On the Brink of the School-aged Years


Two things happened yesterday that helped clarify an uneasiness I’ve felt all summer.

• I took the kids to the zoo with only a small backpack filled with three water bottles and a few essentials. We’ve been handling zoo trips this way for quite some time. But this visit, zipping around strollers filled with children and bags, I marveled at the simplicity of our trip, and how long ago life with strollers seemed.

• I have passed on a deep sense of sentimentality to my children, Sophie, especially. And last night the weight of growing up broke her, for a bit. Holding her we let her sit with her feelings, acknowledging them. And then we talked about the joy of growing older—and all the wonder and magic that comes with it.

Mid-August all three will be in school all day. James and Owen will be in first grade, Sophie in third. Kindergarten, last year, was half day. Between drop-offs and pick-ups I only had a few precious hours alone. This year, for the first time in eight years, I will have seven hours alone, each day.

This summer has been both lovely and hard. We were fortunate enough to spend a few days at the beach, to visit my sister and her family in North Carolina, to visit Andy’s parents in Baltimore. We roasted marshmallows and played with sparklers and ran through the sprinkler and made trips to my parents’ house and the boys played baseball and Sophie did crafts in her room with neighbor friends while listening to Taylor Swift.

We also yelled, more than we should have. It’s hard living in a small house, sharing, compromising and sharing at 6, 6 and 8. I tried to maintain my freelance workload with only the occasional sitter here and there, which resulted in some days of more electronic time than I would have liked. Guilt can cast shadows, even on the good days.

I’ve realized, too, that I was good with babies and toddlers (my sunglasses are rose colored, a fact that’s not lost on me). These ages of 6, 6 and 8, when I know they know kindness and respectfulness, can be mentally exhausting. When my newborns cried I held them, not faulting them. When my 6 year olds throw a fit, as we call them, I inwardly scream, “You should know better!”. And I grow weary, thinking, believing, I, we, should be past all of this by now.

And yet, we no longer take strollers to the zoo. Sophie makes her own eggs in the morning (three scrambled, with lots of black pepper). All three ride their bikes up and down the sidewalk without my supervision. We have inside jokes, that only the five of us get. All three make up elaborate games, on their own, wrecking the house but digging deep into their imaginations. They read my old Calvin & Hobbes books, on their stomachs, legs swinging in the air. Everyone can buckle and unbuckle, on their own. At parties, they roam free, with only an occasional check-in. When Andy isn’t able to read Harry Potter to them before bed, I let them each pick out a picture book. They choose to read to me, instead, which both delights and saddens me.

After eight years of often intense parenting, I’m ready for them to be in school all day. I have plans. So many plans. I plan to drop them off at school and run, every morning. I plan to keep up on laundry and organize the attic and clean out the basement and commit to yoga and blog again and go through every single piece of paper in this house. And what I’m most excited about is my work. I plan to do my writing and editing while my children are at school, freeing up my evenings and weekends for the first time in eight years. The mere thought of the balance that this will bring to my life brings me unimaginable joy.

So, yes, I’ll be teary-eyed when I drop them all off at school, even though part of me has also been dreaming about this day for six years. And already something inside of me hurts when I think about Owen and James walking to their separate classrooms, apart for the first time in six years. But I also know we’re on the brink of something, something new, something bigger, something at times easier and at times, much, much harder. So many parents have told me that once school starts, time flies. Like Sophie, the weight of growing up, of watching my children grow up, breaks me at times, too, even when I know—having been there and gone through it—the wonder and magic that’s still to come.

So perhaps this is all why this summer has felt a bit off for me. As a family I feel like we’re straddling two phases. At times, they all seem so tall, so kid-like, the toddler years a lifetime away. And yet, this morning Andy and I woke up only to find ourselves tangled up in Owen and James, once again. While walking into Target Sophie grabbed my hand, and held it to her cheek. James cried out when he thought we were leaving him. Owen called me mama.

