Monday, November 29, 2010

Love in a Box

When I was a child I had many ideas about what it would be like to be a mom. I loved babies and actually enjoyed babysitting the neighbor’s children, even if there weren’t any good snacks in their cupboards. I assumed being a mom would be a lot like those long summer afternoons of being in charge of other people’s children. Needless to say, I was wrong.

Any mom would be able to tell you all the ways being the one in charge all the time is very different from being in charge for minor snippets of a child’s life. The day in and day out responsibility can wear you down. Keeping them in clean clothes and shoes. Making sure they have the right enrichment opportunities, even if that means a yearly trip to the local zoo. And then there’s the issue of food.

It’s hard to admit this, but sometimes I feel like the only mom who doesn’t like to cook. On every TV commercial and sit-com the mom is the one who creates amazing meals, day after day, with a smile on her face. That mom is not me. I’ve always said that if my kids didn’t need food to survive, we wouldn’t even need a kitchen in our house.

A couple of times a year I can get into making a nice meal. But that’s the problem. When you’re the mom, kids assume you are going to feed them on a daily basis. Sometimes even a few times a day. That takes a lot of planning, a lot of grocery list making, a lot of hauling bags from the store to the kitchen cabinets, a lot of forethought to thaw and brown and mince things. It’s a lot of work and it’s required just about every single day.

One of the perks of moving to New York was being close enough to my mother-in-law (an amazing cook) to never worry about making another holiday meal. She loves the planning and cooking and baking and is really good at it. I’m happy to offer extra hugs and do my part to deposit a van full of grandkids on her doorstep every time a holiday rolls around. But this year we were on our own.

Because of work obligations we couldn’t get to New Hampshire to sit at her table. And because of their local obligations, they couldn’t come join us. So it looked like that big turkey spread, always packed full of everyone’s personal favorites, was going to fall on my shoulders. Then the phone call came, with a unique proposal.

Instead of a gift card or a wrapped box for my birthday this year, my mother-in-law offered to buy us a premade meal, from the grocery store down the street. Now some women would be offended by such an offer. It would cramp their Martha Stewart style and insult their abilities. I was more than thrilled to accept it, and bowed down in gratitude to this woman who knew me so well she knew I’d love it.

So on the weekend before Thanksgiving I was not hunched over a store freezer, trying to figure out which sized bird I should buy. And for the days before the holiday I didn’t have to re-arrange my fridge to accommodate a thawing turkey. And the morning of the big day I wasn’t tearing the plastic off the beast and wondering if it were indeed thawed enough to be able to cook in time for the perfectly timed meal.

It happened to be our wedding anniversary on Thanksgiving day this year, so my hubby and I slept in a bit, then made it a date, to head down the street to pick up our box full of food. We wandered the aisles and got a few extras - drinks for the kids, pretty paper plates for the rest of the weekend, some fresh whipped cream for the pumpkin pie that was included in our meal. There was no rush. The work was already done. All we had to do was take our magic box home and heat up the food. By transferring it into my own serving dishes, our feast looked exactly like the ones from years past, the ones that had been a whole lot more work.

We hung out on the couch with our kids, watching the parade, then football. We stuck candy onto graham crackers and made gingerbread houses. And when it was time to eat, the mood in the house was relaxed and peaceful, just as it should be on a holiday that’s all about giving thanks. The food was tasty. The variety was perfect. All in all, I think it might have been one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received, the gift of enjoying my kids instead of being isolated from them in the kitchen all morning.

We were amazed at the price of our box of food. I know that if I went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for a big holiday meal, the total would be over a hundred bucks. Our magic box of food was half that price. Considering the price of ingredients, the value of my time not spent in the kitchen, and the lack of hassle all week, I think this may be a tradition we follow in years to come.

Any time trusty Grammy is not available to pull it all together, I’m more than thankful to let the wizards at our local grocery store do the honors for me.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crying Over Ovens

The day started in one of my favorite ways. Half asleep, curled up in a warm bed with the man I love, watching one of our favorite home improvement shows. It’s something we bond over, watching other people tear down and build up their own homes. But this day it bothered me.

