Monday, December 7, 2015

When your moments feel small

Yesterday I saw a picture of my boys from six years ago.  They were together in the tub, Finn's tiny, newborn feet kicking the round flesh of Aiden's toddler belly.  Aiden's wide smile was pure delight.  He looked like a giant there, next to little baby Finn, like he could swallow him whole, and almost like he wanted to.

A few hours later I was tired and there was still a sink full of dishes and Benjamin kept getting up from his bed, where he was supposed to be sleeping, and running down the hallway.  So that little newborn baby who was just lying next to his brother in a bathtub took my two-year-old's hand, brought him back to bed and sat next to him, softly reading him a book that I swear I read to him just yesterday.  He instructed Benjamin to lie down and covered him tenderly with his thick comforter, kissed him on the forehead and left the room.

That night when they were all sleeping I looked back at the picture, the one with the soft skin and the meaty rolls and the wide-eyed innocence.  "It's going so fast," I said out loud, and the words surprised me.

Mine is a life of small moments.  I've had the graduations and the wedding and the three, miraculous moments when my children were born, and with many of my big milestone moments passed, and my kids' big moments still far in the distance (though too quickly approaching) I'm swallowed, at times, by a sense of the mundane.

It's hard to see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.  Because sometimes I feel like I'm waiting around for my big reveal.  What I'm supposed to do or who I'm supposed to be, or the difference I'm supposed to make in the world.  But if I zoom out for a second from these small, everyday moments, I discover a big, beautiful forest of now, each tiny moment adding to its life, to its general hugeness.

When I think about my childhood these little moments blur together a bit.  From time to time my parents will talk about a memory I cannot, for the life of me, recall.  Our life together, in my childhood home, with my sister and my parents just down the hallway, feels a little faded.  But as the small moments fade, the love behind those moments only grows brighter, so that when I look back on my childhood I don't recall exactly what we did after school or how we spent our summer days, but I remember feeling unequivocally, irrevocably, unconditionally loved.

And so I realize that these little moments might not seem so big right now.  But one day they will be.  One day, all stuck together, they'll look like a big, beautiful forest with wide, familiar trails that I'll want to spend the day meandering.

Every morning Finn asks, "What are we going to do after school?" and I answer him, "The same thing we do everyday.  Play.  Make dinner.  Eat dinner.  Clean dinner.  Bed."  

It sounds so monotonous to me.  But one day the playing and the cooking and the laying of little heads on their pillows will look like the big, beautiful moment it is.

If I would only stop looking so hard for my big moment, I'd see that it's right here, right now.  It's lying down with my toddler as he drifts off to sleep and teaching my seven-year-old how to sew and smearing butter-covered hands over circles of dough with my kindergartner.

They're just small moments, but they're cloaked in big love.  The kind of love that's remembered, even when the moment is forgotten.

This morning I woke to a two-year-old who suddenly looked much bigger than the baby I expected to find, a six-year-old who says words like nonetheless and cornucopia, and a near-eight-year old who doesn't always wait for me to walk him into school anymore, but leaves me with a wave and a smile in the parking lot.

These little newborn babies of mine are doing things I never imagined.  They're growing up.  And if I can step back for a moment, separate myself from the mundane, I notice that the trees in our forest are really sprouting.  Nearly eight years of small moments, each one creating a masterpiece.  But it's hard to see the masterpiece when you're right in the middle of it, cleaning the spit up and tiny, chewed pieces of broccoli and small scraps of paper covering your floor.

I mean, it's hard to see the big, lovely picture when you find a brown streak on your bathroom wall that you are praying is chocolate, or when you just want to sit down in front of the TV at the end of a long day, but no one in your house will go to sleep, ever, or when you're breaking up the fifteen millionth fight of the day.

But each sink full of dishes, each frantic search for socks, each and every kiss good-bye and hug hello are small but necessary brushstrokes.  On their own they don't seem like much, but all together they paint a startling picture of love.  Even the sloppy and misplaced ones.  Even the tiny flecks you can hardly see.  It's not a perfect picture, but I have a feeling, one day, it will take my breath away.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

To our friends, who won't let us go

To our friends, who won't let us go,

I remember my good-bye with each and every one of you.  I remember the tears in our driveway, and the ones on my parent's porch.  Yours, of course.  Mine I kept inside, where they were safe.  Where they couldn't threaten to burst, and never ever stop.

I remember the awkward see-you-soon's, and the hugs that were both too long and too short.  

I remember the support and the confusion and the general unease.   

I remember walking away and busying myself immediately.  Doing whatever I could not to think or feel.  I know repression isn't the best way, but the feelings of those days were so strong that they effectively numbed me.  Perhaps you noticed.

I missed you so intensely those first few months it was physically painful at times.  Some of you I was seeing ever day.  Some every few months.  A handful once a year or so.  But I missed you all.  I missed your unconditional love and and your easy conversation and your knowing me.  Your really knowing me.  And my knowing you.  I missed the understanding that you would do anything for me, at a moment's notice.  I missed that in the years you knew me I was so many people, and also just one, and that you saw the real me.  Sometimes, in those first few months, I wasn't sure who the real me was, or if I liked her all that much.  But I knew you did.  And so, even from a distance, you carried me.

Our first Christmas home was rushed and surreal.  I was so happy to see you, but I couldn't reconcile my two worlds.  Not yet.  I wanted you to know my new world, to see it through my eyes, but I couldn't figure out where to start and so I didn't.  It stood, instead, as a vague distance between us.  And yet your presence calmed my heart.  It grounded me.  I returned to Budapest both more content and more heartbroken.

When I wasn't missing you I was panicking about you, a bit.  I watched your lives go on, and happily at that.  I wondered if there would still be room for me after one more year.  A year is a long time, after all.

The start of our second year was probably my hardest.  I didn't know where I belonged, and I wasn't so sure I had the time or desire to figure it out.  You were so important to me then.  Maybe you didn't know, but I needed you then more than ever.  You were my place, my belonging, even an ocean away.

It got easier from there.  Slowly.  I let myself love people here.  Ones who weren't you.  And I let them love me.  I opened up and I let myself get hurt when it was time to say good-bye.  I felt the emptiness of the space they filled, and I waited, sometimes months, for the pain to pass.

Some are still here, reminding me what it's like to be loved for me.  No strings attached. I'm lucky, I know, even with more good-byes looming in my future.

And I know now that my fears were silly.  Because there's always room.  Always.  It's a space that can't be taken by anyone else.  It's a space that's yours.  And yours alone.

I wish I could spend days, weeks, months with each and every one of you.  I really do.  Instead it's a few moments here and there, and sometimes our trip home carries on faster than we could ever expect and before we know it's over and some of you, ones who we love very much, we don't get to see at all.  And still the love remains.  After nearly five years.  With an entire ocean between us.

I didn't really understand the deep roots of these friendships until we left.  Until time and distance were no longer the things that held us together.   Until all that was left were separate people whose lives no longer overlapped.   It was only then that I realized we were linked to each other.  Not by the ability to pop over to each other's houses or help watch each other's kids, but by fits of uncontrollable laughter, and ones of uncontrollable tears, by the children we loved from their earliest days, whether from near or far, by high school football games and college dorms and the messy living rooms of new motherhood.

And so I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm thankful.  So thankful.  Because family, while family is a whole other post and a whole other realm of gratefulness, family mostly has to show up.  They mostly have to put up with the hard fact we live so far away and see them much less than either of us wants.  But I'm learning, more than ever, that friends have a choice.  It's hard to open yourself up to someone you know will soon leave.  Really hard.  But you still do.  You open your homes and your hearts and your lives, even when another good-bye awaits.

It's not perfect, of course, because we're not.  We've messed up and will continue to, but somehow that's not the point.  The point is that, whether near or far, we're doing life together.  The moments are few and far between, but the joy of watching our rapidly growing kids play together in the sunshine, of reminiscing, of laughing and sharing, those moments are burned into my memory.  They'll hold me for another year, easy.  Even longer if need be.  And all the while I'll know you're just a message or phone call away.  Waiting.  Holding our space.

I used to say my friends spoiled me.  That is was too hard to replace you, and so I just didn't.  But really you didn't.  You just showed me what could be.  You taught me that it's better to share life than to go it alone.

The good-bye's are always hard.  Always.   But when we leave now it's with a warmth in my heart and although it's sad it's never as sad as the first time.  Because even when we leave, I know what remains.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A plea on behalf of toddler moms everywhere

The other morning I went for coffee with a friend and our toddlers, both of whom had been up since five.  It was a gray, dreary day and the thought of going home just felt slightly unbearable.

