Like mother, like son — or why I’ll never get my face wet in the shower

Our son has always been “extra.”

I don’t know how else to describe it. Well, actually, with lots and lots of parenting books dog-eared on my nightstand … I guess I do. Oliver is relentless, dogged, determined, laser-focused. He is perceptive, bright, curious, hilarious. In a word, Ollie is spirited.

Being our first child, one who arrived eight weeks early, Oliver came with no frame of reference or guide for his dad and me. Is it normal for babies to scream for hours on end? Is it colic? Gas? Is he cold? Wet? Hungry? Teething? Hot? … Why is he so mad?

When Ollie was around six months old, he once cried so hard for so long that my husband and I took him to the Emergency Room at two o’clock in the morning. I was delirious, despondent — I literally had no idea what was wrong, where to begin, how to help. I thought he must have broken a bone or something … without my noticing. Because I was a terrible mother. Obviously.

Ollie turned out to have a fever that eventually bloomed into hand foot mouth virus — the first of many illnesses in that first year that tested the limits of my sanity. He recovered well, thank goodness.

I did not.

The ER night was the eve of our second wedding anniversary. We’d planned for a day spent just the two of us — something we desperately needed, and I’d been looking forward to. Obviously a sick baby meant we were staying home, and I felt more isolated than I ever had.

It did not help, of course, that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression. Or that I was embarrassed to still be feeling rattled from Ollie’s premature birth and month in the NICU. I knew I “should” feel grateful to have survived such an ordeal with a healthy child, particularly as I began hearing so many terribly sad stories from the preeclampsia community.

Instead, I just felt jumpy, exhausted, and awful.

Having a baby who never seemed to just freakin’ relax and be a baby … that magnified everything else.

“Are we doing this wrong?” I kept asking Spencer, looking at friends’ infants curled up like sleeping cherubs in the middle of a boisterous get-together.

“Why is everything so hard?” my husband would whisper back, turning to face me in the darkness over the wails of a child who wouldn’t — couldn’t — rest.

One crystallized memory of this also happened around the ER night. We’d gone to visit Spencer’s friends for a baby shower. At six months old, I assumed Ollie would sleep in the car for the hour-ish ride there and also snooze on the way back to a family birthday party.

Two events in six hours. Two loud, packed events in a very pre-COVID world — with folks smashed in, passing Ollie around, cooing at the first grandchild and great-grandchild in our family.

We left my grandparents’ house way past Oliver’s normal “bedtime,” whatever that was. And he cried. And cried. And cried. He screamed for so long that I wound up stumbling outside in the dark, barefoot, just to get away from the noise. I felt like I was losing my mind.

“I need a minute,” I said, over and over. I need a minute. I need a minute.

“I need a minute” has become my catchphrase. I find myself saying it so often that Hadley actually incorporates it into her dolls’ conversations.

I need a minute, I say, and then I come back. Of course. And I came back then, holding Ollie and rocking him and murmuring in his ear. We gave him a bath, hoping the warm water would quiet his screams … and it did. Eventually, he passed out.

“You know, I think he’s overstimulated,” I remember saying — a word that shot out like a lightning bolt.

Overstimulated. Where did that even come from?

Takes one to know one, I suppose.

Ollie didn’t have the vocabulary to tell us something was too loud, or hot, or bright. Even now, when those things are weighing heavily upon him, I don’t think he realizes they are. He just knows something is “off.” Something feels wrong. Maybe it’s a scratchy tag in the back of his T-shirt, or socks with a seam that sits strangely on his toes. Maybe it’s a TV cranked past a comfortable level, fireworks cracking overhead, or a slice of cake with a crumbly texture he wasn’t anticipating.

No matter the source, these are the things that turn Oliver’s emotional regulation down to zero. Anything upsetting the apple cart becomes the impetus for a black-hole of a meltdown — one born of exhaustion and intense frustration.

Those are the rough ones. Hard to pull out of.