The husband in the show was working hard to build the couple’s dream home, doing most of the labor himself, while the wife’s job was to hang out with a decorator, picking out furniture and appliances. Maybe it’s because I enjoy the activities the husband had on his list much more than the wife, but it didn’t take long before I was totally fed up with the wife and her decorator friend.

I know it was probably creative editing on the part of producers, but the wife came off as a whiny crybaby. She wanted the best of everything and thought nothing of ordering items that continued to blow their budget. The scene that made me physically get up and walk away from the show involved tears. After ordering restaurant quality appliances for their kitchen, her husband had finally stood up to her and changed the order to regular, good enough appliances. And his wife turned on the water works.

“Really?”, I said to my purely innocent husband, who only wanted to watch some entertaining TV before he got out of bed on a weekend morning. “She’s going to cry over appliances? After ordering high end sofas and twelve dollar a foot wood floors, she’s going to cry about a stove?”

As I stormed out of the room I was mumbling to myself, “Heaven forbid she gets a call next week saying her kid has cancer. Let’s see how important having the perfect stove is then…”

It’s something I fight a lot. This constant dialogue that runs through my brain, reminding me that there is always someone worse off than I am. I know, it sounds bleak and fatalist. Some might call it pessimism. But it’s something other than that. Generally I’m a pretty happy, content person. I would definitely fall into the glass-half-full crowd. But somewhere, deep in my psyche, ungrateful people annoy me.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a large foster family and just having my own bike was a big deal. Maybe it’s because I saw the terrible family situations I could have been born into, but was instead blessed with parents who had such big hearts they took in other people’s kids. Or maybe it’s because I saw firsthand, when I was a teen, the poverty in Haiti, and how the basics of clean water and daily food should never be taken for granted. Somewhere deep in my brain there is a default setting that is constantly set on ‘at least you don’t have to deal with…”

Later the same day I was puttering around the house, cleaning up a bit before the weekend was over, and I couldn’t stop wondering why the woman on TV bothered me on such a deep level. It was just a show. Just a woman I’ll never meet. Possibly a perfectly lovely woman who was severely misrepresented. I think maybe it’s because I know some people like her and I know those attitudes and values exist in our country.

In this place where many families are losing jobs, losing homes, losing careers early when companies choose to force retirements, there are still people who will complain that the parking lot has no close parking spots left. This year, as food banks can’t keep up with the new crowds of hungry families who stream through their doors, there will be people complaining about the fifteen minutes extra they have to stand in line at an understaffed grocery store. Having the money to pay for their cart full of groceries should be enough to draw up some patience.

We have friends who have lost children to cancer, had diagnosis of autism, and been crushed by the anguish of infertility. Today, as I write this, a friend sits in a recovery unit with her teenage son, assisting him as he slowly recovers from a brain injury. It doesn’t seem right to complain that I have too many things on my to do list, especially when the list mostly includes caring for the happy, healthy people in my life.

I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be annoyed sometimes, when my quality of life dips a bit. That silly clock above the TV refuses to keep accurate time and I end up racing around so I’m not late to work. No one, and I mean no one else, in this house understands that picking up the bathmat and hanging it over the tub after a shower will extend its life and mom’s sanity. The dog’s nails bleed (again!) when I try to trim them and I spend more time than I’d like trying to get the stains out of the living room carpet. These are the things that can drive this mom crazy.

Even in our cushy life as Americans things aren’t perfect. And I’m the first to admit I’ll grumble a bit when the little things in my day backfire. But down deep I’m always aware of how good I’ve got it. When I realize I’m having that nothing-seems-to-go-right day I take a deep breath and give myself a pep talk, reminding myself of the things that aren’t going wrong. I don’t think it’s fatalistic. I think it’s realistic.

Most of us have more blessings than we can count, if we take the time to do the math.

This is the holiday when thankfulness is celebrated. Maybe we can capture a bit of it and stretch it out for the months to come.

Maybe it’s time to turn this holiday into a lifestyle.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ryan's Lesson

I see it coming. That nutty season that’s packed full of holidays. It’s flipping calendar pages like crazy and will be here in the blink of an eye. I think every person feels it at a different time. Some start the holiday shopping in August. I could never dig up enough holiday spirit to do that. Plus I’m not organized enough to find the gifts, six months later, when it’s time to put them under a tree.

