My kids’ favorite books — and my favorite kids’ books

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When I daydreamed about becoming a mom, the vision of reading to my curly-haired children (who do, in fact, have curly hair!) often included a book in my hands. I did the whole “read to your belly” thing when pregnant, even though that felt awkward. And I started collecting children’s books long before I had the children themselves.

It’s taken a little while, but for the most part? I think we’re raising readers, which makes me so happy. My daughter, in particular, loves to share stories; she’s always schlepping into our “library” (now more of a giant toy box, let’s just be honest) to grab a book and plop into my lap. Oh, the joy. Alllllll the heart-eye emojis.

Hadley is now two and a half, and Oliver is four. Both have Fire tablets (I know, I know!), which tend to occupy their attention … but my husband and I have been pretty diligent about controlling their time spent in front of screens, even though it’s just so dang easy to let them zone out while I do … well, anything. Like cook dinner. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the group text that’s gotten out of hand.

But I don’t want glassy-eyed zombie kids sprawled out in the living room. The tablets have their time and place — but we read to the kids nightly, and try not to reserve stories simply for bedtime. I say this not to be smug, but to really say that we’re making an effort! I think that’s my mom motto: making an effort. Trying. Striving.

So here’s what they’re loving lately . . . and what I’m loving, too. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing fun about re-reading PAW Patrol: To the Lookout for the 97th time!

Just try telling that to my son.

 

Hadley’s Faves

I Love You Just Like This by Sesame Workshop: The “Sesame Street” love is still going strong at our house, and this sweet story about how much Elmo’s mom loves him has great illustrations and all those beloved characters. I will totally own that I tear up at the end, too.

Five Little PumpkinsFive Little Pumpkins by Tiger Tales and Ben Mantle: OK, how adorable is this? I have such fond memories of this story told in song form when my sister and I were in elementary school. I bought this book for Ollie as a baby and can’t resist its charms. Neither can Haddie.

Pop-Up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy: Cute rhymes, captivating (and spooky!) pop-up characters — Hadley can’t get enough of this one. Our record is fives times in a row.

 

Oliver’s Faves

The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler and Bob Kolar: Driver Bob picks up students en route to school, and I love how inclusive and sweet this story is. (Also, Bob drinks coffee faithfully — I feel you, Bob.) Ollie just loves all the vehicles and enjoys finding kids who “look like Uncle Eric.” The whole series is really fun!

Oliver book.jpegOliver Who Would Not Sleep by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland: Ohhh, the irony. Not terribly surprising that my son loves a book spearheaded by a little boy named Oliver who refuses to go to bed, preferring his adventures in outer space. We read this nightly, and the cadence of the story is soothing.

Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East: This book is a total snoozefest — and I mean that in the best way. It’s like a drug. I barely get to the halfway point when my rambunctious guy will pass out cold. It’s melodic, fun to read (and listen to), and definitely perfect for tractor lovers.

 

My Faves

truffula treesI’ve been trying valiantly to get the kids into Dr. Seuss, pulling out all my childhood favorites in the process. I had some success with The Lorax after they watched the recent version of the film with its candy-colored Truffula trees. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is next on my list! Man, that book captured my imagination as a kid.

I’m guessing this will be surprising to exactly no one, but I can still barely through through On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman without breaking down into tears born of love, fear, and everything in between. Reading it to Ollie takes me back to the night he was born, finally coming into the world at almost 10 p.m. Phew — read at your own risk.

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What books are you sharing with the little ones in your life? 

Do you have a favorite Seuss classic?

Are you weirdly surprised to see me posting on a random day in September?

I swear I’m still chugging along, though I do find myself spending less time on social media and being more thoughtful about what and how I’m sharing online. Not out of fear, per say … but an awareness that I’ve been putting my life out there for a long time, and sometimes it feels right to reserve a little something for my family … and myself.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still tired and drinking way too much coffee. But I’m home with a stomach-sick Hadley boo today, so it felt like the right time to check in. I’m still here, and you can also catch me on Instagram. Hi!

Bottled-up emotions

Bottles

After four years of faithful service, we have said goodbye to Dr. Brown.

The bottle rack that took up real estate next to our sink has been scrubbed clean, along with the dozens of bottle parts and vents and unused scrub brushes and … well, all the accoutrements. And I do mean all of them.

