the reset button

shoesI only run on bad days.

I’ve tried to be a real runner in the past, but I’ve never gotten beyond eking out a couple of miserable miles at a time. It’s not just that I can’t really get into a groove; I viscerally hate it with every fiber of my being. I hear friends enthuse about “runner’s high,” but all I’ve ever managed are shin splits. In my head, I’m committed to regular exercise. In real life, chasing two kids is my cardio.

There’s only one thing that can send me to the closet to dig for my running shoes: one of Those Days. Those Days are ruled by Murphy’s Law. When you have two kids and everything that can go wrong does, that’s a LOT of wrongness. As the tiny disasters pile up, one after another, it starts to feel like they’re trying to bury me alive. Running away becomes the only option.

Today is one of Those Days. My daughter refused both her lunch and her nap, so that she is a surly bundle of neediness by 4 p.m. My son has somehow managed to spill every single beverage he touched today, while demanding much more attention than usual in general. In a fit of creative inspiration, someone took to the bonus room walls with crayons. The overfull trash bag ripped when I tried to remove it from the trashcan. We didn’t make it to the grocery store as planned, which means dinner is a free-for-all. I’ve lost my temper and raised my voice more times than I can count, and all three of us have shed tears on at least one occasion. By the time Jon walks in the door, I’m shoveling chocolate Teddy Grahams in my mouth as I hide in the pantry.

He’s been home less than five minutes when I tell him, “I think I’ll go for a run.” His eyebrows raise in surprise, but he must read the desperation in my eyes because there is no smart remark about how out of character this sudden desire for exercise is. I need to escape, but more than that, I need to release the resentment bubbling up inside of me. I ache for something physical to force the anger from my body. I lace up my shoes and head out.

Initially, it isn’t so bad. I set an easy pace and marvel at the silence around me. It’s the first moment of quiet in my day. I actually feel pretty good, and wonder why I don’t do this more often.

It’d be nice if it was a little less humid though, and a breeze wouldn’t hurt either. There’s a pain beginning to emanate from my right hip.

I glance over my shoulder; my front yard is still in sight. I’ve gone less than a quarter of a mile.

With a groan, I force myself onward. I realize I’ve picked the worst time of day for a run – it’s dusk, and the mosquitoes and gnats are out in full force. I feel them smacking my face, and their accuracy at landing directly in my eye is impressive. The pain in my hip spreads and becomes a full-fledged burning ache in my side. Simultaneously, my left ankle begins to throb. Gritting my teeth, I force my body forward with sheer willpower.

I can feel it working, though. As my anger toward running grows, my frustrations about the day seem to dissipate. I despise every single step my feet pound out on the pavement, and as a distraction I find myself anticipating my son’s smile when I come back through the door, and the way my daughter will snuggle up against me as I put her to bed.

It takes two full miles tonight before I’m so miserable that I long for the demands of motherhood once more. The pain in my hip and ankle reach a fever pitch as I mercifully slow to a walk in the driveway. Is it possible to limp on both sides? I’m not sure, but I’m giving it my best effort. My face burns and my breath comes in wheezing gasps. I walk through the door and sink into the coolness of the air-conditioned house.

“So, how was it?” Jon asks, with a knowing smile.

“Awful,” is my terse response as I head to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. And it was; every last second was pure agony. It served its purpose, though. I’m not angry at my kids anymore, and I’m not mad at myself either. It was a bad day. It’s not a bad life.

My reset button has been pressed. Thank goodness I hate running.

The Care and Keeping of Me

IMG_0672One whole shelf of our bookcase is dedicated to parenting books. There’s Babywise and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child – reminders of the sleepless first 10 months of my son’s life. Without fail he would wake up two, three, four times a night, despite my best efforts to keep him asleep. I read them frantically, devotedly, sure they held the key my sleep-starved body was longing for. (For the record, none of the tricks worked, but he’s now five and sleeps like a rock from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night. Solidarity, tired mommas.)

Next to the sleeping books that beget very little additional shuteye in our house, you’ll find the What to Expect set – a misnamed series if ever there was one. Most of pregnancy and the first year of motherhood were muttered oaths followed by why didn’t anyone WARN me?!?

Holding up the end of the shelf is a behemoth from the American Academy of Pediatrics that only gets consulted when a weird rash pops up at 2 a.m. (because that kind of thing never happens during office hours), plus a couple of “humorous” books received as gifts.

The books on that shelf purport to hold the answers to all of my parenting questions. If the books somehow fail me, there’s the whole wide world of Google. I can find out the right dose of Tylenol for a teething five month old and watch YouTube swaddling videos. There’s a seemingly endless fount of information on how to make, birth and care for a baby, right at my fingertips.

But what about me? Where are the books and the experts who can tell me how to take care of me?

