Monday, December 28, 2009

All Kinds of Hectic (Babble)

In our home most of the Christmas activity happens after the 25th.  We’re not attached to any particular date, so it helps that different members of the family can spend Christmas day wherever they need to, and then everyone can gather here for a big event.  Right now in my house I have seven people staying with us (I think–it’s easy to lose track), plus a few more visitors who prefer the privacy of a hotel while they are in town.  It’s crazy and pretty great.

The most satisfying thing is seeing how happy the kids are.  Aden is the ring leader, and we can hear all the little footsteps following her about the house.  There are serious and exciting games involving tiny bobble head toys and insect trivia happening all the time, and lots of jokes that don’t make any sense.  (Quinn botched one the other day at dinner by doing a knock knock joke about a banana, and the punchline was something like, “Banana I had an orange for you?  The banana?”  He’s cute enough it still gets a laugh.)

The best holiday present I get every year is that my mom cooks all the dinners.  She plans out elaborate and tasty meals that will satisfy the vegetarians among us as well as the omnivores.  (Tonight’s dinner was a wild rice/mushroom/dried cherry thing served in a half a squash with toasted almonds on top, and salmon with capers and olives and other good things that I didn’t recognize chopped up, and bread from the local bakery and salad….  I’m not always sure exactly what I’m eating but it’s always amazing.)  The kids never eat much more than a little bread when the food looks too interesting, but I’ve been pleased this year that they sit politely at the table and try a few bites and eventually ask to be excused without complaining.  Tonight they just scrounged some yogurt from the fridge on their own when they got hungry later and that’s fine with me.  As long as they aren’t rude to the cook and eat something at some point I’m happy.  It’s an incredible amount of expense and work for my mom to prepare a week’s worth of meals for so many people.  Makes me feel extra guilty for how unpleasant I was to live with from ages two through twelve, but I certainly appreciate my mother now.  If I can manage to be half the mom she is I will be very proud.

My favorite event so far has been all the children teaming up for a surprise party for my brothers.  Barrett told them about Arno having a birthday and Aden got to work with streamers and gifts, and then I mentioned that it was her Uncle Barrett’s birthday, too.  I don’t know what they think the word ‘twins’ means, but that bit of information took them completely by surprise.  They got up very early to start work with the Easy Bake Oven.  They made the world’s smallest cake and covered it with every candle they could find.  It looked like a festive baby porcupine set on fire.

We’ve had a creative limbo competition, Santa/Barrett made a wacky appearance, the kids have taken a hike to the North Pole (which looked strangely like our back yard) and we’re still hoping for a trip to the aquarium and sledding in the park in the next couple of days.  This is the kind of hectic I llke.  Mix and match fun with relatives, where any way people get paired up is a good time, and there is a ton of activity in every corner and late into the night.

Unfortunately, there has been a bit of hectic on the other end of the spectrum as well (including the untimely destruction of the new mirror ball, which was sad but not unpredictable).  I’ve had to juggle a lot of unexpected things since Ian left right after Christmas, but I think I’ve got it under control.  It’s helped to have family here for some of that.  It makes all the difference in the world to be loved, and I am the most fortunate person I know to be loved by so many remarkable people.  I hope my husband finds support where he is.  He’s kind enough to always say I have the harder job, but I have my family with me, so I have it better by far.  It pains me to imagine him alone while I’m surrounded by so many people we care about.  I wish I could bottle the hilarity of the limbo contest and send it to him.  I took a bunch of video, so I’m hoping that will help a little at some point.

I was thinking about how having a hectic week full of relatives would be such a nice distraction for my kids, but I overlooked how much I would need it myself.  As I sit here quietly in my room, away briefly from my houseful of guests, I’m struck by how powerfully I miss my husband.  I wish he didn’t have to go.  I don’t know when I’ll see him next.  I don’t think I’ve ever missed him more than at this moment.  I think I’d better go join the pleasant mayhem again or I might cry.  (Off to find a limbo stick and a kid to hug….)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traditions and Ruts (Babble)

There are traditions, there are ruts, and then there are just unfortunate patterns that repeat themselves by no one’s choice at all.

The lovely thing about traditions is that they provide us with a familiar framework for an event that grounds us in the present while connecting us to both the past and the future.  I’m fortunate that in both violin making and playing music I feel part of some level of tradition every day.  It gives meaning to my life that I appreciate deeply.  This is not to say traditions by definition are good.  I had an argument once in college with a roommate who believed such a thing, and I told her I was sure the KKK had loads of traditions to pass on, but that didn’t make them good or worth continuing. 

Traditions can be comforting and fun, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reexamined periodically, and there should always be room for something new.  I love handing down recipes and stories to my kids that I had as a child, but I’m just as excited about the addition of new things unique to my family.  For instance, as of this year, our family apparently needs a mirror ball in the kitchen as part of our celebration.  I’m hoping one day to see my great-grandchildren reverently unpack the family disco ball as a necessary part of the season.

