I Don’t Even Know

crazy

When I came to school to pick up my daughter, the teacher pulled me aside.

“Do you have a princess ring?” She asked glancing at my daughter.

I blinked. “Um no.”

“Well, she says you forgot her princess ring and she’s been upset about it all day.”

We have many princess apparel items and princess accessories, but my three-year-old owns no princess rings. Nor did she mention wanting a princess ring. Nor has she ever mentioned wanting a princess ring. I shrugged at the teacher. “Look, I have no idea what is going on.”

My daughter lives in her own world, with her own rules and her own requirements. On any given day, I am met with a list of demands and rules that constantly baffle me. No one wears black on Mondays. Princesses only drink milk at lunch. Dresses with foxes on them are only for the library. Syrup doesn’t belong on pancakes. Or on planet earth. We don’t have enough beans. Socks have to go inside out. And mom is not allowed to sing any songs that appear in the movie “Frozen.”

She declares these rules with a toss of her head and just the tiniest hint of an eyeroll. Like I should obviously know that spiders only play the tuba. DUH. How could I not know that?

I wasn’t kidding when I told the teacher I have no idea what is going on.  Because I don’t.

At school, when I fished my daughter out of a group of her friends, she smiled at me and told me that she didn’t miss me at all because she was too busy having fun. In the car, I asked her if she wanted a ring.

“What ring, mom?” She said, her eyes wide.

“Didn’t you ask your teachers for a ring?”

She shook her head and started singing a song about baby chickens who want to go to Wisconsin on vacation. Then, when we got home she asked me to pick up a giant, imaginary jewel off the ground. When I mimed picking it up, she frowned. “No, you got a baby chickie!” I went through this mimicry four times, before I gave up. “Get your own jewel,” I said.

She began sobbing. If she didn’t get the jewel she would get eaten by a Jaguar and it would be all my fault. I gave her a hug and put her down for a rest.

Sometimes, parenting feels like watching over someone who is just high on drugs all the time. Or being a nurse in a mental institution. After a while, I forget who is the sane one and who is the three year old wearing underwear on her head. Look, I don’t know much about life, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a good idea to feed the baby dried macaroni and sequins. Rest time, is when I get to recalibrate. Remember that life is more than just chickens, jaguars and Wisconsin. So, while my daughter warbled a song from her room, I sat on the couch to try to get some reading done, but I made sure to make some room for all those baby chickies.

 

You Don’t Need To Make Christmas Magic

Gingerbreadhouse

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, it was snowing and my three-year-old turned to me and said. “It’s so beautiful! Can we make Christmas today?”

I’m usually a “No Christmas until after Thanksgiving” kind of person, but how can you turn down a three-year-old in a tutu who just thinks everything is magic? We put up the tree. The entire time, she was twirling and dancing and singing. “Oh it so beautiful!” she said every time I pulled out some cheap plastic ornament I bought from Target on clearance. “It so beautiful!”

I almost cried just because she was so happy. A scrappy, stringy little tinsel, that I bought from a garage sale seven years ago, was deemed “pixie, Christmas dust!” I let her toss it around and you would have thought that I had given her Christmas day itself.

I know things get more complicated as kids get older. There are more expectations. More pain. More hormones. More temperaments and tantrums. But right now, Christmas is so magic simply because it is. My daughter has been asking for a tuba. She’s been begging Santa and telling everyone who will listen, that all she wants is a tuba. I’ve been in the throes of anxiety about it because, well, kids tubas are hard to come by cheaply. I’m so worried I am going to disappoint her and ruin Christmas and ruing everything. But yesterday, I pulled out some dollar-store play-doh that I had hidden away for an emergency and it was an emergency. The baby was experiencing a lot of bowel pain, probably a result of sucking on the hand soap,  and I couldn’t put him down. My daughter kept saying, “Why don’t you hold me too?” So, because I couldn’t, I gave her play-doh. When she saw it, she clasped her hands over her mouth. “Is it today? Is Christmas today? OH FANK YOU! FANK YOU!”

