Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thought lost

I've written recently about some of the pros and cons of traveling with small kids.  It's all true.  But I haven't touched yet on my absolute favorite part of traveling.

My most treasured and precious moments amongst the many, more grueling ones.

It has nothing to do with my kids.  Or my husband.  In fact, it's all about me.

It happens when I sit in that car, the kids all strapped in.  Unable to move.  It's the beautiful blank space before the needs and the fighting when I can tune out the world and just think.

I can finally, finally think.

I love to think.  Absolutely love it.  There's nothing better to me than getting lost in a good thought.

I used to love quiet bus rides home after school.  I didn't want anyone to talk to me.  Fine if you wanted to sit with me, so long as you could appreciate the art of silence.

I needed that time after a whole day of talking and people and one thing to another just to be alone with my thoughts.  I need it now too.  But I'm a mom, so needs such as quiet must be put on hold for the next 15 or so years.

Kids are, in fact, the absolute bane of my thinking existence.  I spend almost every second of my day getting things.  Breakfast.  Backpacks.  Drinks.  Diapers.  Crumbs.  Dinner.  It's not worth getting lost in a thought, because inevitably some needy little guy will yank me right back to reality, and the only thing worse than not thinking at all is the interruption of a good thought-in-progress.

By the time I'm done getting all the things and getting the things to bed, I'm way too tired to think.  Honestly, I can't even watch a good drama anymore.  It's reality TV or sleep, because everything else requires way more brain power than I'm willing to exert past 8:30.

And so I love that time when the kids are still excited and my husband is listening to music and not trying to talk to me and I get to be lost, for a short time, in my own head.

It's when I feel best about my life, and the people in it.  It's when I do my hoping, and dreaming.

On one particularly long drive from Italy back to Budapest, Joel turned down the music, and asked me what I was thinking about.

I hate this.  Truly.  And he knows that.

But he pressed on.

"I don't want to talk about it," I said.

I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it is like bait for Joel.  Once I say those words he will not stop asking until I talk about it.

I need to remember that for when I actually want to talk about something.

"Fine," I finally conceded.  "I was thinking about adoption."

Music back up.  Husband turned forward.  Alone with my thoughts, once more.

And so, in the future, should I want to be alone with my thoughts, my defense is set.

Just threaten more kids.

My thinking spot

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Things that are hard to write

I keep trying to write other, lighter posts.  But it's not working.  Every time I come up halfway and empty.

What I'm really thinking about is this school shooting.  You know, the latest one.

I don't normally like to engage in issues that are traditionally viewed as political.  Mostly because I'm terrified of conflict, and political issues always come with conflict.

It's easier to ignore it.  To feel sad, for a moment, and then move on.

But I just can't get this out of my head.

Because when we left the States I felt like we were leaving the safe world.  Stepping out into the unknown.  People would ask if Hungary was safe, and we would laugh a little and say, of course, but inside we didn't really know.

I remember the first time Joel left the boys and I alone in the car here.  He had to run into the mall, where we heard there was a T-Mobile.  It wasn't worth lugging the kids out of the car and dragging them around an unknown area, so we stayed put.

I locked the doors almost immediately, eyeing anyone who neared our car suspiciously.  Waiting for any sudden move.  Any unwanted approach.

But it never came.  And three years later, left alone with my children in a car, nearly anywhere in this big European city, I wouldn't so much as glance at a passerby.  I wouldn't lock the doors.  I would sit calmly and wait, just like I did in our small, American town.

I feel safe here.  Of course we lock our doors at night, and are aware of the crimes (mostly theft) happening around us.  But I feel safe.

I feel safe in our home.  In the city.  And, most importantly, I feel safe sending my kids to school every, single day.

I know that we're never truly safe.  That anything can happen.  Any time.  That we can't protect our kids always, even as much as we want to.

And I know we're extra lucky because our school has gates and guards, so I have to think less about the what ifs.  But there are no metal detectors.  No bag inspections.  Nothing to stop a familiar face from stealing his dad's gun and open firing in the cafeteria or library or classroom.

Except that his dad, likely, doesn't have a gun to steal.

Gun laws in Hungary are relatively strict.  Especially compared to the U.S.  Making guns a difficult thing to get ahold of.

And so now, when people ask if Hungary is safe, I respond yes.

But I think to myself, Is the U.S. safe?

Because I wasn't ready to leave.  But now, I'm not sure I'm ready to go back.

I don't want to worry about my kids' safety when I send them to school in the morning.  I already worry about so much.  I worry that they won't have anyone to play with at recess.  That they won't feel smart.  That someone might be mean to them.

I don't want to worry about them not coming home.

It's a terrible thing to think about.  And feels awful to write.  And I understand that the chances are so small.

But they're still too big.

There seems to be a fascination with the heroes of these tragedies.  The people who risk their lives to make it stop.

I think they make us question our own courage.  Our own humanity.  Would we really run towards the shooter, when everyone else is running away?

Probably most of us hope we would, but suspect we wouldn't.  Or maybe that's just me.

Luckily, most of us won't ever face that choice.  But some people face it every day.  The choice to be a hero.  To make it stop, before it can even start.

I hope our next hero doesn't stop a shooting from continuing.  I hope the next hero stops it from happening in the first place.

I hope the next hero comes from Washington.  Or the NRA.

And instead of putting their lives at risk, they put their political beliefs, their public standing, their money at risk.  I hope they tell us our kids are more important.  Our peace of mind is more important.

I can't think of these people as big, heartless monsters who don't care about kids dying.  It just doesn't make sense to me.  Because sure, we're naturally selfish and greedy creatures.  But there's also some good.  And I think the lowest common denominator of that good is that we don't want to see kids die.

No one want to see kids die.  Even if they love their guns and their money.

I have to believe they are convinced that stricter gun laws won't change things.  That it's not about the guns.

But this isn't happening other places.  These tragedies where a kid snaps, grabs a gun from the closest cabinet, walks into a school and ends actual lives.  Ones that we can't get back.

It's certainly not happening with nearly the same frequency in Europe.  And definitely not here.

I was sure after Sandy Hook, everything would change.  But hardly anything changed.  And I think the average person is left feeling more helpless than ever.

Like it's not even worth talking about.

