Monday, October 25, 2010

A Decade Later

Ten years ago today I walked through the front door of our house in Missouri, cradling my last newborn. Sam and I were greeted by three very excited older siblings, ranging in age from almost 9 to four and a half. We knew from the get go that he would be our last. We’d always talked about having five, then settled on four when we realized we might do better, on all levels, with one less. His birth was celebrated by a whole house full of people would couldn’t wait to watch him grow.

He came to mean different things to each of us. To his big sister, the only girl in our family, he was a real life baby doll. She’d always been nurturing to her other two brothers but this one came along when she was old enough to really participate in his care. The first twelve months of his life I would have never showered, if she hadn’t been willing to rock him through his fussiness for that brief fifteen minutes of every day. The majority of pictures from his first year show him perched on her hip. She settled into the role of his second mommy very comfortably and liked having a brother who hung on her every word and smile.

To Michael, our oldest son, this new baby was another member of his fan club, another little brother to join the pack. Michael knew his way around this role of big brother. He and Isaac had already begun bonding over boy things, like the joys of wrestling and throwing sticks. In the years to come Sam would skip over the baby toys, preferring to play with big boy Hot Wheels over the Fisher Price toys that mom offered.

Isaac was the reluctant big brother at first. We all assumed this last baby would be a girl. Families with four children had two boys and two girls, right? But in a crowded exam room, the ultrasound revealed a surprise. After the technician said the fateful words, “It’s a boy!”, my youngest child got angry. He flashed her a hateful look and said, defiantly, “No! It’s NOT!” He was happily perched in his spot as the baby brother in the family and was not ready to give it up.

But after a few months of rubbing my growing belly and hearing about how fun it would be to be the big brother, he finally came around. The idea of more boy toys flowing into the house with every holiday and birthday didn’t hurt the argument. From the day Sam came home from the hospital, Isaac took to his new role like a champ. Moving from baby status to being the kid who knows the ropes turned out to be kind of fun. Many afternoons when the two big kids were in school, Isaac and Sam had their own time to grow together, playing trucks and building tents with the cushions from the couch.

Sam’s arrival also changed me and Jeff. We geared up to go through the little kid stuff one more time. The high chair came out of storage. Jeff practiced his excellent skills of bouncing, rocking, walking, and swaying, to give me a nightly break from our fussiest baby to date. Then as Sam grew into a toddler and a sunny personality appeared, Jeff had one more little duck following him as he took our kids on hikes through the woods.

And ten years ago this last baby changed me. I learned to be patient when our attempts to get pregnant dragged on for months and I began to wonder if we weren’t meant to have a fourth child after all. And patience when he fussed through his first year of life. I am convinced that God knew I needed confirmation that we were done with procreating and giving me a year of nonstop fussing did the trick.

It was fun to revisit the baby milestones. Having five people clap and cheer when baby smiles for the first time, or takes his first wobbly steps, makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable. From potty training to learning to try new foods, it was nice to have helpers on board. Their encouragement kept him motivated and their excitement at his successes was unbelievably inspiring.

On a deeper level, Sam’s place in our family, as the tail end baby, was a gift to me. I was baby crazy as a kid. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to babysit. My mom often teased that I was ready to sign up to work in the church nursery the year after I graduated from it. I knew that once I’d finished college the mommy years would not be far behind. And each baby was a gift in their own way. Each joined our family at a unique time and had their own special experiences. But having a last baby, to wrap up the family, gave me one last chance to nurture a little person.

For many years Sam was my day time buddy. As big kids crawled onto school buses every morning, Sam and I got ready for our day together. He made going to the grocery store fun as we examined all the new shapes of animal crackers and joyfully received a tiny free cookie from the bakery clerk. Trips to the discount store were more exciting with a little guy, as we ooh and ahhed over the newest holiday decorations. During a time that we were dealing with a lot of big kid issues, Sam’s early years gave me one last taste of that magical time when life is still innocent and sweet. And for that I’ll always be thankful.

He’s now officially a big kid. Ten years is a milestone. But I guess I’m ready to let him grow up. He’s still my baby boy. He always will be. He’s growing taller every day. Losing his little kid look.

So clearly reminding me that time marches on and little kids grow into big kids in the blink of an eye.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I fear that I was born with a disorder that’s never been officially diagnosed. It’s not life threatening but sure can be life changing. I first heard about it when we lived in a small town in Missouri and found out we were moving to Washington D.C. Because I had grown up in Missouri, gone to college in Missouri, then met, married and settled down with Jeff for nine years in Missouri, this move seemed to come out of nowhere to our friends. After the announcement, a woman from church said to me, “I envy you. Before we had kids I had such a strong case of wanderlust. I wish I still did.”

