Giving up the Halloween ghost.

I threw my hands up on the whole thing a few years ago.  It was all just too much.  Coming up with a fun idea and then multiple trips to the fabric store, followed by the craft store, followed by hand sewing and glueing of feathers at 2 am.  Only to have those fun ideas and feathery frocks unapologetically rebuffed by a kid who just wanted to be a princess.  Not an original princess…the kind that comes in a plastic bag and is found in aisle 12.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  Too much work, too much work all around. I had to give up on homemade Halloween.

I feel like I’ve given up on a lot of the ideas I had about the kind of parent I would be.  I’ve only been at this parenting thing for not-quite 7 years, but the list of prime parenting stuff I’ve already given up on feels so long.  I mostly blame my mom for all those ideas, because she was just so darn good at it….she made it look easy.  But it’s not.  Not for her, not for me, not for anyone who’s trying to do it right.

And this whole Halloween costume stuff is especially hard for me.  My mom made some great costumes for my sister and I, largely with stuff from around the house.  There was one year when I was a pig’s head on a platter, complete with an apple in my mouth that I’d have to spit out at each door to recite the magical candy-generating incantation.

Trick or Treat! … Thank you.  Can you please put the apple back in my mouth?”

The foil-lined cardboard platter around my neck, complete with real lettuce and tomato slices, was so wide that I couldn’t get my arms around it to reach my face.  So, I needed some help getting the apple back in.

It was awesome.

But here’s the thing–I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  Not the way I do now.  I remember it because it was great, of course, but I wouldn’t be sad now not to have that memory.  Follow me on this one–if she hadn’t made fantastical costumes with her magical tinker fairy skills, I wouldn’t have them to miss.   This is what occurred to me a few years ago, when the days before Halloween were disappearing faster than a bag of Cheetos in my house (lightening fast, no judgment please) and I had not yet made the girls’ costumes.

If I didn’t make them, I thought, Halloween would not be a bust.  Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would still wait in vain for the Great Pumpkin. The kids would still dress up and people would say they were adorable.  They’d still run from house to house, fail to follow the “just one” rule and then unwrap, lick and munch themselves into a sugared frenzy.  Halloween would still be great.

If we can make the costumes, that’s amazing.  The kids will appreciate it later, and maybe even write blog posts about how awesome they (and you) were.  If we don’t make the costumes, we haven’t failed. We haven’t deprived them of anything–unless we make the homemade costume, point out its wonderful features and then insist, despite their unfrozen tears, that they be the 7th Elsa from a bag in their class today.

It’s not the costumes we don’t make or things we have to miss. It’s not the things we do not do.  It’s the things we do…the ones we actually do, and how we do them…that matter.

The last homemade costume. circa 2011.  She loved it.  Can't you tell?

The last homemade costume. She loved it. Can’t you tell?

Kodachrome.

The package arrived while I was at work and I saw it by the door as soon as I walked in.  Three pairs of small-to-large baby blue rain boots stood guard around the cardboard box.

I knew what it was and knew that I’d wait until after everyone was asleep before I opened it.  After the last request for another bedtime song, drink of water, and cheeseburger (the last was not granted), I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the living room floor with the box in front of me.  The dog sat a few feet away with a sad look on her face. Like she knew what was in the box and that I was about to cry, or maybe her super-dog nose detected the molecules of her long lost friend.  Her friend, my mom.

A few months before I’d heard from a woman who lived next door to me when we were both teenagers.  Her parents still lived in that house, the one next door to our old home.  The current owners had found some pictures, she said, in the attic.  I asked her to send them to me.  And that is how this box came to be in front of me.  Its contents squirreled away at the dawn of the 90s when we moved to the house on Superior Road, and untouched for a quarter-century.  This old friend sent me a sample before sending the box, a more-orange-than-sepia-toned photograph of my parents holding a small me.  I knew that this box would have more of the same, more pictures I had never seen before because they had been lost in move after move.  From California, to Hawaii, back to California, to New Jersey, and then three other homes in the same Long Island town before being interred in the attic on Superior Road.

I took a gulp and cut the packing tape.  Inside was a handbag, or maybe a camera bag, canvas and faux leather.  Faded and stained, bursting at its poorly sewed seams with photographs, letters, old paystubs and tax records, film negatives and Kodachrome slides.  I opened the box of slides first and found, squinting as I held them to the light, images of my mom on her wedding day.  She was young and beautiful.  Next I opened type-written messages, toasts really, apparently delivered on the occasion of my birth and letters exchanged long ago.  They were sweet, sage and funny. Just like the adults who wrote them, or as I remember them to be from my childhood.

