Perfectly-imperfect holidays

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It took forever, but it’s back.

For the first time since becoming a parent almost five years ago (!), I’m looking forward to this holiday with a sense of excitement. Anticipation.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas … only the expectation and exhaustion that can come with Dec. 25. After getting married and welcoming our first child, the mounting pressure of the holidays — throwing the perfect holiday! choosing the best gifts! making the happiest memories! — was too much for my already-overloaded brain to handle.

Grappling with postpartum anxiety, the pressure of the Year of Firsts — baby’s first everything, all needing to be commemorated lest the memories disappear into the sands of time — felt like another way I was failing as a mom.

Also, I was exhausted. All new parents are tired, but I was not prepared for the way that would impact every aspect of my life. Ollie woke constantly, on the hour, and I didn’t feel like a human being for years after this birth.

I didn’t think I was doing things “right.” Not for a long time. But when I learned I was expecting my second child, I knew I had to pull it together. I didn’t want to focus more on documenting the moment than actually living in it … and I wanted to enjoy Hadley’s first year in a way that I couldn’t with Ollie.

And I did.

I got better.

Medication helped. Talking helped. The passage of time helped. Also: sleep helped. For the love of snow-covered pinecones, our children finally sleep through the night ( … mostly, but we’ll take it).

So this year? I’m ready. Ready to embrace that holiday spirit. The kids are at great ages — 2 ½, 4 ½ — to peer into the darkness searching for the neighbors’ Christmas lights and eagerly anticipate Santa’s arrival. We decorated right after Thanksgiving, pulling everything out after I got home from work on Black Friday.

And that’s also how I knew I was better: I was too excited to wait any longer.

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So here it is: my Christmas spirit blowing through the front door on a gusty winter breeze — with advent calendars and elves on shelves, matching pajamas, hot cocoa . . . every jinglin’ thing.

As we dragged holiday box after box up from the basement, another surprising thing happened: the little hands reaching for fragile things did not bother me much.

Hadley and Ollie were so excited to start hanging ornaments that, within reason, I just … let it be.

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A year ago, my compulsive need to make everything “just so” would have meant plucking those delicate bulbs to place on a top branch, far from tiny fingers.

I would have been more preoccupied with making something “perfect” than creating so much that is pleasantly imperfect.

I’ve found lots of resources on what it means to be the child of a parent with OCD, but I’ve been a little too scared to delve deeply into what it means to be the mother herself. (I do relate deeply to articles like this one.)

I’m making progress … I know I am. I wouldn’t let any of the ornaments get purposefully broken, but I wanted the kids to enjoy the decorating process. Heck — I wanted to enjoy the process. When Hadley hung a third ornament on one scraggly branch, I didn’t interfere. And as Ollie collected all the red ones into a clump, I praised his creativity. I did not tidy.

Sometimes the OCD loosens its grip and I’m fine. Most of my need to “fix” seems to revolve around right angles, of all things: if I see a book or a box, for example, I need it to be flush against another surface, never askew. (Straightening a business card-sized calendar on my desk is a particular obsession.)

The tree has few angles, so I’m happy to let it reflect the kids’ creativity. I want our family tree to be an explosion of color and memories. I love the handprints on canvas, the popsicle art, the painted preschool creations. Some of the pieces are my own handiwork (circa 1989), while others are Spencer’s from childhood. Even more precious are the pieces passed down from my great-grandmother: hand-crocheted trees with lots of memories.

That’s Christmas to me: family and festivities. Tinsel-covered bits of holiday magic.

Plus, you know … the cookies. Joyfully eaten with my kids by our lopsided Christmas tree while the Elf on the Shelf looks on.

And to all a good night.

Circling like it’s 1996

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It would appear overnight: rows and rows of paperbacks, “chapter books” and illustrated classics. When the Scholastic Book Fair rolled into my middle school, setting up shop amidst the short stacks in the library, I didn’t even try to act cool. Who can act cool in the face of a veritable literary buffet?

Having some of my parents’ cash in my pocket and the autonomy to choose any book I wanted was intoxicating. I remember obsessing over the flyer sent home, tallying up the costs for stories I wanted to share with Mom and Dad (I always went overboard — imagine). I’d come home clutching a new purchase like Walk Two Moons, an all-time favorite. Then I’d collapse on my grandparents’ couch after school and get lost in another world until dinnertime.

My husband casually dropped the first Scholastic flyer sent home from the kids’ preschool on the kitchen counter with all the other mail and detritus, like it was just another piece of paper.

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I wasn’t ready for the buoyant whoosh of emotion that hit me when I saw it. I’m talking serious, legitimate excitement … I mean, as excited as a frazzled 34-year-old mom with a pinched nerve in her back can get, anyway. I sat down with this thing like it was a particularly juicy bit of gossip I wanted to absorb in great detail.