But something tells me it's worth talking about.  That, even if nothing changes, we have to keep talking about it.  For the moms and dads whose kids didn't come home.  If for nothing else.

Because someone has to make this stop.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The beauty in the ugly

There’s nothing like a bit of travel to bring out the ugly in a marriage.

“Oh shoot… I missed my exit!”

“What do you mean you missed your exit?”

“ I mean, I missed my exit.”

“Are you kidding?”


“Why did you do that?”

“I was talking to the kids.”

“You can’t talk to the kids and follow directions?”

“I didn’t know it was coming up.”

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

“Because I didn’t need help.”

“Well, clearly you did.”

It’s only ten more minutes, but it feels like a turning point in our relationship.  One of many.

We got past this one.  Eventually.  But they’re always around.  These moments.  Creeping up when you least expect them.

These days Joel and I live in a state of near constant irritation with each other.  

I like to think that we’re actually irritated with the small, wild creatures who inhabit our once lovely and peaceful home.  Oftentimes I find myself drawing in a deep breath, forcing up the corners of my mouth and speaking calmly to my children through gritted teeth.  

But the irritation has to go somewhere.  So I take it out on Joel.  

I remember a time when I waited anxiously for Joel to arrive home.  I counted the seconds until I saw him again.

Nowadays he walks through the door and I think, Yay!  Help is here!

But then he wants to do things like take off his shoes and change his clothes and use the bathroom.

The other day Aiden asked me, “Mom, don’t you think it’s funny that Dad’s a grown up, but you tell him how long he can stay in the bathroom?”

No, Aiden.  I don’t think that’s funny at all. 

And I guess he’s not much more impressed with me.

I might snap a bit from time to time.  I can be controlling.  Slightly irrational.  Extremely emotional.

I can see why he might not like me sometimes.  At this stage in life, I’m not sure I much like me sometimes.

But, to be truthful, my goal for the next four years is survival.  I’m just hoping I’ll make it until they’re all three in school and wiping their own butts and understanding the reasons why we don’t run into oncoming traffic.

If I make it that far then, perhaps, I’ll work on becoming a better, more likable person.

Until then, I’m just happy that at the end of the day, he’s still there.  That in this season of small kids, we’re sticking it out for each other.  

There really is a season for everything.  I've found this more true in marriage than in any other aspect of my life.  

Because I used to think that our relationship in the moment was our relationship forever.  I used to believe that if we weren't currently seeing eye to eye, we would never see eye to eye.  If I wasn't happy today, then I’d never be happy.

When we moved to Budapest it felt like we lived in two different worlds.  His was a happy one.  Mine, not so much.  When we went to bed at night it felt like an invisible wall between us.  Our hands could touch, but we couldn’t cross that barrier.  Not the real us, at least.

I don’t know when the wall came down.  It didn’t happen on a certain day.  There was no grand moment, no breakthrough.  

But it came down, slowly.  And one night I looked over and realized it wasn’t there anymore.  That we had just passed through a season.  We’d made it to the other side.

Now I try my best to get a handle on my emotions and tendency to overgeneralize and, if for just a moment, to view this current stage as a season.  One that is joyful or painful or hard, but one that will pass.

When I see it like that, I can enjoy the good times just a little more.  Knowing they won’t always be there.  And burrow down in the hard times.  Knowing they, too, will one day be gone.

Maybe not gone so much as passed.  They’ll always be there.  

But I think it’s these hard seasons we’ll one day look back on with the most fondness.  And  the most pride.  

“I can’t believe we made it through small kids,” he’ll say as we hold hands on the porch.

“Or that move to Budapest,” I’ll remember, tightening my scarf around my neck.  (It’s always fall in my happy, future-moments.)

But we’ll be so glad we did.

My definition of love has changed much through the years.  And I suppose it will continue to.  I imagine love, itself, is always the same.  But my understanding of it never is.

These days, I think of love like this.

That at the end of the day, even when we’ve hardly liked each other, we’re still there.  We’re in this together, whether it’s pretty or not.

It's not what I pictured before marriage. But somehow, it's even more beautiful.

And right now, in this season of small kids, it's just enough.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Living someone else's dream

I never felt the urge to travel.


If someone really pressed me, I may have told them that I’d like to visit an island.  One with white, sand beaches, where I could listen to the waves lap at the shore with a strawberry daiquiri in one hand and a thick paperback in the other.

Gosh, that still sounds good.

But I’m not squinting my eyes against the blinding glare of a white, sand beach right now.  And I’m not savoring a sweet, icy beverage or the sand-sprinkled pages of a good book.

No, right now I’m straining to see my sleeping children across our dark, wood-beamed room, sipping a hearty stout from a plastic cup as our toddler snores beside me.

Outside the distant hum of an Italian highway seeps through our cracked window, and a soft light deepens the shadows of a tall, apple tree.  

The children spent the evening gathering fresh eggs from haystacks, building acorn villages, and filling their bellies with homemade pasta, meatballs and rich, chocolate pudding.  

It’s the stuff of dreams.  Not my dreams.  But someone else’s, for sure.

I spend our first night in any new location nervously pacing the room, inspecting the sheets for hairs and the ceilings for bugs.  I grab for an ounce of control here and there, organizing our bags, cleaning the children, snapping at anyone who stands in my way.

It’s not my thing, really.  New places.  Strange cultures.  And always, always a different language.  

I often feel homesick on our drives.  Even as our car winds through the sprawling, uniform rows of Italian vineyards, I find myself longing for the predictability of America.  Or even the familiar warmth of our small, Hungarian village.  

Joel, on the other hand, practically leans through the windshield, soaking everything in.  Anxiously awaiting the next new thing.

He loves new and different and change and everything my brain so violently opposes.  

I'm not so good with new and different and change. To be honest, I’m not much of a traveler.

But I married a man who very much is.  And after waiting patiently through six years of same and familiar, hoping I’d one day feel ready, I finally said yes.

Let’s do it.  Let’s travel.

And so we picked up our home and our little family and moved across the ocean. And now we travel.  To new countries.  With new people.  New sounds.  New views.  New food.

I didn't feel ready, really. And sometimes I still don't.  But he loves it, and now my kids love it too. And as it turns out, you don’t have to love to travel to love travel.  