Some feel it in mid October, when the red and green merchandise starts nudging at the Halloween decorations. I do my best to ignore the retail push and pretend I don’t see the inflatable snowmen and Santas dancing on the sidewalk outside our local Kmart. Let me buy my discount candy first, then we can move on to those winter time celebrations.

So once November hits, I feel like it’s time. Time to get my act together and start making some plans. Or at least time to move into pre-panic mode. I send out the postcards to family members, letting everyone know who drew whose name in our long distance gift giving ritual. I start cruising through and bookmarking pages of gift ideas online so when I finally get around to ordering the gifts I’ll have all my ideas in one place.

We start talking about travel plans. Will we go to New Hampshire again this year, or will grandma and grandpa come here? What about that December holiday just three weeks later? If we don’t go there, we don’t see the handfuls of cousins, but if we don’t stay here, we miss seeing high school friends who graduated last year and disappeared off to college in August. In a house full of six people, there are a lot of needs and opinions to weigh in the decisions.

I start to wonder how in the world I’m going to find time to dig the holiday decorations out of the storage area in the basement, much less put them up, in the midst of keeping the regular household chaos afloat. This year we’re sending two of our teens to Brazil to visit family friends. At some point I need to dig out their summer clothes (Brazil spends their Christmas holiday in the middle of summer, a hard concept for me to process). Then possibly find a place to buy the items that are missing (swim trunks? flip flops?), in my local store that is stocked with snow suits and scarves.

It’s only the second week of November and I already feel a bit behind. It can be enough to keep me up at nights, scrolling through lists in my head…until I come back to reality and remind myself about what’s important.

One week ago one of our favorite families in Utah got that dreaded call. Their seventeen year old son had been in a bike accident and was in critical condition with a severe brain injury. His older brother posted on his facebook page, “waiting for Ryan to wake up.” Now if that’s not enough to make your frantic holiday list seem insignificant, nothing will.

Just writing those words brings tears to my eyes. I race around each day, trying to keep all the balls juggled - the dirty dishes loaded, the clean dishes unloaded, the dirty clothes washed, the clean clothes folded, the chicken thawed, the hamburger browned….all while a precious family in Utah, good people who have raised really good kids, waits for Ryan to wake up. It’s so much more than humbling.

That’s not to say my daily tasks don’t matter. It’s important for my family to have a routine of activity, a few healthy meals in a day, a scolding or two along the way. But I am reminded where it all fits and why it all counts. I begin to see the interruption of my son as I’m trying to get writing deadlines done as a blessing, not an annoyance. He’s a healthy, strong boy who actually cares what his mom thinks about his latest Lego creation. I choose to be honored by the disruption to my busy day.

We end up on the couch one night, surrounded by three of our four children, who all happened to ‘be in’ that night, and instead of rushing off to make a list or fold a basket of clothes, I stay put. I snuggle in, under a blanket that envelopes three of our bodies, and willingly watch the movie we’ve all miraculously agreed on. And I think of Ryan, who has finally woken up, and am thankful that we are now crowded on a couch instead of in a hospital room.

So my prayers and wishes for this holiday season have been readjusted by my friend Ryan and his family. On the top of my list is the wish for a full recovery and the return of that mischievous boy with the bright smile. If I get nothing else on my wish list, I pray I get that one.

Next up is a peaceful season, that my children will remember in a good way. No frantic mom with a pointless agenda. Instead, a mom who finds joy in the process - the hanging of stockings that will, by golly, be unearthed in the basement, the buying of meaningful gifts for people who will appreciate them, the chance to catch up with a neighbor as I stand in line at the post office. That’s the mom I pray I can be in the six weeks that are racing my way.

There’s still time. Time to get done all that really and truly needs to be done. I just need to make sure my list is relevant and truly reflects what I want to see out of another upcoming holiday season. And take the time to treasure the steps along the way.

