Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Deployment Part of the Parenting Puzzle (Babble)

Parenting is forever a game of second guessing yourself.  There are moments where I feel I’ve done enough or exactly the right thing, but they are rare.  Most of the time I wonder if I’ve read a situation wrong or should be doing more or less or something entirely different.  When I make Aden read to me and she fusses about it I worry that I’m taking the enjoyment out of reading, but when she’s watching a cartoon I feel like I should be making her read whether she likes it or not.  I have to balance out what I think is right with what is practical at any given time and hope for the best.

But the added complication of Ian being deployed throws a peculiar sort of monkey wrench into the works which makes parenting even more tricky.  When the kids act out or experience frustration or sadness or simply aren’t behaving well, I have to stop and decide whether the deployment is a factor, and if so, does that change what my choices are.

For instance, separation anxiety is a whole different story when your kids have had to say goodbye to a parent who is then gone for a year.  I mean, think what that feels like to a kid–they said goodbye and now daddy is gone.  For my son in particular who was two when his dad left, ‘Daddy’ is almost like a story we tell and not a person.  When I leave Quinn with someone to go anywhere alone and he freaks out, is it fair to treat him the way I would in a normal situation?  Does Quinn just not want me out of his sight because he’s a little kid who likes being with his mom, or is he scared he won’t ever see me again?  I can’t tell.  It makes it much harder to try and brush off the screams when I have to leave him because I worry that it could be more serious than the regular manipulative drama.

Any behavior that appears regressive is troublesome.  If one of my kids goes back to thumb sucking for awhile, or has a toilet training accident, or seems to take any developmental steps backwards, I hesitate before doing whatever my parental instincts suggest I do.  Those are the kinds of signs the endless mountains of pamphlets the Army sends all try to warn me about.  But what if it has nothing to do with the deployment?  I suspect most of the time it doesn’t, but I don’t know.

Odd little incidents give me pause.  For instance, the other day my son was playing with a bubbly water tube with plastic fish in it that a neighbor gave us.  There are four fish in the tube, and Quinn declared that the biggest one was the mommy fish, and the other fish were the kids, “But there is NO daddy fish.”  I asked him where the daddy fish was and he said firmly, “The daddy fish is dead.”  Normally this would go under that category of silly things kids say, but there is nothing amusing about it when his actual dad is in a war zone.  Did it really mean anything?  Probably not.  But is that a moment I should be doing something important to reassure him about his own dad, or if it’s not related is that putting an idea in his head he doesn’t need there?  I did end up saying something like, “Oh, poor daddy fish.  Good thing your daddy is fine.”  Quinn just kept smiling at his toy fish.  I still don’t know what to make of that whole scene.

Aden associates her dad with feeling sad.  I understand it, but I’m trying to uncouple the two things where I can.  I try to tell funny stories about her dad to make her laugh, so when she thinks of him she might smile more.  Right now whenever Aden is depressed about anything, she mentions that she misses her daddy.  There is a chicken and egg problem here, because I really can’t tell if being sad reminds her that she misses Ian, or if missing Ian is the thing that actually made her sad to begin with.  Could be either.  But it makes it hard to know what to do with her, because if I think she’s being melodramatic about something and I need her to buck up, I could be wrong and compounding the problem by ignoring sincere pain.  I can’t bend to her every whim just because she gets sad, but I want to be sensitive to something as big as her missing her father if that’s what’s triggering an outburst.

Mona lives in the moment more than anyone else in our household.  I can’t tell how the deployment affects her.  She’s too young to have any sense that her dad could be in danger.  He’s off with the Army in some place called Iraq.  She knows her dad wears a uniform.  She’s excited when he comes home and looks sad for five minutes after he leaves.  Then she wants to play with her Webkinz toys and buy them virtual hair ribbons and shoes online.  Mona doesn’t talk about her feelings very much, so when she’s angry it’s anyone’s guess what it’s about.  I suspect that the deployment impacts her in a second-hand way through me.  When I’m stressed out my temper gets short, and she seems to understand that that’s related to her dad being away.  But it’s always surprising how much that little girl knows that she doesn’t let on.  I often wonder if there are signs about how she’s dealing with the deployment that I’ve simply overlooked.  I hope not.

The whole experience makes parenting that much harder.  There was the last deployment, then the adjustment to their dad being home again, now this deployment, and most of next year will be about adjusting to his being back….  It’s hard to have a clear perspective on how the kids are developing when we’re always taking a certain amount of disruption into account.  All I can do is offer myself as a constant and hope that helps.  I never liked the idea of being predictable, but now it’s the the most loving thing I can provide.  I’m far from perfect, but at least I’m predictably grumpy about the same things all the time.  My back is always itchy, they can count on me to put breakfast on the table in the mornings, and they know I come kiss them in their beds every night before I go to sleep.

I may second guess a lot of what I do as a parent, but as long as my children feel safe and loved I’m doing well enough.  Deployment can’t interfere with that.  I refuse to let it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Kangaroo Tale (Babble)

I’ll bet most of you don’t do errands with kangaroos much.  Pity.  When you grocery shop with a kangaroo it makes everyone smile and the whole experience is more amusing than it has any right to be.  Sometimes I have three kangaroos along.  Sometimes just a big one.  Sometimes a teeny one.  But most often it’s the middle sized one, and this week that one went to choir.

Both of my daughters are members of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.  They love it.  They have beautiul little voices and choir is fun and it meets every Tuesday night.  Last week Mona asked if she could go in her kangaroo costume.  I made that thing two Halloweens ago and I’m amazed it’s still holding together.  Mona likes to lounge around in it at home and I don’t care if she wants to wear it when we go out, but she’d never worn it to choir before.  I asked her if she was sure, and she was, so off we went.

But when we got there, in Mona’s words, “Everyone’s embarrassed of me.”  All the kids in the choir were so delighted that Mona was a kangaroo and everyone wanted to sit next to her, but it made her too self-conscious to participate.  She sat on my lap or on the floor for the whole hour, and despite both the efforts of her sister and the kind words of the teacher, Mona wouldn’t join in the singing.

