Because the measurements I painstakingly took looked like they would work but theAmazon description didn’t say that the waist wasn’t elastic. Because the tutu couldn’t go up over the hips that have carried three children. Because it was going to have to go over my head and the bottom part was in the way. Because I could just cover my underwear with the pink ballet tights I had my mother dig out of my closet from my hometown bedroom, the ones that I got when I took ballet lessons as an adult to have a creative outlet when I took my first real job back near my parents. Because ballet still feels like the thing that was never right for me or my body, but always right for my heart. Because my daughters are there now, under the spell of tulle and ribbons and buns pinned up while arms spin out. Because they think that “Halo” by Beyoncé is a “ballet song” and they twirl through the house and ask me to dance and think I’m good at it.
Because they won’t always want me to dance, won’t always be under the illusion that I am good at it. Because we do a mother-daughter tea party for their friends each fall and this year it had to have a ballerina theme. Because I thought of their faces when I came out in that pink tutu, and I knew their eyes would grow wide and the baby (she will always be the baby) would say “Mama so boot-ful!” and so I would be. Because they don’t know words yet like muffin top or unflattering or flabby or plus-size and they only know that ballerinas are those who dance and they are all beautiful. Because I want to be a woman who unlearns those words too. Because they are learning from me how to navigate the world and I want them to know that they can do it in a tutu.
Because I ordered the outfit in the middle of a stressful day, an uncertain month, a complicated stage of our lives. Because there are so many things that I can’t fix or change or even plan appropriately. Because I could buy something that would turn me into the ballerina my girls wanted me to be. Because I could have it rush shipped and it could show up in a bundle of bubble gum pink magic just in time. Because the day it actually showed up was a Very Hard Day and it felt like a lifeline. Because when I tried to pull it on and it wouldn’t budge over my hips, I didn’t even think twice before grabbing the scissors. Because I knew that if I could just get it on, even if only for one magical ballerina tea part, I could make something perfect. Because that was enough.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “A Question”.
The honest book, the one of crucial intel that they absolutely did not tell us at that 4 hour class we did before giving birth, the one where the sweet nurse instructing us had to pause the whole course because James looked like he was going to faint. I mean the real books of parenting. The ones, not of ideals, but of survival truths from the trenches. Here they are, the titles that you won’t find at your local book purveyor, but will find on the hearts and mind of every parent. And so, from the author who brought you baby dissertations, working titles for my parenting book:
Tell Them It’s Naptime: How to Guarantee Independent Play at Inopportune Times
You Should Have Eaten Your Eggs at Breakfast: Explanations For Any Harm that Befalls Your Toddler
The Internet is about short missives these days, fancy memes, witty infographics, stories and tweets and clickbait and I kind of miss the long form blog. It felt a little like sitting down for coffee and talking things over.
If we were grabbing coffee, there is so much I would want to tell you about this summer, this moment, in our lives. I would start with the obvious, a lamentation that summer is ending too quickly, as it always does. Perhaps it is because Henry is in school now so the summer has a definite end date, or perhaps it is because I will be technically full time in the fall for the first time ever so it feels like these lazy days are precious, or perhaps it is because the very nature of parenting is to crave and simultaneously grieve the passing of time.
If we were grabbing coffee, I’d ask what you all have done this summer. It has been a Summer of Swim for us, with a first noble attempt to benefit from the shockingly cheap DC parks and rec swim lessons… all of which were canceled, so we caved and enrolled the kids in private lessons. We have plunged into every body of water available. Pools and creeks and splash pads and the buckets of water we haul to keep our new hydrangeas alive.
If we were grabbing coffee, I would tell you about chore charts, about how I decided that this summer would be the time that the older two kids became Contributing Members Of The Family… with limited success. Sometimes it is them, dragging their feet about the daily tasks they are assigned. But sometimes it is me, not wanting to interrupt their free summer play to commit to the tiny moment of learning I included in each day or the chores that are important, but also maybe not as important as whatever mud play is happening in the back yard. I would ask you how you are forming the minds and wills of the tiny people in your lives, and are you failing at it all too often and constantly wondering if you are doing it right?
If we were grabbing coffee, I would tell you about my favorite moment of the summer. I would tell you how the kids and I have spent all summer trying to catch every summer storm, to race outside as the sky darkens and the wind whips the branches of the trees and we stand our ground as the thunder rumbles and the big fat drops start to fall. I would tell you of that one day, where a storm rolled in as cookies finished in the oven and we carried the tray to the front porch, watching the clouds roll over us as we ate hot and gooey chocolate bars with burning fingers. I would ask you what it’s been for you, the moment you have loved best, the moment where you thought this, this is what I dream about all winter.
