parenthood

To all the mamas and papas of little ones:

Someday you will drop your boys off at the ball field for practice.

And your daughter will get on her bike and ride the surrounding quarter-mile paved loop over and over.

And you might walk the same paved loop, untethered.

Or read The New Yorker.

Or simply sit on the bench with your eyes closed for 10 blessed minutes knowing all hell will not break loose.

And that small knot in the back of your neck will loosen,

but only slightly,

because “Is she still breathing?”

turns into

“Is he being kind?”.

You will note the wind pushing the clouds, forcefully, it seems, for such a beautiful day.

And the hands that once went pat-pat-pat on the small curves of those three beautiful backs,

will unknot the dusty cleats

and adjust the bicycle seat that forever moves up, not down.

Seeking the Bigness in the Everyday

I find comfort in the cyclical nature of life. I enjoy the changing of the seasons and the familiar promises they bring, the rhythm that accompanies the turning of the calendar page, the knowing that with the unknowing future there will always be some sameness—weather, holidays, birthdays, school seasons, work seasons, sports seasons, the coming and going of birds.

But it’s the cyclical nature of the everyday that I find myself struggling with during these so-quick-to-become-dark winter months. I recently came across a passage from Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin:

“I always wondered why the makers leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn’t it what all the great wars and battles are fought for—so that at day’s end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn’t say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege and under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I’d like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.”

There is nothing exciting about washing the morning’s skillet or feeding the dog. It is completely foolish to expect someone to say “good job” when folding the tenth T-shirt or cleaning up the spilled applesauce. Housekeeping and cooking are background actions, set decorations for all the big moments and big conversations in all the big movies, big books and big plays. And often, it’s not even shown. It’s just expected, just there, as it has been throughout time. It’s a given that sheets will be changed and the almost-empty-toothpaste tube will be replaced and the apples will be sliced and that someone will wash the cups over and over and over again to quench the thirsty characters.

People talk about housekeeping but so often in the form of funny memes, a woman dressed in Victorian garb slumped in a chair, one hand across her forehead and the other holding a glass of wine. Or they say, “a clean house is the sign of a misspent life.” Perhaps to an extreme. But realistically, away from the fantasy world that exists online, you have to wash the cups. You have to clean up the spilled applesauce. You have to do the laundry so that your family may have clothes to wear.

I have long lived a life of always wanting more. There are flaws with this philosophy. While this want pushes me to keep sending out submissions (for example) it also makes mopping the floor, at times, so damn hard. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. And yet, I truly believe it is the men and women who do this quiet work without acknowledgement or praise, and, more importantly, without needing acknowledgement or praise, that keeps everything in motion. In kitchens and over fires and in restaurants around this world people are chopping vegetables and cooking rice and baking bread to feed the mouths of our thinkers and doers and better-makers, and without those choppers and cookers and bakers our thinkers and doers and better-makers would be busy prepping food to nourish themselves versus doing the big work. And so, thinking about it in that way, perhaps we are all doing big work, even when that work is simply mopping the floor.

So I find myself searching for contentment in this stage, this cycle of my life. Yes, there will always be laundry to do and meals to prepare but with three little ones, it’s so much more. It’s more time-consuming, more things to do every day, more trying when accomplishing small tasks against the background noise of other needs—to play, to get some milk, to fasten a Batman cape, to find a lost glue stick.

And, in a frustrating-yet-funny way, I know I will miss this, too. When Owen and James were babies I would spend at least a half hour every night washing bottles. It was exhausting, all that washing when I was so exhausted from lack of sleep. Just the other day, while washing cups, I remembered the feel of the bottles’ squishy nipples in the soapy water, and I remembered the small joy I got from lining everything up just so as they dried. The entire house may have been a mess but there were my bottles and breastpump parts, lined up by shape and size, drying, waiting for the long night ahead. And those rows, in that moment, gave me more peace than a poem, science, an idea, an article, a big thought.

Owen loves to help me with laundry. It takes longer, but I don’t mind. He talks to me about school and classmates and TV shows and asks me big questions about life as he hands me shirts and pants, and takes it upon himself to put all the socks in a separate basket.

All three children love to help me cook. They ask so many questions and argue over whose turn it is to pour and they inhale the scent of vanilla and cinnamon as if nothing in this world smells better. And when cooking alone I often, lately, find joy in that, too. The sound of my knife slicing through the shallot on the wooden cutting board. The smell of garlic browning in olive oil. The contentment that comes when lighting the candles for a dinner I’m so lucky to share with those I love.

Still, often it’s difficult to embrace and appreciate and do what’s necessary for this small and short life of ours to keep cycling while also leaving plenty of time for the bigness of everything else that’s life. But it helps me to think that even the small tasks may really be the big things, the sturdy framework for the finished product, the clean canvas for the masterpiece, the organized outline for the great novel. These thoughts, I hold dear while dumping the dirty water down the drain.

