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A letter to My Firstborn

A letter to My Firstborn

A few days before you were born.
The day before you were born.

When I went into labor with you I was completely at peace. Yes, you were technically preterm and yes, I’d never been through labor and knew considerably little about motherhood, but deep down in my budding momma heart I just knew that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t rush to the hospital or even wake your dad, but just spent a few quiet hours with you in the pre-dawn. The two of us peacefully laboring together before all the hubbub began. Today, even though I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to strengthen your perceived weaknesses in communication, I realize what a gift it is that the two of us can just sit and be. Words may never be your forte, but there is strength in quiet. As Susan Cain says, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Holding you for the first time.
Holding you for the first time.

You were so excited to come into this world, racing in weeks before your due date with a labor much quicker than most women’s first, but then at the last second it was like you panicked. All the Hippie books I’d read hinted at magical slip n’ slide birth moments, but with you it was two exhausting hours of sheer force exertion on my part before you finally made your appearance – your brand new head all scraped and bruised from our struggle. Five years later, you and I still have these moments where you freeze and I push you out into the world, but I’m learning to prod more gently and be more patient. It’s less agonizing for both of us.

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Your Grandma Cindy did a great job of photographing you, but if you look close you can see the scab and bruise on your head.

They didn’t let me hold you immediately because your premature nature posed risks to your health. I waited anxiously until the doctors determined what I already knew: that you were perfect. When they placed you tenderly into my arms your dad and I looked at each other, happy tears welling in our eyes, and felt more complete than we’d ever felt before.

grad family

Your timing was terrible. Your dad missed a final to be my side as we welcomed you into the world and you and I succumbed to a state of delirious exhaustion instead of attending his graduation. But what we didn’t realize at first, was that your timing was also perfect. Retrospect shows how family visits, job interviews, and a big move all fit perfectly into place around your little puzzle piece. You taught us, and are continually teaching us, that things don’t always happen the way you hope, but they happen in ways that are better for you in the long run.

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I was so worried about having a boy and what sort of roughness that would introduce into my life, but you’ve always had the sweetest spirit about you. You were the first child, grandchild, and nephew and you softened all of us. Your aunts, who didn’t particularly care for children, and your angsty teenage uncles all held you in gentle awe. Even my dad, your grandpa, the man who schooled me in the art of sarcasm, melted into a puddle of coochy coos at the sight of you. Everyone that meets you remarks on this gentle quality you have. It’s possibly one of your biggest vulnerabilities, but I also think it’s one of your biggest strengths.

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Now you are almost five. A full-fledged kid headed to kindergarten in the fall. I worry about you more than you will probably ever know. I worry that I’m not doing enough for you or that I’ve turned you into a science project with therapists for friends. I worry about whether other kids will be nice to you and how you’ll do in school. When I spiral into these worry cycles I’m overlooking something very important: how strong you are in your gentle way. Instead, I should think back on the day you were born and remember what I knew from the beginning, that in your own way, you are perfect and everything is going to be okay. I promise to try and remember that more often.