Almost two years ago, I was staring down the last few days of a maternity leave that just wasn’t long enough. Ellie still wouldn’t nap anywhere other than on my chest. Her eating schedule was every hour and a half (two hours on a really good day) and she hated bottles, so it was all me, all the time. We’d also just found out she had dairy and soy allergies, which meant my diet was reduced to apples and water … or so it felt. Postpartum women are known for their dramatics.

Compounding the realities of life with a hard baby, I’d taken Ellie by my office that day for the obligatory meet and greet. After a conversation or two, I learned that literally nothing on my “please do while I’m out” list had actually been done. The number of projects, hugely overdue and awaiting my return, was daunting. Frustrated and overwhelmed, I cried the whole way home.

That night once Nathan was in bed, Jon and I had a deep, heartfelt marriage talk. Just kidding; we had a preschooler and a newborn. Deep and heartfelt weren’t exactly in our wheelhouse at the time. I believe the conversation actually went something like this:

Me: It was awful visiting work today. I don’t want to go back.
Jon: Well … then don’t.
Me: Seriously?
Jon: Seriously. Quit your job. We’ll make it work.

So I did. And we did. It wasn’t easy, especially those first few months. Not only were we a dual income household, we were a 50/50 income household – which meant we had just slashed our budget in half. The belt tightening felt more like a corset. We ate spaghetti every week for a couple of months and it was an extraordinarily lean Christmas, but we managed. By January, I’d landed some regular part-time work for a non-profit and Jon had gotten an unexpected raise, which built a little breathing room into our budget.

But what our budget gained, my sanity lost. Every morning I was up at 5:30 or 6 to feed Ellie, and the marathon was on. I pushed on through a full day of occupying an infant and a four year old; balancing feedings and fort building, trying to prove that I could do this stay at home mom thing. I managed to get both children’s naps overlapping for one hour of the day, and I used that hour to tackle the mountain of laundry or do a little cleaning. Then came the whirlwind of dinner, bath and bedtime, followed by working another few hours and finally crawling in bed at midnight. Between my highly-restricted diet and a daughter who nursed all the freaking time, the baby weight dropped off quickly. It kept dropping though, and within a few short months I was down nearly 30 pounds from my pre-pregnancy weight. I was the thinnest I’ve ever been, with everyone complimenting how “great” I looked. But I was also exhausted and lifeless. The tears came regularly and over the silliest of things, but what worried me more was the rage I would feel sometimes. It felt like I was hanging on by the thinnest of threads. I went to see my OB/GYN, but she insisted it wasn’t postpartum depression. In desperation, I reached out to a nutritional consultant. I was still losing at least two pounds a week, and with another six months of nursing on deck at a minimum, something had to be done.

The consultant was wonderful. She asked gentle questions about what I was eating and how much, and how frequently Ellie was nursing.

“It sounds like you’re not replacing everything that’s going out,” she told me. “You’re trying to operate from a place of depletion, and your body can’t keep up with that for very long.”

I knew she was talking about calories and proteins and healthy fats, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. Because she was talking about my life. I finished the conversation in a daze, promising to put avocado on everything and eat peanut butter and almond butter by the spoonful. She gave me a recipe for a protein shake with a calorie count that bordered on the ridiculous.

I thanked her profusely, and when we hung up, the tears came again … but without the rage. I knew what would eventually heal and restore my body would do the same for my soul. I realized that I needed to slow the blur of life a little. I started carving out time for coffee with a friend. I let the housework and laundry go and started working during naptimes so that I could get in bed at a decent time. I needed more sustenance, and I committed myself to finding it. Maybe I couldn’t change what was demanded of me, but I could work harder at pouring more into myself so I could meet the challenges without losing myself so completely.

Today, things are better. I’m not so skinny anymore, but that’s because I’m not starving. My house is only tidy on Thursdays, because that’s cleaning day. Once a week, I leave the bedtime routine to Jon, and I head out to dinner with friends or to Starbucks by myself for a few hours. I make time almost every day to do a devotional, to write, to read. I commit myself to reaching out once a week, via email or text, to a friend I haven’t talked to in awhile. We have the kids enrolled in a preschool program two days per week, so I have dedicated time for working. It sounds a little indulgent when I string it all together like that, but the truth is, it’s what I need. It fills me up and makes me whole, and my children deserve a healthy and whole momma.

There was no book or three-day method to guide me in figuring it out. There was just rock-bottom, and clawing my way back to a life that I could live in. I think that’s why new moms tug on my heartstrings so. When I drop off a meal or stop by for a chat, I whisper the words to them that I finally learned to say to myself:

Take care of you.