Grown-ups are such a mystery to kids.  To me there was always a magic to adults, an independence and omniscience that I thought all people achieved when they “turned old.”  I always wanted to be a grown-up. So much of my childhood felt like a waiting room, a holding place before I could enter adulthood–the place where I would know, could do, could be, everything.  I guess I’m there now, on the other side of that door.  But I feel practically none of that independence and omniscience I thought would be mine.

I felt lost on the floor, reading the letters and staring at the pictures–at images of the adults who stood tall as redwoods around me as a child.  I could not see a world beyond them back then. They seemed so strong and permanent. But so many of them are gone.

I sobbed like a kid denied his bedtime cheeseburger (a legitimately sad cry), touching the young faces of people I haven’t seen in years.  My grandparents and uncle, great-aunts and mother.  There were other people too, that I remember so clearly, and have no idea where they are today.  Their relationships with me and my family long ago ended.  I started talking to them, all of them, as if we were in the room together looking at these pictures.  Recalling out loud that house or that couch, that tree or the way she smiled and he made us laugh.  It was probably the wine, but it felt like they were there.  I felt warm and happy, sad and foolish.  The dog looked concerned. I stopped drinking the wine.

I laughed at some of the candid images of my parents, taken when they were so much younger than I am now.  They looked happy and clueless in their bell-bottoms and disco shirts.   Holding their new baby, surrounded by family and friends, partners in a crazy adventure, and in love.  They looked like they were in love.  That love is long gone.  It was gone when my mom moved out of the house on Superior Road.  Not in a terrible sense, just in the sense that love can run its course.  The way people grow up.  The way they learn that being a grown-up is not really about independence and omniscience.  Mostly it’s just the opposite.  But it was so nice to see them, to remember them, when they were in love.

So now I’m a grown-up.  I have more responsibility and fears, less independence and fewer answers than I imagined I would have.  And I know that I don’t know a lot of things.  Except for this…I know that I need to print out those pictures I take on my phone.

The ones our fabulous photographer takes of us once or twice a year, in outfits that don’t “match” but are super-coordinated in a completely manufactured happenstance kind of way–these are beautiful pictures. The smiles on the kids’ faces are real, but my husband and I are grown-ups and we know the moment captured is staged.  You can see it on our faces.  The real pictures of us, of him sleeping on a hospital room couch with a newborn perched on his chest and of me looking longingly at the ice cream truck when I’m supposed to be watching a soccer game (though the word game is a stretch when they’re 4), I haven’t printed these yet. Pictures of us together hanging holiday decorations in the front yard and side-by-side at the kitchen sink, where the 6 year old picture-taker’s angle of approach makes us look like giants. And the ones that lack focus but have an abundance of sentiment–these need to be printed.  I should put them in freezer bags or that polka-dot Kate Spade purse I haven’t used since I was 20.  Then I’ll stash them away in the crawlspace with some snapshots of my teenage years, pictures from when my husband and I were dating and our wedding, and a few of the gems from the attic on Superior Road.

Decades from now they will be found and held, their magic will hopefully be felt.  Someday, long after we’re gone, a grown-up (or three) will hold them and have the chance to say hello and goodbye, again.

From the treasure box.

From the treasure box.

Failing.

I’m failing at this.  Totally failing.

The supposed-to-be-Oyster-gray grout between my kitchen floor tiles is as brown as the mud tracks our dog left on the living room floor last week that have yet to be removed.  The toilet paper in the hall bath permanently sits in a pile below the dispenser because 100% of the time 66% of my kids are pretending to be cats, and they like to paw at the roll until it unravels in a heap.  They also tend to forget to use that paper as it was intended thus the permanence of the pile, along with the constant need to buy new underwear.

My oldest daughter had picture day at school today and I had to braid her hair to hide the grime because she hasn’t had a bath since Sunday (it’s Wednesday).  I also put her in tights that were so small the crotch is sitting roughly between her knees, but luckily her too-big skirt is hiding the MC Hammer effect.

I thought we were making progress on potty training with the two year old but he told me last night that he loves diapers “more dan lions” (which is a lot).  Because positive reinforcement isn’t working–he doesn’t care what we think of him and is unmotivated by promises of M&Ms because he has a network of old ladies in the neighborhood that supply him with sweets on the regular–I told him that I would have to take away his coveted blankie if he didn’t start sitting on the potty. He responded, “I sit.  I no pee.” I had no comeback.  He left the room, prowling like a cat, with his blankie between his teeth.

I’m losing.  I’m losing the battle against dirt and mess and diapers.  I’m failing to keep them clean, properly dressed and human.  They want to be cats.  I am allergic to cats.  It’s ironic in an Alanis Morrisette kind of way–so not ironic at all. Just sad, but funny.  Mostly funny and a little bit sad.

