Swimming lessons

I’m always telling my children to be brave.

Seeing my own insecurities reflected back on two innocent faces has to be one of the most challenging — and unexpected — parts of parenthood. Wracked by anxiety myself from a young age, I’m often consumed with smoothing life’s sharp edges for my son and daughter. I know I can’t always do that — indeed, that I shouldn’t always do that — but … well, how do I stop?

I don’t want them to worry like I have worried.

I want them, I think, to be normal.

My adult mind knows that “normal” is an illusion. No one is normal. There is no normal. But my heart — that pounding, persistent thing — still feels the old pangs of embarrassment and fear when I see my children challenged in all-too-familiar ways.

On Sunday, the struggle was literal. Oliver and Hadley started swim lessons: Hadley’s first round, and Oliver’s third. The last time, two years ago, was awful. A disaster. At age four, and with his sensory issues, Ollie wasn’t close to ready. He struggled. Refused to follow directions. He couldn’t focus with the other kids around (all perfectly compliant, of course), and only wanted to sit on the steps and kick around.

I tried to force it. I spent a lot of money, I said, like he cared about money. I took off work to be here. I want you to try — please, please, just try.

He wouldn’t. He lost it. And we both cried in the middle of a dingy swim school with a room full of people watching.

Awful.

I just wanted so badly to save him as I haven’t believed I could be saved: from my overwhelming fear of deep water.

I wanted him to swim.

To swim for both of us.

After throwing in the towel (literally) and accepting Oliver just wasn’t ready, we forgot the remaining lessons that summer. I shoved the memories of that struggle — a power struggle; a physical struggle; an emotional struggle — into a box marked “Nope.” I haven’t felt brave enough to try again.

Water just always seems to be there, though — lurking. And despite how silly it feels, I’ve spent my life with the label of a Non-Swimmer. It’s like a party trick, you know? When I’m in mixed company, maybe seated with strangers at a corporate retreat, I can trot it out with gusto. “Fun fact: I cannot swim,” I say, as though I’ve confessed to having never left the state of Maryland. The raised eyebrows seem to express a similar surprise.

I had opportunities to learn, certainly. My parents took my sister and me each summer — weeks that eventually stretched across years. It didn’t matter how much I tried: I was petrified. I still am. And no matter how much I was encouraged or prodded or incentivized, the fear did not move.

While Hadley is already building confidence, giggling and splashing with the instructor, I can actually feel the panic radiating off her older brother. Seeing Oliver struggle makes me feel powerless. Takes me back to the NICU. Dredges up all these old, awful feelings of inadequacy and failure.

But these are my issues, not theirs. I’m slowly learning to separate the two.

My husband is usually sitting next to me in these moments, a hand on my arm. “It’s OK,” he says. “They’re OK! Look. They’re fine!”

He watches me watching our children. I feel him breathing, thinking. Processing.

“I know,” I say quietly, watching Ollie sputter. “I just … I know what that feels like … “

Falling. Plunging. A total loss of control.

Spencer himself swims like a fish.

I have to look away.

Later in the day, we take the kids to a friend’s house. Sandy has invited us to her backyard oasis many times. We visited on the Fourth of July, and I remembered to pack the kids’ swimsuits. They got in with the other adults, all capable swimmers. I checked their life vests, perched on a chair, and watched.

Something snapped Sunday as I watched my kids in the pool, nervous but eager. Something that had been moored, even buried, broke free.

After a lifetime of thinking I can’t, I can’t, I thought of what I often murmur to my children. What I told them that very morning, dabbing sunscreen on the delicate freckles dusting my daughter’s cheeks.

Try.

The kids scamper off with Sandy, helping to unearth potatoes from her garden. It’s quiet. Still.

“OK,” says my husband. “Your turn?”

I can’t, I start.

But for once, the words get all clogged up.

With an arm around his shoulders, Spencer talks me through leaning back and calming my body enough to just … float. Float on my back. I can’t, I start to say, and stop. The hand bracing my back slackens. It takes several tries — and some panicky sputtering — but eventually, amazingly … he lets go. And I stay, bobbing awkwardly at the surface, everything submerged save my eyes, nose, and mouth.