Numbering the days

DSC_0508We have a chalkboard decal in our kitchen. I bought it and put it up with the intention of changing it out weekly with Bible verses, notes of encouragement and silly sayings. Turns out, I’m not very good at keeping up with that kind of thing though. We mainly use it for countdowns: 12 days until Christmas, 10 days until Ellie’s birthday, and so on.

Right now, it’s counting down the days until Nathan starts kindergarten.

Six. That’s how many days are left. Nathan, per usual, is playing it all very cool. Oh, he shopped with enthusiasm (and a mind-numbing level of deliberation) for his new backpack and lunchbox. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told him we cannot yet open the new boxes of crayons or glue sticks that have been purchased. He gets a little quieter, though, when we talk about his new class, new teacher, new routine: all unknowns. The uncertainty of the unfamiliar balances the exhilarating newness, until he is neither excited nor nervous.

His 2 year old sister does not share his ambivalence. As we walked through the halls of his new school today to finish registration, I noticed her wide eyes taking in the bright posters and boisterous kids.

“This is Nathan’s new school,” I explained, trying to help her make sense of it all. “This is where he will go to kindergarten next week.”

“Yes, me too,” said Ellie, nodding confidently. All summer, she has been his shadow. Of course she would come too; she knew no other way. I tried to break the reality of the situation to her gently.

“No baby, this is just Nathan’s school. You won’t go here yet.”

“Ellie too?” A question, this time. Uncertain. She looked at me, brow furrowed. Like she was trying out this idea of a place where her big brother would go and she couldn’t follow, and it didn’t quite fit.

“No baby, not yet. You still need to stay home with mama for a little longer,” I said softly, squeezing her hand.

She didn’t answer, but her eyes studied her feet instead of the walls. Her eagerness was replaced with resignation. She understood; he was leaving her behind.

And me? I tell everyone who asks that I feel conflicted; excited for Nathan, but a little sad and nervous about such a big change. But that’s not entirely true. Or, at least, it’s not the entire truth. The reality is, I’m shell-shocked. How is it possible that we have only six days left? 

It’s as though we are perched at the top of a very tall roller coaster. We’ve been climbing and climbing for ages, like we’d never get here. Now we’re paused at the peak for the briefest of moments. In a split second, we’ll pitch forward and, with a speed I didn’t think possible, careen down the rails. Kindergarten changes everything. Our years will soon fall into a familiar pattern; dictated, even, by the district schedule. School starts in August, then there’s fall break and Christmas break. We’ll blink and it’ll be spring break, then summer, then the cycle starts all over again. Each year will flow seamlessly into the next.

There’s something about predictability that makes the days go by faster, it seems. Those early years, the ones with little ones, are so scattered and unsettled. I remember it was the days when the routines were off that seemed the longest. The baby didn’t nap or wanted to eat more often or the toddler wanted five snacks instead of three meals. The hands on the clock seemed unmoving on those days; the sun constant in its position in the sky. Maybe chaos eats up less time than order does. Now, our days will have rhythm and routine, and I know what that means.

They’ll blur by before I can scarcely catch my breath.

 ***

Tonight, after the dishes had been cleared, the baths had been taken and the books read, I lay in bed next to Nathan until he fell asleep. I don’t usually do that; our typical routine is a few minutes of snuggling, then hugs and kisses and I’m out the door. But tonight, when I went to pull my hand away, he grabbed it and clutched it to his chest. With eyes closed, he sleepily whispered, “Just one more minute, Mom?”

I don’t need a countdown in the kitchen to know these days are numbered now. Before long there won’t be a bedtime routine, and it won’t be too many years after that when I’m telling him goodnight and shuffling off to bed while he stays up. So tonight, I left my hand on his chest until the rise and fall became steady and even. I leaned my face into the top of his head and breathed in his still-little-boy smell. I even let a tear fall. Not because I’m grieving the passage of time, though. Children are meant to grow up, after all.

No, I think it was just the fullness of the moment. I stopped and savored, and my worn mama heart was filled right to the brim. A little spilled out, I suppose, and slipped down my cheek.

Perhaps that’s the secret, really. Wrapping my arms around the present, and holding still for what is happening, instead of planning for what is coming.

For the space of a few heartbeats anyway, I managed to stop time.

permission to be

My son isn’t a very graceful swimmer. Oh, he gets from point A to point B, but there are lots of flailing limbs and splashing water. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was drowning every time he pauses for a breath.

For awhile, his swimming embarrassed me. We’d paid good money for five rounds of swimming lessons, and I watched with my brow furrowed as the other children glided smoothly through the water, passing him with ease. I studied his form, comparing it to the others in his class, and figured out the problem – he doesn’t get his legs out behind him. He essentially swims vertically in the water, which means he uses up a whole lot of energy to not go very far.