One of the most interesting things about Mona is that she does wonderfully eccentric things and has great dramatic flair, but it’s private.  In any other kid her behavior would look like an attempt to get attention.  Her tastes lean toward the extravagant, but it has nothing to do with what other people think.  It’s all for her own entertainment, and if anyone takes notice she withdraws.

As she’s gotten older (if you can think of the ripe old age of six as ‘older’) she’s become more worried about what other people think.  I don’t want that to affect her creativity, but I understand it.  I don’t like being the center of attention either, so I don’t push anything.  I just want her to be comfortable with who she is, and if who she is is sometimes shy, that’s fine, but it’s hard to watch your child miss out on something he or she would enjoy without a good reason.  I felt bad that Mona missed out on that choir class.

Many months ago Mona asked me what she should do if people ever laughed at her.  I thought about it a moment, and decided the best response would be to give them a haughty look and say, “Jealous?”  She liked that, and we practiced it by her walking into the room and I would point and laugh, and then she would say, “Jealous?!?” with a big smile, and I would look dumbfounded which cracked her up.  By the next day she couldn’t quite remember it, so when I laughed at her she said, “Nervous?” which I actually like even better.  (I mean, really, if you were trying to put someone down and he or she said, “Nervous?” wouldn’t you suddenly be nervous?  How great is that?)

In any case, we talked about how she should have reacted at choir rather than missing out on a nice time.  I didn’t make her go sing because I appreciated that she was embarrassed, but I pointed out that everyone loved her as a kangaroo.  That nobody was mean about it, or upset.  There was no reason to say to anyone ‘jealous?’ or ‘nervous?’ or anything.  It was all good.

Well, that must have sunk in, because this week she asked again if she could please wear her kangaroo costume to choir.

“Are you going to sing this time?”   Yes.  “You promise?”  Yes.  “You won’t be all self-conscious and embarrassed?”  No, I’ll be fine.

So I made her bring along a change of clothes this time just to be safe, and off we went.  Maybe she just needed a week to mentally prepare, but this time she was completely comfortable.  Everyone was thrilled the kangaroo was back and Mona sang and participated in all the games and had a lovely time.

On the way out of the building (with Quinn sound asleep in his own kangaroo costume weighing a ton in my arms), I asked Mona how it went.  She said, “It was great.  But no one asked for my autograph.”

I love that crazy kangaroo.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Kindness Counts (Babble)

Telling people Ian is deployed in Iraq is odd because it isn’t simple.  It means different things to different people, even within our family.

Ian can’t stand it when people react to the news of his getting shipped out in a negative way, usually with what he calls ‘the cancer voice’–where people grimace a little and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  It’s his job and he likes it.  It’s challenging and important.  He’s a Major, so it’s not what most people first picture when they imagine him ‘fighting.’  The work he’s doing over there right now involves tackling corruption and using his engineering skills to solve basic problems.  He’s perfectly suited to what he’s doing and he’s making a difference.  Whatever you think of the situation in Iraq right now (and personally I hate that we’re there at all), Ian is exactly the kind of person we are lucky to have there trying to fix things.  I’m sure if there were a magic way he could do his job and not be so far away from us he would be happier, but it is what it is.

I remind Ian, however, that the cancer voice sentiments apply to my part of the situation just fine.  There is no feeling of accomplishment at our end.  I’m trying to hold things together as best I can, but most of the time I’m stretched very thin, can’t get everything done that I need to, and I’m scared.  I try not to play what I think of as ‘the deployment card’ when dealing with people, but sometimes at work I need to let people know why my store doesn’t have normal hours.  I have to operate by appointment only in order to spread out the interactions with customers to a manageable level.  There is always at least one child with me which keeps things unpredictable, and rather than let people think I don’t have any sense of professionalism or that I don’t want their business, I explain that my husband is deployed but things should go back to normal in the fall.  Most people are pretty accommodating as long as there is a reason, and deployment is a pretty good reason.

In any case, as much as Ian would prefer not to look at his chance to do the work he’s trained for as bad news, from here it’s hard not to see it that way.  Most of the people I talk to understand it in that light, and when you tell people about your own misfortunes of any kind, they usually say, “If there is anything I can do….”  I know that’s what I say, and I know most of us mean it as we’re saying it.  But some people are profoundly better at following through with that idea than others.  I aspire to be one of those people when I’m in a better position to do so.

I do the best I can, snatching at small opportunities when they present themselves to help make someone’s day a little better or easier, but it’s hard when I’m always scrambling around just to keep my own family running.  I’m in awe of people who are truly prepared and willing to help when it’s needed even when they are obviously busy too, and there are more of them than I can believe sometimes.  I make mental notes of clever ways people can be helpful when I see them so I’ll have more to offer others sometime than the words, “If there is anything I can do….”  Here are some examples I’ve witnessed of kindness in action.

An experience that stays with me from back before I had children and was still commuting 40 miles away to violin making school every day, was witnessing an accident on the freeway.  I was driving behind an elderly man who passed out behind the wheel and crashed into a barricade and flipped his car over.  It was really frightening and my car wasn’t affected, but since I’d witnessed the accident I pulled over to tell any officials arriving at the scene what little I knew.  I didn’t think there was anything I could actually do to help and I didn’t want to be in the way, so I kept my distance for awhile. 

But I was stunned at how many other people did think of ways to help.  Several people pulled over just to offer some small service before continuing on their respective commutes.  One woman asked the old man, still hanging upside down in his car, if there was anyone she could call for him on her cell phone or anyone he wanted to talk to.  He had her call his wife.  Another man stopped simply to leave a blanket to keep the man warm if he went into shock.  I got to watch the paramedics do their jobs brilliantly.  The man who helped the elderly driver out of his car and onto a stretcher, checked him over carefully before smiling at his patient and saying in an amused voice, “What did you do?” which made the old guy relax and respond with a laugh saying, “I don’t know!”  Transportation department people efficiently blocked off the scene, the police gathered information….  It was a tremendous display of everyone doing everything they should have with care and I was deeply moved by the whole thing.  I don’t think enough of us appreciate just how often people do things right in the course of a typical day.  Since then I try to keep a blanket in my car that I can afford to spare should I happen upon someone who may really need it.