Things were progressing as normally as could be expected under such circumstances.  A good deal of whining, an outburst or two... and that was just the moms.  We ended up having our coffee at the lego table, speaking in five word sentences and losing out train of thought about every two minutes.  We broke apart fights with one hand and sipped our foamy lattes with the other.  So, you know, the norm.

We went to pay and literally had our backs turned for three seconds.  During those three seconds Benjamin booked it for the mini-fridge, flung the door open, and swiped his two grimy fingers right through the icing of the carrot cake.  By the time I turned around he was standing there, fingers in mouth, the tiniest fleck of guilt tainting his wide, innocent eyes.  

"I'll take that one to go."

It took a minute to register as Benjamin watched her package up his finger-smudged piece of cake.  If I touch it, I get it.  Major lightbulb moment.  

Of course Benjamin then set off to destroy me.  I couldn't hear the amount she was saying.  I couldn't retrieve my money.  I couldn't stop sweating!  All I could do was pull Benjamin from that darn fridge, which, by the way, is just perfectly his height, time and time again.  

This wasn't working.  

Just when I thought I was literally going to lose it, the owner of our small, village coffeeshop/bookstore came out from behind the counter, picked up Benjamin and brought him back to the register.  She gave him a few knickknacks to busy his little hands and explained what she was she was doing in soft, soothing Hungarian.  He watched as she pushed the buttons and stared at her when she spoke.  It threw him off just enough to settle him down and allow me to pay.  

When it was time to leave I thanked her profusely and Benjamin shouted "Szia!" as he ran out the door.  I left with a smile on my face, and a warmth in my heart.

Someone asked me once if children seem to tantrum here as much as they do in the States.  I think they expected the answer to be no.  But the truth is, yes, they do.  Just as much, I'd say, if not more.

Because, you know what, toddlers are toddlers, everywhere.  A toddler tantrums, or melts down, or throws a fit, or whatever you want to call it, because they are learning the hard lesson that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them.  They're learning the hard lesson that you can't always get what you want.  

When my first turned toddler I thought, what's wrong with him?  He cries about everything and he never just does what I ask him to!  

Now I'm like, I know, buddy.  It's hard being a little guy.  Sometimes your mommy has to pee, which is absolutely as horrible as your large, heaving sobs indicate.  It's like her peeing needs are more important than your need to stand in front of the open fridge for 10 minutes mulling over your food and drink choices, only to choose an item that you will probably just spit back onto your plate before demanding something else.  It really is hard.  I understand.

A kid throwing a tantrum is not a reflection of bad parenting.  In fact, it might just be a reflection of good parenting.  Of standing to the side while your child has a moment, of allowing him to feel what he feels and then moving on, whether it takes a minute or an hour.  Of not giving in, just to save face.

And while your child is working through his tangled feelings, testing his limits, a helping hand or a knowing smile can make all the difference.

I can't tell you how many times I've been let to the front of a line because Benjamin cannot be still.  Or how many times a perfect stranger has helped corral him back into a shop when he books it through the doors while I'm trying to pay.  I can't tell you how many averted eyes or sympathetic glances or soft, calming words were offered to me, or to my feisty toddler, when in the midst of a meltdown.

And I can't tell you the importance of these small gestures to a mom feeling like she may lose her mind at any given moment.

Yesterday morning Benjamin carried Finn's small backpack into school.  He was so proud.  But when we arrived to Finn's classroom he wasn't ready to let go.  And so he didn't.

Once I finally tore the straps from his freakishly strong little fingers I was forced to pick him up, screaming and flailing, and carry him from the school.  Every once in a while he'd wriggle free and take off towards Finn's classroom.  I'd run as fast as I could and scoop his spastic body into my arms, trying to make it as far as I could before he broke loose again.  This went on for some time, but eventually we made it to the car.  Unfortunately the car was not where Benjamin wanted to be.  Not without his backpack at least.  And so he proceeded to scream so loudly and frantically that he literally made himself throw up.  Right there in the parking lot.  I hurried him back inside to the bathroom where he continued to gag and choke and throw up.  And then back to the car where he continued on with the same as I sped home, which suddenly felt millions of miles away.

At home I stripped him down and bathed him, toweling him off and dressing him in his softest, coziest jammies.  We snuggled on the couch and watched Doc McStuffins, and it was as though nothing had ever happened.  I sat there next to his tiny body in a state of shock as he sang along with the Doc and shot devious smiles in my direction.

This is what we're dealing with people.  Us parents of toddlers.  And all over a freaking backpack.

So be kind.  Offer to help.  Shoot a smile that says, "Toddlers are crazy.  I get it.  But you're doing great.  Keep going mama!"

It might be small, but to those of us walking around with our happy, giggly little ticking time bombs, a bit of understanding is everything.  Just to get us through these tumultuous toddler years, until our children start resembling actual human beings.

Life can be hard.  I hope I can remember that when life gets easier for us.  When I can go to a store without causing a major scene or sit down to eat at a restaurant instead of hopping up every two minutes to pull my child off the bar.

I hope I will one day be the one with the sympathetic smile, the one letting a frazzled mom before me in line, the one talking softly to a screaming child, remembering the relief of one minute of peace.

But for now I'll let someone hold my wild toddler, I'll smile back at the people who know, I'll tear up a bit when I'm, once again, let to the front of the line.

I'll accept everything I'm offered, and I'll hope above all hope that the moms and dads who just don't know if they can do it anymore are offered the exact same.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Love is kind, and kind is hard

Last week, for nearly the entire week, Benjamin woke before six.  In the fives.  He woke in the fives.  I know this is quite normal to some of you, but I haven't had a child wake up in the fives since my first was a baby.

I was grouchy every day during that challenging time of life.  Every day for over a year.  Not one morning did I wake up and think, well, I guess this is life, and happily go about my business.  No, I grumbled and groaned and fought against his early rising with every fiber of my being.

Benjamin, on the other hand, spoiled me from the very beginning.  He easily slept until seven or eight and sometimes I had to wake him up.  Wake him up!  I was living the dream.

Until last week.

I was in a bad mood all week.  I might have improved my mood were there not so very many Gilmore Girls needing watched, late into the night.  But that is neither here nor there because the point is it was the toddler's fault.

So needless to say, I could barely wait for Saturday morning.  To sleep in, of course.  And when I heard that baby wrestling around too early I looked over to Joel's side of the bed and thought, Great!  He's already up.  Let him take Benjamin.

Benjamin had other plans, though.  Ones that involved screaming his head off from the bottom of the stairs until I dragged myself out of bed and joined him on the couch.

To say I was mad might be an understatement.  I was mad at Benjamin for needing me so much.  I was mad at Joel for not being enough for him.  I was mad at the big ones for wanting anything at all ever when I was so stinking tired!

I wasn't too nice.  I know that now, and I knew it then.  So I went off to the bathroom.  I figure if Joel can do it then so can I.  I pulled out my phone and settled in for a moment of peace and quiet, to read something that might lift my oppressed spirit a bit.  I should know by now that these things never go as planned.  That instead of reading what I want to hear I almost always find what I need to hear.

Love is kind.  Love is kind.  Love is kind.

From multiple sources.  No clauses or anything.  Not even one for sleep-deprived moms.

And so, after some resistance, I settled on a tentative plan to be kind.  In my home.  Where my children learn to treat others and themselves and their future families.  Instead of continuing on my pre-bathroom break tear, I decided I would be kind.

And so I was.  Not overly kind, but, you know, as much as I could muster on a few hours sleep.

It was all going so well.  Until I remembered something.  Our morning plans.

We were going to Ikea.

I'll start tomorrow, I thought immediately.

I mean, Ikea, people!  The place where human behavior disintegrates and healthy family dynamics dissolve into piles of screaming children.  Ikea!

I was so glad I didn't tell Joel of my decision.  I certainly couldn't be held to it now.

Still, though, perhaps I'd keep on with the kind act for the car ride.  Just until we got there.  And so even when Joel revealed his plans to purchase items that were not previously agreed upon, items whose catalog pages were not, in fact, folded down, I took a deep breath and said, "Okay.  We can do that."

Unless Joel reads this.  In which case I should probably admit that I might have crossed my arms, glared out the window and loudly spoke the words "Absolutely not" one to five times before I remembered the whole kind thing.  But I did remember eventually.  Hence the, "Okay.  We can do that."  (Deep breath in, slow exhale...)

We arrived just minutes before the store opened and got a great spot and the kids were happy and compliant, so I figured I might as well go with the kindness thing for a bit longer.