There’s nothing I love more than a problem with a simple solution. I could fix this. I could fix him. After the lesson, I approached the teacher, airing my concerns. The teacher nodded and explained it was due to Nathan’s head position – if he looked down in the water, his legs would automatically raise up. Nathan swims looking forward, so his legs drop down, hanging perpendicular to the ground.

I nodded to show my understanding, already visualizing the drills we could do in the water to correct the problem: holding toys in my hands and making him look down and tell me what I’m holding; reminding him to look at my toes and not my nose. He’d be swimming just like the other kids in no time.

With my answer in hand,  I turned to go. I was ready to make my son faster, better, more like the others. But the teacher read the determination on my face, and gave a parting set of instructions that stopped me in my tracks.

“Keep in mind that you can’t rush him. His body is doing what feels natural right now. It’ll self-correct, and he may well be the fastest kid out there. But you’re just going to frustrate him if you try to push him along before he’s ready. Give it time. He’ll get there.”

Don’t rush him. Stop comparing. Let him be. 

***

I read an article the other day that I shouldn’t have. It talked about the economic impact of leaving the workplace to stay at home with children. When taking into account lost wages, retirement savings and future raises lost, the figure was something like half of a million dollars for staying home for three years — and that was only for a pre-kids salary of $50,000.

$500,000. I’m not a true SAHM, but my 12 hours a week for a non-profit and a little erratic freelancing don’t exactly bring home the bacon, either. Don’t mistake me – I know how fortunate I am that I was able to opt out in the first place. But now that I’m in my 30s, I’m watching my friends who are still leaning in climb the career ladder with great success. They’re landing heady titles and incomes to match; traveling the world, leading teams and steering projects.

My biggest accomplishment today was getting my 2 year old to correctly identify the color blue; a feat that was immediately undone when she called that blue block “yewwow” two minutes later. The only rhythm to our days in this season of life is the complete absence of one. There is no five year plan or strategic goal setting – at least, not beyond the basic “keep everyone alive while raising decent human beings.”

When Ellie was a baby, and I was in the throes of the madness that is spending your days with an infant and a toddler, it was easier. It took all of me to focus inwardly on my own little self and my own little family, and ignorance became bliss – or at least tolerance. Most of my days looked the same, so I didn’t always notice the pace of them.

Now the kids are 5 and 2, and a little less needy. It’s not exactly all cocktail hours and relaxing over here, but I do get to pause and catch my breath every once in awhile. Except sometimes I use my free time to glance in the other lanes. I see how smoothly everyone else seems to be moving — and how much more they seem to fit into each day. They are faster. Better. When I look back down at this one, precious life I’m holding, it suddenly seems like it’s not enough. Like I’m not enough. I’m doing it wrong, and if I could just do life like they’re doing it (whoever “they” are), then everything would be okay.

I need to be more.

Thankfully, Nathan is there to cut through the lies the world is feeding me and offer up his truth.

“Mom, how come you don’t go to work anymore? How come all your work is at home on the computer now?”

This isn’t an uncommon question, and once more I explain to him that Dad and I decided that I would spend more time with him and Ellie for awhile, so I found a job that takes less time and lets me work from home. Usually the conversation ends with Nathan, my social butterfly, musing about how much he misses daycare and how we could get him back there. But not today. Today he hands me a gift.

“I’m glad, Mom. I like that you’re always here for me.”

Just like that, my focus is shifted back where it belongs. It’s a sweet sentiment from my thoughtful boy, but it’s more than that. It’s permission to move more slowly, to be a little poorer and a little less-accomplished for this season of life. It’s permission to be, whatever that looks like (and believe me, it doesn’t look like much most days).

Don’t rush. Stop comparing. Let it be. 

All in the name of being here.

IMG_20160129_145753

Captured

When Nathan started pre-K last fall, he would ask to take a picture before school almost every morning. Over and over, I brushed off his request. We were usually running late, and there are few things that agitate me more than being late. He never argued my answer, but his shoulders would slump forward as he climbed into his carseat. I’d feel a brief stab of guilt over his disappointment, but that always dissipated whenever we managed to pull in the school lot by 8:30 a.m. on the nose.

One evening, I mentioned the every day picture request to Jon. My husband speaks, moves and acts slowly and deliberately. He is my opposite in almost every way, and while occasionally this makes me grind my teeth in frustration, most days I whisper a prayer of thanks that God helped me find this gentle, thoughtful soul. He’s exactly what I need, and this time was no exception.

“Love, take the picture,” he said. “Ten years from now, would you rather know that you were on time to pre-K every day or have a picture of Nathan from every single day?” My cheeks burned; I knew he was right, and I was mad at myself for once more letting my desire for promptness override enjoying the moment.

