Sunday, July 25, 2010

Let's Talk

We have a unique phenomenon that occurs in our house on a regular basis. I like to call it the revolving conversation. It goes something like this - Child #1 makes a comment about something. I reply and we start a small discussion about said subject. Then Child #2 walks in, or overhears, and jumps in and wants to know what we’re talking about. So we summarize the original discussion and begin again. Midway through this exchange, it never fails, Child #3 enters the scene, and wants to be a part of the dialogue. So we proceed to repeat the above steps all over again.

It’s enough to drive me insane some days.

Last Sunday, it began when my 14 year old made a short comment to me as we sat in a row, waiting patiently for church to start. I answered back with a short reply, that was overheard by my 17 year old son, who just had to know what I was talking about. As I went to explain the reply, which actually took longer than the original comment, my nine year old son’s ears perked up.

“What? What are we talking about?” he inquired.

“Oh, Sam,” I said with a sigh, “Trust me, you don’t want to be a part of this conversation.”

“Why?,” he asked, “Does this conversation end with him (pointing to big brother) punching me?”

I had to laugh. Unfortunately, many of Sam’s conversations with his big brothers end with him getting (playfully) punched. He knew enough to butt out in the interest of self preservation.

But the exchange made me think about this dance we do with our children, the way we drive ourselves crazy in an effort to communicate with them.

When they're new human beings, just learning about the world, and crawling is their most impressive skill to date, we jabber away at them, waiting to hear their first meaningful words. The first time we hear their voice, even in a string of babbles, we rejoice. Somehow being vocal, beyond fusses and screams, makes them seem like real little people. Hearing the tone of their voice instantly gives them a personality.

Then quickly they move from meaningful words, some very welcome (“mama!”) and some not so welcome (“mine!”), to phrases, then to sentences. And just like we coaxed them to walk and then wondered, while we chased after them, why we were so anxious to see them mobile, once the words become unleashed, there are many days we wonder how we can lock them back in the box again. The questions, the comments, the pleas and the demands, can wear down even the most dedicated parent.

I always thought that dealing with fevers and throw up would be the hardest part of parenting. Once I was in the trenches I got a reality check. Helping a child through a temporary illness is hard. Fevers spike at home, then fade as you approach the doctor’s office. Huge coughs can come out of small people so strongly that you’d swear they swallowed their dinner fork. But I never struggled with the sickness thing nearly as much as I did the chatter thing.

Little children have a lot to say.

Figuring out this big, wonderful world is very exciting. It’s nearly impossible for a three year old to step over a squashed worm on the grocery store parking lot without wanting to share the experience with the closest human, usually a parent. “Wook at DAT! Can you beweeve it? I wonder how dat worm got smushed! What da YOU fink, mom? Huh? Why would someone squash dat worm?”

And just when you’ve answered that one, the next one comes along, like a carton of bottle rockets in the hands of a teenager. “Can we PWEESE get de big cart, mama? Da one wit da CAR? PWEESE?” Then comes the running narration, about every person and every item that passes in front of their eyes. And it might be more bearable if it were just a narration. But preschoolers are all about audience participation, and mama or daddy make the very best audience.

But just when you feel like you’re trapped in toddler monologue hell, your little life partner is off to preschool, then to kindergarten. Teachers and friends get to be the players in their running life commentary. You find yourself grabbing onto the adorable things they say, now that their frequency is not a constant drone in the back of your head.

And then suddenly the well dries up. Big kid school begins and conversation is a prize you seek, not a punishment you seek to avoid.

Maybe it’s because I have a very independent daughter and three very typical boys, but in our household we quickly went from a constant stream of sharing to three syllable conversations. Meaning I would ask questions and they would answer in three syllables or less. I found myself reading books on communicating with your child, which surprised me, since just a few years earlier I couldn’t seem to get a minute’s peace.

And now with teens, it’s a whole new game. But so much the same game too.

When my kids were little babies and something was wrong in their world, I wished that I could have a dialogue with them, and they could tell me, in their six month old voices, “I’m not feeling well today, mama. Could you please help me?” I find myself clutching a very similar wish, now that my kids are big.

Teens don’t always know what’s bugging them, but they sure can make life miserable for the rest of the household as we try to figure it out. Once again I wish for the ability to have a logical conversation so we can rectify their ailment.

I guess it’s all a part of the crazy world of communication. All you can ask for is a little regular interaction, enough to keep us connected.

And if no little brothers get punched in the process, it can surely be called a success.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Purpose

When Jeff and I were first married we lived in a small cabin by a lake in New Hampshire. The only grocery store within an hour’s drive had everything you could ever need. From yogurt to rain boots, you could get it at the Stop and Save. One day I was checking out the revolving rack of books that sat next to the magazine and newspaper display. One book cover caught my eye.