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Love,

Mom

Growing Something Beautiful

Growing Something Beautiful

We recently attended a kindergarten info session. We were in the 5% minority of people in attendance who brought children. As other parents dragged the meeting on past its scheduled end time by interrogating the teachers and asking lengthy questions about the tenure of the faculty and the extracurricular activities available to kindergartners (yes, kindergartners) our children grew restless. When my attempts to occupy Ellen with my phone failed and she announced “I’m not being quiet right now!” in a high pitched voice, I took her to the back of the room. I suddenly felt guilty for bringing my offspring (to a school for children) and suspected there were several people giving me the stink-eye for not leaving our kids home with our nonexistent nanny.  Maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel like other parents watch me a lot. It makes me feel self-conscious about my daughter who doesn’t have an inkling what an inside voice is and my son who is stubbornly particular. But maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe we’re all just watching each other and hoping no one suspects the truth: that most of the time we don’t have a clue what we’re doing.
***
For the most part, I avoid anything that might be categorized as parenting advice, mostly for anger management issues, but every once in awhile something makes its way to me. The other day Noel emailed me a link to an article titled “Six Tips on Disciplining Children from an Experienced Teacher,” prefacing it with the remark, “I’m not sure if this is good advice or if it angers me.” Noel is not as well acquainted with the world of parenting articles where there is an overabundance of advice and general judginess and I was curious what had upset him. I clicked through and quickly saw what he meant. The tips were good and made me think of ways I could improve as a parent, but the author’s matter of fact examples of how she implemented them with her Stepford children was maddening. The calm interactions they had that always ended in the kids doing exactly what she wanted were almost incomprehensible to me and probably any other person who’s ever spent anytime with children or teens. Maybe this woman really has the magic touch or her children are genetically engineered, but it just felt like there was something missing or that there was a truth that hadn’t been fully told. 
****
Cooper’s preschool sent home a flier for a parenting class put on by a community organization. It had a picture of a boy with crazed eyes riding a Hobby Horse and read, “A Parenting Manual: Because kids don’t come with instructions” and promised that the class would answer your toughest parenting questions. I rolled my eyes and decided it was best I not go and poison all the optimistic parents who were so earnestly looking for the clear cut answers to how to raise children. In the Ted Talk “For Parents Happiness is a High Bar,” Jennifer Senior asks, “Why is it that raising our children is associated with so much anguish and so much confusion? Why is it that we are at sixes and sevens about the one thing human beings have been doing successfully for millennia, long before parenting message boards and peer-reviewed studies came along?”  I think about that sometimes and vow to relax and just parent from the heart, but before the thought is hardly finished my brain starts to panic asking, “What exactly does that mean?” I’m still working on figuring it out, but the words Senior spoke to her son the day he was born have at least given me a mantra I think I can live by. As she held him in her arms for the first time she whispered in his ear, “I will try so hard not to hurt you.”
***
I always hesitate to give parenting advice and have no intentions of ever calling myself an expert. When my sister calls me in hopes of gleaning some wisdom from me on how to raise her growing son my heart always breaks because I know I probably don’t have the answers. I hardly know what to do to make her son sleep anymore than I knew how to make my son sleep, so I blather out suggestions of things I tried or read about or heard other people did and then tell her the only thing on the subject I know with certainty, “I know this hard, but you’re doing a good job, really.”
***
One time I was talking to my mom about gardening. My mother is a Master Gardener and I was trying to express to her how unknowledgeable I felt about our yard. “It just feels like this huge experiment,” I said, “I just keep throwing things out there and hoping something works.” I waited, expecting her to give advice about what I should do differently, but instead she simply reassured me, “That’s gardening.” I think parenting is a lot like that; a huge experiment that even the “experts” haven’t completely figured out. We’re all just out there working hard and wiping the sweat off our brows as we tend what’s growing on our plots of land. Despite our best efforts though, there will always be a neighbor that doesn’t like our methods of landscaping and maybe we won’t like theirs, but we can’t let that drag us down because the truth is we’re all just trying our best to make something beautiful.
Training for Life

Training for Life

I read through countless bios of OBGYNs when I found out I was pregnant with Ellen. I wanted to make a choice that would be a good fit the second time around, but wading through academic histories, detailed resumes, and generic healthcare philosophies didn’t bring me any closer to knowing who to choose. In the end, my decision wasn’t based on shared viewpoints or prestigious degrees (although she has those too), but because she “start[s] every day with a thirty minute run along the trails below the nearby mesa.”  When I read that, I thought: There’s a woman cut from the same fabric as my own soul; we’ll be able to figure this thing out. 

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Photo by Cindy McConkie

I’ll take a run anytime I can squeeze it in, but my preference is running with the sunrise. My current profession doesn’t offer a lot of alone time, so I cherish the quiet moments where I’m alone with my thoughts while the rest of the world nurses cups of coffee or lounges in bed. Everything feels fresh and hopeful in the dawn hours. Maybe it’s because, as Glennon Doyle Melton points out, “[The] sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgement, it never withholds . . . The sunrise [is our] daily invitation from God to come back to life.” Days that I miss this ritual I almost always forget to pray.

