Like mother, like son — or why I’ll never get my face wet in the shower

Our son has always been “extra.”

I don’t know how else to describe it. Well, actually, with lots and lots of parenting books dog-eared on my nightstand … I guess I do. Oliver is relentless, dogged, determined, laser-focused. He is perceptive, bright, curious, hilarious. In a word, Ollie is spirited.

Being our first child, one who arrived eight weeks early, Oliver came with no frame of reference or guide for his dad and me. Is it normal for babies to scream for hours on end? Is it colic? Gas? Is he cold? Wet? Hungry? Teething? Hot? … Why is he so mad?

When Ollie was around six months old, he once cried so hard for so long that my husband and I took him to the Emergency Room at two o’clock in the morning. I was delirious, despondent — I literally had no idea what was wrong, where to begin, how to help. I thought he must have broken a bone or something … without my noticing. Because I was a terrible mother. Obviously.

Ollie turned out to have a fever that eventually bloomed into hand foot mouth virus — the first of many illnesses in that first year that tested the limits of my sanity. He recovered well, thank goodness.

I did not.

The ER night was the eve of our second wedding anniversary. We’d planned for a day spent just the two of us — something we desperately needed, and I’d been looking forward to. Obviously a sick baby meant we were staying home, and I felt more isolated than I ever had.

It did not help, of course, that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression. Or that I was embarrassed to still be feeling rattled from Ollie’s premature birth and month in the NICU. I knew I “should” feel grateful to have survived such an ordeal with a healthy child, particularly as I began hearing so many terribly sad stories from the preeclampsia community.

Instead, I just felt jumpy, exhausted, and awful.

Having a baby who never seemed to just freakin’ relax and be a baby … that magnified everything else.

“Are we doing this wrong?” I kept asking Spencer, looking at friends’ infants curled up like sleeping cherubs in the middle of a boisterous get-together.

“Why is everything so hard?” my husband would whisper back, turning to face me in the darkness over the wails of a child who wouldn’t — couldn’t — rest.

One crystallized memory of this also happened around the ER night. We’d gone to visit Spencer’s friends for a baby shower. At six months old, I assumed Ollie would sleep in the car for the hour-ish ride there and also snooze on the way back to a family birthday party.

Two events in six hours. Two loud, packed events in a very pre-COVID world — with folks smashed in, passing Ollie around, cooing at the first grandchild and great-grandchild in our family.

We left my grandparents’ house way past Oliver’s normal “bedtime,” whatever that was. And he cried. And cried. And cried. He screamed for so long that I wound up stumbling outside in the dark, barefoot, just to get away from the noise. I felt like I was losing my mind.

“I need a minute,” I said, over and over. I need a minute. I need a minute.

“I need a minute” has become my catchphrase. I find myself saying it so often that Hadley actually incorporates it into her dolls’ conversations.

I need a minute, I say, and then I come back. Of course. And I came back then, holding Ollie and rocking him and murmuring in his ear. We gave him a bath, hoping the warm water would quiet his screams … and it did. Eventually, he passed out.

“You know, I think he’s overstimulated,” I remember saying — a word that shot out like a lightning bolt.

Overstimulated. Where did that even come from?

Takes one to know one, I suppose.

Ollie didn’t have the vocabulary to tell us something was too loud, or hot, or bright. Even now, when those things are weighing heavily upon him, I don’t think he realizes they are. He just knows something is “off.” Something feels wrong. Maybe it’s a scratchy tag in the back of his T-shirt, or socks with a seam that sits strangely on his toes. Maybe it’s a TV cranked past a comfortable level, fireworks cracking overhead, or a slice of cake with a crumbly texture he wasn’t anticipating.

No matter the source, these are the things that turn Oliver’s emotional regulation down to zero. Anything upsetting the apple cart becomes the impetus for a black-hole of a meltdown — one born of exhaustion and intense frustration.

Those are the rough ones. Hard to pull out of.

Oliver is 5 1/2 now. He is a loving, sensitive, clever kid … and every bit as intense as he was during his baby- and toddler-hood. Demanding. Serious. Relentless.

I know all kids go through the sorts of “no, I need the green cup, not the blue cup!” phases. And I know this because our second child, Hadley, is firmly there now. But Hadley does not fall into a well of despair if you ask her to wear jeans. Or a jacket is too tight, or too warm, or too scratchy. Or the milk she was expecting at a cafe had to be substituted with lemonade.

These things are tough to manage with Ollie. But we’re making progress … and I’m the right person to help him. Turns out I had to learn myself.

A friend whose child has autism once told me it can be difficult to examine a child’s behaviors because we may not be prepared to see so much of ourselves reflected back. No one wants to think of their child as “different.” And no one wants to place themselves in that category, either.

