End of an era

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A warm rain started just as I hopped out of my minivan, but nothing could dampen my spirits.

Hauling the box to customer service, the masked Target cashier greeted me with the customary eye-smile of 2020.

“Hi! I have a return,” I began, trying to contain my glee. We processed the run-of-the-mill transaction: scanning barcodes, digging around for my Red card. I stayed quiet, willing myself to not act like a weirdo, but it still burbled out.

“We’re finally done with diapers!” I said. “Five and a half years!”

As the Target associate moved the unopened box of Pull-Ups, she offered me an air high-five. I resisted the urge to turn to all the random people at check-out and sing it from the rooftops: everyone in my house is using the bathroom!

Ah, good times.

Toilet troubles have preoccupied our home life for ages. True to his extra nature, Oliver was nearly four before he was using the facilities full-time. He told me it was “boring” to use the bathroom, and he didn’t want to stop building his tower or smashing his monster trucks long enough to bother. But once Ollie was done with Pull-Ups/diapers, he was done. He’s hardly had an accident since.

Hadley has been much more interested in transitioning out of diapers since her cousin, Leo, arrived this spring. Not wanting to be lumped into the “baby” category definitely helped her take potty-training seriously. My girl also just seems more susceptible to peer pressure in general. All the big kids use the potty, we say — a tactic that had zero impact on her brother, but will prompt an indignant Hadley to shuffle into the restroom every time.

Because the kids arrived less than two years apart, there has never been a time in our parenting that someone didn’t need a diaper change. In fact, for two years, we had two kids to wrestle. It wasn’t pretty … as I’m sure you know yourself, or can imagine.

But we did it!

I know better than to prematurely celebrate anything with kids, but I feel confident shouting this from the rooftops (er — writing about it publicly) because we’ve gone months with very few accidents. We haven’t touched a diaper since June. Returning the box of Pull-Ups felt a bit like tempting fate, but we’re three days removed from my Target run and doing fine.

I’m proud of Hadley for quickly embracing a “new normal.” I’m proud of Oliver for eventually putting an end to our toilet stalemate. I’m proud of Spencer and I for surviving five and a half years of diapering without going into the poorhouse.

Mainly, I’m just happy to be entering a new era of parenting — especially combined with the fact that the kids can now get their own juice boxes, open their own snacks, and play favorite games on their tablets without me hovering nearby to click for them.

That last one is definitely #modernparenting … but hey.

A win is a win.

Hunting-birds in summer showers

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“Mom, can we look for hunting-birds?”

It was hot. Sticky. Thunder rippled overhead, randomly spooking my five-year-old. Oliver dashed inside. But his three-year-old sister was looking up at me, curls damp and eyes hopeful.

Dropping lunch bags and tote bags, junk mail and travel mugs, the kids and I settled on the porch while the mosquito welcoming committee rushed to greet us. I cringed. My idea of spending time in nature is ordering chips and salsa on an outdoor patio. But we’ve all taken a new interest in fresh air, rain, space. Our world got smaller this year.

My husband hung bird feeders years ago, around the time we first moved in. But working from home since the spring, and with little to distract from the kid mess and “Floogals” on loop, Spence has really committed to refreshing them. Every few days he’s pulling them down and mixing up a sugar solution, carefully rehanging them under the eye of watchful bird-neighbors.

The hummingbirds — Hadley’s <i>hunting-birds</i> — seem to be everywhere. Several duke it out for the prized feeder on the porch; others have laid claim to the back deck, where they alternate sips and squawk at one another. We can see them from our family table or Spencer’s desk in the office. He often took the kids out to watch the birds during COVID, when the days stretched with uncertainty. I was at work, watching drive-through lines for COVID testing stretch around my hospital building.

Oliver and Hadley’s daycare reopened two months ago. We worried about what to do, talking through multiple variations of the same thing … and ultimately decided it was best for everyone to settle them back in such a familiar and comfortable setting. And, you know … suffice it to say that everyone’s sanity felt like it hung in the balance.

So they’ve been happily back amongst some teachers and friends — back and as socially-distant as possible, anyway — since late June. The routines have been wonderful for everyone. Already I feel like those strange, scary first days have receded a bit in the mist. Everyone is happier; everything feels a little lighter. My anxiety dreams spin up less and less often.