“You’ll come to learn a great deal if you study the Insignificant in depth.” —Odysseus Elytis

Looking Back Is Sometimes Easier

I’m back.

With a goal to post every day, going back in time and documenting all I missed, until I catch back up.

This past year threw me for a loop.

Age 3, times two, was hard.

But I excel at looking back through rose-colored glasses, which is why going back in time and writing about all the happy moments, holidays, meltdowns and celebrations I didn’t write about day of, will be possible. (Still, I’ve promised myself to remain honest and true.)

It’s a lot like this:

You step onto your porch and see the above lining your front walk and you think, Why are there drawings of penises all over my front walk? And you sigh and wonder where your children are and you think about all the things no one told you about parenthood and you realize how tired you are, how very, very tired you are, and you know there is no way you’re going to be able to write about this because it’s just too much.

And then you find your kids and you inquire and you realize what you thought were penises really are parking spots for scooters.

And everything seems so much better. Doable. Hilarious, even.

And that’s where I am now. Although I still have what look like drawings of penises all over my front walk, I know they’re parking spots for scooters.

And so, I’m diving back in. Because as difficult as this past year has been, there have been some really great moments. Things I worry about forgetting without documenting. And even the most difficult moments seem funnier, softer and easier, months after the fact—as is true for much of life.

Plus, I’ve realized how much I miss writing when not writing. And the act is much cheaper than traditional therapy.

So here goes.

“Don’t call the world dirty because you forgot to clean your glasses.” —Aaron Hill

We Can’t Have Green Beans Every Night

I made Ina Garten’s roasted Brussels sprouts to go with dinner tonight. “The reviews said they’re like candy!” I said.

Four (four!) thumbs down.

I rather liked them.

“We kids feared many things in those days—werewolves, dentists, North Koreans, Sunday School—but they all paled in comparison with Brussels sprouts.” —Dave Barry

Love + Hate

Owen and James hit each other when angry—sometimes with their hands and sometimes with objects, like their wooden trains. We have a zero-tolerance policy re hitting. They know this but still—still—it’s something we’re working on.

Sophie is old enough to know that hitting is absolutely not allowed. Still, I watch her sometimes, so angry with her brothers. She balls up her fists and shakes—shakes with anger, shakes with the restraint necessary not to hit them.

It can be so hard, being 5 years old and 3 years old, living in the same house.

But as much as they hate, they love. They love. Like patiently help each other across the shake-shake bridge at the park love. And fall on the floor crying if they think we’re leaving one behind love. And get so incredibly excited when the other one gets to put a sticker on his potty chart love.

And then there was Sophie’s love, today.

We’ve been struggling, discipline-wise, with Owen for several weeks now. Punishments simply don’t faze him. We have to work hard to find a consequence that will make him understand the severity of his actions. Most recently, we throw a piece of Halloween candy away for each major infraction (such as hitting). Today, he lost six pieces of candy for various infractions, five at one time (it was a bad one).

Sophie was extremely upset by this (even though half the time she was the one being hit). She couldn’t bear the thought of him losing candy. Whereas a time-out was often plenty enough for her, she didn’t understand that for Owen, it wasn’t.

And so that is how I caught her sneaking some of her own candy, from her own Halloween bag, into Owen’s.

When my three children are angry with each other, the whole world knows it. And yet, like much of life, their love for each other is so much quieter—and so much bigger.

They love.

They hate.

But ultimately, they love.

“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” —Elie Wiesel

A New Ball Game

Now that Sophie’s older, I hesitate writing—deeply, sincerely, truthfully (the hard truths, anyway)—about her. I have a few, very specific memories from age 5. Her story is becoming her own now and I feel it’s her place to tell it someday, if she chooses—not mine.

That said, our stories often intertwine. As they did tonight.

I vividly remember sitting in the car and the smell of my new soccer ball between my knees. I was in the first grade. And terrified. It was a new game to me. I didn’t know the coaches. I didn’t know the players. I wasn’t certain of all the rules. I was worried, worried, worried—about making a mistake, messing up, not doing it right.

Sophie started soccer last week. It’s clear a good portion of her DNA is from me.

They’ve had two practices and one game. Tonight was practice No. 2 at 6:30pm. Andy had a softball game. At 6:30pm. I was flying solo.

The practice did not go well. Sophie insisted I hold her hand the entire time. (Side note: Her coach is great—constantly cheering her on, running a lap with just her to make her feel more comfortable, etc.) I tried to stay by her side, but I have two other children. James was screaming/crying/whining on the sideline the entire time. Owen was wearing yellow (thankfully) and at one point I (easily) spotted him playing with another kid and another parent on another field. (I’m drinking a glass of wine as I type this.)