I’ve been running since before I can remember. My parents are both runners, so when I was young I figured running is just what people do. I was as fast as the boys on the playground, always the one to beat on the timed mile in PE, and ran four years of Cross-Country and Track in spite of my parents being coaches. When Noel agreed to run a midnight 5K with me when we first started dating I knew he had serious potential and now running is a major contributing factor to why my children are still alive. I’m not one of those runners that never misses a day. I cross-train, get caught up in life, and sometimes am downright lazy, but it’s always there for me, waiting when I need it. It takes me as I am: fast, slow, and even jog-walking through pregnancy.

Noel and I halfway through our second marathon.
Noel and I halfway through our second marathon.

Running helps me purge the negative thoughts I have about myself and about others and helps me get one tiny step closer to seeing all of us the way God does. I’m unsure how this works. Whether the negativity oozes out of my pores as I perspire, gets expelled with my breaths, or pounded out through my feet, but I’m just happy it works. As I run I get to sift out my thoughts and emotions. I breathe, I pray, I count my blessings, and I sweat. Running makes me nicer, more patient, more grateful. Sometimes I think of nothing except the fact that I am; the thud of my feet and the labor of my breathing. Certainly running doesn’t solve all my problems, but it keeps me from reaching toxic levels. It strips me down to my barest, strongest self and leaves me to take on the world with the call “I am Woman; hear me roar!” reverberating through my soul.

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I often am asked if I’m training for anything. These days racing is sparse. There’s just not time or money or energy for it, but I’m still training, not for a race, but for life.

This One’s For the Girl

This One’s For the Girl

Miss Ellen ready to go complete with Dora backpack, sparkle purse, and a stuffed animal.
Miss Ellen ready to go complete with Dora backpack, sparkle purse, and a stuffed animal.

I cherish the few hours that Cooper is away at preschool every week; it’s nice for Ellen and I get to have one on one time with just us girls. One day the two of us were folding laundry (i.e. I was folding laundry and she was burying herself in it). Ellen stuck her head out from under a shirt and with a dimpled grin exclaimed with pure innocence, “I’m stupid!”  I have no idea where she’d picked up that phrase, but my momma heart broke into a thousand pieces.  I scooped her up into my arms and said, “No, Ellen, you’re smart! You are so smart!” Without hesitation, she said, “I’m smart!” and after a quick hug ran off to cause some sort of mischief.

One afternoon at 4 o'clock she told me she wanted a nap. I told her it was too late and she disappeared. When I went looking for her I found her in her crib like this.
One afternoon at 4 o’clock she told me she wanted a nap. I told her it was too late and she disappeared. When I went looking for her I found her in her crib like this.

I have different fears about raising each of my children.  I worry that the world will destroy Cooper’s sweetness and I worry that the world will tell Ellen she’s never enough. Some days I wish I could freeze her in her two-year-old state with her untouchable confidence, but aside from the sheer impossibility of that happening, I also realize it’s probably best she learns a few lessons about her own mortality. As life throws her unexpected curves and steeper hills than she’d like to climb I hope she can channel a small part of her two-year-old self — the never-ending  energy, the hugs that come straight from her heart, and her undeterred enthusiasm for life. Miss Ellen, you are smart as well as many other things. Never forget it.

Heading home after getting rained out on a family trip to the park.
Heading home after getting rained out on a family trip to the park.
The Button

The Button

Intercom

The door at Cooper’s preschool is guarded by a buzzer. It protects the little ones from the dangers of the world as it allows the front desk to scrutinize those outside before deciding whether or not to grant them entrance. Or at least that’s the idea.

Every morning kids race to the building – elbows out, heads down, focusing like they’ve never focused before. When the “winner” smugly presses their chubby finger to the button, the rest of the kids stamp their feet and collapse on the sidewalk in fits of tears. All the parents politely laugh, then hold the door open for each other cheerfully telling their kids, “Maybe next time” or giving mini lectures on how we don’t want to unnecessarily bother the ladies at the front desk.  A few kids are dragged in, the rest shuffle in petulantly, but by the time the classroom opens all have forgotten their disappointment.

