Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Last-Born Baby

I keep thinking about Livie when she was a baby. 

In part, I'm stuck in this loop because I've been reading a book about two mothers and their bleary, besotted first months of motherhood. (The Hand that First Held Mine is the title, and its definitely worth reading if heart-breaking novels are your thing.)

The other reason, I assume, is that my last-born baby is turning five and going to kindergarten in six weeks.

I told my best friend about a year ago that when the fateful week comes, she is either going to have to check me into a mental hospital or take me to a spa, such will be the catastrophic significance of these two milestones. And I was serious, but only in the way that a celebrity new mom in a television interview is serious when she talks about what it's like to be a mother. It was spin. It was the light, marketed version of my mother-emotion. 

In reality, as it's coming upon me, I am devastated. A whole part of my life is over, and a whole part of hers. Thank God Livie doesn't know that these are the last six weeks of her life when she won't have to be somewhere first thing in the morning unless she's on vacation. Or until she's the stay-at-home mother of pre-school-age children. Thank God we don't feel the milestones as we pass them as children. That joy and grief is given to Mothers. 

I remember and yet do not remember Livie as a baby. I remember the feeling that this time, I kind of knew what I was doing, and the having the realization that whatever I did for my second born would seem right to her. I was her mother, and she knew none other. I remember stroking her furry infant ears, and tracing the arch of her tiny foot with my finger. I remember that unlike her sister she didn't enjoy being sung to; her body would tense rather than relax if I sung a lullabye. So I remember Livie and I being silent a lot together. I remember nuzzling the top of her head, and I can almost remember what she smelled like. 

She's such a wonder to me, this second daughter. It amazes me that I've had two girls and they are not the same person, that somehow Jeff and I were able to create two whole human beings that are people in their own right. And she just keeps getting bigger, changing, surprising me. That mellow, quiet baby who murmured herself to sleep is now the little clown of our family, making funny faces and saying potty words at dinner -- which I should discipline her for but instead go giggle into a pile of unfolded clothes in the laundry room. 

She is swimming, going down waterslides, and still occassionally refusing to go in bounce houses. She is coloring voraciously (she holds a crayon in her fist, not the right way). She is putting on her own clothes and shoes and brushing her teeth. But she still sucks her thumb. She likes to be carried. In my bed in the morning, she's a fierce snuggler, and if I turn my back to her she wails, "I want to see your face!"

I'm looking forward to half days, five days a week, when I can go the gym, have coffee with friends, push a cart through the grocery store alone. And yet I dread it! What if I sob when I see the vulnerable little nape of her neck under her blond bob disappear into the classroom? What if I was wrong and she's not ready? What if her moving away from me is as traumatic a life change as when she arrived in the world? 

There's no pithy resolution coming to the end of this entry, friends and readers. I just needed to weep and put these feelings down in 12-point type. I won't tell Livie, or even let her see it in my eyes that I'm mourning the end of this era: 8 and a half years of having a child at home with me full-time. I'll just keep nuzzling her head, teaching her to hold the pencil the right way, and buy her first-day-of school clothes with a smile on my face. And when I tell her she's still my baby and she responds, "Mommy, I'm not a baby, I'm a big girl now," I'll just say, "I know you are, baby. I know you are."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Everywhere, Underfoot, Little Girls

Some women are dripping with diamonds
Some women are dripping with pearls
Lucky me! Lucky me!
Look at what I'm dripping with...little girls!

-- "Little Girls," From the soundtrack to Annie 


I don't know if I run with a hospitable group of women or what. But it seems in any conversation I have with mothers of preschoolers about their dreams for the future, they all hope (or say they hope) that their house will be the house where all the other kids want to hang out. I'm not sure what their reasons were are exactly. To keep tabs on their kids? So they can know their kids' friends? Because they just like kids? 


For all those reasons, I would always say that I wanted a home where many children wanted to be.


 Well, boys and girls, so far, I have my wish. Not that we are inundated with playdates, per se, but the multiple little girls living in my neighborhood seem to frequently be inside my house. And if we say we are not available (too tired or perhaps too crank to play), sometimes they just hang out on our pathetic concrete excuse for a porch and peer through the window. 