This, from August, six years ago:


“I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.” —Louisa May Alcott

Your Sixth Birthday

Dear Sophie,

This year your birthday started with a visit from Grandma and Grandpa in Baltimore. And, on the way to the airport, Owen threw up all over himself and the van. As I was trying to get him cleaned up with the few wipes and plastic bags I had, changing him into one of Daddy’s shirts slated for Goodwill I found in the back of the van, you ever-so-helpful said from the back, “Mommy, you are not prepared for this.”

And I loved that, the humor you gave to an otherwise awful situation. And I loved that, because it showed you are still young enough to always speak your mind. And I loved that because, when it counts, you really are generous and kind. You care, about everything, so much.

Which is why, in part, I felt so badly that your birthday was a bit of a bust.

It started out wonderfully, with a present from Great Aunt Susie—a handmade Elsa dress.

Still, on the day of your birthday party at the YMCA, Owen and James had been sick less than 48 hours prior, so both boys had to stay home with Grandpa. (But don’t worry about the boys—Grandpa came through with a small birthday celebration they threw for you, on their own, in the backyard.)

And you, I believe, had fun.

Nini and Pop Pop came to your party at the YMCA, and then followed us home where you opened your presents from them on our front porch. They were on their way to see your Aunt Katy, Uncle Tom and cousin Colleen, who, as you know, has a birthday the day after yours. They stayed on the porch in what we hoped was a germ-free zone, so as not to get pregnant Aunt Katy sick.

After Nini and Pop Pop left, you said your stomach hurt. I tried to convince myself it was the sweets, but then you, too, got sick. After emailing my sincerest apologies to all the other parents of your friends who were at your party, I sat next to you on the couch, holding your hair and scratching your back—not a great way to spend your birthday, any birthday, but especially a birthday when you’re 6.

Still, you said you wanted to open presents. It was clear you loved them, but you were quiet and reserved, and you hardly played with your gifts after, which included some much-anticipated Frozen merchandise.

Several days later you were ready for your meal-of-choice: scrambled eggs, fruit salad, bacon and cinnamon rolls “from the can.”

Still after, you had a stomachache.

So it wasn’t until you were 6 years and 1 week old that you finally had your Frozen ice cream birthday cake, which your dad, who has many varied talents, made for you.

We even threw in a couple extra presents, for good measure. And then, we had cake!

And now is when I normally write a personal letter to you. And I will, but privately. For you’re 6 now, my sweet child. You’re in kindergarten. You’re learning to read. Your friends are learning to read. My thoughts and reminiscences about the year past are no longer primarily focused on physical milestones and parenting mishaps, but more personal milestones—your emotional and intellectual milestones—your growth as a human being, into an adult. And they are yours. And for the ones we share, also mine. And they belong to everyone you choose to share them with, both in the present, and in the future, if that’s what you wish.

This was the first year I didn’t know what you wished for—you have secrets, experiences, thoughts and frustrations tucked away in your brain that I’m not privy to—as it should be. Still, I love when you share. And I hope you continue to share. And in return, I promise to respect your privacy, as well as a mother (who also is a writer) can.

Happy, happy birthday my generous, passionate, funny Sophie.

I love you, always.

“We turn not older with years, but newer every day.” —Emily Dickinson

A New Demographic

It’s 11:25pm the night before I turn 35 and I feel like I want to physically reach out and press against time. Slow it down. Stop it, for a moment, for many.

I have been so lucky in my life and I have such high hopes for the future. I should also note that not a single birthday has bothered me. Except this one.

I have some theories.

At the YMCA when I option in my weight and age on the elliptical machine the age given is 35. From here on out, I press the up arrow.

Then there is the little matter of the little black boxes next to the different age demographics on various forms. For years I’ve been ticking the 25-34 box. Come tomorrow, I’ll be checking the 35-44 box.

Please don’t mistake this for an essay on feeling old. Thirty-five is not old. Rather, this is an essay on the passage of time—the ever-swifter passage of time.

Ten years ago, when I graduated to the 25-34 demographic, I was living in a lovely old townhouse in Mariemont with my good friend Jenna. We would go to work, come home, heat up frozen veggies in the microwave for dinner, drown them in spray butter (I know), and follow that up with large bowls of ice cream while watching “Sex and the City” out of order on DVDs we found at the library. I was an editor at Popular Woodworking magazine, looking for misplaced commas and building the most uncomfortable Windsor chair ever built while writing about craftspeople who built the most beautiful things. I was planning on marrying a guy I had dated since my sophomore year of college at The Cincinnati Observatory, a place I also volunteered. Thursday nights at Arthur’s with friends were some of my favorite nights. I listened to Patty Griffin constantly. I was lighter in weight as well as in years and the future seemed so far, so bright, so bold.

