Bottled-up emotions

Bottles

After four years of faithful service, we have said goodbye to Dr. Brown.

The bottle rack that took up real estate next to our sink has been scrubbed clean, along with the dozens of bottle parts and vents and unused scrub brushes and … well, all the accoutrements. And I do mean all of them.

The kitchen counter looks naked now. We hadn’t even lived in our house a year when Oliver was born. The sudden appearance of baby bottles — bottles on tables; bottles in bags; bottles always, always, always in the sink — was a reminder of how different our lives had become overnight.

When Ollie had been home a month or so, I remember standing bleary-eyed in front of the sink. We have a bank of windows in that sunny corner of the kitchen, and the day looked beautiful. Everything was green. Lush. Early summer. And I could barely absorb any of it, as trapped as I felt indoors.

Is this my life now? I thought.

I was still hand-washing baby bottles then. That seemed like what I “should” be doing. I was so screwed up, so weighed down with exhaustion and anxiety … but for some reason, I was adamant — obsessive, even — about cleaning these bottles by hand, as if that time-consuming process was penance for not feeling all the sparkly-glowy feelings of new motherhood.

It got better, of course. Mostly because I got better. It’s hard to talk about postpartum anxiety, even though I feel like I’ve told a million women before and since that they should never be afraid to ask for help. I was afraid to ask for help. I couldn’t find the words, even with my own husband. Our story had the added complication of preeclampsia and prematurity, and I felt so guilty for feeling anything but grateful that we were both frickin’ alive that it really … just complicated things. Everything.

A stigma remains around mental health — around the raw vulnerability of saying you are struggling, especially as a new parent. It’s supposed to be *~the HaPPieSt time of your LiFe*~ and to admit that taking care of a baby 24/7 can really suck isn’t a popular opinion.

Still, it’s true. I love my children dearly, it goes without saying, but I have struggled. The newborn years have been hard. But in time, sunshine began to filter through the fog … and here we are, almost four years later, and there’s nothing I look forward to more than coming home each day to the pounding of toddler feet running to meet me at the door. (Except maybe a piece of chocolate cake after they go to bed, but that’s another story.)

Hadley is sassy and wild and hilarious, learning so much every day. Oliver is opinionated and observant and incredibly smart, and I love our morning chats and bedtime stories and the way he tucks his head onto my shoulder at the end of a busy day.

With Hadley now fully transitioned to a cup, the “babas” had to go. Spencer was the one to make that executive decision. I was very wistful as I packed up the last of her 24-month bodysuits, neatly sorting our daughter’s new 2T shirts into piles in the top drawer of her dresser, but I could do it.

The bottles were another story, though. They have literally been with us from day one. I felt very tender toward Dr. Brown and his special bottles as we prepped everything to pass along. For as much as my husband and I have dreaded washing all the individual parts, they have served us well. Seen us through hard times. Been entrenched in the very origin story of the Johnson family of three, then four.

It’s the end of an era. But that “naked” corner of the kitchen is already filling with hair ties used to wrangle Hadley’s wild curls, boxes of cookies, Ollie’s PJ Masks toothbrush. New treasures seem to filter in every day.

Hadley’s Minnie Mouse cup is the new mainstay, and I have zero qualms about putting that baby in the dishwasher.

The relentless march of time does have its advantages.

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The hush of a snowy Sunday

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Winter is my least favorite season, but even I will admit there is something magical about watching children as they watch snow.

We got about eight inches last week — unusual for Maryland. Generally the weather is mild here, and we’ve gotten spoiled by some exceptionally warm winters. It’s almost like we get to skip that season entirely.

Every now and then, though, Mother Nature rears up and reminds us who is really in charge here. Our snowfall came last Saturday into Sunday and, though we had lingering closures and commuting chaos into Monday, it wasn’t too stressful.

I welcomed the reminder to slow down. The holidays were so stressful this year. Much of that was self-imposed, I know, but I have struggled terribly with the sickness that is trying to make holidays “perfect” since my first child was born.