I don’t know. Maybe this is because I don’t buy presents just because. This is not a value judgement. I just don’t usually. I am cheap. I have to budget out a new set of markers just to find the baby sucking on them two days later, so I don’t. The most I have on hand are stickers, new colored paper and maybe some watercolors. Maybe.

But just seeing how excited she was over that play-doh made me realize I was projecting on her. She will be happy with whatever. A tuba or a wooden flute. I am going to try and get a tuba-like apparatus. But I think us adults get into this trap of trying to make everything magical for our children, when it’s not necessary. The magic is already there. You just have to let it happen.

My best Christmas as a child was when I was about seven and my dad lost his job. We had no money. My parents were really struggling to keep us in our house. I’m sure they were wracked with all the worry and guilt most parents would face in that situation. What they did was they made us Pirates of Penzance marionettes and a marionette stage. It was amazing. We spent all day singing Gilbert and Sullivan and acting it out with our wooden puppets. My birthday is five days before Christmas and that year, all I got were paper dolls. And I don’t mean “All I got.” I loved paper dolls, I was estatic. Also, my dad spent the whole day with me cutting them out. As one of eight kids, that special attention was the best gift. And I remember those gifts and love them more than anything else I’ve ever been given.

I keep seeing articles about how to make Christmas special or tips and tricks for making holiday magic. But  I think that’s just us being adults. For us, the holidays are minefields of family tensions, pain, money worries and expectations. We work so hard at magic because we can’t find the magic ourselves. But to a kid, especially a little kid the Christmas magic is ubiquitous–the anticipation, the decorations, Santa–it is just there.

One of my favorite writers, Laurel Snyder, writes in Any Which Wall, “Common Magic exists in the very unmagical world you yourself inhabit. It’s full of regular-looking people, stop signs, and seemingly boring buildings. Common Magic happens to kids who have curious friends, busy parents, and vivid imaginations, and it frequently takes place during summer vacations or on rainy weekends when you aren’t allowed to leave the house. More important, it always starts with something that seems ordinary.”

Common magic, Snyder writes, only happens when you are noticing. And most people are too busy to notice. I suspect at this time of year, we are too busy making magic and stressing out about the cost of magic to just notice the magic that is already there.

I’m sure all of this gets harder the older your child gets. But right now, I’m just enjoying the beautiful little common magic singing a song about gingerbread house we made from a cheapo kit and the off-brand chocolate in the Advent calendar.

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Update: I have gotten some feedback about this post. A couple people emailed me to tell me they think it contradicts my post from last year about buying my kids all the presents. Which is a fair enough viewpoint. I (of course) don’t think they contradict. I am still buying my kids all the things they want this year. I’ll probably keep it up as long as I can, until they start asking for drones and real estate. Their wants right now are so simple. And I see getting them the things they want as part of how easy it is to make Christmas magic for them. I mean the baby wants cars and the 3yro wants drums and a play burrito. Boom. Done. I understand that the previous sentence about this being “easy” is a statement of privilege. It’s not always easy for every family. And part of Christmas for us is trying to help other families and kids have the Christmas magic that we have. We do this as a family and try our best to keep our giving private.  But as they are little, this magic of making their wishes appear is part of the magic for them and me. Bleh. I explain it better in this post. Ultimately, if you think they contradict, I respect that. I think I see this as multiple points on the curvy line of parenting.

Of Baby Vomit and Forgetting

JQMess

One night a few weeks ago, I heard the baby crying. It was late, I was up finishing an article on a deadline. My husband was also up finishing some work for an early meeting. I snuck into the baby’s room to give him some Tylenol. He just had his 15 month shots earlier that day and he was in pain, poor kid.  I opened the door and was overwhelmed by the smell of vomit.

My poor baby was lying in his own puke, whimpering and clinging to his blanket. He had vomit on his cheeks and in his tiny pudgy fists. I felt it in my stomach. That growl of love that comes from the same deep place as hunger and fear.