Ruts are habits people get into that feel like traditions, but are really just things nobody thought enough of to change.  We have ornaments on our tree that have stories attached that we stop and admire every year, and hanging those is a tradition.  Then there are other goofy things that no one cares about, but they keep ending up in the box and they just wind up on the tree.  Those are the rut ornaments.  A few of those have managed to move up in status as the kids single them out for attention and assign meaning to them purely because they remember seeing them the year before.  Good enough for me. 

Other ruts in our season include using the same weird blanket that doubles as a painting drop cloth under the tree just because I never remember to find something nice until it’s too late, wrapping things badly because I lose patience with it, and sending cards to some people I never see or hear from because I can’t think of a good reason not to.

Then there are the unfortunate patterns.  When I was a child we drove from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio every Christmas.  The time spent with grandma and grandpa in their home, eating spritz cookies and stollen was a tradition.  The four hours of driving on dark, icy roads on Christmas Eve was just an unfortunate byproduct of that, and now I always associate the holidays a little with motion sickness.  Not my own–I don’t have that problem–but both my brothers used to rock back and forth the whole ride saying they didn’t feel good.  (Actually, one would rock and chant, and then the other would throw up.  Probably a less glamorous twin thing.)  We have been fortunate that for as long as we’ve been in our house that all the relatives have come to us, so my kids don’t associate Christmas with travel.  (That’s for Easter when we go to New York.)

My kids enjoy several unique holiday traditions (including my brother making casts of their feet every year) and some basic ones such as getting excited about Santa.  There are a lot of opinions out there about how parents deal with the Santa Claus question–whether it’s right to lie to kids, or if since it’s all in fun it’s okay.  I find it interesting because it’s not much of an issue for us.  Aden asks if Santa is real, and I tell her it’s a story some people believe and some people don’t, and she can do with it what she likes.  I don’t know if she really believes there’s a Santa, but she likes the stories and she leaves him healthy snacks (explaining he’s probably sick of cookies by the time he gets to us).  She said she saw the real Santa at a concert she went to with her class the other day, and Mona was jealous. 

However they think of it is fun for them and they don’t need me pretending to make reindeer sounds on the roof, so I leave it to them.  We don’t have specific gifts from Santa or anything along those lines, just lots of fun stuff already piled up under the tree.  We don’t put anything in their stockings until Christmas morning, so maybe they think those things are from Santa.  I don’t tell them anything one way or another and they seem fine with that.  My brother, Barrett, always dresses up at least once during the holidays in a nasty old Santa suit he got for free when he was living in the Ozarks for awhile, and it’s pretty hilarious, but the kids know it’s their uncle and he’s just being funny.  I think Aden plays along with the idea because it’s fun, but I don’t think she would be crushed if anyone told her it wasn’t true. 

There are Webkinz toys (that they’ve been looking at longingly for months in the store) for them to unwrap in the morning and modeling clay and markers and ‘jewels’ in their stockings that I know will make them happy.  The rest of the time will be about including their cousin in their endless pretend games all over the house and putting on an elaborate puppet show for everyone.  I’m hoping to make my grandmother’s spritz cookies by the light of the mirror ball.  Those are traditions Santa can’t really improve upon, so we don’t worry about him.

I’ve been reflecting on these ideas more than usual this holiday because things are in flux.  Our offer was accepted on the house across the street (YAY!), so we are on track to move in February.  (Coming soon will be the true test for those who have said, “If there is anything you need….”)  It makes saying goodbye to Ian this time that much harder, not just because I fear for him in Iraq, but because it’s the last Christmas with him in this home.  It’s also been a difficult holiday because Ian’s mother was in the hospital in a different state and he struggled with whether or not he should cut his time short with us to be with her.  After much consideration and hours on the phone arranging for appropirate care it was determined he didn’t need to fly out there, but contemplating the mortality of a parent is troubling.

For myself I would say this has been my most emotional holiday season, except I have a pretty good memory so I know better.  The Christmas during the last deployment was much harder.  In December 2006 Ian was in Iraq and we knew we wouldn’t see him again until at least August.  Quinn was just over a month old on Christmas morning and I was sleep fatigued and nursing.  The girls had just turned three and five.  One of my brothers was in the initial stages of a divorce.  My grandma was visiting for what we all suspected would be the last time before she moved into an assisted living apartment.  There were disturbing rifts within the extended family that were making us all sad. 

Yet, I always love time with my parents and my brothers and uncles and aunts and cousins even when things are not simply happy.  I think back with a strange fondness on the night my parents watched all my kids and I took a long midnight walk in the cold with both my brothers as we discussed sad, important things.  My brothers are the reason I wanted more than one child, because I can’t imagine navigating the world without siblings.