Because even though I’ll barely sleep tonight as I fret over creaking floor boards and fire escape plans, I’ll wake tomorrow morning to a frothy cappucino and fresh eggs, and I’ll look out the window at the dewy grass and the clucking chickens and something will catch in my heart.  

I know because it happens every time.  This moment of I’m so lucky. Because even though this wasn’t my dream, it’s my reality. And I am, indeed, so lucky.

In the end, I’m glad I decided to marry a traveler.   

I’m braver than I used to be.  And slightly more adaptable.  (Stop laughing, Joel.  I am.) But mostly, I’m different.

I’m not the same, because I’ve seen new things and I’ve met new people and I’ve learned, first-hand, how different we are, but also how we’re really the same.

I don’t keep good records of most things.  Baby books, doctor’s visits, school work.  But I have this treasure box of memories.  And since the day-to-day runs together for me, it’s full of snapshots from our travels.  It marks moments in time as my kids barrel towards adulthood.

I don’t need pictures to remember Finn popping whole fish in his mouth by the Croatian sea side.  Or Aiden climbing the thick stone arches of the Roman Colosseum.  Or Benjamin exclaiming, “Mountains!  Up, up, up!”  in the shadow of the Slovenian Alps.  

Those moments are there.  Etched, somehow, into my poor memory.

They’re no more important than a day-to-day memory.  Just more there, I guess.

And I’m grateful for that tonight.  For moments that are more there, more alive, than others.  So that while I can’t stop my kids from growing, I can stop the moments from escaping so fast.

And so here I am, living out someone else’s dream, while someone else lives mine.

I can only hope they’re enjoying it as much as I am.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The remaining ten percent

Now I'm not an expert.  By any means.  But I think we've done our fair share of traveling with kids.

In a little over three years we vacationed in ten European countries, crossed the Atlantic eight times, and only lost the children once (each).

So as you might imagine, I am often asked for advice on braving the road with little ones.  And by often I mean one time.  But it's my blog, so I'm going to pretend that people are always asking.

So without further ado, here's the advice you're all asking for all the time.

My tips for traveling with kids.

#1 Don't travel with kids

I don't actually know what this is like.  But I assume it's much easier than traveling with kids.  So unless you're stuck or you have a husband who loves traveling with kids or you're one of those annoying moms who whines about how much she needs a break and then misses her kids like crazy the second she steps away, then seriously, take off without them.

But if you can't...

#2 Invest in good buckles

Not the kind they can squirm their way out of and you have to keep turning around and shoving their arms back through the holes.  There are few sounds I love more than the click of a toddler's buckle.  It's really the only acceptable time to strap down your child.  I mean, once your children are properly belted in, they can't move.  They can't climb up on chairs or find stray markers they'll use to color your floors or hang on your shirt until you literally fall over.  They're stuck.

This alone is reason enough to travel with kids.

For hours at a time, they just can't move.  And on top of that, you have no choice but to sit.

Which leads me to...

#3 Get yourself a cup of coffee

Yes, I'm aware that some of you don't drink coffee.  I don't get it, for sure.  But I'm trying to be open-minded.  So maybe a tea.  Or some hot chocolate.  (Oh my gosh, those last two lines were painful to write.)

Turn on some soft music and enjoy the first 30 minutes of your children staring excitedly out the windows like little cherubs because soon...

they're going to need stuff.

#4 Bring loads of snacks

It doesn't matter that they just finished breakfast as you left, they will want to eat, almost immediately.  And then it's like When You Give a Mouse a Cookie, only car trip, horror story version that you think will never, ever end.  Because for the next six hours those pretzels will make them want a drink, and the drink will make them have to pee, which will remind them that their butt hurts, at which point they'll whine and whine until you...

#5 Give them the stinking iPad

We try to hold off as long as we can.  We really do. But as long as we can is like 15 minutes, or as soon as the baby falls asleep.  I do miss the good old days where we could read a book for ten hours in the car while my mom periodically passed around the bag of chips.  But the problem is my kids can't read and sometimes I look at the clock and I throw my head back because I thought an hour had passed, but really it was only five minutes, and I'm afraid this trip will go on forever.


#6 Enjoy the 10%

90% of the trip will be wretched.  Really, pull-your-hair-out, will-this-ever-end? wretched.  Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit.  But it will be work.  And not all that fun.  Believe me.

But about 10%, give or take a bit, will be filled with smiles and laughter, joking and awe.  Treasure those moments.  They're the ones you'll remember afterwards.  They're the moments that will somehow erase the other 90% and, months down the road, render you crazy enough to do it all over again.

Yesterday our 10% looked like this...

Fart jokes.  Two sleeping kids.  Our first view of the Slovenian Alps.  Chocolate-drizzled ice cream and a salted caramel latte.  Finn staring wistfully across the sparking water saying (with a sigh), "It's good to be in Slovenia."

It is good to be in Slovenia.  Even with my kids.  And, perhaps even more so, because of them.

I guess it's not so bad after all.  Especially when the 90% fades so quickly.

Because these kids come alive when we travel.  And so do we.  And sometimes it feels like we're stopping for the first time in a long time and really getting to know each other.

And enjoying each other.

And driving each other crazy...

But making memories while we do it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rainy days and candles and other distractions

It's rainy here today.

I love rainy days because it means I can light my candles.  And I love my candles.

Also gray days and dark early days.  It's too depressing to not light candles on these days.

Our first year here was so dark and rainy and gray that sometimes I didn't think I'd make it through.  Also it was really hard, so I'm sure that made the dark and gray and rainy both worse and more.

But then I remembered candles.

Today I sit at the kitchen table with a mug full of steamed milk and the soft glow of my candle, and I can say I feel happy.  The deep down, warm kind of happy.  I couldn't say that our first year.  Hardly every.  Possibly never.

I should be packing for our trip tomorrow.  But every time I look at the towering piles of laundry that need sorted and put away before I can even begin I completely freeze.  Or I distract myself with very important things that do not involve deciding how many outfits an 18-month-old can and will go through in a week.  Such as deep cleaning the house from top to bottom.  Washing the sheets.  Putting away the mountains of dishes surrounding the drying rack.  These things may not have found themselves high on my priority list for the past few months, but today, they're crucial.

And besides, I'd hate to miss Joel and I's frantic, stress-filled, pre-vacation fight this year.  Fortunately, I've got my line ready.

