Notes to Self for 2015

Dear Self,

We’ve known each other a long time. Can you handle it if I just point out one teeny thing? Not a criticism. An observation. Don’t look so worried.

You know how some people make things more complicated than they need to be? Well, you’re like that with some things. Like dinner. You know how every year, Christmas sneaks up on you even though it’s always December 25th? Dinner’s like that. And you know how you ask your son why he stopped using his planner to write down all his assignments when that was clearly working for him? It’s bewildering, right? Why would someone just stop doing something when it works?! You see where I’m going with this?  I’m writing to remind you of the strategies that worked for you this past year. I’m asking you to consider using them regularly.  Consistently.  They make your life better and easier.

1.  Planning ahead really does work. In life and in family dinner. Winging it on occasion is fine, but really, you don’t have time to be running to the store the day of the meal at hand. With one little baby you were able to shop like a European. With three growing kids ages 7-15 and two busy, overextended adults you must enter the week prepared. Believe me when I tell you this: When you know what you’re having for dinner, you’re more than halfway there. Plot out your dinners Monday through Friday. Look at the calendar and see what’s going on that week. If you’re working Wednesday evening, well then, that’s a night for a one-dish dinner made ahead. If it’s an afternoon you’ll be home, then you have time to cook/assemble dinner while everyone does homework.

2.  Get real food in them whenever the opportunity presents itself. Instead of them filling up on pretzels, have real food and fixings for hearty snacks. Dinner, even. Dinner at 4pm is ok. Feeding older kids is a very different beast than feeding young children. They go to bed later and require more than one meal between 3pm-10pm. Quantity is the key word. You don’t have to make everything. Stock the refrigerator with things they can put together easily. Be flexible about your definition of dinnertime. The first thing my kids say when they walk through the door, while flinging their backpacks on the floor, is “I’m starving!” Though I aim for (and succeed most nights) in getting everyone sitting at the table, eating something together, at a time generally considered dinnertime, for at least fifteen (five?) minutes, I’ve lowered my expectations significantly. Often they’re so hungry when they come home that they eat everything in sight and don’t need much by dinner. That’s okay. By dinnertime, my teenager has often eaten his “main course” because he was so hungry. He’ll sit with us and eat his salad.

Some things you’ve had on hand so there’s always “real food” for them to eat when they walk through the door:

  • Hummus with carrots and pretzels/pita crisps
  • Greek yogurt, berries, granola with honey
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Guacamole and Chips
  • Avocado, halved, sprinkled with Maldon salt, eaten with a spoon
  • Apples and peanut butter/almond butter
  • Turkey meatballs for sandwiches
  • Chicken cutlets for sandwiches
  • Leftover black bean soup used as a dip with chips (kids melt cheese on top in microwave)
  • Leftover frittata
  • Quiche
  • Soups
  • “Ingredients” for BLT’s
  • “Ingredients” for Grilled Cheese and Avocado
  • Frozen Amy’s low sodium Spinach Pizza
  • Beef Empanadas (I used to make and freeze, but now Whole Foods does just as well)

3.  When you’re cooking, keep cooking. Cluster your cooking efforts when you can. Tamar Adler’s book was about cooking ahead ALL AT ONCE.  I knew a woman who cooked for the entire week on Sunday. I’m not that kind of a rock star, but there’s something to the time/effort/clean up economics of this that makes sense. Examples: When making turkey meatballs and sauce, make extra meatball mixture. While your meatballs are simmering in the sauce, chop up some onions, garlic, celery, and carrots, fry them up, add broth, simmer. Then add mini-meatballs, baby spinach, and ditalini pasta, and voila you have Italian wedding soup for another night.  While you’re at it with the chopping, pull out another pot, sizzle up the extra mirepoix from the Wedding Soup (if you’re chopping, why not keep chopping?).  Toss in that lone slice of bacon leftover from the weekend. Clean out your vegetable drawers. Let’s say you find two zucchini and a potato; clean, peel and cube. With some broth, a can of crushed tomatoes, some frozen corn or peas and a can of beans you’ve stretched it to a nice smoky vegetable bean soup. With a drizzle of olive oil, grated parmesan and some crusty bread you’ve got dinner or a hearty snack for tomorrow.  When roasting chicken breasts Tuesday, cook a few extra for the Burrito bowls you’ll have Thursday. Bake extra potatoes tonight to use for a frittata the next day. In other words, see where you can use parts of something you’re making to bridge into another meal.  And another.  Also, always make extra of something and freeze when you can.  If you’re making lentil soup, is it that much harder to double it?  What a gift to yourself on a snowy Sunday a month from now.