It is with great joy that I post an update to this essay. Ryan indeed woke up. He slowly healed and miraculously, he graduated with his high school class that next May. Last weekend I got to hug Ryan for the first time since his injury. His silly, bright smile was so familiar and I fought back tears as I stood in the shadow of that tall, healthy boy. Here is a picture of him, with two of my boys and my hubby:
Don't you love the spirit that boy has? In the past few months he's jumped through all the grown up hoops to open his own shaved ice stand, called The Shack. Each of us gratefully slurped down a sample of his product. Blue Raspberry never tasted so good. I'll wrap this post up with my favorite picture of the weekend. This is Ryan, healthy, healed Ryan, in the window of his shaved ice shack.

Monday, November 8, 2010

An Honest Look Back

I am beginning to think the scariest parts of parenting are not the sleepless nights when there’s a newborn in the house and you can easily be convinced they will randomly stop breathing. And it’s not the morning you put that vulnerable little five year old on the bus for his first day of kindergarten and you’re pretty sure he’ll be eaten alive by the fierce fifth graders before he reaches the front steps of the school. We made it through those scary times and lived to see another day. And now I’m starting to think the truly scariest time to be a parent is when you’re on the cusp of sending your eighteen year project out into the real world.

The stakes are so much bigger. Making good choices, and stumbling into bad ones, don’t just hurt in the short term. They can have lifelong implications. The big ones, unplanned pregnancies and surprise visits to the county jail, are out there. But even the smaller mistakes can lead to big life changes.

It was not that long ago that I was the 20 year old, filtering the advice that fell on my ears. Parents and grandparents had life lessons to share and they hoped I could avoid my own life mistakes by learning from theirs. I listened to some and ignored others, just like the generation before me.

And now I’m the one giving the advice, and not just to random young adults, but to these tall people who I’ve been busy raising for the past 19 years. I have to hope they picked up some lessons by the example their dad and I set. Go to college and figure out who you are before you get tied down with marriage and kids. Take your time picking out your profession. Not many 20 year olds know what they want to be doing when they are forty, so keep your eyes and heart open to opportunities around you.

If I’m being completely honest I have to remember back to the days when we were causing our own parents to seriously doubt some of our decisions. By we, I mean me and this man I chose to spend my life with. We met halfway through college and when our close friendship moved to a dating relationship I was highly suspicious he might be the one. I knew I wanted to get my degree before I signed a marriage license so we didn’t officially tie the knot until the last college credits were locked in. It was a relief that my family loved him and I was feeling similar sentiments from his side of the family. But we didn’t necessarily have full support when it came to some choices for our future.

There had been some rumblings from a few of the adults in our life when my better half decided to get a double degree, in two fields not known for their ability to support a family - history and antiquities. There was much skepticism that we had any future to look forward to, when these were the degrees engraved on the diploma. But I had faith in my man. I knew he was serious about providing for us and encouraged him to pursue what he loved.

My teaching degree was practical, but not really useful, when we decided to start our family after just a few years of marriage, and I was determined to stay home with our babies. It was up to the daddy of these babies to bring home the bacon that would sustain us for the better part of twenty years.

We have never had a ton of money. But we did okay. We were both dedicated to setting up a life that we both loved so as hubby worked hard to build his career in archaeology, I worked hard to balance our budget with very few numbers to work with. We lived in tiny places, ate boring foods and rarely spent money on anything beyond the basics of food and shelter. And slowly he made a name for himself.

After a few job changes, all in the field he loves, he is now doing very well for himself. We are not rich, by any means, but we pay our bills and still seem to support this household full of kids with constant needs. We spent this past weekend in Washington D.C., where my hard working spouse was honored with an award for his incredible work ethic.

As I sat in the audience, watching him shake the hand of some of the top guys in Washington, my heart just about burst with pride for this man I’ve loved for two decades. It became very clear to me that we’d done it. We had carved out a life from a degree that had some of the wisest adults in our life scratching their heads in skepticism.

And it made me realize I need to keep my eyes and heart open as much as I am telling my young adult children to do the same. Some of their choices might not make sense to their father and me. Some of their choices might have us scratching our heads, wondering if they will ever find a life that will make them happy. But we’ve done the bulk of our parenting now. It’s time to sit back and be their cheering section. It’s time to be here when they ask for advice and bite our tongues when they don’t.

