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.

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.

Ollie apple donut

Four eyes

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Our four-year-old has glasses.

Our four-year-old. Has glasses.

This all came about rather unexpectedly. A local Lions Club offered free vision screenings at Ollie’s daycare and I signed off that he could be tested. Thinking, you know, cool! That’s very nice of them, thinking of the children and all.

Ollie’s results came back “refer,” meaning they recommended we take him for a full eye exam. And I put it off. And off. We had zero indication that anything was wrong . . . aside from the occasional squinting. He never complained about his eyesight or acted strangely. Of course, why would he have? Ollie didn’t know what “normal” vision was. Apparently he never has.

Our guy has a major focusing problem, and these new glasses — big things, with thick lenses … much thicker than I was expecting — are to be worn full-time. Hearing those words filled me with dread. This is a kid who never, ever stops moving. Who plays “the floor is lava” anywhere and everywhere, scaling furniture like an agile squirrel. I had immediate visions of a pair of glasses smashed to smithereens beneath a sneaker, trike, or toy tractor.

Mama got that insurance plan, I’ll tell you that.

After a week of daily “Are my glasses ready yet?” questions, we finally picked them up on Saturday. I’m writing this late on Sunday with a surprising amount of glasses-related relief coursing through my veins.

I know it is very early days … we can’t get all excited about victory yet. But Ollie has already taken to them much quicker and easier than I would have dared to guess. I’d asked his optometrist for tips about what to do if/when a kid refuses to wear their specs, and he’d explained that — after the initial break-in period, tough with any new prescription — most kids realize they are seeing through a new lens (literally), and wear them willingly.

Ollie is not “most kids,” however. He’s spirited. “Persistent” is an understatement. And when he decides he is not doing something, he is not doing it. No incentive in the world can make a dent toward progress. (See: potty-training. For years.)

But we’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. From the moment he slipped them on, his eyes as dark and wide as I’ve ever seen them, it was obvious that he was experiencing the world in a new way. Ollie was positively giddy, awestruck. I was reminded of getting my first pair of contacts after refusing to wear my own glasses for years: the world in sudden technicolor, each blade of grass alive.

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Ollie kept them on through most of today, even through some pretty active stretches. The only time he asked to take them off was when he was eating pizza, so he “wouldn’t get sauce on them.”

I know we’re not in the clear yet on the journey to Glasses Acceptance. Tomorrow is Monday, a preschool day, and I feel flutters of anxiety thinking about the classroom reaction to our big-hearted boy. My mama instincts twitch at the idea of my kids being marked as “different,” though I know we are all different and that is perfectly OK. Great, even!

Will four-year-olds agree? I don’t know. But if anyone calls him “four eyes,” here’s what I hope Ollie will still be able to see:

  1. Goodness in himself and others.
  2. Beauty in life’s little moments.
  3. The value of wisdom over simple textbook knowledge.
  4. How much it matters to be kind.

That we can’t always protect our children from the world is a painful parenting moment. How do we get used to that? Can we get used to it?

I realize that, in typical Meg fashion, I am worrying about something before it has happened. It might not happen. I didn’t think Ollie would agree to even wear the glasses, and look! Maybe it will be fine. Maybe everyone will love Ollie’s specs the way he does.

And if not? Well … we’ll be there.

In my own glasses, too.

 

Childhood’s tiny treasures

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I didn’t expect to love holding marker caps, or the tops of acorns, or the shiny foil of an opened Hershey Kiss.

My life is full of tiny things, unexpected bits and baubles — little treasures collected by my children and tucked into pockets, both theirs and mine. I find them in the pants pockets and stacked on chairs.

Oliver, my wild bird, is a collector of sparkly things. He likes pawing through my jewelry box to unearth my college ring: a thick band with a ruby at its center. It’s engraved with my initials and graduation year, though my thirty-something eyes don’t find the tiny letters as easily these days. I’ve caught Ollie many times trying to squirrel it away. I keep little from them, but I don’t want that ring to disappear like so many marbles and buttons before it.

“Mommy, when I’m five, I can have your college ring?” Oliver will ask. Five is going to be a big year for Oliver; it’s the age he’ll be driving the minivan and chopping vegetables himself, too.

Hadley is also getting in on the act. She loves to carry around LEGO people, one she’s even dubbed “Mommy,” and has a collection of plastic “Sesame Street” characters in the cupholder of her car seat. I find Goldfish tucked away, presumably for later, and round game pieces hidden in the trunk of a tricycle.

She and Ollie build their nests — one busted piece of jewelry at a time.