This year, aside from the worry over Ian’s mom, things are okay.  Ian will get to see his kids unwrap their gifts, both my brothers are the happiest I’ve known them in years, and I’ll have relatives to laugh with in the house all the way up to New Year’s.  The rifts within the extended family we are still sad about, but the pain associated with them have dulled a bit with time.  A cousin promised to deliver our gifts to my grandma at the nursing home on Christmas Day.  I miss my grandma.

It’s been so deliciously normal to have my husband home for a little while.  Not everything was perfect, and we did have an embarrassing failure in communication that resulted in neither of us picking up the girls after school one day (we got a call from the office, but Mona loves being there for some reason so I don’t feel too terrible), but overall it was a marvelous holiday treat to be a whole family again. 

And if Ian has to leave I think it will be good timing for him to go when he does because the kids will be distracted for a week before his absence is truly noticable.  By the time their uncles and aunt and cousin and grandparents all head back to their own states, the girls will be returning to school and jumping back into our no-daddy routine, so this transition is about as easy as I think we can make it.  But I’m hoping this whole ‘daddy in Iraq’ thing does not remain one of our recurring holiday themes.  War is a pretty lousy rut; this one has been going on for the entire time my children have been alive.  They deserve better traditions than that.

Merry Everything!  Thank you for checking in.  I am really enjoying writing this blog and feel so fortunate to have made connections to so many thoughtful people through it.  I wish you all great joy in 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Care Package Pitfalls (Babble)

This is a post I wanted to make sure to write while my husband is still visiting before he ships out to Iraq soon.  This is not me speculating about this topic, this is me reporting what some actual soldiers think while I have one reading over my shoulder to make sure I’m being accurate.  So here it is:

Many care packages sent to soldiers overseas are well-intentioned but lousy.  It’s a harsh truth I haven’t seen addressed anywhere, because I know nobody wants to make a person feel bad for trying to do something so nice, but in many cases all the time and effort and expense put into care packages for soldiers could be better spent elsewhere.

I’m not talking about personal packages to specific soldiers.  My husband loves getting articles from my dad and cookies from my kids and amusing things from my brothers and letters from me.  That’s all fine.  Pieces of home are a welcome distraction and a reminder of what’s important.  No, the care packages I’m talking about are the ones organized by churches and classrooms and local businesses and scout troops.  By people who want to do something because they have good hearts and want to make someone in a tough situation feel a little better. 

That’s such a lovely thought that I’m sure people will think I’m a monster for even suggesting that there could be anything negative to this, but here is the part those people don’t consider:  Someone, somewhere is risking his or her life to deliver that package.  Notes from strangers and decks of cards and flavoring for coffee are not worth that risk.  I even make sure to consolidate as much as I can into a single package when I mail things to Iraq because I don’t want that on my conscience.  I plan for a package every six weeks or so, mostly with a DVD of the kids and some of their art and some cookies for him to share and any letters anyone wants to add.  As sweet as it sounds to send a little note every day or every week, I see that as profoundly selfish and irresponsible.   The only kind of regular communication I try to keep up with is email.  it’s erratic, but it poses no one any harm.

There is probably a soldier who doesn’t get mail who likes these random boxes, but I’ve never met one.  I would love to make you a list of useful items that any soldier would be happy to get while deployed, but I can’t name any.  Friends and family sent my husband some books last time that I know he appreciated, but so much of what gets sent there has to be abandoned.  It’s a hard place to keep anything with you, and a lot of things aren’t worth shipping back home.

So where would people’s good will and fund raising efforts be better spent if they want to really support the troops?

The best services offered to Ian while he was deployed were through the USO.  They understood what soldiers really needed better than anyone.  The USO, besides putting on shows, also provides internet cafes so soldiers can stay in touch with home better, recreation tents for when they have down time, and little lounges at major airports so they can relax while in uniform with a bit more privacy.  Ian said these things have been crucial to helping soldiers preserve their sanity and have helped far more than any random package ever did.  If you want to help soldiers, the USO is a worthy place to volunteer or put your money.

And many soldiers will tell you their real worries aren’t for themselves anyway, but for their families back home.  Anything you can do to help out the family of a soldier is the real gift, because they can’t be there to do it themselves.  Ian is happier and better able to focus on his job if he knows the kids and I are okay.  War may be hell, but it’s apparently nothing compared to feeling helpless after a call to your loved ones and finding out something is wrong and there’s nothing you can do.

I know it sounds self serving for me to say ‘if you mow my lawn you’re helping your country,’ but honestly, I don’t even care if I’m the one who gets help.  There are people in need all around us all the time.  Help someone nearby instead of helping the idea of someone far away.  Maybe if all of us did more of that there would be less need to deploy soldiers at all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is This Crazy? (Babble)

The house across the street recently went up for sale and we’re trying to put a bid on it.  I can’t believe I might be moving while my husband is gone.  On the one hand it sounds insane, and on the other it could be an awesome distraction.  Or not.  Good grief.