Are you doing these things already?  What else are you doing that I should know about?

Image here

Nursery School Graduate

Friends, I am officially a Nursery School graduate.  Well my son is, really.  (He specialized in blocks and  the alphabet.  We’re very proud).  Onto kindergarten in the fall.  Which means that my nursery school days are done.  I am, in effect, a Nursery School graduate.  How would I even begin to explain the simultaneous well of grief and the sweet relief of having made it through?

I never think I’m going to get sentimental because generally, I’m pretty practical.  Wouldn’t you know it, at the end-of-the-year “Sing-along”, I lost it good.  My throat had begun its tightening well before I saw him filing in with his class, teachers arranging them on stage.  Once the singing started, I couldn’t see him through the swarm of children.

Have you heard thirty-something very small children sing?  *sigh*

Skinamarinky Dinky Dink was a highlight, but that song about Love being the only thing that when you give it away, you have more?  Arrow through the heart.

I told him after, that I could hear him singing, because Moms have special ears that can hear their children, even in a crowd.  He nodded his head, as if saying, Yes. That sounds feasible.  Of course you could hear my beautiful singing.  In his dreamy world, where not everything has a name yet, anything is possible.

My husband was trying to chat with me about something or other while we were waiting for them to come in.  Because we’re old pros at this.  We’re not the parents that got there early to get a seat up front with our camcorder.  We’re all chill on our third turn on the carousel.  I thought.

I turned to him, tears on my face, and said, I’m not available to talk about that right now.  I’m kind of having a moment.  And I don’t want to miss it.

Not Such A Good Sport

Would it be redundant for me to speak here about the role of childrens’ sports in our lives?*  Redundant in that this is not a new conversation, we have all been saying this for years now, rolling our eyes as we relay how we went from hockey rink at 7am on a Saturday, to lacrosse practice before lunch, culminating in a two-hour evening baseball game?  Sitting in our cars at 8pm on a school night as our kids try out for travel soccer at eight years old?  The league that will run three seasons out of four, that we will end up having paid $900 in fees and registration annually, for which we will have given up all our family Sundays?  Not there yet?  Trust me, you will find yourself in some version of this parenting quandary, hearing your own frazzled voice shouting at your kids as you rush off to the next thing.  All with the sinking feeling of wondering how this happened, to you, who was not going to be that parent.

This is tricky for me as I have one child (Boy #1) that would rather be playing sports, any sport, than do anything else, who needs a lot of exercise to be chill enough to sit down and focus on school work, or even to have a lucid conversation.  Sports are his way of connecting with peers, building his self-esteem, developing who he is and who he wants to be.  We have bought him equipment for many different sports over the years, some abandoned after one season.  We have allowed him to play on more than one team at once (never say never!) which has sometimes felt manageable and sometimes not.

I also have a son (Boy #2) who in general has avoided organized sports.  He articulated to us that he wants no part of the intensity (his observation) of our town’s sports teams.  His extra-curricular time is spent mainly on homework and violin.  This spring we nudged him to try the low-key town Recreation lacrosse which is one practice Friday nights, “games” Saturday morning and that’s it.  Everyone plays, he’s learning something new, he’s getting to be a part of our community.  Otherwise, he can be found in our backyard on a swing, jumping on our trampoline, shooting baskets in our driveway.  It has been a relief for us that he has elected to stay in “the slow lane” of organized sports.

Boy #3 is young enough that his extracurriculars include riding around in the car, waiting in the hallway during violin lessons, finding someone to play with under the bleachers at his brother’s games, and playing on my iPhone.  My husband has him doing “Learn to Skate” hockey for preschoolers on Sunday mornings and I keep looking at him sideways, saying, this is a very very bad idea.