"How can you expect me to pack for five people, make and clean dinner, dress, feed and gather the children and still be ready when you want to go?"

I've used it once or twenty times before, but there's not much he can say to it.  I think he's catching on though, so I'm not sure it will hold up much longer.  But please people, there's no way he'll find time to read this today, so let's agree to not tell him.  Let me have my moment.  If only for one last time.

Alright, I'm out.  Onto more pressing and less desirable matters.

But I'll leave you with this picture.  My little nook in the world.  My happy place, if you will.

I just couldn't bring myself to move the Ninja Turtle.  It felt like a lie.

I'll be clinging to this memory while the words "Mom, he's touching me!" dance around in my head for six hours straight tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Step away from the children

We moved to Budapest when Finn was nearly two and Aiden was three-and-a-half.

I'm not sure I can appear any more crazy than I did in my last post.  But in case you still think there are rational thoughts in my brain, I offer you this...

My biggest fear when we left our safe, American home for the dangerous wilds of Europe was that someone in my family would die.  And, more so, that I would forever regret the one, giant decision that led us here.

Actually, this is how I tend to view all my decisions.  Life or death.  But I won't get into that now.

When the plane finally touched down in Budapest I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We made it over the ocean.  Survival step one: check.

But the next morning I fell down the winding staircase in our host house while carrying Finn.  He hit his head, but was fine.  I, on the other hand, was distraught.  My leg really hurt.  And if we knew who to call or how to get places, we may have ended up in the hospital.

But I sucked it up, mostly because we didn't know either of those things, and because the only person we did know, our landlord, was big and terrifying to me.

So when he pulled up to bring us to our new house I limped subtly to the car and shut my mouth.

We stopped first at the school to pick up our car, which we purchased months prior to the move, and found that the tire was flat.  Our easy mode of transportation turned complicated, quickly.

Our big, terrifying landlord didn't have time to help.  So Joel had to walk from the school to the repair shop.  Which I know now is an easy distance, less than a mile, and a straightforward walk.

But I didn't know those things then.  And Joel was gone for what felt like hours while I shoved crackers in my hungry children's mouths and my heart thumped in my throat.

This was it.  Joel wasn't coming back.  This was the moment I would regret it all.

But, as you can guess, Joel did come back.  And, if I remember right, I cried I was so relieved.

Somehow we survived the transition.  School started and we met new families, a surprising number with small rugrats of their own.  At which point I thought, Wow!  This is something people actually do.

Eventually we were invited to a few get-togethers.  I still hadn't learned to cook here, or really learned to cook generally, so my food offerings were embarrassing to say the least.  You can't bake from a box here like you can in the States, and the results often tasted like chocolate-flavored Styrofoam.

After I slid our plate on the table, with enough flourish to draw attention to the fact that we did bring a dish, but not so much to reveal exactly what, we inched our way through the house and started to mingle.

Mingling at a party full of new people is like a cruel form of torture to me, but once again I sucked it up and pretended that I love making small talk and will definitely remember your name once you walk away.

But this crazy thing kept happening at these gatherings, and I just couldn't quite wrap my head around it.

The kids played.

Not only did they play.  They went off and played.

And get this.  The parents didn't follow.

Not even to check on them.  Not even to make sure they were safe in the gated yard.  Not even to ensure they were being nice.  Or that others were being nice to them.

I couldn't handle it, of course.  I kept such a close eye on my kids.  All the time.  If not me, then their grandparents.

But there were no grandparents here and I quickly realized that if I ever wanted to make a friend then I couldn't watch my kids every second.  I had to let go.

I didn't at first.  I made excuses to go see that Aiden was safe and taken care of.  My heart would leap into my throat if I saw him do anything slightly dangerous and my natural instinct was to take off after him and scoop him into my arms.  Where he belonged.

But the other parents just kept on talking.

What are you doing? I thought.  Can't you see your child is definitely going to fall from that (miniature) hill and break his leg?  What if someone is being mean to your kid?  Who is going to stop them?  And, worse yet, what if they get ahold of a grape before you can cut it?

They seemed like nice people, though, and loving parents.  So eventually I started to ignore the voice that said you must watch over your children, and I kept talking.  Or eating.  Or drinking.

But I stopped hovering.  (Or I tried to at least.)

Sometimes my kids did get hurt.  And they came crying to me with a skinned knee or injured feelings.

But they survived.  They survived me letting go.  Just a little.

And now when we attend social functions I don't see my big kids, unless they want to eat, or Aiden decides to be shy for five minutes.

I don't know exactly what they do all the time.  I do know, however, that they always come back.  Usually in one piece.  And that my life is somehow better for not revolving around theirs for two or three hours.

We went home this summer, for nearly a month.  A lot of things surprise us when we return to the States.  Especially after being gone for a while.

But this time I was most surprised by the pressure I felt to watch my kids.

In the States, it turns out, I think you're supposed to watch your own kids.  Like, all the time.

 I don't know if it's cultural or if I'm just too tired now with three kids to worry about following them around all the time.  But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I did feel bad about it, though.

I felt so much pressure to hover over my children and make sure they were safe and behaved themselves all the time that it was a little suffocating.

Maybe I was just extra sensitive, but I've heard my American friends talk often about this pressure.  That children can't throw tantrums or rocks, that they have to be on their best behavior all the time.  Especially in public.

I've read so many horror stories recently of children having meltdowns in Target that I have to wonder if they actually hire people to stare down misbehaving children and offer unsolicited advice to their parents.

Maybe it's everywhere.  In our small community here nearly everyone lives a plane ride or two from family.  From help.  So if you want a break from your kids (and I do), you just have to take it.

And no one's judging.  (I think.)  No one's watching you sip a glass of wine, wondering why you're not pulling your child down from that tree or instructing them to chew with their mouth closed.  They understand.  You need a break too.  And so do they.

But I think all parents do.  Expat or not.  Whether help is right next door or thousands of miles away.

You need a break, mamas.  You really do.

Only I don't know what to tell you.  Because I think I'd buckle under that pressure too.

So, I don't know, maybe it's just finding a friend or two that you can not care with.  And also, get gates.  Or fences.  Or anything that can contain your children while you chat and the kids run wild.