A fellow musician in town recently struggled with an ugly bout of breast cancer.  Her medical bills were going to be an increasing problem, so a few people organized a fundraising dinner.  It was a lovely event where we all contributed money and I know the musician was grateful, but it was the creative contributions I learned about while at that dinner that truly impressed me.  One person had volunteered to come out to her house and teach her violin students for her while she was sick.  That was a stroke of genius in my opinion, because I wouldn’t have thought of a way to apply the skill of teaching violin in a manner that was useful to someone fighting cancer, but it allowed her to keep her normal income and not disrupt her students’ schedules.  I love it when people find ways to use what they already do in a charitable capacity.

In my own life I am continually amazed by which people are the ones who step up to help.  Of course my mom will always help when she can because she’s my mom.  But my cousin out in Minnesota?  I’ve always loved and admired Ann, but when you ask for volunteers to help you move you don’t expect any of the out of state people to respond.  Ann immediately offered up her husband’s muscles and her own child entertaining abilities, and told me to pick a weekend and they would drive six hours with two small kids to come help.  That’s amazing and I will be forever grateful.  (Ann can have her pick of any organs I can spare should she ever need them.)

People who help you move are in a special category anyway, but some of my newest friends were among the first to volunteer.  Moving is repetitive and rough and not easy, and all who have made themselves available to carry furniture across the street for me have been cheerful about it.  Again, several of them are not the people I would have expected to appear at my doorstep, but how wonderful to learn the circle of people you can count on is so wide?  Robyn got her exercise for the week moving all my books, her husband helped hoist furniture, Bonnie Jean and her hsuband found time to pitch in with lots of heavy lifting in the middle of their busy schedule, Kate moved the pachinko machine and children’s books among other things, Howard moved my bed and a ton of things from the garage, and my cousin’s husband Dave tirelessly made a million and a half trips with every heavy thing I own the whole weekend.  That’s above and beyond.

There is Laurie whom I know both through orchestra and mandolin rehearsals, who has started offering herself up at unexpected times to play with my kids so I can run away for a little while.  I’ve always liked Laurie, but I never would have guessed she might be someone to spontaneously offer help when I needed it.  I got to paint part of my new kitchen in peace thanks to Laurie when she called out of the blue and agreed to help Aden use her Easy Bake Oven for a couple of hours.  It’s hard to ask for help, so never underestimate the value of simply handing a busy parent a block of time.  That’s a lesson I’m keeping in my back pocket in order to help others.  I do take other people’s kids for a few hours when I’m able even now while I’m so busy, just because I know how much it helps sometimes.

Another cousin (of my mom’s gerneration), Carol, has made us dinner a couple of times.  Food always tastes better when you don’t have to make it yourself!  She’s cooked the food in our house and kept an eye on the kids while I taught, and she’s also sent along a casserole to make things easier.  (I would love to go cook for someone who could use it, but that will have to wait for a time when I’m not a traveling circus everywhere we go.)

My brother’s girlfriend down in Texas is flying up for a couple of weeks in March just to help.  I liked Kristie the first time I met her, but to find out the depth of her sincerity is amazing.  When we first got the news of Ian’s deployment her immediate reaction was, “I will go up and stay with them for a week to help,” and she’s actually doing it.  Having a second adult in the house is like suddenly being able to fly.  While Kristie is here I won’t have to take everyone with me on errands, I can go out for a walk alone when they are all asleep, and get some real work done in the new house.  That’s a huge gift, and from an unexpected place.  (Barrett, if you let this woman get away you’ll have some serious explaining to do.)

And there isn’t enough room on any blog to adequately thank my friends Carol and Chris.  There is no way I’d be actually moving into the new house anytime soon without their help.  It’s painful to sit in this house with the kids when I can practically see from my window all the work that needs to happen across the street.  I feel trapped some days, wishing I could go paint or organize something in the new house, but I can’t leave the kids alone.  (Occasionally I march them all over there with me, but the noise and running around drives me crazy, and one time Mona ended up in urgent care with a twisted ankle, so that backfired big time.)  I’ve done as many trips as I feel comfortable with, carrying boxes over while bringing along my cell phone in case during the minute and a half I’m gone something happens even though they are just playing with legos.  So Carol and Chris paint and clean when I can’t.  And the nice thing is that even though I can’t be doing all of this house preparation with my husband, it’s nice watching some husband and wife team working on it.  I watch the two of them tackling projects together and checking in on their own kids and wish so much I could have that again soon.

Between all my friends and relatives who have offered their time and effort, there is love going into the work on that house, and that will help make it a real home.  That means a lot to me.  They understand how hard it must be to do any of this alone and they’re doing something about it.  (If I ever run into someone insane enough to move with small children while his or her spouse is out of the country, I will know what kind of help to offer!)

This is the positive result of being willing to tell people about Ian’s deployment.  It’s the kind of situation that inspires certain people to action, and it’s incredible to see.  I met Carol initially because I was struggling during the last deployment with getting my daughter into the school building each morning.  She’s the kind of person who probably would have helped anyway, but she saw a mom in trouble and jumped in, and now I have one of the best friends anyone could ask for.  I don’t know how I’d be doing without the kindness of so many people both near and far.

I’m looking forward to a day, though, where I’m not the one who needs so much help.  I want to be the one who jumps in and rescues someone else for awhile.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Diva Cup (Babble)

I’m sure this goes under the category of ‘too much information’ for most people, but talking about my period doesn’t bother me, and I feel I have something useful to share on the topic.

I’m not normally interested in endorsing products, and this isn’t an officially sanctioned endorsement anyway because whatever company makes this thing doesn’t know I’m even doing it, but I’ve never seen an ad for it and I want to speak up.  A couple of years ago I was reading a comment thread on another site where someone was complaining about tampons and someone piped up simply with the words ‘Diva Cup.’  I’d never heard of it, was curious, did some googling, and ended up ordering one.  I love the thing and can’t imagine going back to pads or tampons.  I really wish I had heard of it sooner, so here is my attempt to spread the word a bit in case it helps someone else.