COVID isn’t gone, of course. Of course. Face masks are now a staple of daily life, like temperature checks. So much of what would seemed absolutely unthinkable six months ago — canceling weddings, suspending sports, making all-important black-tie fundraisers “virtual” — is now all just so … unsurprising. Disappointing, yes. But just part of life in a pandemic.

As we’ve tiptoed into a “new normal” (do you hate that overused-but-apt phrase as much as I do?), at least for the moment, there are certainly glimmers through the rain. I now pick up the kids after school, and we talk all the way home. Before, with Spence on pick-up duty, I’d drag myself into a chaotic house with children already glued to tablets. “How was your day?” went largely unignored.

It doesn’t now. And we move slower. Each day begins with a kiss on the forehead — part affection, part diagnostic — and breakfast: string cheese for Hadley, pancakes for Oliver. I hug my husband in the doorway, step out into the heat. Begin the first of my two full-time jobs, starting the second as soon as I see those sweet faces again.

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On Wednesday, the day after a tropical storm ravaged the next county over, the air was damp and heavy. Hadley asked to see the hunting-birds. I felt the bugs clustering on my exposed ankles, then thought of the constellation of bites that would soon dot my skin.

But already I’m often “Mom,” not Mommy. Little hands don’t seek mine quite as much. I don’t remember the last time a child fell asleep in my arms (not counting my four-month-old nephew). And I think — fingers crossed! — that we’ve officially changed our last diapers … five-and-a-half long years after changing our first. (Not exactly sad about that, though.)

So we sank into our hand-me-down porch furniture — Oliver tall in a chair, Hadley and I snuggled on a bench. I tried to ignore the cobweb threads on my elbows while we watched the feeder intently. At one point we heard a mad buzzing, and my daughter and I jumped. The hummingbird was just a blur.

Spencer soon crept out. As our resident avian expert, he pointed out the tiny bodies bouncing between tree limbs. They were clearly watching us, too.

“Let’s try to be really quiet,” he whispered to our two squirming children — and me. “If we wait patiently, I bet they’ll come over.”

It took a few minutes. Thunder rumbled, but distant now — music from a storm that wouldn’t come. Hadley rested her head on my arm; Ollie settled his hand on the other.

And then, they did come. There and gone in mere seconds, but hovering enough for us all to clearly admire them. The iridescent green hummingbird, an emerald flash, was my favorite. Oliver was so excited that he jumped up, exclaiming that he needed his video camera (an Adam Goldberg in the making, for sure). The moment ended as Oliver lost it after he couldn’t find said camera … but calm moments these days are all precious.

“I love that smell,” said my husband, grinning as a soft rain started. “And I love that sound — just a summer rain falling.”

I didn’t know the last time I heard it. Or smelled it. Or … really noticed it at all.

“Me too,” I said, and mean it.

 

#COVIDCut: An anxious wife, a helpful husband, and the bob that brought them together.

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With non-essential businesses shuttered in Maryland for the foreseeable future, some of us are taking matters into our own hands.

Matters of hair, anyway.

In the scheme of the COVID-19 crisis, being unable to get a trim is certainly small potatoes. Like most of us, I’ve been more concerned with finding toilet paper and bananas than any matter of grooming. (Don’t even get me started on trying to find “PAW Patrol” mac-and-cheese cups for my picky children.)

Generally speaking, I’m pretty low-maintenance. Though I’ve considered coloring my hair many times, I haven’t bitten the bullet yet to cover up the grays. My nails are plain, unadorned. I get an occasional pedicure, but that’s an easy one to go without.

When I decide I need a haircut, though, I need a haircut. Do not pass go. Do not ignore the need to chop.

That’s been my M.O. throughout adulthood: let it grow until it annoys me, then go in for the chop. My wavy, frizzy locks recently extended well past my shoulders. I’ve often thought about combing out my hair and trimming it myself. How hard could it be? Save myself $40. Be done with it.

My sincere apologies to the stylists of the world.

Last Saturday, I woke up with that itchy I need my hair cut feeling. I could have ignored it; this is a time of sacrifice, after all. I haven’t seen my family in six weeks. I “met” my sister’s new baby through FaceTime. I submit to a daily temperature check and wear a mask all day at my hospital P.R. job. I’ve been walking around with a pit of dread in my stomach since early March, worrying that I’m risking my health and that of my family each time I leave for said job. And I can’t even freakin’ wander the aisles of Target to relax.