If we were grabbing coffee, I would probably unburden myself like the over-sharer I am. I would tell you of the couple brushes with danger we have had this summer, moments that make me question if it is wise to raise kids in this city. I would tell you of Maddie Lo’s slowly disappearing babyhood that makes me question daily -are we done? Should we do that again? Is our family complete? But then I would think of how easy so many things feel without the tiniest neediest members and the adventures that we can have now. I would share my professional heart and the way my career has surprised me and the ways I am daunted to take on more work this fall, as I stay committed to being present at home. I would ask you how you are weighing all the things that you are carrying and how you know which ones to drop.
If we were grabbing coffee, I would tell you of my newfound love for tennis skirts with roomy pockets and of this dinner that everyone ate without complaint and of this book that has motivated me to actually do what is needed to get 8 hours of sleep a night and how I started taking my coffee black. I would gush about this cake that I just made from the blackberries we picked in our annual pilgrimage and I would share how much less angry the world seems since I deleted Instagram from my phone, but how I also miss seeing everyone living their small lives in the big world. I would talk your ear off about this show that James and I are obsessed with and I would share that one of the happiest parts of my life right now is how James and I end so many evenings sitting on our back porch sipping the artisanal cocktails that James has mastered. I would ask you what it is for you, the myriad recommendations and passions and finds that are filling your life.
There is nothing so intoxicating as a new year, a fresh slate full pf promise and crisp planner sheets that have yet to be destroyed by a child with a red crayon and Artistic Aspirations. On Friday we drove home from our annual trek around Indiana and Kentucky visiting family for the holidays and James and I conducted one of our favorite rituals. While we would love to end our year in a getaway and a chance to process what is behind and plan for what is ahead in blissful calm – that is not a reality in our current stage of life. Instead, a couple years ago we started taking the 9+ hour drive to do a summit meeting of sorts. We toss the kids tablets and snacks and they enjoy the hyper rare screen-time binge with headphones while we enjoy a structured year-end session of reviewing, dreaming, and planning. It’s honestly one of the highlights of our year, our favorite date conducted in the front row of a minivan packed to the brim with Christmas-sugar hungover children and partially decomposed squeezy pouches.
I mentioned this ritual on Instagram and immediately got flooded with DMs about what these structured categories are, so I wanted to type up some notes, interspersed with my own reflections of 2021 and of course, photos ad nauseum. So here it us
How To Have A Tired Parent Executive Summit Meeting And Goal Planning Session While Your Kids Enjoy Too Much Screen Time
A year in review: The first thing we do is spend a couple hours (yes! hours! The power of the road trip! You could also break each segment of this into three evenings of post-bedtime drinks and chats) reviewing the past year. This discussion covers the following topics.
Highlights from the past year, revealed as we talk through the year month by month. Because sometimes when you are in the trenches of parenting… you forget basically everything that isn’t in the past 48 hours. Forcing a slow walk through the year is so fruitful and also, shockingly difficult.
Review of how we did on last year’s resolutions, which I keep in a notes app on my phone
Review of what we ADDED to life in the past year and what we want to REJECT in the year to come.
Establish a Guiding Concept: Ok, so technically this might actually happen at the end of your summit after you realize what has popped up multiple times. But at some point in the Summit, try to stop and verbalize what overarching goal/ word/ quote / verse concept you want to hold close to your heart in the upcoming year. I cannot say enough how powerful this is, how life giving it is in structuring how you think about the year. In the weeks leading up to The Summit, I had some thoughts and clarity about what I wanted in 2022 and talking through them with James helped to make us both excited about our big picture vision for the upcoming year. At one point in The Summit, we read aloud two essays about the New Year. One was this one, that had us screech laughing, and another one included a perfect quote about this element of The Summit:
“Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”-T.S. Eliot
Take some time to find the words, the voice to a new year.
Dream for the year to come: Behold- the resolution setting part. While this might be the “meat” of the discussion, it doesn’t happen in a void, but rather is the fruit of the first two parts of the discussion. We are ready to dream and plan because we know where we stand and we have a vision of where we want to go in the coming year. We then make three lists of goals: Goals shared by both of us/ family goals, goals for James, goals for me. These include Big Goals, and things like “buy new bath mats for the primary bedroom.” Last year’s list legit included “go to the dentist,” and “find someone to deep clean once a month.” For each of these lists, we tackle the following categories:
Health goals (fitness goals, healthy habits, etc. I like to have a sub-set of goals for January specifically because I love the power of a strong fitness start)
Family goals (like, we want to try to have a hike a month as a family in 2022, etc.)