I picked him up and held him to me. Stripped off his stinky pajamas, washed the puke out of his hair. I snuggled him and held a towel to his mouth while he puked some more. My husband came to rock him, while I changed the sheets. Did the wash. Scrubbed puke off the crib rails.

When we finally crawled into bed, so tired our skin was buzzing, it was two in the morning. The day would begin at 6:30. As I pushed out of my mind fears about my deadline so I could sleep, our three-year-old crawled into our bed because she thought crocodiles might eat her. I didn’t even argue. I opened up the covers and she crawled right in, snuggling her head under my chin. She still fits there. In the crook of my body, in that place closest to my heart.

If anyone else described that night of parenting to me, I would groan in pain. “How awful,” I would say. “I’m so sorry. You must be tired.” But as I lay there, watching my daughter sleep, still smelling my son’s puke from somewhere, I wanted to remember everything. I wanted to remember the curve of her cheek in the light that filtered in from our blinds. I wanted to remember the way my baby curled into me and sighed when he finally stopped throwing up. There are so many things that slip from me. Like the way my three-year-old used to say provolone or how my baby used to gently pinch my arm while I nursed him. Or other things I can’t list, because I forgot them already.

As I lay there in bed, I didn’t wish for more sleep or more time for my article. What I wanted was to always remember that sweet little voice saying, “I fink dere might be crocodiles eating me. I need some lovins.”

Don’t get me wrong. Some things about parenting are mind-numbing and exhausting. Things you wouldn’t even imagine, like opening the fridge—a supposedly easy task until your newly toddling baby comes running in from three rooms away to body slam himself into the olives every time you reach for the milk. And I have to tear him out of the bottom fridge as he screams, “CHEEEEEESE!” (He is a good Midwesterner.) So, there are those things.

But there are also these moments that should be awful, but really aren’t because they are your children and they need you and you love them so much you can feel it in your skin.  I cling to these little things. These small moments: Sleepy eyelashes, desperate snuggles, freshly washed hair. I put them in my evidence bag; clues to a mystery that still lies before us.

I am Grateful, But That’s Not The Point

gratitude

I have a lot to be grateful for—two healthy kids, a husband, who is not a serial killer (yet), a house and food in my fridge (and under the couch cushions) and a lot of technology for my children to fight over.

But, don’t tell me to be grateful.

It’s a common refrain for older parents to tell younger parents to be “grateful” for “this time.” I’ve heard this platitude in the check-out line at the grocery store, the park and in my email.  This advice is usually dispensed when I’m being bitten by a teething baby or my three-year-old has decided that toys are weapons to be used against the scourge of younger siblings. Last week, I was tired, hungry and walking through the grocery store at 4pm, preventing the baby from launching himself out of the cart with one hand and grabbing the bananas with the other, while my daughter whined that she wanted was “all da cookies!”

“I bet you are grateful for those children,” said a woman walking by, smiling as if she was imparting some great wisdom.

I am grateful. I am grateful for their smiles, their fuzzy hair, the way they fake sneeze to make each other giggle. I’m not just grateful, I adore the way the baby wants to color with his sister and the way she tries to tell him what to do, “Come on, bubba, we gonna make leaf piles!” Even at night, cleaning through the house, I find myself tearing up when I see a baby doll wearing my daughter’s underwear, or a play steak stuck in the toy oven. Folding little shirts that cover little bellies, recounting to my husband that my daughter comforted the baby when he fell or that she spent half the day pretending to be a “fairy pig”—this is the highlight of my day.

But gratitude has nothing to do with what I am feeling in that moment trying to avoid an apocalyptic meltdown in the grocery store. It’s not even beside the point, gratitude is so far away from the point that it could be another galaxy.

Being grateful has nothing to do with also feeling, sad, frustrated or at your wits end because the baby climbed on the table and is reaching for the chandelier. Gratitude is not some super power that can automatically cure you of all-encompassing exhaustion when you have to spend three hours rocking the baby at night because he is teething. In those moments, I am grateful that I have a child, who will not spend his life toothless. But I’m still tired. I’m still frustrated. My neck still hurts from sleeping on the rocker again.

