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.

 

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Hello! Hi!

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Hello! Hi! I’ve missed you. I really didn’t mean to stay away this long. But days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months. Pretty soon I’m staring into the abyss of having not written anything for ages, and it gets harder and harder to find the words.

But today is the day! Because it’s Thanksgiving Eve (sure, yes, we’ll make that a thing), I’ve impulsively taken the day off work while my children are at day care, and I’m giving myself permission to sit here and type rather than attack the 1,866 other projects I need to accomplish before 11 people come over for a holiday meal tomorrow.

Oliver is now two and a half, and baby Hadley is eight months old. Being a mother of two young kids is both easier and harder than I expected. Ollie is an awesome big brother, but he’s very attached to me these days — and I often feel like I’m giving my toddler all my attention. Ollie was the center of our universe, while our second child must deal with our divided attention. Mom guilt, friends: so real.

Luckily, Spencer is easily Hadley’s favorite person in the world; she is content to hang with Daddy no matter where we are, and she’s a very easygoing and good-natured little girl. I still get my quiet moments with her — typically first thing in the morning or late at night, when Oliver has finally worn himself down enough to sleep. It’s a process.

I became an aunt! My darling niece, Autumn, was born in May. My sister is an amazing mom — way chiller, patient and doting than I ever was as a new parent. Autumn and Hadley are starting to notice each other at family gatherings, which is hilarious, and Ollie has inexplicably taken to calling Autumn “Maw Maw” (the name we have always called our grandmother), which I kind of love.

Speaking of language, Ollie had an explosion over the summer — finally stringing together words and ideas that had eluded him so far. I would say Spence and I can now understand about 90 percent of what he’s saying and/or asking for, which is a major stride for us. His check-up in October was the first time I have answered “yes” to every developmental question on the doctor’s questionnaire, and I actually teared up. Ah: the preemie parent journey.

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I started a new job in July, ending a decade in journalism. I’m now working in public relations and marketing for a hospital, and I absolutely love it. Leaving the paper was tough — change is scary — but I’ve been embraced by my awesome new team and love the ever-changing, fast-paced work I’m doing at the hospital.

The opportunity presented itself after just a few weeks back following my maternity leave, and I wasn’t sure how to grapple with that situation. But I figured that if the job found me, I should at least apply. And I did. And I got it, so I knew it was meant to be. Nothing has proven me wrong so far.

I’m now freelancing my column, so still writing. Though it takes much of what I’ve got and some of what I don’t to come up with 1,000 words after the kids go to bed, I’m hesitant to give up what has become so much a part of my life: nine years of sharing stories twice a week. Now that I’m no longer at the paper, I know that to give up the column would be to stop writing entirely.  I wouldn’t make the time; I know I wouldn’t. Falling asleep at my keyboard night after night guarantees that.

So I press on. Balancing all I can balance. Work has been very busy and, coming into the busy holiday season, I find myself pulling over for Dunkin’ iced coffee more often than I’d comfortably admit.

Last week was our black-tie gala — an annual fundraiser planned over an entire year. I worked two 12 hours days, logged 25,000 steps between Thursday and Friday and loved (most) every second. It feels so good to be doing something fresh and fun. And I wore a gold sequin dress!

Spence and I feel tired, but we’re managing. Balancing two active kiddos with two full-time jobs, especially now that I have a much longer commute, is challenging. But nothing makes me happier than seeing my baby and Ollie running to the door to greet me each night, planting a kiss and chattering about his day. He is wild and funny and a giggle monster, and I couldn’t possibly love him more.

Even when he’s making me crazy.

And he does. Like when I was desperately — desperately! — trying to get one decent family photo of us for this year’s Christmas card, and he absolutely refused to sit and smile for five seconds. The harder we tried to hold onto him, the more he wiggled and kicked and screamed to get away.

Eventually I gave up. This is what we got.

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And that’s the best one. Can’t beat Hadley’s pout, either. The girl does nothing but grin, but today? At a scenic farm in coordinating outfits — outfits I painstakingly chose over the course of several months? Right. No. Thanks, though.