But as I began researching sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the many ways it can manifest in children and adults, I felt an overwhelming sense of recognition. Then: relief.

Emotional regulation has been challenging for me. Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you that my face speaks before my lips do. The two times I got detention in school were both for rolling my eyes. I was voted “moodiest” in my high school theatre troupe and had a reputation as a drama queen, on stage and off.

For better or worse, I’ve always felt the lofty highs and frosty lows of life. I am not one speed. I am 32 speeds, switching gears repeatedly.

Like many parents, I’d wager, I don’t often feel like I’m the mother I “thought” I’d be. Though I love my children fiercely, I often end the day totally depleted. I am not my best self. Even before the pandemic, I worried daily … about everything, but especially if I was doing parenthood “right.” Intellectually, I understand there’s no such thing … that all I can do is love them hard, tell them, and try. But it doesn’t always feel that way.

Why is my patience always so thin? My heart always pounding? Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my children cry, scream, or even just laugh too loudly? More often than not, I find myself walking away during Ollie’s meltdowns because I need to calm myself down. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct as powerful as anything else.

Of all things, my Facebook feed helped me figure some of this out. A friend from high school — who also happens to be a licensed therapist — shared this graphic, and it caught my attention. I studied it, saved it to my phone, texted it to my husband.

Omg, I wrote Spencer. It me.

Though I’ve never been able to get my face wet (not in the shower, not in a pool … not anywhere), cannot stand the feel of dirt (or anything really) on my hands, get extremely anxious in loud restaurants, and am constantly scraping my hair into a ponytail to get it away from my face and off my neck … I hadn’t ever viewed those behaviors through a sensory lens before.

Makes sense, I kept thinking, Googling more and more. Makes sense why I never learned to swim. Why I automatically butter toast with a clean “thumb hold” square in the corner. Why I often have to take a break at parties, lingering in the peaceful bathroom just a little too long. This … makes sense now.

I have so many examples. Suffice it to say that the more I read about SPD, the more I began to understand the coping mechanisms I’ve developed to overcome challenges … ones I can help Oliver hone, too.

Though nothing has actually changed, I give myself some grace now. I’m not broken. I’m not a bad mom. I’m frequently an overwhelmed mom, and often I can set myself up for success by planning ahead to prevent sensory overload.

Knowing how upset I get when I’m hot, for example, I dress coolly at home. Yoga pants, tank tops. Put my hair up. Turn on ceiling fans. Try to stay comfortable.

I keep the TV on low and minimize “background noise.” Noise is a major trigger for me — having Alexa streaming music, the vent over the stove buzzing, and “Peppa Pig” snorting away in the living room is just too much.

I walk around when I’m feeling anxious. Often, this means stepping outside in the dark when Ollie and Hadley are going at full-volume. Rather than exploding (my gut reaction) when they’re just being kids, I force myself to tap out and gulp cool air.

So what does this mean for Oliver? Well, we’re still figuring that out. I know I see progress; he’s grown up and changed so much in the last year.

For now, it means having a dry washcloth ready to catch rogue water droplets near his eyes at bathtime. It’s making sure I have a three-size span of the only soft cotton jogger pants he wears (cripes, what if they’re discontinued???) and ensuring his shirts are tagless. It’s providing ear protection during plane take-off at Gravelly Point and digging around at the grocery store for the smooth vanilla yogurt, not the fruit-studded strawberry that makes him gag.

More than anything, I hope learning to wade through these waters will be easier with my arm around his shoulder — the squeeze that says I understand, and I’m here, and my buddy, we’ll figure this all out together.

Originals

If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up circa 1990, the answer was quick: an artist.

I don’t think it was about talent. Even at a young age, I knew I wasn’t necessarily creating anything original. I just knew I liked it — that it was fun to draw, sketch, paint. I didn’t know anything about “making a living.” I’d never heard of a 401(K). My only responsibilities were making sure I cleaned my plate and changed my underwear. So becoming an artist? That sounded super to me.

Now that Hadley and Oliver are both stretching their creative muscles, I have covered the proverbial fridge (in our case: wall) with their work.

Sometimes Ollie wants to be an artist, too. At 5, a “virtual” kindergartner, his work is a bit more advanced. People and faces take shape. Outlines of vehicles, buildings and toys are appear.

I realized recently that Hadley — age 3, going on 13 — was closely watching my reactions to her brother’s papers. I’m sure this is universally true, but it was definitely true in the instance of their recent “art show.”

Hadley is a bit more … impressionistic, let’s say. She favors the bold and surprising. Very Jackson Pollack.