Here’s the thing about my son, he’s obsessed with buttons and he doesn’t forget anything. I’d always rigged the game for him, surveying the parking lot and slowing or quickening my own speed sometimes taking an extra long time to unbuckle Ellen from the stroller to avoid any competition. The method was effective, but it couldn’t work forever. The day a kid snuck up on us and Cooper came in second place, I took a deep breath and prepared to teach him a hard life lesson. I used that tired line about “next time” and dragged him into the building. He summoned all the strength his four-year-old body could muster and tried to drag me back outside forlornly crying “the button, the button!” in a manner that may have been deemed appropriate for the loss of a loved one. As the other parents tried to disguise their gawking, I used my calm adult voice to explain the injustices of the preschool world.  He continued to wail as children went to class, parents left, and I sat there trying to be the sensible parent I’d seen everyone else be. The classroom teacher said to just leave him and that he’d calm down. “Lots of kids have bad days like this.” Huge tears rolled down his cheeks and he clawed her arms as she carried him to the “cozy corner” to calm down. It was raining that morning and the seat of my pants was covered in mud from sitting on my haunches so I could be on his level.  I just stood there, damp and muddy, holding my squirming two-year-old, listening to his howls turn to whimpers, and  wondering if I was unfit to be a parent. When I couldn’t hear him crying anymore, I left in embarrassment, grateful for the rain as it hid the tears that streamed the whole way home.

When I picked him up he uncharacteristically didn’t ask to bring his water bottle home, which is one of the things he’s usually very particular about. I asked him several times if he wanted to get it and told him, “Once we leave the building we can’t come back for it.” The second we left the building he said, “Water bottle!” and ran towards the buzzer. My foot grazed over the stroller brake without actually making contact and I ran towards Cooper, angry that he’d played me.  As the stroller rolled towards a mail truck and Cooper’s finger reached for the button I had one of those slow-motion-out-of-body experiences.  I saw frazzled me, upset Cooper, and endangered Ellen all playing our role in a comical disaster. This wasn’t working. The mailman intercepted the stroller inches before impact and after thanking him profusely I collected my crafty son (who was more than pleased to push the button for the mailman) and headed home.  I laughed, albeit a little crazily, the whole way.

The next morning a mom was leaving when we arrived. She held the door open wide and said, “Sorry, buddy! You don’t get to press the button today!” I gave her a look that I haven’t used since one of my high school students asked me if I was kinky  and exasperatedly said, “Please, just let him press the button.” I could tell she thought I was a terrible parent, a pushover with no sense of discipline, but I didn’t care. Cooper, oblivious, pressed the button and skipped into school.*

I’m sure I’m looking down a long road of people disapproving of my parenting. I don’t expect I’ll be winning any awards and most days I’m satisfied with survival. I do believe that Cooper should learn that he can’t get everything he wants and we really do try to teach that, but the button battle just isn’t worth it and I have to learn to pick my battles. Interestingly, since I stood up for my child’s button pressing rights, I’ve noticed a few other parents’ hearts sink as I hold the door open for them and I’ve said, “Hey, do you want me to close the door so your kid can press the button?” It’s amazing how their eyes light up, almost as much as their kids and I simply say, “I totally get it” and shut the door.

* After this incident, I actually spoke with the ladies at the front desk and they said they don’t mind if kids press the button. They actually think it’s kind of cute how much the kids all care about it. Also, I’ve softened my approach to allowing my kid  to press the button so I’m much more polite than I was in this encounter.

For My Sister, Hope

For My Sister, Hope

Noel tells me I need to be more positive about being a mom–especially when I’m talking to you. Maybe he’s right, but you know I’ll always tell it to you straight. You are about to hop onto one of the wildest rides of your life.  Being a mother is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Nothing could have prepared me for it. You literally become someone new overnight. At times it’s disorienting, overwhelming, and downright exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating in ways you never could have imagined. Being a mom is weird like that.

There will be times when you realize you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, but don’t let that psych you out. All of us mommas have plenty of advice we’d love to give, but take it with a grain of salt because even if it looks like we have it together, we don’t. We’re all still figuring things out too. In the midst of your uncertainty, there will also be super-human, adrenaline pumping moments where the primal momma-bear part of you kicks in and you will know exactly what to do; heaven help anyone that gets in your way. And for the days in between, remember that right now your kisses have superpowers and your arms have the strength to keep the evils of the universe at bay.

