Out of the Cookie crew

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I never thought I’d say this, but I miss “Sesame Street.”

Hadley has branched beyond Elmo & Co., which should be a relief … but feels bittersweet instead. It’s been weeks — months? — since she requested to watch her monster pals, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my baby has moved on from her first great love.

For the last two years, our living room has been a battle ground between Hadley’s obsession with Cookie Monster and Ollie’s love of “PAW Patrol.” Unlike the pesky pups, Hadley’s pick is educational and positive, teaching about acceptance, love, kindness … and the ABCs. There’s a reason it’s been on the air for 50 years. Of all the shows the kids have liked, “Sesame Street” is one I’ve never minded watching as well.

Hadley’s love ran deep. Two themed birthday parties. At least 20 episodes in the queue at any time. One family pilgrimage to “Sesame Street Live,” which I think we enjoyed as much as the kids. T-shirts, books and toys galore. Elmo’s face on everything, and everywhere.

The kids’ dueling interests helped us introduce the concept of “taking turns” from a young age. We talk often about fairness and patience. One kid’s pick is followed by the other’s, and I try hard to balance their interests. They don’t like it, but they’re learning. … Hopefully.

I remember feeling strangely sad and even unmoored as Oliver left his “Muppets” phase. These characters become fixtures in our home; their presence is routine and comforting. I’ll always remember some of the classic songs that wrote themselves into our family’s code for the first few years of parenthood, and Spence and I can still quote entire scenes from the 2015 iteration of “The Muppets” that lasted a season on ABC.

It’s so harddddd to say goodbyeeeee to yesterdayyyyyy.

This isn’t to say that Hadley might not return to “Sesame Street” sometime … Ollie’s Kermit love made a brief comeback. But never again will we have 24/7 requests from a little girl who expands her interests and knowledge of the world every day.

As the Johnson kids move forward, Spence and I press on as well. Remember the good times while still clearing some space on the DVR.

And always strive to be more of an Abby than an Oscar, creating a little sparkle wherever we go.

 

That time I almost lost it at Great Wolf Lodge (but didn’t)

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There are several stages of Traveling with Children.

The first is, of course, excitement. We’re going on vacation! As a working parent, I especially look forward to this uninterrupted time with my family. It’s easy to fall into this trap of daydreaming about the perfect trip during the planning phase: finishing a book poolside, laughing with my perfectly-behaved children at a calm dinner, tucking them into woodland-themed bunk beds, watching HGTV in peace. Ahh.

Next comes getting acclimated. After three hours on the road, we’re here! “Here” was Great Wolf Lodge last weekend: a family-themed resort with energetic children at every turn. GWL has a cult following and festive vibe that gets even straight-laced adults to don the trademark wolf ears (myself included). Getting acclimated includes taking in all the craziness that a change of scenery entails. Our four- and two-year-old basically just … screamed and ran at full speed for the first six-plus hours on the Williamsburg property. Calling them “keyed up” is an understatement.

Once reality sets in, we hit the “ooh, was this a good idea?” stage — usually around bedtime. This phase includes being kicked in the ribs at 2 a.m. by a child who refuses to sleep in the bunk bed of the pricey “wolf den” suite, because bunk beds are cool strictly during daylight hours. Your spouse must sleep on the couch.

So, I mean, I’m not a monster; I realize that a change in sleeping arrangements can be weird for kids. And my son, an extreme creature of habit, greatly depends on his routines. The idea of crawling into the top bunk and actually resting there alone was … a hard no.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, I was a little annoyed with myself that it did surprise me. But every time, I think … this time will be different. The kids are older now, and more adaptable; we won’t have the fussing and issues we’ve had on previous trips.

While it’s true that we don’t have to worry about round-the-clock feedings and a truckload of diapers anymore, thinking that Oliver, in particular, is adaptable? Mmm. This is the kid that, on our first beach trip, screamed so long and so hard at being put in a pack-and-play that Spencer and I wound up driving the beach access road for hours to get him to sleep … then carrying him inside in his carseat. Also the same kid that required another midnight drive around downtown Bedford, Pennsylvania, because we were desperate to calm him down. We wound up finding a well-lit gas station to catch a few hours of rest ourselves, then cut our trip short.

My blood pressure climbed just typing all that.