I look up at the sky, solid blue with puffy clouds in the distance. Feel the soft, damp summer air on my face. Hear the voices of my children in the distance, answered by my dear friend in her patient grandmother voice.

I drifted. I existed. I was.

I can’t remember the last time I did something new — something that scared me. Adulthood has helped insulate me from so much that burned me up with anxiety when I was younger.

I can make my own choices. Avoid places I don’t like. Avoid people I don’t like. Avoid conflict.

But I’ll be 36 this week. Mid-thirties. Late thirties?

My husband sees glimmers of possibility that I can’t always spot in myself.

And maybe it’s not too late for me to grow.

I am still capable of trying.

And that? That’s my birthday gift this year.

All good things

Parenting in 2021 is a lot of “Are you on mute?!” during midday kindergarten Zoom meetings.

There’s a sentence I could have never made sense of a year ago.

As expected, we’re all being clobbered with “pandemic retrospective” pieces right now. I’m … not here for it. Maybe 10, 20, 50 years from now — when my grandchildren or great-grandchildren ask what it was like to live through COVID-19 (so much searching for toilet paper). But not every March, just when the first tentative buds appear on the pear tree in the yard. Is this going to be an annual thing? Two years since COVID hit. Five years since COVID hit.

I love spring, but it’s also been associated with worry and trauma since my son’s early birth six years ago. It doesn’t take much to put me back into that scary place — though our little family has certainly come a long way since.

My daughter will be four this week. Last year’s birthday party was our last “normal” family gathering for months . . . or longer. I remember our governor pulling together a press conference to address the growing threat of coronavirus, and hearing the earliest murmurs of stay-at-home orders as we prepared for Hadley’s birthday dinner. So much of what seemed unthinkable then has come to pass.

But lately I find my fingers trailing along more and more delicate threads of hope.

Do you feel them, too?

  • A year after I first googling “novel coronavirus,” I’ve been vaccinated against the illness (I work in communications on-site at a hospital). Many family members, including all three grandparents, have also received their first or second doses. Though close relatives did get sick in January, they had mild cases, and somehow we managed to escape getting infected as well. I am truly grateful.
  • The days are getting longer. Sunshine does all good things for the soul. I’ve been listening to vintage John Mayer — as I always seem to do with the changing seasons? — while remembering the hopeful college kid I once was compared to the hopeful minivan-driving mom I am now. Considering it was nothing but the “Hamilton” soundtrack on repeat since last summer, it feels good to return to comforting tunes.
  • My son will be starting in-person kindergarten next month! I didn’t dare hope that he’d have any physical instruction this year. Though Oliver has done as well as could be expected with virtual learning, it’s … well. You all know, I’m sure. While I’m nervous about the transition, particularly given he’ll only have a few months of in-person school before summer break arrives (more changes to routine). But he has amazed me with his adaptability, particularly to face masks, which I assumed would be tough even without sensory sensitivities. He’s a surprising little dude.
  • It’s almost cherry blossom time. Even if we still can’t experience the Tidal Basin as we typically would, I hope I’ll be able to get a glimpse of my favorite trees with my mom and dad.
  • Our house is calmer. I’m actually typing this after dinner, when the kids are still conscious (though ensconced in “Despicable Me,” it’s true). We still have our fights and rough days, for sure. But it’s been months since I ran outside barefoot in the cold to stand alone in the dark night and contemplate life because I just needed five seconds to myself for god’s sake. At nearly four and six, Hadley and Ollie are settling into themselves as little people, and we’re learning how to communicate more effectively. Myself included. Also? They can use the bathroom without much help. Man, a diaper-less world is great.
  • We have summertime plans. Nothing crazy, but two nearby trips are in the works. I’m so excited at the idea of getting away and seeing something new. Like all of us, my daytime views largely consist of my office at work and my toy-cluttered living room at home. Obviously plans will adapt should the COVID situation change, but I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get to pack a suitcase for the first time in a year.
  • I’m writing again! After my newspaper column came to an end last year, I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be settling back here at ye old laptop. I was excited to begin a new bimonthly column for Southern Maryland Woman Magazine (my latest piece, “Making Rainbows Out of Rubbish,” is up now). “The Short Years” comes out every other month, as opposed to twice a week, so the pressure is far less intense than when I’d kept up “Right, Meg?” as a freelancer when I left the paper in 2017.
  • I’m narrating, too. My dad, Rick Snider, wrote and produced The Angel Among Us, a podcast series we cut just before COVID hit last spring. It’s a fictional multi-generational story that is, of course, free to download now. I pop up as Lilith, a demon with dark motives (surprising, no?). And it was really fun to act again, even for just an afternoon! And I’m proud of Dad for doing something outside the box. He has more in the works, too.