For eight months, I took pictures of Nathan whenever he requested them before school. It wasn’t every day – some mornings were too rainy or too cold, and some were simply too grouchy. Eventually Ellie picked up on the fun, too – first demanding to be in the pictures, and then being the one to call for taking them as she bounded out the door. We were late to school far more than we were on time, but I realized actually being late didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fear of being late did.

Jon was wrong about one thing, though: it didn’t take 10 years. We are only a month removed from the end of pre-K, and I already tear up when I look at the 60-odd pictures that I took over the course of the school year.

A whole season of childhood, frozen in time.

mosaic

Here’s to learning how to put aside my Type-A, get it done quickly personality once in awhile so that I can see the world through their eyes. Because, truth be told, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.

On Vulnerability & Grace

Earlier this year, I participated in an online writing workshop. It was led by the team of writers over at Coffee + Crumbs, one of my absolute favorite blogs. We were divided into writing groups of five or six, and each group was led by one of the C+C writers.

I was lucky enough to have Ashlee Gadd, the founder of C+C, as my group leader. Ashlee is as kind as they come, and she will be your biggest champion and cheerleader in the writing process. She’s also an excellent writer who makes a tough-as-nails editor. When given permission (again, she’s nice, so she always asks permission to be blunt first), she’ll slice right through your wobbly prose and half-assed ending, prodding you to unearth your best work. It was exactly what I signed up for.

One week, a question popped up on the group message board about how to write with vulnerability. I quickly pecked out a reply and patted myself on the back — I’d been blogging for awhile now and had even been published by other sites, I TOTALLY had vulnerability down. Hopefully I could offer some encouragement to these other timid souls who were afraid to dip their toes into writing for an audience.

Come on in! my ego was shouting. The water feels fine.

Then Ashlee called shenanigans on me. Nicely, of course, and with great grace. She told me my writing was beautiful, but safe. Sweet, but not always relatable, because sometimes it felt like I was sanitizing reality. And suddenly, I felt like a fraud.

She was right, of course. It’s tempting to only write the happy stories. I like the ones where I look like a good mom. Oh sure, sometimes I might dance along the edges of the hard stuff, but only if I can tie it up nicely with a “life lesson” bow. It’s hard to write honestly, and harder still to write with uncertainty. What happens when I admit that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time? If you know me, then you know one of my trademark characteristics is that I appear to be brimming with confidence. The secret lies in that sneaky word: appear. Truthfully, I’m a hot mess over here and it’s scary to be brave with my words, because what if you don’t like them? They’re my words, after all … so doesn’t that mean that you don’t like me?

There it is: the crux of my problem. It’s equal parts pride and insecurity, a paradox of paranoia.

And yet.

That’s not why God made me a writer. He didn’t give me a burning desire to put pen to paper for my own edification or glory. He didn’t do it so that people could read my words, nod and think, Wow, that Jenn has really got it all together. She’s great. When I write, it’s not about me at all. He gifts us all with talents that are to be used for His glory. HIS, not ours.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m under no misconceptions that I’m a terribly talented writer. I am, and always will be, a work in progress, at best. Imperfections aside though, writing is what I love; it makes me come alive and demands to be tended to. That alone makes it my gift; not greatness or ease (because it’s certainly not easy), but sheer need. After 33 years, I’ve finally drawn the conclusion that I was born to write, simply because I can’t imagine my life without it. It completes my trifecta title: Wife. Mom. Writer. The three pieces that make me … me.

I also believe that the path of my life should lead others to seeing a need for God’s grace. And I’ve realized that an inauthentic story doesn’t do that. I have to include the shadows, and not just the light. In our glossy, veneered, Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat world, that’s more than daunting. I won’t post a picture where my arms look fat; why in the world would I let my real flaws hang out for all to see?

But the world doesn’t need my perfection. It needs my vulnerability. With everything I write, my prayer is that somewhere, someone is nodding and thinking “me too.” If I can step out on the ledge and talk about the way things really are, maybe someone will join me there, and we’ll both feel less alone.

Maybe the purpose of vulnerability — the holes in my story and the chinks in my armor — is to allow a place for His grace to shine through.

Twenty Years

Jon and I met twenty years ago. 20. I think that makes us old.

I was 13, he was 14. I don’t remember the exact circumstances; it was probably summer, and he was probably one of a whole passel of boys hanging out at my house with my big brother that day. I do remember his brown eyes, and how my stomach gave a little flip whenever they met my green ones.

I was shy and awkward then. I suppose most 13 year olds are in one way or another, but I was what my mother would graciously call a “late bloomer.” I wore pleated shorts and had stringy hair that was perpetually in a ponytail. Boys confounded me completely … especially boys like Jon. I said nothing during those early teenage years as other girls – prettier, more outgoing girls – vied for his attention. He was charming and friendly, and there were always two or three who would try to catch his eye.