Our big ticket item was a new couch.  The previous one fell victim to harassment by children and merciless scrubbing due to said children and, well, when a small hole turned into a giant tear, spanning nearly half the couch, it was time to say good-bye.

Luckily couches were located directly by the showroom entrance.  So we were still fresh and when Finn flipped a bit because he didn't want to get rid of our couch and, if he absolutely had to, wanted to replace it with the exact same couch, I was very understanding.

"I know sweetheart.  We've had this couch since we moved here.  We loved this couch.  But it's time to let it go."

And so after we grieved the couch for a bit he was off, leaping from cushion to cushion with his brothers, causing chaos and mass destruction in the tidy living rooms all around us.

This is the thing about Ikea.  Children are so easy to lose there.  I mean, I get lost there, so how can I expect three squirrelly children to find their way anywhere?  Also, we may have actually lost a child there once.  We found him pretty quickly, but these things tend to stick with you.

So I get a little jumpy, particularly when they split in three different direction.  Mostly I just stare at the little one, though.  I literally don't take my eyes off of him.  Not for a second.  The bigs ones I'm just starting to trust, but the little one is completely unpredictable.

Somehow we managed, with Joel inspecting prices and colors and me glancing at them for a millisecond before pulling Benjamin off yet another glass-adorned coffee table.

We took our information and moved as quickly as possible through the store.  I continued to maintain my composure, to a degree, of course.  It's just when your two-year-old is opening and slamming every single drawer in every single entertainment center, all while laughing like a hyena as your big two flash by from time to time in a frantic game of hide and seek, your husband asking you about drawer color suddenly goes way down on the list of things you care about.

"I don't care!  Just pick one,"  I snapped as I wrestled Benjamin off a shiny black surface.

Things were starting to unravel.  We needed a new plan.

"Listen, you stay here with the big boys and figure this out.  I'll keep walking with Benjamin.  We'll meet in the cafe."

We needed something.  And coffee and treats were just the thing.  

After our refresh and regroup we tackled the impossible.  The downstairs.  Joel immediately started asking if we needed things like glasses.  Glasses?  Who in the world can think about glasses at a time like this!  There are so many things that can break down here.  Who cares about glasses?  We'll drink from our hands!

I had managed to wrangle Benjamin into the cart with the allure of a tape measurer, but I knew it wouldn't last long.  I plowed straight ahead while Joel wandered the aisles, catching up to us from time to time.

At one point Joel was ready to go ahead to the warehouse.  I was feeling quite confident, and so I sent him ahead with the big ones.

The absolute second he left Benjamin insisted on walking.  Not only walking, but pushing the cart.  Without any help.  And I mean any help.  No touching of the cart at all or he would scream like an banshee and insist, "My do it!"

By the time we got to the warehouse I was covered in sweat.  I felt my cool slipping away bit by bit.  Eventually we met up in check out and all three boys actually clambered to help us.  They took each item from the belt and gently placed it in the cart.  They moved when I told them to move and stayed when I told them to stay.  When it was time to load the car they waited patiently as we figured out how in the world would we fit everything?

I didn't actually notice all that at the time, though.  I did notice, though, that we made it through an entire morning at Ikea and I didn't hate anybody.  Not one person.  Even Joel.

Joel mentioned later how nice and helpful the boys had been and I thought, wow, you're right.  I wanted to take credit for it all, for being so darn kind, but there were so many slip-ups.  So many moments of less-than-kind, if not decidedly unkind.  I was trying, really, but this kind thing just felt darn near impossible.

Because here's the thing.  Love is kind.  It's not the love that's the problem.  It's the people.  The actual people I love make kind incredibly hard sometimes.  I feel like I should have been warned about this.  Like, love is kind, sure, but it's also really, really hard.

Yesterday morning the middle child was in a mood.  I'm not quite sure what brought on the mood, but whatever it was produced nearly unbearable amounts of screeching.

Benjamin, in the hope of calming his irate brother, picked up Finn's smoothie cup and started to hand it to him.  But in his anger all Finn saw was Benjamin stealing his smoothie, and so he snatched it from his chubby little hands and shouted, "Bad boy!"

Benjamin froze where he was and stared at the ground.  He lower lip popped out and I could see he was about to break.

"Finn," I said, "he was only trying to help.  Now look, you've made him cry."

On cue Benjamin burst into tears.  But before I could scoop him into my embrace, Finn set down his cup, rushed to Benjamin's side, and wrapped his arms around him.  Benjamin turned towards Finn and returned the hug, lying his head against his brother's small chest.  His tears slowed and they stood there for a moment, quietly holding each other.

It's a moment I'll remember for quite some time.  Just a beautiful picture of grace.  One I couldn't see until I was outside, watching.

It doesn't feel so beautiful when I'm the one messing up.  When I'm the one crushing my pride and offering I'm sorry's, even when I'm sure it wasn't my fault.  It doesn't feel so beautiful when I'm the one who caused the tears I'm now desperately trying to stop.

But I wonder what it looks like from the outside.  If it's as beautiful as the screaming and the tears and the softening and the sweet embrace I witnessed yesterday morning.

Because love is kind.  But it's also messy.  And sometimes the kindness is in the grace we offer each other.  Sometimes the kindness is right there in the middle of the messing up.  Sometimes the kindness is in the trying and the failing and the what follows.

Perhaps kindness is less about perfection, and more about our response to imperfection.

Maybe love is kind, because love is full, brimming, overflowing with grace.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Surviving two (and semi-enjoying it)

The other night I was lying in bed when I suddenly felt crushed by this thought.

This may well be my last year home with a child.

Benjamin will go to school next year and, regardless of what I do, I won't have a kid there, doing everyday life with me.  For the first time in eight years I won't have a small human being in my home, all day, every day.

I can't even imagine driving away from school all by myself.  I can't imagine folding laundry without a toddler wrapped around my leg.  Writing without Curious George in the background.  To be honest, when I try to imagine a quiet house, seven hours a day, it terrifies me.

And so I'm trying to channel that terror into my current life.  The one that's loud and noisy.  The one that is controlled by the many and varying moods of one tiny dictator-like person.

And I'm trying to remember that next year, when I walk away from school with nothing but my car keys in hand, I will miss these things that currently drive me crazy.

Like when Benjamin begs for a juice box from the school cafe, only to scream and sob for fifteen minutes, or what feels like a lifetime, when I finally cave and buy it.  And when I realize three juice boxes later that he didn't want to actually drink the juice box, he just wanted to hold it, I think... I am going to miss these days.

Or when he shrieks as I go to put him in the car every morning, and I am forced to use my full body weight to maneuver his freakishly stiff body to a place where I can finally fasten him down.  And when he stops yelling long enough to pull into our parking spot, only to start up again when I try to take him out of the car.  And when the same scene repeats, in and out of the car, ALL DAY LONG, I think... I am going to miss these days.

Or when he randomly decides to run right out onto the road, and I suffer a thousand heart attacks in the span of half a second, I think... I am going to miss these days.

Oh, who am I kidding?  I won't miss those moments one bit.

I tried really hard that day after my midnight panic attack to enjoy every second with him.  I didn't manage every second.  I just couldn't.  But I did get a few.

I soaked up his giggles and the sunlight on his little blonde head as he swung at the park.  I tuned into his endless car-ride chatter, and marveled at my baby turning boy.  I snuggled him on the couch, without trying to sneak away.  I was with him, completely with him, for a few beautiful moments that day.

After three kids I know this toddler phase will pass before I know it.  Some days it feels like it will go on forever.  And others I absolutely dread its sudden ending.  But no matter what my mood, or, more accurately, his mood, one day I'll look up and there will be a little boy standing in front of me.  One who can be reasoned with and, at least partially, trusted.  But one who will need me less every day.

For now, though, his face lights up when I'm around.  And sometimes he throws his arms around my neck with such force it knocks me over.  And I realize I may never feel the power of a child's love more than I do this very day.

So I'll try my best to survive the tantrums and find one or two moments to really be with him.  Because here's the thing.  Even when we've had an awful day, when his emotions have run wild, and mine were close behind.  Even when I find him endlessly frustrating and he knows it.  All I have to do is drop to my knees and open my arms and he will run into them without hesitation.  Without any hesitation.

And some days, even the most frustrating, that one moment is the only one I really remember.

Monday, August 31, 2015

In her eyes

I didn't mean to write about this.  Really.  I didn't.

I wanted it to be something I could do quietly.  To sit back a bit, to watch and marvel at the people giving up so much for this cause.  I wanted to help, in whatever small way I could, and then go home and shut it out.  Until the next time at least.