“I love the interesting colors you picked!” I’ll say to Hadley, channeling all the parenting books, blogs and newsletters I’ve studied in my quest to make life more … well, livable with young children. Don’t offer blind praise, the experts advise. Encourage them by pointing out positive traits, not just a uniform “great job!”

Along one corner of our kitchen/dining area is a long string dotted with clothespins. I hung it for Oliver’s first birthday, creating a timeline of photos from his first year. I liked it so much — and it took up so much of that otherwise empty wall — that we’ve kept it there, now using it for birthday and holiday cards, pictures, souvenirs.

The kids’ artwork goes there, too. Oliver is in art class with Ms. Burnett, who recently read Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dot with the kids through Zoom and guided them through their own take on Vashti’s project.

Ollie zipped around the paper, suddenly turning his single dot into a “secret laboratory” complete with pipes and steam. His version was a more … scientific rendition of Ms. Burnett’s assignment, but I hoped she would grant him some creative license.

Hadley, true to her calling, took the more abstract route. Big lines. Lots of color.

When the kids were finished, I snapped a photo of Ollie’s work to upload and send to Ms. Burnett. Offering the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs,” I also added it to the growing clothespin wall of mementos.

Hadley quickly proffered her work as well. “Look!” she said, then stopped. Haddie examined her picture, visibly contrasting it with her brother’s. Then in a softer voice, she asked, “Are you going to hang mine, too?”

Ugh.

Cue heartbreak.

Though I knew, of course, what the correct answer was, I did think for a second about what would have happened to that bright face if I’d said no. It felt like a strange turning point — that moment when I could have messed up royally, casting those wide and open eyes into shadow, but I did not.

This, at least, I understood.

“Absolutely!” I sang. And I helped her sign her work like Vashti.

We look at the art wall every day, with Hadley pointing out her colorful piece amongst her brother’s versions of animals, flowers, “spooky houses.” “That’s mine,” she’ll say proudly. “Mommy, you like it?”

I question myself constantly: my parenting, my patience … my mental fortitude, particularly through the pandemic. Everything feels hard. Fraught. I constantly feel behind. Overwhelmed. Very far from my “best self,” as a mom or person in general.

But sometimes, little glimmers pop in the darkness. I’m trying to trust that I’m doing the best I can.

And if I’m not? Well, there’s always tomorrow.

“I love it, babe,” I reply, and mean it.

End of an era

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A warm rain started just as I hopped out of my minivan, but nothing could dampen my spirits.

Hauling the box to customer service, the masked Target cashier greeted me with the customary eye-smile of 2020.

“Hi! I have a return,” I began, trying to contain my glee. We processed the run-of-the-mill transaction: scanning barcodes, digging around for my Red card. I stayed quiet, willing myself to not act like a weirdo, but it still burbled out.

“We’re finally done with diapers!” I said. “Five and a half years!”

As the Target associate moved the unopened box of Pull-Ups, she offered me an air high-five. I resisted the urge to turn to all the random people at check-out and sing it from the rooftops: everyone in my house is using the bathroom!

Ah, good times.

Toilet troubles have preoccupied our home life for ages. True to his extra nature, Oliver was nearly four before he was using the facilities full-time. He told me it was “boring” to use the bathroom, and he didn’t want to stop building his tower or smashing his monster trucks long enough to bother. But once Ollie was done with Pull-Ups/diapers, he was done. He’s hardly had an accident since.

Hadley has been much more interested in transitioning out of diapers since her cousin, Leo, arrived this spring. Not wanting to be lumped into the “baby” category definitely helped her take potty-training seriously. My girl also just seems more susceptible to peer pressure in general. All the big kids use the potty, we say — a tactic that had zero impact on her brother, but will prompt an indignant Hadley to shuffle into the restroom every time.

Because the kids arrived less than two years apart, there has never been a time in our parenting that someone didn’t need a diaper change. In fact, for two years, we had two kids to wrestle. It wasn’t pretty … as I’m sure you know yourself, or can imagine.

But we did it!

I know better than to prematurely celebrate anything with kids, but I feel confident shouting this from the rooftops (er — writing about it publicly) because we’ve gone months with very few accidents. We haven’t touched a diaper since June. Returning the box of Pull-Ups felt a bit like tempting fate, but we’re three days removed from my Target run and doing fine.

I’m proud of Hadley for quickly embracing a “new normal.” I’m proud of Oliver for eventually putting an end to our toilet stalemate. I’m proud of Spencer and I for surviving five and a half years of diapering without going into the poorhouse.

Mainly, I’m just happy to be entering a new era of parenting — especially combined with the fact that the kids can now get their own juice boxes, open their own snacks, and play favorite games on their tablets without me hovering nearby to click for them.

That last one is definitely #modernparenting … but hey.