Jeff and I are mystified by all the children that suddenly are swarming our cul-de-sac. Where did they all come from? we ask ourselves. When we moved in, there were no kids in this neighborhood. And then we remember, we didn't have kids when we moved in either. But we grew them. And they grew quickly. 


I love all these small humans roaming our street in screechy little packs. They are up in the trees, crawling under bushes, scooting the sidewalks, biking in the street.  I remember being one of those kids, turned loose onto association-owned property, playing complex games of Spy or Hide and Seek. It was one of the best parts of my childhood, and I like thinking -- realizing, suddenly -- that I'm giving my girls the kind of childhood I had.


But I digress. When the kids get tired of roaming the sidewalks, they often turn up here. I have apparently earned the reputation among the small fry as a mom who lets the kids come inside and make messes. 


This is thrilling to my youngest, Olivia, who loves messes. In fact, last week when she was coloring and some friends showed up unexpectedly, she waved them towards the stairs and said something like, "My toys are up there. Go for it!" She considered it pure joy when she encountered the chaos they had created and dove right in.


This is less than thrilling to my eldest who prefers that everything be kept in order and played with in the way the manufacturers originally intended. She doesn't particularly like impromptu games because they lack structure. In fact, when several little girls were playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos (an ill-advised choice of game for me to purchase, what with my noise sensitivity and all), and there were an odd number of players, she created a semi-complex tournament structure that none of the 5-7 year olds could understand and she eventually gave up and walked outside in chagrin. 


My honest feeling about all these children underfoot is on the spectrum somewhere between the feelings of my two daughters. I will almost always wave the kiddos in and point them to the best toys. I am not always thrilled with the messes and noises they make. It is much more complicated having five girls in the house rather than two . But it is also more fun. I love overhearing their conversations and observing their games. I like watching Livie play hostess, and Sophia work out  complicated negotiations. 


My favorite thing about these small ones in my home is that they feel good here. There is one little girl in our neighborhood whose mother is raising her in a fairly free-range approach. She is often wandering between houses and we don't always know where she is. Last week, she was frustrated in a game of hide and seek and came to my porch crying. She let me cuddle and comfort her, and ended up playing with cooking toys while I prepared dinner. When Jeff came home, our daughters were outside in the bushes, but this little one and her brother were both engaged on our floor. 


Some of the kids in my neighborhood have strong, loving homes. Some have absent fathers. Some have very social parents, and some very shy. Whatever their families are like, my personal belief is that every child could use as many people to love them as possible. My kids included. So if we can love our neighbor kids by making them feel welcome and wanted in our home, it's worth the mess and chaos. 


The lyrics at the top of this page are sung by the despicable Mrs. Hannigan, bath tub gin-imbibing head of the orphanage where Annie and friends live a hard-knock life. She hates her lot in life: overseeing all these little ones. But I often sing this chorus to myself as a mantra when I feel a little Hannigan-esque, exasperated with all the little messes, little voices, little squirmishes, little pink undies to wash, little toys to step on. I look at all these neighborhood little ones and realize I love to love them. And I love my own littles too. "Lucky me, lucky me, look at what I'm dripping with. Little girls!"



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reality Check? Check.

"If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it's not so bad."
C.S. Lewis, from God in the Dock

As it turns out, packing your favorite outfits, organizing your trunk, and stocking your car with healthy snacks does nothing to prevent forest fires and the stomach flu on vacation. 

In my last blog, before heading out on a road trip that would include about 26 hours of total driving in nine days to northern Utah and back, I wrote about my obviously mistaken belief that I could create the perfect vacation by packing the best version of myself. Even before we embarked, I knew that no amount of planning could create a pretty, problem free life. Deep down I knew it, at least, but on the surface I knew I was denying it. And so I prayed for a reality check. 

Don't pray those kinds of prays, friends, unless you would like our faithful God to answer in the affirmative. 

The state of Utah was aflame last week as we drove from Zion up to the northern mountains, where my sister in law lives in Park City. We passed through huge smoke clouds south of Provo and watched helicopters douse the acreages of brush fire. Even at over 6,000 feet in Park City, we could catch the scent of ash on the wind during the first two days we were there. And then on our third day, our wedding anniversary, the slope of Alpine, less than 50 miles from where we were staying, caught fire. While Hubby was four miles up a slope on a mountain bike (his first time ever) and I was in a pool with my daughters and nieces, we watched the sun turn red, the sky turn orange and the pool surface skim over with gray ash. Not dream vacation conditions.