And absorb I did. I started circling books like it was 1996, y’all. Curious GeorgeLittle Owl’s SnowDinosaurs Don’t Have Bedtimes! Few stories were safe from my Sharpie.

Never mind that we have stacks and stacks of children’s books already — some I began collecting long before Oliver and Hadley were even born. But as my sister correctly pointed out, the collection we have now features baby-approved or extremely “young” stories. As we get closer to Ollie learning to read himself, I’m investigating the early readers and beyond.

I chose two new stories to add into the bedtime rotation, placing our order online (hello, 2019!). I’m definitely more excited than they could possibly be.

And now, the hardest part … the wait.

Out of the Cookie crew

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I never thought I’d say this, but I miss “Sesame Street.”

Hadley has branched beyond Elmo & Co., which should be a relief … but feels bittersweet instead. It’s been weeks — months? — since she requested to watch her monster pals, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my baby has moved on from her first great love.

For the last two years, our living room has been a battle ground between Hadley’s obsession with Cookie Monster and Ollie’s love of “PAW Patrol.” Unlike the pesky pups, Hadley’s pick is educational and positive, teaching about acceptance, love, kindness … and the ABCs. There’s a reason it’s been on the air for 50 years. Of all the shows the kids have liked, “Sesame Street” is one I’ve never minded watching as well.

Hadley’s love ran deep. Two themed birthday parties. At least 20 episodes in the queue at any time. One family pilgrimage to “Sesame Street Live,” which I think we enjoyed as much as the kids. T-shirts, books and toys galore. Elmo’s face on everything, and everywhere.

The kids’ dueling interests helped us introduce the concept of “taking turns” from a young age. We talk often about fairness and patience. One kid’s pick is followed by the other’s, and I try hard to balance their interests. They don’t like it, but they’re learning. … Hopefully.

I remember feeling strangely sad and even unmoored as Oliver left his “Muppets” phase. These characters become fixtures in our home; their presence is routine and comforting. I’ll always remember some of the classic songs that wrote themselves into our family’s code for the first few years of parenthood, and Spence and I can still quote entire scenes from the 2015 iteration of “The Muppets” that lasted a season on ABC.

It’s so harddddd to say goodbyeeeee to yesterdayyyyyy.

This isn’t to say that Hadley might not return to “Sesame Street” sometime … Ollie’s Kermit love made a brief comeback. But never again will we have 24/7 requests from a little girl who expands her interests and knowledge of the world every day.

As the Johnson kids move forward, Spence and I press on as well. Remember the good times while still clearing some space on the DVR.

And always strive to be more of an Abby than an Oscar, creating a little sparkle wherever we go.

 

That time I almost lost it at Great Wolf Lodge (but didn’t)

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There are several stages of Traveling with Children.

The first is, of course, excitement. We’re going on vacation! As a working parent, I especially look forward to this uninterrupted time with my family. It’s easy to fall into this trap of daydreaming about the perfect trip during the planning phase: finishing a book poolside, laughing with my perfectly-behaved children at a calm dinner, tucking them into woodland-themed bunk beds, watching HGTV in peace. Ahh.

Next comes getting acclimated. After three hours on the road, we’re here! “Here” was Great Wolf Lodge last weekend: a family-themed resort with energetic children at every turn. GWL has a cult following and festive vibe that gets even straight-laced adults to don the trademark wolf ears (myself included). Getting acclimated includes taking in all the craziness that a change of scenery entails. Our four- and two-year-old basically just … screamed and ran at full speed for the first six-plus hours on the Williamsburg property. Calling them “keyed up” is an understatement.

Once reality sets in, we hit the “ooh, was this a good idea?” stage — usually around bedtime. This phase includes being kicked in the ribs at 2 a.m. by a child who refuses to sleep in the bunk bed of the pricey “wolf den” suite, because bunk beds are cool strictly during daylight hours. Your spouse must sleep on the couch.

So, I mean, I’m not a monster; I realize that a change in sleeping arrangements can be weird for kids. And my son, an extreme creature of habit, greatly depends on his routines. The idea of crawling into the top bunk and actually resting there alone was … a hard no.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, I was a little annoyed with myself that it did surprise me. But every time, I think … this time will be different. The kids are older now, and more adaptable; we won’t have the fussing and issues we’ve had on previous trips.

While it’s true that we don’t have to worry about round-the-clock feedings and a truckload of diapers anymore, thinking that Oliver, in particular, is adaptable? Mmm. This is the kid that, on our first beach trip, screamed so long and so hard at being put in a pack-and-play that Spencer and I wound up driving the beach access road for hours to get him to sleep … then carrying him inside in his carseat. Also the same kid that required another midnight drive around downtown Bedford, Pennsylvania, because we were desperate to calm him down. We wound up finding a well-lit gas station to catch a few hours of rest ourselves, then cut our trip short.