The kitchen counter looks naked now. We hadn’t even lived in our house a year when Oliver was born. The sudden appearance of baby bottles — bottles on tables; bottles in bags; bottles always, always, always in the sink — was a reminder of how different our lives had become overnight.

When Ollie had been home a month or so, I remember standing bleary-eyed in front of the sink. We have a bank of windows in that sunny corner of the kitchen, and the day looked beautiful. Everything was green. Lush. Early summer. And I could barely absorb any of it, as trapped as I felt indoors.

Is this my life now? I thought.

I was still hand-washing baby bottles then. That seemed like what I “should” be doing. I was so screwed up, so weighed down with exhaustion and anxiety … but for some reason, I was adamant — obsessive, even — about cleaning these bottles by hand, as if that time-consuming process was penance for not feeling all the sparkly-glowy feelings of new motherhood.

It got better, of course. Mostly because I got better. It’s hard to talk about postpartum anxiety, even though I feel like I’ve told a million women before and since that they should never be afraid to ask for help. I was afraid to ask for help. I couldn’t find the words, even with my own husband. Our story had the added complication of preeclampsia and prematurity, and I felt so guilty for feeling anything but grateful that we were both frickin’ alive that it really … just complicated things. Everything.

A stigma remains around mental health — around the raw vulnerability of saying you are struggling, especially as a new parent. It’s supposed to be *~the HaPPieSt time of your LiFe*~ and to admit that taking care of a baby 24/7 can really suck isn’t a popular opinion.

Still, it’s true. I love my children dearly, it goes without saying, but I have struggled. The newborn years have been hard. But in time, sunshine began to filter through the fog … and here we are, almost four years later, and there’s nothing I look forward to more than coming home each day to the pounding of toddler feet running to meet me at the door. (Except maybe a piece of chocolate cake after they go to bed, but that’s another story.)

Hadley is sassy and wild and hilarious, learning so much every day. Oliver is opinionated and observant and incredibly smart, and I love our morning chats and bedtime stories and the way he tucks his head onto my shoulder at the end of a busy day.

With Hadley now fully transitioned to a cup, the “babas” had to go. Spencer was the one to make that executive decision. I was very wistful as I packed up the last of her 24-month bodysuits, neatly sorting our daughter’s new 2T shirts into piles in the top drawer of her dresser, but I could do it.

The bottles were another story, though. They have literally been with us from day one. I felt very tender toward Dr. Brown and his special bottles as we prepped everything to pass along. For as much as my husband and I have dreaded washing all the individual parts, they have served us well. Seen us through hard times. Been entrenched in the very origin story of the Johnson family of three, then four.

It’s the end of an era. But that “naked” corner of the kitchen is already filling with hair ties used to wrangle Hadley’s wild curls, boxes of cookies, Ollie’s PJ Masks toothbrush. New treasures seem to filter in every day.

Hadley’s Minnie Mouse cup is the new mainstay, and I have zero qualms about putting that baby in the dishwasher.

The relentless march of time does have its advantages.

The hush of a snowy Sunday

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Winter is my least favorite season, but even I will admit there is something magical about watching children as they watch snow.

We got about eight inches last week — unusual for Maryland. Generally the weather is mild here, and we’ve gotten spoiled by some exceptionally warm winters. It’s almost like we get to skip that season entirely.

Every now and then, though, Mother Nature rears up and reminds us who is really in charge here. Our snowfall came last Saturday into Sunday and, though we had lingering closures and commuting chaos into Monday, it wasn’t too stressful.

I welcomed the reminder to slow down. The holidays were so stressful this year. Much of that was self-imposed, I know, but I have struggled terribly with the sickness that is trying to make holidays “perfect” since my first child was born.

I have a hard time just letting things . . . be what they are. To accept that I don’t have to do All the Things, and my children would be just as happy with cardboard boxes as toys. We’re trying to raise them to be kind, empathetic, generous people, and mountains of presents aren’t in keeping with that goal. They’re not in keeping with anything I want to be about these days, actually.

Still: the pressure. Commercial. Societal. I work in marketing; it’s not like I’m unaware of advertising and messaging. I know how important it is to surround ourselves with positive energy that keeps us feeling strong and confident in our choices.

But when I looked at the small-ish pile of gifts under the tree — gifts my husband and I had carefully chosen for our son and daughter; ones we thought they would really enjoy, not just “stuff” to check the box of “Lots of Stuff for Christmas” — I had this pang of . . . not-doing-enough-ness. A sense that somehow I hadn’t delivered.