When I have big decisions to make I do an agonizing game of mental ping pong.  I know it makes Ian nuts, and it’s probably not much better for my family and friends whom I call for help with input.  People talk about having a lot of imagination as a good thing, but when you can picture too many possibilities and they all seem real it can be paralyzing.  So rather than feel stuck, I ping pong.  Come enjoy my game of mental house moving pros and cons:

(And keep in mind we’re not really house hunting, we are just interested in this particular house.  I like the idea of staying on the same corner and keeping our neighbors and our two block walk to Target and all of that.  We like where we are, so this would be changing the house but not anything else, and that’s appealing.  Also, not needing a moving truck sounds good to me.)

On the pro side of the new house:  Much bigger.  There would not only still be a room for my in-home violin building shop, but a seperate space for music practice and teaching, a bathroom upstairs, and enough bedrooms on the second floor that we could all sleep up there together.  (The plan in the house we have involves me and Ian moving down to a tiny room on the main floor next year so Quinn could move into our room upstairs, but I don’t like the idea of us sleeping on different levels.)  And there’s a dishwasher.  An honest to god appliance that would wash dishes for me.  Can you imagine?  And counter space, and a little reading nook just for Ian and CLOSETS.  There are walk-in closets just littered about like it’s nothing.  And it’s very pretty inside–Arts and Crafts style from the 1920’s, built-in china cabinets, fireplace, leaded windows…. I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty banister, too, and this house has that.  The second floor of our house is really a converted attic, so the stairs are unusually steep and in a closed hallway.  From the outside, the new house is unassuming, but inside it has an efficient yet elegant grace.  I love the whole idea of waking up each morning in such a pleasant environment.

Things we like about our current house better:  The garage is much nicer–holds both our cars and all the bikes, etc.  (New house has a tiny garage and one car would always be outside, which isn’t nothing considering how much ice and snow removal we’re talking about in the mornings, and the fact that once the radio was stolen out of our car when we had to park it on the street one night.)  I love having a big front porch with a swing.  We’ve spent many a thunderstorm on that porch watching the rain, and the new house doesn’t have a way to do that without us getting very wet. 

Our current house has a fun family room at the top of the stairs that is just a wide open play area that has been great for all kinds of things.  Space is cut up more in the other house, but there is still a little family room at the back where the TV and toys could go, so I’m sure we’d get used to that, but it’s been very handy to have the whole upstairs level be a play haven for kids.  There is a lot of important running from the bedroom to the family room that goes on whenever the kids are home and I’d miss that.  Since we bought our house we replaced all the windows, the roof, and remodeled the laundry room.  And this may sound silly, but more often than not our house feels cozy rather than cramped.  We can call to each other from anywhere in the house and be heard, and I like how connected everything feels.

My biggest problem is I’m deeply sentimental.  I love our house.  We bought it after I graduated from my violin making apprenticeship, and it’s the ultimate symbol of my trust in my husband because I let him buy it without my seeing it first.  (I was getting too attached to houses while we were searching and I would get really depressed when we didn’t get them each time, so Ian was trying to save my sanity by doing all the looking alone.  Of course, I would have picked a house with a bathroom on the second floor….

That was a lot of pregnancies of tromping up and down those stairs a million times a night.)  This was the house we brought all of my babies home to.  This was where they all took their first steps and fell down the stairs and got bathed in the kitchen sink.  This was the last home of mine my grandmother will have ever visited.  A friend built my front porch steps.  I painted the lower half of the house alone in the dead of night over the course of a month so it would be clean and pretty for Ian’s homecoming in 2007.  We have put so much work and time and laughter and tears into this house….  How weird would that be to see it across the street being lived in and changed by other people?

And speaking of weird, I asked Ian if it would be too strange to come home from Iraq to the house across the street.  How would it feel to come home to a new home?  Would that even feel like really coming home?

Of course, Ian insists home is wherever I am, so he may turn the wrong direction at our corner a few times by mistake, but aside from that he’d be fine.  So he has no passion about the house question one way or another.  Ian’s no real help in discussing any of this because he loves me and will do what he thinks will make me happy.  He doesn’t struggle with trying to figure out how to make our house work for five of us, so it’s all the same to him.  He would like it if we moved, but given his way we’d keep our money in the bank and stay where we are.  It leaves me feeling sort of selfish for wanting to go into debt over closets.  I don’t want to be shallow, and compared to the space my brother in New York lives in, I have nothing to complain about.  But Milwaukee is not New York and our needs are very different, so I try not to get distracted by that thought.