A Diva Cup is a flexible little cup that you insert and forget about all day.  I will admit it took some practice and there were accidents the first two periods I worked on using it, but since then I’ve been accident free and the thing is amazing.  I put it in in the morning, it stays put, I don’t feel it, I can use the bathroom and go about my business all day and not think about it, and at the end of the day I dump it out and wash it in the sink and pop it back in for overnight.  The thing cost about $30, but considering I haven’t bought any tampons or pads in two years it’s more than paid for itself by now.

The trickiest part about using the Diva Cup is learning to put it in correctly, but that’s been interesting.  I figured out the best place to experiment with it was in the shower and that’s where I finally got the hang of it.  For the cup to work right you have to be able to make sure it’s open inside you, and then turn it to form a seal against your cervix.  When I was in labor with Aden I remember finding out that the opening to my cervix was apparently in a really weird place.  I believed all the doctors poking around in there, but I didn’t know what they meant.  Now I do.  It’s funny that after giving birth to three children I finally have a practical understanding of how my body is shaped and arranged in there because I’ve had a need to feel around critically and figure out what’s going on.  I’m glad to know.

In any case, it’s made my whole experience with my period easy in a way it’s never been.  I used pads as a kid, switched to tampons just before college, and it’s always made me grumpy.  Even when I was on the pill for a long time and my periods were lighter, I still had terrible cramps and I’ve never liked the inconvenience of carrying feminine hygiene products around.  The Toxic Shock Syndrome information in my tampax box always freaked me out.  Pads are messy and I hate the feel of them.  But the worst part for me has always been the wasted days.  I hate using tampons in particular when nothing is happening.  I have a day in the middle of my period where the flow stops for awhile, and using products just to avoid an accident has always annoyed me.  Plus now that I’m not on the pill anymore (tubes conveniently tied during the last C-section) I can’t predict exactly what day my period will start.  I hated wasting pads those few days before my period.

But the Diva Cup is so easy I can wear it around a few days before I think my period is coming and it’s no big deal.  I always feel a twinge of satisfaction when I check it and it’s empty and I know I didn’t just spend time with a tampon in for no reason.  And when I check it and discover my period started?  And I didn’t even know?  I’m relieved and happy and mentally thank the woman in that comment thread for mentioning this simple little cup.  It works great at night, and except for when I have to empty it I don’t even remember my period is happening most of the time.  It’s one less thing to have to keep track of in my already overtaxed brain.  And this is probably a complete coincidence that this happened along with using the Diva Cup, but my cramps aren’t as bad anymore.  I’m not sure why that would be true, but for the first time since I was about 12 I’m not rocking in pain for a few hours every month.

Yes, you should be by a sink to empty it out, which makes it hard to use in a public restroom, but I only need to do that at the beginning and the end of the day when I’m usually at home anyway.  The one time I had to check it in a public restroom was in the airport in Alaska before my long flight home, and I just cleaned it out with some wipes in my stall and was good to go.  I’ve had way more inconvenient incidents with pads and tampons, and unpleasant moments come to mind with wads of toilet paper and one truly disgusting emergency involving a sock.  My airport moment doesn’t even compare.

My kids are equal parts fascinated and appalled by the Diva Cup.  I gave up any hope of using the bathroom alone years ago, so I figure if I have to do private things with an audience they may as well learn something.  They’ve seen pads and we’ve talked about why women have periods.  They know all the right terms for private parts of their bodies and we’ve talked about the changes that will happen as they grow.  I’m trying to ease them into the whole menstruation concept so that it won’t seem scary or too weird.  I figure it may be easier to talk to them about these things now before they reach ages where it’s more personal and embarrassing.  It seems to be working because they ask good questions freely, so by the time the information applies to their own bodies they should know enough to deal with it.  We’ll see.  Aden hates the idea of tampons, and I assured her in a few years when she’s ready it’s better to start with pads anyway.

It’s strange to already be thinking about these things with my babies, but I was wearing a training bra at 10 and Aden’s 8, so it’s not that far off.  I don’t know at what age seeing if a Diva Cup will work for them will be a good idea, but I know my high school experience could have been improved at least a little if I hadn’t been lugging around pads and tampons and having to make extra trips to the bathroom every month.  One fewer inconvenience would have been good.  It still is!

So that’s my pitch.  If you’re fine with what you’re doing or don’t have periods, great, but it’s always nice to know there are options.  This was one I wish I’d known earlier.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The right kind of help to military families (Babble)

It’s important to acknowledge when people do something right, and I want to take a second to point out an organization for helping military families that has been helpful to us.

There is a group called ‘Our Military Kids’ that recently provided my girls with a grant to help pay for some of their violin lessons.  One of the soldiers my husband is serving with told him about it and said we should look into it and I’m glad I did.  Essentially what they do is provide money to families for specific activities for kids of deployed service members.   The application process isn’t hard and they send a check directly to the activity.  I always appreciate any organization that allows individual families to tailor the help that’s offered in a way that suits them.  ‘Our Military Kids’ lets you pick the program and send in the information for approval, which is much better than deciding all families need (fill in the blank with a one size fits all idea).

I think this is wonderful, because keeping kids active and involved in something that interests them is the best kind of distraction from the worries associated with deployment.  It can be sports or art or knitting, classes, private lessons, camp–doesn’t matter.  Our Military Kids has awarded grants to over 14.000 kids so far.  I’m sure for many of those families that grant was the difference between their kids feeling stressed and their kids feeling empowered.

I’m not a clever blogger so I don’t know the trick to embedding a link in a word, so here is the site if anyone is looking for a good organization to donate to:

I also want to make a shout out to the YMCA which provides military families with free basic memberships while a soldier is deployed.  We don’t get out to the Y as often as we should, but it’s nice to have as an option.  There are days when it’s too cold to go out and play and I don’t want them bouncing off our walls, so we sign out a racquet ball court and they bounce off those walls.  I get each kid a racquet and a ball and they go nuts for an hour or two.   (Or until mommy is tired of getting bonked in the head.)

I think there are good lessons to be learned for all families about dealing with stress from those of us dealing with deployment.  All of us have to deal with a ceratin amount of stress sometime.  We don’t ignore our situation, but we don’t wallow in it.  I remind my kids they can talk to me.  I let them comfort me when they are able.  Most of dealing with stress is finding ways to take control of something.  (Although, weirdly enough, sometimes admitting you have no control feels like taking control.) 

