Sunday, February 27, 2011

March Forth!

I just finished reading an amazing book called The Council of Dads. The premise caught my eye. A dad, about my age, finds out he has an aggressive cancer and may not be around to raise his three year old twin daughters. After much soul searching he comes up with a list of men he’s known in different stages of his life, men who each live some kind of character trait he’d like his girls to find in their growing up years. Men who could be trusted to remind his girls on a regular basis, what he was like and how much he loved them. Then he called his list “The Council of Dads.” Not unlike a team of godfathers.

The thought terrified and intrigued me. I lost my own mom when she was fifty. As I get closer to that age I realize more and more how young she really was. I can’t comprehend having to leave my kids without a mom in the next decade. But it happens. After it happened to my mom I understood on a deeper level that it does happen. Even to good people who love their kids. For mental health reasons I generally try to stay away from dwelling on the concept, but reading this book forced me to face the idea once again.

It’s not a sappy book or a ‘feel sorry for me’ book. It’s a book about a guy who got some pretty crappy news and decided to do what he could, with what time he had left. And the part that intrigued me was the gathering of friends. I’ve lived in many places since I became an adult, and always found new friends along the way. With each move I reminded the kids that there was a new friend waiting in our new home state. And every time, it’s been true.

As they found friends, I did too. Each became special to me for a different reason. Each personality touched me and changed me in a unique way. I’m a different person today because of the influence this broad list of women have had on my life. I really hope I never have to create a council of moms, to pick up the slack after I’m gone. My plan is to finish raising this pack of kids who’ve been entrusted to me, then spend a few decades being a crazy, permissive grandma to their offspring.

But taking a minute to think about friends, and how they’ve changed your life, is not a bad exercise to do as this endless winter, and being cooped up for months, leads a person to reflect a bit. Christmas cards are a nice way to keep in touch, but maybe this year you could start a new tradition. On the first of each month pick a friend, someone who has made you a better person, and write them a quick note to tell them what they mean to you. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or long. Just a paragraph or two, reminding them how much your life is better because you call them a friend.

In fact this week is the perfect time to start. Friday is going to be March the fourth. A few years ago I read somewhere that it’s the only date that is a command, “March Forth!” The author of the article suggested that it’s a good day to move forward aggressively, to take the name of that date and do something good with it. So maybe this year you can use your March Forth date as an excuse to think about the people in your life who make you a better person.

Life gets nutty once the grown up years hit. Jobs and spouses and kids can soak up every free minute of every week. It’s the job of a good friend to bring us back to who we are, apart from all the complications of life. It’s the job of a good friend to encourage us when times get tricky and remind us how great life is when things are going well.

Who are those people in your life? Are you being that person to someone else? Be sure you take the time this year, to take stock of who matters to you. And don’t let a life changing diagnosis be the only thing that inspires you to tell them how important they are.

Get out a note card. Make a phone call. Heck, I’ll even let you off easy and say it’s okay to send an email (although I’m going to insist you write more than a sentence or two if you decide to wimp out in that way). But slow down, on this day that’s a command, and take a moment to take stock.

Stop all the madness of everyday life for a minute and don’t be afraid to begin a new personal tradition, and March Forth!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Best Laid Plans

It looked like a pretty sweet evening for me and my girl. Her dad was taking the house full of boys off to a local mountain, to go night skiing, and the empty house belonged to just us girls. I couldn’t wait for some quality bonding time with my only daughter.

I have started seeing her childhood more clearly now that she’s become an adult. For years she was my big girl, my helper, my second set of hands. She was nurturing and capable and loved being a part of the mommying team. It made her feel mature and important to be trusted in tasks like pacing the floor with her newborn brother so I could get a much needed shower.

But somehow, letting her be the grown up girl she wanted to be, made her grow up twice as fast. Suddenly I was putting my 14 year old girl on a plane to visit family friends in Brazil, and her confident stride through the boarding gate, alone, made me weep on the way home.