It helped to talk to my friend Gabby.   She’s moved a few times since she started having kids and I asked her if it was hard leaving a house that felt special.  She said matter of factly that a house is just a building and that I should have a dishwasher.  Another friend told me today that if I’m still thinking about it so much I should just do it.  She says if I didn’t feel a connection with the new house I wouldn’t keep coming back to the idea.
The funniest objections come from Aden.  She is sentimental about some crazy things, and her big points about staying in our current house are all concerns over how we could possibly move anything.  How can we move the curio cabinet without all the little things falling over?  How would we ever move her bed?  What would we do with our couches?  The TV is mounted to the wall, so how would we move that?  What about her toy kitchen set?  Hmm?  HMMM?  Talking her through some of this does make me look at my concerns in a clearer light.  Some of the things I cling to look just as ridiculous to other people, I’m sure. 

But Aden’s warming up.  I think she didn’t realize that our neighbors’ stuff would be leaving that house first, and we keep explaining that everything we own that she mentioned is all stuff we brought into the house in the first place, and can just as easily be carried across the street.  I told her if we moved she and her sister could have the bedroom with the little balcony.  (Mona got so excited and said, “A balcony!  We could have the balcony!  …What’s a balcony?”)  She could have her own plants to grow out there, and she could make snowballs to throw down below, and maybe we could put out a birdfeeder right by her window.  I think that did the trick, because she came up to me the other day and said quietly that if I really really wanted to move, she would come too.

So we’ll see.  Real estate issues are complicated and expensive and confusing, and nothing is settled until it’s settled according to lots of pieces of signed paper.
All of this would be better dealt with a year from now, when we’d have more money saved up and our business would have more time to get established, and Ian would be home.  But we don’t get to pick the timing of certain opportunities.  It’s a little like when I talk to people about waiting for the right time to have kids.  There is no right time to have kids–you prepare the best you can and dive in. 

I will share the one thought that haunts me, though.  As much as I lean toward moving across the street, I worry about what that means if Ian doesn’t come home next year.  If the worst comes true, and my husband dies in Iraq, I would want to live in the house he picked out for me, closets be damned.  I know that’s a dark way to look at things, but it’s the reality of having a spouse off at war.  Any of us can have our lives permanently changed at any moment, but being married to a soldier is like living under the threat of swift change all the time.  So buying a new house is a way of looking forward, not back, and embracing the hope that we will all be together again by this time next year.  Maybe the healthy thing is to buy the house.

(That sounds settled, doesn’t it?  But I know at about three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the ping pong game will start over again.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adjustment (Babble)

Okay, so let me start off by clarifying that it is amazing having Ian home for a couple of weeks.  I love him, we love him, he loves us, home is where he belongs, lots of wonderful things here.  The following post is not me being ungrateful or whiney–it’s me trying to explain to others what the reality of our situation is.  People are often content with what they imagine things are like elsewhere, and if left unchallenged those ideas take hold in people’s minds and start to look real to society at large.  That’s why I think it’s good when parents are honest about the boring and irritating parts of raising children, because it’s difficult and should be acknowleged as such.  Otherwise when we struggle alone we think we are crazy.

I’m sure anyone who hasn’t experienced it believes having a deployed spouse home again is all wonderful.  The reality is not that simple, especially for a visit.  First of all, the whole concept of ‘visiting’ your home is odd.  I cleared my stuff out of Ian’s dresser so he could use it as before, but things just aren’t set up with him in mind anymore.  Because he’s not usually here and that’s just the truth.  And we can’t go back to carving out space for him everywhere just yet because he’s leaving again soon, and that would be ridiculous.  I want him to feel ‘at home,’ but I don’t know how settled he can really feel here.  The logistics of a visit can be awkward.

Emotionally it’s also complicated.  The kids are thrilled to have daddy back, but they have their own expectations about what that means, and too much emotion of any type can be exhausting.  After a day or two of hugs and excitement and everyone trying to tell daddy important things all at once, all the kids kind of fell apart.  They all need naps at unexpected times lately which is throwing their sleep schedules out of whack.  They are quicker to cry right now.  There are times they want to want to be with daddy, but they are more comfortable with me.  Mona was torn last night when I asked if she wanted to come with me on an errand or stay home with dad.  Her first reaction was to stay with daddy, then as I was walking away she looked alarmed and said, “No, be with you!”  They’re not used to having a choice and it’s confusing.

Ian’s been concerned that even though he now has training in climbing out of overturned armored vehicles and administering an IV in the field, his skills in the parenting department have become rusty.  There are so many little things that change in a couple of months away from small children that you can’t just jump right back in.  Children like routine and the routines have shifted since Ian was involved.  The kids are used to something other than what he provides.  Aden asked why the noodles tasted different last night when Ian made dinner, and I could see it hurt her dad’s feelings, as if he had done something wrong.  I explained to Aden that daddy makes them differently, and I pointed out to Ian that his daughter wasn’t being critical, it was an honest question. 