But mostly funny is quite good. Mostly funny is not failing.

I’m not failing.

This whole post is like an Alanis Morrisette song.  It’s called “Failing” but that’s not what this is.

I’m not failing–at least not when it comes to parenting.  100% of their lives is mostly funny and only a little bit sad.  And that sad bit is important when raising humans.

I’m also not failing because the grading period doesn’t end today.  I’ve got lots of time to make up lost ground and score some extra credit.   Perhaps I’ll come up with some way to use their feline aspirations to accomplish my goals.

Is a litter box an improvement over diapers?

***

For the sake of the children, I add the following blanket disclaimer to all Goodbye Chicken posts: Any story about poop and any other gross or weird stuff done/said/experienced by any child referenced therein is entirely made up–so future friends, employers, lovers and voters shall not use said story against them.  Of course, any story, or part thereof, about children who are awesome, smart, beautiful and kind or otherwise good is entirely true.

Showing me how a cat says, "leave me alone."

One of my pets.

Say it.

*For my mom. I miss you.

I was hours away from the Junior Prom.  The dress was laid out on the bed with both pairs of new black pantyhose. (One could snag when putting them on, so mom had purchased a back-up.)  I decided that with my black dress, adorned with black plastic jewels along the neckline, and black hose, that red would be the perfect color for my nails.  I went to a local salon for the arduous process of fake nail adhesion, sculpting and painting that was so popular in the early 90’s.  The nail technician worked for hours to glue and shape those nails, and for what felt like hours she sanded away the surface of those newly applied fake nails along with layers of my own skin.

I sat in that chair and let the woman run the nail file over my fingers again and again.  I winced and said “ow.” And she would move more gingerly for a few seconds, then start grinding away again.  By the time she was done, I had ten shiny, long red nails and ten bloody fingertips to match.  She used nail polish remover to stem the bleeding, all the while never showing any sign that what was going on was the slightest bit unusual.  I paid (and tipped her!) for her work, and drove home.

My mother was furious.  She grabbed my hands and asked what happened.  I shrugged and said I needed to get ready.  I only had three more hours to get dressed—barely enough time to curl my hair and put makeup on!  She was fuming.  She called the salon to complain but that was not enough.  We were going back.

“No, Mom. No,” I said through tears.

I was embarrassed.  Embarrassed that I’d said nothing while this woman had inflicted some kind of new-fangled torture upon me.  Embarrassed that my mother was now driving me back to a salon where I knew other people that we knew would see us—see my mom making a scene on behalf of her wounded daughter.  16 year olds are frequent and veteran experiencers of embarrassment at the hands of their parents, but this…this was a whole new level.  I tried to sink myself into nothing in the passenger seat of the car while she drove to the other side of town.

Once there, she marched me in the door and waved my hands at the receptionist.  She demanded an explanation, an apology, a refund.  She got none of them.

“Fine,” she said, “We’ll just stand outside and let everyone else know what kind of place you are running here.”

And we stood.  The two of us, outside the door to the nail salon, with my mom holding my hands in front of anyone who dared enter the salon.  “Look at what they did to her.”

She succeeded in deterring a few patrons, whether their choice was made out of fear that their hands would suffer the same fate or fear of the crazy woman and her red-handed and red-faced sidekick outside, we will never know.

After what felt like hours in my traumatized teenage brain, she finally said we could leave.  On the way home she told me that I should never be silent when someone is doing or saying something that hurts me or someone else.  I was going to be an adult soon and would need to stand up for myself and others around me.  I wouldn’t always have her to defend me.  Not soon enough, I remember thinking.  God, teenagers are awful.  Miraculously I still got dressed, curled and rouged in enough time to enjoy the prom.

I wasn’t always so silent as a kid or teenager.  There was a time when Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC and I was particularly obsessed with the notion that there were soldiers still being held captive in foreign countries, even though the wars that brought them to those places were long over.  The city was planning a parade, though I cannot remember for what holiday or event.  I thought that the plight of prisoners of war needed more prominent attention, so my mom said matter-of-factly, “Just tell the mayor.”

She found the mayor’s address for me and set up the typewriter.  I wrote the letter and she mailed it for me.  A few weeks later I got a signed picture of Ed Koch, reclining with his feet up at his desk.  The sentiments of the picture and my request were so incongruous, but I was pleased.  He had heard me.  Or at the very least, that was what the form letter accompanying the photograph told me.  Thank you for your interest in POW-MIAs.  My mom placed the letter on the fridge.  She was proud of me.