“When was she SIX?” I wailed to my patient husband. “When was she SIX?!”

He assured me that she had, indeed, been six once. We had pictures to prove it.

Boxes of pictures to prove it.

When she was six, headed off to first grade, she led her little brother through the school hallways, and dropped him off at his kindergarten class. She kissed her baby brother good bye before she exited our minivan in the morning, then accepted his squeals and hugs when she returned in the afternoon.

She had been her version of six, always looking after those brothers.

I’m like most parents, I think. I look back and think about how I’d do things differently, if I had the chance. I’d spend more time with just my daughter. I’d sit with her on the couch and ask a lot more about how she was feeling on a daily basis (which of course is silly, because I know that she would have hated that kind of direct assault parenting).

I keep thinking I would have noticed more, asked more questions, given more hugs, but maybe that’s not possible. Like the mother of a newborn, who can’t ‘cherish these moments’, as she’s instructed to by older women, because she’s so exhausted by sleep deprivation and daily baby maintenance, I look back and wonder if I really did just ‘do my best’ as much as I could. I had my failing moments. But we had a lot of great, relationship building moments too.

So on this night, a week ago, when I was going to have a chance to get to spend some alone time with my girl, I was excited. There are no more babies to distract us. No more potty training toddlers to dictate our evening. We had grown up plans. We were ready to order of favorite pizza then settle down to watch a chick flick together, something that would never make it into our house when all the boys were home.

Then her dad called from work. He has spent a week traveling and was headed out again, the very next day. He was tired, bone tired. Would I mind taking the boys to ski?

Uh oh. This was one of those selfless parenting moments. Where you’re supposed to think about your spouse’s feelings and needs first. Especially if it ‘only’ meant missing a relaxing pizza and movie night. I am embarrassed to say I resisted. I tried to think of every reason why I couldn’t do it. My girl and I had plans, after all!

In less than an hour I had caved. My girl, the one who spent her childhood being the second mom to her brothers, stepped up and saved the day. “Why don’t I go too, and snowboard with Sam?” This suggestion was huge. Sam is a great skier, but in the process of crossing over to being a snowboarder. At ten, he’s only allowed to go boarding if someone is willing to go along with him. His sister is usually the sucker he convinces first.

So we all headed up to the mountain together. Hubby got to stay home and wrap up loose ends so he could travel again for work. I ended up spending several hours in a car, and then on the mountain, enjoying conversation with four pretty great kids. I watched my girl, who had given up her warm, comfy night on the couch watching movies, as she strapped on snowboard boots and escorted her little brother to the ski lift.

They all had a great time. Everyone got along (a miracle!) and by the time we were headed home, the exhaustion was relaxing. We got our traditional hot fries at McDonalds for the drive home and as the big red box was passed back and forth through the car the conversation was relaxed and peaceful.

And I realized, once again, that parenting is all about being flexible. Memory making doesn’t always go as planned. Instead of having new time alone moments with my girl, I got some pretty great moments watching her do what she does best - take care of her brothers. Our family dynamic works for a reason. Everyone has their place in our nest. Everyone’s pretty comfortable with the way it’s set up.

In a van that smelled of salty, hot french fries, I settled into the drive home. And tried my best to burn the feeling of that priceless night into my memory bank.

Monday, February 14, 2011

True Love and Chocolate

Another Valentine's Day has come and gone. Although we probably agree that the greeting card companies and florists have practically hijacked the holiday, there is some value in taking a moment to think about the ones we love. If only we could go back to the days when February 14th stood for something that simple - love and appreciation.

Now it stands for many things, including the token day to get engaged. Almost every girl with a ticking clock and a halfway serious boyfriend is hoping that a little square box will show up sometime after her romantic dinner on that night. The jewelry companies start early, reminding young lads (and old) that now is the time to plunk down a month’s salary on a sparkly bobble to put on her left finger. It’s a lot of pressure, for fragile relationships that could probably use a bit more time to bloom and grow.