Oliver is 5 1/2 now. He is a loving, sensitive, clever kid … and every bit as intense as he was during his baby- and toddler-hood. Demanding. Serious. Relentless.

I know all kids go through the sorts of “no, I need the green cup, not the blue cup!” phases. And I know this because our second child, Hadley, is firmly there now. But Hadley does not fall into a well of despair if you ask her to wear jeans. Or a jacket is too tight, or too warm, or too scratchy. Or the milk she was expecting at a cafe had to be substituted with lemonade.

These things are tough to manage with Ollie. But we’re making progress … and I’m the right person to help him. Turns out I had to learn myself.

A friend whose child has autism once told me it can be difficult to examine a child’s behaviors because we may not be prepared to see so much of ourselves reflected back. No one wants to think of their child as “different.” And no one wants to place themselves in that category, either.

But as I began researching sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the many ways it can manifest in children and adults, I felt an overwhelming sense of recognition. Then: relief.

Emotional regulation has been challenging for me. Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you that my face speaks before my lips do. The two times I got detention in school were both for rolling my eyes. I was voted “moodiest” in my high school theatre troupe and had a reputation as a drama queen, on stage and off.

For better or worse, I’ve always felt the lofty highs and frosty lows of life. I am not one speed. I am 32 speeds, switching gears repeatedly.

Like many parents, I’d wager, I don’t often feel like I’m the mother I “thought” I’d be. Though I love my children fiercely, I often end the day totally depleted. I am not my best self. Even before the pandemic, I worried daily … about everything, but especially if I was doing parenthood “right.” Intellectually, I understand there’s no such thing … that all I can do is love them hard, tell them, and try. But it doesn’t always feel that way.

Why is my patience always so thin? My heart always pounding? Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my children cry, scream, or even just laugh too loudly? More often than not, I find myself walking away during Ollie’s meltdowns because I need to calm myself down. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct as powerful as anything else.

Of all things, my Facebook feed helped me figure some of this out. A friend from high school — who also happens to be a licensed therapist — shared this graphic, and it caught my attention. I studied it, saved it to my phone, texted it to my husband.

Omg, I wrote Spencer. It me.

Though I’ve never been able to get my face wet (not in the shower, not in a pool … not anywhere), cannot stand the feel of dirt (or anything really) on my hands, get extremely anxious in loud restaurants, and am constantly scraping my hair into a ponytail to get it away from my face and off my neck … I hadn’t ever viewed those behaviors through a sensory lens before.

Makes sense, I kept thinking, Googling more and more. Makes sense why I never learned to swim. Why I automatically butter toast with a clean “thumb hold” square in the corner. Why I often have to take a break at parties, lingering in the peaceful bathroom just a little too long. This … makes sense now.

I have so many examples. Suffice it to say that the more I read about SPD, the more I began to understand the coping mechanisms I’ve developed to overcome challenges … ones I can help Oliver hone, too.

Though nothing has actually changed, I give myself some grace now. I’m not broken. I’m not a bad mom. I’m frequently an overwhelmed mom, and often I can set myself up for success by planning ahead to prevent sensory overload.

Knowing how upset I get when I’m hot, for example, I dress coolly at home. Yoga pants, tank tops. Put my hair up. Turn on ceiling fans. Try to stay comfortable.

I keep the TV on low and minimize “background noise.” Noise is a major trigger for me — having Alexa streaming music, the vent over the stove buzzing, and “Peppa Pig” snorting away in the living room is just too much.

I walk around when I’m feeling anxious. Often, this means stepping outside in the dark when Ollie and Hadley are going at full-volume. Rather than exploding (my gut reaction) when they’re just being kids, I force myself to tap out and gulp cool air.

So what does this mean for Oliver? Well, we’re still figuring that out. I know I see progress; he’s grown up and changed so much in the last year.