It left me thinking for days. Wanderlust. What a fun word. It so accurately described how I’d felt since I was a child. Craving the chance to travel. Curious about what was ‘out there’. Anxious to take a trip, any trip, to any location.

When I was growing up, my huge family rarely traveled. The few trips we took, mainly to Colorado to see grandparents, were played over in my brain for years to come. I jumped at the chance to go on church mission trips every year. As a fifteen year old I traveled to Haiti with a church group and got my first nibble at life in another culture. I was officially hooked.

While in college, as my options expanded, I took a trip to Germany and Switzerland and soaked in their culture. Then I met my man from New Hampshire and together we took weekend trips, sometimes to destinations like Nashville, and sometimes just long drives down unknown roads. The goal was to see what was around the next corner.

One summer we tag teamed with two friends and camped across the country, arriving in Washington state just in time for a mutual friends wedding. Every gorgeous state we passed through, from Wyoming to Idaho, we’d announce to the group, “This state is gorgeous! Some day we should live here!”

So I guess it seemed like the natural progression of things, that once we married and had a few kids fill up the back seat of the car, we’d continue to explore in any way we could. There are many fun places to roam in the middle of Missouri. Kansas City and St. Louis are just two hours away. The Ozarks are just about three. We took the kids on many small trips and tried to instill in them this magical disease called wanderlust.

Every October I’d drive our preschoolers across the country, to New Hampshire, to see Jeff’s large family who only knew our children by pictures posted on their fridges. For a month we’d play with these uncles who were barely out of high school. Picking apples and having impromptu parades through the house to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book left all of us with memories that lasted the next 11 months, until we’d meet up again. Sometimes Jeff flew out to join us for a week and then he’d fly home to work and the preschoolers and I would pack up the car to drive back home. Every step of the journey was a joy; nothing but time to explore new roads and find new places.

Then came the big job change and the move to the East coast. Our friends were skeptical but we were thrilled. Who cared that it was less than a year after September 11th and the terror threat was set at red most of the time? An opportunity to explore the nation’s capital by living there was too much to pass up.

As we finished up the first of what was supposed to be two years in D.C., a drastic change of plans came from Jeff’s boss. We were being moved to Utah. We’d never considered Utah. Colorado was familiar, but who’d ever been to Utah? In the days of very early internet options, Jeff instead brought home pamphlets and books that showed our kids what this new state would look like. If it was half as amazing as the pictures implied, we were game.

Since we had the summer to get there, the kids and I took the three week path across the country, sweeping down the southeast and taking in a part of the country we were not familiar with. We finally sat on a beach in Florida and took our picture by a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Baghdad’ in Louisiana. The path led us straight to my sister’s house in Dallas, where we played for a few days before driving the no man’s land of west Texas and heading up the middle of Colorado.

Within days we were passing through Wyoming, once again spell bound by its beauty. Then we finally got to our new home state, entering from the north, and blown away by the continuing splendor as we drove through Park City. For the next three years we explored every corner of that magical state, from frequent trips back up to Park City, to hiking trips through the red rock arches in the south. We drove through Native American reservations and crawled into dwellings that are carved in the cliffs at the Four Corners. It’s one of the main symptoms of wanderlust. An inability to sit at home when the car has a full tank of gas and there’s nothing on the family schedule.

Eventually we moved back East and continue to explore this area every chance we get. My children are showing signs of inheriting this wandering way of life. I’ve discovered that the only real drawback to infecting them with wanderlust is the fact that there’s a good chance that none of them will live close to us as they make their own way in life. Each has their own dreams about where they’ll live and explore when they get the chance, and it looks like they’ll be scattered by the wind. I’m okay with it though.

It just means more places for me and Jeff to travel once our nest is empty.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Value of a Picture Book

I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in depth read once I got my nine year old on the bus for school.

But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. How could it be that picture books were losing their popularity? They’re my favorite kind of book. The subject matter has such a broad range and the different types of illustrations set each one apart. How in the world could they be going out of style?

Once the bus had come and gone I got back to the computer and looked up the link. The main point of the article is that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.

Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bag full. The youngest child in my house is almost ten, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.

For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching off point for an in depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart to hearts after reading through a picture book.

Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI, a national organization for writers and illustrators, and through our meetings I’ve met so many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The art work in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.

Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, about how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer.

“A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”

I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.

Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.

On a side note, one of the other issues discussed in the New York Times article was the matter of price. Picture books generally retail around twenty bucks. That seems like a lot of money for a book that takes less than ten minutes to read. I would imagine this explains why we still see large stacks of picture books being checked out at the library. It’s a good way to be able to read them without actually buying them.