So I wanted my hair cut. I just did.

With apologies for the sappiness, my husband is something of a renaissance man. There isn’t much he can’t do when he focuses on it and studies up. Of course, these tasks are usually in the realm of building custom-made flag boxes, repairing busted pipes, or solving the mysteries of life and the universe as a physicist . . . still.

I first floated the idea like a joke. “What would you think if I asked you to cut my hair?” I asked.

Spencer’s eyes widened.

“Just a trim,” I added. “Nothing complicated. I just really, really want it cut.”

I’ve asked a lot of the man over the years. Perhaps I’d now asked too much.

Still, I wanted the idea to percolate. I went to take a shower.

Twenty minutes later, I combed out my messy locks and eyed myself in the mirror. Yes, it was time.

I texted my husband from upstairs. Calling down would have alerted our children to my presence. They would immediately run in and paw through my cosmetics, inadvertently snapping jewelry and scattering beads like confetti. The kids don’t mean to be destructive, exactly, but they’re … busy. Creative. Relentless. Five-year-old Oliver, in particular, is the very definition of bull in a china closet.

Sooo what do you think about cutting my hair? I texted. Is that crazy?

My husband had apparently been downstairs looking up at-home haircut tutorials on YouTube. He found one of an adorable curly-haired woman who made it look easy-peasy.

I think I can, he wrote.

Dripping with confidence, then, Spence and the kids piled upstairs.

I started to chicken out when my husband grabbed the scissors usually reserved for his beard-trimming. I can’t say they were particularly sharp. Spence pulled up the YouTube video for me. It did look fairly simple … when someone else was doing it, anyway.

“Is this a good idea?” I asked, grimacing.

Spence shrugged. “It’s totally up to you. I mean, I’m willing to try it.”

“But do you feel good about it?” I pressed.

He gave me a look.

Well. We’d made it that far.

I offered my one piece of advice — fateful advice, as it turned out: just not too short.

We worked on getting my now half-dry hair damp with a spray bottle. Hadley and Oliver sprinted into our closet — usually an off-limits zone — to begin wreaking havoc. I sat on the edge of the bathtub with my back to my husband, who tentatively combed out my wild waves.

In hindsight, I really wasn’t nervous — and I probably should have been. The man is just so calm in a crisis, you know? I have never doubted that Spencer could build, repair, or transform his way out of any challenge.

But can he cut hair?

“Just a trim,” I said, over and over — an incantation, a prayer. “Just a trim. Don’t go crazy.”

How bad could it be?

I tilted my head forward, just as my longtime hairdresser would have instructed at my first cut-and-style at Nancy’s Beauty Shop circa 1994. I dug deep into my limited knowledge — reminding Spence to work in sections, checking to see if it was even.

The one thing I failed to mention? The critical information that my husband, having never cut hair before, had no way of knowing? Wavy hair shrinks as it dries.

As the snip, snip, snip of the scissors began in earnest, I did feel lighter. My hair is heavy and constantly in my face. When I’m busy or stressed, pulling my hair up is my first act to regain control. As it’s been growing, I’ve found myself depending more and more on the ol’ mom bun to just get it out of my eyes.

I couldn’t see anything while Spencer was working. If I had, I would have noticed one child strutting around naked in my boots (wha?), and the other buttoned up in about 10 dress shirts with a necklace as a belt. Hangers were tossed with abandon, along with my tops and sweaters. I peeked out a few times just to see a cackling kid striking a pose, walking foal-like in high heels. They fought. The hollering was deafening, as usual.

Through this chaos, Spence kept his focus. He was done within minutes. “Don’t look yet,” he cautioned, brushing hair off my back. “Let me just … ”

With eager fingers, I reached up to touch my hair.

And … there was none.

Well, OK — that’s clearly not true. There was some hair. But my “just a trim”? “Shoulder-length”?

I had a bob.

have a bob.

Fighting the panic that was causing me to nervous-chuckle, I kept a smile on my face. Though I shouldn’t have been, maybe, I was truly shocked. My hair was in dark piles all over the bathroom floor. I hadn’t gone for a chop this severe since I went for the standard I’m-going-to-be-a-mom utilitarian cut shortly before my first child was born. I barely recognized myself.