But I can't think of much else these days.  I wake up in the middle of the night with their faces before me.  Their tired eyes.  Their bright smiles.  Their tears.  Their fear and their gratefulness.

It all started with dinner.  After spending nearly the whole summer away we were excited to see our neighbors again.  To catch up on holidays and kids and life in general.

But our conversation quickly took a different direction than expected.  I imagine they felt much like I do now.  Like, while life goes on, there is little else to think about.  Little else to talk about.  Like even when you do your best to not talk about it, they're still there.  Pushing their way into your comfortable life.  Reminding you.

We knew, of course, about the refugees, moving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, trying to get through Hungary.  Trying to get West.  To safety.

But we knew about it from articles and news and, well, Facebook mostly.  Now, though, we were hearing it first hand.  From our neighbors, who were there.  In the train station.  Spending their free time, and their not free time, doing anything they could to help.

They spoke passionately about the families they met, the things they had done, and we were completely captivated.  When they went to leave she asked.  And I'm so grateful she did.

Joel went down for the first time that night with her husband.  I waited anxiously at home.  And although it was nearly one in the morning when he got home, I didn't sleep.  I didn't ask right away.  I wanted to know, and I didn't want to know.  But eventually he told me everything.

After he laid down his head that night I stayed awake, my eyes both wide and tired, thinking about the baby.  The mama.  The kids sleeping in the park.  The dad likely forcing himself up, protecting his family, planning their next move.

And so when she asked me to come I was nervous, but I couldn't say no.

I spent about an hour wondering why I had come at all.  What could I do that wasn't already being done by the wonderful volunteers, many of whom were there nearly every day?

And then I heard some murmurings.  There's a family coming.  Small kids.

I looked up and I saw them, crossing the platform, nearly collapsing onto the hard cement floor.  The mother carried something, and it took me a minute to realize what it was.  A baby.  So small he was likely born on their journey.  Her other three children huddled close, one lying atop the family's only backpack and falling fast asleep.  

When I looked at the mom I recognized her immediately.  I had never seen her before, of course.  I had never been in her situation.  I had never known anyone who was.

And yet I knew the brokenness on her face.  I recognized the tears in her eyes.  I saw her four small children, and understood they were both a source of grief and comfort for her.  I realized that she just wanted to sit on her own, to rest, and yet she wanted them near.  I heard what she was saying, that she couldn't go any further, couldn't do it anymore, though she spoke no words.

When her youngest child whimpered beside me I saw she wanted to comfort her, but she was so tired.  So worn.  I motioned that I could pick her up, place her beside her mother, who she clearly longed for, and she nodded, patting the ground beside her.  I saw her eyes on me a few minutes later as her daughter laid on a makeshift cardboard bed, as she continued to whimper and I moved beside her, rubbing her back in small circles until she drifted off to sleep.

I noticed the gratefulness in her eyes as I sat near to her and offered to hold her baby in his small carrying basket.  I noticed how surprisingly heavy and awkward it was in my lap.  I noticed her watching him as, after a while on my lap, he started to squirm, and how anxious she was to hold him again.  How she buried her head in his neck and covered his face with kisses.  I noticed it was the first time I saw her smile. I knew what it was to feel exhausted by your children, and then to see them through someone else's eyes.  I understood that her kisses and smiles were those of a woman in love, falling deeper every moment.

It's an exhausted kind of love.  And while I don't know what horrors she's been through, or those that still may come, while I don't know what it's like not to know who will take you in, where you will live, when you will eat next, I do know that kind of love.  I know it well.

Recently Benjamin's been sick.  Sick and needy and no one or nothing will do, but Mama.  For nearly three days I could barely tear him away, even to use the bathroom.  Our only separation came in the evening, when I finally got him to bed.  And even that was short-lived.

Yesterday morning I wanted to take the big kids to church.  I needed a break from Benjamin, and secretly longed to enjoy a full service without running through the halls after him.  To sing without him pulling on my arm, to listen without him crying from the nursery.

But even with the best distractions, he wouldn't let me go.  His lip quivered and he clung to me like a tiny monkey.  He shook and sobbed and after about a 30-minute struggle, and a few tears from Mama, I finally gave in.  This wasn't going to work.  As much as I needed to be away from him, he needed to be with me more.

Sometimes it's an easy kind of love, but often it's an exhausted one.  It's a constant giving, even when it feels like there's nothing left to give.  It hurts sometimes, but it's the most real love.  The most sincere.

It's what I recognized in that mom that night.  It's how I knew her so well.  It's why she didn't need to speak a word for me to realize, at that point, she needed nothing more than a small break.  A helping hand.

And I knew that while we carried and guided four exhausted children through the train station this wasn't something she was doing to them, but for them.  Even if they didn't understand.  Even if it took absolutely everything out of her.  Even if it left her broken.

And I knew, in her situation, I would do the same.  I would be the broken one.  The tired one.  The one in need of help.  The one doing anything to keep my children safe.

I felt that night, looking in that mother's eyes, what it is to be human.  And I know it now, in a way I didn't know it just a few weeks ago.  In a way I can never go back and un-know.

I realize I'm lucky, to be born where I was.  But I also realize it's just geography.  And that, at the heart of things, in the ways that really matter, we're not so different after all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The day I was that mom

School started yesterday, and this year I was going to be the prepared mom.  The one who gets her kids to school on time and packs their lunches the night before and leaves them only with sweet words and kisses and doesn't endlessly shout "Get in the car!" over and over all morning long.

In that spirit I decided to make some overnight oatmeal the night before Aiden's first day, to simplify our morning routine.  I pulled up Pinterest for the first time in months and started adding ingredients. The recipe called for two tablespoons sugar, which I heaped in before carrying on with the cocoa powder.  It was only after the cocoa powder that I noticed.  Sitting right next to me, lid ajar, no label, was not the sugar, but the salt.  The sugar remained pushed against the back of the counter, sealed tightly.  I sampled the liquidy mixture with my finger and nearly spat it back out.  Two tablespoons salt.  I had used two tablespoons salt!

I'm not one to waste food, though, and since most of the ingredients had already been added I attempted to locate the saltiest spots and scrape them out with a spoon.  I felt semi-successful in my efforts, so I moved on with the recipe.  This time I added three tablespoons sugar, to counteract any leftover saltiness.  Only I didn't add three tablespoons sugar, I added three more tablespoons salt.  Which of course I didn't realize until I went to taste it and unwittingly ingested my sodium intake for the year.  I did it again!  How in the world had I done it again?!

But whatever.  I made freaking calzones for the first day of school.  Calzones!  I had Aiden's inside and PE shoes already in his bag!  I had clothes laid out for all three boys.  What do these people expect?  Perfection?  Oatmeal that doesn't taste like it's been skimmed from the bottom of the ocean?

We still got to school early the next day.  Early!  Can you even imagine?  Aiden wanted to be the first one in his classroom, which of course he wasn't.  But fourth is not bad.  Not bad at all.  (Anyhow, aren't we aiming for last, or something like that?)

And so when last night rolled around I thought how nice it was to be prepared that morning.  To have lunches packed and clothes ready and hardly any yelling throughout the house.  What a great way to start the day!  I mean, I didn't do it again.  I was much too tired for that.  But I did think how nice that one day was.  I thought how it felt, for one day, to be the prepared mom.  The mom who really has her stuff together.

It felt good, for sure, but I still didn't pack lunches last night.  I didn't ready breakfast, or clothes.  I didn't prepare for the day.  I did, however, talk to my son.  I listened as he explained the moments he felt happy and the moments he felt lonely and the moments he felt somewhere in between.  We discussed the kids who had plenty of friends, and the ones who had none at all.  We challenged each other to look for the lonely ones, to be brave enough to offer friendship to someone who really needs it.

And so this morning was a bit frantic, but all three children were clothed and fed.  Bags were packed and lunches were made and, most importantly, coffee was consumed.

I'll always remember my day in the sun.  I'll know now what it feels like to pull lunch from the fridge instead of running around chopping and scrounging and generally panicking.  I'll realize what it is to flippantly pass your children their prepared outfits instead of begging them to please, for the love, just go get dressed!  I'll understand just how peaceful the morning can be.

Of course, I should have known when I mentioned to Joel that this year I was going to be prepared, that this year I would gather and pack and ready in the evenings, before school, and he laughed too fast and too long, that it was never going to happen.

But it did happen.  Once.  And I'm holding out hope that maybe, one day, it will happen again.

