Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dancing Through The Pain: Thoughts on Coping With A Loved One's Illness

I can't say that I've ever been a big fan of Mondays.

Sure, sometimes Mondays are a bit of a relief- a respite from the craziness that more than 48 solid hours of sports events, social activities, church, family, and general togetherness can bring. And as someone who works from home, by Monday morning I desperately need everyone to vacate my "office."

But like a bad airplane flight, the reentry into the work/school week is never without a little bit of turbulence. No matter how smoothly you sail through the friendly weekend skies, come Monday morning you'd better fasten your seatbelt because things are about to get bumpy.

After using the jaws of life to separate child from mattress, Monday mornings will typically bring spilled milk (and the inevitable albeit useless tears), runaway permission slips, phantom homework assignments, and/or...Surprise!...3-hour conference calls that magically appear on your schedule.

As if Mondays aren't difficult enough, they also happen to be the one day of the week when we have simultaneously overlapping child activities, resulting in a life-sized version of Parental Taxi Twister: Put your right hand on cross country practice at the park, your left foot on dance class across town, now just contort your entire upper body into a lovely pretzel shape as you streeeettttccchhh your left hand over to the crockpot to make sure everyone somehow gets fed. Now grab the spinner and see what homework awaits should you ever get out of traction. By the time chores and baths are done on Monday night, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry, and I usually lack the strength to do either. Everything about the day leaves me feeling drained, constrained, and often, pained.

But my daughter, on the other hand- she LOVES Mondays, and not just because she's six years old and first grade is pretty much the best thing to ever happen since...well, kindergarten.

For her, school is just the appetizer to Monday's deliciousness. The main course is served at 5:30pm, when she has ballet. Every week at the appointed time, I marvel as my shy little flower is totally transformed, shedding all her normal inhibitions and putting on some kind of invisible coat of armor along with her leotard and tights. For one perfect hour, I watch her blissfully twirl and swirl across the room, and I wonder what it's like to feel so free.

I wonder if my dad, whose movements are no longer his own, remembers what that's like. Do his muscles, now ravaged by disease, hold deep within them the memories of carefree walks on the beach? Do his limbs, now subject to spasms and tremors and forced into a wheelchair's submission, ache to be stretched and glide on their own?

I wonder if I could twirl fast enough or leap high enough to escape my own sadness over his plight, or my guilt of not being able to make everything better.

I wonder how to shield my little girl from the sheer heft of certain situations that can stop us from even leaving the ground when we try to leap.

I watch her spin and find it hard to imagine there was ever a time I moved through life with such joyful abandon, unburdened by the weight of life. Did I once whirl fearlessly through my days, never fearing what was around the corner?

Watching a parent suffer from a physically debilitating disease means learning to appreciate life in a different way. In the absence of movement, you must find the beauty and joy in stillness. It's always there, but sometimes, you can't help but wonder what it would be like to dance again.

A few months ago my daughter performed in her very first ballet recital. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon when she took to the stage, and through a miraculous combination of divine intervention and modern wheelchair transport service, her grandfather was there to see it.

As the house lights went down and the spotlight came up, the music started and I felt myself truly exhale for the first time in months. For that one brief hour, there were no thoughts of hospitals, therapists, wheelchairs, or medications. No dark, scary tunnels in the mind. No pain or suffering. There was only music and dancing. Lightness and light.

So now, when I start to feel myself sinking deep into a case of the Mondays, that's where I go: to a place filled with movement and freedom. A place where we soar and we leap. A place not bound by gravity or any other worldly force. A place where the dance never ends.

And I know I'm not alone. As she slides her tiny feet out of her pink slippers at the end of class my little ballerina looks at me with sad, tear-filled eyes.

"Mama, I don't like it when it's time to stop dancing," she says.

Then I see a twinkle in her eyes as she leans in close and whispers in my ear.

"That's why I dance in my dreams."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Letter Of Thanks To My Youngest Son's Blanket

Dear Blankie,

I'm sorry to wake you- I know you've had a rough few nights, between the whole "Monsters In The Closet" thing and that emergency 3am wash cycle (I blame both the monsters in the closet and the extra glass of lemonade at dinner), but given that it is the season for giving thanks, I just wanted to take a few minutes to let you know how very thankful I am for you.

I know, some may find it strange that I'm expressing my gratitude for an inanimate, ragged bundle of cotton and thread, but it's really no exaggeration to say you are part of the family. After all, for the past several years, anywhere we go, you go, kind of like a fourth child. A very quiet, well-behaved, fourth child with a blessedly small appetite.

And like most children at the bottom of the totem pole, the trickle-down parenting effect has not always been kind to you. I'm embarrassed to admit I don't even know where you came from. And I have no idea how or when you became so important to our youngest son (aka, Little Linus). But alas, here we are, the two of you intertwined in his bed in a tangle of limbs and cotton, and me watching with awe (and maybe just the tiniest bit of jealousy) at the bond you share.

I just want you to know that while I might be a little sketchy on some of the details of your life, and you may feel like you're invisible at times, rest assured that I see you and I am fully aware of the role you play in all of our lives.

After all, you're the first thing he looks for in the morning and the last thing he asks for before bed. You join us for meals (occasionally transforming into a napkin), accompany us on vacations (the ultimate travel pillow), and wiggle your way into family pictures across the globe (can you say photobomb?).

I'll never forget your first day of preschool (nice work hiding in little man's backpack), and how encouraging you were when a certain someone needed one last nuzzle to get him through the door.