When the kids rounded the corner again (still nude, in one case), they literally froze. “Mommy!” Hadley shrieked, again and again. “Your hair! Look at your hair!

“Don’t worry — I’ll share growth potion,” offered Ollie, referring to a “salon” app on his tablet that lets you try new looks … with hilarious results.

Like mine, apparently.

“It’s OK, guys. I like it!” I chirped, meeting my frightened husband’s eyes in the mirror. “It’s … different! I feel lighter. It’s good! It’s all good.”

Spencer looked genuinely scared.

“It’s fine!” I soothed, now feeling badly that I’d put him in that position. “Really. I like it. I just … not too short, I said.”

“I didn’t think I was cutting it short! I was using your shoulders as a guide … or the base of your neck. What … happened? It was so much longer wet.”

Right.

“Curly hair shrinks,” I added weakly. “I thought you … I didn’t realize you didn’t know that. I guess it’s just something I’ve never not known, and I’ve never had to explain it before.”

I thought Spence was going to puke.

“Guess I missed that part in cosmetology school,” he joked.

As the day went on, it seemed to get shorter. I kept catching a glimpse of myself and remembering all over again.

I loved the way it felt, but not necessarily the way it looked. Much of that has to do with my own longtime hang-ups about my face looking plumper with short hair — more of an emphasis on full cheeks, a full chin.

But I’ve worked hard to get past that nonsense. And you know what? Hair grows.

At a time when everyone is beginning to rock luscious locks and turning to DIY hair color, I thought about warning my coworkers before I strolled in Monday morning. The change was … dramatic. And since I was still trying to accept it myself, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give everyone a heads-up.

I forgot, though — until I walked in to find my boss at her desk early the next day. She looked up and gasped.

“Your hair!”

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I’ve heard that quite a bit this week. And I’ve told this story, in part, quite a bit this week.

I’m calling it my #COVIDCut. Or #CoronaCut. I’m not alone.

A friend said I look like a flapper, and I dug that — whether or not it’s even half true.

The Roaring Twenties … 2020s version.

Well, the decade certainly is off to a memorable start.

Masked

 

I finally cried yesterday.

Save many a hormonal-fueled sob fest when I was pregnant, I’m not really a crier. My pain and anxieties manifest in other ways. So when the tears pooled and finally spilled, breaking the COVID-19 emotional dam I’ve been heaving around, I was surprised. And suddenly exhausted.

But I needed to get it out.

Yesterday was my first day wearing a mask full-time at the hospital. Working in a separate office far from patient care, I hadn’t been required nor compelled to wear one all the time — not at my own desk, in the office I share with just one person. But I do now. It feels like “it” — coronavirus, germs, illness, something — is lurking and, if I slip up just once, it’s coming for me next.

As one of millions of people who grapple with anxiety and OCD under normal circumstances, I’ve found the pandemic to be an interesting mix of eerie calm (my anxiety helps me function sharply in fight-or-flight situations) and total alarm (my anxiety exaggerates all dangers, or invents them completely).

Talking to my husband at the end of a long day, I realized where part of my panic was coming from: the mask itself. Being masked all day reminds me of being in labor with Oliver, when I was sick and terrified and had to wear an oxygen mask for the duration of my 15-hour labor and delivery.

I’m claustrophobic, and the oxygen mask overwhelmed me. I kept trying to rip it off so I could breathe, goddammit, but of course I couldn’t. Every scream, every shout, every cry was muffled and held tightly in that plastic pressed to my face. I didn’t have my glasses on; everything was blurred and strange. One of my sharpest memories after that ordeal was my relief when someone finally removed the mask so I could squint at the amorphous shape of my tiny baby, blindly pressing a kiss to his forehead before he was NICU-bound. Then the mask was back.

Approaching Oliver’s 5th birthday next week, my mind would have already been turning over and over these difficult memories — heavy stones now worn smooth with handling. This year is easier, because more time has passed; this year is harder, because we’re all cooped up now. Distractions are scarce.