Until then, though, I'll be happy with the little successes.  Dinner made, and oftentimes cleaned up.  Long baby baths.  Bedtime conversations and books and an hour to relax before I can hold my eyes open no longer.

Extra kisses and hugs and love-you's as they pile into their classrooms for the day, no matter how close to total meltdown I felt just minutes before.

And the knowledge that they're so loved, if not always prepared.  After all, if love can make the world go round, perhaps it can help us survive another school year.  One crazy morning at a time.

This is an old picture, but I've given up all hope of ever getting another good first day of school photo.  So you'll probably see this one a lot.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


"I have to go into work for a few hours," he says.  

I might roll my eyes, but of course I understand.  With students arriving in just a few short days, holiday or not, I have to.  

And so he walks out the door and it's just the four of us again.  

The big boys run upstairs and their chatter streams into the kitchen, softening me.  I think, for the first time in days, what could we do together?  The thought feels good.

I open Finn's baking book and flip through.  I find the simplest recipe and prepare the ingredients.  Before I know chairs are screeching up beside me, little boys climbing up.  "What can we do?  What can we do?" they ask, and I'm not annoyed.  It surprises me, this feeling of calm.  It's been missing lately, but I don't realize until now.  This moment.

The grabbing and the reaching, the flour absolutely everywhere, they don't bother me today.  And when our cheese twists crumble instead of twist, we place them in funny patterns on the baking paper, and in 8 minutes we realize they taste just as good.  Maybe better.  

"Mom, can you build a lego city with us?"

"Yes," I say, and am surprised how easily it leaves my mouth.  "But first, coffee."  They understand.  They have to.  

I pour the milk and a few drops drizzle out.  It's not enough.

"Boys!" I call.  "I have a job for you."

"What?" they ask, suspicion lurking in their little voices.

I hand them six coins and send them to the corner store.  Their eyes light up as they skip out the gate.  A few minutes later they sprint through the door triumphantly, milk in hand, and my heart nearly bursts with the joy of them.  

I kiss their faces because I want to.  Because I know they understand face kisses more than words that are said all the time.  They can't tune out face kisses.

I make my coffee and they watch with pride as I pour the milk.  Then we sit together.  For the first time in days, I think, I want to be together.  Not doing dishes or cleaning up toys or making dinner, while they play in the background.  I let the dishes sit and the toys scatter and decide pizza for dinner isn't such a bad idea.  

We don't talk much.  But we build.  Together.  They look up at times, and with deep breaths excitedly explain their latest building project.  They make me stop my own building to pause and appreciate theirs.  And I do.

From time to time Benjamin rolls in like a baby Godzilla, and I distract him with some cuddles, or I build him a train track, and then I get back to my big boys, whose need for me isn't as apparent, but just as pressing.  And every bit as real.

When I sit back I can see the three of them, deeply involved in their own play.  And with my coffee in hand I know that right here, right now, I'm happy.  With this simple scene unfolding before me, colorful legos snapping together, intermittent "choo-choo's" from behind the couch, I'm about as happy as it gets.  

And for this moment I'm grateful.  Because I'm aware it can't stay this way.  That these moments are gifts.

I'll unwrap this gift slowly.  This lazy, peaceful day at home.  The pajamas at noon, the hot coffee in hand, the three beautiful boys longing for time with me.  

And today I'll give it to them gladly.  Because today nothing needs to be done.  Today nothing is more important than lego cities and train tracks and messy baking.  

And although I realize it can't be like this every day, I also realize that today, it can.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What I needed

In case I haven't made it clear in the past, I'm not so good with transitions.  It's easy going home, to the States.  It' like a month-long vacation with four extra hands for cooking and laundry and keeping the children alive.  It's familiar and easy and just about everyone speaks our language.

Usually we come back to Budapest, though, and I'm surprised by the feeling of home.  By my excitement to be here, in a place that we love, with people we love.  Usually it's easier than I think it's going to be.


This time it was hard.  It was hard to swallow the kids' tears after they parted with grandparents.  It was hard to make that trip again, to wake the children from a deep sleep and still have another airport, another flight, the long ride home.  The jet lag was extra hard, more than I remembered.  As soon as I finally neared sleep, Benjamin would start to stir and I knew there were hours more ahead of me.  I felt tired this time.  So tired.  I wanted life as easy as it could get, and I wasn't ready to face the hard.

So when I pulled up to the grocery store and realized I didn't have the 100 forint coin I needed to release the cart, I didn't feel like dealing with it.  My wallet was screaming with quarters and dimes and it felt right.  Like I was here, but not here.  Like I hadn't quite transitioned back.

I searched the car frantically.  There were euros, Swiss francs, every single denomination of forint, but absolutely no 100's.  I could have asked someone for the coin, I know, but I wasn't ready to face that, what with my poor Hungarian and the crippling fear that the answer could be no.

So instead I got back in the car, drove to a small store down the road, and bought a Coke and a KitKat.   As I reached in my wallet to pull out the 500 forint bill I noticed a small coin resting at the bottom.  I pulled it out and stared at it incredulously.  One hundred forint.  Right there.  Literally sitting in my wallet.

The cashier held out her hand and I pulled that 100 forint coin back as if it were made of pure gold.  I tucked it securely in the zipper part of my wallet and handed her the bill.  She handed me back another 100.  Good.  Now I had two.  Just in case.

I pulled up again to the grocery store.  I held the coin tightly in my hand as I approached the carts.  But it never left my hand because right there, right in front of me, stood a cart with the 100 forint coin still inserted.  I thought perhaps it was stuck, leading someone to give up on it, but when I gave it a small push the cart popped out, like it had just been waiting for me.

What I needed was there all along.  If I hadn't been trying so hard to take care of myself I could have looked down, or looked up, and seen that I was taken care of.  That what I needed had already been provided.

It was a small, miniscule problem, particularly in light of the huge problems people are facing every day around the world.  It was nothing, really, and I could have, and did solve it easily myself.

But I didn't need to.

It was enough to snap me out of my funk, to clear the fog a bit.  I'm feeling more grateful now.  I'm remembering what I love about this place and the people here.  I'm happy to be home.

And I'm glad that while perhaps I could go it alone, I don't have to.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Between two worlds

The plane ride there is filled with excitement.  Anticipation.  It's twelve more hours, then ten, then eight.  It's bearable, even with a one year-old.  Because you know in just a few more hours you'll be met with hugs and kisses, your children's hands held and your bags pulled.  You know for the next month you'll have four more hands, and you can feel yourself starting to relax.

You arrive in the car and the road looks huge, well organized.  You see billboards you can read advertising stuff you want.  Your body craves sleep, but your mind is wide awake, taking it all in.

The first night is strange.  You wake up after a few hours and can't remember where you are.  Then you remember this is your childhood home, the room you snuck into for late night sleepovers with your sister.  It's strange, but it's already hard to remember your other house, your other bed, your other life.

You wake up for good around 2am.  Your children awaken soon after.  You spend the sweet, early-morning hours with infomercials droning on in the background.  Your husband places a hot cup of coffee in your hands while little boys play excitedly on the floor below you.

The first time you leave the house you panic at least three times when you glance in the rearview mirror.  Then you remember your kids are home, with grandparents.  You take a deep breath and hold your husband's hand.

When you walk through the grocery store your eyes are wide the whole time.  You say over and over again, "You can get anything you want.  All in one place."  You grab a pack of Reese's in the check-out line.  If for no other reason than you can.

You're almost unbearably awkward with the cashier.  You forget how to make small talk and are a bit suspicious that someone you don't know could be so, incredibly friendly.  You bag your own groceries and look up in surprise when the cashier says thank you, and is staring at you, both confused and grateful.

You finally compose yourself and go to renew your husband's expired license.  You're ready for a fight.  You're ready for a long, complicated process.

It's easy.  It's fast.  And people are actually apologizing for your inconvenience.  What in the world are they sorry for? you think, but you don't really care because you've been given time.  And although you have nothing to do, time suddenly seems very important.

You stop at a coffeehouse because, again, you can.  You talk about all that is different here.  You talk about Americans... only to remember you are one.  It's a bit overwhelming.  You miss home.

A day or two later you're feeling a part of things, and you're surprised how fast you adjusted.  You're creeping out of the jet lag fog and starting the visits.  You remember that time and distance quickly fade with the people you love.

You bounce back and forth between family and friends, catching glimpses of your past life.  You both can and can't picture yourself there, and you pretend for a moment that you never left.  You imagine your life, continued.  Your mind wanders down the other road.

About halfway through you start thinking it's almost over.  You feel the weight of leaving, the heaviness of good-byes.  You spend hours on Amazon finalizing orders.