But there are still good reasons to buy picture books. When a child connects with a great book, he wants it read to him over and over, for years to come. There’s something very special about having your favorite books lined up on your very own bookshelf, with no library markings on their spines. Picture books make great holiday and birthday presents. I have a personal list of favorites I go to when I need to buy a gift for a young niece or nephew. I like contributing to their book collections with books I know they will enjoy while snuggled up on their parent’s lap.

I can only hope that the newspaper article predicting the demise of the picture book ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how it can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s.

Books are many kinds of wonderful. I hope we don’t forget the value of each step.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How 4 is More Than 3

Recently someone asked me how different having three kids was from having four. Going from two to three seemed like such a big jump to their family. Adding one more to that was too much for her to imagine. It made me stop and think about the question. What is it like to have four kids? How is it different than three? Or even two?

Let me first point out that we did not have our four children all in a row. I have no idea how those moms survive from day to day. Our second baby was born three weeks after his big sister’s first birthday but from that moment on, our family growth came to a screeching halt. Jeff was still working on graduate school and starting his career so we happily raised our two as Irish twins and knew any future siblings would come later.

When our first two were independent preschoolers we added another boy to our family. Almost four years after that, our last baby. That put our oldest and our youngest almost a decade apart in age. But no matter how you decide to space them out, having four children is very different from having two or even three.

First let’s visit the topic of clothes. Cute little Osh Kosh hand me downs only last for so long. Once a kid hits elementary school, the friend and family donations dry up. Then it’s time to hit the department store. Buying shirts, pants, socks and underwear for two can add up quickly. With four it’s enough to max out a credit card. Add on to that the fact that everyone needs a winter coat, possibly winter boots, dress shoes and athletic shoes.

Even if money’s not tight, the time it takes to physically take four different kids shopping is almost a full time job. Once we passed the years where I could buy clothes for them without their consent, we had to start scheduling clothes shopping trips like we do dentist appointments. Last week I found myself at Old Navy, with all three boys. We just needed ‘a few pair of pants and a few shirts’.

Getting three rotating boys to try on the necessary items, stay patient while I cruised through clearance racks, and not kill each other (just for fun), was enough to make me crave a nap as I shelled out over two hundred dollars at the register. And that whole escapade was just the tip of the iceberg. We still have to shop for their full winter wardrobes. In past years I’ve spent my Old Navy afternoons juggling the boys on top of trying to steal a few seconds away from them to explore the girlie side of the store with their sister. Fortunately she’s graduated on to picking out her how clothes.

The vehicle in our driveway is also something that reflects our larger family. I know a lot of people who have two kids drive minivans. But when your family totals six, you fill it up. We’ve become experts at packing lightly when we go to New Hampshire to visit grandma. Once the six tall bodies that make up our family climb into the van, there’s little room left over for suitcases.

Every extra child means another birthday on the calendar. Presents and parties and cake on another day you need to make special. Every child means another stack of presents under the tree in December. Every child will also have his own friends, who will multiply and take over your house if the snacks are good enough.

And the thing I feel the most on some days, every extra child means more stuff in your house. More shoes by the door, more buckets of ‘special things’ tucked under beds, more sweatshirts left draped on the back of the couch and a zillion more school papers left on the kitchen table. A jug of orange juice lasts less than a day. A box of cereal is lucky to make it through one breakfast. There never seems to be enough spoons in the drawer if we have soup for dinner, then ice cream for snacks two hours later.

By now you might be wondering why we did it. Why subject ourselves to such chaos and expense, when it just seems like a lot of work? Let me tell you why.

To begin with, we did it because Jeff and I both grew up in big families and loved having lots of siblings. Even as adults we love being surrounded by brothers and sisters, older and younger than us, and the way each of them enriches our lives. Every extra kid in a family brings a different personality. Each of our children have their place in our family and each one of them rounds us out in a good way. When we have family discussions around the dinner table, we have a nice variety of viewpoints and opinions. My children are learning from each other how to get along with many different kinds of people.

As they’ve grown up, and passed through different developmental stages, my children have grown close to whichever sibling meets their needs best at the time. When he was little, Isaac loved snuggling in his big sister’s lap as she read him books. Her praise meant ten times more to him than praise from mom or dad. As he got older, he started to be the big brother for Sam, reaching down to use the nurturing skills his sister taught him. Now that he’s a teenager, he most identifies with his older brother, the one who’s paving the way for him through the confusing halls of high school. He’s learned something different from each interaction.