When my kids are busy being creative they are happy.  I find as many ways as I can to make their world predictable and secure so their dad’s absence isn’t frightening.  Weekly violin lessons help with that by creating a regular routine where they see progress in their abilities, and playing music is absorbing.  We are extremely grateful for the grant that helps make that possible.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

When Valentine's Day sneaks up on you (Babble)

I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day, even though it usually meant finding out no one in my class at school could spell my name correctly.  I loved handing out little cards, and when I had time, making them myself.  Valentines are simple and nice and it’s one of those rare times when you can hand anyone you like a note.  During years when I was too swamped with a newborn around the holidays at the end of the year to bother with Christmas cards, I waited until Valentine’s day to send everyone a letter.  My mom always sends us a Valentine’s box with homemade treats and surprising things.  It’s a tradition I hope to keep up with my own kids when they eventually move away.  (Not that they say they are ever moving–according to them they will live with me forever and ever.)

Normally I help the kids make their own cards.  This is Mona last year at the violin store in Valentine production mode:

Usually we start talking about Valentines the week before so if there is anything complicated or unusual about what they want to do I can have some time figure out how to make it work.  Last year Aden made pop-up cards all on her own that were pretty cool.

But this year Valentine’s Day kind of took us by surprise.  I was associating it with next week on my calendar because it falls on a Sunday this year.  Then I realized the kids probably would have their Valentine’s party on Friday.  Then I found out there is no school on Friday–so the Valentines had to be done last night.  This did not fit in with my work schedule at all, so we ended up eating at Target an hour before bedtime and shopping for cards and pencils.

Of course, my kids can’t pick out easy cards that you just sign and are done with.  Aden wanted to continue her pop-up theme, and found something with dogs that you had to punch out and fold and attach to the main card.  Those took her over an hour before she ever got to signing anything.  Mona chose something with a rainforest theme that came with little play tattoos that were too hard to attach to the cards herself.  So we all sat together at the dining room table cranking out cards, and it took us well past bedtime but it was nice.

The biggest surprise to me was Quinn, because we set aside cards for their cousin, and when I gave him one to fill out, he correctly printed her name.  I know he’s been working on writing some numbers and letters, but I’d never seen him try something as complicated as an upper case E or an R and he did them really well for age three.  He will love being able to pass out his own Valentines at school next year.

I will admit that Valentine’s Day is one of the holidays where I miss Ian more than usual.  It’s hard having him so far away, and all his stories when I hear from him make me nervous.  I don’t like picturing him with a gun or in dangerous situations.  He seems fine and it sounds like he’s accomplishing a lot of positive things in Iraq, but not being able to give your main squeeze an actual squeeze on Valentine’s Day is lonely.

So this year I appointed Mona my Valentine’s date.  As the middle child I find she’s the hardest one to make time alone with.  I see Quinn alone all the time, and somehow I get moments alone with Aden, but Mona is always along for the ride with someone and private moments are rare.  I told her I would hire a babysitter for her brother and sister, and the two of us would go out to eat and do something special.  That something special will probably turn into a trip to Home Depot for something we need for the new house, but alone with Mona it will be special.  She’s really excited and keeps asking me, “Am I still going to be your Valentine this year, Mama?”  The only tricky thing is to not make Aden and Quinn feel slighted, so I’m trying to find someone to watch them that will feel more like a play date.  In any case, I’m looking forward to Valentine’s Day, even though it feels like my heart is overseas.

I remember talking to Ian about holidays during the last deployment, and he said they were no different from any other days, which in a war is understandable.  He barely noticed it was Christmas and forgot about Easter and Valentine’s Day and our anniversary.  I get that and it’s fine.  But it’s another way in which our experiences while apart diverge.  For us holidays are among the clearer moments when we know exactly what we’re missing.  We get used to the day to day life without Ian here and we miss him in a general sort of way. 

But when a day is marked and set apart we all look around and notice his absence in a way that doesn’t happen normally.  When I started talking to Aden about what kinds of Valentines she wanted to pass out this year, she got excited about it, and then got very quiet.  “I miss daddy.”  I told her I know, and I did too, and that maybe the box we sent with his Valentines in it would arrive on time.

If it makes his time in Iraq a little better to remember we’re doing Valentine’s things this time of year, then I hope he remembers.  If it makes his time harder, I hope it slips by unnoticed.

Either way, I have a date.  She’s short and missing a couple of teeth, but in lieu of my husband it’s hard to think of a sweeter Valentine to spend my day with.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Arriving at Someday (Babble)

I grew up in a pretty house in a suburb of Detroit. People not from the Detroit area can’t imagine there is anything but the dismal blight there that gets shown on the news, but there are a lot of beautiful places and things, and some of the houses built back in the 1920’s are absolutely incredible. Something about the kinds of details those houses included, the layout, the scale, all appeal to me. My childhood home has leaded glass windows, a practical yet graceful layout, interesting tiles and doors, and I’ve always loved it. It was a privilege to grow up in such an attractive space.

When Ian and I were first dreaming of owning a house we got some books out of the library of different models and plans so we could figure out what we liked and what would work with our hopes for the future. The houses we kept coming back to were all from the same era as the house I grew up in, which should surprise no one, but it confirmed something about myself that was useful to know. I always hoped that someday I might have an elegant old house of my own.

I think most people have a mental list of things they hope will happen ‘Someday.’ Someday often seems like a mythical land where everything will improve and life will be easier. Someday my baby will sleep through the night. Someday I will make enough money that I can afford to replace that ugly furniture. Someday I will have my dream job or a spouse who loves me…or a pretty house. Real life is such that fixing one thing doesn’t solve everything, but sometimes it almost lives up to the expectation. The baby sleeping through the night is a big deal, even if it doesn’t help with the laundry.