Your start the separation, one person at a time.  If you let it, it feels a lot like the first time, so you put up a shield, paste on a smile, and part with the words, "We'll see you soon."

You spend full days carefully packing five, large suitcases, a carry-on, and four small bags.  You weigh, you shuffle, you stuff.  When they magically hit 50 pounds each you smile, satisfied.  And then it hits you.  This is it.

You don't say much that last night.  There's not a lot to be said.

You busy yourself the next morning so you don't have to think.  It's easy as there's much to be done.  You put on a smile for your kids and tell them all they have to look forward to.

You check your bags at the airport, and it's suddenly time.

You keep on with the see-you-soon routine, because you don't want to cry when you still have 5 bags, 3 kids and a stroller to drag through security.

You say good-bye and wave a ridiculous amount of times.  When you're finally through you turn and wave one last time.

You walk away, but you stop shortly after to hold your oldest son as he cries, the same sobs that shook his body a week ago as he said good-bye to his other grandparents.  You try to think of something comforting to tell him, but in the end you just admit that you're sad too, and you carry on through the airport.

You order fully-loaded nachos and beer at the terminal restaurant, because you can... and you all need a little something.  You smile as you watch your family dive towards the cheesiest chips, and then you reach in quick, because they'll be gone fast.

You board the airplane and ready the Benadryl.  You learned your lesson last time.  When the baby's finally asleep you scroll through the movies. You watch brainless comedies and attempt a few hours sleep.

You land.  You wake your children and drag them off the plane.  You want to carry them, but you can't, so they stumble through two more airports, sleeping across vinyl-covered chairs as our heads bob beside them.

You finally land back home.  A bus picks you up at the door, drives straight to your house.  You marvel at how easy it feels this time.

An angel messages to tell you she's prepared your family dinner, to come by and pick it up.  You finish the hot, delicious meal just as your groceries are delivered to your door.

With full bellies your children drift off the moment they lie down, and you smile to see them in their own beds.  You're happy to have them so near.

You stumble to bed yourself.  The room spins a bit and quickly disappears.

You wake up at midnight to the sounds of a happy, wide-awake baby.  You try to make him watch Elmo, but he's not fooled.  It's time to play.

You trudge downstairs and share a snack on the couch.  You watch him and tuck this moment away, just you and him in the dark.  Baby smiles and laughter.

Two hours later he takes your hand, pulls you back up the stairs.  The two of you fall quickly back to sleep.

It's so bright, but you force open your eyes and reach for your phone.  It's 10:30, but your body won't get up.  The house is still quiet.  You remember where you are, but it doesn't quite feel real.  Home feels impossibly far away.  It's hard to remember already.

You start to wonder about the meaning of your life.  You feel, in a way, that you're floating.  Stuck between two worlds that don't quite fit together.

You grasp for your phone once more and you find these words.

"Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast." (Psalm 139:7-10)

And suddenly, the other side of the ocean doesn't feel too far.  And suddenly, you know right where you are.

You tiptoe down the stairs where your husband waits.  He places a hot cup of coffee in your hands.  And another day begins.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Through the sliding doors

When he comes with me it's okay.  Doable.  Maybe even a little fun.

It's like an adventure we're on together and, as is the case with many of our adventures, there are moments of intense frustration and ones of sheer joy.

But sometimes one must adventure alone.

It seems like a treat, really.  Especially without the kids.  And so I hop in the driver's seat like a free woman, forging down the spacious roads with the wind in my hair and three empty car seats behind me.

Pulling my car easily between two, wide lines I look around at all the empty spots and wonder if it's ever been ever full.  I imagine not.

People smile at me as they step into and out of their cars, and I smile back, because that's what you do here.  When I get to the front the doors slide open smoothly before me and I walk through quickly, because walking quickly is also what you do here.

My eyes go wide almost immediately.  It's not my first time, but that doesn't seem to matter anymore.  I look around like a small child in a large, clean, well-organized candy store.

The produce feels a bit familiar, so I start there.  The apples are flawless red, each one perfectly round.  They're organized in cute wicker baskets, with hay underneath, and appear to have been plucked straight from the tree.  I browse the bananas from force of habit.  They're neither green nor brown, only a uniform, pale yellow across the whole, excessively long row.  The smell is not what I'm used to, the skins more thick and rubbery than I remember.

It's not as familiar as I hoped.  But I'm not looking for produce anyhow, so I move on.

I browse the organic section, picking up fruit leathers and smiling.  Placing them back in their designated spots.  I don't know what I want, per se, but I like to know it's all here if I want it.  In one place.  Right under my nose.

The next aisle, apparently, is water bottles.  It goes on forever, it seems.  Endless plastic bottles in all sizes, shapes and colors.  By the case, of course.

I stumble around the corner and freeze in my tracks.  I can almost hear faint angelic music in the background and I literally step back to take it all in.  I forgot so many Oreos could exist in one place.  I forgot about all the flavors.  I forgot about double stuffed and mint and peanut butter and it feels impossible to choose.

I want to try them all, but just one of each.  It seems you can't buy just one, though.  It's fifty or nothing, and so I choose nothing and pull myself away.  Also, now that they're right here in front of me, I'm not much in the mood.

The Oreos are just a small taste of the cookies and snacks, but I tunnel-vision my way to the meat.  We need ribs so I go to the butcher and tell him.  We stare at each other for a minute and I wonder if we're speaking the same language.  I think I'd feel more comfortable if we weren't.

"Over there," he says and points to a large refrigerated case behind me.

"Those are the fresh ribs?"  I ask and he smiles and assures me, yes, those are the fresh ones.

I find them rather quickly and run my hands over the plastic packaging.  They're clearly frozen.  But the bag states, Previously Frozen, which I guess counts as fresh, and is somehow different than the currently frozen meat just one case over.

At this point someone brushes my shoulder and I realize I am literally spinning in circles.  All I want is a fresh rack of ribs, but I walk away instead with nothing.  I'm feeling overwhelmed, so I make my way back through the frozen section, because what can be overwhelming about ice cream?


Everything is overwhelming about ice cream.  The flavors are overwhelming.  The varieties are overwhelming.  The sheer number is overwhelming.  I think I might like an ice cream bar, since I'm out without the kids and all, but it seems you can't get less than ten and I don't want ten ice cream bars.  I want one freaking ice cream bar.

In the middle of the freezer section is a rack of freezer bags.  I think I need all of them.  I think I've never seen anything more beautiful than those freezer bags.  But again I can't pick, so I walk away.

I need to focus.  I need to remember what it is I came for.

Ah!  Finally!  Baking needs.  I scan the aisle and find it.  It's not what I thought it was.  It's certainly not what I buy in Hungary.  But it's there in plain English, so I pick it up and beeline to the checkout.

Uncle Sam is in the checkout before me.  Literally.  Hat and everything.  I'm not sure why, but it feels like a fitting end to this experience.  

 When I finally make it to the car I shut the door tight and take a deep breath.

I look at the bag in my hand and laugh.

Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When the meltdown is yours

The other day, after a very botched shopping trip with one too many kids, I showed up at our gate covered in sweat with two large shopping bags, one awkward plastic pushing bike, and a heavy, squirmy toddler all hanging from my arms.  The look of sheer horror on Joel's face was reflection enough of my own mental and physical state at the time.

I dropped bags, bike and child right there on the grass and stormed up the stairs where I shut the door, curled up on my bed and quietly sobbed, "I hate my life."

The sad thing is, the whole time I laid there crying I kept thinking, but I don't.  I don't hate my life.  I love my life.  And on top of that, I kept thinking of all the people who would give anything for my life.  Well, maybe not my life exactly, but to have happy, healthy kids literally dripping from their arms.

But these rational thoughts didn't matter.  I couldn't stop.  All the stress and frustration of trying to do life with three small children, of wanting nothing more than to pick up some bananas from the market and make it back with my sanity in tact, but failing miserably, was finally catching up.

Some days it feels like the big ones fight constantly.  Constantly.  Some days it feels like I'll never get Finn's emotions under control.  Some days it feels like Benjamin will be two forever.  For all of eternity.  Which is a thought both thrilling and horrifying.

Because Benjamin at two is a little of everything to me.  He is equal parts exhausting and exhilarating, terrible and wonderful.  He makes me happy to wake up in the morning and even happier to go to sleep at night.  The same wide smile can signal sweetness and terror, neither of which I can ever see coming.

He makes life exciting and satisfying and truly wonderful, but he does not, I repeat, does not make life easy.

