriend, I still didn't have anyone asking me to be their Valentine, but I did have love. Love for others, for life, and perhaps most importantly, for myself.

One husband and two little blessings (with a 3rd on the way) later and I'm a convert, a full-fledged Valentine-o-holic. Our house is decked out in red, we've baked heart-shaped cookies and gotten our fingers covered in pink glitter glue while making cards. Yes, it's a bit much, and yes it's a bit silly, but I don't care. I've finally learned what unconditional love means, and I'm not afraid to wear it (along with assorted other sticky things) on my sleeve.

Don't get me wrong, our love and our life are far from perfect. My two adorable little Valentines throw more than their fair share of tantrums and most days leave me feeling so completely drained I can barely drag my giant, pregnant self up to bed. And after 7 years of marriage I fear my husband and I have become a wee bit too comfortable, and more than a tad unromantic, as evidenced by a clear violation of bathroom etiquette in each other's presence. Our day to day life is hardly the stuff that fills a Lifetime for Women Valentine Movie Marathon. But I love it anyway.

If you still hate Valentine's Day and argue we don't need a special day set aside to show love, I can only hope you feel that way because your life is absolutely overflowing with love already. But even if that's the case, what's the harm? I refuse to believe this is a case of "less is more." But if on the other hand you are feeling like I did for several decades- that love hurts, that love is something for others to enjoy, and that Valentine's Day is just a chocolate-coated reminder of it all, I understand. And my Valentine's wish for you is that you find the love you're looking for inside yourself.

Because mate or no mate, kids or no kids, it really can be a happy day.

Cross my heart.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Maternity Clothes

They're frumpy, they're stretchy, they're gigantically ugly. But there comes a time (or two, or three) in every woman's life when she has no choice but to put on those awful maternity clothes. Well, I suppose you do have a choice but that involves wearing your husband's t-shirts with your stretchiest sweat pants and hibernating in your home for 9 months. Like I said, no choice.

With my first child, I went a good 26 weeks without having to pull that panel over my burgeoning belly. With #2, it happened a teensy bit earlier. And now, with baby #3 cooking away, I find myself digging those dreaded clothes out of the closet and at least contemplating putting them on even sooner.

I still remember my first maternity shopping experience. I'm not a huge shopper to begin with and I don't own a lot of name brand clothing, so I wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect. But I do value how I look (and was also going through pregnancy in front of a camera lens as a TV news reporter) and figured it wouldn't be too hard to find stylish, reasonably priced maternity clothes. HA! No matter what store I was at, what rack I searched, It seemed the merchandise came in two varieties: muumuu and muumuuer. Not to mention the giant, flowery prints. It was like everything was designed for the star of TLC's "Pregnant at 70." Bleccch. And then there was the cost. You want me to pay what??? To wear this garbage for maybe four months??? Talk about morning sickness!

Over the course of two (and now a half) pregnancies, I've realized there are ways to survive pregnancy in a somewhat stylish state without breaking the bank. A few stores like Target and Old Navy do carry affordable maternity wear, although I personally have found the fit of both brands to be a little... odd...if you happen to be on the petite side, and my tall friends have had similar complaints.

One of my favorite discoveries is the Bella Band, a stretchy piece of fabric that you can wear over your unbuttoned pre-pregnancy pants. At about $20, it will not only help you extend the life of your regular wardrobe but it will also allow you to get back into it faster post-baby. Because nothing says "baby blues" like having to wear maternity clothes when you're NOT pregnant.

I've also learned to put aside my slight OCD issues surrounding other people's clothing when it comes to maternity wear. Ebay, craigslist, consignment stores and Mom-to-Mom sales are all wonderful places to find great deals, as most women are more than happy to part with their lots when the baby-making is done.

And that brings me to what I hope will become a new tradition among women: paying it forward. When you find out a friend is pregnant, why wait until the baby is almost out to shower her with gifts? Go into your closet, dig out those elastic waistband pants and blousy blouses, call up your other friends and ask them to do the same, then throw her a maternity shower. I guarantee it will be one of the most useful, generous gifts you can give. Heck, throw in a pedicure for her giant swollen feet and your pregnant friend will be SO grateful she'll name the baby after you, no matter what the gender!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A personal look at the Egyptian crisis

No I don't live in a pyramid, and no I don't have a pet camel.

These were the answers I sometimes wished I could tatoo on my forehead as a child, given the inevitable barrage of silly questions that came every time I told someone my parents were from Egypt. Sure, it was cool to bring in papyrus drawings and little alabaster sphinxes for Show-and-Tell, but for most of my childhood being Egyptian felt like an annoyance bordering on a burden. I secretly wished my parents were from the Upper MIdwest and not Upper Egypt. I didn't want to be "exotic" or "foreign." I didn't want to be different.