Oh, we exchanged a few words here and there over the years, as our mutual group of friends brought us together. I even thought he may have been flirting with me once or twice (he was, he tells me now), but I was too clueless to know what to do about it.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was about to move 500 miles away for a boy. Another boy — the wrong boy, as it would turn out. Days before I was set to leave, my brother had a bunch of people over to swim. Jon was there.

“You can’t move to Michigan for this guy!” he told me emphatically as we stood next to each other, filling our plates with food. I looked up at him, and my sharp retort was lost.

Flip flop.

Give me a reason to stay, I thought. But he didn’t, and I went … for six months, anyway. The weather turned bitterly cold, and it nudged me to admit what I’d known for 5 1/2 months. I’d made a mistake. I was going home. Alone.

Weeks after I moved back, my brother got married. I was the maid of honor; Jon was a groomsman. Wedding festivities brought us together, and there seemed to be more flirtation than ever (there was), but I still tried not to read too much into it.

The night after the wedding, the phone rang at my parents’ house. “It’s for you,” my mom said. I took the phone in surprise — who would call me here? It was Jon, inviting me over to watch a movie with some friends. I stayed until 2 a.m., talking and listening to music.

He was nervous. I was the little sister of his good friend. He wasn’t ready for anything serious, and didn’t see how dating me could be anything but. He kept it casual – always hanging out with other people around. No real dates. Until the night, seven years after we met and three months after that phone call, when he kissed me.

Flip flop.

After that, it was Zapp and Roger’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” playing in the background while he asked me to be his girlfriend. Five years later, it was waves crashing in the background when he asked me to be his wife.

wedding

We’ve been married for seven years now. We’ve lived in three homes, had two kids and slowly morphed from the couple who closed down the bars at 2 a.m. to the couple who unwinds with an episode of West Wing on Netflix at 9 p.m. He knows that just because the cap is on the toothpaste doesn’t mean the cap is really on the toothpaste. I know that the pile of dress shirts that accumulates on the back of the couch over the course of a workweek doesn’t need to be washed.

20 years. Those brown eyes still make my stomach flip, you know. Oh, not every time. Sometimes when our eyes meet, all I feel is relief — my 5:30 p.m. savior has arrived. Sometimes it’s annoyance or even anger. You can’t build a life with someone else without getting a little pissed off every now and then.

When the butterflies come though, they almost always catch me by surprise now. He’s hot, sweaty and tired from working out in the yard, and his gaze briefly meets mine as he steps into the coolness of the air-conditioned house. I watch with a smile on my lips from the doorway as he focuses intently on putting a tiny bow in our daughter’s hair, until he feels my eyes on him and looks up.

Flip flop.

It’s no small feat, to make a heart flutter after 20 years. He’s seen me at my worst and champions me always toward my best. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll make many more. But saying “yes” to his “will you?” will always be the best thing I’ve ever done.

fistfuls of clover and measuring worth

white cloverWhen you spend your days with small children, you’re almost always looking for a reason to leave the house. I find that the ability to listen, follow directions and not completely embarrass me in public wanes as the day goes on, so we tend to save our public excursions for the morning hours. Of course, after Ellie’s nap is done and the witching hour approaches, our need to move beyond these four walls looms largest.

To keep the peace, we go for a walk most afternoons when the weather is nice. Or, more accurately, I walk, while Ellie rides in her stroller and Nathan rides his scooter. We don’t go far; just a mile or so down our road, around the track of the elementary school across the street and back. That’s about as far as we can manage before Ellie is chafing at being restrained and Nathan is complaining about being hot and tired. Or cold and thirsty. There’s a lot of complaining, really, but somehow it’s made more endurable by the fresh air and inability to watch a clock refuse to progress forward toward 5:30 p.m.

On the corner  of our street sits a house with two little girls. They are almost always outside playing at the same time we’re walking. At first, we’d just smile-and-wave as we walked past, but that quickly progressed to short conversations. They are always excited to share what they’re up to – searching for snails, digging for worms.

This particular afternoon was an especially nice one. It had been rainy and cool for the better part of the week, but that day it was sunny with just a hint of a breeze. As we rolled past the house on the corner, the younger of the two girls was crouched low in the grass, picking handfuls of white clover. By now I had learned that despite being younger, she was the duo’s leader – bolder and more vocal than her sister. She saw us approaching and waved her arm in greeting.

“I’m pickin’ flowers!” she called. “We’re gonna sell ’em.”

I hid my smile as I glanced down the street at yard after yard littered with the weeds she was so carefully picking. I knew our neighbors would likely pay good money to be rid of the lawn pests, but I didn’t tell her that. I simply nodded.

“It’s a beautiful day for selling flowers,” I said as we started across the street.