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Sleep is at the heart of so many issues. And when traveling, of course, sleep is a major unknown … because the comfortable routines we have at home don’t directly translate. Hadley goes down relatively easy at bedtime, but Ollie is different. He struggles to settle on a regular day at home, constantly telling me that “sleeping is boring,” so traveling is just … next level.

So in the “ooh, was this a good idea?” phase, I beat myself up with big questions. Why is it so hard to enjoy something that hundreds of families are all enjoying at this very moment? Why does this feel challenging? Am I broken? Are my children? Why are we spending all this money to be exhausted and stressed in a different location? And, of course, why can’t I just relax and have fun? 

Thankfully, after the first night, this exhausting (and depressing) phase typically melts into a better scene: making the best of it and hey, this is actually enjoyable, which comes after the kids, Spence and I have adapted to staying in a hotel room — all four of us, together, with little distraction — and being out of our normal patterns.

Great Wolf Lodge has the advantage of being very obviously kid-friendly. Kids here, there, and everywhere. Kids shoving past you in Build a Bear. Just … kids.

While it got overwhelming at the end, it was refreshing not to have the added stress of feeling like we were disturbing everyone around us. Our crew never earned the familiar glares of nearby couples just trying to enjoy their crab dip appetizer in peace, thankyouverymuch. 

Camaraderie was in the air, actually — an “in the trenches” solidarity amongst the weary parents and grandparents. Wading through knee-high water in our similar tankini tops and skirted bathing suit bottoms, the thirty-something moms and I exchanged knowing smiles. These women got it. They, too, were wrestling toddlers into swim diapers and chasing sugared-up “PAW Patrol” characters through hotel halls. They were also in line at Dunkin’ because they would croak without another shot of caffeine.

Because we visited GWL during their “Howl-o-Ween” festivities, we enjoyed nightly trick-or-treating. Spence and I wound up walking the candy trail with another couple whose kids were close in age to ours, and our shared jokes warmed me up with the recognition of kindred spirits. My husband and I joked that we should have asked where they were from. Everyone needs friends. And this couple — with the dad dressed like Rocky ready to enter the ring, and his playful wife continuously “dinging” a bell on her iPhone — were definite contenders.

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So … did we have fun at Great Wolf Lodge? Absolutely.

After our iffy first night, I faced a hard truth: Traveling with young children feels so challenging because I’m just as much a creature of habit as they are.

Understanding myself better as an adult, this is about anxiety. I get stressed when I’m out of my element. I thrive on predictability — and traveling with children has none of that. My anxiety kicks into overdrive and mostly-managed OCD issues flair up. The familiar fight-or-flight panicky feeling awakens, and I want to run away to feel normal again. By then? Well, I’m just a hot mess.

I’m working on all that.

By realizing it fairly early this trip, I could collect myself, pull it together, and coax my anxious brain back into neutral territory. Once I relaxed, we had a great time with my mother- and father-in-law at the expansive resort. There was plenty to do, and the water park was enjoyable even for a mom (and kids) who can’t swim!

Most importantly, Hadley and Oliver had a blast — and we have a new collection of fun family memories with their grandparents. I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about “the wolf place” for a long time to come. And who knows? Now that he’s four, maybe our GWL trip will be one of Ollie’s earliest memories.

Which brings us to the final phase: looking at photos and reminiscing about the great time you had. The hotel neighbors having a dance party at 1 a.m. and long lines behind indecisive middle schoolers at the breakfast buffet are all forgotten. We’re left with sweet smiles floating on a tube in the lazy river, joy when hitting the 1,000-ticket prize in the arcade, and happy, tired kids passing out within minutes on the drive home.

These are the days. The tiring, wild, haphazard days.

I have earned that pumpkin creme cold brew, friends … but it’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Bring on the wolf ears!

 

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

Four eyes

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Our four-year-old has glasses.

Our four-year-old. Has glasses.

This all came about rather unexpectedly. A local Lions Club offered free vision screenings at Ollie’s daycare and I signed off that he could be tested. Thinking, you know, cool! That’s very nice of them, thinking of the children and all.

Ollie’s results came back “refer,” meaning they recommended we take him for a full eye exam. And I put it off. And off. We had zero indication that anything was wrong . . . aside from the occasional squinting. He never complained about his eyesight or acted strangely. Of course, why would he have? Ollie didn’t know what “normal” vision was. Apparently he never has.