Speaking up was something my mom did quite a bit.  I could tell hundreds of stories about how we would see a child (or dog on a hot day) locked in a car and went on determined searches to locate the drivers, and if they could not be found, wait for the police.  She would refuse to move at a green light if there was a child un-belted in the car behind us.  She once quietly told a young man that his mother would be ashamed of his behavior when she saw him pocket some gum in the checkout line in front of us.  Another time I saw her whisper to a woman who was screaming at her child in a grocery store aisle.  The woman stopped and turned, and exhaled.  She smiled a weary but genuine smile.  She didn’t smack my mom which is what I expected to happen next.

My mom did all of these things without ever raising her voice or inciting a fight…the thought of it mystifies me now.  If anyone offered even well-meaning parenting advice to me in public, I’m not sure I would just stand there and smile.  Somehow she knew how to speak up, but do so in a way that allowed the “offender” the dignity of rectifying the situation on their own.  Not always, of course.  There was no dignity on either side of the door to that nail salon and at least once when I was a kid, I was confident that the driver behind us at the now-green light was going to ram us.

She said that I should never hesitate to speak up when something felt important to me.  Now, as an adult, I think that particular lesson needs some modification.  Never hesitate to speak up when something is important.  Simply feeling important to me is not enough.  The world does not need to hear all of my feelings about Michigan football or the seeming lack of a scientific (or evolutionary) reason for teething pain.  And when it comes to imparting this lesson to my children, this modification will be even more important in this age of social media.  Speaking up is not as hard as it used to be…computers and digital anonymity make “speaking up” pretty easy.  Speaking up about important things, to the people that should hear your message is tougher.  I hope my kids will learn the difference, and will not hesitate to use their actual voices, if not pens, to lend words to their feelings about what is important.

If they don’t, I can always force them to stand in a doorway with me while I shout to passersby about all that is wrong in the world—teenage embarrassment be damned.

My smart mama and me.

My smart mama and me.

Imagination is Everything.

Sometimes I’m in the shower and I imagine myself below a waterfall in Bali.  Not that I’ve ever been to Bali, or even stood blissfully below a waterfall before.  And not that I even get the chance to shower every day.

Sometimes I sit in a coffee shop working and fantasize that I have nothing to do because I am being funded by the Kardashian-Jenner clan.  They have me on retainer to edit the sequel to Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s dystopian fiction debut…a sequel that will never come.

Sometimes I consider what a trip to the Aquarium would be like if I actually had the time to sit and watch the beluga whales swim–to get lost staring into surreal, and decidedly unreal, blue pools.  Or had the time to watch my oldest daughter watch the whales swim without having to run after the other two who are concurrently negotiating for the purchase of a sea star (f/k/a starfish) to take home and trying to find his way in to the penguin exhibit.

Sometimes I imagine that I don’t have a job at all, other than being a parent.  I imagine that I’m better at parenting because I have more time, more energy, and more yoga pants than pencil skirts.  You can’t run very fast in a pencil skirt.

Sometimes I read the Sunday Times travel section on a Wednesday night and picture my husband and I on a Danube river cruise.  There are no laptops or children in the picture (either the one in my head, or the one in the Times).

Sometimes when my almost-5-year-old links her arms around my neck, preventing me from leaving her bedside after a late night kiss, it feels like an anchor.  Holding me fast to a lifetime of responsibility, or at a minimum, 10 more minutes of bedside conversation about Halloween costumes and the necessity of having the full Ninja weapon kit rather than a single sword. 10 minutes I don’t have because there are still hours of work to be done after the last kiss.

More often though, her arms–their arms–feel like life preservers.  They circle me, hold me up, and make me feel warm and powerful.  Impervious to rough seas.

I can’t imagine life without them.

My oldest imagining a life under water.

My oldest imagining a life under water.

Control Issues.

When I was a little girl, I loved Little House on the Prairie. It was not just entertainment to me, it was gospel.  Sacrilege, I know.  But at 8, I was much more concerned with what Laura Ingalls would do than Jesus. And for a time, I was exceedingly interested in what she would not do—particularly in the realm of personal hygiene.

I would sit in the bathroom, running the water in the tub and sink at the same time. I’d drench a washcloth, then wring it out and move the shampoo bottle a couple of inches so even the world’s best detective (at the time I believed that to be Jessica Fletcher, aptly played by Angela Lansbury) could only conclude that a shower had in fact been taken.  It was all part of an elaborate plan to avoiding bathing and brushing my teeth. It took effort.  More effort than the actual act of bathing would have required, but that wasn’t the point.  I was exercising control…and justifying my actions by reference to Little House on the Prairie.

Your average 8 year old does not have much control.  I had even less at this particular time.  We had moved to a new place, a new state, that I had not picked.  I hadn’t been consulted on the neighborhood choice or bedroom selection.  And just as was the case with our prior household moves, I was missing friends and some of my very important stuff.  I can’t even remember what stuff was lost.  But it was stuff that was mine, and then it was not.