So that’s my good list. Capped off by the cup of coffee I’m currently sipping and a few episodes of “90 Day Fiance” stacked up on my DVR as bedtime approaches for two sleepy kids. I’ve got mermaid balloons ready to prep tomorrow night, in anticipation of my girl’s big day, and vanilla cupcakes soon heading into the oven.

Happy Monday, friends. ❤

Diamond trails

On Saturday, the cabin fever set in hard. I thought I was doing quite well with the whole winter/pandemic/straight-outta-quarantine situation for my family, but it was like a tidal creep … rising slowly, slowly, slowly until I felt like I could barely stay above the water line. I just had to get out of the house. Immediately.

Pandemic weariness is familiar to all of us. The last month has been especially brutal. Between a 14-day isolation after a close exposure to COVID (everyone has since recovered, and thankfully Spencer and I stayed well) plus days of bad weather that later forced daycare closures, we’ve been looking for any opportunity for a change in scenery. Companionship. Life.

Of course, it’s 30 degrees. Even “safer” activities — hiking, playgrounds, visiting family masked and outside — are not pleasant to attempt at the moment. We knew it would be a long, dark winter after the desperate but hopeful cheer of Christmas 2020. The post-holiday letdown has definitely been real.

So I’ve tried to be proactive with my mental health. Already prone to anxiety and depression, I could feel my “keeping it together no matter what” shell starting to crack. To be honest? I’m amazed it stayed intact as long as it has. Some of it is the ol’ holding it together for the kids mentality; I don’t want to worry or scare them when so much has already changed. But the truth is that I have hard days, too, and sometimes I just want to curl up with a comfy blanket and hide.

I could feel that struggle taking place on Saturday. The idea of facing another weekend shut in our house, all four of us lost in our tablets and laptops and devices, accomplishing nothing, going nowhere, was just … awful.

“Let’s go somewhere,” I told my husband. “Anywhere. Where can we go?”

We settled on Flag Ponds Nature Park in Lusby, Maryland, just an hour east on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a balmy 32 degrees following last week’s ice storms, but we grabbed hats, scarves, and gloves recently dried from playing in the snow. Even I — nothing close to adventurous — unearthed my heaviest boots for walking muddy trails. We were acting on impulse, crackly with excitement (or maybe that was all the static electricity … either way).

We only saw a handful of other people on the icy trails and boardwalk leading down to the bay. Oliver and Hadley each took a map of the 500-acre property, taking turns “leading” as we set off for the shore. Above us, ice-crusted trees tinkled like wind chimes, sending their branch-shaped casings smashing to the ground. The paths were lined with these crushed diamonds.

Spencer and I had been there before for a sunrise shoot with our photography club, but that was easily a decade ago. It was completely different from anything I could remember in winter. With the temperature barely above freezing, the beach grass and trees dotting the shoreline all glittered and clinked in their wind-chime way. The kids were fascinated by the “ice leaves” their dad placed in their mittened hands.