For now, it means having a dry washcloth ready to catch rogue water droplets near his eyes at bathtime. It’s making sure I have a three-size span of the only soft cotton jogger pants he wears (cripes, what if they’re discontinued???) and ensuring his shirts are tagless. It’s providing ear protection during plane take-off at Gravelly Point and digging around at the grocery store for the smooth vanilla yogurt, not the fruit-studded strawberry that makes him gag.

More than anything, I hope learning to wade through these waters will be easier with my arm around his shoulder — the squeeze that says I understand, and I’m here, and my buddy, we’ll figure this all out together.

Originals

If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up circa 1990, the answer was quick: an artist.

I don’t think it was about talent. Even at a young age, I knew I wasn’t necessarily creating anything original. I just knew I liked it — that it was fun to draw, sketch, paint. I didn’t know anything about “making a living.” I’d never heard of a 401(K). My only responsibilities were making sure I cleaned my plate and changed my underwear. So becoming an artist? That sounded super to me.

Now that Hadley and Oliver are both stretching their creative muscles, I have covered the proverbial fridge (in our case: wall) with their work.

Sometimes Ollie wants to be an artist, too. At 5, a “virtual” kindergartner, his work is a bit more advanced. People and faces take shape. Outlines of vehicles, buildings and toys are appear.

I realized recently that Hadley — age 3, going on 13 — was closely watching my reactions to her brother’s papers. I’m sure this is universally true, but it was definitely true in the instance of their recent “art show.”

Hadley is a bit more … impressionistic, let’s say. She favors the bold and surprising. Very Jackson Pollack.

“I love the interesting colors you picked!” I’ll say to Hadley, channeling all the parenting books, blogs and newsletters I’ve studied in my quest to make life more … well, livable with young children. Don’t offer blind praise, the experts advise. Encourage them by pointing out positive traits, not just a uniform “great job!”

Along one corner of our kitchen/dining area is a long string dotted with clothespins. I hung it for Oliver’s first birthday, creating a timeline of photos from his first year. I liked it so much — and it took up so much of that otherwise empty wall — that we’ve kept it there, now using it for birthday and holiday cards, pictures, souvenirs.

The kids’ artwork goes there, too. Oliver is in art class with Ms. Burnett, who recently read Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dot with the kids through Zoom and guided them through their own take on Vashti’s project.

Ollie zipped around the paper, suddenly turning his single dot into a “secret laboratory” complete with pipes and steam. His version was a more … scientific rendition of Ms. Burnett’s assignment, but I hoped she would grant him some creative license.

Hadley, true to her calling, took the more abstract route. Big lines. Lots of color.

When the kids were finished, I snapped a photo of Ollie’s work to upload and send to Ms. Burnett. Offering the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs,” I also added it to the growing clothespin wall of mementos.

Hadley quickly proffered her work as well. “Look!” she said, then stopped. Haddie examined her picture, visibly contrasting it with her brother’s. Then in a softer voice, she asked, “Are you going to hang mine, too?”

Ugh.

Cue heartbreak.

Though I knew, of course, what the correct answer was, I did think for a second about what would have happened to that bright face if I’d said no. It felt like a strange turning point — that moment when I could have messed up royally, casting those wide and open eyes into shadow, but I did not.

This, at least, I understood.

“Absolutely!” I sang. And I helped her sign her work like Vashti.

We look at the art wall every day, with Hadley pointing out her colorful piece amongst her brother’s versions of animals, flowers, “spooky houses.” “That’s mine,” she’ll say proudly. “Mommy, you like it?”

I question myself constantly: my parenting, my patience … my mental fortitude, particularly through the pandemic. Everything feels hard. Fraught. I constantly feel behind. Overwhelmed. Very far from my “best self,” as a mom or person in general.

But sometimes, little glimmers pop in the darkness. I’m trying to trust that I’m doing the best I can.

And if I’m not? Well, there’s always tomorrow.

“I love it, babe,” I reply, and mean it.

End of an era

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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.

Meg at computer

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.