Most days, I didn't feel very Egyptian until my parents came home. While at school or playing with friends, I could convince myself I was just as American as they were. Sure, I didn't have that nice, shiny, straight hair, but I had Cabbage Patch Dolls and ate Twinkies just like everyone else.

Sundays, however, were a different story. We went to our Egyptian church for our hours (yes, plural!) long mass, then Sunday School, then out to lunch with our Egyptian friends, followed by and Egyptian dinner with our Egyptian family. I was torn between embracing the familiar sounds, smells and tastes of that world and craving the other. It was baklava vs. Barbies and the winner was unclear.

My mom was a university professor and since she had summers off we spent many of them in Egypt, with my brother and I complaining and whining most of the 10+ hour trip over. In our petulant tween and teenage years, we were simply not able to appreciate what an amazing opportunity it was. We wanted to swim in our backyard pool, not in the Red Sea. We preferred modern wonders (like Pong on the Atari) over ancient ruins. We just wanted to be like all our friends. We just wanted to be "normal."

Somewhere between college and grad school I finally came to the conclusion that hailing from Egypt was actually kind of cool. I was fortunate enough to live and work in Europe for a time and took advantage of the proximity to visit the Motherland on my own on several occasions. But it was still just that: my mother's (and father's) land. Not mine.

I guess it ultimately took 37 years and an international geopolitical crisis for me to fully embrace Egypt as a piece of myself. As the protests began last week, I found myself simultaneously unable to turn away and yet scared to watch. As I sit on my comfortable couch in my comfortable house watching the unrest (I love that word, it makes it sound like just a bad night's sleep) unfold, it occurs to me that one decision on the part of my parents, one lucky move is all that separates me from the desperate, frustrated masses. With eyes that look just like mine, they are crying for what I have been fortunate enough to enjoy my entire life. I fear for my family there, for their safety, for their very survival, for the survival of the entire country. Will I ever be able to take my children there? Will my parents ever return to the place they loved enough to leave? It comes down to this: if Egypt is in crisis, then so am I.

One member of my family in Cairo says he'll never leave. He says this is the moment to fight for his country, to fight for what he deserves. And he's right- I just can't wrap my brain around why I never had to fight. There but for the grace of God.

Egypt's next chapter is being written before our eyes. I hope that when we look back on this period, it will one day be the country's proudest hour. Until then, all I can do is pray in words from the Bible that have never made more sense:

"Blessed be Egypt, MY people."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A letter to welcome a new family member

I knew you were there.

This isn't my first or even second time around this crazy, wonderful, unbelievable ride, and I certainly didn't need a little plus sign on a stick to tell me you were there. I knew it. It was that old familiar feeling, the uncomfortable queasiness that is definitely NOT from bad scallops or one glass of wine too many or anything else... no, it's a feeling all its own. And it's undeniable. But I did deny it, and I'm sorry for that.

For about 3 weeks, I knew you were there and pretended you weren't. It was all a little bit shocking, as we were still in the middle of that "Will we or won't we have three?" conversation (though we both knew the answer) and I don't think I handled it very well. Please don't be upset, it's not that I wasn't happy or excited or anything like that- I was just scared.

Scared of what? Pretty much everything. Scared I don't know what I'm doing, scared I'll scar you for life with something I did or didn't say or do, scared that 3 carseats won't fit in my backseat, scared of rocking the nicely sailing boat that is our current family life, scared I won't be able to give you and your siblings the time and attention you need and deserve, scared my going-to-work-in-a-fancy-suit days not to mention my going-to-the-beach-in-a-two-piece-bathing-suit days may be gone forever, scared I'll never get out of this house again. Just plain scared.

And then I heard it.

The unmistakable sound of your heart, that thump-thump-thump-thump beating so much faster than my own, and I realized maybe I'm not the only one who's scared. Maybe you're scared of what you've gotten yourself into. Scared of who you've gotten yourself into. Scared about those two lovable but loud little rugrats who seem to be in constant motion. Scared of what kind of life you'll find yourself in when you leave the cozy confines of your current inn. Just plain scared.

So let's be scared together. Let's face it, we're going to be doing pretty much everything together for the next few months, so we'd best team up. We can do this little one, that much I promise.

And I promise you that this time, I'll try not to complain quite as much about the swollen feet, the backaches and the other unmentionables. (If at all possible, I'd really appreciate it if you could not try to kick your way out via my ribs as was the case with your siblings, but I know your current floorplan is somewhat limited.) I promise to slow down a little bit and really try to savor what's happening when it's happening, instead of always reaching for what's ahead or dwelling on what's behind.

But most of all, I can promise you love. Love that is sometimes messy, never perfect but always unconditional.

I heard your heartbeat and I hope you can hear mine too, because I think we're both saying the same thing: Love me. Maybe I'm not what you expected, but love me anyway.