I have a hard time just letting things . . . be what they are. To accept that I don’t have to do All the Things, and my children would be just as happy with cardboard boxes as toys. We’re trying to raise them to be kind, empathetic, generous people, and mountains of presents aren’t in keeping with that goal. They’re not in keeping with anything I want to be about these days, actually.

Still: the pressure. Commercial. Societal. I work in marketing; it’s not like I’m unaware of advertising and messaging. I know how important it is to surround ourselves with positive energy that keeps us feeling strong and confident in our choices.

But when I looked at the small-ish pile of gifts under the tree — gifts my husband and I had carefully chosen for our son and daughter; ones we thought they would really enjoy, not just “stuff” to check the box of “Lots of Stuff for Christmas” — I had this pang of . . . not-doing-enough-ness. A sense that somehow I hadn’t delivered.

That is ridiculous, of course. I do know that. I spent hours planning for, decorating, baking and organizing for Christmas, because everyone knows mothers make the magic happen. And I have very acutely felt the sense of needing to measure up. And that, somehow, I’m not.

I’ve been sitting with these feelings lately, wondering where they come from. What I can do about them. Basically I’m a giant stress ball, and that doesn’t make me a good . . . anything. Partner, parent, employee. So many roles and responsibilities.

My anxiety is usually the root cause, but I actually feel like I have a decent handle on that lately. This is less the panicky fight-or-flight feeling I’m used to, and more just a general unease that I’m not keeping all the plates spinning. That a few are about to fall.

I’ve been reading Breathe, Mama, Breathe by Shonda Moralis — one of approximately 2,000 parenting self-help books I own, but have never made the time to crack open. It’s quick and helpful. I actually meditated for the first time this morning, sitting in our bedroom closet — the only place I can guarantee I will have five minutes to myself — and sat on the floor, emptying my mind until I was just a breathing person. A real living, breathing person.

What a miraculous thing that is.

It felt a little silly at first, but it wasn’t as hard to clear my thoughts as I expected. I’ve been needing a way to take a broom to the ol’ cobwebs in my mind, clearing away much of the useless clutter and trying to focus more on living in the moment.

Oliver will be four this spring, and Hadley almost two. They change so much every day and seem to grow overnight.

I need to be present. Present so I can enjoy it.

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Spence and I took them out into the snow last Sunday, tying on boots and knotting scarves and stuffing hats over curls. It was cold and wet and I hate both of those things, but I pulled on my long coat and joined them.

Hadley was delighted, sticking out her little paws to feel the cold flakes on her fingers and blinking as they dusted her face. Oliver tromped around in his Columbia boots, looking for all the world like an explorer who had recently discovered a new land.

And it occurred to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I have spent so much time standing behind them — arms outstretched in case they fall. But both my son and daughter walk more confidently now. I was amazed at how quickly they took off on uneven ground.

I was grateful for that simple, quiet moment: one that involved nothing but happy kids and heavy coats, a hushed afternoon and warm home to reenter when we were ready.

I haven’t felt sad that a soft January has followed sparkly, edgy, frenetic December.

I know how to appreciate quiet these days.

A soft place to land

Playground

File it under “Things I’ve Had to Get Used to as a Parent.”

That’s a pretty thick folder.

Spending time outside is a way of life. This wouldn’t be a problem except I hate to sweat, can’t deal with bugs, and feel my skin sizzling to a nice red crisp within .10 seconds of being exposed to daylight.

My kids, of course, love it. Hadley adores being in her stroller and swinging the hours away. Ollie, too, loves running around like a nut, getting good and sweaty, and catapulting himself down the slide.

Well, “catapulting” is a little strong. Much to his anxious mother’s relief, Oliver is a pretty cautious kid. He doesn’t leap from couches or reach out to hot stoves. My three-year-old takes me at my word when I tell him something is “dangerous,” and one of the first two-word phrases he strung together was “be careful!”

I struggle often with the push/pull of my anxiety and letting my children be children. What constitutes a legitimate danger, and what is simply a normal part of growing up? It takes all my willpower — a lot of willpower — not to shadow my kids like the proverbial monkey on their back. I’m glad that Oliver runs around at “school” without me, because I don’t think I could handle seeing him on monkey bars.