Have a beer while you cook dinner.  I can tell you, for sure, my children always appreciate when I do.

It was a kind of detox for me.  Stepping away from my kids.  And I relapse sometimes, mostly in regards to the littlest one.

But it feels good.  To not care sometimes.  To let kids be kids without worrying about them being perfect.

I love, love, love the bible story where the parents are trying to take their kids to Jesus.  And the disciples are like, get away kids, this is Jesus here.  But Jesus is like, no way, let them come.

Those kids were probably stinky and restless and wild.  I'm sure they weren't standing still, waiting patiently in line for Jesus to lay his hands on them.  But Jesus still wanted them.  He didn't lecture the parents or instruct the children.  He welcomed them.  Those dirty, wild, un-mannered, full of life kids.  He loved them.  Just how they were.

That's my favorite.

When Aiden was three or so he always wanted to know about heaven.  It was a little scary for him, particularly the leaving mom and dad part.  It's scary for me sometimes too.

But one time I told him that Jesus would spin him in heaven.  And that he wouldn't get tired and have to stop like Mommy and Daddy.

He loved that.  And he stopped being so scared.

I still have so much to learn about letting go.  About enjoying my children instead of always trying to raise them.

But it's one step at a time.  Sometimes it's a step towards them and sometimes it's a step away.

But it always starts with just one.

This was literally the most risky picture I could find of my kids.  Probably because I'm too busy readying to catch their falls to be bothered with picture taking.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The birthday debacle

Birthdays always leave me feeling guilty.

Well, unless it's mine.  And even then I'm left thinking other people should feel guilty.  (Joel.)

There's a chance I have unrealistic birthday expectations.  It's just that I want to feel like a queen from the second I wake up (or actually, right after midnight when I wake Joel up from a deep sleep to tell him it's my birthday) to the moment I fall asleep.  I want everyone to think all day long, it's Kim's birthday!!!, and I don't want that thought to leave their mind.  Ever.

And that's just the actual day.  When Joel and I married, he was quite shocked at how long my birthday stretched on.  I mean, a week, at least.  Of course I don't expect the same intensity all week long as I do on the actual day.  That would be crazy.  But there had better be a birthday weekend.  With lots of coffee and food I don't have to make or clean up and the ability to watch my family from a safe, but happy distance.

So, if you haven't guessed already, I'm usually quite disappointed.  I'm trying to tone down my expectations a bit.  And also I've started planning my own birthdays.  Turns out I'm a lot better at it than Joel is.  I guess I'm the only one who understands just how special my day should be.

The unfortunate side effect of this birthday obsession is that I tend to assume my children possess the same irrational birthday beliefs I do.  And there's a chance, of course, that they do.  Take Finn's birthday, for example.

Finn requested breakfast in bed on his birthday morning.  Since I'm much too controlling to let that happen, I settled on breakfast in their room, over a small table.  I gave them those terrible, sugar-filled yogurts with the extra container of candy balls, partly because they love them but mostly because I'm terrified of crumbs.  Crumbs in bedrooms lead to bugs in bedrooms and that is just not happening here.

Afterwards I rushed them off to school, with the same frantic vigor as any other morning.  Only my normal post-drop-off guilt was multiplied by ten because I had yelled at Finn on his birthday morning.

I didn't have much time to dwell  on my inadequacy, though, because I had to finish Finn's birthday cupcakes and get them back to school by 10!  I could and should have finished them the night before, but then all three of my kids went to bed and suddenly my arms got very heavy and all I could possibly make them do was lift the TV remote.

So I rushed around from 8:30 on, and I said to myself, multiple times, I don't care what these look like. There is sugar in them.  And that's all that matters.  In fact, my only goal in making these cupcakes was to ensure that there was one cupcake acceptable enough to not cause a birthday meltdown.

But, as always, I was running late.  So I sprinted to the car with the cupcakes.  Only Benjamin refused to follow, and as I hurriedly scooped him up from the rug I jammed my pinkie toe hard into the couch leg.  I looked down and thought, Hm. That's a strange angle my toes are making.  But it was go time so I slid my shoe carefully over my quickly swelling foot and went.

The one cupcake was good enough, so I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, Oh my gosh.  My toe really hurts, and I limped back to my car.  Where I then placed my favorite cake tin on the roof of the car, only to leave without pulling it back down.  I'm sad to say I don't imagine I'll ever see that cake tin again.

But it was a birthday and there was no time for trivial things like doctor's appointments or fretting over an irreplaceable gift with my name engraved on the top.

There were gift bags to fill and presents to find and dinner plans to make.

We ended the day at Finn's favorite pizza place in the city.  It was completely miserable.  Not one child could sit still and if I wasn't shoving Benjamin back into his high chair I was yelling to the boys that if they didn't come out from under the table right now we would never go out to eat again!

But Finn said it was a great night.  So there's that.

There were cakes and presents at home and I'm assuming most normal people could call it a good birthday and leave it at that.  But not me.

We had been asking Finn for weeks if he wanted a party at home or a playhouse birthday with just one or two friends.  After only very slight nudging, and a few, small extra incentives, he picked the playhouse birthday.  I felt so relieved.

But then the day came and I also felt guilty.  Of course.

It was his fifth birthday.  Shouldn't he get a big party?  Shouldn't we invite his whole class?  Shouldn't he feel celebrated and special?  Shouldn't I be able to suck up a day or two of extreme, soul-sucking stress and plan him a freaking birthday party?

But he seemed okay with it.  So I just kept moving.

He seemed to have a great time at the playhouse.  Climbing and sliding and jumping, eating french fries and drinking juice and devouring giant (store-bought) cupcakes!

Eventually we said good-bye to his friend, gathered shoes and children and made our way to the exit.  The boys handed me small handfuls of tickets from the arcade section and started drooling over the toys in the glass display case.  I handed the lady their tickets and watched hopefully as she dropped them on the scale.

"Thirty," she said.

"Great!" I replied.  "What can we get?"


"Nothing?  But we have 30 tickets."

"Yes, but you need 200."

"200 tickets!  But what about those stickers?"

"Yes, you need 200.  For the stickers."

I turned to the boys and explained in my sweetest voice that we didn't have quite enough this time.  But we'd save them for next time, and then we may have enough.  It was a lie, but "we'll never ever make it to 200 tickets" just didn't feel appropriate at the time.