There are plenty of days I feel like I’m barely holding my stuff together — and plenty of times that is true. I’ve had my breakdowns. Some tears. Mostly when I’m too exhausted to get off the couch, but someone needs something and we just have to find it for them.

But the good has certainly outweighed the bad, and we find our equilibrium day to day. That’s how I’ve learned to live and love: to take each moment as it comes and not worry too much about tomorrow.

It took becoming a mother to finally accept that so much is out of our control, and all we can do is hang on.

So we’re hanging. And the view up here? Pretty amazing.

Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


The care-about-hair gene

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Growing up, Saturdays at the beauty salon were a way of life.

My mom has always been faithful about her monthly haircuts. I spent many a morning sitting with my sister in the reception area of Diane’s beauty shop, the smell of perm solution and chatter of adult women part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

It was an adult’s world in the salon — a grown-up world, a sophisticated world. A place for gossip and transformations. I loved seeing the women enter with pin-straight locks and emerge from a loud contraption with luscious curls. Watching the stylists work their magic, setting it all with a halo of hairspray, I was pretty mesmerized.

When Katie and I got too old for my mother’s trims over the bathroom sink at home, we, too, began seeing Diane for our cuts. I don’t remember the first time I went for a legitimate lady ‘do, but I do remember that with my new bob — circa 1995 — and oversized red eyeglasses, people said I looked like a little Sally Jesse Raphael.

Music to a 10-year-old’s ears, as you’d imagine.

I have friends who make standing hair appointments every month, showing up to see their stylist like clockwork. Their cuts might not vary, but they’re religious about returning to see the same individual month after month, year after year.

At 31, I still go to Diane — but my appointments are . . . well, a little haphazard.

As in, I tend to go in when my hair’s length is suddenly making me insane — and I want to cut it right that second. I grow it long; I cut it short. I grow it long; I cut it short. It’s a cycle.

My mane is fussy, wavy and frizzy and thick. It’s not curly enough to be cute and sassy, yet far from straight. I once spent time trying to straighten it, and even considered begging my parents to fund a semi-permanent straightening solution as a teen.

But later, something weird happened.

I stopped caring.

Today, my hair does what it does and I don’t worry much about it. I’m all about simple, low-maintenance hairstyles — and for me, that typically translates to keeping it long-ish with layers so I can easily pull it away from my face. Which I do. Just about every single day.

“Hair down” days have become special occasions. For one? Right now I’m a perpetually-hot pregnant lady, and hair tickling my neck sends me into a sweaty rage. Even on the days I vow to look professional-ish and keep my hair down for work, I wind up scraping it into a ponytail before I’ve even stepped foot in the office. I don’t even use a mirror. You know: just living on the edge.

Sometimes I wonder if I the care-about-hair gene just skipped a generation. My mom and grandma certainly have it, both arriving for regular sessions with their stylists for cuts and color. Even my great-grandmother, well into her 80s, would have my aunt take her for regular perms. Losing her eyesight didn’t prevent her from wanting to tend to her tresses, and I can remember her self-consciously patting her locks as we’d arrive from a long trip, asking if she looked like “ZaSu Pitts.”

I won’t be one of those people that just blames their appearance on motherhood, but . . . well, as you’d imagine, if I didn’t care a whole lot about my hair before? I care even less now. My morning routine is pretty low maintenance, mostly involving a shower and quick blow-dry before Oliver starts calling from his crib and I have to get both of us out the door. I’ve done my makeup the same way for decades, so I can get that step done in minutes. The easier, the better.

Maybe I’ve just . . . given up. Like many teens, I used to page through magazines filled with cute hairstyles and dog-ear pages with looks I loved. But when I arrived at Diane’s for the big hair transformation, the result — on me — would always look . . . off. I never took into account the different types of hair best for each style. When my hairdresser would gently try to steer me away from certain looks, I just dug in my heels. I wanted to look like Natalie Portman! I wanted to be Keira Knightley! How bad could it be?