Professional goals (concrete things that need to be done at specific times for our professions)
Personal goals (book quotas we want to meet, hobbies we want to nurture, screen time limits we want to establish, etc.)
Domestic goals (house projects or housekeeping related)
Relationship goals (date night quotas, etc.)
Plan follow-ups. This is new for us this year. We have always chatted throughout the year about how we are doing, but this year we actually planned monthly benchmark meetings and wrote out some notes on a special year-planning page in my planner. For instance I took the list of domestic house-related goals and assigned something to purchase/ research/ get quotes on/ enact each month. “Finish decorating” is overwhelming, but “change lightbulb in stairwell that has been burnt out for 4 months” is more doable.
And now… some of our Summit! A lot is obviously personal, but here are a few snippets because I love using this space to help me remember.
2021 was a really good year for our family. There were mistakes, low moments, way too much money spent on home repairs that we would have rather avoided, and a complete failure to accomplish our goal of getting up at 6 am for calm times of scripture reading and reflection. As in- it never happened. But other key things did happen. When we discussed what we wanted to claim and applaud from 2022, so many of the things were family rituals. 2022 canonized Friday Night Family Movie Night and I perfected the accompanying homemade pizza. We cemented Coffee Time as the greatest part of Saturday mornings, and established Family Cleanup and corresponding Family Reward on Sundays so well that it rarely is met with (much) complaining anymore. James and I embraced regular Sunday night planning sessions to map our Henry’s homeschool work and our complicated matrix of my work and childcare. So basically… we spent 2022 perfecting our weekends as a family. And I feel pretty good about that.
James and I also made 2021 the second year where we really prioritized our health, which when you have little kids, means prioritizing the other person’s health. Daily barre workouts and early morning walks for me, routine long runs for him. We made them happen, choosing to force the other out the door when we both wanted to just skip We chose each other’s health and happiness and that was life-giving in so many ways.
2021 had so many family dance parties after dinner, to the point where Maddie gets up from the table and immediately races to stand under Alexa and yell until one of us has it start playing dance party music. While our ability to do frequent date nights has taken a hit (see above “when you have little kids”) we mastered evenings of craft cocktails and managed to swing a getaway to Jamaica. We invested in our community, our neighborhood, our family, our home. I realized my goal of not just having furniture sitting in rooms by decorating our primary bedroom entirely using Facebook Marketplace and finished (I think) our living room decor. We also painted our half bath in a late night decision of dubious wisdom resulting in one of the larger fights in our marriage and the firm realization that we do not have careers as painters.
2022 feels exciting, mostly because a lot of goof habits and rituals became routine in 2021 and I am eager to build on them. Will this be the year we actually start getting up early? Perhaps. Time, and by that I mean tomorrow morning, shall tell. It will hopefully be a year where we use our phones less, as we both started the year by deleting apps and setting up time limits on those that remain to shave pointless scrolling and subsequent frustration and waste from our lives. We made lists and plans and shared dreams for this brand new year and it feels really good to walk into it. We took the time to find words for this new year and to start learning the voice that it will speak. Can’t wait to listen.
Actually, that’s not true. I just really love this book, and that is the opening line, and I think of it often.
But I am writing it in view of the kitchen sink, perched on the counter with goldfish crunching underfoot and laundry running downstairs and the baby has no pants on. Which is to say- it’s almost dinner time, so things are chaotic, but everyone is happily playing a few feet from me for the moment so I decided to make a noble effort to write something. I started playing the Nutcracker music today, breaking my Thanksgiving start time for Christmas music, and it just seemed appalling to jump from a summer post to Christmas.
With the fall, and more job shifts for me (not a new job, just doing it in person for the first time ever since I took the job during COVID), and Henry starting a university model school for kindergarten which also means homeschool two days a week- this fall has flown by. So in lieu of a cohesive catchup, here are the things we have been loving lately.
This tea. I have loved it a long time, but every fall I rediscover it and it feels freshly wonderful. We had a massive and excessively/ pointlessly fancy tea party for the girls and some mother-daughter friends this fall and I’ve been pulling china cups back out and making a pot of it ever since.
These jeans. They are the perfect mom-jean-but-not-too-hideaous-stretchy-but-structured blend.