The girls like the idea of daddy helping them with violin practice, but they are used to my approach so we make sure I’m the one to do that in the evenings to avoid frustration all around.  Ian’s not sure what the current rules are for the kids regarding the TV or cleaning up their toys or doing homework.  It’s all stuff you don’t think to explain until there is a problem–so we bump into a hundred little problems before things get straightened out.

The final stressor that looms over everything is accepting that this is temporary.  I want to enjoy being with Ian without somehow thinking about the upcoming goodbye, but I don’t know how.  It makes me want to hold him tighter and push him away at the same time.  The kids may be going through some version of that themselves, and it’s hard to know how to help.  It would be easy to get too comfortable with parenting as a team again.  It’s lovely to not have to do everything all the time.  It’s nice to let Quinn sleep in because his dad can stay home with him while I drive the girls to school.  It’s nice to have someone else cook a meal or run a bath.  It was great during Aden’s birthday party to be able to play with the shy kid on one end of the house while my husband kept the masses entertained upstairs.  Those are luxuries I don’t want to give up before the start of the new year, but I know I have to.

So there has been a lot of adjustment these past few days, but overall, the pain is minor.  It’s like an intensified version of normal life, which when we remember it is short can hurt on any day.  We only care about loss when something matters.  We love Ian, and we love our life with Ian, so being confronted with a specific number of days to be together is as hard as our love is great.  But we will make the most of the time we have.  The way we all should every day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Counterbalance and Birthday Fun (Babble)

Getting to know my children as they figure out who they are is fascinating to me.   Each one is unique, and yet I spot bits of myself or my husband in them all the time.  Sometimes that’s good, but often I cringe a little inside when I recognize some behavior or trait that I know will lead them toward complications.  It’s hard to see wheels beginning to be set in motion and not be able to do anything about it.  I suppose some lessons have to be learned anew each generation, and no amount of cautionary tales from mom can help.

One of those traits I see in all my kids is a need to counterbalance too much joy.  I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who can enjoy the moment I’m in without reservation.  But I’m not built that way.  I can appreciate it if someone does something nice for me, but I don’t want to be the center of attention.  If everyone around me is happy I feel myself ratcheting down a bit.  On the flip side, if everyone is down I’m usually successful at cheering people back up.  I guess I want things level, but I couldn’t tell you why.

My kids are a little like this, most noticeably Aden.  She was happy when I went into her room this morning and wished her a happy birthday–for about two seconds.  Then she started telling me how much she was going to miss being seven.  I told her seven had indeed been great, but that eight was nice too and to give it a chance.  She perked up as she got dressed, and when she found I’d made pancakes in the shape of eights for breakfast she was delighted–for about two seconds.  The more you try to make her happy the more likely she is to get a bit down.  If we’re not careful and we try to do something too great she ends up alone in her room under the covers. 

There are times I want to shake her and say, “No!  Just be happy!  There are real things in the world to be sad about and this is not one of them!”  But there is nothing to be done.  She is who she is, and part of who she is happens to be me.  Poor thing.  But again, on the flip side, if someone is sad or in trouble or hurting, no one rises to the occasion better than Aden.  She is ready with a hug or a picture or a joke.  She will stick by your side like smiling glue until you are okay.  I think she likes things level, too.  She only indulges in being sad when everything else is fine, so that’s something.  There is a practicality to her counterbalancing act that must be imprinted in her genes and my own somewhere.

Mona at her own birthday party loved running around Chuck E. Cheese’s with her friends and she liked getting a medallion and a crown, but the more the guy in the mouse costume tried to engage her and make her feel special the flatter she seemed to get.  Several people asked me if she was tired because she’s normally so bouncy and bright, but I don’t think that was it.  She didn’t want the attention.  The calmer things were around her the more energy she seemed to have.  At Quinn’s little party we weren’t supposed to sing to him.  He loves being three, but if you try to congratulate him on it his mouth turns down and he sinks toward the floor.  He was happier when he got to share his toys than he was opening them.

We would all make terrible politicians I suspect–none of us able to bask in our own glory or talk ourselves up.  But that’s fine.  My children are all nice people with good hearts, and I like the way my life has turned out, so maybe things I perceive as flaws in myself will help them out in the long run.  I hope so.  I want them to be happy, but maybe that’s the wrong thing to wish for.  More than anything I want them to have purpose and be fulfilled.  There is a different kind of joy in that that I know I do have.  It’s probably not as much fun as being swept away in the moment, but it gives me a grounded sense of peace that I cherish.

