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

I Know That You Know (And When You Know That I Know, Still There Will Be Magic)

I love this season of innocence. Even when it’s not so jolly. This weekend we cut down our Christmas tree and I was reminded of the look on Owen’s face in a picture I took last December, a picture I now love.

I was reminded of how hard things were mid-December, last year. How un-jolly it all was, during that particular week. And nothing tragic or life-altering happened. Rather, life happened. Sickness. Deadlines. Tantrums. Rejections. And then I was reminded how Christmas, still, ended up being magical.

This week a friend and I briefly chatted over email about the difficulties that come with parenting when so much in the world seems wrong. Bigger wrongs than colds that will end. Deadlines that will result in paychecks. Tantrums that exist because we’re lucky enough to have a child. Rejections that happen because I was able to write some words on a page. But it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of the holidays when beauty is so very much lacking elsewhere. So many elsewheres.

But kids, they make it easy. Easier.

They make it harder, too, yes, but mostly easier.

This week we decorated our too-big Christmas tree (if you turn sideways you can walk from our entry into our living room). And when we were nearly done, I looked over to see Owen sitting on the bottom step of our staircase, staring at the tree with the most content smile on his face. His eyes reflected the tree lights like something out of a Hallmark special. All was right in his world. All was bright. Despite.

I know Sophie knows about Santa. She doesn’t know I know. She’s not ready. She’s guarding the knowledge tight in her fists, much like she does when she hunts for fairies. She’s unwilling to let go.

At first, this bothered me, She’s 7. I had it all figured out at 5. In one fell swoop I learned about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. The sadness was slight, that of a soft sigh. And then I relished in knowing a secret my siblings did not. I felt grown-up.

The boys drill me about Santa constantly. “How does he get down our chimney if it’s closed up?” “How does he sneak around the hallways of apartment buildings and hotels?” “What about kids who don’t have a fireplace?” “If books say Santa goes all over the world then what about people who don’t celebrate Christmas? How is he going all around the world if many people in other parts of the world don’t celebrate Christmas?”

I half-answer. Change the subject. Wish they would just come out and ask, “Is Santa real?” And when they do I plan to answer as my parents did. “What do you think?” I’ve learned that coming to conclusions on one’s own always softens the blow.

But no one asks. Not the boys. Not Sophie. Sophie doesn’t even ask questions about the Big Man anymore. She answers the boys’ questions. She has an answer for everything. She’d scream his reality from the rooftops if she could. And so I let her. That is her realization to come to. Not mine to take. At least, I hope that’s the right thing to do.

And when they know, they all know, and they know that I know they know, I’ve learned this: I’ll still find magic. Because even with all of our life’s little wrongs and the world’s big wrongs, there’s so much magic, and innocence, during the holidays.

There’s the taste of bacon-wrapped chestnuts and buckeye candies and fancy cheeses we don’t normally buy and champagne. There are candles and white lights and colored lights and twinkly lights and just so much light. There are thoughtful gifts, homemade gifts, the gift of time spent with those we love. There are three kids singing the wrong words to Christmas songs while I play on our out-of-tune piano, rusty in my memory, missing notes. There are messes. So many big, beautiful messes. Christmas cookie-making messes. The mess of pine needles everywhere, always, no matter how often we water the tree. The mess of wrapping gifts in brown paper and decorating them with stickers and markers and glitter pens. The mess of making a quadruple recipe of Chex Mix and the mess of addressing too many Christmas cards and the mess of extra coffee cups in the morning when family comes in from out of town. And with those messes come the hugs. So many hugs. Great-grandmother hugs. Grandparent hugs. Sibling hugs. Aunt and uncle hugs. Parent hugs. Cousin hugs. Niece hugs. Husband hugs.