It wasn’t a striking book, as far as graphics go, but the words jumped right out at me. “Raising Kids on Purpose, For the Fun of It.” I repeated the words in my head a few times. It seemed like an interesting idea. Raising kids on purpose, with forethought, and also making a deliberate effort to have fun in the process.

Being newlyweds, Jeff and I were a few years away from meeting our first child, but we’d already talked a lot about what kind of parents we wanted to be. I had definite ideas about the kind of father I wanted for my children, so even before engagement rings entered the picture, we’d had discussions about children and parenting philosophies.

I bought that book and read it cover to cover three times in the next few years. It was written by a couple who didn’t have a lot of money, but really wanted their kids to have a deliberate upbringing. The book was full of ideas about how they managed to do just that.

I have to admit I haven’t read the book in over 15 years, but it still sits on my bookcase. It’s been packed up and moved to the dozen houses we’ve lived in, and I refuse to give it away. It’s presence reminds me of the goal we had eighteen years ago, when we started down this parenting road.

Jeff and I have never had much extra money to take vacations. At least not the kind that others call a vacation - week long trips to the beach, cruises, or yearly tours of Disneyland. In fact, I can’t remember a single time we set off on a ‘vacation’ that wasn’t directly tied to a cross country move or three state drive to visit family. Following Jeff on his work trips has also led us to many fun adventures.

A friend of mine recently asked me which weeks we’d be gone on vacation this summer. I hesitated with my answer. “Umm…we don’t really take vacations,” I said.

She didn’t believe me.

“I see the pictures of all the fun stuff you guys do. What do you mean, you don’t take vacations?”

I immediately thought of the book I’d found so many years ago. The one that put into words the way Jeff and I wanted to raise our kids. On purpose, for the fun of it. I gave her a quick answer, “we take lots of little trips, just rarely take big ones,” then thought about the topic for a good part of the rest of the day.

We’ve had almost 19 years to try out the parenting ideas we had before we even conceived our first baby. How had we done? Had it worked like we’d hoped? Would our kids say they felt like they’d been raised with purpose? Would they say they had a stable family, but even more than that, a fun one? I’ve thought about those questions a lot since that day.

And I think we’ve come pretty close. The decision we made ten years ago, when Jeff accepted a job that would require moves to other states, has played a big part in our plan. Nothing teaches you more about a state than living there for a year or two. And we’ve treated every move as a chance to explore the states in between. There are many interesting landscapes and local novelties to discover every time you hit the road.

But it does take forethought. The year we lived in D.C. I opened up the Thursday edition of the Washington Post every week and circled which events we’d go try that weekend. I spent the weekdays keeping laundry caught up and the house in order, so weekends could be all about jumping on the Metro and discovering our nation’s capital.

When we lived in Utah it wasn’t hard to find new places to visit. The state is the perfect mix of beautiful mountains and valleys in the North, and red rock arches in the South. Miles and miles of Salt Flats cover a large chunk of the state. Fortunately we converted to a digital camera in those years. The cost of print film alone was starting to take its toll.

And now we live in New York. It was a place we deliberately sought to move, because of its easy proximity to family in New Hampshire, but also to great places like the Adirondacks, Saratoga, Boston, Cape Cod, Montreal, New York City, and the whole beautiful state of Vermont. We’ve been here four years and have just begun to dive into all this region has to offer.

And it still takes a lot of planning. When we’re not travelling up to New Hampshire to hang out with active aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, we’re planning our next day trip. It’s easy to let weekends, or long school holidays, become all about catching up on house stuff, or a marathon of movies ‘just to veg out’.

We still have weekends like that too. But I’m always on the lookout for the next fun thing we might find. There are amazing fairs, museums, hiking trails, and kid friendly locations all around us. I just need to make sure we’re making the effort to find them, then explore them.

Because while I still have kids living under my roof I’m doing all I can to raise them on purpose. Just for the fun of it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Spanish 101

We were finally headed home, after two long days exploring the great city they call New York. We weren't the only ones who wanted to get onto the George Washington bridge and so we found ourselves stuck in a bit of bumper to bumper traffic.

A delivery type van came near us on the right. As it slowly inched past us I saw writing on both doors. It was in Spanish. Since my son has studied this language for two years now I thought I'd throw a question his way.

The words printed just under the front and side windows said, "Cierra la puerta suave" From my many years of high school Spanish class, where I always sat next to the door and was told every day by my teacher, "Cierra la puerta, por favor." I knew that the first part of the phrase meant 'close the door'.

I shared this with my family, and asked, " what do you suppose 'suave' means?"