And it has been bright. And it has been bold. But now, as I think about my next 10 years, everything feels more settled. And there’s comfort in that, but weariness, too. Some mornings, I laugh on the inside at my face in the mirror. I laugh at this universe that thinks I’m capable—old enough—to be married, with three children, in a house we owe and owe and owe for, paid, in part, doing work I second-guess myself on all the time.

I am told this is normal.

That said, hope for brighter and bolder hasn’t been completely lost. After the one (or three) slices of French strawberry torte I plan to eat tomorrow I have big plans for my relationship with the machines a the Y. I will keep submitting my picture books, even though I’ve been submitting for six years now. I figure there’s still hope when the rejections still sting. The hopes I have for my children are most intense and they are also the reason I most want to slow down, back up, retreat, pause. And yet, at the same time, I can’t wait for them to march through all their years and experience all of everything and so I try to remain present in the now, the 35 and one day, the 35 and two days, and so on.

It just feels not so long ago that I was in the newly-married-new-parent demographic. And before that, the young-adult demographic. And before that, the teenager demographic. Truly, it all seems so recent.

I can think back 30 years, to when I was 5. I remember my blue tricycle with the white plastic basket and my Strawberry Shortcake sheets and the feel of our concrete front stoop. Thirty years from now, I’ll be 65. 65.

And last time I checked, weren’t my parents 35? No?

Age, time—it’s a funny thing, something birthdays inspire thinking about.

Once, while on a road trip with friends, we were playing “Would You Rather” with each other in three different cars, via walkie-talkies. All the questions, of course, were ridiculously fun and then it was my turn. My question: “Would your rather live a great life and die at the age of 25, or live a horrible life and live to be 100?” (I am quite skilled at awkwardly turning light conversation into serious talk.) It’s an impossible question, dependent on so much.

Here I am. Ten years beyond what was then, on a highway with friends so many years ago, several years away. And it’s been great. So my expectations are high, for all the good and not-so-good that will fill the little black box next to 35-44.


I think.

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” —Henry David Thoreau

Big Boy Beds

I loved these cribs. In the beginning, I wished they matched. I always envisioned a twin nursery with matching twin cribs. But the white crib was free—thanks to Facebook and a friend of a friend—and that’s what our budget, at the time, allowed. In the end, I loved them. James slept in the painted white crib. Owen, in the maple one. When the boys were first born both cribs were in our bedroom. You, literally, had to suck in your stomach to move around that room—it was so tight. And so full of deep exhaustion and deep, deep love. In our new house, this house, there was more room. Room to stand between the cribs and read a bedtime story. Room to sit in a rocking chair reading a book (thanks to summer’s lengthy sun hours), waiting for Owen and James to sleep. Room for the rug that was in Sophie’s nursery. Room for fuzzy, happy, frustrating, loving memories.

I was worried the boys would be upset. But they were thrilled to use their tools to help take the cribs apart. This meant a much longer (and trying) process for Andy, but he was understanding.

And then, of course, they had to test them out—this time matching beds, thanks to Craigslist.

Two days later, we discovered a design flaw.

This has happened several times, in part because James knows we have to come upstairs and help him, when it’s nap or bedtime—he does it on purpose.

Still, the boys love them.

We gave the white painted crib away, paying it forward, as they say. And we sold the maple crib and changing table this past weekend. To a couple so eager and already, so seemingly in love with their child-to-be. It’s right, to pass these things along. To grow older. To move on. And yet, it’s bittersweet.

As is raising children, in general.

“O bed! O bed! delicious bed!
That heaven upon earth to the weary head.” —Thomas Hood

My Kitchen Salon

We often make bread in the bread machine. And mix milk and whipping cream together to make our own half-and-half. And we try, we really try, to never eat out but by never I mean at least once a week at around 6pm we look at each other, exhausted, and we look at the kids, screaming, and we go out.