But I still hope Aden smiles tonight for more than two seconds after she opens the over-priced pillow pet thingy I bought her that she wanted so badly.  Maybe if I stub my toe first she’ll keep smiling just to distract me….  Not that it matters.  Her real gift she gets this weekend.  Her dad’s coming home for a visit.  She’s planning to take him to show and tell and I’m sure she will be smiling the whole time.  I know I will.  Some kinds of happiness defy counterbalance.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Taking Sides (Babble)

I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s probably unusual that Ian and I never staked out certain sides of the bed. Most couples I know who share a bed seem to establish fixed sides. It makes sense, especially when you have nightstands on either side to store your things. My dad’s side of the bed has always had a crossword puzzle next to it, and my mom’s a book and the alarm clock. Ian and I always just went to sleep wherever on the bed. If I’m there by myself I’m in the middle, and often (when he’s home) if I’m there reading or working on something, Ian will stand at the end and say, “Well, which side am I on?” before he gets in.

When we started having kids, we dubbed the two sides of the bed “The Working Side” and “The Vacation Side.” Whoever was in charge of getting the baby in the middle of the night took the working side, and whoever was allowed to sleep through it got the vacation side. As the kids got older, the working side mostly meant whoever was going to make breakfast. Before Ian left for his deployment he tried to give me the vacation side of the bed as often as possible. After he left, the whole thing was just “the bed” and it didn’t really have sides anymore. It seems too big when it’s just me in the middle, and often when I have the bed to myself I sleep diagonally just to use more of it up.

But after Ian had been gone a few weeks, Quinn asked more and more often if he could sleep in my bed. He has a twin size bed in the same room as his sisters, and at first he would let me put him to bed when they went down for the night because he liked the ritual of it, but after a minute he would get up and come into my room. “Can I sleep in your bed, mom?” he would ask in his sweet little voice, holding his stripey blanket and beaming up at me with his dimples and his squinty eye. How can I say no? There is plenty of room and he is a sound and gentle sleeper. After a few nights in a row of letting him come to my bed, I came upstairs to find he’d simply set himself up with his own pillow and a blanket, a few stufffed animals and a book. He gave me the proudest smile when I found him there. He’s been there pretty much ever since.

I was worried it would be a problem when his dad came back for Thanksgiving, but he was surprisingly good. I explained every night for more than a week beforehand that when Ian was here he’d have to sleep in his own bed. Quinn did stay in his own bed all three nights of Ian’s visit, but I also promised he could come back to my bed if he wanted when daddy left, and I think that was the key to his compliance. The day Ian flew back to Fort Polk, Quinn set up all of his things again on the far side of my bed.

I know a lot of people have issues about letting kids sleep in your bed, and normally I tend to agree with that. When Ian is home there isn’t room for an extra body in the bed. I make exceptions for when one of the kids is sick or has a bad dream, and Ian and I kind of draw straws to see which one of us is headed for the couch downstairs rather than all of us being uncomfortable in one bed. More often then not, however, the girls prefer their own beds, and I’m glad. I like that they like thier beds.

But things have always been different with my son. During the last deployment, I was pregnant with Quinn for a good chunk of time, so he was technically with me in the bed then. I used an Arm’s Reach co-sleeper after he was born, so he was next to me for months. After I started putting him into his crib at night, he’d still want some cozy snuggle time in the morning in my bed. He was nice company then and he still is. I’ve heard people say that letting kids sleep in your bed does not count as spending ‘quality’ time with your kids, but I disagree. There is a lot of cuddling and giggling, and I like that I’m a source of comfort even when he’s not conscious. He likes to press up against me at night, and if I move off into my own space he pats around in his sleep until he finds me and cuddles up again. It’s nice.

And frankly, I don’t sleep well alone. By myself I lie awake and my thoughts tend to race around. I obsess about things both big and small and I get restless. On bad nights I even scare myself with where my thoughts go. When Quinn snuggles up I’m just happy. He’s warm and dear and he reminds me I’m loved in the middle of the night when I’m most likely to feel lonely. I like to think I do the same for him.

By the time Ian returns from Iraq next fall, the plan is to shift around all of our sleeping arrangements anyway so that Quinn will finally have his own room. With a little luck, all the crazy transitions happening then (Ian being home, Quinn starting school, moving things around…) should distract from the fact that he’s not sleeping next to me anymore. We’ll see. It’s impossible to predict what his needs will be in a year on a lot of levels, not just surrounding sleep.

In the meantime, barnacle boy remains by my side both day and night. There are times during waking hours where I dream of a break, but never at night. The bed feels better with him in it. So after years and years of sharing a bed with my husband and not developing a habit of staking out a particular side, I now share the bed with a bitty boy who has become entrenched on one side, with his toy cat and his copy of ‘Caps for Sale.’ It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I am always on the working side.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What the Army Thinks Is Helpful (Babble)

The Army is trying hard to stay in contact with me during my husband’s deployment.  I appreciate the thought–I really do.  And I try to be polite to the people who call, but they aren’t listening to me when I say I want them to stop.  I have repeatedly told Army people that unless there is information I need to know to leave me alone.  Email is okay, but don’t phone me, and don’t mail me things.  The contact is intrusive and unwelcome.  I don’t need it.