As someone for whom sports was possibly one of the most formative aspects of my younger years, I’m torn.  I know first-hand the bounty of lessons to be gleaned through sports.  I also know that though my parents supported my involvement in sports, and that by high school we had an erratic dinnertime with my brother and I both on teams, somehow it felt different.  There were a few crazy parents yelling from the sidelines then. AYSO soccer , CYO basketball, Pop Warner football. Competition to make teams in high school.  All-County, All-Section, All-State honors.  Success in sports helping along college admissions.

Parenting and childhood have changed.  This, too, is not a new conversation.  By now, we all know that we are the generation of parents who over-manage, over-think, over-reach.  We are guilty (myself included) of having inflated senses of our children’s abilities and successes.  We fall into the parenting trap of needing our children to be extraordinary.  Of course they’re extraordinary to us (as they should be), and perhaps they may even find that they are indeed extraordinary in some area, but chances are, they will have their successes, they will have their failures, they will persevere in the face of adversity (or they won’t), they will learn that hard work pays off (or maybe not).  We hope for them to find things that make their heart sing, ways to earn money to buy milk and bread, a roof, people to be loved by and to love.  But trust me, our kids are not headed for the major leagues.

Attempting to be a reasonable parent today means swimming against the slapping waves of “More! More! More”:  the pressure of what we feel like we should be doing for our kids.  Rec is no longer enough, they must try out for travel.  Then on travel, there are A, B, and C teams.  It’s not just sports, of course.  There are plenty of “enrichment” opportunities, test-prep courses, accelerated classes to jockey for.  Parents are the engine in all this, our vicarious involvement, our survival-of-the-fittest anxieties bubbling up through the ancient mire, our willingness to do or pay for anything to get our child “ahead” of the next kid.  (I will not even get into the ugliness I have seen sports bring out in parents, the exclusivity, the nepotism, the bullying— too big a topic for today).  God bless the capitalists who have figured out what a fertile market we are.  Do we realize this?  That there is an entire economy which profits from our anxiety and lack of boundaries?

What do you think?  Am I overstating things?  Do I need to get a grip?  What is it like where you live?  Do you see any evidence of the pendulum swinging the other way?

*When I say “our lives”, I am referring specifically to middle-class New York suburban lives as that is the one I am living.  I suspect this differs across socio-economic-geographic demographics, but please, enlighten me if you have a different experience.

Image found here.

Baby villains

James came into the kitchen first thing in the morning, rubbing his eyes, saying, “I had the veerdest (weirdest) dream.” He tilted his head to the side.  “It vas about babies pretending to be bad guys”.

I wanted to know more, but of course, as it goes with dreams, they crumble in your hands as you try to tell them.  It’s fruitless trying to pin words to those worlds that have their own logic, up can be down, death can mean life,  sound has no sound.  Babies can be menacing villains you are running from, the confusion still unsettling upon waking, the particulars receding from your grasp like the tide pulling out.

Since becoming a mother almost thirteen years ago, it is rare that I remember my dreams.  Nighttime marches to the persistent drone of I must get more sleep I must get more sleep I must get more sleep.  It’s my default setting now.   Even if I have gotten enough sleep, I’m like a child who grew up in Wartime, or in the 1930’s, forever stockpiling food, hiding cash under my mattress.  I’m still trying to catch up on sleep I missed out on while nursing babies through the night.

My relationship with sleep before was so casual, so thoughtless.  There was plenty to go around, catch up on, or even lose.  But then there were three rounds of not getting a full nights sleep for almost twelve months each time.  My babies were not the ones you hear about who sleep through the night at five weeks old.  Nope.  If I was doing something wrong, then I did it all three times.  And I was tired.  Bone tired.  Too tired.  Not well.  It’s a wonder to me that anyone allowed me behind the wheel of a car, much less in charge of little lives.  I lived to tell, as we all do, and now mostly, everyone stays asleep.  Unless someone’s sick, I can count on an uneventful night.  Though now, they’re up later. Somehow I thought they’d always go to bed at 7:30.