When the house across the street from us came up for sale, my heart took a little leap. It’s a house I’ve liked since the first time I stepped foot in it, from the era I’ve always admired, and I wouldn’t have to leave my neighborhood. Financially it would be a stretch, but I kept coming back to a particular Someday in the back of my mind. Someday I wanted a pretty house, and it hit me that I was forty already, and if it was ever going to happen, Someday had to become Now. Now is the time for that house because we need every room, every closet, every cupboard. I could raise my kids in a space that was functional but with a window seat I could sit on to read to my son and pretty cabinets to store Aden’s clay creations. A formal dining room was not on my husband’s personal list of ‘Somedays’ but he likes helping me achieve the things on mine so he made it happen. I love him.

I’m still a little stunned when I walk into our new house. We’re rethinking things and changing light fixtures and figuring out what would make this house work best for us, but for the most part the house is just lovely and I can’t believe I’m going to get to live in it. The previous owners didn’t use the front door regularly, but we will be, so in the first room we’re adding a light fixture, moving switches, adding outlets…. Several rooms were already perfectly attractive colors that we liked, but we have to make them ours for it all to feel right, so we’ve been doing a lot of painting. We took out the carpet in our new bedroom because of Ian’s allergies and now it has a whole new look to it. Each time I carry an object over from the current house, the new one feels a little more like mine, but it’s still a strange transition.

Aden surprised me the other night when I announced to my mom I was running across the street for a moment to talk to my friends who were doing wiring in the kitchen. She jumped up as I headed for the door saying, “I want to come too!” She’s still been putting up some resistance about the move, but she does love the terrace off her new room, and her new closet. She walked around with me as I inspected progress here and there, and as we stood in her new room together, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Mama, I’m really trying to like the new house, but it doesn’t feel like my home. My room doesn’t feel like my room.” I was so impressed that she was able to describe her feelings that well. I held her while tears streamed down her face and told her I was feeling the same way. I experience the odd sensation of being excited about the new house when I’m in it, and then I cross the street and I’m home.

I told Aden that I took all of her emotion about the move as a compliment, because it means I did an excellent job of creating a happy home for her–one that she cares about deeply enough to fight for in her own childlike way. I did my best to explain that we were the ones who make it feel that way, and we will bring that magic with us when we all live in the new house. If we did it once we can do it again (only this time with a dishwasher and nice woodwork). She agreed to trust me on this. I know what it’s like when what you know and what you feel don’t sync up, and it’s uncomfortable, but we’ll both get past it. I’m sure sooner than either of us will expect.

By the way, the “We” who are doing all of this work on the house are my mom who came to paint the first few days, and friends who know how to do electrical things and are willing to help me sort out design details and watch my children while I move boxes. It is very strange to be doing this without my husband. I am not kidding myself that when it comes to decisions about wall colors and light fixtures and furniture placement that he would even have an opinion. I know it would still be all me because I’m the one who is interested, but not even to have him there to nod as I show him paint samples makes me sad. In our current house we built so many memories by working on things together. I like that I picked out light fixtures and my husband put them in. There will always be something for him to do later (there is always another project to do on an old house), but it’s weird that he’ll come home to it up and running and lived in already. We’ll have to be content with, “Hey, remember how you didn’t have to move that, or that, or that?”

Arriving at some Someday doesn’t mean the dreaming ends. There is always something new to hope for, and I think it’s acceptable to do that without seeming ungrateful for what you have. A certain level of dissatisfaction keeps things changing, and without change we don’t learn. I’m thrilled with the new house. I can’t believe that’s actually happening.
And you know what? Someday my husband will be home from the war and he can enjoy it with me.

(UPDATE: Photos!)

A previous owner thought it would be cool to use a headstone as an address marker. It’s the most convenient landmark in the neighborhood. I used to say, “We’re the house across from the one with the headstone.” Now I just get to say, “We ARE the house with the headstone!” Here’s Aden leaning on it after school today just before she filled the mailbox with snow.
This is our current house as seen from the headstone. It’s nice! Just not big enough for five people and a violin maker’s workshop. If you’re looking for a nice place to live in Milwaukee only two blocks from Target and with cute kids to wave to from across the street, let us know.
Freshly painted dining room complete with drop cloths and paint cans strewn about. (It looks more blue in this picture than in real life–we tried to match the greens in the stained glass on the cabinet doors.)
Part of the living room with my pretty staircase.
Built in cabinets next to the fireplace. (We are still in the process of figuring out if the fireplace will be usable in some form. It took a lot to convince Aden we couldn’t just start making smores the first day we went in.)
View out the back screen door of our snowy snowy deck.
Other things will be more fun to take pictures of later when they’re not all torn apart and so messy. I’m so happy! I can’t wait to be all moved in at some point. It will probably be a couple of months yet. It’s sort of interesting owning half the houses at my intersection. I feel like some sort of tiny land baron covered in a lot of snow. I keep looking out the window at our new house and thinking about how the view could not be more different from what my husband is seeing in Iraq unless it were underwater.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Quotable Kids (Babble)

One of the greatest pleasures of spending time with little children is the funny things they say.  My kids say something that makes me laugh every day so I thought I’d share a few good quotes.

Recent quotes from Quinn (age 3):

A friend of mine asked if there was any way she could help me out, and I told her if she would play with Quinn at the violin store one morning so I could get more work done, that would be wonderful.  So she arrived with toys that used to belong to her own kids and got down on the carpet with my son to spell out words with a kit that came with cards and letter tiles to put on them.  Quinn is very interested in learning to read and was excited to be spelling words.  He picked out a card with a list of fruits and vegetables to write out, but was concerned that the space provided next to the picture of the watermelon only had room for the word ‘melon.’  He insisted they needed to write out the whole word, and my friend suggested that they run the ‘water’ part of the word off the card onto the carpet.  That made him very uneasy and he finally said, “But mama says we’re not supposed to put water on the carpet.”

When I was making cream puffs Quinn wanted to try one.  I kept telling him he could have one when they were ready, so he kept checking in and asking if they were done, but he couldn’t remember what they were called.  Finally at one point when he came up to me in the kitchen and said, “Can I have—what are they called?” and I said, “Cream puffs,” he repeated, “Cream puffs.”  Then he ran up the stairs saying to himself, “I have to go write that down.”