I sat on the floor of the bathroom as steam from the shower I would not take clouded the room and I thought, Laura Ingalls didn’t have a lot of stuff.  If she didn’t need a ton of stuff in order to maintain her sunny disposition and constant, toothy grin in the face of all of those late 19th century pioneer troubles, then I didn’t need much either.  It also appeared that  she only needed to swim in a river once a while to get clean and didn’t need to brush her teeth to maintain that winsome smile–which is how I justified my own skirting of the laws of dental hygiene.

My ruse didn’t last long.  My mom indulged it for a couple days before finally telling me, as she kissed me good night, “If you’re going to try to make it look like you brushed your teeth, you should think about wetting the toothbrush while that faucet is running.”

She wasn’t mad, and she didn’t send me back to the bathroom.  I think she understood.

All people, even the little ones on late 20th  and early 21st century prairies, need to feel they’re in control…of something.

Now, three decades later, I have more stuff and more control.  Yet things often feel so out of control.  I’m brushing my teeth regularly, so that’s a start—but there are so many other things that are not getting done and need to get done, or are not getting done the way I want them done.  So many things–big ones and little ones–spinning, beyond my control.

Laura Ingalls is no longer the spiritual leader of my cult of one, but I still think about her and the way I felt back when I was a powerless kid.  I try to remember that feeling when my 6 and almost-5 year old girls fire their own control-seeking missiles.  Their stubborn refusals to eat that last bite of dinner, or to brush their hair, or remove the stuffed animal they have shoved under their shirt for Laura-only-knows-what-reason, they are not just annoying–they are damaging, albeit largely unconscious, strikes against our state of parental control.

When my 2 year old flails like a Sharknado 2 hammerhead on a Manhattan rooftop because he was given a green-handled fork instead of a blue, I want to scream that his reaction makes about as much sense as a Sharknado. (I don’t know why, I just had to watch. The original Sharknado and its sequel were awful[ly] brilliant[ly] terrible.)  I want to yell that I am the mom and I pick the forks, and the food and the clothes, and the bad television.  So deal with it, kid!  But I usually don’t.  When I’m not already teetering on the edge because of my own control issues, I remember to remember that these little people feel powerless.

I remember that a few bites of peas and a stuffed sheep protruding from a very stretched shirt collar, just like a night or two of not bathing, don’t make a bit of difference.  To them though, it’s everything.  It’s everything they’ve got right now.

And they’re everything to me.

Spinning out of control.

Spinning out of control.

What sheep?  I don't see a sheep.

What sheep? I don’t see a sheep.

The First (3rd) Day of School.

We carefully selected her socks yesterday morning.  The uniform rules don’t leave a ton of room for variation, but we thoughtfully chose among the white and navy anklets and knee socks.  I brushed her hair and placed the blue bow off to the side, while she watched in the mirror to ensure perfect placement.  Then we were off.  It was the first day of school.  But not really… it was her third day back to school, but my first day to see her go.

Last Friday I was still away for work. This Monday I needed to leave early to stand in front of a judge (thankfully I was not the defendant).  Last Tuesday, I was there with a camera in one hand and tissues (just in case) in the other, for her older sister’s first day of First Grade. But there was nothing I could do last Friday–short of quitting my job, and the thought did cross my mind–to be there for the first day of Kindergarten.  So, I did something I have done many times before.  I made yesterday the “first day” with full knowledge that it was not.

When I went back to work after my oldest was born, things were tough.  They’re tough for every mom that has to go back to work.  To be honest, though, I was not racked with overwhelming guilt that I was leaving her.  I was sad, to be sure.  I was jealous of the nanny who would get to stare all day at my sweet baby’s beautiful face.  I was nervous about keeping track of dirty diapers, and ounces of milk and dwindling supply of said milk.  I was sad to say goodbye to the daytime television that I had grown so attached to…Ellen.  My dear, Ellen.  I miss her to this day.  And 90210 on Soapnet.  Reliving Brenda’s pregnancy scare and Kelly’s mama drama.  (Lest I forget the antics of Steve–the very prototype of bro-ness, the brototype, if you will.  I failed to fully appreciate him the first time around in 1994.)

Then again, I was happy too.  I was looking forward to getting back to work.  I was sure about that.  I was not sure about…well, I wasn’t sure of just about anything else.  But I’d made a choice. One influenced by economics and ego, by a desire to be an example to my daughter and a head full of feminist faith.  A choice I did not intend to regret.