I do fear, though, that my relationship to sleep has been forever changed.  I anticipate in a few years I will enter the stage of sleeping-with-one-ear-open, waiting for teenagers to come in.  And I wonder, will I sleep soundly when they are off at college, in different cities, left to their own devices?  I’m thinking I will, that I will have undertaken the steps, one at a time, to releasing them into the world when they’re ready.  That I will, at some point, own my nights again.  That the psychic knots and body memories of exhaustion will loosen.  I am imagining a day I become untangled from thoughts of not enough sleep, and even, that I may dream vividly, and remember.

Images found here.  

Paris: Leaving

Let this be a lesson to me to blog right away.  Paris?  Was I there?  There has been so much life going since then, it’s almost hard to remember. There were many highlights of our trip (upcoming), so much we saw, ate, talked about. A trip alone with just one child is truly a gift, for both parent and child.  How different he looked when not bouncing off his brothers, wedged between them, clawing his way through the clamor to claim his spot.  There’s so much to tell of our adventures there, though I’ll begin with leaving.

While my husband is entirely competent and I have mused to him on occasion that in some ways, he is a better mother than I am, leaving was hard.  There are things I do that he might not think of, like making sure Elizabeth the Hamster has food and water, feeding and walking my beloved dog.  The rest I had to let go of.

Anticipating the separation from the rest of my family filled me with dread.  I was leaving this little guy:

And this cool guy:

And don’t forget her:

This would be, by far, the longest separation from any of my children.  Twelve-going-on-sixteen-year-old Thomas seemed relieved at the idea of having me off his back for the week.  When I asked him about this he said, without hesitation, “Well, you’re the bad cop, so yeah.”   I could live with that.

As for my little four-year-old nugget, the separation was going to be hard on both of us.  He got teary when we talked about it before, tried to be stoic, but clearly, this was going to be painful.  He asked me questions like. . . would I be back before summer?  How far away would I be?  Would I die?  

His questions reminded me how four-year-olds have little frame of reference,  sense of time or days, and expansive magical thinking where anything is possible.  I wanted to give him something concrete to help him understand the concept of how long I’d be gone and when I’d be coming back.  The “Mommy Chart”, above, was what I came up with.  It was so unfancy, a large index card, a magic marker, and some heart stickers were all I needed.  I didn’t Jordan Ferney  the thing, I just made it something simple enough for him to be able to do on his own.  I went over it with him before I left, showing him how he would put a heart sticker in a box each day, and when he got to the last box, I’d be home.

So often it’s the little things.  My husband reported that  this dinky chart was HUGE for James.  Every morning, he would go to the chart first thing, count the days and enthusiastically report how many days until Mommy would be home, and then move on with his day, confidently sharing with teachers, grandparents, how many days to go.

By midweek, my body physically ached from the separation.  To be honest, it was hard on all of us in different ways, stretching and straining our emotional umbilical cord.  But stretching is a good thing.  As with nearly everything, in parenting and in life, there is a loss and gain for every action, every decision, all at once.  You can never have one without the other, can you?

When Ben was crowding me on our trip with non-stop talking and constant, I mean constant, hugging and being in my physical space (I love hugging as much as the next Mom, but seriously, this kid was trying to wring everything he could from me in the seven days he had me), I said gently, (the first twenty-three times), that space was an important part of any good relationship. Strong connections must permit and can endure, even require, some space.

And, as ever, the best part of going away. . . is coming home.

When in Paris. . .

He was quite serious about the black beret, folks. Wearing it everywhere but bed. He spends a fair amount of time adjusting it, asking me if it looks right. I explained that with a beret one has a lot of leeway. You can push it to the side, cover one ear if you’d like, smush it over your eye just so. One must wear it confidently, certain that you’re conveying that je ne sais qois a beret implies.

Bon voyage

I will be gone for seven days. Not exactly off the grid. In Paris. I lived there for one of the best years of my life back in my twenties. Can’t believe its taken me EIGHTEEN years to get back. Time flies. Seriously.

I’m bringing my sweet nine-year-old Ben, who keeps asking me if I’m sure he will be able to find himself a black beret there, because he wants to wear it the whole time we’re there. “Because that’s what French people wear, right?”

I invested in Rosetta Stone thinking I’d brush up. That didn’t really happen. But Ben used it. He can speak some basic French now. That kid is really something.