This app. I am trying not to be dramatic but this app has changed my life. Feeding our family, planning the meals, making them, keeping track of recipes I try – it has slowly been sapping my soul. Now, I have EVERYTHING in this app. All the recipes stripped of the obnoxious adds and stories and videos and scrolling. Sorted based on logical categories to me like “Veggies Etta will Eat” or “No one complained about this.”
And then of course, the more important things, the things that I can’t link or offer or sell you on or capture but I love them so much that it alternates between crushing and freeing me.
The way Henry draws people right now, all angular and sticky and always in family units like us.
The way that Etta has discovered princesses and fancies herself one, only wanting dresses and costume-like ones at that.
The way that Maddie smiles and scrunches her nose up when she attack hugs all of us every morning.
The way that Etta discusses bedtime snuggles, sometimes announcing when I try to get up that we have only done the “stem of the snuggle.”
Maddie’s belly. Her pudgy legs and delicious cheeks and still dimpled fists.
The family dance parties. The movie nights. The lazy Saturday mornings.
How it felt watching James coach Henry’s tee-ball team.
The way that the kids run laps around our main floor to the William Tell Overture every night, and how Maddie joins in now and sometimes James and I hop in and they squeal so excitedly.
Photosynthesis and Monet’s waterlilies and ant farms and the things Henry teaches me as he learns, new to him and new again to me in his joy.
That he wants to be an engineer and she wants to be a princess and she wants to just be held, and they are so full of dreams but every single one includes us being together because separation, diverged lives, absence is intolerable to them, unimaginable and repugnant.
The independence they all want right now, the way it shows in so many ways. And the need they still have, the fact that I am still the safest place.
The first time I noticed the sound I thought a car alarm was going off somewhere in the distance. It was a dull screeching in the background as we played outside all day and in the evening James mentioned that he had heard it too. We shrugged it off but the next day it was back, and louder and we realized- it was Brood X, the cicadas that had been waiting 17 years to hatch and fill our lives with noisy bugs.
I had known of course that they were coming, as it had become a touchstone in casual conversations for anyone living in the cicada swath. I saw them crawling everywhere and covering trees when I went for my morning walk, and noticed the kids were fascinated with the way they left their translucent shells on everything. They were also terrified every time the noisy bugs flew at them, buzzing in their hair or sticking to their ankles. I pried one out of Maddie’s mouth and gagged at the thought of eating one of the bugs, though I know many people did.
The noise was the backdrop for the early months of summer, this summer where we all emerged- not unlike the bugs – from a pandemic year, blinking and calling to each other and figuring out how things work now. Henry started t-ball, partially because he (and James) love baseball and partially because I want to get to know more of the families in our neighborhood after a year of social distance and masked smiles. All three of the kids had birthdays, and our pandemic pod – and other friends! Hooray for big parties again!- showed up for almost identical parties a few weeks apart to commemorate the 5, 3, and 1 year old keeping us on our toes. Maddie’s birthday hits especially hard because so much of her first year was hidden. She’s my barnacle baby, my first to have stranger danger and scream when I leave a room. She is the impossibly precious gift that still feels surprising.
We are living in water this summer, hitting the splash pad or pool almost daily. But in perhaps the greatest result of a year of cancelled plans and limited social circles – most of our days are spent in play, meaning, Henry and Etta playing while I take a break from parenting. They imagine and build and fight and make-up all day everyday, inevitably culminating in Etta refusing to climb out of Henry’s bunkbed at night. Sometimes he complains loud enough that I remove her, but most nights he just resigns himself, rolls over and passes out, while she merrily plays and reads and takes up his space for hours. Henry finally dropped his nap last winter and while it has substantially impacted my ability to stay caught up on bad reality TV, it has allowed me a unique look at my oldest. I watch him sit silently as he listens to an audiobook, or watch him at work building structures or making plans. On the weekends we try to slip out together and exercise, sometimes going for a run (me)/ scooter ride (him) along the river or sometimes practicing swimming at the pool. As much as I hate the idea of Maddie leaving babyhood, I love the joy of older kids and the fun they bring.
What were you doing when they last came, Henry asked me one day and I laughed and told him, I was a child. I was about to go into my senior year of high school and I had so many plans and so many questions and knew everything and nothing all at once. And what will I be doing, when they come back, he wanted to know. And my head exploded, heart choked. You could be out of college, could be thinking about getting married or having kids, could have a job- will you still want to be an engineer-baseball player-lifegaurd?- you will be gone.