I had full confidence that I’d done my best to find the best caregiver I could.  I interviewed a roster of pre-qualified and background-checked potential caregivers.  I called references.  I posed ridiculous hypotheticals. I only scheduled interviews for the witching hour(s)–the hours during which my sweet doll-baby of a daughter turned into a bonafide bedeviling baby witch.  She screamed her head off every night from 4 to 6 causing those around her to wish they no longer had heads themselves.

The evening we met the woman who would become such an important part of our family, I handed the 3 month old red-faced screamer to her.  She took this baby that even a mother had to try very hard to love from 4-6, and held her close. She deftly bounced and walked, rubbed her back and somehow managed to talk–answering all of my questions with as much care and attention as she was giving the baby.  She was better than me at this.  She was going to be awesome.

And she has been awesome.  Of course, there have been bumps in the road.  We long ago had to get over the fact that she would not accept our instructions as gospel.  With her endearing Polish accent, her favorite way to respond to any request she disagreed with was “Hmm…’Dis is my proposal….” Her proposal would follow.  And we followed her.  Her advice, her lead.  We followed.

She hates technology so while so many of my friends receive texts and pictures during the day, for 6 plus years I’ve had to wait to get home to get the day’s summary.  She doesn’t like play dates and refuses to schedule or attend them.  She can’t wash a dish to save her life, and I’m pretty sure that she is the primary Oreo cookie eater in our household.  She believes in being outside as much as possible, even as snow falls and the mercury falls below zero.  And she tells the kids stories about communists that lead to all kinds of interesting bedtime questions.  But it works for us.  She has helped to raise our three fantastic kids, and her tolerance for their kid-witchery (it has only gotten worse since those early witching hours) is only matched by her love for them.  They are her children too, and I’m okay with that.  I’m more than okay with that.

She also understands how I feel.  She knows from personal experience what it is like to have to go work and not be home with her own children.

She was the one to first give me permission to reinvent the “firsts.”

When my oldest daughter took her first (the real first) steps, I was at the office.  When I got home, she asked me to come to the living room.  She said, “You are going to see her first steps.”

I dropped my bag and ran.  I saw my baby in the living room, holding on to the couch as she had done for weeks before, and then I saw her let go and take 3 steps.  She fell and smiled.  We cheered.  Then it occurred to me.  Those weren’t the first steps.

I turned to my partner-in-mothering and said, “Those aren’t her first steps are they?  She’s done it already.”

She looked at me and said firmly, “No.  Those were her first steps.  Nothing happens the first time until you see it.”

I cried and she hugged me, and we’ve operated under that principle ever since.

So, yesterday was the first day of Kindergarten with my sweet middle child.  It was a great day.  And I was so happy to be there to see it.

***

For the sake of the children, I add the following blanket disclaimer to all Goodbye Chicken posts: Any story about poop and any other gross or weird stuff done/said/experienced by any child referenced therein is entirely made up–so future friends, employers, lovers and voters shall not use said story against them.  Of course, any story, or part thereof, about children who are awesome, smart, beautiful and kind or otherwise good is entirely true.

Mommy's first day of Kindergarten.

Mommy’s first day of Kindergarten.

Proof of Good Parenting.

So many nights I feel like I’ve had the crap kicked out of me. Some nights I feel like that because I’m so physically exhausted that even the thought of getting up off the couch to get myself too bed is just too much. Sometimes I feel like that because I have actually been kicked, hit, elbowed and/or body-slammed, intentionally or not by my kids. And sometimes my mental (and physical) exhaustion is actually about getting crap out, just not out of me.

The other night it was the double whammy of kiddie constipation plus kiddie ninja warrior injuries.  As my mouth filled with blood, I thought I smelled poop.  I smiled, looking  like a sated extra from True Blood, and then laughed quietly thinking about what my life had become.  I also thought: Man, I am a damn good parent.

I’ll let that image linger while I backtrack a bit…

There are so many things that surprise new parents. Everyone says that your life will completely change. They say things will never be the same. That you will place their needs–their existence–ahead of your own.  (We can debate the appropriate reaches of this concept another time.) Despite all of the advice and words of prospective caution, the reality is full of surprises. So many surprises. There’s the lack of sleep, lack of sleeping in on weekends, lack of money in the checking account, and lack of time for friends, and work, and books, and exercise, and prime-time television (watched on its original air date), and personal hygiene, and lawn maintenance (of the real and colloquial variety).

For me, however, the biggest surprise was all the poop.  There is so much poop.  Poop everywhere, in inconvenient locations like a restaurant, or a highway going 70 mph when you just took a pit stop 4 minutes ago, or on your suit sleeve 6 hours after you left the house that you only notice as you go to shake the hand of a new client.  Poop all day, every day, in all its pooptastic poopertinence.