Quinn likes to pick up random books and pretend he can read out loud.  He just makes stories up as he studies each page, but instead of speaking normally, he reads like his sisters do:  By. Stop-ping. At. Ev-er-y. Word. And. Care-ful-ly.  E-nun-ci-at-ing.  Ev-er-y-thing.  I pointed out that the copy of the Giving Tree he was reading was in French, but he said he didn’t mind.

Poor boy has had some kind of tummy problem lately, and he’s been throwing up at odd times.  (No fever, no other problems so I’m not sure what’s wrong.)  Anyway, after he threw up all over the living room and I was working on cleaning it up, he asked me if he could have some cereal.  I asked him if his tummy (which he corrects me is ‘stomach’) was up to it.  “Yes.”  So I asked him again to be sure, “Are you done throwing up?”  He assured me he was.  “If you need to throw up will you do it in the bathroom this time?”  “Yes.”  So I washed up, made him a bowl of Cheerios, and as I handed it to him he said, “What’s throwing up mean?”

Recent quotes from Mona (age 6):

Mona is my wackiest child.  Most of the time it’s not what she says but how she says it, so it’s hard to quote her and do her justice, but these are still pretty funny.

Mona puts together the most interesting outfits.  Some days she wants to be all black, or all pink.  Sometimes there is a theme by pattern, but most of the time it’s hard to know what she was thinking.  There are a lot of skirts over pants and layered shirts and dresses and lately many headbands.  Whatever ensemble she puts together, she always stikes a pose in my doorway in the morning and says, “Do you love me in this?”

She wants me to refer to her as my “Cute Muff.”  (I have no idea why.)

We were eating dinner in a restaurant, and out of the blue she asked loudly, “Mama?  How did they get the tubes out of you to tie them?”

When I picked her up from school the other day she said in her outdoor voice (actually, she doesn’t have volume control, so we only have the outdoor voice), “Mama?”  Yes?  “Can I tell you a joke?”  Sure.  “What did Mr. Grape say when he saw all the elephants coming over the hill?”  I don’t know.  “Look at all those grapes coming over the hill!  You know, because he was vision blind.”

Every once in awhile she beams up at me and says, “You are the luckiest mom in the whole world!”  She can’t figure out why that makes me laugh, especially since I always agree.

Recent quotes from Aden (age 8):

Aden’s getting past the age of the silly quotes.  More often I’m just impressed.  For instance, I have a habit of interrupting what I’m saying to the kids to double check that they actually know the words I’m using.  If I’m ranting at them about being ‘responsible’ but they don’t know what that means, then I’m just wasting everyone’s time.  But with Aden anymore, the definition she gives me is usually better than the one I was going to say, so I’ve stopped doing it.

My favorite was from when I objected to a piece of clothing she was going to wear when I took her to the ballet.  I had stressed the word formal and she appeared in a tie dye T-shirt.  To her is was the most beautiful shirt she owned, but I overruled it.  I explained that as someone who normally sits in the pit orchestra at this kind of event, I feel better if people dress as if they respect what we’re doing.   So I asked, “Do you know what the word formal means?” and she immediately responded with, “Exquisite?”  How’s that for vocabulary?  (Anyway, I tried to explain that what you choose to wear is like carrying around a sign in some ways, that certain clothes tell people certain things and you had to be aware of what you were saying to people.  However pretty she thought her tie dye shirt was, to other people it screamed ‘casual,’ and if that was not the signal she was trying to send she had to pick something else they would understand.)

Her favorite adjective of the moment is ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’  (Quinn’s learned to say it too, he’s heard it so often.)

She knows every single word to the song Another Postcard by the Bare Naked Ladies.

I know no one finds anyone else’s kids as amusing as their own, but my kids do crack me up.  Now if they would just pick up their dirty clothes while cracking me up we would really be onto something.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It Gets Easier (Babble)

I’ve had a little time to read through a lot of excellent mommy blogs lately, and I have stumbled into several by moms with babies or toddlers who just sound swamped.  The baby years are cute, but really exhausting.  I wasn’t much of a baby person until I had my own, and I loved the newborn phase, and the rolling phase, and the crawling and the new words….  But I’m finally glad to be moving beyond all of that.  For awhile I kind of wanted one more, because the kids I have are so amazing I’d be curious who else we could make.  Then I remember how much work it is, and I know I don’t want to revisit that.

But it got me thinking that some of these new moms could use some lights at the ends of various tunnels, and I want them to know that (barring unusual circumstances which can happen to anyone) it does get easier.  It really does, and here are some things to look forward to:

One day, diapers are over.  We still deal with goodnites for overnight accidents in our house, but I haven’t changed a diaper in a long time.  I didn’t mind it when I was doing it, but not to be chained to a diaper bag anymore is heaven.  It’s hard to remember the tyranny of diapers once you get past it, but I’m past it and I’m glad.  Every time my son runs off to the bathroom to pee on his own I smile and appreciate how awesome that is.  No matter what stage your kid is in with this, someday it will be done.  And it’s great.

At some point you’ll realize they dress themselves.  This one snuck up on me because I don’t think for most kids this happens all at once.  Some pieces of clothing are easier than others, so maybe they can do shirts but still need help with socks, etc., but at some point they can do it all.  I remember back when Quinn was only a few months old I got really frustrated about just how long it was taking the four of us to get out of the house for a particular event, and then it hit me that it was the clothes.  I had to put every piece of clothing on everyone (and then take a bunch of it off again to change a diaper or help someone use the bathroom), plus all the winter clothes on top of those.  I realized that if I simply dressed and redressed myself four times in a row it would take forever.  The time you save by not dressing the kids is fantastic.  That time gets sucked up by something else, but I love that other than Quinn’s pants and some zippers here and there, I no longer help with clothes.

(Of course, kids dressing themselves comes with their choosing what to wear which has its ups and downs.  Mona thinks layering means putting on a pair of shorts over her jeans, and on the coldest day of the year she is guaranteed to come down to breakfast in a tank top, but I tend to think of it as a weird added bonus peek into her peronality.  I know some moms for whom coordinating clothes within an outfit on their kids is important to them, and those kids do look ready for picture day at a moment’s notice, but I’m not one of those moms.  I barely know how to dress myself so I have no business dictating a sense of style to my kids.  As long as they don’t get frostbite or heatstroke I’m usually fine with whatever they pick.)