Remember that time our guy woke up and declared it to be your 684th birthday? I hope you enjoyed the party, and I have to say, we should all look so good at your age.

And who could forget the Week of the Flu? You experienced such unspeakable horror during that stretch, yet you never failed to show up for duty, working day and night under brutal conditions, pausing only for trips to the wash. And trust me- as a mom, there are few chores more odious than the load of laundry which separates boy from blanket. It's up there with separating toilet from pee stains.

As long as we are speaking of the unspeakable, you've been such a source of comfort at the doctor's office over the years that I really think you might want to consider a career in medicine.

So from every fiber of my being, to every fiber of your...fibers, I offer you my thanks. Because while I'd like to think that there's a little bit of me sewn into you, when you get right down to it, you are everything I strive to be.

You stay soft and pliable even when I am hard.

You offer comfort when I cannot.

You take the night shift- no questions asked, and still wake up ready for the day.

You are best friend and trusted confidante, never judgmental or sharp-tongued.

You dry tears and calm fears.

One minute a cape, the next a parachute, you are endlessly entertaining and literally his soft place to land.

With the threadbare spots where you've been rubbed raw, your holes, and your many bumps and lumps, you remind me that love is never perfect, often messy, and rarely in the package we expect.

Now with kindergarten right around the corner, I know you might be worried about the future and what's to come. I wish I could say that your fears aren't valid, but you and I both know what eventually happens to even the most cherished toys, stuffed animals, and lovies as the kids grow older. Remember Toy Story 3? (How could you forget? I'm pretty sure we've sobbed through it together on the couch...about a dozen times).

But Blankie, you have my word: I am not going to let that happen- there will be no box in the attic or bag at the cub for you. After all you've done for us, after all you've been for us, it's my turn to offer YOU protection and comfort. Consider this my...well, my blanket statement: when that day comes that little man no longer clings to you, I promise to pick up where he leaves off.

I will keep you safe and cherish you, and on tough days (translation: the teenage years), when harsh words begin to fly I will rest my head on you and hear the faint echo of toddler belly laughs.

When attitudes harden I will rub your fluffy fleece and remember that there is a soft spot inside all of us.

And in those stinkiest of times, I will hold you close and inhale that magical, mystical, sweet-smelling scent that is the very essence of childhood.

For all the years you've warmed my child from the outside in and given him the strength and security to grow, I just want you to know that no matter what happens, this time I've got YOU covered.

A grateful mom

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Thoughts On Counting And The Syrian Crisis

My youngest child is obsessed with counting. He counts everything he sees: school buses in the morning, ants on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun, peas on his plate at dinner. But most of the time, he just counts for the sake of counting, a look of deep concentration on his face as he works to build sequence out of chaos. If not for his enormous mop of curly brown hair, you could surely see the neurons firing in his brain.

He doesn't want my help counting, just the occasional course correction. "Sixty-eight, Sixty-nine, sixty-ten. Sixty-ten, Mama?" he'll call out, knowing that something just isn't right about that.

"SEVENTY," I'll tell him, and then he's back on track for at least another nine numbers.

He's a typical preschooler: curious and charming, caught between equally strong desires to do it all himself and to be coddled like a baby. And as I sit and listen to the numbers pour out of him, I can't help but see another little boy who didn't get to count nearly high enough.

The photos of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore last week, have haunted me, not just because I see my own children in him, but because I see myself.

My parents also crossed an ocean, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, leaving family, friends, and all things familiar. While my mother, still just a newlywed, didn't hold me in her arms on that boat trip as Aylan's mom did, I have no doubt she held the very idea of her future children tightly in her heart as she left everything and everyone she knew behind.

Aylan's grief-stricken father says his wife clung to her baby boy, as any mother would, but when the boat capsized, he slipped out. But the truth is, that child didn't just slip though his mother's arms- he slipped through all of ours.

We live in a world where we fiercely debate budget deficits and debt crises, we talk at great length about border security and immigration policy, and then we sit back and lob nasty comments at each other from the comfort of our computer screens. And as we do so, dead children are washing up on beaches.

The Syrian crisis has raged for four years now. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled by whatever means possible, some walking for days, even months, only to be turned away. An estimated 2600 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, making it the most deadly migrant crossing in the world. How many more mothers will cling to their babies on rough seas as they pack into overcrowded boats? How many more families will undertake treacherous journeys in the hopes of finding safety, only to end in tragedy? You'd think as a human race we'd understand at this point that there is a very real cost to inaction, one that leaves a blemish on all of our souls.

The Bible is pretty clear on what to do in situations like this: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." (Leviticus 19:34). I'm not suggesting the specifics of immigration policy will be found in ancient text, but the underlying principles certainly are.

Aylan's life measured in years only numbered 1, 2, and 3. But I hope that one day we'll look back on his death and see that it was a turning point for the world in terms of compassion, empathy, and action.

We can't give Aylan more numbers, but we can make his life count.

Click here for more information about six organizations that are actively working to help the Syrian refugees. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Rock, A Mess, And A Back To School Wish

While he did not inherit my hair color, eye color, or complexion, my oldest son definitely got my early morning tendencies. But while I require some silent, solo time with a cup of coffee and a 4-mile run to ease into the day, he jumps right in with a splashy cannonball, needing to immediately vocalize every thought that popped into his head overnight.

In the spirit of compromise and an effort to preserve my sanity, we've made a deal that no matter what time he gets up, he has to stay in his room until 7am. You can more or less set your watch to the opening of his door, except on days where he is absolutely exhausted, in which case he has been known to snooze all the way to 7:03.

