Smiling is our favorite

Like most folks (I hope, anyway), we’ve been spending more time at home than ever. Tired of staring at bare walls, I finally got around to ordering art for the living room a few months ago. We replaced the sole 10-year-old TV in our house, opting for a wall-mounted version that gives us more space below. And Spence and I have generally been cleaning, organizing, and decluttering like never before. We’ve only been in the house six years, but sometimes it feels … longer. Judging by the accumulation of stuff, anyway.

We’ve also been spending more quiet-ish moments together. (As quiet as it can be with a 3- and 5-year-old chasing each other at 9 p.m.). In the pre-COVID days, weekends were always crammed with plans and activities. Shopping, playgrounds, visiting parks and friends … enough commotion to get them both good naps in the van on the way home.

The past eight months have changed my perspective on that. Given my deeper understanding of Oliver’s sensory needs, in particular, I’ve come to realize that a little silence and “boredom” is A-OK for the Johnson kids — and their parents.

That’s not to say any of us are actually bored. I mean, first of all, the Leaning Tower of Dishes is always teetering precariously in the kitchen sink. And the towels used in this house. There is never a time we don’t have a surface in need of scrubbing or laundry in need of folding.

But that’s fine. I’ve been working on accepting that, too. Every moment of every day doesn’t have to be “productive.” It can feel that way — given the demands of jobs, home, family. When the weekend rolls around, I feel the need to “catch up” immediately: righting all the overturned objects of the house that get ignored Monday through Friday.

I did things differently this weekend, though. We didn’t have any major plans. I got stuff done, sure, but not at the expense of a few slow moments spent reading a book or watching a Christmas movie with the kids. I didn’t worry about tidying or working every moment.

After a busy and stressful week, Ollie asked if we could have a “pizza movie night” on Friday. I didn’t panic at the thought of Little Caesars given my renewed healthy-eating commitment (thanks, Noom!) — just settled in with a slice of Crazy Bread and enjoyed the evening as we introduced the kids to “Elf.”

Watching classic holiday movies for the first time with the kids is definitely an A+ experience as a parent. I had a moment of panic when Oliver and I watched parts of my beloved “Home Alone” together recently (too many ideas for my already-wild 5-year-old), but there isn’t much to fret over with Will Ferrell’s iconic character.

Giggling with them at Buddy the Elf is almost enough to make me not mind picking up the endless dirty socks left in Hadley’s wake.

You know … almost.

Pouring from the pandemic teapot

Like everyone in 2020, I’ve had my ups and downs through the last nine months. There are times I slip the loops of my face mask on without blinking and just go about my business. Other days I make it all the way to the work elevator before realizing I’ve forgotten the mask completely. That feels like realizing your bathing suit top has slipped off, you know? Embarrassing. Wrong.

My, how quickly we can adapt.

Day-to-day life has developed its own strange rhythms. Though I miss plenty about our “old” lives (seeing my grandparents for more than a five-minute masked porch visit, for example), I’ve been trying to focus on everything for which I’m grateful. I have an entirely new appreciation for teachers and daycare providers. I marvel at the resilience of my children, especially my sensory-sensitive kiddo who wears a mask all day without complaint … while completing virtual kindergarten. (There’s a concept that would be amusing to explain to 2019-era me.)

Some of my optimism stems from vaccine news, of course. It’s hard not to feel hopeful with those first beams of light piercing the pitch-black of coronavirus. Hearing the phrase “vaccination roll-out plan” is definitely sigh-of-relief-worthy. We still have many miles to go before we sleep, of course. But with the recent presidential election blessedly behind us, too, I feel like the grown-ups are coming … and there might be a way out of this horrible mess.

Until then, I’ve been trying to focus on what I can control. I’ve recommitted to mindful eating and taken stock of my unhealthy habits. After gaining a good 10 pounds since March, I realized I was excusing all my unhealthy behaviors under the guise of being too tired or too stressed to make better choices. I joined Noom two months ago and have been examining the why of eating, rather than the what. It’s freeing to stop obsessing over calories and tracking points. I still track my meals, but it’s with a different mindset — more about portions, satisfaction, and being present. It’s been a great personal restart.