Fortunately, by Fourth of July morning, that particular fire was contained and the wind had shifted. With optimism renewed we headed out to the downtown Fourth of July parade. With about 10 minutes of parade remaining, Sophia complained of stomach cramps, and I took her to the public restroom, where, sick and disoriented, she faced the wrong way in the stall and vomited the contents of her stomach onto the floor. I, who fear the stomach flu so much that I often faint when my kids throw up, was severely challenged by this experience. 

After I mopped up the tile floor with paper towels, we rushed home, amid our family’s assurances that Sophia had altitude sickness and it would pass. But by 9 that evening, Hubby and I were both curled up on the fold-out couch of his sister’s basement, sick as dogs ourselves. 

I call my philosophy on which this blog centers Imperfectionism, and I’ve never been able to satisfactorily articulate it in a concise and punchy way for the synopsis you see here on the side. But the way I feel about my vacation can illustrate it well. There was a moment during that week that my husband and I convened downstairs in what we came to refer to as the Barf Basement (it’s a lovely space actually, and I hope if you ever visit our sister you won’t hold this against it), that we seriously discussed just cutting bait and heading home early. Could this experience possibly be redeemed? 

To go home would have been an example of one type of Perfectionist thinking: All or Nothing. This trip is either all good, or all bad, and we were tempted to stamp it all bad. 

Imperfectionism however, allows it to be flawed but still worthwhile. It even embraces the nasty moments as fodder for a good story (or a good blog, perhaps). And so we stayed through to our last day. 

Our reward: a chairlift ride up to Deer Valley, where we hiked through wildflowers and aspens. We ate a wonderful lunch (carefully, our stomachs were still delicate). Our Livie overcame her fear of heights and wrote a song from a birdie’s perspective on the chair lift down. And it was an unforgettable experience. Even when Sophia barfed – AGAIN – that night, we were glad we had stayed. 

Looking back on this trip for years to come, we will undoubtedly remember our 36 hours or so in the barf basement, and the fact that the heat and fires made the mountain air less than ideal. 

But we will also remember, I hope, being waist deep in the Virgin River in the Narrows of Zion Canyon. We’ll remember eating banana pancakes with our nieces, and all their giggles and hugs and games with our girls. We’ll remember our drive through the Wasatch Mountains (where three out of seven of us were bit by some orange mutant horseflies, but still…). We’ll remember our anniversary dinner at High West Distillery (if you’re ever there, I recommend the trout with roasted grapes and caper berries). We’ll remember the Park City Marching Band in the patriotic parade and the lines of gorgeous horses walking past us deep in the aspen grove of the Deer Valley slopes. 

If you had told me all the realities of this vacation (I didn’t mention it all, good or bad), I probably would not have had the courage to go. I didn’t want a vacation that was a time of training and correction (among many things, I did at least learn not to black out when my kids puke); I wanted pure pleasure and rest, and so some moments were intolerable, as C.S. Lewis wrote, above. So I’m glad I was none the wiser. Because I’d say the same thing about the realities of marriage, or motherhood, or every job I’ve ever held. If I’d known the whole truth, I wouldn’t have taken the leap.

It makes me think of Jesus, as things often do. Specifically, when he told his disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you could not bear them now.” (John 16:12) He then promised the Holy Spirit to teach them what they would need to know one day at a time, one moment at a time -- at the right time. 

So as much as I think I would like to see the future so that I could plan for every eventuality and therefore head many problems off before they start, this is not the way of things. This may be one of God’s better ideas: I would miss out on so many precious things if I knew the difficult ones that would be served alongside of them. I wouldn’t be strong enough to make those Imperfectionist decisions ahead of time; I mightn’t have faith enough to choose the good and bad together. 

So thank God I get one moment at a time. I get the decision to hang on for that last day of the imperfect vacation, to jump on the chair lift and ride it up, up, up. It won’t be a perfect experience. But it will be redeemed. It will be enough.