So during the holidays, I let in cheeriness and maybe even a little cheesiness. I let in some make-believe. I let in some sappy moments despite the realities both at home and out in the hard, beautiful, cold and light-filled world. I let myself soften while watching a little guy sit on the steps and stare with a small smile at a decorated tree. I let another little guy question me incessantly about the logistics of Santa’s big night. I let a 7-year-old think that I think she still believes.

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”
—Norman Vincent Pe

A Hike in November

Although Kentucky’s election results aren’t proving promising, we were gifted today with the most lovely November weather—75° and sunny. And so, after voting, we did what we love to do but don’t do nearly enough—we hiked. (This time, the Fort Thomas Landmark Tree Trail.) We slid on leaves, observed moss and mushrooms, and stood still as statues while engaging in a staring contest with a deer.

” …I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, 10 October, 1842

“I am struck by the simplicity of light in the atmosphere in the autumn, as if the earth absorbed none, and out of this profusion of dazzling light came the autumnal tints.” —Henry David Thoreau, 12 October, 1852

Things That Have Recently Upset My Children

• He discovered he had hair on his arms (Owen).

• The framed picture on his bedside table shows him wearing long sleeves and long pants, but he wants to be wearing short sleeves and shorts—in the picture (James).

• Snow got into his mitten (Owen).

• Only half the puppy tattoo stuck to her hand (Sophie).

• There is no more cantaloupe, despite the fact that they just finished eating an entire cantaloupe in one sitting (James and Owen).

• My birthday comes before his in the calendar year (Owen).

• I asked him not to use our living room windowsill as a trash can (James).

• She was rude to her brother so I quietly asked her to be kind. This resulted in Tuesday being “the worst day of her life—ever” (Sophie).

• He found out that just because the calendar says March 1 doesn’t mean warmer weather or that it’s a pass to wear shorts and no coat every time he goes outside (James).

• I told them we have to pick up Sophie from school (James and Owen).

• I told him he couldn’t eat toast in bed (Owen).

• I asked them to help pick up the carnival, which had a face-painting booth, magic booth, craft booth, game booth, nail-painting booth, racing hallway and dance area, and took over the entire upstairs, because it was their idea to make it (all three).

• He stepped on a Lego, which he left out (Owen).

• She stepped on a marble, which she left out (Sophie).

• I told them (again) that they have to flush the toilet (all three).

• I asked him not to draw all over the pages I was editing for a freelance assignment (James).

• We stopped the play, which was extending past bedtime, after 13 acts (Sophie).

• I made a rule that he couldn’t wear shorts to preschool when it’s below 20° (James).

• Tucker ate almost all the candy out of the candy basket, which I asked her to put away so Tucker wouldn’t get into it (Sophie).

• I told him we couldn’t drive to the beach. At 3:42pm. On a weekday (Owen).

“Anger is short-lived madness.” —Horace

Sophie’s Purple Party

Late 2013, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sophie decided to have a Purple Party. This meant she spent an afternoon taking every single thing out of her room that wasn’t purple, filling the upstairs hallway.

You had to wear purple to attend …

and you were only allowed to eat purple treats.

We played purple games, won purple prizes, danced to purple songs and then spent the rest of the evening putting her room back together. (This mess, though, was worth it.)

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” —Alice Walker

Colleen + Sophie

November 2013

“In my cousin, I find a second self.” —Isabel Norton

Neltner’s Farm 2013

(Catching up before the New Year. They’ve grown so much.)

“For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.” ±Edwin Way Teale

Paper Dolls

As I imagine most children do, Sophie goes through phases favoring toys. She fell in love with paper dolls awhile ago, and lately, she’s back in love. Perhaps now it’s a deeper love given that she’s able to more easily cut out hats, dresses, cloaks and accessories. Initially, though, the cutting part was hard. And that’s where my dear friend Linda came in.

Linda found some vintage-style paper dolls online (here, here and here), which you can print and cut out. She then spent her evenings cutting, creating so many sets for Sophie. She named all the dolls and placed each one in an envelope, along with corresponding outfits.

Sophie loved them.