There may be some evenings that you’ll fall to your knees in exhaustion crying to God that you “can’t do this,” but there will also be days that you’ll find your heart overflowing with gratitude.

Some nights you’ll be ready to make a deal with the devil for a good night’s rest and other nights you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your child’s bedside as you stare at their angelic sleeping face. Inexplicably, all children look like angels when they sleep no matter what sort of mischief they pursued during the day.

You’ll come to realize that the only thing separating you from the child-murdering parents on the news is the ability to close the door and take a few deep breaths.  And as long as you’re able to step away, you will still be a good parent. There will also be times where you won’t be able to get enough of the soft touch of their hair on your cheek as they wrap you in a full body hug. Strangely, the time between the two events may only be a matter of seconds.

You’ll crave silence, but then when you get it you’ll find yourself in a panic, and usually for good reason.

Some days your house will verge on being declared a national disaster and you’ll feel like you didn’t accomplish a single thing. On those days remind yourself that you deserve an awful lot of credit for keeping everyone alive and fed.

You’ll do things you would never do for yourself, have courage you never thought you had, and grow in ways you never thought possible. You’ll get used to people interrupting your showers, stealing your breakfast, and breaking your stuff. You’ll develop the survival skill of doing most everything one-handed while someone yells at you.

Some days all you’ll want is for no one to touch you or breathe on you and it’s important that you figure out a way to get that once in awhile. Even though there will be things you won’t be able to do once you’re a parent, don’t lose touch with the person you were and the things you loved to do. Both you and your children will benefit from you having other interests than their welfare. And for those times where it feels like your kid has hijacked your life, remember that there are other new and wonderful things you’ll get to do as a parent. When all else fails, sneak a piece of chocolate from your secret stash or take a nap instead of cleaning the house. Chocolate and naps are miracle workers.

Remember, you’re not just a mom, you’re a Mom. You’ll be doing the best social work you’ve ever done on the lowest pay, but your work will be beautiful and impactful. Know that just because you admit motherhood is hard doesn’t mean you don’t love it. Even on my worst days there’s something deep in my soul that whispers that these children were always meant to be mine and I know it’s the same for you and your little boy. You’re going to be awesome. Take it from an expert.

I am not a playground!

Shake the Dust

Shake the Dust

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few days. Maybe it’s because we had some serious potty training regression since preschool got out or maybe it’s because I’ve been sleeping in instead of running or maybe it’s because I feel like I lost a little part of my soul when I finally caved and joined Facebook.  Whatever it was, I was ready for it to stop and ready to get back to regular taking-care-of-business me. After a solid night’s sleep I woke up ready for change. During a few precious moments of quiet while I watered our garden this poem popped into my head.

Today I’m “shaking the dust” and “when the world knocks at [my] front door, [I’m going to] clutch the knob tightly and open on up and run forward and far into its widespread greeting arms with [my] hands outstretched before [me], fingertips trembling though they may be.”

Because there are two-year-olds that “speak half English and half God,”

eggs with double yolks,

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and sweet little boys who pick wild flowers for their mommas.

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And those little gifts in the midst of life’s crazy ride deserve to be embraced funk free.

Today, According to My Text Messages

Today, According to My Text Messages

9:28am – I just discovered that while I was in the shower the kids ate all the berries and what they didn’t eat they smeared all over the couch downstairs!

9:36am – Well, I just scrubbed it and will see how it dries.

10:06am – And Cooper just peed all over his floor and bed. Awesome.

10:10am – Sometimes I just want to say, “Dear God, Why did you think I could handle this?”

Noel: Well, you haven’t killed either of them yet, so that’s good.

Me: Yet.

11:43am – [Back from Costco] We’re good, but the kids didn’t earn pizza.

Noel: I’m sorry they’re being so bad today. 7 more hours until bedtime.

12:03pm – And the cherry on top: he just peed on the floor again.