When I finally came downstairs the boys flocked to my side.  Benjamin chanted, "Mama cryin'," and nuzzled his way into my lap and I couldn't have felt anything but sheer joy if I tried.

Later that night Benjamin went to bed early and the boys had a campout in the back yard, complete with grilled pizzas, roasted marshmallows, and scary stories.  And as I watched them in the lantern light telling animated, confusing, fairly senseless stories, my heart that felt so tired just hours earlier was incredibly full.

It's a confusing thing.  Parenthood.  It's all frustration one minute and all joy the next.  And sometimes the frustration and joy overlap and you're left deliriously exhausted and deliriously happy all at once.  It makes no sense, but I suppose that happens when you throw a bunch of wild, unpredictable children in a house with two adults who are just finally getting their stuff together.

Kids wipe the slate clean, a bit.  All of the patience you spent years cultivating can be swept out from under you like a rug.  They can shake you to the bone, and reveal things you'd much rather not see.  Things better stuffed deep down inside.  Right?

I feel a lot of pressure for my kids to see me at my best.  From articles mostly.  Don't ever yell, they say, or show your kids how incredibly frustrating you find them.  Be the perfect, sweet, softened version of you.  After all, your child's future depends on it.

I don't know about that.  I say let them shake you up a bit.  Better they see there's a real you, with ugly sides and beautiful sides, with confident sides and incredibly insecure ones, than to strive for something as silly as perfection.

Better to see you make real mistakes and offer real apologies.  Better for them to see you need grace than to hear you tell them they need it.

Better to hold them at the end of the day feeling raw and vulnerable than shiny and distant.

Parenthood is hard.  It's kind of like running a marathon, which I know absolutely nothing about.  But I assume that marathons are quite difficult.  And also rewarding.  But no one would expect you to smile through the whole thing, and, likely, no one would blame you for sobbing a little along the way.

And so you take the tears with the smiles, because, really, doesn't one make the other much sweeter?

Friday, May 29, 2015

When sleep was just a thing

Before kids sleep was just a thing that I did.

Sometimes I did it more and sometimes I did it less.  But overall I assumed it would always be there.  Waiting for me.  Every night.  All night long.

Then I had my first baby and everything changed.  Sleep was no longer just a thing that I did.  It was my obsession.

It all started the night I went into labor.  You see, my water broke around 9 pm and I had Aiden around 9 am, so you can do the math to add up the ZERO HOURS OF SLEEP I got that night.

But when I went to catch up on my lost sleep this crazy thing happened.  They gave me a baby.  An actual one.  One who I needed to hold and change and feed every waking, and sleeping, minute of my life.  They gave me a baby when all I wanted at that point was a good night's sleep.

But good night's sleeps were a thing of the past. I know because I charted it.  Yes really.  I did.  From the second he went to sleep to first wake up, second, third, fourth.... In case I somehow duped myself into thinking I was receiving an adequate night's rest, I just referred to the chart.

Honestly, I didn't think human beings could survive on such little sleep.  But it turns out, we can.

And of course I heard a million trillion times to sleep when your baby sleeps.  Which left me with a terrible, anguishing decision every single (much-too-early) morning.  To drink coffee.... or not to drink coffee.

Should I sip that delicious life-giving beverage and feel for a short moment like an actual person, or should I stumble zombie-like through those early morning hours and attempt a 15-minute nap with my baby.

Oh, and the days I skipped that morning cup, only to lay down and not fall asleep... ugh, I shudder to think of them.

Sleeping, or, more accurately, not sleeping, became everything.  I thought about it from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell, exhausted, into bed, to an hour later when I was forced awake yet again.

I remember one Sunday at church complaining to a mom with grown kids about the utter lack of sleep.  How it felt impossible.  How I thought I would never sleep again.

And do you know what she said?  "You will never sleep again."

She told me that.  Straight up.  And I know it should have made me feel terrible, but it didn't.  It made me feel better.  It made me stop obsessing over the hours of sleep I was missing every night, stop wondering desperately how I would ever make them up, and embrace my new reality.  The reality of motherhood.  I would never sleep again.

She was both right and wrong, of course.  As the kids get older I do sleep more.  I sleep better.  But I'll never sleep the same.  Not as before, at least.

Last night I finally got Benjamin to sleep around 9.  From 9 to 10 I ran up and down the stairs, trying to relax in front of the TV for the first time that day while simultaneously attending to my eldest, with sleeping troubles of his own.  My eyes were barely open by the time he fell asleep.  So I closed them.  Which is always a mistake.

The next two hours were spent drifting off to sleep and waking to Finn's sudden, frantic screams.  These night terrors happen fairly often, but I still sprint to his bedside every time, heart racing, expecting the worst.

Most nights, though, I get "enough" sleep.  My new definition of "enough," of course.  But I'm finding the sleep obsession just shifts a bit as my kids get older.

I used to obsess over my sleep.  Now I obsess over their sleep.  Are they going to sleep early enough?  Sleeping the whole night?  Waking up naturally?  How will they make it through the day with that little sleep?

I wonder if this obsession will ever end.  I distinctly remember calling my mom in college, chatting about friends and classes and always, always... am I getting enough sleep?

At the time I didn't think much of this question.  But not now.  Now I realize the full implications of such a question.  My mom was still worrying about my sleep in college.  In college!

And it's got me thinking, perhaps it will never end.  When my boys are waking with babies of their own, I'll probably still be worrying about their sleep.  And their baby's sleep.  And the sleeping worries will only compound and grow until they take over my life!

Okay, probably not.  But it's quite possible that sleep will never again be just a thing that I do.

And, let's be honest, I could get more sleep if I really wanted it.  But there are these glorious hours every night when the kids are asleep and the house is so quiet and my head isn't spinning with children.  There are these hours of peace that are mine for the taking and I'd be a fool to sleep them away.

So instead I will look back on those full nights of sleep with a certain affection.  A certain whimsy.

And then I'll sip my wine, turn down the volume, and bid them a fond farewell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Some days

Most days I walk along here at an even pace.  I do my shopping and go for walks and I'm content, if not outrageously happy.

Most days I wake up in the morning and I look out at the green hills and I feel the breeze through my window and I'm satisfied.

Most days there is one point, a drive across the Chain Bridge, a hike in the forest, a coffee in the village, that my heart catches a bit and I feel so lucky.

But some days the walk is more like a crawl, each movement heavy and hard.  I do my shopping and I go for walks, and I'm surrounded by people, but I feel lonely.

Some days I wake up and the green hills look strange.  Foreign.

Some days there is one point, when I'm yelled at in Hungarian as I take a walk with my son, when all I need to finish dinner is one simple ingredient that I just can't find, when my poor Hungarian just confuses the waiter and I end up with nothing to eat at all, that my heart catches a bit and I'm fighting back tears.

My first year here I thought every day about life in the States.  I pictured myself there, what I would be doing first thing in the morning, after lunch, at bedtime.  I don't think a day went by that I didn't daydream of home.  I became addicted to Facebook, obsessing over my friends' updates, realizing that a few months earlier they would have been mine.

To be honest, though, I rarely imagine myself there now.  In the past four years this has become home.  My kids have literally asked if we can live here until we die, so I suppose they're fairly comfortable too.

But sometimes I have hard days, or hard weeks.  I did in the States, too.  Only then, there wasn't an obvious answer.  Here, there is.

If we lived in the States and someone shouted at me, I could defend myself.  If we lived in the States and I needed any ingredient at all, I could hop in my car, drive five minutes, and find it.  If we lived in the States I could order my freaking food and expect to actually get it!

I know a lot of these problems could also be fixed with a good understanding of the language.  Which I would love.  But with three young kids I barely have time to use the bathroom, which makes popping out of the house multiple times a week for intensive Hungarian courses, um, impossible!

So instead I use these frustrating moments to evoke a simpler time and an easier life.  A place where I was comfortable and could get what I wanted, whenever I wanted it.  A place where I was happy all the time.  Right?

And if for some reason I wasn't at the top of my game, I could go to Panera for unlimited hazelnut coffee.  Or to the library for story time.  Or to the gym where I could drop off my kids and watch TV while barely breaking a sweat on the elliptical.

And that would make me happy.

Or would it?

Because I had down days in the States too.  And a trip to the gym did not, in fact, fix it.  Story time didn't make me feel any better.  A hot cup of coffee at the park?  Well, let's not get crazy here.  That helped.

I have found a yearly trip home necessary to my mental health here.  It's the time when I marry my fantasy of life in the States to reality.  It's when I realize life is both good and hard anywhere... everywhere.