Couples break up right before the holiday and feel cheated. If they break up after, they feel used. Little ones slave over shoe boxes, trying to find the exact right mix of construction paper, stickers, and glitter to make their box stand out when it’s time to pass out little white envelopes at the school party. That’s not to mention the mysterious task of assigning the exact right Valentine to every person in their class. It’s important to guard against unintended romantic crushes caused by misplaced heart shaped cards.

Married folks have similar pressures. Finding a sitter. Hoping to find a restaurant that’s not too expensive, crowded or over booked. Figuring out if flowers are necessary. Guessing what kind of jewelry might express the right kind of affection. Single people look at married people and wish they had a built in Valentine. Married people look at their single friends and try to remember what it’s like to have no pink and red heart shaped obligations. It can be a lot of pressure if you believe any of the hype.

But love is way too big to be defined by a single day. No chilly winter day in February can represent the enormity of what loving someone really means. It has very little to do with the token gifts of Valentine’s Day. Because true love is about making someone else’s life better, every single day of the year. Quality relationships are what gives meaning to life.

I recently read the follow up book to the best selling Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s called Committed, and is an examination of marriage, through trials in the author’s life. After suffering through a painful divorce, then meeting a new love who had also been divorced, she and her new man decide to stay out of the justice of the peace’s office and just contently be lifelong companions. It works out well for them until immigration comes into the picture (her new boyfriend is not an American) and insists they get married or face exile. Suddenly she’s forced to choose between her frustration for the institution of marriage and her love for her foreign man.

It’s a long book, as her personal journey is woven into some pretty interesting cultural and historical studies of marriage. Determined to enter into the union much more educated about how they can find success, the author discovers some practical truths along the way. In a nutshell, marriage is a lot like a business deal. Both parties lay out their needs and desires and then work to create a mutually successful union.

Having been married for over two decades, I found myself agreeing with much of what the author spells out. True love has very little to do with Valentine’s Day. Day to day life is the battlefield where marriage is played out. Romance and affection are important, but just as important is the obligation we have to see each other clearly, and understand each other’s true needs, if we hope to find happiness on this journey.

It’s more about showing practical love every single day of the year. Living with a man who is always thinking of ways to make my life easier, every single day, is what I want for this special holiday. The fact he scrapes the ice off my car for me, or picks up milk on the way home so I don’t have to, means so much more to me than how many roses he brings me on one day of the year.

Watching him interact with our children, whether they’re skiing, hiking, or just playing video games together on the couch, I am more content than I ever would be with a box of expensive chocolates. The way he patiently coaches our young adult daughter as she files her own confusing tax forms makes my heart swell, more than a dozen roses ever could.

I have never been known to turn down a box of chocolates. I enjoy a beautiful bouquet of flowers in the center of my dining room table. But I also know better than to take one day on the calendar too seriously. Sometimes I can feel the devotion from the love of my life just by the way he brings home my favorite brand of chips when he gets back from the grocery store. That makes him my Valentine every day of the year. Not just a single, overhyped day in February

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snow Love

I have to say, this has been a pretty amazing winter, if you’re a snow lover. I’m one of those crazy people who thinks every storm is exciting. Well, I think every snow storm is exciting. If there is any ice involved, I’m out. I’ll take twelve inches of fluffy snow over one inch of ice any day. Ice makes me fall down and I don’t fall down gracefully. Bad things happen when I fall down.

But give me a driveway full of new snow and I am in awe. A fresh, white blanket of newness to cover up my pot hole ridden driveway. No grass to mow, or flower beds to weed. Just a beautiful white cover over every surface.

I sometimes wonder if my fascination with snow comes from my upbringing in the Midwest. In the middle of Missouri we never got a lot of snow. Every winter we’d dream of a big snow fall but end up having to make do with a few inches, if we were lucky.