Because there is a lot I don’t know about what the state of the world, of my family, will be in 17 years when the insect infestation returns but this I know:
James won’t be coaching Henry’s t-ball team, won’t be reminding a troupe of 5 year olds that they need to watch the ball instead of finding cicadas on the field and sticking them to their jerseys. I won’t wake up in the middle of the night to Etta yelling that she needs a snuggle, only as soon as I scoot into that bottom bunk, it becomes a moment where she proceeds to tell me a long story instead, and I am so tired, but also those moments are the greatest moments. Madeleine, my Maddie Lo, my sweet chunky baby girl will be about to go off on her own and I’ll be trying to hold on tight as she pushes me back and I know it will break me a little even as I’m proud. We won’t be together, always together, always straining under the suffocating weight of little people with big needs who beat on the door when I lock it to take a shower and beg me not to go for my morning walk or coffee with friends or anything that has me away from them. I just want to be with you all of the time, Henry told me recently through tears when I explained that I just wanted to do something by myself and that, that will be different next time I open the door to the deafening roar of Brood X.
There is a chance that this consuming, refining, exhilarating , exhausting time of a house full of children could be almost over.
The other day we were loading the car when one of the kids commented on how quiet it was and I realized- they were gone. The cacaphonous din in the trees had gone silent. There were still some shells about but on the whole, it was like they had been erased, nature preparing to keep the secret for another 17 years. It came and was loud and consumed everything and then it was gone so fast.
Christmas was both totally abnormal this year, lacking so many things we look forward to, and yet still full of traditions and repetition. The same ornaments, matching pajamas, holiday films, treats, and carols filled our days. We were able to orchestrate all the quarantines, testing, distancing agreements, and travel logistics to be with family over Christmas and I can’t get over how special that was.
In early December, I took to Instagram stories to complain about what I feel to be lack in the Advent resources for kids. Following that rant, I received some excellent suggestions of resources and wanted to share them… and it is just now happening, after Advent is over, but before Christmastide technically ends on the 6th, so I’m calling it, if not a win, than maybe not a total failure? Save these ideas away for next year and check back in early November. or panic the day after Thanksgiving like I do.
I love Advent and I have Strong Feelings About It, as I expressed long ago here. I think that celebrating Christmas without the preparation and expectation of Advent feels lackluster. I have blogged about my search for Advent resources in the past but I am still searching. It seems like many children’s Advent resources fall into two groups: a focus on Jesus’ entire life (which is great, but get Holy Week out of Advent!) or a Greatest Hits of The Whole Bible approach (Jonah what you doing in my Advent??). I recognize the biblical tradition of the latter, but I’m not a huge fan for young kids. I want an intense focus on the amazing aspects of the birth story. I want 4 weeks of anticipation, building excitement, recognition of light coming to extinguish darkness, etc. I also want it to be short and sweet and simple because I have three children ages 4 and under.
Here are some Advent ideas for young children:
Last year I hit the library in November and pulled every kids Christmas book that had religious themes. I wrapped them and every morning of Advent, the kids opened one and we read it. It was simple and easy and not bad, but it did create an overwhelming amount of books, and this year it was impossible as the libraries are closed to browsing.
I love love love this Nativity set that has you add a different item every day of Advent and learn about the birth. It includes important things like the Census, which adults take for granted but little kids are like WHAT IS THAT. I do not love that it is super pricey. Am I considering making my own with a similar concept? Yup.
We loved the We Wonder Advent podcast in 2019 and listened to it again this year, though I didn’t love the 2020 one quite as much.
We became Anglican a couple years ago and I love the way that the liturgical tradition adds richness and ritual to life. We fully embraced Saint Nicolas Day with the kids, as it allowed us to process Santa Claus and yet keep the focus on Christ. It was also one of my favorite Advent days. We talked about Saint Nicolas the night before (though I would love a good kids book with his story!) and the kids were thrilled to wake up and get their chocolate gold coins from their stockings (because I forgot to put them in shoes). Then that night, we gave the kids a list of organizations and let them decide how to divide up and give our monthly tithe. We wrote checks instead of donating online and let the kids run in their pjs down the block to drop them in the mailbox. They LOVED it and it felt like such a good continuation of talking about Saint Nicolas.
Following my Instagram rant, a member of a local DC church messaged me and offered the resources they prepared for their church families. I absolutely LOVED it. They had a theme for each week, short readings and questions to do with your kids, and then some suggestions for weekly activities, some of which were DC specific – like a trip to the National Gallery to see a specific painting that represented the Christmas story, etc. It had the Advent liturgy for each Sunday to do as a family in this era of Zoom church. Every morning, we lit our advent wreathe over breakfast and did the daily readings, which took about 5 minutes. We then sang a Christmas hymn (yes I know you are “supposed” to hold off till Christmas but I want the kids to learn them). It was a really lovely, practical, and rewarding advent.