Marker caps are new. Hadley loves to draw: bold lines and dots like pattering raindrops on cloudy white paper. She will make the smallest movement with a pen, adding a pink swoosh here or a yellow circle there. She hands each lid to me as she works, careful not to get ink on her tiny fingers.

I’m cautious with the lids, waiting with uncharacteristic patience as she draws. We don’t want to the markers to dry out, I gently say.

And Hadley smiles, nods, adds more dots to her scene. She trusts that these, too, will be safe.

 

 

Skeletons outside the closet

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Four-year-old Oliver has an unusual new interest — one I did not predict . . . and don’t quite know what to do with.

Skeletons.

This is the kid that, apropos of nothing, will try to catch my eye in the minivan mirror with questions like, “Mommy, how did I get here?”

Get . . . here?

“Yes. Here on Earth. On our planet. Where did I come from?”

Ah. Here we go.

I have always been a philosophical mess, so these “big picture” questions don’t really surprise me. In elementary school, I can remember turning to my little sister and asking something like, “Isn’t it weird how we’re humans?” 

But I haven’t been ready for all the questions we’re suddenly getting — especially since I don’t often know the answers, either. (That’s where Alexa comes in. Or Wikipedia. Or, you know, books.)

Many of the recent inquiries have been about bodies. Nothing too awkward, thankfully, but we’ve definitely entered the age of awareness. Ollie thought skeletons were just spooky figures in “Scooby Doo” — Halloween props, or creepy artwork. I nearly blew his mind when I told him that everyone has a skeleton. 

“Where?” he asked.

Under our skin, I said. Bones make up our bodies, and that’s our skeleton.

“But why do I have a body?”

See? So my kid.

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I recently pulled up a diagram to highlight the basics of the skeletal system. I didn’t know what most of those bones were called — except for the phalanges, that is. (Every middle-schooler goes through an absolutely hilarious “Hey, Linda, I can see your phalanges!” phase, right?)

He studied it with me, pointing out familiar parts like the feet and hands. We found a kids’ YouTube video that walked us through the topic, too.

Spence and I have been doing our best to answer Ollie’s increasingly deep questions without stressing the kid out. He has a sensitive heart — and an inquisitive mind. I love his curiosity, but I’m also having a tough time coming up with matter-of-fact responses to some of his bigger questions.

And a few have broken my heart a little.

“Mommy,” he whispered one night, when we have our most heartfelt conversations. Ollie shot straight up in bed like a wild thought had just occurred to him. And, you know, maybe it had. “I’m going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger?”

Well, yes, bud, I whispered back. I certainly hope so.

This was brought on by needing to retire his John Deere T-shirt — a longtime favorite. It’s a 4T, and the kid has moved several sizes beyond . . . plus it’s so thin from constant wash and wear that it’s fraying at the edges. Small holes dot the neckline.

I’d tried to tuck it away without him noticing, feeling sad myself. It was his go-to outfit for more than a year. You know those “I Really Love My . . .” features in People, with a celebrity wearing the same scarf or hat or boots in a million settings? That’s Ollie’s John Deere shirt. So many of my favorite pictures include him wearing it.

I’d been quietly pulling a few worn tops from his bin to add to the closet collection. Oliver saw me packing it up because, of course, he misses nothing — and he was despondent. I wound up putting it back, though it’s since been gently stored.

“I’m going to get big like Uncle Eric?” Ollie continued, thinking of his six-foot-tall buddy.

Maybe. You’ll get taller, though we don’t know how tall. We’ll see when you’re a grown-up.

“But I don’t want to get bigger,” he suddenly wailed, and the way his tears came on really took me aback. “I want to stay little.”

Ugh. Gutted, I tell you.

I wish I could say I had an eloquent response — something that soothed my son, profound and memorable. I didn’t. I struggle, too. Though I do feel decidedly “mom-ish” these days, my adult skin — and parent skin — didn’t quite seem to fit for a long, long stretch. I always wonder if I’m doing this right. “This” being, you know . . . everything.

I do feel a lightening lately, though . . . like my eyes are readjusting after exiting the cave of maternal exhaustion, anxiety, worry. I find joy in little moments. I’m not so tense. I trust my instincts more. I’m less easily phased by spilled milk or thrown toys. I have my moments, don’t get me wrong — but I also feel like maybe I’m doing OK.

And I hope that, in time, I’ll be able to cobble together responses to the many big questions my children will ask of me.

I might not have “answers,” but I hope I’ll have honest and thoughtful words to share.

And when in doubt? Well, I’ll look for the diagram.