Every few years a big one might fall, usually in March, and we’d romp and play in it non-stop, until it inevitably melted away in a day or two. Missouri winters are known for being bitter cold one day and balmy and spring- like the next.

It was a reassuring sign to me that a huge snowfall came on the night I said yes to a marriage proposal. We almost got snowed into the car we were sitting in when he popped the question. Snow fell so deep around us we barely got the car doors open.

Then, for the first time in decades, the college shut down the next day. We told all of our friends the school closing was in honor of our big announcement. Just another reason why I will always be in love with that sparkly white stuff that falls in the winter.

When we moved our young family to Washington D.C. we didn’t really expect a snowy winter. But of course that was the year D.C. got their record snow falls. Two feet came in one storm. The kids had five straight days of snow days. The city was paralyzed and we made snow families that filled up the yard. I loved every minute.

Then our next move was to Utah. The state motto is engraved on the license plates - “Greatest Snow on Earth”. Apparently, a state that was made for me. Indeed we had perfect snow in the three years we lived there. We moved in August and by Halloween night, the first flakes were falling from the sky. The yard was covered in a white blanket until Easter. The kids learned to ski and, because season ski passes were dirt cheap for residents, we had them on the slopes every weekend. Only more reasons to love snow.

Now we’re in New York. The first year we were here, there were back to back huge storms in February. The kids helped their dad build a snow ramp off the garage roof. They were able to break out the skis and practice their skills right here at home. What followed were a few winters of lighter precipitation. We started to get worried that New York was going to turn into another Missouri - with snow falls few and far between. Then this winter rolled along.

I’ve successfully brain washed three of my four children into being snow lovers too. My only girl prefers a good beach to a frozen tundra, thank you very much. But while she’s curled up under a blanket, her brothers are usually outside, finding some kind of fun in the snow.

My single request every winter is for one big snow man. I spent my childhood dreaming of having enough snow to make a decent sized snow guy, complete with coal for eyes and a carrot nose. Most years the boys will oblige and build me a quick one before they run off to do their own thing, and this year they wisely positioned him right outside my office window. He makes me happy every time I look outside.

Some years we’re all about sledding. The boys make ramps and jumps and do everything they can to earn a cast or stitches before the winter months end. Sometimes they drag their sleds out to our woods, shooting themselves down trails as they weave between trees, increasing their chances for injuries.

This year, the year of endless snow storms, is also the year of the snow fort. They began as our driveway became flanked by five foot high banks of snow. It was easy to carve out cubbies, great places to hide for the massive snow ball fight.

Then a larger crevice was carved out, big enough for three lawn chairs.
Soon it was covered by the biggest tarp we own, held up by strategically placed ski poles. An inevitable next step was to run an extension cord out to a music player. Lamps were strung up, windows carved out, and they had created a downright comfy little dwelling.

Of course I took tons of pictures, shots that we’ll hardly believe in July, when we’re wearing shorts and sandals and hoping to catch a cool breeze.

Because that’s the most special part of snow. It will only come certain times of the year. You can’t make it come, you just have to wait until it’s ready to fall. It’s not a given, even in typically snowy states. So when it shows up, all sparkly and magical, you have to make yourself step back and take it in. It can bring special memories and miraculous moments, if you’ll give it a chance.

So take the pictures while you can. Before you know it, it will be gone. Grass will grow again and seasons will change. And we’ll all sit around in our lawn chairs, drinking lemonade and wiping our brows, reminiscing about snow men and frosty forts.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Strategic Spaces

Sometimes people are startled when I tell them I have four kids. I’m not sure if I come across as too sane to be mothering that many offspring, or too crazy. Even to people who grew up in large families, having more than two or three kids seems like a lot. I had way more than four siblings and I never appreciated how much work my parents did to keep us all fed and clothed. At least not until we started having our own.

Since we ended up with four, on purpose, I inevitably get asked some of the same questions over and over again, from people who are still in the middle of planning their families. Besides the obvious, ‘How do you do it?’, one of the most common is ‘how far apart should you space them?’ I have several answers for that question.