It’s been long enough since I’ve been there that I’m thinking I’ll get that same feeling I got when I went back to my Dows Lane Elementary school as an adult. Everything looked so small. Reassuringly familiar but somehow, at the same time, mind-bendingly different. My brain gets a cramp trying to process the passage of time in situations like this.

Already I’ve had that feeling just while looking at a map of the city. Really? I’d have sworn on my right arm that Les Invalides, (whose golden dome houses Napoleon’s tomb, the glint of which you can see from almost anywhere you find yourself), was on the Right bank, well east of Notre Dame. Nope. My map tells me it’s Left bank, quite west. How can that be? All these years I’ve been carrying this picture of the city in my head that included the dome in the wrong place.

Wonder what else will surprise me.

Everything, I hope.

Dirty little secret

Ben came to me the other morning, distressed, showing me his favorite pair of pants with a rip in the knee.  He said, with desperation, “You’ve GOT to fix these! What are we going to DO?”  (Have I mentioned he’s a tad theatrical?)

Once we realized all of his other pants were in the hamper and that the bus was coming in thirty minutes, I agreed that we did kind of have a situation on our hands.  I excused myself, went to my room, and returned with a little sewing kit I picked up at CVS about a year ago. When I bought it, I was thinking about how lame it looked compared to what my mother had when I was a child.  She had an actual sewing box, floral and quilted, with a brass latch on front and bins with different levels inside. There were mismatched plastic and tortoise-shell buttons that clicked together in your hand when you held them, and spools of thread in ink and candy colors.  And the needles, with different sized eyes, a threader, and a thimble I knew she never used.  She wasn’t darning socks by gaslight or anything, but she might stitch a hem, refasten a fallen button, or move one to bring in or let out the waist just a touch.

I settled for the kit made in China, a  compact plastic see-through zipped bag, in the sale bin by the register.  The hotels don’t even give out those little mending kits anymore, so forget about tucking those in your suitcase and counting on having its single needle and twelve inches of thread on hand.

Ben looked at the kit, and said, “But what are you going to DO with it?  You don’t know how to USE those things!”  (Again, the drama this kid brings is just incredible).

He watched as I threaded the needle with navy blue thread, doubled it, knotted the end.  I folded the sides of the rip, tucked the frayed ends inside, and pressing the straight edges together, pushed the needle through the cotton, catching the fabric inside the fold, muttering, “I think I can do an inside stitch where you won’t even see it”.

You would’ve thought he discovered I was running a spa for hamsters in the attic by the look on his face.  “Wow.  Will you teach me how to do that?” he asked.

“Sure.  It’s not a bad thing to know, how to sew a button back on yourself.  Remind me.  I’ll show you.”

He wanted to know how I learned.  It’s not that I’m crafty like all those women stitching up tea cozies or fingerless gloves or felted bird crib mobiles on Etsy, but I know enough to know that a needle and thread and a little know-how puts you in a pretty good position.  There is something quite satisfying about sewing a button back on in line with his pearly brothers and sisters.  The way you leave just a hair of slack in the thread so that there’s not too much pressure when you push the button through its hole.  Over time that thing will just pop off if you sew it too tight.

I told him about how my mother had gotten me sewing lessons with our neighbor, Mrs. Liddle.  She had two young boys and a girl around my age, who just happened to be the cutest, most petite little thing, and I could never get over that her name was Kim Liddle and that she was so little.  Kim and I took these lessons together and I don’t remember most of it, but I do remember that we made these lunch sacks out of a coated cotton calico and sewed a channel for the thick rope that cinched it closed.  And of course we made pillows, which is where I learned that little invisible-inside-seam stitch.  You need it to close up the little spot in a corner where you pushed in the stuffing.  Mrs. Liddle was quiet and patient.

Ben was wide-eyed.

“Yes, Ben.  My dirty little secret.  I actually do know my way around a needle and thread.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell anyone”.

He was startled, almost.  Who isn’t when realizing you have no idea who your mother really is after all? She can do things you didn’t know she could do.  All along, she was like this sorceress carrying spells and you never even suspected.

Image found on Pinterest