My blood pressure climbed just typing all that.

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Sleep is at the heart of so many issues. And when traveling, of course, sleep is a major unknown … because the comfortable routines we have at home don’t directly translate. Hadley goes down relatively easy at bedtime, but Ollie is different. He struggles to settle on a regular day at home, constantly telling me that “sleeping is boring,” so traveling is just … next level.

So in the “ooh, was this a good idea?” phase, I beat myself up with big questions. Why is it so hard to enjoy something that hundreds of families are all enjoying at this very moment? Why does this feel challenging? Am I broken? Are my children? Why are we spending all this money to be exhausted and stressed in a different location? And, of course, why can’t I just relax and have fun? 

Thankfully, after the first night, this exhausting (and depressing) phase typically melts into a better scene: making the best of it and hey, this is actually enjoyable, which comes after the kids, Spence and I have adapted to staying in a hotel room — all four of us, together, with little distraction — and being out of our normal patterns.

Great Wolf Lodge has the advantage of being very obviously kid-friendly. Kids here, there, and everywhere. Kids shoving past you in Build a Bear. Just … kids.

While it got overwhelming at the end, it was refreshing not to have the added stress of feeling like we were disturbing everyone around us. Our crew never earned the familiar glares of nearby couples just trying to enjoy their crab dip appetizer in peace, thankyouverymuch. 

Camaraderie was in the air, actually — an “in the trenches” solidarity amongst the weary parents and grandparents. Wading through knee-high water in our similar tankini tops and skirted bathing suit bottoms, the thirty-something moms and I exchanged knowing smiles. These women got it. They, too, were wrestling toddlers into swim diapers and chasing sugared-up “PAW Patrol” characters through hotel halls. They were also in line at Dunkin’ because they would croak without another shot of caffeine.

Because we visited GWL during their “Howl-o-Ween” festivities, we enjoyed nightly trick-or-treating. Spence and I wound up walking the candy trail with another couple whose kids were close in age to ours, and our shared jokes warmed me up with the recognition of kindred spirits. My husband and I joked that we should have asked where they were from. Everyone needs friends. And this couple — with the dad dressed like Rocky ready to enter the ring, and his playful wife continuously “dinging” a bell on her iPhone — were definite contenders.

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So … did we have fun at Great Wolf Lodge? Absolutely.

After our iffy first night, I faced a hard truth: Traveling with young children feels so challenging because I’m just as much a creature of habit as they are.

Understanding myself better as an adult, this is about anxiety. I get stressed when I’m out of my element. I thrive on predictability — and traveling with children has none of that. My anxiety kicks into overdrive and mostly-managed OCD issues flair up. The familiar fight-or-flight panicky feeling awakens, and I want to run away to feel normal again. By then? Well, I’m just a hot mess.

I’m working on all that.

By realizing it fairly early this trip, I could collect myself, pull it together, and coax my anxious brain back into neutral territory. Once I relaxed, we had a great time with my mother- and father-in-law at the expansive resort. There was plenty to do, and the water park was enjoyable even for a mom (and kids) who can’t swim!

Most importantly, Hadley and Oliver had a blast — and we have a new collection of fun family memories with their grandparents. I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about “the wolf place” for a long time to come. And who knows? Now that he’s four, maybe our GWL trip will be one of Ollie’s earliest memories.

Which brings us to the final phase: looking at photos and reminiscing about the great time you had. The hotel neighbors having a dance party at 1 a.m. and long lines behind indecisive middle schoolers at the breakfast buffet are all forgotten. We’re left with sweet smiles floating on a tube in the lazy river, joy when hitting the 1,000-ticket prize in the arcade, and happy, tired kids passing out within minutes on the drive home.

These are the days. The tiring, wild, haphazard days.

I have earned that pumpkin creme cold brew, friends … but it’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Bring on the wolf ears!

 

October weekend

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An October weekend is sunny cornfields, mountains of laundry, a crisp morning with the first wisps of visible breath.

Apple-cider donuts. Driving with the windows down. Trying on our costumes weeks in advance, and “practicing” our trick-or-treating.

Dodging the candy aisle in Target. Begrudgingly tucking arms into jackets, all shed by lunchtime. Crunching through a yard full of leaves.

Packing away the shorts and tees, then shopping to cover the kids’ ever-longer limbs. Replacing their whole wardrobe as they grow taller. Listening hard as they grow funnier, and wiser.