Our guy has a major focusing problem, and these new glasses — big things, with thick lenses … much thicker than I was expecting — are to be worn full-time. Hearing those words filled me with dread. This is a kid who never, ever stops moving. Who plays “the floor is lava” anywhere and everywhere, scaling furniture like an agile squirrel. I had immediate visions of a pair of glasses smashed to smithereens beneath a sneaker, trike, or toy tractor.

Mama got that insurance plan, I’ll tell you that.

After a week of daily “Are my glasses ready yet?” questions, we finally picked them up on Saturday. I’m writing this late on Sunday with a surprising amount of glasses-related relief coursing through my veins.

I know it is very early days … we can’t get all excited about victory yet. But Ollie has already taken to them much quicker and easier than I would have dared to guess. I’d asked his optometrist for tips about what to do if/when a kid refuses to wear their specs, and he’d explained that — after the initial break-in period, tough with any new prescription — most kids realize they are seeing through a new lens (literally), and wear them willingly.

Ollie is not “most kids,” however. He’s spirited. “Persistent” is an understatement. And when he decides he is not doing something, he is not doing it. No incentive in the world can make a dent toward progress. (See: potty-training. For years.)

But we’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. From the moment he slipped them on, his eyes as dark and wide as I’ve ever seen them, it was obvious that he was experiencing the world in a new way. Ollie was positively giddy, awestruck. I was reminded of getting my first pair of contacts after refusing to wear my own glasses for years: the world in sudden technicolor, each blade of grass alive.

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Ollie kept them on through most of today, even through some pretty active stretches. The only time he asked to take them off was when he was eating pizza, so he “wouldn’t get sauce on them.”

I know we’re not in the clear yet on the journey to Glasses Acceptance. Tomorrow is Monday, a preschool day, and I feel flutters of anxiety thinking about the classroom reaction to our big-hearted boy. My mama instincts twitch at the idea of my kids being marked as “different,” though I know we are all different and that is perfectly OK. Great, even!

Will four-year-olds agree? I don’t know. But if anyone calls him “four eyes,” here’s what I hope Ollie will still be able to see:

  1. Goodness in himself and others.
  2. Beauty in life’s little moments.
  3. The value of wisdom over simple textbook knowledge.
  4. How much it matters to be kind.

That we can’t always protect our children from the world is a painful parenting moment. How do we get used to that? Can we get used to it?

I realize that, in typical Meg fashion, I am worrying about something before it has happened. It might not happen. I didn’t think Ollie would agree to even wear the glasses, and look! Maybe it will be fine. Maybe everyone will love Ollie’s specs the way he does.

And if not? Well … we’ll be there.

In my own glasses, too.

 

Skeletons outside the closet

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Four-year-old Oliver has an unusual new interest — one I did not predict . . . and don’t quite know what to do with.

Skeletons.

This is the kid that, apropos of nothing, will try to catch my eye in the minivan mirror with questions like, “Mommy, how did I get here?”

Get . . . here?

“Yes. Here on Earth. On our planet. Where did I come from?”

Ah. Here we go.

I have always been a philosophical mess, so these “big picture” questions don’t really surprise me. In elementary school, I can remember turning to my little sister and asking something like, “Isn’t it weird how we’re humans?” 

But I haven’t been ready for all the questions we’re suddenly getting — especially since I don’t often know the answers, either. (That’s where Alexa comes in. Or Wikipedia. Or, you know, books.)

Many of the recent inquiries have been about bodies. Nothing too awkward, thankfully, but we’ve definitely entered the age of awareness. Ollie thought skeletons were just spooky figures in “Scooby Doo” — Halloween props, or creepy artwork. I nearly blew his mind when I told him that everyone has a skeleton. 

“Where?” he asked.

Under our skin, I said. Bones make up our bodies, and that’s our skeleton.

“But why do I have a body?”

See? So my kid.

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I recently pulled up a diagram to highlight the basics of the skeletal system. I didn’t know what most of those bones were called — except for the phalanges, that is. (Every middle-schooler goes through an absolutely hilarious “Hey, Linda, I can see your phalanges!” phase, right?)

He studied it with me, pointing out familiar parts like the feet and hands. We found a kids’ YouTube video that walked us through the topic, too.