We all get one shot at life. The late teen years are when it all really starts to come together. It’s a scary time to be a kid and I’d argue almost just as scary to be the parent. But with a little faith, and maybe more than a few prayers, they’ll find their way. And I can only hope they can look back, twenty years from now, and be happy with the path they’ve taken.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Down for the Week

Most of the time, when it comes to the big time illnesses, involving fevers and throw up, my kids have taken turns being sick. It’s difficult to clean up after a sick person, even your own kid, without feeling a bit nauseous yourself. And it doesn’t help when the well kids of the household keep circling the kitchen, whining that there is nothing good for dinner. The only thing worse that this scenario is the one where all the kids are sick at the same time and the washing machine can’t keep up with the soiled bed sheets and bath towels.

The clock on the wall stops, the family calendar disintegrates and time stands still. Keeping the well ones fed and on schedule while you keep the sick ones hydrated, in clean sheets, and well medicated is a time consuming balancing act that every mom has to work out for herself. You don’t truly know how you’ll survive the heat until you’ve spent a week in the fire.

And if you want to raise the bar a bit let’s talk about those rare occasions when the mom is sick. It’s amazing that households don’t self destruct when the mom gets the flu. Even with supportive, helpful husbands, mom tends to be the one who holds it all together. With a fever raging she will be thrashing around in bed, only half conscious, wondering if anyone is keeping up with the dishes and if the dog has been fed.

I’m rarely sick but I’ve had many spells on crutches in the years that my kids were growing up. Until I traded in my old leg for this new titanium one, at least once a year I spent a good six weeks with my leg in a cast, hobbling through life on my one good foot. The kids had to step up the chores calendar. They learned to boil noodles while I sat on a stool next to them in the kitchen. They mastered the controls of the washing machine after I gave them verbal lessons on sorting whites and colors.

I felt terrible about those spells of immobility, feeling like I was cheating my kids out of the mothering they deserved, until a good friend pointed something out to me. “Don’t forget how much they get out of being able to minister to you. They get great self esteem by being able to help you out, in such a tangible way. The giving shouldn’t always go just one way.”

Her words slowly sunk in. They got me through several more months of living on crutches and learning to rely on my children to keep the family running smoothly. I learned to chase away feelings of incompetence and replaced them with reminders of how it was building character in my offspring.

Then I got this new leg and my time on crutches came to a screeching halt. Once I was outfitted with new hardware I not only kept up again, but I left behind the need for crutches. They still sit by my bedside, gathering dust, just in case I need them in the night. But my days of relying on the kids for constant help are over.

That is, until I get sick. Every now and then I catch something that’s going around and find myself laid up in bed for a day or two. It’s a pain for my whole family, when I’m not around to keep things juggled. But a couple of days of being checked out isn’t usually enough to shut us down for good. My kids are big enough to boil their own noodles now, without my supervision. And they know how to heat up the oven for fish sticks or tator tots. One of my big boys has even come up with his own variation of chicken parm, which he is proud of and keeps him fed when I’m not around.

But last week we had a real test of family solidarity. I went to the doctor on Monday morning with a painful infection in my eye and was immediately sent to the Emergency Room. From there I was admitted to an isolation ward and did not go home until Friday afternoon. I left home on Monday morning and didn’t walk back in the door again until Friday afternoon. I had no hints that this is how the week would play out. No chance to set up a special chores chart. No chance to put meals in the freezer. No chance to let teachers know that homework supervision might be patchy.

And yet we survived. I survived and the kids survived. It was a huge week for my husband at work so he popped by the hospital when he was able and juggled the gang at home in the evenings. And my daughter gets huge points for stepping into the mom role. She shopped for the gang and even took two little brothers along with her to help pick out food. She kept up with her work and school schedule and still found time to come by the hospital to visit her bored, stir crazy mom.

Her brothers stepped up and did their own homework, with limited supervision. They gave their dad the normal amount of grief (they are still teenagers, after all) but overall they did what had to be done to keep the family afloat. They ate hodge podge meals and didn’t complain. They got off to school in mostly clean clothes.

It is a week I would not want to repeat. It was a painful week of medical procedures and a maddening week of worrying that everyone was surviving at home without me. But they did. They took care of each other. Just like they were trained to do back before I had my new metal leg. My friend was right. Teaching them how to nurture is never a lost lesson. Especially once mom learns to let go.