Now, I’m sure there are people out there who have no one to talk to, who need these calls.  I know the Army is making an effort to care for families of soldiers.  I’m glad they are reaching out as a general policy to make sure people aren’t dangerously depressed or desperate or in serious trouble.  That’s fine.  But I am a very fortunate person who has a whole address book of friends and familiy I can call if I’m sad.  I don’t want to talk to a soldier I don’t know.  They always ask what they can do, but there isn’t anything.  I want to hold my husband at night.  I want Mona to eat peas.  I want someone else to take out the garbage once in awhile.  I want Quinn to wear a jacket.  I want the laundry to put itself away.  I want to not feel scared and lonely in the middle of the night when I can’t fall asleep.  The Army can’t help with any of these things. 

I have asked them directly what it is they are hoping to help with, exactly, and they always respond, “Oh, just if you want to talk.”  Well, I don’t.  Not to them, and not on their schedule.  They call when I’m bathing the kids or doing the dishes or making lunch.  They force me to think about the deployment at moments when I wasn’t expecting to.  They bring me down.  Some of the people who call do sound genuinely nice and caring.  Others fall far short.  The worst was a call recently where an Army person was trying to verify certain information about how many people live in our household, and the guy specifically wanted to speak to my husband’s “next of kin.”  It’s hard to think of a poorer choice of words when calling…. well, ANYBODY.  The call left me in a fidgety, unhappy mood the rest of the evening.

The worst part is now they are sending stuff to the kids.  I got a box full of the same old family readiness material I’ve been throwing out for months, and another Sesame Street DVD.  I think I own 3 DVDs now of the Sesame Street crowd talking to kids about deployment.  I don’t need Elmo becoming associated with the war in my kids’ minds, so we haven’t watched it.  There are other DVDs we will never watch in the box, along with sentimental dog tags that kind of offended me, and then these:

I think they are horrible.  I showed one to Aden and she found it really scary.  Mona and Quinn just thought they were ugly.  And they’re right.  We’re supposed to put a picture of Ian’s face on the front of the head, but frankly it looks like a voodoo doll.  Someone thought this was a good idea, and if it brought comfort to someone else’s kid, more power to them.  But I could have told them that my kids wouldn’t like these dolls, and I wish they hadn’t mailed them to me.  I don’t want any more scary soldier dolls showing up on my doorstep.  I need to find a more effective way to get on the Army’s ‘do not call (or send)’ list.

Again, I’m glad they are concerned about families, but they can’t know what is right for all of them.  The advice they hand out always sounds as if it’s universal, and you can’t expect anything to work for everyone.  For instance, something I hear suggested all the time is that when a parent gets deployed, let each of your kids pick out a nice frame and put a picture of the soldier with the child in it for them to have. 

Sounds great.  Except when I did that for Aden the last time the reminder of daddy by her bed upset her so badly she went and hid it under a pillow in the family room.  I decided to try it again this time and this is what happened:  Mona loves having a cute picture of her with her dad by her bed, it makes her smile, very nice.  Aden is traumatized and cries everytime she spots her picture, but she won’t let me take it away because she feels she should be sad.  Quinn looked at the photo I picked out of him and his dad together and he protested loudly, “But I want a picture of me and YOU!”  Three kids, three reactions: happiness, sadness, and indifference.  Parenting is not a one size fits all event no matter what the Army pamphlets want me to believe.

The problem in general with the Army’s attempt to help is that everything they do or send reminds us of the war.  Yes, Ian is a soldier, but that’s not how his kids know him.  He doesn’t tote a rifle or wear a uniform at home.  I respect and acknowledge the job he does so well, but even I get a little freaked out seeing him in Army mode.  I like my computer geek of a husband in an old T-shirt and jeans, carrying one of the kids on his shoulders and making me laugh.  When we think of Ian we don’t think of dog tags and camo themed items.  They are not comforting reminders of daddy, they are items associated with our fears and loss, so they aren’t helpful.

I feel (at this moment, anyway) that I have a pretty good handle on how best to get my kids through this experience.  We have a good routine with things the kids look forward to every day and every week.  I fill their days with opportunities to go places or do projects or just play and be kids.  I want them to focus on all the things they have that are wonderful.  They know they are loved and they live with the assumption daddy will come back one day.  They don’t need people or creepy dolls to remind them their dad isn’t here.  They confront that reality every time they see some other kid hug his or her dad at the after school pick up.  They each love their dad in their own way, and they each miss him in their own way too.  I respect that.  And I will distract them and keep them smiling as much as I can until he comes home–no matter how much the Army inadvertently undermines my efforts.