Now that Spencer and I talked through why the mask has been freaking me out so much, I think I can accept that it was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. When I let myself shed some tears — for the past, for the changed present, for the unknown future — and accepted that I don’t have to always be so relentlessly optimistic during a worldwide pandemic, I can dust myself off and begin again.

Today is a new day. It’s Friday. Weekends don’t have much meaning at the moment, but I’ll be home with my family and helping my husband, who is shouldering so much of the parenting load right now.

The sky is tinged with dusky rose and pastel blue. I’m wearing a new necklace. In an hour or so, my children will be giggling while their dad makes breakfast and I pull into the hospital’s parking lot.

I’ll slip the mask over my ears, take a muffled breath, and go on.

Perfectly-imperfect holidays

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It took forever, but it’s back.

For the first time since becoming a parent almost five years ago (!), I’m looking forward to this holiday with a sense of excitement. Anticipation.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas … only the expectation and exhaustion that can come with Dec. 25. After getting married and welcoming our first child, the mounting pressure of the holidays — throwing the perfect holiday! choosing the best gifts! making the happiest memories! — was too much for my already-overloaded brain to handle.

Grappling with postpartum anxiety, the pressure of the Year of Firsts — baby’s first everything, all needing to be commemorated lest the memories disappear into the sands of time — felt like another way I was failing as a mom.

Also, I was exhausted. All new parents are tired, but I was not prepared for the way that would impact every aspect of my life. Ollie woke constantly, on the hour, and I didn’t feel like a human being for years after this birth.

I didn’t think I was doing things “right.” Not for a long time. But when I learned I was expecting my second child, I knew I had to pull it together. I didn’t want to focus more on documenting the moment than actually living in it … and I wanted to enjoy Hadley’s first year in a way that I couldn’t with Ollie.

And I did.

I got better.

Medication helped. Talking helped. The passage of time helped. Also: sleep helped. For the love of snow-covered pinecones, our children finally sleep through the night ( … mostly, but we’ll take it).

So this year? I’m ready. Ready to embrace that holiday spirit. The kids are at great ages — 2 ½, 4 ½ — to peer into the darkness searching for the neighbors’ Christmas lights and eagerly anticipate Santa’s arrival. We decorated right after Thanksgiving, pulling everything out after I got home from work on Black Friday.

And that’s also how I knew I was better: I was too excited to wait any longer.

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So here it is: my Christmas spirit blowing through the front door on a gusty winter breeze — with advent calendars and elves on shelves, matching pajamas, hot cocoa . . . every jinglin’ thing.

As we dragged holiday box after box up from the basement, another surprising thing happened: the little hands reaching for fragile things did not bother me much.

Hadley and Ollie were so excited to start hanging ornaments that, within reason, I just … let it be.

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A year ago, my compulsive need to make everything “just so” would have meant plucking those delicate bulbs to place on a top branch, far from tiny fingers.

I would have been more preoccupied with making something “perfect” than creating so much that is pleasantly imperfect.

I’ve found lots of resources on what it means to be the child of a parent with OCD, but I’ve been a little too scared to delve deeply into what it means to be the mother herself. (I do relate deeply to articles like this one.)

I’m making progress … I know I am. I wouldn’t let any of the ornaments get purposefully broken, but I wanted the kids to enjoy the decorating process. Heck — I wanted to enjoy the process. When Hadley hung a third ornament on one scraggly branch, I didn’t interfere. And as Ollie collected all the red ones into a clump, I praised his creativity. I did not tidy.

Sometimes the OCD loosens its grip and I’m fine. Most of my need to “fix” seems to revolve around right angles, of all things: if I see a book or a box, for example, I need it to be flush against another surface, never askew. (Straightening a business card-sized calendar on my desk is a particular obsession.)

The tree has few angles, so I’m happy to let it reflect the kids’ creativity. I want our family tree to be an explosion of color and memories. I love the handprints on canvas, the popsicle art, the painted preschool creations. Some of the pieces are my own handiwork (circa 1989), while others are Spencer’s from childhood. Even more precious are the pieces passed down from my great-grandmother: hand-crocheted trees with lots of memories.

That’s Christmas to me: family and festivities. Tinsel-covered bits of holiday magic.

Plus, you know … the cookies. Joyfully eaten with my kids by our lopsided Christmas tree while the Elf on the Shelf looks on.

And to all a good night.

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!