But sometimes there is no poop, and that’s a problem too.  The other night was about a lack of poop.  My toddler hadn’t pooped in days.  They say a kid can go up to a week without pooping, but I picture their little insides clogged up like a–well, let’s just say clogged.  The longer it lasts, the worse it gets.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Poop hurts, followed by a reluctance to poop, leads to holding in poop, results in poop hurts. It’s sad and uncomfortable–for them and for us.  People of Starbucks: Nevermind my kid pressing his hand against his rear and screaming at his poop not to come out.  Nothing to see here. Move along.

Anyway, my kid hadn’t pooped in a couple days. He was exceedingly uncomfortable, he couldn’t sleep because he kept being awoken by the pressing issue. He was weepy, and all-around the saddest sack of a kid I’d seen a while.  It was 2 am and I was rocking him in his darkened room, waiting for the adult dose of laxative to kick in, and I was exhausted. He would fall asleep and then wake up to complain and clench, then fall asleep again. The kid was putting up a valiant fight but I knew (and he knew) he’d lose eventually. At one point he sat up and looked me straight in the eye and said, “No poopy, not now. I busy.”  Let’s forget the implication that he’s heard any adult say “not now, I’m busy” and focus on the kid’s will power here.

This kid is a marvel of mind over digestion. He is a champion poop fighter. He said those words, fell back asleep while sitting straight up and then collapsed forward, striking his marvelous mind (surrounded by hard skull) directly into my mouth.  My tooth sliced in to my lip and I immediately tasted blood. I thought about getting up, but he was asleep. And he needed sleep. If I got up, he’d be awake and sad and angry all over again.

So I waited.

I rocked.

A few minutes later, I spelled poop.

The poop was coming and he was too tired to wake up and fight it, so I rocked some more until the deed was done. I laughed at myself. I laughed and marveled at the person I had become.  I was exhausted, but proud.  I’d put his needs ahead of my own.  He needed sleep and elimination.  I needed sleep, a boxer’s spit bucket and some frozen peas. I let him snooze for a while longer while we rocked in the chair before moving him to change his diaper and put him back to bed. He slept through it all.

This parenting thing is hard.  Your body takes a beating, along with your psychological well-being.  You think you’re not doing enough, or doing it well enough–then, you have these moments.  The moments when your dark circles and fat lip are big, swollen proof that you are able and willing to put their needs ahead of your own.  Proof that you are a good parent…no matter what the people at Starbucks think.

***

For the sake of the children, I add the following blanket disclaimer to all Goodbye Chicken posts: Any story about poop and any other gross or weird stuff done/said/experienced by any child referenced therein is entirely made up–so future friends, employers, lovers and voters shall not use said story against them.  Of course, any story, or part thereof, about children who are awesome, smart, beautiful and kind or otherwise good is entirely true.

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Look at them…ahead of me, always.

The Last Day.

My children are 6 and a half, almost 5 and 2. They are not babies anymore.  I know, I know…it goes so fast.  Kids grow up.  From the time you are first visibly pregnant, strangers tell you to enjoy it. They grow up so fast.  They are right, of course, though the topic of unsolicited and largely unwelcome parenting advice is for another time (as is the topic of people asking if you are pregnant).   It does go fast–sometimes. Other times the clock feels like it is moving about half as fast as a century-old turtle in molasses.  The sleep-little nights stack up to a mountain of exhaustion and you feel like it is never going to end.

I have wished out loud more than a few times for time to speed up.  I’ve longed for the end of sore nipples and for the diaper deliveries to cease. For the irrational “no” to stop being the most common word that escapes my 2 year old’s mouth.  For meals in public and adult conversations that are not cut short by the behavior of tiny-tot tyrants. For a time when I no longer have to brush 3 sets of teeth before I brush my own in the morning.  I know I shouldn’t wish for these days to end.  Each day is a gift and [insert another e-card inspirational quote and/or phrase here].  There are truly so many wonderful things about babies and small children, but for every delicious first giggle there is a brutal first fit of inconsolable crying.  This parenting thing is wonderful, and it’s excruciating.

But the days inevitably go by without our prompting, and babies–they stop being babies.  A few days ago, my 2 year old chose to use a potty.  We’d placed the green plastic seat in his room weeks ago and I half-heartedly planned for a weekend of potty training that would take place later, when I was ready for it.  He had his own ideas though and didn’t wait for me to be ready.  I was changing him for bed and he said, “I use da potty.”  I smiled and plopped him down, and he immediately employed the receptacle as it was intended.  We high-fived and cheered. He shrieked, “I deed it! I deed it!”, while his sisters danced a happy potty dance around him (think the classic sprinkler move…with an imaginary toilet, and the arms are not spraying water…well, you get it).   The entire surface of his face was painted with joy.  I was watching him watch his sisters and committing his triumphant, scrunched-nose smile to memory, when it hit me.  He’s not a baby.  I don’t have babies anymore.