Without missing a beat my husband suggested, 'maybe it means DANG IT?"

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sorting Memories

We’ve all seen the list, in parenting magazines and circling the internet. It’s generally a rundown of all of the roles a mom plays in her children’s lives. Chef, Medic, Chauffer, Personal Shopper, Comforter, Disciplinarian….the list goes on for miles. But one job requirement that I never really saw coming, that seems to take up a whole bunch of my time, is organizer.

Not just activity organizer, as you might expect, but personal stuff organizer. Toys, treasures, movies, video games, clothes, papers - it never seems to end. My husband and I had enough of our own stuff when we got married, stuff that mainly I kept organized. Then suddenly a new little person joined our clan and even before she was born she began to accumulate stuff.

I could not yet imagine how much the job of keeping her things in order would dominate my life, back when my belly resembled an over inflated basketball and I had hours to just gaze at the tiny onesies and teddy bears we’d been given in boxes full of hand-me-downs. Then came colorful plastic toys and more stuffed animals, usually acquired from more experienced moms who knew the secret about stuffed creatures breeding in the night. And we won’t even begin the list of equipment, bouncy seats and climbing toys, that soon took over our living room.

As our daughter was joined by her brother, then two more brothers, the stuff pile continued to grow, now including items more likely found in the houses of male children. Wooden trains, plastic guns, colorful Legos, Lincoln Logs, and two kazillion Hot Wheels cars soon covered my carpets, mixing in with six types of Barbies and all of their accessories.

Fortunately I was at home full time and could spend long afternoons sorting and cleaning, usually during naptimes, when no one could protest as I threw out treasured trucks with only two wheels and cap guns I never liked in the first place. Sleepy faces stumbled out of their bedrooms after naps, thrilled to see a wide open floor again, big enough to start on new forts and Lego villages.

Just when I thought I had a system that kept us from suffocating under a pile of plastic and lead free wood products (or at the very least kept us from qualifying for an episode of Hoarders) a new enemy of organization hit. Our firstborn started school.

I didn’t see it coming at first, then sometime late in the Fall I noticed that I no longer had counter space. All of the flat surfaces in the house were covered in papers. Letters about the next PTA meeting. Papers with shaky A’s and B’s and C’s written across them in neat rows. Papers with circled shapes and papers with gold stars across the top. But they, like the dreaded stuffed animals, seemed to procreate every time we turned our backs on them.

So I started some new files. Next to our taxes file, and the one that held most of the car repair receipts (when I could remember to dig them out of my purse and file them) I started a new era of filing, that began with one thin folder, labeled “Meredith, school”.

Vowing to keep only the best and most important papers and recycling the rest, I stuffed that file to within an inch of its life. By the end of the school year I realized I needed to be more hard core. Her brother would be starting school in the fall and if I continued this sorting system, which left me with a whole file cabinet drawer full of kindergarten masterpieces by the time she held that little kindergarten diploma in May, I would need to start buying four drawer file cabinets in bulk.

It’s been hard, through the years, to only keep the very best. I’m a sucker for fun artwork and good writing samples. I have to fight the running commentary in my head, about how this would be a great thing to pull out of my files some day, when my child has become a bestselling author or a famous artist. Imagine how great it would be to display this amazing work of art (he did when he was just five!) at his first art gallery exhibition. She’ll love bringing out this sample of her six year old writing, when she’s hosting a writer's symposium some day. It’s a good thing her mother cared enough to keep it!

I know, I know. It’s more likely that none of these papers will even see the light of day. Until I’m cleaning out the files in thirty years and finally decide it’s time to make a new donation to the recycle bin. But it’s a really hard part of parenting that no one told me about. This judgment call of archiving.

You’d think I would have mastered the skill by now but events of the past weekend are pretty incriminating. All four kids were at grandma’s house. Hubby and I were home. Alone. We were even alone in bed. But not how you think.

He was watching the History Channel and I was perched on my side of the bed, surrounded by papers. While cleaning out my office I realized I had four, yes four, large files, labeled “Sam, kindergarten stuff”. He is my youngest. You’d think I wouldn’t have fallen into the same trap four times. But I have no excuse barring sentimentality.

So happy Saturday night to me. After sorting and purging, and taking pictures of some things so at least I wouldn’t forget their wonderfulness after I’d tossed them in the trash, I finally pared down those four files. And I’m proud to say I ended up with a nice sized pile to throw away.

And only three large files left to stuff back into the file cabinet.

Hey… progress is progress.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Quiet Nest

It happened accidentally. A series of events led us down a twisted path to the moment last Friday, when all of my children rode away in a van together, headed to another state, without me or my husband.

