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.

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!

 

Crossing every item off

In college, I was an incredibly organized student. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was that super OCD freak no one wanted to partner with in groups — you know, the one who sends 1,076 emails a day about pending projects, takes over every activity and generally acts like a bossy mess.

I’m very bossy.

Now, I’ll admit I’ve gotten lax with my duties. I’m a one-woman show at the newspaper where I’ve worked for four years, though I get a tremendous amount of help from my friend and officemate, Sandy. Still, I have my job down to a science: which sections get published on which days; when I need to respond to messages; when I need to write columns.

I’m a machine. Only I have a sweet little heart.

But things are changing. My job is changing. I’m going to be doing the same work — but with new software. I’m losing my office and being moved to another part of the building (le sigh), though I’ll gain a window and view outdoors (awesome).

And all of this is happening just as I’m preparing for a trip overseas — a long trip. The longest I’ve ever been away from work . . . ever.

So I’m stressed. I’m flipping out. I’m trying to learn the new software; box up my entire life at work (lots of junk); going through old paperwork, sorting out what I no longer need and preparing some of my personal possessions for charity; and attempting to get super far ahead on all my sections so that I don’t leave Sandy, my kindhearted friend, in a lurch. She’s covering for me while I’m gone for almost two weeks.

Two. Weeks.

When we were planning this trip, it seemed so far away. Unfathomable, really. We’ve been talking about for months, I got my time approved at work and it all just seemed . . . so distant. I’ve long lived by the mantra that “everything will just work out” — that somehow, some way, things would fall into place.

But I’m leaving in two weeks. For two weeks. And things aren’t just working out.

I’ve been losing sleep, trying to figure out how to get it all done. How to do all my normal work plus my sections for the two weeks I’m gone, which includes writing four 450-word columns. I was thinking about just doing a “Best of ‘Right, Meg?'” and calling it a day, but I don’t want to phone it in.

I’m not that type of person.

As I mentioned, I’m pretty Type A — and OCD. So I’m reverting back to those age-old habits — the ones that sustained me through four years of college, several jobs and a myriad of relationships and obligations. I commuted to the University of Maryland for three years from my home an hour away, and there were many days I went straight from an eight-hour day at school to a six-hour night at work. And then? Then I came home at midnight, made myself some “dinner” and started on homework. And studying. Until the middle of the night.

How did I do it?

Red Bull.

Just kidding. Well — sort of. Caffeine, sure, but more importantly: lists.

I made lists.

Lists of ongoing projects. Lists of current projects. Lists of books I needed to read and by when I needed to have them read. Calendars for school projects, personal projects, work projects. Lists of my calendars. Lists of my classmates and ways to reach them.

Basically, I went psycho. And got organized.

In preparing for the new software, the move and the trip, I’ve covered slips of paper with my scrawly handwriting and scratched my brain thinking of anything I need to remember before I go.

Things I need to buy for the trip.

Topics I need to write about for work.

Books I need to read, review and then schedule to post while I’m away.

Accounts I need to suspend.

It’s endless.

But I enjoy making these lists, friends . . . it helps me sleep at night. It brings me peace. Once I’ve written something down, I don’t need to keep it rattling around in my brain — lest I forget about it.

I can forget about it — until I need to do it, then cross it off my list. And that’s the best thing ever:

Crossing every item off.

Book wishlists: A real fine place to start?

booksSitting in the living room last night, my sister fixed me with a stare over the textbook she was studying. Feeling her green eyes boring into the side of my face, I eventually glanced up from the novel I was reading.

“If someone wanted to buy you books for Christmas,” Katie asked, “. . . how would they possibly know where to start?”

The question came out of left field, sure, but that’s nothing new with my sister — a woman known for her inquisitive nature, rapid-fire thought processes and huge leaps in conversations. One minute we’re talking about Christmas shopping, and the next? Celebrity gossip. Or reenacting a scene from a movie. Or laughing about something crazy that happened in high school. I guess that’s just how sisters roll; I roll with it.

So the book question? Not taken aback. I got that knowing grin my face — the coy, heart-melting one that seems to coo, “Oh my, presents for me? Really? Well, if you insist.” (Katie has the same one, so don’t go feeling sympathetic that I unleashed that on her, the poor little lamb.)

I started thinking about how I keep track of the books I purchase — and the books I want. I know some folks compile actual wishlists on Amazon and, from what I understand, they can be pretty detailed. At some point or other, I’m sure I started my own; however, I’ve found the absolute best way for me to keep track of the novels I haven’t yet gotten in my hot little hands is through BookMooch. It does double duty: my wishlist on the site obviously tracks whether a book I want becomes available and lets me “mooch” it, but it also serves as a running list of everything I’ve heard about and definitely want to obtain.

Like the supremely helpful and considerate person I am, I told Katie I would send her the link. You know, to my massive wishlist — only 133 books. (Which pales in comparison to other folks’ lists, I’m sure.)

But all of this got me thinking: how do other people keep track of the novels they want to spend time with? Spreadsheets? Notebooks? Journals? Scraps of paper? Tattered napkins covered with scribbles and left at the bottom of purses or wallets? Because I like my BookMooch method, but I’m wondering if there’s something better out there. Or something that will better allow me to put my OCD toward list-making and other organizational tools to better use.

So I’m curious. Tell me if I should change my methods and, if I listen to you, you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing you changed the mind of one of the most hard-headed people on the planet. I could make you a button or something . . . and it might be kind of awesome.

And while I’m on the subject? I should mention how great it would be if we were all buying books for the holidays! Literacy = fun. Novels = exciting. And there’s a whole website dedicated to this movement!


Bookmark love

bookmarksI’m a picky person. I don’t create a lot of drama about things — well, not usually — but I do prefer things to always go my way. Strict rules govern how I like to eat, write, work and, of course, read. And these same rules dictate to me what I can even use to mark my place in the books I read! It’s probably a little bit more than obsessive-compulsive, but I like to control everything . . . even down to bookmarks.

Yes — bookmarks.

If you flip open one of my paperbacks, you’re not going to find a receipt or magazine postcard wedged in the spine. Nor will you come across an old grocery list, a notecard or a photo. I use paper bookmarks exclusively — the flat, cardstock ones typically found for free by registers at Borders or the like. I don’t like plastic, and I don’t like metal. I can’t get into anything that makes the book bigger or doesn’t let the pages lie flat. I’m not into tassles hanging off the pages, and I don’t like anything that’s going to be longer than the actual book itself. I can occasionally get behind some ribbon — but it depends on the type.

Are you still reading? Do you think I’m totally nuts?

If your answer is a resounding “YES!”, I’m happy to share some of the creations others have made on Etsy . . . because I love them, but I just can’t imagine I’d ever use them. Because I’m just — meh. I have to do it my way! I have about 15 flat, cardstock bookmarks I just rotate from book to book, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

The only exception to this is a paperclip bookmark made by the lovely Kristine of beach cottage studio. With an awesome journal I purchased from her in the spring, she sent me one of her creations — and I do love it, and use it often! It was very sweet of her to include it, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Ready for some more bookmark love? Then cast aside your reservations and start clicking!

Ribbon bookmark by beachcottagestudio, $4.95

Ribbon bookmark by beachcottagestudio, $4.95

Murano glass heart bookmark by caldon98, $10

Murano glass heart bookmark by caldon98, $10

Minty the Happy Cupcake bookmark by littlegenschi, $6.50

Minty the Happy Cupcake bookmark by littlegenschi, $6.50

corner_bookmark

Set of three corner bookmarks by LilBitSassy, $2.50