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 could...at 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.