When everything shut down in March, it felt like we all entered a sort of survival mode, complete with all the “extenuating circumstances” in place to survive the sudden changes of working from home, quarantining, social distancing, homeschooling, recalibrating plans- everything.
But you can’t stay in survival mode forever. At the start of this new year, and on the (hopefully?) ending stretch of this pandemic, I’m looking around and seeing the rhythms that we have settled into and I’m wanting to remember them. Not because I love every aspect of them, but because someday I want to tell my kids how we continued living and growing and finding ways to thrive even in a year where so much was just frankly bad. I started writing this post in September to recap our goals for the school year… then was going to be a fall reflection when I hadn’t finished it by November…and now here we are on the second day of a New Year and it is instead a catch-all of what I want to claim from daily life in 2020.
Henry was supposed to start Pre-K4 this year at a hybrid university model school and we were all so excited. While I don’t think Pre-K is necessary for longterm academic success, I was thrilled about Henry getting to have the social experience of school three half-days a week. When it was canceled (and the parents all refused the option of virtual) Henry enthusiastically started telling everyone that he would be homeschooled. I hadn’t actually planned on doing anything, but I couldn’t bear to squelch his enthusiasm, so school it was.
We have not really learned much by many standards. I was ambitious with workbooks! Plans! Goals! but quickly decided that homeschool had three goals for our family this year. First, I wanted Henry to have positive associations with school. I do not fight battles over school because it just isn’t worth it at this age. Plus, one time I fought one over what I believed to be an easy and helpful phonics lesson… and when it proved not to be easy, I got so frustrated that I had to go outside and cool off. That isn’t fair to Henry, who heartbreakingly explained to James while I was outside that he was trying but “it’s just really hard to learn things.” So while I gently push to have school time, I don’t force it to last or require us to get through some sort of curriculum. Second, I wanted some routine in our very unstructured day. 10 minutes of school workbooks after breakfast is a good reset for all of us and usually lets me read my Bible and have some more coffee. Lastly, I want Henry to learn to hold a pencil correctly. I don’t care as much about actually writing as I do about correctly manipulating the pencil. My goal is to set his actual teachers up for success, not to be a groundbreaking one.
Of course, even our official school times grew more rare as the fall went on. I like to think of it less as abandoning homeschool and more as moving to a liberal arts curriculum heavy on art class, read aloud, PE, and a curriculum I like to call “Please Stop Actively Destroying Our House,” or life and behavior skills that aren’t moral in nature, but are really helpful. Like how to walk by a wall without having to rub your entire body against it or how to not get a fresh cup every. single. time. you need a drink, etc.
Reading aloud with the kids has been such a joy. They are pro podcast and audiobook listeners, and I decided we were ready for simple chapter books. Both kids love the treat of cuddling up in my bed or smothering me while I nurse as I read. We started with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm and have now moved onto The Wind in the Willows. Clearly, a lot of the vocabulary is over their heads. But they are learning to sit with words they don’t know, to soak in description and dialogue and I like to tell myself that will serve them more than spelling their name out of macaroni. (Though like, if you want to come make macaroni art with my kids while I take a nap COME ON OVER.)
As for art, it has been one of the gifts of 2020. I do not craft. Crafts with kids are frustrating and tedious for me and the cleanup never feels worth the few moments of activity. But I miss painting and drawing for myself. One of my 2020 resolutions (HA) was to take time every month to make art. I envisioned a Saturday morning a month where I could slip away to one of the amazing DC art museums and sketch à la Paris Hannah... but that clearly did not become reality and I was really frustrated. In a moment of strange nesting following my 37 week doctor’s appointment, I bought a bunch of watercolor paints and decided that I simply HAD to learn to watercolor paint NOW. The result of that impulse buy and the many hours we have at home is that I am learning to watercolor paint as I am also teaching my children. We pull out our paints many days after nap, make tea, turn on some tunes, and paint. There is usually a child on my lap, someone (Etta) almost always dumps water on us all, and most days someone (Etta) ends up naked and covered in paint. But those afternoons of art with my children are some of my favorite of the past year. (And to be fair- we did all make it to the National Gallery once and sketching did happen. Several Degas paintings came close to peril but everyone survived, saved Etta’s Pink Bunny who was never seen again.) By salvaging my resolution in a completely different way than I planned I have found so much joy.