A win is a win.

Hunting-birds in summer showers

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“Mom, can we look for hunting-birds?”

It was hot. Sticky. Thunder rippled overhead, randomly spooking my five-year-old. Oliver dashed inside. But his three-year-old sister was looking up at me, curls damp and eyes hopeful.

Dropping lunch bags and tote bags, junk mail and travel mugs, the kids and I settled on the porch while the mosquito welcoming committee rushed to greet us. I cringed. My idea of spending time in nature is ordering chips and salsa on an outdoor patio. But we’ve all taken a new interest in fresh air, rain, space. Our world got smaller this year.

My husband hung bird feeders years ago, around the time we first moved in. But working from home since the spring, and with little to distract from the kid mess and “Floogals” on loop, Spence has really committed to refreshing them. Every few days he’s pulling them down and mixing up a sugar solution, carefully rehanging them under the eye of watchful bird-neighbors.

The hummingbirds — Hadley’s <i>hunting-birds</i> — seem to be everywhere. Several duke it out for the prized feeder on the porch; others have laid claim to the back deck, where they alternate sips and squawk at one another. We can see them from our family table or Spencer’s desk in the office. He often took the kids out to watch the birds during COVID, when the days stretched with uncertainty. I was at work, watching drive-through lines for COVID testing stretch around my hospital building.

Oliver and Hadley’s daycare reopened two months ago. We worried about what to do, talking through multiple variations of the same thing … and ultimately decided it was best for everyone to settle them back in such a familiar and comfortable setting. And, you know … suffice it to say that everyone’s sanity felt like it hung in the balance.

So they’ve been happily back amongst some teachers and friends — back and as socially-distant as possible, anyway — since late June. The routines have been wonderful for everyone. Already I feel like those strange, scary first days have receded a bit in the mist. Everyone is happier; everything feels a little lighter. My anxiety dreams spin up less and less often.

COVID isn’t gone, of course. Of course. Face masks are now a staple of daily life, like temperature checks. So much of what would seemed absolutely unthinkable six months ago — canceling weddings, suspending sports, making all-important black-tie fundraisers “virtual” — is now all just so … unsurprising. Disappointing, yes. But just part of life in a pandemic.

As we’ve tiptoed into a “new normal” (do you hate that overused-but-apt phrase as much as I do?), at least for the moment, there are certainly glimmers through the rain. I now pick up the kids after school, and we talk all the way home. Before, with Spence on pick-up duty, I’d drag myself into a chaotic house with children already glued to tablets. “How was your day?” went largely unignored.

It doesn’t now. And we move slower. Each day begins with a kiss on the forehead — part affection, part diagnostic — and breakfast: string cheese for Hadley, pancakes for Oliver. I hug my husband in the doorway, step out into the heat. Begin the first of my two full-time jobs, starting the second as soon as I see those sweet faces again.

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On Wednesday, the day after a tropical storm ravaged the next county over, the air was damp and heavy. Hadley asked to see the hunting-birds. I felt the bugs clustering on my exposed ankles, then thought of the constellation of bites that would soon dot my skin.

But already I’m often “Mom,” not Mommy. Little hands don’t seek mine quite as much. I don’t remember the last time a child fell asleep in my arms (not counting my four-month-old nephew). And I think — fingers crossed! — that we’ve officially changed our last diapers … five-and-a-half long years after changing our first. (Not exactly sad about that, though.)

So we sank into our hand-me-down porch furniture — Oliver tall in a chair, Hadley and I snuggled on a bench. I tried to ignore the cobweb threads on my elbows while we watched the feeder intently. At one point we heard a mad buzzing, and my daughter and I jumped. The hummingbird was just a blur.

Spencer soon crept out. As our resident avian expert, he pointed out the tiny bodies bouncing between tree limbs. They were clearly watching us, too.

“Let’s try to be really quiet,” he whispered to our two squirming children — and me. “If we wait patiently, I bet they’ll come over.”

It took a few minutes. Thunder rumbled, but distant now — music from a storm that wouldn’t come. Hadley rested her head on my arm; Ollie settled his hand on the other.

And then, they did come. There and gone in mere seconds, but hovering enough for us all to clearly admire them. The iridescent green hummingbird, an emerald flash, was my favorite. Oliver was so excited that he jumped up, exclaiming that he needed his video camera (an Adam Goldberg in the making, for sure). The moment ended as Oliver lost it after he couldn’t find said camera … but calm moments these days are all precious.

“I love that smell,” said my husband, grinning as a soft rain started. “And I love that sound — just a summer rain falling.”

I didn’t know the last time I heard it. Or smelled it. Or … really noticed it at all.

“Me too,” I said, and mean it.

 

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!