I thought about how, a few years ago, a day like this would have been impossible. There would have been strollers to pack, formula to pre-portion, bottles to secure in a heavy backpack that would have made hiking feel even more arduous. Diapers, so many diapers — and diapers to change in the woods. Even a little while after, there would have been kids demanding a bathroom as we reached peak isolation in the woods. A bathroom and a snack.

On Saturday, Hadley and Ollie walked a few paces ahead of us — enough to offer the illusion of independence, which is so enticing for a 5- and 3-year-old. I could pull out my phone and photograph the landscape without worrying someone would wander off without my laser-focused attention. Spencer lifted the binoculars around his neck, scanning the horizon for signs of the Antares rocket lifting off from 100 miles away. We could be — just a little bit — alone together.

Salt carried up on a gusty winter breeze. I let it muss and draw out my long, tangled hair, finally recovered from my COVID cut. I felt more like myself again. A stronger self, even.

After the winter of our discontent? I needed this. … And was so grateful for it.

Warm-mug moments

Just before my kids closed their eyes last Saturday night, I broke one of parenting’s Ten Commandments: Though Shalt Not Make Promises For Things Out of One’s Control.

What can I say? I’m a silver-haired, tired mom rebel.

“Guys, it’s going to snow tomorrow!” I blabbed.

My son immediately looked up, eyes shining. “Enough to have a snowball fight?” he asked eagerly.

“Enough to make a snowman?” his sister echoed.

Yes! I boomed. Absolutely!

Like I could control the weather. Though I would if I could for my children, of course.

Oliver and Hadley have been talking about a good snow since Hadley’s interest in “Frozen” began in earnest last year. We were all ecstatic when a dusting fell on Christmas Day, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had magically appeared. No snowballs. No snowmen.

Last weekend’s “storm” — all of three inches — was the most the Washington region had received in two years. And on a weekend! By Monday, I was frowning at the same scene while contemplating my commute. Icy Tuesday was even worse. My second vaccine dose was scheduled for 9:20 a.m., and I had an hour-long drive ahead of me. “Be cautious, but drive with confidence!” encouraged my boss, an Ohio native made of sterner stuff than me. But I took her advice seriously, white-knuckle coasting most of the way south. I arrived for my shot just in time.

But none of that worry was served on my Sunday plate. I was immensely proud that I’d remembered to buy hot chocolate mix, thinking of how my dad always made cocoa with tiny marshmallows after my sister and I “helped” clear the driveway. I can still feel the ice coating the hem of my jeans before I had slipped into sweatpants, bounding downstairs to find that special treat waiting.

I want to create warm-mug moments with my children. At five and three, I’ve already seen how simultaneously fast and slow these years have gone. I’m fascinated by the idea that any of these simple events could actually solidify, proving to be the kids’ earliest memories. How can I make them good ones?

Through the pandemic, I probably join many parents in believing I have not been my best self. While I try to enjoy the little things, day-to-day life cannot be separated from the fear and heaviness of everything else happening in the world. I’ve had so much on my mind lately. We all have.

And yet. Already the boots purchased in anticipation of a day like this were snug on my children’s feet. I’m Mom, not Mommy, and the last of the toddler clothes have all been packed away.

We jumped into the moment. My husband, a New Yorker also made of stern winter stuff, packed snowballs and chased the kids on a gleeful mission. Each time they ducked behind a vehicle or skittered around a corner, Spence found a way to arc the snowball into a hit. Even Ollie, who hates being cold or wet or uncomfortable in any way, tolerated these hijinks. Enjoyed them, even.

After we’d all had our fill, cheeks red and toes chilled, we shuffled inside and shucked wet jackets just inside the door. I wrestled Hadley and Ollie upstairs for warm baths while Spencer got to work over the stove. By the time we returned, the kids’ hair damp and eyes shining, Spence had prepared four mugs of cocoa — with tiny marshmallows. It tasted like simple happiness, with memories settled at the bottom like coarse sugar.

We hadn’t received enough to build a snowman, as I’d naively promised … but we definitely made good on the snowball fight.

And you can’t go wrong with a day ending in chocolate.

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.