12:29pm – And Ellen decided a 15 min car nap was good sigh 🙁 I’m going to eat cake w/ whipped cream. In front of them 😉

12:58pm – And Ellen drew on the island w/ permanent marker while I ran some sausage down to the basement. I’m almost to the point where this is hilarious.

2:53pm – And just now I found them stuffing toilet paper in our toilet.

Noel: That’s it. Hogtie them and I’ll deal with them when I get home.

Me: Deal 😉

Disclaimer: No children were harmed (or even hogtied) today although there was a significant amount of timeout and bedtime came early. And just to remind myself everyone that our kids aren’t always monsters, here are a few cute photos.

Mini French Braid
Ellen’s first french braid.

Bubbles! Swing

Mom Powered

Mom Powered

I like to ride my bicycle.In spite of having a father that has a slight obsession with bicycles, I’ve always been a little timid about riding my own. I squeeze my brakes for dear life when going downhill and am skittish in  traffic. As long as I have a patient companion I’ll venture out and generally have a good time, but rarely go by myself. Noel has gotten really good at riding his bike to do all kinds of errands and quite frankly I was jealous at how happy it makes him when driving around doing those same errands only tarnishes my hippie cred and rarely gives me any sort of deep fulfillment. When Cooper started preschool I found myself driving six miles, twice a day, four days a week. As a person who tries to consolidate my errands and use the car sparingly, this was a big change. Our gasoline usage was creeping up and all the driving was making me a tad bit ornery. (It doesn’t help that feelings of bitterness well up as I pass the preschool two blocks from our house that wasn’t able to fit him in this year.) So, I decided I needed to put on my big girl pants and give bike transit a better effort. Today I loaded Ellen into the trailer and we went to pick up Cooper. There isn’t as much traffic in the afternoon and the cars we did see knew they shouldn’t mess with this mom and her trailer and gave us a wide berth. I got a little sweaty and my legs got a good burn from powering us up some hills, but it felt awesome. I’m sure the fresh air didn’t hurt either. I’m going to have to use my mom powered vehicle more often.

And here’s a poem from Sarah Kay’s Ted Talk that has been powering this momma lately.

Oh, I love poetry! And riding my bike. Let’s all go sing Kumbaya, shall we!?! 😉

 

Expired

Expired

My teaching license expired a few months ago. I haven’t stood in front of a classroom in over three years so really that chapter of my life has been closed for sometime now, but there was something about my license expiring that made it seem so final. It was a sad moment and I even looked into renewing it, but came to the conclusion that it was nearly impossible because I haven’t stood in front of a classroom in over three years.

Ellen's Piggies
Ellen’s Piggies

Becoming a mother was a hard transition for me and in the beginning I felt somewhat sheepish when people asked what I did. Then when we were in the thick of buying our house I felt so unimportant because none of the banks really cared about me or what I did since it didn’t appear that I was a financial contributor. Last year I took a job that I was very excited about. I was excited to get out of the house for for a few hours and do something “important.” Even though I had really good feelings about accepting the job, it was a fairly terrible experience. The job was an ill-fit, finding a babysitter and figuring out payment were a huge pain, and most of the time I just wished I was at home. One day I was at the salon getting my hair cut and the stylist asked me the question I usually dreaded. When I told her I was a college recruiter it felt so hollow and I quickly tacked on, “But being a mom is my most important job.” Even though I was very relieved when the job was over, I am very grateful that it helped me realize what I actually want to be doing for the moment. Now, whenever someone asks me what I do I am able to confidently say “I’m a mom” without regret or embarrassment. (And if I’m feeling particularly cheeky I tell people I run a non-profit for needy children.)

"Baby" Cooper
“Baby” Cooper

Someday I’ll renew that teaching license or get a Master’s in something else entirely. Or maybe I’ll just work on projects and enjoy the silence. But for now, I’m lucky to be able to spend so much time with these crazy little people.

Ellen soaking her feet in the dirty dishes . . .
Ellen soaking her feet in the dirty dishes with her socks on. So relaxing. . .
Cooper's fashion forward box kilt.
Cooper’s fashion forward box kilt.