Spence and I have been doing our best to answer Ollie’s increasingly deep questions without stressing the kid out. He has a sensitive heart — and an inquisitive mind. I love his curiosity, but I’m also having a tough time coming up with matter-of-fact responses to some of his bigger questions.

And a few have broken my heart a little.

“Mommy,” he whispered one night, when we have our most heartfelt conversations. Ollie shot straight up in bed like a wild thought had just occurred to him. And, you know, maybe it had. “I’m going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger?”

Well, yes, bud, I whispered back. I certainly hope so.

This was brought on by needing to retire his John Deere T-shirt — a longtime favorite. It’s a 4T, and the kid has moved several sizes beyond . . . plus it’s so thin from constant wash and wear that it’s fraying at the edges. Small holes dot the neckline.

I’d tried to tuck it away without him noticing, feeling sad myself. It was his go-to outfit for more than a year. You know those “I Really Love My . . .” features in People, with a celebrity wearing the same scarf or hat or boots in a million settings? That’s Ollie’s John Deere shirt. So many of my favorite pictures include him wearing it.

I’d been quietly pulling a few worn tops from his bin to add to the closet collection. Oliver saw me packing it up because, of course, he misses nothing — and he was despondent. I wound up putting it back, though it’s since been gently stored.

“I’m going to get big like Uncle Eric?” Ollie continued, thinking of his six-foot-tall buddy.

Maybe. You’ll get taller, though we don’t know how tall. We’ll see when you’re a grown-up.

“But I don’t want to get bigger,” he suddenly wailed, and the way his tears came on really took me aback. “I want to stay little.”

Ugh. Gutted, I tell you.

I wish I could say I had an eloquent response — something that soothed my son, profound and memorable. I didn’t. I struggle, too. Though I do feel decidedly “mom-ish” these days, my adult skin — and parent skin — didn’t quite seem to fit for a long, long stretch. I always wonder if I’m doing this right. “This” being, you know . . . everything.

I do feel a lightening lately, though . . . like my eyes are readjusting after exiting the cave of maternal exhaustion, anxiety, worry. I find joy in little moments. I’m not so tense. I trust my instincts more. I’m less easily phased by spilled milk or thrown toys. I have my moments, don’t get me wrong — but I also feel like maybe I’m doing OK.

And I hope that, in time, I’ll be able to cobble together responses to the many big questions my children will ask of me.

I might not have “answers,” but I hope I’ll have honest and thoughtful words to share.

And when in doubt? Well, I’ll look for the diagram.

Just how hard I’ve been moming

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I’ve been moming so hard this week, you guys.

Really, really hard. The past 48 hours? Serious parenting. The digging-deep-and-hoping-the-well-isn’t-empty kind. The sort that tests both your sanity and mettle. The variety that we can only hope will generate stories that are funny and bittersweet when our kids are flying to a neighboring solar system because we raised them to be brave and intelligent people who grew up to be freakin’ astronauts.

I miss writing here and sorting out the thoughts that just ain’t fit to print elsewhere. The ideas that aren’t polished and non-embarrassing enough for a column. Those that are too lengthy and likely to be misconstrued in a Facebook post. I’ve basically given up on Twitter, and Instagram has become a catalogue of my children’s random snapshots because I’m tired and feel it’s increasingly complicated to think deeply about . . . anything.

I find myself filtering my observations into soft, bite-sized portions because they’re easier to digest — for others and me. Becoming a mother is easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done — mentally, physically, spiritually — and I had no idea I would become the anxious, loving, complicated mom-beast that I am. It is a truly 24/7 job with no ability to punch out.

Still, here we are. Oliver is now three. Hadley is one. Spence and I will be celebrating five years (!) of marriage this fall. We have settled into some routines and are working on establishing others. Ollie talks nonstop (“Mommy, look high in the sky! It’s an AIRPLANE! Did you see the airplane? Mommy. Mommy. Mommy! Did you see it? It’s GRAY! A gray airplane!”) and Hadley, impish and sweet, is working on walking. When they’re both on the move, God help us.

I’m approaching the one-year mark since I joined the world of health care marketing and public relations after my decade in community journalism. Which means I’ve been freelancing for almost a year, too. A year of writing at 11 p.m. with one eye open (and sometimes both eyes closed). That’s almost 100 columns that I pulled from the shattered remains of my energy after the kids had gone to bed.