This summer we've fallen into a pretty blissful morning routine: he gets up, makes himself breakfast if I'm still exercising, and then we read some Harry Potter together on the couch. When my post-workout stink becomes unbearable, I head up to shower and he heads to the playroom to find an art project to work on until his younger siblings wake up.

Unfortunately, he also inherited my complete and total lack of any artistic ability.

Left: "Giraffe" by Mona Shand, circa 1979; Right: "Zebra" by Noah Shand, 2013

But I give the kid props: he's completely undeterred by this fact, and has spent a good portion of the making crafts. He now knows how to navigate Pinterest and search for things like "Easy Construction Paper Projects" or "Things To Do With Popsicle Sticks," which are of course cross-referenced under "Stuff Moms Throw Out When Kids Are Not Looking."

One day during this penultimate summer week, it was rock painting that he settled on. I consider it a sign of my love, confidence, and deep-seeded trust in him that I left him alone downstairs with what many consider to be a weapon of mass domestic destruction: glitter glue.

20 minutes later, I came back down to find a rock covered in globs of glitter and a very proud 8-year-old. "It has a secret message written on it!" he said excitedly, as I squinted to decipher the shiny streaks. Maybe it was in cursive? Or Mandarin? Or cursive Mandarin? Not wanting to heap false praise upon the thing, I told him it was an interesting use of color.

But 5 minutes later his glee had turned to dismay; it seems in attempting to move the rock, he had smudged his work beyond repair. "IT'S RUINED! IT'S A BIG GIANT MESS!!!" he wailed. Unsure of how to respond (and trying not to burn the pancakes), I kept my mouth shut and left him to deal with his artistic crisis on his own.

A few minutes passed and he came back, even more proud than before, the smudged streaks all gone, the entire surface of the rock now shining and shimmering in the light.

"Hey mom- check it out: I turned my mess into something great!" he said, and then bolted up the stairs, leaving me with the rock.

I keep hearing about how kids today lack resilience, how they are coddled and cuddled to the point where they feel entitled to success, and are utterly unprepared for the inevitable failures that come with being human. They hashtag all day long about the struggle being real, but the fact is, too few have actually done much in the way of struggling, or reaping the benefits of that fight.

I find it terrifying.

I watched the sunlight dance across the different colors on that rock and it reminded me of so many hopes I have for my kids: that they will grow to be strong and grounded; that they may find beauty where others see none; that they will learn to shine on their own, and not look to anyone else to light them up; that they will realize that our greatest accomplishments often rise from our greatest mistakes.

And so while it may sound odd, but as my kids start this new school year I wish them success, but also failure.

I wish them happiness, but also difficulty.

I wish them luck, both good and bad.

I wish them messes that turn into something great.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Battling The Birthday Blues: Thoughts On Turning 42

For many people in this country, turning 21 is a REALLY big deal. For me...not so much. Because I skipped a grade, I didn't hit that milestone until the summer after I finished college, so it was a tad anticlimactic. The majority of my classmates and friends had scattered in different directions after celebrating graduation (at bars I couldn't join them at, given my age), and I was already working full-time at O'Hare airport in Chicago as a passenger service agent for Air France.

So on the big day, after making the boarding announcement for the departing flight to Paris (in English and French, bien sûr) and folding up strollers at the end of the jetway, a few of my colleagues joined me at the somewhat sketchy bar in at the far end of the international terminal for my first legal drink. Given that most of them were French, they spent most of the time criticizing the wine list and looking generally displeased. It was not terribly festive.

And that was fine with me. Birthdays, at least my own, have just never been my thing. While I love baking cakes, decorating, and generally showering my kids and other family members with birthday love, when my turn comes around I tend to suffer from an annual case of the Birthday Blues. It typically lasts about one week and symptoms include, but are not limited to, compulsive over-introspection, a distinct feeling of not having accomplished enough in life, and the overwhelming desire to bury one's head in the sand. Or a jar of Nutella.

But this year, as I feel the familiar tug toward the pantry, I'm determined to stop the Birthday Blues in their tracks. So today, the day before my 42nd birthday, I'm doing my best to reflect on all the ways this is going to be twice as good as turning 21.

I've noticed that the older we get, the more we tend to idealize youth as a time of carefree, independent hedonism. But just between us, I was a hot mess. Of course, I didn't see it that way at the time.

In my 20s, I thought I was fearless. I solo backpacked through Europe. Worked my way across Australia. Took jobs in states I had never even visited. Climbed to the top of the Alps, and dove to the bottom of the Red Sea. But the truth is, I was afraid of pretty much everything.

I was afraid I'd never find my calling, so I picked up the career phone every single time it rang, trying on vocations like they were a stack of jeans at the Gap.

I was afraid I'd spend my life alone and never find Mr. Right, so I clung desperately to Mr. Wrong(s).

I was afraid I'd never be worthy of the love that was right in front of me, so I made myself as unloveable as I could.

I was afraid I wasn't strong enough, so I took on every physical challenge I could find.

I was afraid I hadn't had enough fun in my life, so I had way too much fun. (OK, this is not exactly a major regret.)

I was afraid I didn't know enough, so I pretended to know it all.

I was afraid of being wrong, so I never admitted it when I was.

I was afraid I'd never have enough, so I envied and coveted what everyone else had.

I was afraid of who I was, so I tried to be someone else.

In my 40s, I no longer think of myself as fearless, but I do fear less. 