It’s not a lifestyle for everyone. A lot of the time it’s loud and rowdy, especially if there are boys involved. And it’s not something you should jump into blindly. But for some of us it’s a pretty good life. Even with all the extra work, extra expense and extra guilt that you’re not possibly meeting everyone’s needs, there’s always a reminder somewhere along the way, of why it’s all worth it.

Sometimes it’s as simple as watching your handful of kids just enjoying each others company.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One Year of Life

One year ago we heard the news. There was a new baby living next door and his name was Andrew. We couldn't wait to meet him.

His daddy brought him over a few days later, bundled up in a blanket. He was amazing. Huge blue eyes and just a wisp of hair.

Then somehow weeks turned into months and seasons came and went. His mama took him for walks and I saw him progress from being propped up in an infant seat to sitting up tall, reaching for things he saw along the way. He changed and grew right before our eyes.

And now he's turned one. This baby we barely knew 12 months ago is now his own person. He runs up and down our driveway as his parents try to have a conversation in our lawn chairs. He chases his cat and climbs over the baby gates. He's his own man.

In one short year he went from totally dependent to thinking he was ready for full independence.

This should not surprise me. We watched it happen with all four of our own kids. But we're up to big kid ages now and going from age 9 to age 10 is significant but not startling. That year between age zero and age one is flabbergasting.

It's been fun to be reminded, once again, how amazing the whole process truly is and how lucky we are to be a part of it.


Little Brother Rule #456:

No matter how high big brother throws that football, by golly, you sacrifice life and limb to catch it. Skinned knees and twisted ankles be damned.

Kitty Love

Could there be a cat more loved than this one? This kid is our resident Dr. Dolittle (yes, I'm convinced he and that cat have long conversations when the rest of us are not around).

The Mowing Show

One thing I don't want to forget about this autumn, when Sam was about to turn 10: That it was his first summer to help mow the yard and when he'd walk behind that loud push mower he didn't realize that he wasn't in a sound proof bubble.

He'd circle the front yard behind that big, red beast, belting out songs at the top of his lungs. He could barely hear himself, so he figured there was no way we could hear him.

Sometimes he even threw in one handed dance moves, being careful not to let go of the mower's handle. It cracked me up, every single time.

Enjoying the Moment

Another thing I want to remember about this specific time in our journey of raising kids: How Isaac never fails to bring out his theatrical side when he sees a camera in my hand. He was so diligently helping dad rake leaves, until he spied me zooming in on him.

This child's name means 'laughter'. It suits him perfectly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

He Brought Her Flowers

I’ve started to notice that a lot of my writing is centered around living with teenagers. Maybe it’s because keeping this thing balanced, in a house with three teens and a fourth grader, is what takes up most of my mental and physical effort.

So why is it that, as someone who’s had at least one teen in her household for almost six years now, I still find myself being surprised by how surreal it all feels?

Case in point, the events that transpired just twelve hours ago in this very house. Picture, if you will, one tall, adorable nineteen year old boy, sneaking in my back door as I am cleaning up dinner. I can barely see his face, peeking out at me from behind a huge bouquet of brightly colored flowers.

My daughter has just left to go meet said boy at a restaurant down the street. She casually informed me it was their three month anniversary as she breezed out the door. Her smile was so bright it made me stop with my counter wiping.

She’s known this boy for three years now, most of the time we’ve lived in New York. He is the cousin of one of her best friends. It took them going to her senior prom in June (just for fun) for the unexpected sparks to fly. It’s been nice to watch them enjoying time together; finding a good friend who can be a boyfriend too is a special kind of gift.

So now (I’ve learned) that they are marking anniversaries. He sent her off to the restaurant early then snuck back in to plant surprise flowers in her bedroom. His smile was as bright as hers had been.

This is very new for me, for hubby and me. We’ve seen her date before. She had a boyfriend or two in high school. But now she’s in college. This boy is working a full time job. This is when big life changes start to happen.

I don’t know where their relationship will go. They don’t realize it now, but they’re young. Love feels its deepest intensity when it’s new and young. It may fizzle out by next week. Or it may not. As my daughter’s young suitor said last night, “Just imagine, a vase full of flowers for our three month anniversary…for our one year anniversary I’ll have to fill your whole room with flowers!”

It’s all good and charming and special for them right now. I’ll keep my fears and predictions to myself. She deserves a time to just enjoy the sweetness of the moment. I feel confident she’s been well lectured about choices when it comes to her body and her future. So now my job is to sit back and let her be.

She’s entering a whole new world. And so are her mom and dad.

A Hairy Question

Have we gotten a little crazy with the politically correct language when my nine year old asks his big sister, in all honesty, if it’s still okay to use the term ‘black bear’, or if he should be calling them ‘African American bears’?