That is ridiculous, of course. I do know that. I spent hours planning for, decorating, baking and organizing for Christmas, because everyone knows mothers make the magic happen. And I have very acutely felt the sense of needing to measure up. And that, somehow, I’m not.

I’ve been sitting with these feelings lately, wondering where they come from. What I can do about them. Basically I’m a giant stress ball, and that doesn’t make me a good . . . anything. Partner, parent, employee. So many roles and responsibilities.

My anxiety is usually the root cause, but I actually feel like I have a decent handle on that lately. This is less the panicky fight-or-flight feeling I’m used to, and more just a general unease that I’m not keeping all the plates spinning. That a few are about to fall.

I’ve been reading Breathe, Mama, Breathe by Shonda Moralis — one of approximately 2,000 parenting self-help books I own, but have never made the time to crack open. It’s quick and helpful. I actually meditated for the first time this morning, sitting in our bedroom closet — the only place I can guarantee I will have five minutes to myself — and sat on the floor, emptying my mind until I was just a breathing person. A real living, breathing person.

What a miraculous thing that is.

It felt a little silly at first, but it wasn’t as hard to clear my thoughts as I expected. I’ve been needing a way to take a broom to the ol’ cobwebs in my mind, clearing away much of the useless clutter and trying to focus more on living in the moment.

Oliver will be four this spring, and Hadley almost two. They change so much every day and seem to grow overnight.

I need to be present. Present so I can enjoy it.

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Spence and I took them out into the snow last Sunday, tying on boots and knotting scarves and stuffing hats over curls. It was cold and wet and I hate both of those things, but I pulled on my long coat and joined them.

Hadley was delighted, sticking out her little paws to feel the cold flakes on her fingers and blinking as they dusted her face. Oliver tromped around in his Columbia boots, looking for all the world like an explorer who had recently discovered a new land.

And it occurred to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I have spent so much time standing behind them — arms outstretched in case they fall. But both my son and daughter walk more confidently now. I was amazed at how quickly they took off on uneven ground.

I was grateful for that simple, quiet moment: one that involved nothing but happy kids and heavy coats, a hushed afternoon and warm home to reenter when we were ready.

I haven’t felt sad that a soft January has followed sparkly, edgy, frenetic December.

I know how to appreciate quiet these days.

Why I quit making reading lists — and why I’m back

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I didn’t keep track of a single book I read in 2018.

Given how immersed I was in cataloging everything I read up until my kids arrived, that felt strange. Even after I found myself with little energy and less desire to keep up with full-blown reviews, I was updating Goodreads with the audiobooks I’d listened to, at least.

But for 2018? Cold turkey. I was tired. Reading had become less a pleasurable pursuit than a strange struggle to “keep up,” both in the book blogging world and outside it. I felt like I’d created something with write meg! and I needed to crank out content to appease … someone.

Publishers? Readers? Myself?

So I stopped. If it doesn’t give you joy, why do it? And, to be honest, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open until 9 p.m. Once the kids were in bed, I was right behind them. My job is very busy. The house is always a mess. So many responsibilities tug at me day in and day out, and I needed to loosen the hold of those that I could.

Here’s the thing, though: being a reader is part of my identity. I don’t feel like myself without my books. Novels are a vacation. A trip from reality. A chance to escape, to punch out, to be “someone else” for a while.

Without books, I’m … me. Exhausted mom of two.

I wanted to find my way back to reading … but without the self-imposed pressure I’d come to put on myself as a blogger and reviewer. There had to be a better way.

So I rediscovered books in 2018 — just for myself. The kids were sleeping more. Our household was less disrupted. I returned to novels like reconnecting with a best friend — just without the requirement that I evaluate every single one. I was tired of my obsession with counting everything.

Life was stressful enough. I just wanted to read.

So I did. But I didn’t review or catalog. I didn’t set reading goals, nor did I keep a running list of what I’d purchased or finished or borrowed.

2018 became the year of the lost book.

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Turns out … well, I miss my lists.

I am lists. Lists are me.

When I don’t have them? There’s … nothing. A total blank where my favorite reads from 2018 should be.

Did I not read anything compelling last year? Nothing memorable, influential, worthwhile? This can’t be true, especially knowing I give most books the 10-page test — if it doesn’t hold my attention after 10 pages, I quit.