The easiest answer, for those who have less than 30 seconds for a reply, is ‘I have no idea. What we did worked for us, but I have no idea when it comes to anyone else’s family.’

And maybe I should stick with that answer. Because a lot of how the spacing of children turns out depends on things that are unique to each situation. The child’s personality plays a role. The gender of the children plays a role. The dreams and desires of the parents plays a big role. If a mom is not happy at home with a bunch of little ones, or overwhelmed by the idea of packing up a car full of preschoolers to head to day care every day, it can dictate the best choices for that family.

Our first two are just under thirteen months apart in age. During their baby hoods we lived in a tiny duplex while Jeff went to graduate school. It was not as hard as I’d imagined, when I found out I was pregnant while holding a four month old in my arms. Our diaper service had a discount for families with two babies. Our minuscule living room was dedicated to a baby swing and baskets of toys.

It probably helps that they were both pretty easy going babies, and I made sure we got out of the house on a frequent basis, going on walks and visiting the local library.

It also helped that I didn’t feel a need to impress anyone. We didn’t have a fancy house that made me a slave to dusting and mopping. I could clean our whole duplex in just over fifteen minutes. Jeff and I had decided that I would stay home when the kids were young, putting my teaching degree on the shelf. I had always dreamed of having babies and was thrilled by that decision. Everyone in our family felt heard and respected, and it made raising two babies a lot easier.

Now here comes the disclaimer. We didn’t pop out two more right away. My oldest was almost in kindergarten when we finally had number three. She was getting ready to celebrate her tenth birthday when her last little brother arrived. We went from one extreme to the other. Our first two are just over a year apart, but our first and last trips to the maternity ward spanned almost ten years.

I highly recommend it. Having two in the independent ages of the preschool world when their brother came along made my life easier. It made them feel big to keep the baby quiet by singing to him and shaking his rattles, and it made my trips to the grocery store much easier. Then, having an almost ten and almost nine year old, when the last baby came, really helped our family retain peace and harmony. The older kids could carry that fussing newborn around the house while I made dinner. They were off at school most of the day so errands and house cleaning involved only one baby, not four. I’m telling you, this is the ‘cheater way’ to have four kids.

The plan seemed to work well for our family but I’m sure feeling it now. As I sit at this computer, writing this column, my second child is turning eighteen. We now have two children who are legal adults.

Two children who are navigating college options and huge life choices. Two children who may not be living under my roof in a matter of months. Having two so close together means they hit all the milestones together. Getting a drivers license. Graduating from high school. Finding a college and moving away from home. I’m sure it’s a familiar feeling for the parents of twins, but it’s a bit unsettling for this mom.

I was at the elementary school this morning, watching the morning assembly. Little bitty kindergartners filed by as they made their way into the auditorium. Moms, dads and grandparents snapped pictures and doled out hugs as little hands accepted character awards.

My boy has one more year in that building. He’s one of the old ones, in the sea of smaller school mates. I’ve spent a lot of years in elementary school auditoriums. Now it seems that my days are numbered here too. In a very short time we’ll say good bye to those hallowed hallways and move once again up to being middle school parents.

I cling to the fact that I’m still, at least for now, an elementary school parent. I belong there, right next to the moms of the teeny ones. If we’d had all four of ours in a row, I’d have no place here. But we made a different choice. Part of it was a conscious choice and part of it was pure luck, but for our family, the spacing that happened is a spacing that worked.

I think I bought some time and mental sanity by waiting so long to have numbers three and four.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Big Wishes

I suppose this is sufficient snow for a snow day.

Last August, when Sam and I were looking through pictures of the first winter we lived in New York, he wondered why we didn't ever get 'big snow' anymore. That year we had two huge storms within two weeks.

He wished, out loud, that we could have another 'good winter' this year.

I guess I should start having him say blessings over lottery tickets.