I now know that in order to find my calling, I need to do a lot less talking and much more listening. Because no matter how much you turn up the volume, you can't drown out the voice inside. More importantly, I've learned you shouldn't even try.

I've learned that you don't have to be Ms. Perfect to find Mr. Right. And in letting go of your perceived imperfections, you open yourself up to the possibility being loved by someone else- flaws and all.

I now understand the immeasurable ocean of love a parent has for their child, and that nothing they ever do or say will change that.

I now see that strength comes not just from the things we choose to do, but in how we react to the things that are out of our control. My mom battled cancer over Thanksgiving break, and returned to work without missing a day. My dad is now physically unable to run, walk, or even stand unassisted, but lives life with a full heart and no complaints.

I'm still working on having enough fun. I'll keep you posted.

At this point I think I have enough advanced degrees and certificates from the School of Life to be the first to admit that I don't know very much. In fact, my kids remind me of it on a daily basis. But I've learned that the simple act of saying "I don't know," is yet another way to release yourself from the prison of perfection-seeking.

The same goes for being wrong. At least a dozen times a day, in my side career as a child referee, I find myself telling one party to say "I'm sorry" to another. Now I understand both how difficult, and how profound those words truly are, especially when followed by, "Please forgive me."

While I admit to still ogling this person's granite countertops, or that person's seemingly laid back lifestyle, today I've (mostly) stopped aching for what others have. I've learned that God doesn't give us what we want, he gives us what we need to move on. And whether it's joy or sadness, success or failure, it's always enough.

And perhaps that's the biggest thing I've learned: that I am enough. That includes my flaws, neuroses, saggy parts, and all.

Sure, there are things I still fear, because the world never appears more dangerous than the day you bring a child into it.

I fear the cars that speed down our cul-de-sac will fail to see a toddler on a trike. I fear that rollercoasters will disconnect in midair. I fear black widow spiders hiding in bags of grapes, creepers hiding on the Internet, and the dark...side of life.

But mostly I fear not having enough time with the ones I love.

I fear not using that time wisely and loving them as deeply as I can.

I fear not fully using the gifts that I've been given- and I don't mean the kind in a box or a bag.

And so those are the fears I'll work on conquering as I turn 42.

Just you wait- by the time I hit 84, I might actually have this figured out.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

In Defense Of Frequent Bathing For Kids

If your kids are anything like mine, they spend a lot of the summer soaking wet- either from the pool, one of the many lakes we're fortunate enough to be surrounded by, the sprinklers (sorry for my use of the "s" word, Californians), the hose, or whatever water toy is on the clearance rack at Target.

Because of the frequency with which water meets child, it's tempting to skip, or at least reduce the frequency of, the actual bathing of children during the summer months. Many recent articles and experts have weighed in on the case against frequent baths, citing the harmful effects of antibacterial products on children's skin, immune systems, and the environment.

I get it. I really do. And on top of all that, bathing kids is a lot of work. When they're infants, it's downright terrifying. Mere hours after delivering our firstborn, the nurse had us watch a (horror) movie on proper baby bathing techniques and I almost threw up. Just holding that floppy-headed mess of wriggling limbs is scary enough- now you want me to add water? And soap? Over a hard tile floor? Does the phrase "Slippery When Wet" mean nothing?

For the first few weeks of their lives, all of our kids took "baths" on a giant yellow sponge placed on top of our guest room bed...which was layered with a stack of towels...on top of the down comforter...on top of plush carpeting. It just seemed safer. As you can see, the experience was a big hit all around.

But soon, they grew to love the bath, and I grew to let my husband handle it. I realized early on that after a long day of work/home/family activity, I was better suited to washing inanimate objects like the dishes. It was my time to zone out, collect my thoughts, and enjoy that rare commodity known as silence. Meanwhile, my husband for the most part genuinely enjoyed the Category 3 hurricane that blew through our bathroom on a semi-nightly basis in a way that I never least not without an awful lot of Xanax.

So given the scientific reasons for skipping baths, and the inherent dangers and difficulties of bathing children, you might find it odd that I would advocate for MORE of it, but I'm fully in favor of frequent baths for kids, particularly in the summer months.

There's something primordial and borderline magical that happens to children when they are bathed. It has less to do with removing layers of accumulated dirt and much more to do with shedding the grungier parts of the day...and of oneself. I'm guessing that's one of reasons Jesus didn't give his followers a pat down with a damp towel and a sprinkling of talcum powder. Heck, even the prison ladies of Orange Is The New Black understood the transformational, freeing power of a good soak. (Spoiler alert) When they had a shot at freedom, they didn't run for the hills- they took a dunk in the lake.

Our house is certainly not a correctional facility, but with 3 kids and a work-from-home mom all under one roof, summer is a time when emotions seem to run high: both the good and the bad. So I wait for that moment all day, when they emerge from whatever purification ritual takes place in the upstairs bathroom.

I'm not sure how it happens, but I can testify to the fact that most nights three grumpy, tired children ascend the staircase, only to reappear 30 minutes later in a miraculously kinder, gentler state. Baptized in bubbles, anointed in lotion, and clothed new in pajamas, they have somehow managed to wash the weight of the day right down the drain, their memories rinsed as clean as their fingernails. "No more tears" seems like an actual possibility- for all of us.

In the children's book Stellaluna, a newborn baby bat is attacked by an owl and knocked out of her mother's loving embrace. Stellaluna survives but ends up living in a bird's nest, until she is finally reunited with a group of bats. As she recounts the story of her escape from the owl, another bat overhears and rushes over to sniff her fur. One whiff, and she knows- THAT is her baby: her Stellaluna.