In the car, at least, the bigger the kids are the less room they take up.  I resented having to buy a minivan when we had our third child simply because we couldn’t fit three car seats in the back of the regular car.  It seems insane to me that when my kids are teenagers we will all be able to get into the smaller car, but while they are little we need the van.  Aden can already get away with not using a booster from time to time, and I can’t wait to be free of bulky car seats all around.  In the meantime, kids buckling themselves is worth doing a happy dance over.

Eventually they can use words to tell you what’s wrong.

One day they offer to help and it’s actually helpful.

I just gave our stroller away.  I thought I’d miss it and I was WRONG.

They don’t need me to operate the DVD player anymore.

At some point you get to sleep again.  Not as well as you maybe once did, but enough that you don’t feel like you’re operating in zombie mode all the time.  Sleep makes a huge difference.  It will come.

Their needs don’t change on a weekly basis.  Part of the reason there is so much clutter that first year is things like a bouncy seat are great–for two months.  Then it’s just there taking up space.  There are baby things you maybe use once, some things never, but you don’t know what will work or what they’ll like, so for a long time there is a brightly colored mess of baby things everywhere.  It gets replaced by a different kind of mess, but at least one that most kids are capable of picking up themselves if you are willing to nag.

I like that we don’t have to weigh the kids every month and measure their heads or think so hard about new foods.  Kids still change quickly after the baby stages, just not at the lightning pace that is all consuming when they’re tiny.  It’s a relief when what they wore and ate today wasn’t any different from what they wore and ate last month.

And finally, you don’t have to stare at them every minute.  This is huge.  My kids were the sweetest, easiest babies, and they slept well and seldom cried and had no trouble nursing and they were STILL exhausting.  I can’t imagine how people survive babies with colic or kids with special needs to compound the worry.  Just being responsible for a tiny person all the time is enough to fry your brain some days.  My kids are finally at ages where they don’t need me for everything.  I can tell I’m overdue to make a meal when I hear chairs scraping around in the kitchen as Aden and Mona get peanut butter from the upper cabinets themselves.  Quinn feeds himself yogurt on his own some mornings if he’s up before I am, and half the time even remembers to throw the little container away when he’s finished.  I like it when they are self-sufficient that way instead of running to me for something all the time.

There was a moment a month or so before Ian shipped out when I realized this deployment was likely going to be easier than the last one simply because the kids were older.  He was away on an extended Army training weekend and I had the kids to myself and looked at it as a sort of mini dry run.  We went to Target on a Saturday afternoon to pick up some basic things and wound up eating lunch there.  Right after our food was served Mona announced she had to use the bathroom, and for the first time I realized Aden was old enough to take her sister there.  It was just around the corner, no big deal.  They held hands, happily walked off to the bathroom, and returned a minute later.  It was like a miracle had happened. 

Last deployment, when the girls were smaller and Quinn was a baby, trying to use the bathroom while eating out was impossible.  If any of us had to go, we all had to go.  I never knew if we should abandon all of our food and hope no one tampered with it while we were gone, or try to scarf it down and then go to the bathroom or what.  It was one of the many reasons we usually just stayed home.  But now Aden and Mona can go together and I can sit with Quinn by the food, or if Quinn needs to go the girls can stay at the table and I can take him. 

It’s been life changing.  I used to think of small babies as pretty portable, but walking potty trained young people are even easier most days, and it vastly expands our options for getting out.  When we go sledding they can drag the sleds back up the hills themselves.  Aden can take a shower and Mona can run her own bath.  They still need me for a million things, which is fine, but to not have to attend to every little thing every second is a relief.

My most most dramatic example of how their growing up has been helpful came about a week ago.  An hour before I was supposed to leave for a rehearsal I started getting sick.  My head hurt, I was freezing, and I just needed to crawl into bed.  I cancelled the sitter and tried to figure out what to do.  The kids were only about an hour from going to bed, so I decided to put Aden in charge.  I gathered all the kids around and explained that since Aden could tell time, she was going to announce when they should all brush teeth and climb in bed.  No one was to argue with her because I was putting her in charge.  I asked Mona to repeat back what I’d said and she answered, “Brush teeth and go to bed now!”  No, no, listen again.  I explained it two more times before Mona finally heard what I was saying.  Then she asked if Aden could also read her a story, and Aden said she’d be happy to. 

I took some ibuprofen, crawled into bed under many many blankets and listened to the sounds in the house while my head pounded.  I fully expected to hear some kind of fussing or problem that would require my attention but none came.  I assumed at some point someone would open my door, even if it was just Quinn coming to sleep in my bed, but no one did that either.  There was happy playing and running around, and eventually there was silence. 

I got up around 8:30 to use the bathroom and have a look around.  Plenty of evidence that they’d brushed their teeth.  They’d cleared a path to the stairs like I’d asked so I wouldn’t trip on any toys in the dark.  They were all tucked into their beds, soundly sleeping.  Even Quinn, who normally sleeps with me, let Aden put him into his own bed so I could have a break.  I was so proud of them I can’t even tell you.  Getting sick the last time Ian was gone was a nightmare because there is no leaving a baby or a toddler in charge of itself.  I just suffered through it and stayed sicker longer due to the strain.

I woke up the next morning feeling fine, and they brought me a surprise breakfast in bed.  I’d heard Aden tell her sister to keep me distracted so I wouldn’t hear what was going on, so when Aden and Quinn went down to the kitchen, Mona came into my room and just started singing.  It was hilarious and sweet and I don’t think I’ve ever loved my kids more.  They made me a bowl of cereal and two toasted pop tarts and a glass of water.  I’ve never tasted anything better.

So yes, the baby and toddler years are tough.  Hang in there.  Your reward in the not too distant future will be singing and kind gestures and maybe even some desperately needed down time.  Even at this stage for me there are still challenges and rough days, but it could be so much harder.  I could be the one in Iraq missing all of this.  I do my best to appreciate it for both of us.

(Quinn, Mona and Aden in hats made for them by my cousin Liza)