Finn lost it.  He sobbed and screamed and flailed him wimpy, little arms.  Joel had to pick him up and drag him to the parking lot, where he refused to get in the car.  Angry five-year-old's are strong.

I finally settled him down and strapped him to his car seat (that's what seat belts are for, right?  Strapping down wild children?).  But then I lost it.

"Did you hear him?  He said it was the worst birthday ever.  It was the worst birthday ever.  We should have thrown him a party.  We should have invited more friends.  I'm such a bad mom!"

"Kim," Joel said in his I'm-so-much-saner-than-you voice.  "He's just mad about the toy.  That's it.  It was the last thing that happened so it's all he can think about.  He's just mad about the toy."

"But it's not about the toy.  It's about what the toy means.  The toy sums up all his disappointments about the day and his life and me..."

At this point I finally thought to myself, perhaps I am being a bit crazy.  I didn't say it out loud, of course.  I would never give Joel that kind of satisfaction.

But I sat quietly for a bit and thought.

Because the truth is I feel guilty when I throw parties too.  I'm so stressed and nervous and busy that at the end of the day I realize I hardly even talked to my birthday child.  Let alone enjoyed him.  I usually join them in bed on those nights, long after they fall asleep, just to feel like I've spent some time with them on their birthday.

I really am crazy.

I don't know why birthdays are such a big deal to me.  Growing up my mom always cooked our favorite meal on our birthday.  We'd have cake and a few days later a simple party where we ate pizza and played Wet Head and ran relay races.   I loved it.

So I don't really understand why I've made birthdays so complicated.  Why I am sure my children will suffer permanent scars if their birthday isn't absolutely perfect.

I think I need to let myself off the hook.

I love my kids.  And I try my best.  Except when I'm too tired to try my best.  Also, I mess up sometimes.  In both big and small ways.

But I think it's the love part they'll remember.  I know it's what I remember, and it's what makes me smile when I think back on birthdays passed.

These little things just want to be loved.  In the end.

And that, my friends, is something I can do.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lay off the Pinterest moms

I tried to be a Pinterest mom.


I planned a Ninjago-themed birthday party for my soon-to-be six-year-old son and seven of his squirmy kindergarten classmates.

It started as healthy browsing and ended in a pinning frenzy.  I chose the activities and foods that seemed fun, cute, and doable for a non-crafty, average-cooking mom.  I laid out my party plans and created a checklist of all the pre-party to-do's... so I wouldn't go too crazy the day of.

I kept telling myself in the week leading up to the party that I actually enjoyed this.  That I was happy to plan a party my son would enjoy.  One that he could be proud of when we didn't necessarily want to spend the money on the playhouse/soccer/swimming parties we frequented throughout the year.

But then the morning of the party arrived and I became slightly to very homicidal.  I won't go into details.  Let's just say, for the sake of my marriage, I don't plan Pinterest parties anymore.

And yet I truly believe there are some moms who do enjoy planning cute, intricate, matching birthday parties for their little ones.  Just like I know there are moms who actually like doing crafts and cooking with their kids.

Just because I'm not one of them doesn't mean they don't exist.

I get tired of reading articles and hearing people talk about these "Pinterest moms."  Like somehow their very existence threatens our own motherhood.

For the one week I imagined myself as a Pinterest mom, I didn't once think, I can't wait to post these pictures to Facebook and make all those non-Pinterest mamas feel small, small, small.

I mean, I did post pictures to Facebook.  I was proud of my work.  And after the near-sacrifice of my marriage, you can bet I needed to display some proof that it was worth it (right Joel?).

But I didn't do it to make anyone else feel less than.

I think as moms (and dads) that sometimes we can take each other's parenting successes personally.

I know because I'm guilty of it too.

When Aiden was in his first year of preschool a friend sent me a link to another mom's blog.  It was cute and crafty and by the time I read two posts I felt like I was three years behind in mother/child crafty bonding, and I started to panic a little.

So much so that the very next day I kept him home from preschool.  I saw that the crafty mom had made a tower of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti with her kids.  That seemed like something I could do, so I raided our US stash for marshmallows, spread them across the table with a big smile on of my face, and instructed my kids to build.

But mostly they just wanted to eat marshmallows and every attempt at building ended in my saying something along the lines of "oh my gosh, did you really just break another one" or "you're not finished until it looks like something!"

My kids ended up eating marshmallows on the couch, watching Spiderman.  I felt defeated.

But here's the thing.  I have this good friend here who loves to craft with her kids.  But guess what?  She loves to craft by herself too!  (Is it called crafting?  See, that's how little I know about it.)

It's not that I don't enjoy doing things with my kids.  It's that I was trying to force something that none of us were interested in.

So now I try to look for the intersection of our interests.  It's easy for Joel.  The boys love Star Wars and video games and bike rides.  But I have to be a little more creative.

For example, Finny and I both love food.  I don't have a lot of patience for kids cooking in the kitchen, but if I prep enough and have no time frame, I can let him cook with me.  More so, though, we love eating together.  That one I can handle.

Aiden's a bit harder for me, as he seems to possess boundless energy and I definitely don't.  But we both love to read.  So that's something.

Benjamin loves everything right now, so that's easy.

We all have our things.  My things with my kids aren't exciting or pretty enough to post to Facebook most of the time.  But if they were, I would proudly put it out there for all the world to see.  And why not?

I believe there's a way to appreciate other moms, and the moments that make them feel good, without feeling bad ourselves.

It's easy to relate to someone being honest about how hard it is.  But what about someone who's just being honest about how good it is.  Because there's both.  There's always both.  And just because someone is having a good mom moment, doesn't mean that we should have a bad one.

So Pinterest mamas of the world... we're behind you!  We understand that you can put hours and hours of work into a party just to see the joy on your child's face.  That you can craft and cook with your kids because you actually, truly enjoy it.

And those of us who don't, we have our moments too.  Snuggling on the couch for movie night, reading a favorite book, taking a child on a coffee/treat date (my favorite, of course).

Even if I don't enjoy one moment all day long, it doesn't make your moment any less valuable.  So keep showing us your moments.  The good and the bad.  And we'll keep showing you ours.

I may not plan Pinterest parties anymore, but I support those who do.