At least once a day this fall, I was overcome with gratitude for our home. It is far from perfect, and we have discovered many a quirk that has been less than exciting, like the faulty sump pump system that we will have to jackhammer out our basement to replace. But the fact that we ended up with a yard and a basement and a home office in a year where those things are crucial is never lost on me. We have loved our home this year. I tend to be on the go all the time. It is hard for me to give that up. But when I look back on the past year I see a contentment tied with the stillness we experienced. We usually do at least two “home days” a week where we get caught up on laundry and little projects and often keep our pajamas on all day. I love that we are rarely in a rush to leave the breakfast table and the slowness to our days feels precious in contrast to the speed at which my children seem to grow.
On our non-home days, this past fall marked a period of rich community. That seems strange to say in the age of social distancing, as indeed- we distanced. But we formed a pod in late April with two other families and this crew has been my lifeline. Our kids were already close friends and now they are even more so. I don’t think I could have walked through this year without these people. I can’t wait to get back to parties and social gatherings and hugging people that I barely know but really enjoy. And yet, it has been a good reminder for my extroverted self that we have finite time and resources. Investing in a small number of deep friendships brings belonging like numerous casual relationships cannot.
How can I separate this year of pain and difficulty from Madeleine Lois, the constant joy in my days? I made no secret that everything about every second of her pregnancy was miserable. But her presence overwhelms me with joy the way that I have never felt in the newborn stage. Is it that I am finally finding my newborn stride? Is it the steps I took to take better care of my emotional health post-partum this third time around? Is it that the whole world stopped so I felt more free to stop with it and revel in my baby? Or is it just a special dispensation of grace that God knew I needed for this child at this time? I guess it’s all of them. Whatever the case, I can’t explain how in awe I am of her. She is a pretty crappy napper, a finicky nurser, a super spitter, but I don’t even mind too much that she is my velcro baby, attending my classes and student meetings, snuggled up to me wherever I go. I haven’t had time to do the meticulous memory keeping for her that I did for the others, but I hope that someday I can make her understand that her early days were so special, so enjoyable, so redemptive.
A lot did not happen this fall. I started a new job with a total lack of fanfare because of COVID and virtual learning. We canceled the annual donut extravaganza for the first time since being in DC. We missed countless birthdays and date nights and celebrations. Our Thanksgiving plans fell through and the holidays were missing much of their festivities. I was supposed to be working 25-30 hours a week, but only wound up with 4 hours of childcare, so the rest of my work happened during nap-time, at night, on the weekends, desperately crammed into margins that weren’t there. I am so, so tired.
But when I look back, I also see so much good. I see so much grace woven through the days we spent as a tiny bubble, so much growth in James and I as parents and partners and in our kids. I see an intentional focus on our home, our habits, our actions that could only happen when a lot was taken away. I am not at all undermining the difficulty of this past year on a global scale. I know that the good I can find from it is a result of immense privilege and blessing- which is exactly why I am calling it out. I don’t want to take it for granted for a second.
Yesterday, on our drive home from visiting family over the holidays (its own ordeal, as lots of logistics, testing etc. went into it), James and I did our traditional year-end debrief while the kids enjoyed a total absence of screen time limits in the car. He asked what we will tell them about this year someday, and what will they remember.
To be honest, I hope they forget a big part of this year. I hope they don’t say, “all the adults were really angry and on their phones all the time.” Because that is a part of the truth of this past year. The very worst of humanity has been on display in 2020, both writ large and in our own hearts and interactions. The stress, the isolation, the fear, the division, the politics, the courage to be hateful through the medium of a screen, the time to stew- all of it combined to bring out the nastiness in everyone. None of us have gotten through the year without acting in ways that are deplorable.
But I believe, I hope, that they will remember more. That they will remember the slowness and quiet joy we had in growing and learning together in 2020.
This morning I heard Madeleine at 7:18. She sleeps through the night now, and I love those long hours of sleep as much as I miss the quiet minutes in the dark nursing her. I went in to get her up, open the windows and seeing her chubby cheeked grins in the crib, so thankful to begin a Thanksgiving day with this baby girl. While I nursed her, I read an article in the New York Times, where they asked readers to share why they were thankful this year in 6 words. Six words. A whole year of grief and loss and surprise and change and unprecedented circumstances that nevertheless gave space for thanks in six little words. I loved reading the ways that people found to be thankful in 2020, in spite of 2020, because of 2020.
And because parenting three tiny people, working remotely with little childcare, and like, being a person who still has to get groceries and do the laundry and shower and stuff has left me incapable of stringing many words together anyways – distilling the joys of this year in few words seems perfect to me. Here they are, my series of short thanks when I look back on this much maligned year.