Every mother can relate to that story, as we all remember the first time the baby was placed in our arms, and we leaned down to inhale that sweet, intoxicating, unique smell radiating off the top of his or her head. I'm convinced that spot is reactivated by water, because no matter how big my kids get, when they are freshly bathed, one whiff of their heads and I am transported back 8 years, 6 years, 4 years...or perhaps a million years in this ritual that predates all of us.

The evening bath reminds us that every day offers the opportunity to renew the promises we made as we first held those precious babies: to love them unconditionally, protect them from all attacks, and shield them from the mess of life. On some level, in bathing them, we too, are washed clean.

I know that our days of evening bathing are coming to an end. My oldest son now has more hair products than the rest of us combined, and has partially transitioned to morning showers so that he is groomed for the day ahead. My little girl is beginning to understand the concept of bathroom privacy (though not as it relates to her mother and the toilet), and their little brother bathes himself in whatever his siblings are doing. It won't be long before bathroom doors are slammed and pounded and whatever else teenagers use in lieu of actual communication.

So while it's tempting to consider some bubbles and a squirt gun a decent summer substitute for a shampoo and rinse in the tub, I'm going to hold onto these summer baths as long and as often as I can.

Because while THEY might not need them, I certainly do.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

No, I Don't Love Summer Vacation And You Don't Have To, Either

"Aren't you just SO ready for summer?"

If I had a nickel for every time I've smiled and nodded politely while completely evading the answer to that question, I could treat ever summer lovin' parent in our slice of suburban paradise to a stevia-sweetened popsicle, a bottle of certified organic SPF 480 sunscreen, and an up-cycled pool noodle (gluten-free, of course).

This is a conversation that typically begins around Memorial Day and runs right through the last day of school, and while I listen to my fellow parents wax poetic about the seemingly endless stretch of freedom that lies ahead, I secretly die a little inside.

With every mention of summer's lack of structure (is it getting hot in here?), I feel my blood pressure rise. When I hear them praise the long, lazy days unstructured days (seriously- could someone turn on the AC?) I feel like I might pass out.

So at the risk of forever being known as the Grinch Who Stole Summer Vacation (and before I develop a rash of some sort), I'm just going to say it:

I don't love summer.

Correction, I DO love summer, in that I love warm weather, extended daylight, sunshine on my shoulders, and the smell of afternoon rain. What I don't love, to be clear, is summer vacation. And even there- I actually DO love summer vacation...for about 3 weeks. But three MONTHS? That part makes me want to hurt someone.

Because here's the truth: I love structure. I mean, I really LOVE structure. As in, I'd like to hug and kiss and marry structure and have its very structured babies, whom I would name Routine, Order, and  Structure, Jr. and send to year-round school.

Now before you accuse me of not being a loving parent, or not wanting to spend time with my kids, let me assure you, I adore my offspring. I want nothing more than to travel with them, swim with them, and picnic in the park with them. For about 3 weeks.

Let me also say that I am a working mom, by choice, and while I love my career and my intention is not to throw down the gauntlet in yet another pointless battle in the Mommy Wars, let's be honest about the fact that summer vacation poses a particular challenge for working parents. Add in the fact that I work from home...(Do those look like hives to you?)

To make matters worse, I've never been a loosey-goosey, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, kick-back-and-relax kind of girl. I'm a Type-A, information junkie, workaholic journalist, which means I live or die by deadlines every single day. I'm accustomed to getting an enormous amount done in a very small amount of time, and the rhythm and schedule of school is a big piece of how I do it. A typical day for me is all about getting everyone up, in the car, to school, then I frantically work until preschool pickup. When my youngest goes down for his nap, I go back to work until the big kids come home, at which point I'm back on, taking care of everyone's needs and activities until we reach bedtime and I can sneak in a few more hours of work late at night. My job certainly does not afford me the ability to take three months off, and my personality wouldn't let me even if it did.

But whether you work outside of the home or you're a stay-at-home parent, can we all just PLEASE admit that it IS possible to get too much of a good thing, say, for example, 104 consecutive days of vacation every year for 12+ years of your life, at which point, if you're lucky enough to find one, your first job might offer a generous 2 weeks? And while many of us try to provide educational opportunities for our kids during the summer months, it's not like this massive break from formal education is making us any smarter. Have you read the comments section of any online publication lately?

I honestly believe that structure is good for kids, and I think that deep down most parents agree. Research has shown just how much learning kids lose over the summer, and that they tend to sleep better, eat better, and generally behave better when there is a concrete framework governing their daily lives. Sure, some parents go overboard when it comes to scheduling every last second of their kids' time, particularly during the school year...but THREE MONTHS?

No matter how old your kids are, summer vacation means becoming a full-time cruise director for the S.S. Family Fun. Which is exhausting. And expensive. And involves a lot of splash parks, bounce houses, sports teams, camps and "enrichment" programs. By mid-August, I will enroll my kids in pretty much anything, including classes that sound like they were designed by randomly arranging magnetic words on a refrigerator: Underwater Fencing For Creative Problem Solving? Great! Solar Basket Racers With Collaborative Feng Shui Techniques For Boys? And it's from 9am-3pm? I'm all over it.

At some point as a society, don't we need to ask ourselves WHY we're doing this?