Plan on, mamas.  Plan on.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Dearest Finn, There will be pain

My dear, sweet Finn,

You were nearly a year when Rhino squirmed his way into our life.  We smiled at that small, green blanket with its rhinoceros head, but we didn't know.  We didn't realize that one day Rhino would feel like family.  That he'd be just as much a part of you as your green eyes, or that beautiful head of white-blonde hair.  

You took to him right away, and as soon as you could walk Rhino went everywhere with you.  We could track your progress through the house just by the sound of his rattling head.

When we moved to Budapest, Rhino became like another limb.  We quickly dismissed our not-out-of-the-house rule.  You had lost so much, and it was clear you needed him.  So wherever we went, Rhino went also.

But you couldn't think about Rhino all the time.  So, far too frequently, he got left behind.  You would cry and your daddy would trudge back out of the car, scouring malls or Ikea or vast parking lots, searching for your soft, green love.  He'd carry a picture, because we could hardly say hello, so "we're looking for a small, green rhinoceros" was out of the question.

But somehow, oftentimes miraculously, we always found him.  And you'd snuggle him against your face, even with the pungent smell that often surrounded him.

Over time Rhino grew slightly less important.  But he was always there.  Always.  Waiting to soak up your tears and snuggle you to sleep.

When we truly lost him for the first time my heart ached, and as I held you while you cried a tear may have slipped from my eye as well.  He was such a faithful friend.

But it turned out they kept him for you at the airport.  And when we came back through three weeks later we not only found him again, but he was cleaner than ever.  In fact, he looked brand new.  "They must give good baths at the airport," we said, and you smiled and held him close.

When Benjamin was born you found him multiple, Rhino-like blankets.  But in the end you knew only one would do.  So, after a few months, you proudly handed over Rhino, and I asked a million times if you were sure, because I wasn't ready for you to let go.

But a few weeks later you left for your first day of school, so you needed him back.  I think Benjamin understood.  We never talked about it again.

Rhino mostly hangs out in your bed now.  He comes to school sometimes, but stays home more often than not.

You told me tonight your little pal at school doesn't want to be friends anymore.  That he runs away from you at recess, and moves when you sit next to him at lunch.  He has another friend now, and I can see that it's breaking your heart.

As you cried in my arms I looked over at Rhino, pushed to the corner of your bed.  And I realized there are some hurts he can't help anymore.

You're turning five, and there's so much joy ahead of you.  But also, there's pain.  There's pain that Rhino can't ease.  And, as you're finding, there's pain your mom can't erase with a small kiss and a giant hug.

But I hope you remember there's another side to that pain.  And that, someday, sometime, you'll come out on it.  And you'll be met there by the people who love you most, the ones who were with you all the time.  Even if we were shoved in the corner.  Even if you didn't once think about us there.

Some people say we go through hard times to make us stronger.  Your dad said it tonight, as I fretted over you in the kitchen.  But I'm not sure.  Something about that idea doesn't feel right to me.

I wonder if, maybe, we're not meant to get stronger.  I wonder if life does just the opposite to us.  That instead of getting stronger, we get weaker.

And the weaker we get, the more we realize we can't do it alone.  The more we understand that we need each other, and a God who loves us, and a Rhino waiting patiently in the corner for someone to look his way.

You'll have more Rhinos one day.  Ones who love you for who you are.  Who won't turn away from you.  But for now you have us.  You have Dad and I, Aiden and Benjamin.  You have your grandparents, your aunts and uncles.  You have God.

It's a good start, I think.

You're a middle child, and as such are always fighting to get your way.  You're scared that life won't end up fair.  That, in the end, you'll be forgotten.

But I'm sitting here now beside your small, sleeping body.  I'm not sure why, except that I want to protect you.  To guard you from pain and heartache.  And somehow it feels better to have you close.  To know, for now at least, I'm the only one who can touch you.

So I can tell you, you won't be forgotten.  Even if you feel small in the rest of this world, you're big here.  To us, you're giant.  And you won't be overlooked.  Ever.

Happy fifth birthday sweet Finn.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Conference day

I don't normally like to brag.  But, oh my gosh, I was such a good mom today.

I mean, if you start "today" around 10, which I think is totally fair because things shouldn't count before 10.

It was a "no school day," so before 10 it was all things TV.  I'm pretty sure all I said to my kids before 10 was, "put on another one" and "can't you get your own breakfast?"

But then it turned 10, and I shut my computer.  I proceeded up the stairs for an actual shower.  On a no school day!  I knew right then it was going to be a good day.

When I came back down the baby had uncapped every marker in the house and was currently drawing on the floor.  But I was so calm.  I just plucked those Crayolas from his fat fingers, flashed him a gentle smile and said, "Benjamin, floors are not for drawing on."

Then I looked at the boys and said, "Who wants to go for a walk to get a treat?"

After thrashing around on the couch and tearing their mushy brains from the screen, I finally convinced them to get dressed (not through bribery, of course).

But by the time the troops were suited and out the door, treat time had passed and we were facing lunch.  So I promised a pizza from the bakery, and (after Finn screamed and convulsed for two straight blocks) they graciously accepted.  (Again, definitely not a result of bribery.)
So we sat on the wooden benches outside the bakery and we ate our pizzas and the boys were chatty and the sun was shining and the baby was laughing.  I felt like super mom.  I had all three of my kids out of the house, by 12, on a no school day!

I bought them apples on the way back home, which really made me feel good.  It didn't matter that the baby was the only one who actually ate his.  They were carrying them.  All the way home.  For all the people to see.  And isn't that what really matters?

When we got home it was nap time for the baby, so I sent the big kids off to zombie-land again.  But their little eyes looked so dead, and I wondered if I was sacrificing their precious souls for a moment of peace.

So I turned off the TV and asked if they wanted to play outside.  More screaming and thrashing and bribery (should "mommy will play with you" be bribery, or should that be normal?) and we were out.

And this was the moment I thought, I'm doing it.  I'm really doing it.  I'm just like a real mom.

We threw balls.  We jumped on our tiny trampoline.  We laughed, and fought, and then laughed some more.  And all during nap time.  I played with my kids during the baby's only nap time, all day long. And there's a chance I even enjoyed it.

Of course all good things must come to an end, so I told them to get in the car, it was time for conferences.