Well.

Now in my thirties, I like to think I’ve simply embraced who I am and stopped trying to fight the natural wave of whatever my hair wants to do. It’s a special kind of ridiculous to be both pregnant and going gray, but the increasingly wiry strands at my temples don’t lie. I’m getting close to needing a decision on whether I’ll start coloring my hair, too, but I’ve been hesitant to give in.

I mean, plucking the offending follicles will only work for so long. I think I’m creating a bald patch.

Ah, well. Nothing a ponytail won’t hide.

 

Totally necessary fall bucket list

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Do I make these every year?

Maybe.

Am I totally, completely OK with that?

Definitely.

Now that Oliver is so fun and aware of the world around him, one of my favorite things to do is to drag him to seemingly “ordinary” activities and watch him just … take it all in.

They say that to live again is to view the world through the eyes of a child. And I can’t think of any better way to describe that. A fallen leaf, a cardboard box, a Target receipt — all items of intense interest to my 17-month-old, and seeing him try to make sense of these things gives me a fresh perspective, too.

Since fall is undoubtedly my favorite season, I’m dreaming of corn mazes and hot apple cider and cozy fleece and pumpkin patches. Last fall I was dealing with some pretty intense anxiety as a first-time parent, and honestly? Autumn was a bit of a blur.

But this year? I am better. Gold feels golden again. I am less the husk of a tired mother and more the somewhat-capable, excited and “normal”-ish woman that I remember from so many years ago.

There are never enough days in October and November, so I’m not going to worry if we can’t get to every single one of these delectably-autumnal activities. But I’m going to make a concentrated push to fill the family calendar with fun (and funnel cake!), and to soak up my favorite of seasons with our family of three before we’re zombie people again next year.

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Johnson Family Fall Bucket List

  1. Visit a pumpkin patch and find the perfect gourds for carving. We always bring pumpkins home, but don’t necessarily carve them for Halloween — definitely want to do that this year. Ollie is going to flip out at the sight of pumpkin guts!
  2. Hit as many craft fairs as humanly possible. I spent several days compiling a master list of all the local shows happening this fall for my magazine at work, and to be honest? That “work” was not work at all. Sometimes I open the link just to salivate at the idea of all the fun shopping we’ll be doing. Craft fairs are an annual tradition with my mom and sister, and I am SO EXCITED about these.
  3. Check out a corn maze. Many farms here in Southern Maryland open their doors for folks wishing to “get lost” in family-friendly mazes, and Spence and I hit a few early in our relationship. Those are happy memories for me, and I can’t wait to take Oliver.
  4. Make hot cider. In a slow cooker. Maybe with this recipe, or this one.
  5. Host a Halloween gathering. This spooky holiday falls on a Monday this year (bleh), but I’m hoping we can convince our family and some friends to swing by while we give out candy. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet, so we don’t get many trick-or-treaters, but we’ll be taking Ollie out to hit a few houses! And definitely watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “Hocus Pocus.”
  6. Speaking of which… watch “Hocus Pocus”! Tradition. My husband tries to get me to sit down for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on Halloween, too, but my 31-year-old self still gets spooked by that one. I don’t know how a scaredy cat like me wound up with ardent Tim Burton fan, but … here we are. (Don’t mind me — just hiding behind the couch.)
  7. Rake leaves and jump in the piles. Ah, to be young again.
  8. Roast pumpkin seeds. Our attempt at this last year was a big fail, but I’m convinced we didn’t give the seeds the attention they deserved. This will dovetail nicely with carving our jack-o-lanterns. I’m stoked!

So there you have it, friends — our to-do list for the next few months. Anything on your fall bucket list, too? Any additional suggestions? I’m always up for some new autumn fun.

End-of-summer feast

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I didn’t make too many summer plans this year.

It’s just hot, for one. And we’re still tired. Oliver sleeps like a champ most nights, but I still find this residual new-parent exhaustion digging its claws in me at least once a day. The good news? I no longer feel the pressing weight of being behind, behind, behind in everything I do. The housework, my work-work, keeping up my friendships and marriage . . . it’s not all done perfectly, but I try. It’s happening.