My kids have been out of school for roughly 32 hours, and at this point have eaten everything in our house (including many non-food items- has anyone seen my phone charger? Or the cat?), we have at least a dozen plastic baggies which now contain either an insect, a bunch of rocks, or some other random collection of junk, and we're down 3 bottles of sunscreen and 1 can of bug repellent (which clearly didn't work on the poor chap in the baggie). The playroom is a minefield of still wet finger paint, melty beads (OUCH!), and a bunch of other arts and crap...I mean, crafts. Ahh, summer.

For those of you out there who might be freaking out a little at the thought of the next three months, I just want you to know that it's OK not to love every minute. I sure don't.

So if you ever want to join me in drowning your sorrows in a glass of wine one night, you know where to find me- hunched over my computer working like a fiend.

For the rest of you unabashed summer vacation lovers (who I'm also guessing love things like half-day kindergarten), I will drink a toast (or 12) to you. Enjoy your three (SHUDDER) unstructured months, and I'll be sure to check back with you in about 3 weeks.

In any case, cheers to summer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

To Prince George: How To Beat The Royal Baby Blues

Dear George,

Can I call you George? I'm not an expert on my royal etiquette, but I'm not going to lie, it would feel kind of weird to address a toddler as Your Majesty, particularly if you were in the middle of a regal tantrum, or sitting on your "throne," aka the potty.

Besides, I feel like you and I have a lot in common. Well, maybe not a lot...since technically I'm the common one and you're the royal, but we do have a little bit of a bond because we share a birthday: July 22. Sure, I was turning 40 the day you were turning 0, and your gifts included an ornamental orb made from lapis lazuli from Pope Francis, a limited edition £5 silver coin from the Royal Mint, and a goat and fatted bull from the tribal elders in Samburu, Kenya, while my celebration was a bit more...rustic, but we're still kindred spirits. You know, birthday buddies.

Of course, it's not YOUR birthday that's been the big news lately, but your little sister's. I know, this may have come as a shock to your world, particularly since even at her pregnant-est, your gorgeous mother looked more like she had a big burrito lunch in her belly than an actual human being. And I'm sure when you flipped through your edition of Hello Daily OK People Weekly Toddler Tabloid and saw all the headlines about the Royal Baby Watch, you naturally assumed they were watching YOU. Don't feel badly- it's totally normal. After all, for nearly two years (or as you like to call it YOUR ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE) you have been THE royal baby. You've literally been King (ok, future King) of the castle.

And yes, the arrival of Charlotte Elizabeth Diana does mean that you will have to take a back seat on the world's stage for a while. But before you throw a royal fit, let me offer some reassurance. I can't pretend to know exactly what you're going through right now, since I am the youngest sibling in my family, but I do know a thing or two about big brothers, which you now are. I happen to have one of my own, and while our blood is far from blue, let me be the first to say he's a real prince of a guy.

You will no doubt wear a lot of hats (or crowns, if you prefer) in your life, but Big Brother will be one of your most important titles. And that says a lot, considering you already have the title of His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Lewis of Cambridge.

Being a big brother is, as the name implies, a big responsibility. You know that little wriggling bundle of noise your parents brought home the other day? Sure, right now she pretty much just cries and pees and poops (feeling better about yourself yet?), but she's going to grow pretty fast and you know who she's going to ALWAYS look up to? That's right: you.

Let's state the obvious: this girl is going to be a knock out. I mean, have you seen your parents? So boys are going to be lining (or queuing, if you prefer) up just to sneak a peek at her. They're going to be falling off their horses at polo matches trying to impress her. It's going to be up to you to help her sort through that lot of hopeless fools. Good luck with that.

It's going to be YOUR duty (and I do believe your peeps are all about duty) to protect her from neighborhood bullies (or arses, if you prefer)...and while I'm guessing the streets around Kensington Palace are not exactly overrun with thugs, kids (even ones with posh British accents) can be so mean.

But no matter what, just know that you will always be the coolest (or most brilliant, if you prefer) guy she knows, and not just because you're going to eventually be the literal ruler of her world. You're the one who sets the bar. The one whose toys, affection, and advice she will most covet (though she may not admit most of that to your face).

Besides, I'm pretty sure you can up and pull royal rank on her at any time.

So take heart, Georgie. I know, the spotlight is all on her right now, but here's the real deal: I had a little prince of my own on a hot July day nearly 8 years ago. He was my world.

 And then, much  like your family, a little princess came along about two years later.

Guess what- he's still my world.

And so is she.

And so is their little brother.

Trust me: when it comes to a parent's love for their children, it's not a monarchy where only one person rules the roost. There's plenty of room for both of you on that throne.

And as the first child, the ORIGINAL royal baby, I'll let you in on a little motherly secret: your dad may have given her crown, but you were the first one to give her the title that's etched in her heart: Mom.

Now that's what I call the royal treatment.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Star Light, Star Bright: How Our Wishes Change Over The Years

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might, 
Have the wish I wish tonight. 

In one of my earliest memories, I'm strapped in the backseat of my parents' car, driving home from a relative's house at dusk, when my mom, who must have sneaked a peak at the sky, and recites those lines.

In another, I remember riding through the grocery store in the fall, being pushed in a cart up and down the aisles. Finally we reached the checkout, and as we waited for our turn, my mom's eyes fell on the stacks of pumpkins up against the wall and she instinctively starts in with:

Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater
Had a wife but could not keep her; 
So he put her in a shell,
And there he kept her very well. 

Decades later, as I awkwardly try to figure out the best way to hold my own child in my new mom arms, my mom picks up a teddy bear from the stack of toys in the nursery and hums as bounces him expertly on her knee.

Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear, 
Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. 
Fuzzy wuzzy wasn't so fuzzy, was he? 

My mom must have taken a class on nursery rhymes at some point, because she knew them all. Sure, most moms pick up a number of them at some point, but she knew them ALL. And given that English is not even her first language, I think that's pretty darn impressive. As nonsensical as those rhymes are (why exactly are we celebrating the collapse of London Bridge, or the cradle falling down?), they have always been music to my linguistically-oriented ears. I loved them all, but none more than the first:

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight. 
I wish I may, I wish I might, 
Have the wish I wish tonight. 

They are words a sad, lonely little girl once said as she looked out her bedroom window at night and the sky seemed too frustratingly small. She wished to break free.

They are words that comforted a young adult trying so hard to be independent, distancing herself from everything and everyone familiar, when the sky seemed far too big. She wished for a sign that she was doing the right thing.

They are the words passed down from one generation to another, and now to yet another. When night falls and the first star appears, I hold that little girl's hand and wonder what she wishes for as I fervently wish wishes on her behalf: for courage, for strength, for her to know she is loved more than all the stars in the sky, that because she is loved by the maker of the stars, she shines more brightly than all of their light.

And they are the words that now bring tears to my eyes when I realize that I didn't need to wish for anything, because everything I needed was right in front of me the whole time.

It's an inevitable part of life that the stars in the sky will fade, and yet, when we feel the stars in our lives begin to slip away, the ones that have always burned so brightly and lit our path, it can feel like the whole sky is falling.

I look back on all the things I wished for over the years: for a horse, a baby sister, for that one boy to call, for that dream job to come through, for baby to sleep just one more hour. I think about the things that I'd work myself into a worried frenzy over, the wishes I'd wish over and over again, repeated like a mantra in my mind. It all seems so unimportant.

Now, I just wish for the stars to keep shining.

When you go outside at night and gaze up at the sky, it seems eternal and unchanging. But science tells us that's just not true- it's the limits of what we see with our human eyes.

We live on a much shorter time scale than the stars. But they too, are born, they live for an amount of time, and they die. Some fade quietly away, some explode, but in the end, like us, they are mortal.

When we're young, we never think the stars above us will ever fade- the ones that shine down on us as we lay in our cribs, the ones that illuminate the way as we take our first steps, and later as we walk down the aisle into the next chapter of our lives. But those stars, too, have their limits.

We can't get our wishes back, so use them wisely. Wish for wisdom to reach out and touch the brightest stars while they are still with you. Wish for eyes that see the unique light each star brings to your life. Wish for that light to shine on in your life, even after the star fades away.

Star light, star bright...that's the wish I wish tonight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Cleaning My Identity and My Closet

I'm not a big fan of Spring cleaning, or any other cleaning for that matter. With 3 rapidly growing children, I already feel like I spend half my life changing out closets, digging through giant bins of hand-me-downs, and generally working to keep us from appearing on an episode of Hoarders: Elementary School Edition. I don't need a special season devoted to this onerous task.

But this year the urge to purge my OWN things has been strong. As a result of what we will kindly refer to as my many life transitions, my walk-in closet now suffers from multiple personality disorder. Suits and blouses that have not seen daylight in 5 years hang dejectedly on one side, opposite a row of flowered sun dresses still holding a grudge that I moved them to Michigan from Hawaii's sunny shores, with the 2 pairs of jeans I wear on a rotating basis and all my workout gear hanging out somewhere in between. 

In my attempt to pare down the pairs of shoes and everything else crammed in there, I came across this skirt, and the gears which guide my normally instantaneous "Keep/Donate/Trash" decision came to a grinding halt. 

I bought that skirt during one of my last child-free moments. 41.5 weeks pregnant with a baby who refused to come out, I had just gone in for yet another check-up, yet another hour of being hooked up to monitors, and yet another day of being told "Looks like Baby is just being a little bit stubborn!" 

I remember not knowing whether to feel upset or overjoyed. Wasn't I supposed to be counting the minutes until I could hold that precious baby in my arms? I was, for sure. Most of the time. Except for when I was mourning the impending loss of my previous life. Was that normal? I didn't know, and I was afraid to ask, so I did the only logical thing: I went shopping. 

At the time, my OB-GYN's office was conveniently located in a bustling downtown area. I dragged my ginormous belly into a chic shop and waddled over to what I vaguely recalled my pre-pregnancy size to be. And there it was: the Mom Skirt. Comfortable yet stylish, slimming yet forgiving, it seemed to be calling my name. Chalk it up to the hormones, but somehow I thought this skirt would be the answer to all my problems. I envisioned effortlessly slipping into motherhood as easily as I could tug on that elastic waist. I pictured myself frolicking through fields of flowers with my future children in tow, Sound of Music style, my skirt twirling in the breeze.

So I bought it, and I packed it delicately in my hospital bag, right next to the gender-neutral Coming Home outfit I'd purchased for Baby. The one he peed on as we got ready to come home. He peed on my skirt, too.

Upon entering the house, I ripped off the skirt and searched my drawers in vain for something that would fit. But everything I owned was either too small, too big, too dry clean only, and just generally too non-Mom. As my new baby wailed in the background, I felt embarrassed at how naive I had been to think all I needed was a black skirt to pull this off. Being a mom would require more than a wardrobe- where was my script? My character? My motivation?

Late that night, I did my first child-related load of laundry, and I stuffed the black skirt and all the other garments outfits now laced with some form of DNA in the wash. As the machine filled with water, my eyes overflowed with tears.