I write because it matters to me. Because, for so long, it defined my identity. It was my identity. Before I was a wife and a mother and even really a grown woman, I was a writer.

It was never my intention to take such a long break here. I said that last time, I know. But the column has a deadline, and the pressure keeps me motivated. Without that same constraint, I get lazy. Also: have I stressed that I basically run on caffeine and a painful, irrational fight-or-flight instinct that saturates just about everything I do?

Right.

Remember how I’ve been moming so hard?

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Yesterday Spence and I signed our lives away to purchase a new vehicle. I agreed to 10,000 stipulations without doing any research because that’s just apparently where I am right now. While committing us to five years of payments, my son — thick in the middle of the toddler “I must do absolutely everything myself” phase — dumped apple juice all over my lap.

In the middle of the finance manager’s office, yes. Sticky, warm, wet apple juice from my waist to my (exposed, flip-flop-clad) feet.

Ollie was stunned. Spencer and I were stunned. The young finance manager was definitely stunned. I saw no family photos adorning his sleek, orderly desk, so I can only assume he has no children. For a moment I thought he’d knock a few hundred off the price in exchange for all the free birth control we were doling out, but we left with the bottom line intact.

Our sanity? Not so much.

The vehicle we were buying? A van. A minivan. The one that will, undoubtedly, be covered in those stupid pinwheel-like caps from the squeeze pouches of yogurt — strawberry only — that Oliver, an insanely picky eater, just about survives on. A good family van for Hadley to store all her favorite critter books and schlep my 576 bags from Target much easier than my 14-year-old sedan.

Buying that van somehow felt more daunting than taking out the mortgage on our house. When I learned the offer on our place had been accepted, I literally could not sit at my desk for fear of being sick. I took a 15-minute break at work that turned into an hour because I found my mom at a coffeeshop and whipped myself into a complete frenzy.

Massive debt will apparently do that to you.

We got home with the van at 8 p.m. last night, and I checked Oliver’s temperature for the 12th time. Normal. But he’d woken up at 2 a.m. in a dead sweat and hollered out for me. I found him standing straight up in bed, red-cheeked and frantic, and the lava-like feel of his skin instantly woke me up and into action. A 102 temp. Juice and Motrin.

He was better by morning and had no temperature again for the rest of the day, but I stayed home — and vigilant. By the time we left for the car dealership that evening, Ollie was starting to fade again.

You know it all just went downhill from there. We had no intention of taking Hadley and Oliver with us to buy the van, but a series of factors made it necessary. In hindsight, I wish I had done anything I could have to avoid that scenario, but life happens. And it’s done.

Within an hour of sitting at the dealership filling out paperwork we’d already taken the long, drawn-out time to fill out online (good times), Ollie was definitely feverish again. He wanted to lay across me — all 44 pounds of him — while I tried to pay attention to a series of up-sells and Spencer fought to keep a wiggly Hadley in his arms.

We eventually got the baby interested in a water bottle, which bought us some time. But Oliver was definitely sick. I’m a naturally warm-blooded person — all my insulation, I guess! — and the air conditioning in the finance office was … lackluster, shall we say.

Ollie was hot enough to be physically sticking to me, and asking to leave every 15 seconds. We were in a room small enough that I could have held out my arms to touch both sides of it. Hadley was repeatedly hollering — with happiness, I think? — at the water bottle, chasing it around the floor. Spence was pretzeled in a corner, forced to elbow Ollie and me to add his signature to the forms.

It was in this atmosphere that we committed ourselves to the van — and I ultimately wound up covered in apple juice. The photos of us with the new vehicle are angled such that it doesn’t look like I actually wet myself, and I thank my husband for that.

A story I’ll find funny someday? Yeah, maybe. I mean, I’m already mining it for material for my dusty blog, so sure.

But last night? Wow. Had. to. keep. my. stuff. together. It was HARD. So hard. So so so hard. The tension of trying to make decisions and negotiate with two young children climbing on and spilling fluids all over us was enough to make me want to throw up my hands, yell OMG FORGET IT and just head for the Canadian border.

We eventually got everyone home and resting, though, and Ollie had no temp last night or this morning. I’ve already chewed up time off work that I really don’t have, and I was selfishly relieved when Ollie was better this morning. With kisses and hugs for the kiddos, I set off for my hour-long drive to work. Spence took them to day care and went to the office himself.