“Hey, wait!” she yelled to Nathan. She ran across the yard, one particularly large “flower” clinched in her fist. “I’ll give ya this one for free,” she said, thrusting it into his hand.

I watched as Nathan studied the gift. He thanked her and held it carefully as he pushed his scooter back across the street. It balanced gently between his thumb and forefinger as he gripped the handlebars.

“I gotta be careful, Mom,” he told me. “I don’t want to crush this beautiful flower. Especially when she gave it to me for free. Can you believe that?! Free!”

I didn’t point out that the entire route we would walk that day was littered with white clovers identical to the one he was clutching like a prized possession. Instead, I smiled once more and found myself longing for the days of childhood, where everything has value and nothing is worthless.

****

A few weeks later, we were walking again. It was a hotter day – more summer than spring – and so we were later than usual. We had waited until after dinner, which meant as we rounded the school’s playground it was unused by the after-care program. Instead, a small group of teenagers had taken up residence on the benches. The girls were lying in the last rays of sunlight, their long blonde hair nearly reaching the ground. A couple of boys played a languid game of basketball, casting glances toward those benches every so often to see if they had an audience.

As we ambled past, another boy rounded the corner of the school to retrieve his bike. I watched him walk swiftly, head down, as if trying not attract too much attention. I wondered why for a moment, when suddenly one of the lounging girls sat up straight, her hair whipping around her shoulder. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I heard her tone and the laughter that followed her words. I watched as the boy tucked his chin lower, rolled his shoulders forward protectively and hurried faster. Another derisive comment and another fit of laughter hit his back as he pushed off on his bike. When our paths crossed, our eyes met briefly. I saw a resigned sort of pain there. He was used to this.

My heart lurched for him. I wanted to launch into the “it gets better” speech that grownups love to lob at teenagers. I wanted to tell him that what that girl said didn’t matter; that 10 years from now he’d probably be wildly successful, while she’d be the girl who peaked in high school.

But then I remembered that it did. In that moment, to that boy, it mattered a great deal. I wanted to tell him her words were worthless, but I could see what they were costing him. I winced with the fleeting memory of the insults hurled at me, by a boy with the exact same laugh as that girl,  in a different setting in a different millennia. Yes, I knew well the price he was paying – the cost of not fitting in.

So instead, I said nothing. I nodded to him with a look of solidarity in my eyes, then turned my attention to the children as we headed down the steep hill of the school’s drive. As we turned to follow the sidewalk home, I saw the patchwork of white clover that stretched across the field, and my heart ached with the memory of adolescence, when all the wrong things are valued and the most important are held worthless.

 

The Memories We Keep

Do you ever wonder what moments from childhood your children will hang on to? Nathan is five, and although I remember a snippet or two of my life before that age, I feel like five is the beginning of my real memories. I can still recall the first day of kindergarten – what I wore (a red and white shirt with a blue jean skirt), and how stiff my new backpack (Roger Rabbit) felt on my shoulders. I don’t remember telling my mom goodbye at the door to Mrs. Watson’s classroom, but I remember my desk and being envious of the incredibly neat coloring skills of my seatmate, Jennie.

It panics me a little bit, this memory-keeping phase of childhood that we’re entering. You see, my guiding principle of parenting up until now has been to brush off any mistakes — and there have been many — with a reassuring, “he won’t remember this, anyway.” Except now, he will.

Sometimes I worry that his memories will be full of me prodding him to do my bidding. Will he remember how many times I scolded him to stop talking and eat his breakfast, so he wouldn’t be late for school? Fussing at him to stay in his chair, quit teasing his sister and please stop making that god-awful racket. Barking instructions to put on his shoes and jacket, three or four or five times – my voice raising in volume and sharpness with each turn. Perhaps the version of me that will be the most real to him will be the one who ran short on patience, the one who made him feel small sometimes because I couldn’t hide my frustrations like I should. If it is, I can only hope that it’s tempered by the memory of me kneeling before him, early and often, to look him in his eyes and ask forgiveness when I fell short, once again, of being the mom he deserved.

Of course, if I could choose for him, I’d pick the moments that make me look good. Waking up to his favorite chocolate chip pumpkin bread for breakfast, that I stayed up late the night before to bake just for him. Sneaking him away from school for a day of fun, just the two of us. Snuggling in his bed and whispering about his favorite parts of the day. Singing “his song” for him as he closes his eyes and smiles, slipping closer to sleep than wakefulness. Reminding him every night, with the last words he hears before sleep claims him, that I love everything about him, and that I will always be proud he’s my son.

The more I weigh the measure of it, the more I find myself praying that he remembers the full balance of his mom. I want him to know how very much I have loved him, from the very start. I want him to remember the things I’ve done to earn his smiles and his hugs. To know that watching his eyes light up with excitement at a favorite food or special surprise was the very best part of so many of my days.