I cried because I truly was so happy to have been granted this miracle, this blessing from God. I cried because the weight of that responsibility felt like it just might crush me. I cried for what I already knew and for the great tidal wave of the unknown I feared could pull me under at any moment. I cried because this was where I knew I belonged, and yet part of me wanted nothing more than to run away.

And as I watched that rumpled, dirty black skirt go around and around, I cried because I wanted more than anything to go back to the morning before he was born, back to when the skirt and my role in the show called Motherhood were both still a clean slate. Back to when hope and joy were still packed neatly in my hospital bag and things weren't quite so messy.

I held my sweet baby boy close that first night, and prayed for strength, for wisdom, and for peace. And by the grace of God, as the sun came up on us both it all felt a bit more manageable. I tucked the skirt, and many of my feelings, into the back of the closet and did my best to figure out how, and where, I fit into this new life.

Though I never really cared for its frumpy, neither-here-nor-there length, or its lack of originality, over the years I've pulled that black skirt out and have worn it on more occasions than I'd like to admit, including two more trips home from the hospital (as I said: elastic waistband). Every time I see it, it brings me right back to the moment I bought it, and the first time I wore it. Expectations, reality, and redemption all sewn into one garment. And now, I think it's time for it to go.

I wish I could say I was one of those women who simply slipped right into motherhood, but for me, it took some time to find my own style. Today, I'm the proud mom of three amazing children but I don't divide my life into "before" and "after" kids. It all combines to make me who I am. Motherhood still fills me with the same sense of awe, joy, and fear that it did that first night, and I embrace it. It's not a role I'm playing, and I don't need a costume. It's already stitched in the fabric of my soul.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Seeing The New Year Clearly: Embracing The Need To Hibernate

Anyone who has ever worn glasses or contact lenses knows that glorious feeling that comes with slipping on a new prescription. Suddenly, the world seems sharper, clearer, more in focus. It's not like you didn't see things before, but now colors are somehow more colorful, details more detailed. Everything looks fresh and new.

I've worn glasses since I was a child, and I was definitely not thrilled when I put on that first pair. I pouted all the way home and kept my four eyes pointed toward the ground. But when we got out of the car I do remember finally looking up, grabbing my dad's hand, and yelling, "So THAT'S what a tree looks like!"

I think that kind of clarity and energy is what we're supposed to experience each year on January first: a fresh start, a new perspective, a chance to see things/do things as we've never seen/done before. And every year, I feel an enormous amount of pressure to make it so, to find that clear vision, to the point that I've even started scheduling my annual eye exam for December 31st.

But it never seems to work.

Here's how New Year's typically goes for me: I spend much of the 31st brooding over the fact that Christmas, my favorite time of the year, is over, and the year is coming to a close. As the day goes on, I feel more and more like I am digging myself into a hole. Just as others are building their revelry up to a loud, roaring crescendo, I start to feel like I am shrinking down inside myself, becoming smaller and quieter (yes, me!).

On January 1st, I do not normally wake up feeling energized and ready to greet the New Year, but weary and ready to pull the covers back over my head. It's a feeling I have trouble shaking for several weeks, during which I beat myself up for those emotions, and try desperately to find ways to just snap out of it.

But not this time.

You see, 2014 was in many ways a very difficult year. In addition to the usual life stressors and the demands of keeping up with three kids and a career, more than half the year was spent in and out of hospitals, and much of it on bended knee in fervent prayer. And I wouldn't change a thing.

That's because while they might not have been the lesson plans I would have written for myself, 2014 did bring with it a long list of important things learned.

It was the year in which I grew closer to my family, to my friends, and to my faith.

Our Big Fat Egyptian Family 

The year in which I gained newfound respect for the human body- in both sickness and in health, it is a remarkable creation worthy of our utmost respect and care.

I took 3rd place in my age group in my first multi-sport race..out of 3. 

The year I embraced imperfection- in myself and others.

These pancakes were supposed to say something. They were still delicious. 

The year I learned to forgive myself and others.
There's hope for all of us. 
The year I really came to understand what it means to hold on tightly to what matters most, and to let go of the rest.

The 3 amigos. 

The year I figured out that it's OK to find moments of joy in the middle of painful times.

Her middle name is Joy for a reason. 

So with all that learning under my belt, in these early days of 2015 I'm giving myself the space to just BE.

Because this post-holiday coma- it’s more than simply being tired from the effort of serving as Santa's main elf and the cruise director of the good ship Family Fun. It’s deeper than the fatigue of too many long runs, late nights, Moscow Mules, and merriment.

I think it's more like a hibernation period for my soul.

After all, winter is a time of waiting, a restorative time, a time to rest. Looking out my window, it's clearly not a time when anything is expected to bloom- so why should I force that on myself? If you believe, as I do, that we plant seeds of hope, goals, and of dreams within ourselves, then this is the time for them to be covered, to be still, and to germinate. The lessons of the past year will become mulch for what lies ahead, but only if we're able to let them go.

People know me as always being on the go, up at the crack of dawn, racing around all day with a spunky personality and a peppy step. But this is me, too- sometimes, I go underground. In the past I've been my own harshest critic, thinking that this desire to root and rest is akin to laziness, or a lack of motivation.

But it isn't.

I think it's important that we honor every season in our lives, just as we do in nature. I think for the first time, I'm seeing things clearly. I've got the right prescription lenses, and everything is coming into focus.

So THAT'S what a happy new year looks like.