We have our indulgences. We’ve given things up. And while I don’t think I could ever give up my haircuts with Nicholena at Mitchell’s Salon & Day Spa (see her at the Northgate location, especially if you have curly hair—she’s amazing), I did agree to give up professionally dyed hair purely for budgetary reasons.

Only recently has my mom encountered a few gray hairs on her head. My head, though, has hundreds of them. I’d like to blame my children but she had three children, too, and taught a classroom full of kindergartners for 30 years so I don’t know why she’s just now going gray and I’m long past the plucking stage.

I can’t dye my own hair. I’ve never tried, but I know it would be disastrous. I’m not good with hair. It took me a long time to discover product for my own hair (and my hair needs product). My friend Greg once asked me to cut his hair with seemingly fail-proof clippers in college. He ended up with a bald spot on the back of his head. My sister asked me to dye her hair in high school. I still feel bad about the red streaks that resulted.

So Andy and I made an agreement: I would stop having my hair professionally dyed and he would dye it for me.

And that’s what we do.

I like to pretend I hate it. My kitchen is not a fancy salon. In fact, it’s not even a fancy kitchen, what with its laminate, muddy brown floor and 1980s cabinetry and chipped laminate countertop. Every few months I pull one of the cheap Ikea chairs the kids use at our dining room table and scoot it next to the dishwasher. I grab an old towel—the same towel we use for Tucker’s muddy paws, sick kids and large spills—and, after taking off my shirt, I wrap it around myself securing it with a wooden clothespin. I pour a glass of wine and while the dishwasher cleans the night’s dinner plates next to me, I debate: Garnier Nutrisse Dark Brown or Feria Deeply Brown.

Andy weighs in, takes a picture of the top of my head with his cell phone so I can see the difference between the previous color and my roots. We decide. He opens the box and fights with the plastic gloves designed for women. I note the brown bananas on the plate on the counter and consider making banana bread. He pierces the “colorant” tube and squeezes its contents into the “developer” bottle. I look at the paper-plate ghost Sophie made in preschool, hanging on the refrigerator. It’s December, I think. I should switch that ghost out for the Christmas crafts she’s bringing home. He opens the “fruit oil concentrate” and adds it to the mix. I try to guess what the crumb is underneath my bare foot.

Then, Andy attacks. He goes about his job with great intensity in part, because of love (I like to think) and in part, because he knows if the outcome is not good I will insist on having it professionally color corrected, which I’ve informed him is more expensive than just an all-over color. He apologizes for constantly poking me in the head with the bottle. He lifts up large handfuls of hair and applies, applies, applies, swishing hair this way and that, up and over, back and forth (I have a lot of hair), muttering to himself. He runs out. Determines he needs another box to adequately cover. He remixes. He applies some more.

Throughout the process he breaks to wet a paper towel and dabs my face—a lot of my face, I always think—to rid my ears, forehead, cheeks, sometimes nose (?) of dye gone astray.

Always, when finished, he swoops up my heavy, wet hair (he uses two bottles, after all) into a pile on top of my head. He peels the gloves off his hands and sets the microwave timer for 25 minutes. He brings me my laptop. And I sit. And I wait.

There’s not a Vogue in sight. There’s no softly playing music. My towel is often itchy. I grow impatient.

The timer rings. I go up to the bathroom, checking on the boys who we just moved to twin beds. I turn on the fan, start the shower and rinse and rinse and rinse, until my fingers wrinkle and the water runs clear—and cold. I exit, put on on my flannel pajamas and sit next to Andy on the couch. He critiques his work. He points out the few grays he missed, the nonuniform color. I realize the hair blow dryer is tucked away in Sophie’s bedroom from her night’s bath and I debate risking waking her up to get it or going to sleep with a head full of wet hair.

My kitchen salon is not glamorous. And I would be lying if I said I never wished for a salon-color experience. But there’s beauty—different than salon beauty—in my kitchen, too.

And for that, I am grateful.

“By common consent gray hairs are a crown of glory; the only object of respect that can never excite envy.” —George Bancroft