And recently, she’s loving them again.

I’ll walk into Sophie’s room and find her bed covered with the dolls, their matching wardrobes next to them. She’ll spend hours playing with them.

(Thank you, Linda.)

“When it was time to go home Peggy said, ‘Oh, no! I want to stay and play with Betsy for another couple of whiles!'” —from “Cover Girl Meets Besty McCall, McCall’s magazine, May 1951


We know so little when we’re young.

I don’t remember the family’s name. I don’t even remember the boy’s name. But I remember babysitting, as a young teenager, in the summer. The boy had been practicing riding his bike without training wheels with his dad. And he was excited. So very excited. He asked if I could practice with him. “Sure!” I said. I remember the look of concentration on his face. I remember that he was wearing a helmet. I remember that I held onto the back of his seat and then … I remember letting go. And he rode. Around the cul-de-sac. By himself. Without falling. I remember cheering him on, and I remember his joy.

And then.

His parents came home.

The boy was asleep. I told them, so excited to share that joy with them. The dad’s face fell. And then I realized: That was his thing. That moment belonged not to me and the boy, but to the boy and his dad—the dad who had spent days working with the boy, building up to that bittersweet moment of letting go.

The dad was kind, and proud, but still silently, yet clearly, upset he hadn’t witnessed the moment himself. And I felt terrible.

I now understand why daycare workers and babysitters share in a parents’ excitement about a rollover or a first word or a first step even though they had already witnessed it, and with thought and grace chose not to share, instead giving that moment to the parent.

I’ve never been good about recording firsts. Numbers, dates. I like to write words instead. Turns out this has been a bit problematic when filling out hospital forms. When asked about firsts I tend to put a lot of question marks. On the last form I was given, exasperated, I simply wrote “the first six months were a blur.”

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love them, those monumental firsts.

I’ve been lucky to witness many, and I’ve missed some. I was in Chicago when Owen took his first steps. I was waiting with girlfriends for the L when I heard the ping of my email and saw the video Andy had sent. And I was grateful he witnessed it. It was his turn.

Sophie has long loved her scooter. She’s fast and meticulous with her steering and can brake like a pro. As such, her bike has spent the last two summers on the porch, mostly unused. But lately we’ve been talking about getting her on it again, and taking off the training wheels. Friends lent us a scoot bike, as an aide. And after practicing with the scoot bike for awhile, last weekend, she asked Andy to take off her bike’s training wheels.

I now understand the pride of the dad of the boy I babysat so many years ago. And the disappoint in not being the one, after days of practice, to finally let go. And I was so happy both Andy and I were able to witness Sophie’s fearful-yet-brave wobbling this weekend.

Drivers on our street slowed down and waved. Friends yelled “Go, Sophie! You can do it!” while swinging on tree swings in their front yards. The neighbor across the street said it didn’t seem so long ago when she was doing the same with her boys, who are now in their 20s.

I’m sorry, long-ago dad, for taking that moment from you.

I was young and unknowing, but I get it now. Even if I may not mark it in a baby book or the calendar, I get it.

“The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” —Sloan Wilson

Late Summer 2013

A catch-up.

The boys developed a love of washing windows, which I hope remains with them always.

A pool party, with dear friends.

To celebrate the end of summer we took the kids to Coney Island.

It was terribly hot …

and so much fun.

Sophie and Andy rode the ferris wheel …

while the boys had to watch (sometimes, being little is hard).

Of course, they managed to find rides suited to them, too.

Nini and Pop Pop joined us.

And still to this day we’re asked to go back, at least once a week.

We had tea parties with Colleen.

In September, Sophie tried out soccer.

We went to the Preble County Pork Festival, a family tradition, with lots of family.

The boys experimented with sharing sandals.

We went to Woodfill Elementary’s Big Top Festival.

And we took naps on the porch.

And in mid-October, it was still warm enough and green enough to climb trees.

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” —Celia Thaxter