I’d been at my desk for all of 45 minutes today when the phone rang. Ollie was lethargic. Mild temperature. Didn’t want to play. “You don’t have to come right now,” said his teacher, “but if his temperature climbs anymore, I’ll definitely have to call you to take him home.”

“What’s he doing now?” I asked.

“He’s … standing,” she said slowly.

” … Uh, standing?”

“It’s circle time and the kids are playing. Ollie is usually all in there,” she said, “but he’s just standing on the side by himself.”

Standing alone? The kid who never sits, never stops, never quiets? Right. Off I went.

Once I got Ollie home, he was so lethargic, hot and zombie-like that I contemplated taking him straight to the Emergency Department. No parent likes when their kids are sick, of course, but the children having health issues majorly triggers my already-easily-triggered anxiety. In .03 seconds, I can be back in the NICU with Ollie or up late with a wheezing Hadley. I go into triage mode. In some ways, it’s a relief.

I decided to squash down my crazy for a moment and called the pediatrician instead. A throat swab confirmed he has strep, and I spent the rest of the doctor’s visit trying not to gag after Ollie threw up all over me following the throat swab.

I mean, I couldn’t be mad. I remember gagging at those tests myself. He was miserably sick, and I felt terrible for my guy. Thankfully, the fever reducer they managed to get into his system before the vomiting incident did its job: he has been back to himself since lunchtime. The antibiotics have started. And as long as we keep the ibuprofen flowing, I think he’ll be OK.

“OK” includes destroying the house, asking me the same questions repeatedly, refusing to eat or drink anything that is not chocolate milk, and antagonizing his sister to the point of making her cry. Repeatedly.

The only upside to the whole incident? I didn’t drive the new van today. So the disgusting stench of vomit that was embedded in my clothes and Oliver’s is, no doubt, permeating my own old car rather than the spotless new vehicle we brought home yesterday.

The little victories.

I try to see them — always. Just one bite-sized piece at a time.

 

. . . And he’s home

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Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend, our little Oliver was able to come home last Thursday . . . and I’ve barely slept since.

I’m exaggerating — but only slightly.

It’s just that he’s so little . . . and he makes so many sounds. There’s the dirty diaper cry, the “Lady, how’s about that bottle?” cry, the belly pressure cry. Our first night home, I was truly a mess. Everything startled him, and everything startled me. He just seems so vulnerable.

After almost a month in the NICU, where Ollie was cared for by an attentive staff, he was turned loose to Spencer and me. I’d gotten so used to the monitors, wires and nurses hovering nearby that I had a panic attack before discharge. Though Ollie requires no special medical attention, I still couldn’t imagine how we were supposed to care for our preemie without professional help.

Don’t you have to, like, prove your qualifications to be handed a helpless child? Isn’t there a form to fill out, a test to take, some sort of ground to cover?

For as much as we often wanted to sprint out of the hospital with him, there was still comfort — reassurance — there. Those folks know what they’re doing, after all — and we do not. Not like that. But his nurses taught us about his little quirks and budding personality. Since we were only able to be there for a few hours each day, they were his caretakers. We were frequent visitors.

For two novice parents, the knowledge shared in the NICU has been invaluable. I’ve made no bones about how little I know about babies, how nervous I am around newborns. I usually avoid them out of terror and apprehension. I usually politely refuse offers to hold them, worrying about their cute squirms and floppy necks . . . so it seemed a crazy (cruel?) twist of fate that Spencer and I would, in fact, get a tiny baby even more fragile than most.

“You’re really not going to break him,” his nurses would assure me, sensing my hesitation at his bedside. Nervous and still recovering from childbirth, I often differed to Spencer for his care at the hospital. I usually flopped in a nearby chair, content to take photos and just breathe.


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But the time came to get myself together. My mama instincts finally came in.

We spent hours learning to change diapers, give baths, offer bottles, give comfort . . . and I wanted desperately to bring him home, especially late at night and early in the morning. When I was pregnant, those were his “active” times — the times I could feel him kicking, grabbing my husband’s hand as we talked about this mystery baby and dreamed little dreams for him.