And they listened!  They didn't just go to the car, without complaining, they bounced there.  They hopped on in with smiles on their faces and not one person hit or kicked or scratched anyone.

And I was like, did I do this?  Do I really hold this power?  And also, how long can I keep this up, cause I'm getting really tired?

When I finally broke my super-mom reverie, I remembered the baby was still sleeping upstairs.  So I stopped thinking about what a great mom I was and went to retrieve my forgotten child.

Finn's conference was first.  Finn is great at talking about the things he does well.  I mean, usually he just looks around the room and picks something.  "Blocks!"  Then he takes five hours to write it down... B...L...O...X...  And when he's done we gush about what a fantastic job he does at blocks.

But then it's goal time.  The words sounds to us like, "What's something you could do better at school?"  But Finn hears, "Tell us the worst thing about yourself and then sit back as we determine your punishment."

First he starts to rub his eyes, so hard that you're scared he may push them back into the sockets.  Then his whole body slumps over and you just watch helplessly as he disintegrates into mush... mute mush.

His sweet teachers gently remind him of the goals they previously discussed and he vaguely agrees, and they magically bring our pile of mush back to life, and he's soon running across the room, showing off his mad block skills.  Preschool teachers are magical.

Then it's time for Aiden's conference.  Aiden's conferences are my favorite.  I don't think I love Aiden more at any time during the year than I do at conference time.

He's done the same thing at every single conference since he was 4.  He spends the entire time either wiggling in his chair or grinning at his dad.  No one else.  Just Joel.  When we talk about areas of strength he grins wide, like, "WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?"  And Joel has to make up some kind of reaction because he's clearly the only audience.  And when we talk about things he could work on, he grins nervously, like "what do you think of that?"  And Joel tries his best to look back with a straight face, but it is so incredibly hard not to laugh at that goofy grin.

I love him so much in those moments.  It's beautiful to me, the way he longs for his dad's approval.  The way he completely disregards me and his teacher and hinges his reaction on the man who matters most to him.  I guess I should feel jealous, but I'm smiling too much, so I feel happy instead.

We stopped for ice cream on the way home because I was feeling like such a good mom (and also because it was part of the before-mentioned (non)bribery).

I pouted a bit that they didn't choose my favorite place.  But when Aiden said, "Okay Mom, we'll go wherever you want to go," I closed my eyes and clenched my fists and said, "No, let's go where you want."

See?  Such a good mom.

I played outside with my kids for another 20 minutes after we got home.  20 minutes!  Do they have records for these sorts of things?

Finally, Joel biked up to our gate, home from work.  I walked inside the house and poured myself a glass of wine.  Leaning against the counter I said, "You're cooking tonight, right?"

Good mom days can only go on for so long.

Friday, October 3, 2014

I can't get rid of them

I tried to explain it to Joel tonight.

But words don't often come easy to me.  Not the spoken kind at least.

So usually I settle for angry.  It's easier than sorting and communicating my actual feelings.  Anger is easy because I can say it's you, not me.

Other feelings get complicated.

This is the best I could do tonight.

"It's just... You have all these different identities.  Work Joel.  Social Joel.  Dad Joel.  I have one.  Mom."

My identity is so wrapped up in my kids that I literally can't separate myself from them.  They're always there.  Usually physically.  Sometimes mentally.  Other times, just a nagging suspicion that I've left something undone.

I've been home with one or more kids for the past six and a half years.  Six and half years.

I've loved it and I've hated it.  I've convinced myself it's best for my kids and best for my family, and even best for myself.

I've noted the struggles of working moms, and tucked them away for moments when I couldn't handle one more poopy diaper or meltdown or when I just wanted to enjoy a cup of coffee and not have to get anyone anything to eat... ever.

But the truth is I am just. so. tired.

And it's not the mentally tired that leaves you feeling drained, but also smart and accomplished.  Or the physically tired that causes your muscles to ache, but your pride to soar.

I'm just tired.  Plain old, boring tired.  With no sense of accomplishment to dull the ache.  Because as hard as I work to mother these children, I go to bed at night with the overwhelming sense that I could have/ should have done more.

More patience, more time, more outside play, more crafts, more talk, more laughter, more love...

I'm not sure I've ever climbed under my covers and thought, I did a great job today.  On top of that my kids refuse to cheer me on, even with all the feeding and clothing and general caring I do for them.  And, believe it or not, my husband doesn't walk in the door shouting my praises.  It turns out he had a day of his own.  With struggles and hardships and successes of his own.

But sometimes I get so jealous of him.  Because, once in a while, he comes home and he's had a great day.  He feels like he really got through to the kids, or he's discovered a teaching technique that works for him, or he just enjoyed his job.

I hate that.

Because at the end of my day, I've repeated myself 100 times, and yet never got through; I've tried a million parenting techniques, but none that really worked; I've enjoyed moments, but never the whole job... never the whole, entire day.

Tonight I finally got the kids to bed.  Joel was out celebrating a good friend's birthday and I was just sitting down to a late dinner and some mindless TV.  As I went to take my first bite I noticed Finn hovering at the top of the stairs.  I paused the show, put my plate to the side, and walked towards the staircase.

Just as I passed through the dining room Aiden popped out from behind the wall... and I screamed.  Like, horror movie screamed.  His eyes went wide, and wider still when I then buried my head in my hands and cried.

I love my kids more than the world, and often I'd choose a night home with my family over anything.

But tonight it was too much.  When Aiden popped out from behind that wall, I wasn't thinking how scared I was.  I was thinking, Oh my gosh, I can't get rid of them.

I love them.  So much.  But I can't get rid of them.

And yet just last night I looked over at Joel as the kids laughed from their dark bedroom and the baby's tiny feet pounded across the floor and said, "One day, this is all going to be a memory."

And not even wistfully.  I meant it.  And at the moment it felt so real.  This will all pass so quickly and we'll look back at these years as a time in our life like no other.

And thus stands the dichotomy of motherhood.

I can't get rid of them, but I don't want to let them go.

And so I'll go to bed and wake to do it all over again.  And some days will go better than others, as they do with all jobs.

And some days I'll just need to trust that I did something right today.  Even if it was just one thing.  And without praise or cheering or pride... I'll have to trust that the one thing was enough.