By the end of our year here, though, I start to forget the hard.  I start painting a picture that highlights all of the good and blurs away the bad.

But then we go and I remember what it is I love about life here.  I treasure the simplicity of it, the community, the life we've built for ourselves as a family, striking out on our own for the first time.

I love our walks to the butcher and the milk shop.  I love enjoying an ice cream in the square.  I love walking hand in hand through the city and coming across a new playground, watching the kids scurry off to climb and dig and play.

It's good.  Really good.  But it's not perfect.  And sometimes, even four years later, it's hard.

But we didn't come here to escape hard.  In fact, we came here fully intending to embrace it.  Because there's beauty after the hard, and oftentimes right in the middle of it.

Like a mid-week escape to the pools with squealing, shiny-faced toddlers.  Like a real, honest conversation with my eldest and the sound of his lighthearted laughter afterwards.  Like my hidden smile when I tell my toddler it's time to go and he balls up his little fists and says, "Neber!"

This morning I took a walk with Benjamin.  It was cloudy when we left and I was afraid I'd be cold, as I often am.  But every once in a while the sun peeked through the clouds and warmed my arms.  It would disappear shortly, but I could still feel its heat on my skin.  And it seemed, every time, to hold just until the sun shone through again.

And so I guess some days will be more clouds than sun, and others perfectly clear.  And I suppose that's true here as much as it is anywhere.

Perhaps it's not a matter of perfect, 100% happy days.  Maybe it's enough to hold a bit of warmth until the sun peeks through again.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The disappearing in-between

Ah, Mother's Day.  What a nice notion.  A day all about Mom.

A big "thanks for everything Mom" where I can settle down on the couch with a cup of coffee and watch my children play from a distance while my husband scrubs dirty dishes in the kitchen.

It always looks so hopeful first thing in the morning, when Joel calls the kids downstairs so I can get a few more minutes sleep.  When I finally do roll out of bed and my two year-old yells, "Happy birthday Mom" as I wander down the steps.  When I'm greeted with hugs and kisses and a steaming mug, a soft couch...

On which I can sit for at most two minutes before realizing that even though it's Mother's Day, and perhaps even more so because of it, I am still the mom here.  And particularly with small children, though I imagine it never really ends, they still expect me to be Mom... on Mother's Day!

I'm not the kind that can honestly say just being with my family is all I want for Mother's Day.  Believe me, I've tried in the past.  It took Joel just one year of taking me serious to learn his hard lesson... that's not what I want at all.

I want a big deal.  A to-do if you will.  Homemade cards, constant reminders of exactly whose day it is, and of course some festivities that center primarily around food and coffee.

I want lots of time with my kids.  Just time that consists of giggles and kisses, of chocolate-covered faces without the sugar aftershock.  A day that looks a lot like a montage of all our best pictures.

But as most parents know, though we may seriously attempt to lower our expectations of any activities involving our children, these days never seem to go as planned.

Everything was perfect in theory.  A bike ride in the morning.  A long car trip with quietly slumbering children.  An amazing brunch at a beautiful hotel, delicious food, plentiful drinks, a fully-staffed children's area.

It had everything.  Brightly colored cards.  Appropriately extravagant festivities.

Even constant reminders of the day's true meaning.

"Aiden, stop kicking your brother... it's Mommy's Day!"

"Just eat the toast... it's Mother's Day!"

"Get off the floor, you're going to trip the waiters.  Come on guys, it's Mother's Day."

"Finn, you just peed all over the door.  Really, on Mother's Day?"

Believe it or not, my kids were still needy today.  Still rebellious and frustrating and whiny.

At the end of the day I turned off their bedroom light, fell into my own bed, and decided as they argued in the room beside me that tonight, Mother's Day night, they could put themselves to bed.

Some moments later, a tiny whisper.

"Finn, you should go make Mom feel better."

When I saw those small silhouettes in the doorway I held out my arms and let them climb into bed beside me.  And as I felt their slight movements beside me, listened to their aimless chatter, looked into those wide, brown eyes, my mind started scrolling through the day's pictures.

And in one of those surreal parenting moments, I saw only smiling, chocolate-covered faces, heard only giggles and squeals of excitement, felt only the weight of their arms around my neck and the height of their adoration.

It's a funny thing that happens with kids.  How hours and even full days of fighting and tantrums, of strife and pure, intense exhaustion, can be canceled by a single moment.  A small clip without a before or after, where you can almost hear the sentimental music filtering in, view the happy pictures fading and appearing before you.

I guess as someone's child myself, I am luckier for it.  Grateful that my mom tends to see all the good and none of the bad, and that I'm sure she views my sister and I's lives as something of a joyful montage (lacking many of the less-than-glamorous in-betweens).

It might seem like happy ignorance, and perhaps it is.

But I like to think it's magic.

From Mother's Day 2012

Monday, May 4, 2015

More than enough

When my first baby was born I cared about these things, in this order.




The first two were achieved early on.  For the most part at least.  And so already I took for granted the miracle upon miracle that resulted in our perfect little boy and I started striving for, hoping for, longing for first.  For the early achievement of all significant milestones.  For validation that this baby who had turned my world upside down was 100% worth it.

And let's face it.  He was my first.  I was stricken by guilt if I left his side for even a minute, so there was little else to do but sit and stare and wait for something to happen.

And one day he rolled over.  I thought it was early and I imagined my baby was a freaking genius.  I mean, he rolled the whole way over.  All of that practice finally paid off!

I assumed he'd start crawling like a week later.  Being a genius and all.  And so I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

He started crawling at an age that was (gasp!) average.  Completely average.  Not early.  Not special.

But then he walked at ten months and I breathed a small sigh of relief and, although Facebook wasn't my thing at that time, I hoped beyond hope that someone, everyone would ask what Aiden was doing new.  And that I could casually mention he was walking now (while conveniently forgetting to mention that "walking" was three drunken steps to the couch) and cross my fingers that they would know how early and exceptional of a feat this was.

Our parents were in awe.  They seemed to fully understand the wonder that was our first child.  But beyond a few close friends and family, who were probably humoring me, no one seemed to really care.

Oh well, I thought, just wait until he starts talking.

And so I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

After a long wait some mumbled gibberish started to escape from his mouth and we'd pretend that they were actual words.  His brother was born a few months shy of his second birthday and I distinctly remember that he couldn't say the word "baby."  I started to panic a bit.  Not that he was behind.  But that he wasn't ahead.

It was finally official.  In this area, he wasn't ahead.  He wasn't exceptional.  He wasn't proving how smart we were sure he was.

He eventually started to talk in an understandable manner, of course.  But even then, not perfectly.  He started learning his alphabet, but not quickly.  He started reading, but not without agonizing for what felt like hours over three letter words that he had just read ten seconds ago!

In this area, he was not exceptional.  He was not ahead.

But seven years and three kids later, I like to think I've learned a thing or two.  I like to think I know in a very real way that all kids are different.  That they have different strengths.  And that the value of those strengths comes not from school and not from society, but from their family.  From us.

Because he might not read chapter books, but sit him down with a piece of paper and he can make anything.  Three cookies and two kids?  He'll just take one then.  Finn needs help adding 1,750 and 820 forint?  He won't just tell him, he'll teach him.  He'll walk him slowly and patiently through every step until he arrives at the answer.

If you asked me at what age Benjamin walked, without looking back at the video, I honestly couldn't tell you.  If you asked me when he started saying single words, or stringing sentences together... I have no idea.  And it's not that I don't care as much about Benjamin.  Not at all.  It's that I care much less about these things.  I've learned after three kids that he will walk and talk and potty train and read when he's good and ready.  And not a second before.

Three kids and each one totally different.  All three exceptional to us, and yet probably not to the world.

But what does the world know anyhow?  Because my goals for my children have both grown and shrunk in the past seven years.  I still want healthy, and happy, but I also want kind, and patient, and generous.  I want them to try hard and do their best and to know that's enough.

I want them to understand deep in their being that the world doesn't have to tell you you're great.  And, as hard as you try, it probably never will.  So listen to me.  Listen to your dad.  Listen to God as he whispers that you were wonderfully made, that he has a plan for you.  That you are who you are for a reason.

I'm sorry I once cared so much about the things I now hope and pray my kids care nothing about.  Or very little, at least.  I'm sorry that I viewed these sacred, little lives as a competition for first.  For the best.  For, likely, a validation of my own life and motherhood.

But the truth is, my sons, you are exceptional.  There is absolutely no one else quite like you.  No one with your exact mix of caring and spunk and humor.  No one who is quite you.

And that you, well, it is, has been, and always will be, more than enough.