That fact alone was hard enough to process. Then I came home to a very quiet house and reality hit. Not only were they all gone away, without me to watch over them, but hubby and I were here alone, with no kids to juggle, for five whole days. For the first time in eighteen years.

It started innocently enough. Cousins were flying in to visit Grammy in New Hampshire. Grammy asked if my two youngest would want to come play too. So we made plans for hubby to drive them up to join the party. Then my daughter offered to take a few days off work and drive them, so she could join in on the fun. It didn’t hurt that most of the plans revolved around sitting on a beach in Maine for the holiday weekend.

I was all in favor of this new plan and we all started joking about how the one son left at home would feel like he was the only thing standing in the way of mom and dad having an ‘at home’ honeymoon. Then suddenly an aunt and uncle in New Hampshire, who love to run as much as my son does, suggested he come climb some mountains with them. Sister could drop him off on the way to Grammy’s and pick him up on the way back.

It sounded like a great idea. All four kids had an opportunity to make some classic summer memories with relatives they love. It’s the reason we moved back East, from Utah, after all. To be around these fun people and give my kids a chance to know them better. My head was all for this plan. It was my heart that put up a last minute fight.

It all came spilling out in a moment I am not proud of. I found myself tearing into hubby about something silly. He was a bit shocked that I was getting so riled up about which car daughter should take to work. Then suddenly it all came spilling out. Tears and hugs and “I’m sorrys”, as I finally realized how terrified I really was about letting my whole nest fly away at once.

I’ve been in mom mode for so long it’s hard to just let it go. It sounds ideal, five days of ‘vacation’, with no hotel bill to put on the credit card. A chance to have down time in my own comfortable environment. Time to write. No meals to make. But my day to day life has always been geared around these people I’m responsible for. First they were babies and toddlers. Now they are mostly teens. Different issues but always in need of mothering.

It’s been two days now. The weirdest thing is how things don’t change. I clean up the kitchen at night and when I get up in the morning, it’s still clean. I come to my computer in the morning and all my notes and pens are in the exact same spot I left them the night before. No ipod cords to wrangle. No snack wrappers or stray cups from kids who checked their facebook pages late at night before they went to bed. I no longer trip over video game controllers or rock band instruments. The colorful plastic guitars remain lined up along the bookcase, right where I placed them on my first kid-less night.

The kitchen cabinets have not been picked clean. I had a bowl of Apple Jacks one day and there were still Apple Jacks left the next day. Truly hard to believe. There is actually milk in the fridge. I’m sure the clerks at my local quick stop wonder if I’ve moved away since I have not purchased my daily gallon of milk in four days.

We lay in bed at night and watch TV and I spend the whole time thinking I hear one of the kids coming in the back door. I do a run down in my head of who’s been out that night, so I can guess who might be popping their head in our bedroom door to say goodnight.

Then I realize there are no children living here right now, and the sounds I heard, or maybe imagined, were probably just the dog, wandering the house, wondering where all the people ran off to.

I try not to think about the mom things. How three of my babies are on a sunny beach and if they don’t get sunscreen in every spot, they’re going to be miserable for days to come. I don’t think about riptides and jellyfish and how both like to reach out and grab little boy legs. I cannot, and I mean cannot, let myself ponder the fact that my baby boy, who is years past being an actual baby, is going to bed every night without a hug and kiss from his mama.

I have found peace by thinking of it as temporary empty nest syndrome. A quick glimpse into what our life might look like once all the kids have flown the coop. I am closer to understanding the awkwardness I’ve heard newly retired people mention.

The first day, hubby and I wandered around, in a pattern you might be tempted to call aimless. Both TVs and the computer were suddenly wide open, no lines to wait your turn. But we didn’t want to watch TV or go online. And it was almost too quiet to read.

The kids had our good van, leaving us with the ‘get around town van’ that has almost two hundred thousand miles on it, so any long drives on back roads were out of the question. So we did what is always our default mode when we don’t know what else to do. We started working on the house.

Maybe that makes us look (and feel) like old people, but so far it’s worked for us. Hubby’s installing trim in several places around the house that have waited so patiently to be finished. I’ve been organizing the kitchen cabinets and keeping him company.

Then at nights we sit on the couch, holding hands and watching movies we didn’t have to preview for nine year old eyes. We are falling into a nice rhythm of ‘us’ again. The way we used to be before all these new little people fell into our lives.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be over the moon when that van pulls back into my driveway in 56 hours and 29 minutes. I can’t wait to hug every one of them, the smallest to the tallest.

And having a gap of ten years between our oldest and our youngest means our nest won’t truly be empty for a very long time still. But it’s been fun, for a bit, to go back to just the me and him. And be reminded that we really do like to just be together.

After all, it’s the reason we ended up setting out on this adventure in the first place.