October weekend

Farm fun

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

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My body has changed. I have, too.

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I met with a dietitian at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now.

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

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

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

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

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

But I am exhausted.

There is so much more to life.

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

So yeah, I guess I am angry.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m also happier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m setting off.

I’m going to try.

When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask

Pumpkins

When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask.
It just walks in where it left you last.
You never know when it starts
until there’s fog inside the glass
around your summer heart.

“Something’s Missing,”
John Mayer

What reminds you of fall?

For me, it’s John Mayer’s “Heavier Things.” Buying the album on CD that first fall of my freshman year with cash from my first job. Watching the fog clear on the windshield of my old Corolla — the one before the one I’m currently selling, now that the minivan life has taken its hold. Listening to “Clarity” while I felt both too young and too old at college.

It’s dinner in the slow cooker — stews, chili. Chicken and wild rice soup.

Warm quilts. Sweatpants. Candy corn.

Stowing away flip-flops, digging out boots. Warm, sunny afternoons and crisp evenings.

Mums on porches. Mornings thick with dew. Finding last season’s jackets and slipping little arms into their sleeves, wondering if anything still fits.

This year, it’s also my son pointing out each crispy leaf, asking if we’re any closer to Halloween. Excitedly announcing that “it’s fall time!” with a commitment to giving a home to any lonely pumpkin we see … just like his mama.

My heart is not a summer heart. I adore spring, when my babies were born, and winter has its cozy charms.

But fall is still my favorite. Let’s get started.

 

Love and restraint: Thoughts on ‘Five Feet Apart’

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Eh, so I don’t get out much. And I definitely don’t get to the movies often. But something about the previews for “Five Feet Apart” inspired me to request babysitting for two squirrelly toddlers and arrange a date night for us to get out on a Friday night to see this film.

It’s been a week, and I just keep thinking about it.

On the surface, at least, “Five Feet Apart” looks like another riff on “The Fault In Our Stars,” which I liked but don’t remember loving. (At least, I think that’s the case? Straight-up had to re-read my review, because that was 2014, friends. The ol’ brain ain’t the same post-kids.)

Given I’m prone to anxiety on a normal day, I definitely don’t need to throw existential characters with life-threatening diseases into the mix. But this movie — focused on Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), teens who meet in the hospital as they grapple with complications of cystic fibrosis — was not depressing. I mean, it certainly had its heart-tugging moments . . . and I was ugly-sniffling, for sure.

But after the lights came up, I was only a mini-disaster. I looked at my husband and thought, I’m a human. I’m alive. I have time.

What am I doing with it?

Five Feet Apart snow scene

In many ways, “Five Feet Apart” is about restraint. Will shouldn’t fall in love with Stella, but he does. Stella wants to let herself fall back, but it isn’t that simple. Their illness requires the pair to stay physically apart, lest they risk life-threatening cross infection.

Six feet (later: five feet, per Stella’s request). No holding hands. No hugging. No kissing. Absolutely no intimacy.

Think about it: two 17-year-olds who are all mixed up under that crazy, amazing, whacky first-love spell . . . and they cannot touch. Stella and Will’s relationship is carried out from a safe, respectable distance or through the modern marvels of FaceTime, though their hospital rooms are just a few doors apart.

Five Feet Apart chatting

There is electricity in the waiting. In the wondering. In the hoping-against-hope — though as an audience, we know this cannot happen. They don’t have the luxury of indulging their feelings. There is no sharp exhale of relief when their lips finally meet. Loose ends cannot be tied.

But man, I wanted them to tie.

Our on-demand, two-day-free-Prime-shipping lifestyles today don’t lend themselves to the restraint and sacrifice required of Will and Stella. That’s what stood out to me: we’re all told to go for what we want and make it happen!, but sometimes we can only be brave in the face of hard choices.

“Five Feet Apart” isn’t perfect; few movies are. The ending felt rushed and over-the-top after such a steady, sweet progression. But that ruined nothing. Sprouse does dark and broody so well, and his character is jaded and vulnerable with an innate goodness that hurts. Richardson’s Stella is nuanced, realistic, sweet and strong. I loved the two together. And I loved this movie.

The film has sparked conversation and controversy in and out of the cystic fibrosis community, and it’s not for me to weigh in. But I will say that I left the theater with a better, if imperfect understanding of a disease I’d known very little about (even working in healthcare marketing, where we pride ourselves on amassing medical knowledge). More than 30,000 Americans have CF, and funding is needed for ongoing research to find a cure.

The moral of the story is one we’ve heard a hundred, maybe a thousand times: life is short. Reach out. Take a chance. Be bold. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

But “Five Feet Apart” stood apart for me because of the ache in my chest and feel-feel-feelings it stirred up, both while watching and thinking about it again. And again. And again. I often reached over to press my fingers into my husband’s arm, the two of us trading glances that said wow this is good and so sad and man I love you. 

It’s haunting. It broke my heart . . . and healed it, too.

Can’t ask too much more of date night.

 

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.

 

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.