Buried in one of my daily Noom lessons was the ah-ha moment I needed to really consider why my snacking/junk-binging had gotten out of control. In all my weight-loss commitments over the years, I’d never even considered it. And it was this:

Pleasure. Joy. Tiny moments of respite. All needs I’d been ignoring or denying myself … before eventually seeking them in a bowl of ice cream at midnight, followed by the inevitable guilt.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I see that now. “Self-care” sounds like such a marketing buzzword, and I’ll admit I really thought it was a bunch of hippy-dippy bologna (name that kids’ movie!). Until I recently tried metaphorically pouring from that empty cup, anyway. Meg’s pandemic teapot? Bone dry.

So I’ve been trying to reframe my thinking about how I’m spending whatever down time I can cobble together. I need more joy. And for me? Well, that always means reading. Lately I’ve been escaping with Elizabeth Topp’s Perfectly Impossible … excellent distraction from the daily grind. On audio, I’m caught up in Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Other recent favorites were Matthew Desmond’s incredible Evicted and Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

And, of course, there’s all the prep needed to help Santa get ready for the holidays. Though it will be a much quieter year in some ways, Christmas with a 3- and 5-year-old still promises to be bright and merry. Today we unboxed special advent calendars from my mother- and father-in-law, lovingly stuffed with treats for Oliver and Hadley. Our Elf on the Shelf flew back in last weekend. I decorated more this year than I have since Ollie was born, feeling cocky enough to set out some breakables within reach of tiny hands … and excited enough to want to go a little overboard with the tinsel and twinkle lights.

This just feels like the year for it, you know? Anything that adds sparkle right now is OK by me. I’m sure you feel the same.

So happy start-of-December, friends. It’s strange … but we can still make it beautiful.

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.

Pandemic fall

We picked out pumpkins on Sunday.

It was a simple thing — something entirely normal in 2019, and 2018, and every year prior. But in 2020, the pandemic year, it felt amazing. Rebellious, even.

I keep thinking about Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It was one of the first novels I read fresh out of college — back when the novelty of reading what I wanted to, whenever I wanted to was so exhilarating. Brooks’ historical novel — set in an English village during the time of the plague — is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing. It was deeply disturbing, too … enough that, though I’ve forgotten the exact language, I still remember the opening passages: how the fall of that year, the plague year, was redolent of rotting apples.

Man, I get it now.

Like just about everyone in 2020, I end most days exhausted. I fall asleep at 8 p.m. It’s not because I’ve had such a strenuous day … not physically, anyway. There’s the usual mental gymnastics of navigating full-time careers, the needs and desires of young children, the nurturing of relationships with family and friends. Then we spread on a layer of doubt and anxiety: the pandemic’s thick, unpredictable patina that seeps into and colors just about every aspect of daily life.

My 5-year-old son is in virtual kindergarten — “asynchronous kindergarten,” actually, given my husband and I are working outside the home full-time. So we try to keep up with the hours of daily recorded lessons from the school system at night, when I’m on my fourth cup of coffee. “Studying” is really just me scrubbing through the videos while the kids destroy the living room, or Spencer makes dinner, or I try to answer some emails.

I’m looking for any actual assignments … or some loose tidbit that could entice Oliver — a boy who barely pauses his activities long enough to eat, or use the restroom — to actually sit for a moment and watch. But he has no interest in observing his kindergarten teacher, a woman he’s never met or even seen in person, interact with 20 other kids on iPads who have no clue how to use the mute button. Because, you know … they’re five.

And can I blame him?

Of course not.

This is nuts.

Everyone is just muddling through as best they can. I trust that. But this sucks. He has zero interest in participating, and I have zero interest in forcing him. This is all weird and boring and unnatural for a naturally curious, busy kid. I don’t want to sour him on school before he’s ever actually stepped foot in a classroom. We also don’t have the wherewithal to attempt to develop a curriculum ourselves, and I’m barely hanging on as it is.

We’re not alone. I know this. The struggle bus is making all sorts of stops these days. Everything is weird and hard, and I want it to feel normal or find some sense of normal but I … can’t.

In the meantime, I’m in kindergarten again, jotting down sight words and studying math concepts. And it will be that way for the foreseeable future, at which time everything will change … again.

There are moments that I feel OK, though. Sunday afternoon was one of them. We weren’t out long, and didn’t do much … not even the morning on the local farm we’d planned, given the rain stuck around much longer than expected. But we made it to a tiny farm stand I’ve passed a thousand times along Route 5. Even in our masks, my fall-loving heart skipped a beat amongst the gourds and mums.

It isn’t a normal season. Not anything close to the fall we’d want.

But more than six months into this, the year of rotting apples …

Well, there’s still time to learn to make pie.