More than anything, it was that little thump-thump-thump-thump that I recognized right away. It's the song that's always been in my heart.

I knew you were there.

Baby #3 is due in mid June 2011.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Product Review- Kyocera Ceramic Knife

This is the first of my new weekly segments with Marino and the Morning Crew on WHMI 93.5FM in Livingston County. This week we're talking about a product I got for Christmas and have become slightly obsessed with- the Kyocera Ceramic Knife (

In the months leading up to Christmas I saw the infomercial dozens of times... I admit, I got completely sucked in by the slicing and dicing action. Now, I know what you're thinking, this sounds a whole lot like the Ginsu knives of days past! But after reading several reviews, and then seeing that Oprah picked it as one of her "Favorite Things" this year I figured it must be legit. Santa clearly agreed, as I found the 5.5 inch "Santoku" and the 3 inch paring knife under the tree!''

I've been using them for about 2 weeks now and I can honestly say these are the best knives I've ever had. At first glance, they don't even look real- in fact, they look like the knife in my kids' play kitchen! When you pick it up it doesn't feel real- it's incredibly lightweight and easy to handle. But I'm telling you, that blade makes chopping even the toughest veggies (I used it on a raw butternut squash tonight) a cinch.

If your New Year's resolution involves healthier eating it's very likely you're going to be doing a lot more cooking, and a good knife will go a long way. Don't be afraid to use a very sharp knife- any chef will tell you it's far safer than a dull one. These ceramic knives are relatively inexpensive and if they last half as long as the infomercial claims you'll more than get your money's worth!

Happy chopping!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Starting 2011 on a sad note: coping with the loss of a pet

Tigger and Pooh, December 1997
It was only supposed to be a weeklong fling.

It was the fall of 1997 and I was the new teacher on the block at a prestigious Southern private school. One day over lunch I happened to mention my affinity for the feline persuasion. Shortly after, a colleague asked if I'd mind cat sitting her two tabbies when her highly allergic boyfriend came to visit.

"Why not?" I told her. After all, I was feeling quite grownup those days. I had my first real job and my first real apartment (Look Ma, no roommates!). Surely I could handle the responsibility of a weekend with two furry friends. I expected they might scratch my furniture, and that was OK. I figured they might have an accident at some point, but that was not a problem. I bought food, litter boxes, toys and scratching posts. I was fully prepared for those cats. Just not prepared to fall in love with them.

But that's exactly what happened, and when they went back to their owner my "big girl" apartment suddenly felt hollow and empty. Fortunately, love was on our side and the owner's allergic boyfriend quickly became the allergic fiance. And Tigger, Pooh and I instantly became a family.

They were young, frisky, and eager to assert their independence, and so was I. Together we spent two years in Chattanooga, TN and I think we all helped each other grow up a bit. They gave me something to come home to in that unfamiliar, somewhat lonely town. I had a sense of belonging, or at least of someone(s) belonging to me. And while the three of us spent many a Saturday night curled up together on the couch watching movies (OK, it was figure skating), and I knew full well that I was just a few hairballs short of Crazy Cat Lady status, life with my girls was very good.

The next few years were tumultuous, bringing drastic changes in time zones, careers, relationships and more. Through it all, my girls stuck with me. At times they seemed restless, ornery, frustrated, and so was I. But when a tall, fair and handsome man walked into our lives, they fell instantly in love, and so did I.

Our family grew, and a few years later grew again. At first the cats, my original "babies," weren't quite sure what to make of the wriggling, noisy little bundle we brought home. They were confused, disoriented, out of their element, and so was I. But eventually we all let instinct take over and found our comfort zones. For me, that meant cuddling my baby boy most of the day and night. For the cats, that meant spending most of the day under my bed, then peeking out to see if the coast was clear for cuddling to make sure I didn't forget who they were.

We lost our sweet Tigger to kidney disease in the summer of 2008. Our little boy was about to turn one and was blissfully too young to have any idea what was happening. I envied his innocence and cried myself to sleep for weeks. Tigger had always been the outgoing, happy-go-lucky one, while her sister was the standoffish, silent diva. But in Tigger's absence, Pooh seemed to understand we needed a little more meow in our home and stepped up to the plate.

Pooh, December 2010
Pooh was with us until a just a few days ago, when heart disease took its toll. It just doesn't seem possible that both my girls are now gone- I keep expecting to see a furry head pop around the corner or feel a paw poke tentatively at my lap. It's hard to imagine that the loss of two such small creatures can create such an immense void in our home, in our lives, and in our hearts. Those cats helped usher in a new era in my life, so perhaps it's only fitting that I'm now beginning a new year, a new decade without them.

As is often the case with cats, the end came quickly with both our girls. One minute they were fine, the next clearly not. In those last moments, they gave out an unfamiliar, painful cry and could only be comforted by the touch of those they loved. And tonight, so will I.