Yet without my trusty spreadsheets and up-to-date Goodreads account, I struggle to think of a single title I loved in the last 12 months.

That just won’t do.

So I’m back. Last week I flipped on the lights of my dormant Goodreads account, shaking the dust from every surface. I’ve finished three audio books since January 1, and absolutely loved Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away. I’m thick in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and love it so much, I don’t want it to end.

And, of course, there’s my kids’ bedtime reading. The rhyming undercurrents of my daily life.

For Hadley, it’s Five Little Pumpkins. For Oliver, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

I mean, where do they sleep at night?

Do they dream of holes they dug?

Do their moms reach front to backhoe when they give a good night hug?

These are the questions of our era, friends.

And with little readers in the making (and much more reading for me!), I look forward to answering them.

The best part of getting pink eye

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Whenever I get sick (which happens all too frequently, with two kiddos in the house), I’m forced to sloooooow dooooown.

To realize that all those can’t-miss, urgent projects can wait.

That the chores I “must” keep up can wait as well.

The harried pace of life is just … life. Most of the time, anyway. But getting sick reminds me of being off after having my babies: when the days extend and stretch in entirely different ways, casting my obsessive email-checking self into shadow. Whittling my world down inside the walls of my own home. Setting my schedule to the daytime court shows I used to love growing up.

The “good” thing about getting pink eye this week? It’s highly contagious, but not debilitating … like, say, the flu. I can’t leave, but I can actually tackle projects around the house!

And with the kids at day care and my husband at work, I’ve been home … by myself.

For two days.

(Insert joke about You Know You’re a Parent When … getting pink eye is exciting. But that’s where I am.)

With my unexpected break, I’ve scrubbed most surfaces with Clorox wipes; done several loads of laundry, including all bedding; vacuumed; organized the kids’ toy bins; cleaned the fridge of all its leftovers; loaded the dishwasher twice, and actually emptied it. No more grabbing mugs and cereal bowls until my husband and I start squinting to assess whether it’s even clean or dirty anymore.

I’ve also watched a lot of “90 Day Fiance” and “Married at First Sight,” because the TV is mine and no one is here to judge me. I wrote a column in my living room with both eyes open, because it wasn’t 11 p.m. on a work night. I’m writing this post, too.

With two prescriptions putting a dent in both the pink eye and upper respiratory infection, I also went to the library today. I was able to switch out the long-ago-listened-to audiobooks I’ve been renewing out of laziness, because it’s been weeks since I made time to stop for new reads. And I had lunch with my dad — something we haven’t been able to do since I took a new job last summer. I really miss that.

I can’t tell you the last time I went out in public wearing my glasses, rather than contacts — or when I chose to forego makeup completely. I haven’t thought about what I’m wearing and how I look in it, or whether it’s covered in chocolate pudding after my three-year-old used the leg of my pants as a napkin.

The pace is slow over here. I started cooking chicken for a tamale casserole I’m putting together for dinner. It’s easy, but has multiple steps — not something I would normally attempt on a weeknight. But I have time.

It’s not that “normal” life — life as a working mom of two young kids, a busy wife, an anxious human — isn’t great. But it can be tough. Full, but with little space for me to collect myself. Rarely any time alone, aside from my long drives back and forth to the hospital where I work.

It’s easy to forget who I was … you know, before. Before I was so needed by two little people with darling faces and wide eyes.

What I used to like to … do.
Hobbies I enjoyed.
Projects I attempted.

This break was unplanned. It didn’t include daiquiris or tropical waters. I got freakin’ pink eye! It was gross.

But tomorrow, I’ll get up and return to work and our family routines feeling much more refreshed. Put-together. Caught up. Ready to tackle it all again — with coffee.

Feels kind of like cheating, though, with it being Friday and all.

Still. Little victories.

 

A soft place to land

Playground

File it under “Things I’ve Had to Get Used to as a Parent.”

That’s a pretty thick folder.

Spending time outside is a way of life. This wouldn’t be a problem except I hate to sweat, can’t deal with bugs, and feel my skin sizzling to a nice red crisp within .10 seconds of being exposed to daylight.

My kids, of course, love it. Hadley adores being in her stroller and swinging the hours away. Ollie, too, loves running around like a nut, getting good and sweaty, and catapulting himself down the slide.

Well, “catapulting” is a little strong. Much to his anxious mother’s relief, Oliver is a pretty cautious kid. He doesn’t leap from couches or reach out to hot stoves. My three-year-old takes me at my word when I tell him something is “dangerous,” and one of the first two-word phrases he strung together was “be careful!”