We went to the playground yesterday, and it was the first time I spent most of my time on the ground instead of squeezing myself into child-sized spaces. Oliver climbed a kid-friendly rock wall and went down a tall slide. Without me.

It was a big moment.

Anxiety confuses and deceives you, making everything feel like a fight-or-flight situation. Being a parent has meant I must get used to stepping back and letting my kids get dirty and sweaty and potentially bruised.

I don’t like it. It goes against my very nature. But I can step outside my nervousness and realize that “protection” is an illusion. No one can be protected all the time.

All we can do is be there to guide them.

And remain a soft place to land.

 

 

 

The Pup Invasion: A Parent’s Lament

Only Paw Patrol

To be honest, I’m not even sure how it happened.

There was life before “PAW Patrol,” and now we’re stuck in the painful after. A place in which time has no meaning, because all that exists in my 3-year-old’s world are Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble … and rice with butter, his primary food group.

Up in the morning? “PAW Patrol.” Last request at night? “PAW Patrol.” Bedtime stories feature even more tales about “the pups.” While I’ll admit to feeling my heart melt at Ollie’s request for “Good Morning, Adventure Bay,” which he says in a distinctly Ollie-like way that would be impossible to type out, I’m generally annoyed by the whole Nickelodeon-funded mess.

Oliver has had plenty of obsessions before. There were tractors, of course, and the ongoing love of farming equipment. Back when his vocabulary was limited to things like “up” and “milk,” “tractor” somehow worked its way in there.

And then we had “The Muppets,” all we watched for the first year of his life, followed by “Big Hero 6” and “The Lorax.” Now he’s especially into Blippi, a true icon amongst the Pull-Up set.

And those? I’ve been fine with those. See, unlike those programs, which have some vague humor that lets adults tolerate — or even enjoy — them,  “PAW Patrol” is just mind-melting. Boring. Colorful, but in an “assault on the senses” kind of way. 

I love the pro-“PAW Patrol” message that pops up before every episode, too. Going on missions with the pups helps children think critically! Encourages teamwork! Builds character! We’re basically curing cancer over here!

Look, Nick: you don’t have to try to make us feel good about this. I know my kids spend far too much time in front of a screen already. I put “PAW Patrol” on because it encourages my toddler to sit in one place long enough for me to mop up the milk he spilled or comfort the sister he pushed. I know it ain’t about the teamwork, OK?

I’ve tried placing limits on how much we’re tagging along with Ryder et. al., but the truth is that Oliver just really loves this show. Hadley tolerates it, so we alternate with episodes of “Sesame Street” because we’re learning all about “taking turns.”

When the kids fall asleep, Spence passes out on the couch and I finally have the remote all to myself, I usually … turn the TV off. I have a DVR full of shows I’ve stockpiled, but I rarely have the energy or focus to enjoy any of them. I’m trying to start reading again (slow process), and I give that preference.

But mostly? I crave silence. Space. My sister makes fun of how low we keep the volume on our TV, but all the noise — so much noise — coming at us all day just gets to be too much. By 10 p.m., I’m done. I want the darkness and nothingness. I might even need it.

I’ve even found myself turning off my car radio and driving in silence. The quiet helps me scrape some thoughts together. I actually do my best thinking on my morning commute.

Probably because that’s the only time my husband and I don’t have furry problem-solving guests in our home.

“PAW Patrol” is annoying, but I know it’s just a phase. Oliver will soon move on to the next toddler fever dream. Hadley will advance from Elmo to “Doc McStuffins” or something similar, and pretty soon we’ll have a rumble going on in the living room.

Or maybe we’ll actually … go outside. Just for a little bit. Blow some bubbles. Take a walk. Decorate the driveway with my mediocre chalk designs and Ollie’s scribbles.

It’s almost summer. Even with my husband and I working full-time and the kids in day care, it still feels like a lighter, freer season.

The perfect time to step back from the screens.

I promise I’ll try.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.