On Thanksgiving 2020, I am overcome with gratitude for –
James home for dinner most nights.
Kids too young for distance learning.
Newborn with me, rarely a sitter.
Starting every day with a walk.
Saving grace of house and yard.
Quarantine pod that keeps us social.
Fewer commitments, canceled plans, more time.
Fire pit, espresso machine, stretchy pants.
Distanced fireside hangouts after kids asleep.
Grace upon grace upon grace, together.
Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you feel gratitude for all the little blessings mixed in with trials of the past year. Because ultimately, what I am most thankful for this year is also what made it so hard so often:
Yes, I know we are a couple weeks into fall already, but to be fair- this is one of the first years that it has actually felt like fall in DC in early October. Last year our final trip to the splashpad was mid October and it was over 90 degrees, and we usually sweat until November. And usually, I am holding onto summer with every ounce of my strength. But this year, fall feels like such a blessing, a reprieve from endless unstructuredness of COVID Spring/Summer. I blame it on the lack of splashpads this year. What’s the point of endless summer if I can’t semi- neglect my kids in Navy Yard while drinking Philz coffee and chatting with my mom posse? We did get one Navy Yard splash outing, albeit accidentally. We were scooting o the boardwalk and saw that the flooding rains the night before had filled the basin and my kids were trying to swim in it before I could stop them.
We ended summer as we have done since having kids – a trip to the beach over Labor Day. We go with good friends who have kids the same age as ours, because anyone with young kids knows that the best way to get a break is to add more kids. Technically we still had to parent in the logistic sense – overseeing safety and meals and basic hygiene – but we didn’t really have to do any actual entertaining. I was able to read an entire novel in just a couple days, a true vacation luxury.
Here is what we have learned about beach vacations with kids. The difference between a fun trip, and one where the fun maybe doesn’t outweigh the hassle, comes down to one thing: direct beach access. I’m talking, open your door and walk out and be on the beach in minutes. Not across the road, not a block away, but THERE IMMEDIATELY. There is already a lot of chair schlepping, sunscreen application, toy negotiations, strong opinions about sand, nap schedules, short heat tolerance, etc. You want the beach to be as easy as possible to access.
Other beach vacation sanity savers include outdoor showers (because sannnnnddddd everywhere!), not going to the ocean (Chesapeake forever! No current! Minimal waves! Shallow for a long stretch!), and renting somewhere with all the beach toys/chairs/kayaks. Also – endless snacks. We lucked out with an amazing Airbnb this year, booked in January long before we had any idea that life would come to a screeching halt… and then more or less stay that way. The friends we vacation with also happen to be in our quarantine pod, so our kids have gotten even closer in the past months.
One morning we woke up and looked outside to see crashing waves. This is pretty abnormal on the Chesapeake, even more so on the Northern Neck, which is where we were – a little strip of Virginia where the Potomac River meets the bay. It was bright and windy and the kids desperately wanted in the water in spite of the cold wind and waves. We all headed down to the beach “just to look” at the waves… but you can see that clearly didn’t happen. Before long, all four kids were running in and out of the surf, a mess of soaked pajamas and little sandy bodies.
Two nights we made s’mores under the broiler and carried them down to eat by the water, watching the bay turn violet. We filled a bag with shells on the last morning and the kids and I decorated some and displayed others when we got home. Sandcastles were built, legs burried, dolphins spotted in the surf, and one morning Etta and I just sat in chairs right at the edge of the water, holding hands and listening to the waves lap at our toes. Moments like this, moments of sun and sweetness and sand and play and connection are why we go to the beach every summer.
And coming back from the beach, I felt ready to say goodbye to summer a full month earlier than I usually do. Ready to carve out a routine and trade sunny adventures out for cozy evenings in. Ready for the fresh start that comes with the school year.
Sometimes I wonder what my children will say when they look back on the Pandemic. What will they remember about this strange time, a time that has been so much longer than any of us planned, long enough to stick in their memory. I know they will remember hard things, scary things, painful things. Henry, like many other kids, asks questions that hurt my heart, asks about why he’s not allowed to hug people, and does he still have friends, and when will he be able to go to church or school. It’s impossible to shield him from the reality of illness and death.
But I also hope that my children will look back on this strange season and see so much that was beautiful and normal. I want them to remember jumping waves in their pajamas and eating s’mores at sunset. I want them to remember a summer that was so different in so many ways but still ended in the way that we have come to love so much.