I struggle often with the push/pull of my anxiety and letting my children be children. What constitutes a legitimate danger, and what is simply a normal part of growing up? It takes all my willpower — a lot of willpower — not to shadow my kids like the proverbial monkey on their back. I’m glad that Oliver runs around at “school” without me, because I don’t think I could handle seeing him on monkey bars.

We went to the playground yesterday, and it was the first time I spent most of my time on the ground instead of squeezing myself into child-sized spaces. Oliver climbed a kid-friendly rock wall and went down a tall slide. Without me.

It was a big moment.

Anxiety confuses and deceives you, making everything feel like a fight-or-flight situation. Being a parent has meant I must get used to stepping back and letting my kids get dirty and sweaty and potentially bruised.

I don’t like it. It goes against my very nature. But I can step outside my nervousness and realize that “protection” is an illusion. No one can be protected all the time.

All we can do is be there to guide them.

And remain a soft place to land.

 

 

 

The Pup Invasion: A Parent’s Lament

Only Paw Patrol

To be honest, I’m not even sure how it happened.

There was life before “PAW Patrol,” and now we’re stuck in the painful after. A place in which time has no meaning, because all that exists in my 3-year-old’s world are Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble … and rice with butter, his primary food group.

Up in the morning? “PAW Patrol.” Last request at night? “PAW Patrol.” Bedtime stories feature even more tales about “the pups.” While I’ll admit to feeling my heart melt at Ollie’s request for “Good Morning, Adventure Bay,” which he says in a distinctly Ollie-like way that would be impossible to type out, I’m generally annoyed by the whole Nickelodeon-funded mess.

Oliver has had plenty of obsessions before. There were tractors, of course, and the ongoing love of farming equipment. Back when his vocabulary was limited to things like “up” and “milk,” “tractor” somehow worked its way in there.

And then we had “The Muppets,” all we watched for the first year of his life, followed by “Big Hero 6” and “The Lorax.” Now he’s especially into Blippi, a true icon amongst the Pull-Up set.

And those? I’ve been fine with those. See, unlike those programs, which have some vague humor that lets adults tolerate — or even enjoy — them,  “PAW Patrol” is just mind-melting. Boring. Colorful, but in an “assault on the senses” kind of way. 

I love the pro-“PAW Patrol” message that pops up before every episode, too. Going on missions with the pups helps children think critically! Encourages teamwork! Builds character! We’re basically curing cancer over here!

Look, Nick: you don’t have to try to make us feel good about this. I know my kids spend far too much time in front of a screen already. I put “PAW Patrol” on because it encourages my toddler to sit in one place long enough for me to mop up the milk he spilled or comfort the sister he pushed. I know it ain’t about the teamwork, OK?

I’ve tried placing limits on how much we’re tagging along with Ryder et. al., but the truth is that Oliver just really loves this show. Hadley tolerates it, so we alternate with episodes of “Sesame Street” because we’re learning all about “taking turns.”

When the kids fall asleep, Spence passes out on the couch and I finally have the remote all to myself, I usually … turn the TV off. I have a DVR full of shows I’ve stockpiled, but I rarely have the energy or focus to enjoy any of them. I’m trying to start reading again (slow process), and I give that preference.

But mostly? I crave silence. Space. My sister makes fun of how low we keep the volume on our TV, but all the noise — so much noise — coming at us all day just gets to be too much. By 10 p.m., I’m done. I want the darkness and nothingness. I might even need it.

I’ve even found myself turning off my car radio and driving in silence. The quiet helps me scrape some thoughts together. I actually do my best thinking on my morning commute.

Probably because that’s the only time my husband and I don’t have furry problem-solving guests in our home.

“PAW Patrol” is annoying, but I know it’s just a phase. Oliver will soon move on to the next toddler fever dream. Hadley will advance from Elmo to “Doc McStuffins” or something similar, and pretty soon we’ll have a rumble going on in the living room.

Or maybe we’ll actually … go outside. Just for a little bit. Blow some bubbles. Take a walk. Decorate the driveway with my mediocre chalk designs and Ollie’s scribbles.

It’s almost summer. Even with my husband and I working full-time and the kids in day care, it still feels like a lighter, freer season.

The perfect time to step back from the screens.

I promise I’ll try.