I hear parents use gratitude like a magic wand. “Oh, I’m tired and one cup of coffee away from a murderous rampage, but I’m so grateful! AND BLESSED! That too! No, those aren’t tears, I’m so happy.”

Applying “gratitude” as some sort of parenting cure-all is essentially selling snake oil. It makes parents feel like they aren’t doing enough, being enough, or that there is something wrong in them for getting frustrated when their kid fake burps at the mailman, again.  After all, no one would suggests to a president that “Hey, I know your country is freaking out over the remote possibility of an Ebola epidemic and terrorist are threatening every foreign policy gain you’ve made, but hey, at least you are the leader of the free world, right? Don’t you also get a chef?”

Today, I am grateful for so many things. But I am also a human trying to parent other humans who like to ask strangers if they “poop babies out of their baginas.” I often tell my daughter and baby when they are exhausted and hysterical, “It’s okay, feelings are for feeling, let it all out.” It’s a mantra for them, but also for me. It reminds me that this world we navigate, kids or no kids, personal chef or not, is complicated. It’s tricky. It’s exhausting and frustrating and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

The Pioneers Didn’t Have Netflix

JudeSnow

The morning of our first snow in Iowa, we had three meltdowns over putting on snow gear and one of the meltdowns was mine.

I am not a native Midwesterner. I spent most of my formative years in Texas, before moving to South Dakota, then Minnesota, and now Iowa. In Texas, snow is mythical, like a toddler who eats anything without a fuss—often heard of, but never really seen. As a child, I fantasized about long, cozy winters, filled with snowmen, hot chocolate and Pa Ingalls tying a rope between the sod hut and the barn, so he doesn’t die while feeding the cattle.

No matter how good I become at being a Midwesterner–making tater tot hot dish and passive-aggressively saying, “Well, he’s nice.”–I don’t think I will ever be good at winter. Some Midwesterners view the first snow as magic. I view it as a warning to abandon all hope until April.

And this is why I dread the snow, because winter with children is less sweaters and snowman and more like a five month long scream of anguish.  As I struggled with the sadistic tango of hats, coats, mittens, hats, coats and more mittens. I had to send my three-year-old to time out for throwing off her winter apparel because it wasn’t sparkly enough. Then, I had to grit my teeth against the baby screaming, “No hat! No hat!” He has few words, but the words he does use are lobbed as weapons. “Up.” “All done.” “NO!” And now, I guess, “Screw you, I want to freeze!” Just in time for the winter. Write that one in the baby book.

Of course, when we got outside and the wind whipped around his fuzzy little head, he grabbed his ears and said, “HAT! MOM! HAT!” Like, why didn’t I think of putting a hat on him? What kind of mother am I? Thank you infant son, for making such well-articulated points. Could you do it without pulling my hair?

In High School, I read a book about a pioneer woman, who, left alone by her husband in a sod hut over the winter, goes insane. There is a scene in the book, where the husband returns from his chores to find his wife sitting in the cold, rocking in the rocking chair. I never understood that at the time. Why did she go insane? It’s just winter. But now I know. She had kids and she lived in a sod hut. I live in a charming house, but I’m one rocking chair away from going insane on the prairie and it’s only November.

To be honest, I don’t think my kids could cut it as pioneers either. My three-year-old won’t even put a toe outside unless she’s donned head to toe in pink winter gear. I try telling her that Laura Ingalls never had Minnie Mouse hats and she still survived, but my husband points out that it goes both ways. Ma Ingalls also didn’t have Netflix or a coffee maker or a heating system, so why am I whining?

I could think deeply about that question, or I could just go out and buy a rocking chair.

 

EllisSnow

 

This was originally published in The Gazette as part of my column, “Pants-free Parenting.” I usually republish these on Fridays, but this was too apt going into Thanksgiving.

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