My friends helped. A lot. They kicked an extra soccer ball around with Owen and James. They rummaged through my van for books for Owen and James and then read books while Sophie clung to my hand. They advised me to enjoy my previously mentioned glass of wine.

Near the end of the practice, Coach K asked if I wanted to play in a game. I looked up and spotted a flash of Owen’s yellow shirt semi close to the field Sophie was playing on. James was sitting in his Thomas the Train lawn chair, screaming. But sometimes we as parents have to make hard choices. And on this night, it was clear that Sophie needed me most.

“Yes,” I said.

The game was this: All the kids had their own soccer ball and dribbled it around the field. If they hit one of the coaches with their ball they got to tell that coach to make a loud animal sound of their choosing. Cute and clever.

However. My focus in all this wasn’t to really dodge balls. Instead I (in my ballet flats and skinny ankle jeans) was trying to keep track of Owen’s yellow shirt, mime to James that it’s OK and I’ll be with him soon, and persuade Sophie that soccer is really fun and that it’s OK to make mistakes. This made me a very.easy.target. Two minutes in I was surrounded by seven different kids consistently hitting me with their soccer balls and screaming “monkey!” “elephant!” “lion!” “zebra!” (and apparently my zebra sound isn’t up to par).

Parenting those first few blur-filled months is hard. But every few years you find yourself in an entirely different ball game.

When I was in junior high, I played intramural basketball. I was terrible, mostly because I was so timid—and like a certain 5-year-old I know, terrified of making a mistake. My dad went to all my games. I knew how to dribble. How to shoot. I knew the rules. What I needed was a lesson in aggression—and the knowledge that if the whistle is blown because of something I did, it’s OK. So he told me I had to foul. At my next game, I had to foul.

I don’t remember everything about that game. But I remember being nervous. Really nervous. And then I remember thinking of my dad and feeling brave. Really brave. And then I remember fouling, intentionally. And then, while my coach pulled me aside to explain to me why what I had done was wrong, I remember looking up at my dad, standing in the bleachers, clapping.

Sophie, if you’re reading this as a teenager or adult someday, and you remember how you felt at practice today, know this—I felt the same way. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know when to push and I don’t know when to pull back. I don’t know how much hand-holding is OK and I don’t know how much bravery it’s right for me to expect. I know this is something you really want to do (because you keep telling me so every time I tell you it’s OK if you don’t want to do it) but I don’t know how to take that. Just as you’re so desperate for a play-by-play guidebook, I am, too.

Which, I guess just means we’ll just fumble through this together. And I hope, soon, I’ll find the answer, just as my dad did. And it will be you on the field, filled with bravery, and me in the stands, clapping with relief/pride.

“Soccer is simple, but it is difficult to play simple.” —Johan Cruijff

The Perils of Fatherhood

Ed note: Andy gave me full permission to write this post.

A couple weeks ago we were all on the couch. I was reading picture books out loud, to the kids. Andy found a marble in the couch, while I was reading. And for whatever reason he thought it would be funny to secretly put the marble inside his belly button and then surprise the kids with the fact that he had a marble stuck there once I finished the story.

Except, he fell asleep.

Fast forward several hours later. Andy’s doing our weekly grocery shopping trip, late at night, after the kids are in bed. He’s in the produce section when he notices something hard in his belly button.

It’s the marble.

I’m still laughing.

“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” —Clarence B. Kelland

James & Owen’s “Concert”

About 10 minutes ago Owen and James ran downstairs and started shouting something about a concert.

“What?” I asked.

“We have a concert for you!” they said. “Come upstairs to our concert!”

They were so excited.

And so was I. How imaginative! They did it all on their own! And I had heard no screaming for the 30 minutes prior so they did it together happily, nicely—no fighting at all.

We got to their bedroom door. It was closed, with a little tag hanging from the doorway.

How cute, I thought.

With great fanfare, they opened their door to …

this.

“Ta da!” they said.

“It’s everything in your room in a big pile,” I said.

“Yes!” they screamed. “It’s our concert!”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “When does the concert start?”

“This is it! This is our concert! OUR CONCERT!”

“So this big pile of stuff in your room is the concert?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to clean the concert up?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“When we’re done with the concert.”

“Is the concert over now?”

“Yes.”

I left.

I still don’t understand.

And instead of hearing the concert being cleaned up, I hear things being added to the concert.

“Owen! There’s another blanket! Put it in the concert!”

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

My Eyes

I recently had a routine physical examination with Dr. Owen Uhl. As he was peering into my (dark brown) eyes with his toy ophthalmoscope he said, “Hmm. They’re a little bit chocolate-y. But that’s OK.”

“In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to men.” —Cicero