But to know also that my love, however full and complete, has never been flawless. No love is, this side of heaven. I’ve always loved him perfectly, from the moment I knew he existed, but too many times my words and actions have failed to measure up. It’s the thing that has kept me up the most at night and flavored most of my mom guilt over the years … but he’ll have never seen any of that. He might only have a vague recollection of being roused from sleep to find me in his doorway or brushing a kiss against his cheek. He won’t know it’s because I couldn’t allow myself to go to bed until we’d had one right and peaceful moment to end the day with.

I pray for these things because, someday, his own frustrations will get the best of him and he’ll say a word he doesn’t mean. He’ll watch a face fall and feel it – the pang of regret for hurting someone he loves. With any luck though, it’ll spark one of many memories tucked away inside his mind. Moments when his mama, after losing her temper yet again, knelt down, held him close and offered a sincere “I’m sorry.” He’ll remember that we can’t take it back, but we can make it right.

If repetition is the key to recall, then finding the grace to fail may be the enduring memory I’m able to sow. As I flounder and falter my way through raising him, I’m trusting that the underpinning of all the magic, fun and heartache he’ll carry with him from these growing up years is that people aren’t perfect, but we love them anyway.

A resilient love … now that’s a memory worth keeping.

Not That Kind of Mom

I have a friend who plans amazing, Pinterest-worthy birthday parties. She is crafty and clever and can carry out a theme like it’s her life’s mission. She will scour Etsy for the perfect cake topper and spend hours upon hours making beautiful tissue paper flowers, rustic banners and assembling invitations. The cake will be beautiful, the food delicious and the games will be a hit with every kid at the party.

I am not that kind of mom.

I have another friend who is the outdoorsy-type. She takes her kids exploring in the woods and rock climbing and caving. She points out bugs skating on ponds and the worms that hide underneath rocks. Weekends with her family are spent camping, hiking and canoeing.

I am not that kind of mom.

I also have a friend who excels at sports. She teaches her kids how to play baseball, basketball and soccer, and they’re always the best on their teams. She can execute a perfect flip on the trampoline, and her tricks off the diving board at the pool are most impressive.

I am not that kind of mom.

It’s hard sometimes not to be envious. I wonder if my kids feel like they’re missing out on something; if they notice that their birthday parties are less glamorous and their days are less adventurous. I watch all of these other women who seem to be mothering better than me, and I feel a little embarrassed. The embarrassment snowballs until before I know it, I’m irrationally upset with myself that my daughter’s cupcakes will come from Publix instead of being hand-crafted by me. Then my irritation sets in. Crying over baked goods? I’m certainly not that kind of mom.

Comparison is the thief of joy, but I won’t let it rob me. These fabulous friends of mine are just being themselves, after all. Pinterest Mom is at her best when she’s being creative. Nature Mom lives for the outdoors. Sports Mom is exactly that athletic. They’re not putting on a facade or pretending to be something they aren’t. They’re simply embracing what it is they love and sharing that passion with their children. And by doing so, they’re loving their kids bigger, harder and more completely than they ever could otherwise.

What does my best love look like?  I’m the mom who can spend all afternoon reading book after book to the child tucked into the crook of my arm. I’ll contentedly spend an hour side by side coloring pictures, using every single crayon in the box. A perfect rainy Saturday means a morning in the kitchen, baking up something yummy with  a “special helper” and covering every available surface with flour. There are usually giggles and there’s always a hefty amount of cleanup. These are the moments of mothering that I store up in my heart, the ones where I feel like I shine instead of faltering like I so frequently do.

These are also the moments that can get lost in the day to day grind of it all. I must remember, though, to make the time in the midst of the caring and tending and raising of these precious babes. Bit by bit, I will pass along little pieces of what I love most, and pray it blooms a passion in their lives, too. It won’t necessarily be what Pins well or what looks good on Instagram. But it’ll be the parts of me that they remember once they’re grown, the lessons they learned and moments we shared that they couldn’t have had with anyone else.

There will likely never be an elaborate birthday party in our house. You won’t find anything in the  way of decorations that you can’t find in the aisle of your local Party City. Despite many hours spent attempting to learn otherwise, I will probably always throw like a girl. And heaven knows you’ll never catch me inside a cave on purpose. But when my children’s eyes light up when the words on a page weave a story of magic and wonder, when I watch them beam with pride as they present their “artwork” to someone they love, when they scarf down dinner because they helped make it – it’s a breathtaking thing, really. I’ve found a way to pass along a part of me to become a part of them. I’ve become more than  the cooker, cleaner, diaper-changer and tender of boo-boos.

I’ve become a mom.