It’s nearly September — the start of my most favorite season. Monday morning was . . . chilly. Like, actually a little cold. Wawa had pumpkin spice coffee brewed on their bar and I gasped at the sight of it, feeling a little bit wobbly with enthusiasm as I poured myself a cup.

The first cup of fall. Is there anything sweeter?

This weekend will be our end-of-summer crab feast with the family — an annual tradition going strong for years now. I always look forward to this chance to connect with our Virginia crew, who are such awesome folks, and get our hands messy chomping down on seafood.

It will be Oliver’s second feast — and I’m hoping he’ll sit still long enough for us to actually enjoy picking crabs with our cousins. At 16 months old, Ollie does not like to be contained . . . at all. Ever. Dining out is a struggle because the kid just wants to crawl away and get into anything and everything, but we’ve managed to hold him still long enough to have a few meals out recently. An endless supply of Puffs help.

After this weekend, I’ll be digging out my storage bins of gourds and scarecrows. I’ve started looking at the calendar to determine fall plans and have made a note of the many craft fairs that will soon start ramping up. We’re figuring out our Thanksgiving plans and Christmas travel arrangements, and I’m adding to that holiday gift spreadsheet already, determined to feel as little stress as possible this year.

Pumpkin spice lattes, cardigans, crunchy leaves, Halloween activities and azure skies — as always, I find myself wanting to rush through the sticky summer to just get to all things savory and apple pie-scented.

But first: crabs.

Can’t rush all the good stuff.

 

 

 

Five things on Friday

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1. As a belated Mother’s Day gift, my sister, Mom and I recently enjoyed tea and a tour at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Despite living just 40-ish minutes outside the city, I don’t get downtown much these days — let alone on a Tuesday. It was such a cool, fun experience, and the food was delicious! We all I know was likely British in a past life, so the tea tradition speaks to my scone-loving soul. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a unique opportunity in the city.

2. I can’t help but feel like August is the only thing standing between me and fall. Glorious, beautiful, crisp and cozy fall. Last year I totally lost my marbles and started decorating before Labor Day, which I realize was . . . a little premature. This year? I’m trying to reign in my enthusiasm, but it’s pointless. Oliver was only 6 months old last Halloween, but this year I feel like he’ll be closer to “getting it” — and I’ll be able to better position him for pumpkin photo shoots! This is the No. 1 reason to have a child, by the way: photo shoots. (Just kidding. Er, sort of.)

3. I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I think I’ve earned a trophy for adulting for finally resolving a medical bill for testing during my pregnancy (!!) that has been haunting us since January 2015. It’s a long and boring story involving many phone calls, emails, stapled statements and blah blah blah, but as of yesterday, I fought the good fight and won. Just so happy to have that resolved. Insurance issues are the worst. Also, now I don’t have to worry about bankruptcy, so. Sweet relief!

4. Oliver has been saying “Mama” like crazy lately, along with “Dada” and “Baby” (bayyy-beee). He’s also beginning to wave, smoosh up his lips for a “kiss” and is definitely grasping the concept of “no” (whether he follows it is, of course, another story). So excited to be hitting these milestones!

5. I may or may not have started my Christmas shopping spreadsheet — along with said holiday shopping. As a list-loving American, this is the only way I can keep myself organized. Despite my good intentions, I was one of those people scrambling last-minute to finish shopping last year . . . and I wound up bulk-ordering on Amazon to just officially say I was done. Let me shout it loud and proud: I AM NOT doing that this year! Like, seriously. I want to enjoy the heck out of the holidays and not feel the rampant anxiety that consumed me last year, ’cause we all know that is not what it’s about. So I’ve already purchased a few things and scribbled down ideas for others. I feel better already.

Happy weekend, friends! And thanks for staying with me during the long write meg! drought. I find my creative juices stymied by exhaustion so much lately that it’s hard to put fingers to keyboard. But I’m not going anywhere. ❤