This thing that I had wished for in so many low moments had happened.  Time was speeding by and it was as bittersweet as the chocolate I used to console myself after they were all in bed that night.

If we are lucky, our kids grow up.  We get to see them change and learn new things about the world and themselves.  We get to sit across the table from them and hear their thoughts on caterpillars, friendship and why ancient cultures no longer exist.  We get to see glimpses of the kind and funny, sarcastic and athletic, cunning and creative adults they will be.  And, if we are very lucky, we get to see them actually become those adults.

It was his last day as a baby, but I wished for more.  More days with my babies in all of their post-diaper glory, dancing awkwardly in celebration of passing milestones.  More time with them not yet embarrassed by my hugs and kisses and still craving bedtime stories.  And more days spent enjoying the moment we are in rather than wishing for the clock to speed up.

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Me and first baby.

In Familiar Country.

I drove across the panhandle of Florida, heading toward a hotel that I had never been to before.  It was a chain that I’ve stayed in more times than I’d like to count, and could navigate blindfolded if necessary because they are all exactly the same.  The location of the front desk ahead and to the left. Tepid coffee and water for late night arrivals about 10 steps in and 3 toward the right.  I’d never been to this city before yet I knew that so much of it would look like so many other cities I’d been to. Miles and miles of trees, or corn fields, or desert, or mountains, then suddenly an oasis of chain steak houses, fast food, big box retail and those hotels that I know so well.  I don’t like to think about it too much because it’s depressing as hell.  Then again, the optimist in me thinks: Well, at least the kids who grow up here won’t be crippled at the thought of moving away for college or jobs or whatever, because wherever they go–it will be familiar.  Then I think: Nope, still depressing.

I’m a sucker for those airport and hotel displays of brochures from local tourist traps.  Without them, I’d just be stuck with trip after trip of the same hotel, same bed, same rental car smell and same steak house salad, and my head just might explode.  I was thinking about the kinds of unique visitor experiences this place might have to offer–would it be another handful of places designated as purveyors of the best bbq ever or, if I was lucky, some historical sites with on-site, costumed reenactors–when I called my dad.  I told him where I was headed and he laughed.  I know that place.  I was near there for training before going overseas and that’s the town we used to sneak off to.  He said “overseas” instead of Vietnam.

I’m not sure why it struck me the way it did.  I’ve lived in a lot of places and my parents (and their parents) lived in a lot of places before I came along.  There always seems to be some familial connection to any place I go to and, frankly, I don’t usually think much of it.  This time was different though.  I wanted to see this place my dad had been.

The sun felt like it was sitting on top of the car and the air conditioner was working hard.  I was looking at the low, dense pine trees as I drove. They seemed short to me, as if the weight of the place’s humidity kept them from reaching a full height.  I saw enormous dragonflies, the size of small birds.  I saw the landscape through the eyes of my 18 year old dad, far away from the urban environment he grew up in and not far from being sent to war.

Maybe it was my own fatigue and homesickness at work, but my sense was that this place, so hot and foreign, probably made my dad feel very alone.  In fatigues and homesick, staring down insects that could carry a small dog away from its yard, I imagined that he felt lost.  I didn’t and haven’t ask him about any of this and I don’t plan to (unless you read this, Dad, and want to chat, xo).  It was a lifetime ago for him.

Another 50 miles down the road and my mind was on the hundreds of children arriving at our southern border a day and how fatigued and homesick they must be.  The radio voices were assigning blame for the crisis and generally calling for them to be sent back to wherever they came from.  [As an aside and without an opinion about what should or needs to be done about the situation, I wonder how those words would feel coming out of the radio mouths if they were forced to use the word "children" instead of "them"...but I digress.]  These children come from places where people don’t have the luxury to ponder why the pine trees are short because they are too worried about whether their kids will survive.  I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows and listened to the voiceless air instead.

I am (along with so many others in this country) so unbelievably lucky to live in a place where I have the luxury to think about trees.  To live in a place where I, as a woman, can have a career that provides for my family and the ability to travel to strange and beautiful places within our own borders, largely without fear.  To live in a place and time where I am pretty darn confident that my children will not fall victim to a war, and will not have to fight a war unless they choose to do so for their country.  To live in a place that so many others see as a promised land.

I drove by the military base that my dad was at so long ago.  There were just enough chain restaurants that it probably feels familiar to anyone stationed there now.  I optimistically thought about how a foot-long sub from a familiar restaurant might make a city kid far from the subway feel at home, at least for a little while.

I didn’t get the chance to see any other local sites.  I chose a late night flight back so I could see my girls, my very lucky girls, off to camp in the morning.