When we came home without Oliver, ravaged and shocked by his early arrival, I couldn’t bear to see night come. I felt so empty — physically and emotionally — that I just prayed to fall asleep and not think about anything, anything at all. I often wrote in a wild fury, words strung together that I never shared; I’ll probably never read them again. In the first week, especially, I was just sad and angry and wrung out.

Though the NICU nurses were wonderful, it was hard not to feel angry at times. That’s my baby, I’d think, feeling jealous and weird when one of his caretakers fussed over him. I had to remind myself constantly that I am his mom. I just felt displaced and in the way, toting my tiny containers of pumped breast milk and trying not to cry at his isolette.

I felt robbed, honestly. Robbed of the last two months of my pregnancy, which we’d planned and anticipated; robbed of a more peaceful birth experience without the anxiety, fear and guilt of preeclampsia and early labor. I was mad that our families, eagerly anticipating their first grandchild and nephew, had to experience all that worry with us.

But I’m working on letting that go. It doesn’t serve me to think of what might have, could have or “should” have been; there is nothing I could have done differently to change what happened in April. And he’s here now, and he is perfect.

“We get bonus Ollie time,” I say.



I’m sure that, in the months to come, the chaos of it will fade. To some extent, it already has. I can look over now and see our son in his bassinet, kicking his feet in baby dreams. Though I gave birth a month ago, I feel like we actually had a baby on May 7. Bundling him up for the car ride home and waving goodbye to our favorite nurse is a moment I won’t forget.

As any parent of a newborn can kindly tell me, these early days have been tough. But I cherish them because they are, in fact, “normal” — and normalcy is something I crave. Ollie’s early arrival, my own illness and his month in the hospital complicated what is already a challenging time, and we’re processing.

Though he is a sweet, easygoing baby, Ollie doesn’t sleep when anyone else prefers to sleep. Which is to say: at night. I knew this would be hard, but the exhaustion is something else entirely. And after seven months of living a caffeine-free existence, I am hitting the coffee hard. Spence had a pot brewed on Mother’s Day morning, and the pair of us wandered the kitchen like zombies throughout the day.

But there’s a beauty in that, too. The bleary-eyed new parents, clinging to each other like buoys as their newborn howls nearby; the piles of laundry and stacks of fresh diapers, the spilled baby powder and mounds of bottles. It’s a familiar scene — and ours now, too.

Like all things in life, I know this is only temporary. That floods me with relief and sadness — joy and pain both. I think about when Ollie will be big enough to stand in his crib and reach his arms up to us, and the nights he’ll turn the pages of his picture books himself. When he’ll stop trailing me through the house, running out to meet friends instead. The bittersweet flavor of those moments dissolves on my tongue.

So I focus. I relish. I try to stay in these moments, difficult and fuzzy and milk-soaked though they may be.

Last night, my husband held him gently and brushed his nose over his downy-soft hair. Oliver was swallowed up in Spencer’s arms, his little hands flexing as though in a wave.

“Can you believe that, someday, he could be taller than us?” I whispered.


Spence and Ollie


We are already developing new routines, schedules. Ollie gets bigger each day, pushing us closer to the blessed time we’ll all get a few unbroken hours of sleep. And then I’ll be crying at his high school graduation and helping him pack for college and deciding none of his floozy girlfriends are anywhere close to good enough, so.

In the meantime, we’re trying to rest. Clean. Work on our new normal. Though I’m still sorting through those Feelings I have about Oliver’s birth, our weeks visiting him in the hospital, my crazy entrance into motherhood and how we’re adjusting as a family, I’m focused more on the day-to-day at home while I can. Four of my six weeks off work were used — poof — before Ollie even came home, so we have logistics to sort out as well.

And we will. I know we will. Every major life change I’ve experienced — many in the last two years — has seemed overwhelming and a little scary at first . . . and motherhood, though thrilling, is no different. I’m proud that I’ve made it this far without major meltdowns and so impressed with my patient, loving husband, who has already proven himself to be the best dad to Ollie.

In the meantime, I savor the quiet moments we share these days: rocking in the nursery with his wide eyes searching mine; our 3 a.m. bottles in the quiet, dark house; the drowsy, sleepy smiles he offers like clockwork after mealtime. Sometimes I look at him and think, How did this happen? How is he mine? and I laugh, because life so often feels like beautiful happenstance.

And I’m grateful.