Chili on the stovetop, cornbread in the oven. Pies and whipped cream with an extra “shot” right from the can. Watching “Boss Baby” while I wash bedding. Fielding requests for “Peppa Pig” as we dim the lights for bedtime, now earlier and earlier.

It’s the four of us settling down on a Sunday night, with the house smelling of Lysol and (most of) the toys all tucked away.

It’s another donut for good measure. Monday’s on its way.

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My body has changed. I have, too.

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I met with a dietitian at work.

For a story, that is — about mindful eating, purposeful choices … eating with intention. But like any writer, I capture little pieces of the journey for myself along the way.

Everything she was saying made perfect sense … and the story/conversation did not go in the direction I’d anticipated. I had the idea of doing an “Eating Well at the Holidays!”-style piece that would probably include tips like “load up half your plate with vegetables first!” and “eat a light snack so you’re less likely to nosh on apps!”

I opened our conversation this way with Wendy, who is so reassuring and non-judgmental.

“I was thinking back to my Weight Watcher days,” I said, “and remembering how, anytime I was headed for a party, I would try to eat all my boring food beforehand so I was less likely to eat all the delicious things.”

Wendy was nonplussed. Neutral. “And how did that work for you?”

“Well, at the time? It worked great. I was so regimented and basically ate when I absolutely had to,” I said. “I lost tons of weight. But now …”

But now.

But now, I don’t want to live my life counting cauliflower crackers and berating myself for grabbing a cookie in the break room.

But now, I care less about fitting into size-10 pants than being able to run after my kids.

But now, I don’t want to worry about every photo someone is snapping from a sideline, wondering if I look “fat.”

But now, “weight” is not a dirty word. I don’t cringe when my son pokes at my soft belly (which, he believes, makes an excellent pillow). We talk about bodies, how everyone has a body, and all bodies are OK. I really do believe this. I want my daughter and son to know this. And yet …

The altar of thin is so deeply-rooted, and I am human.

But I am exhausted.

There is so much more to life.

And you know what? It makes me angry, too. Diet culture, impossible beauty standards for women, obsession and worshiping “thin” bodies while vilifying larger bodies … this is all a total mess. I mean, how much time do we have?

So yeah, I guess I am angry.

I have been thin — a size 4. A size so impossibly small that I was even tinier than my middle-school self. I liked being thin, because everyone else liked me being thin. I felt like I’d “won.” I’d done something seemingly impossible. Everyone was so impressed!

It came at a cost. I justified it. I was tiny for our wedding in 2013, and small going into my pregnancy with Oliver. But “thin” is not a direct path to “healthy,” and I was physically and emotionally all over the place. “Thin” didn’t protect me from preeclampsia, which ultimately forced Ollie’s premature delivery and set off a series of health concerns for me.

I’m not a doctor. I know I need to exercise regularly, eat well more often than not, try to get adequate rest, etc. etc. etc. I’m not denying those facts. I am taking care of other health issues and working to be in better shape — for myself and my loved ones.

But this? This is something else. Something more. This is body image. Perceptions. Bias. This is about #goals and diet culture and the collective obsession with thin, particularly female thinness, which is what is so insidious.

Because here is a thing I know: today, after two babies in two years, I am heavier than I’ve ever been.

I’m also happier.

I appreciate my body. It’s been through so much. It’s done amazing things. It grew humans. That’s cliche, I know, but it’s true: women are amazing.

So I cut myself slack. Parenthood has taught me that there is beauty in the trying — that showing up and working hard is sometimes enough. I have to show up for myself, too.

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After talking with Wendy, I looked up the concepts we were discussing: intuitive eating, which has to do with physical vs. emotional hunger, accepting our bodies, and making peace with food. It has nothing to do with restricting calorie intake or figuring out ways to reach an “ideal.” I found Isabel Foxen Duke (great name, btw), particularly this post, and Health At Every Size.

It addresses everything I’ve felt since having children, but didn’t know how to express: I want to feel healthy and be physically healthy, but not at the expense of my emotional health.

And restricting food? Creating impossible limits on what I’m eating, and when, and why? Constantly “getting back on the wagon,” then “falling off the wagon,” and dealing with the guilt associated with “failure”? Entering a cycle of self-loathing because I dared to eat a scone in front of my coworkers? That impacts my emotional health.

I’m … tired. And really just done with it.

A few weeks after learning about intuitive eating from Wendy, I’m still in the research phase. Just reading about all these people who have changed their outlooks (and lives) has been reassuring. I like what I’m finding, and want to dig deep to move in this direction: eating and living well for its inherent benefits, not because I need to conform to outside expectations of my body.

Life is too short. We all want to find what makes us feel well … mentally and physically.

So I’m setting off.

I’m going to try.