Tag: Mamalove

6Dec

The Love Language of Yuck

One of my girls (and I will leave it to your imagination as to which) has invented a sign of affection known as Pee Kisses. They involve looking deeply into the eyes of a loved one—say, your mother—then tenderly trickling your fingertips all the way down her cheeks. Let me just tell it to you straight: Pee Kisses make me want to throw up and then exfoliate my face in bleach and then throw up again. They are that gross. They are, however, preferable to the facial squishing involved in Poop Kisses, and they don’t give me premonitions of family counseling mandates the way that Anonymous Daughter’s Full Moon Nightly Salute does.

I’d thought that by birthing two daughters, I was avoiding a wide swath of parenting unpleasantness. Burping contests at dinner, bodily-fluid-themed goodnights, spiders on my toothbrush… the kind of horrors I’d always assumed mothers of little boys had to face alone. As it turns out though, children are children, and burping contests are universally hilarious, and mildly arachnophobic mothers are never safe. Never.

Toothbrush of doom

Not once in the earliest days of motherhood did I expect that my sweet little girls would one day take some of their greatest delight and personal satisfaction in freaking me out… but on the other hand, I never expected that I would one day take some of my greatest delight and personal satisfaction in egging them on. I have the trauma routine down pat: groan, wring my hands, gag, and then run away to increasing shrieks of laughter. The girls are at their happiest when I act my most horrified because for us, yuck is a love language.

Here’s what I mean—The girls know it’s terribly improper to make fart jokes at the table, which is exactly why they do it… and by picking up the thread of humor they’ve spun, I’m validating their sense of humor and their funny creative minds. I’m showing I genuinely like to be with them. I’m playing with them in a way that comes far more naturally to me than sitting down with a dollhouse does, and my message comes clearly through all the gagging: I love you.

I didn’t know I was going to be this kind of mom. I’d always imagined myself raising children with impeccable manners, to prove I knew what I was doing if nothing else. The mother-self I used to envision was stricter, quieter, and far more on top of everything than this real-self who so often feels like a parenting imposter. I holler at my children, bristle with impatience at times, and forbid them from asking me anything before I’ve had my coffee. I sometimes ask them for help solving their own behavioral challenges because they know as much as I do about navigating our specific parent-child relationship. It’s a learning process, all the time, and the thing I’m learning the most about is myself.

I’m learning that manners are not as important to me as seeing my children’s true personalities in action. I’m learning that very few aspects of our life need to be “non-negotiable” (a word my girls associated with naptime by age 2) and that my opinions do not automatically trump theirs just because I gestated them. I’m learning that I absolutely do not in any way, shape, or form know what I’m doing but that relationships are living things, fluid and adaptable with ample room for grace, and that I would rather be in a position to grow alongside my children than in one to rule over them. I’m learning to see my capacity to show love as a living and adaptable thing as well, a creative force that can rise to any occasion…

…including, but not limited to, Pee Kisses.

~~~

What has parenting been teaching you about yourself lately?

30Nov

Depth Perception

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I’ve spent much of the week doing this:

Depth perception 1

(and almost equal amounts of this):

Depth perception 2

Here’s where I disqualify myself from Pinterest forever by admitting that doing crafts with my children ranks somewhere between taking the car to the shop and cleaning shower grout on my list of preferred leisure activities. (At least where the grout is concerned, I’m not left having to explain the permanence of glitter to our landlord.) Scrap paper fills my soul with foreboding, tacky glue with ill-will toward men. When you’re the designated mop wielder and laundry whisperer of the family, few things are more fearsome to behold than a paintbrush in the hands of a happy child.

…Which is why I’ve shocked myself by enjoying every messy, giggle-splattered moment of this week. (Okay, not every moment, but you get the gist.)

Operation Mommy’s Dreaming Of A White Wine Christmas is in full swing, leading us to stock the freezer with yuletide goodies here in November. The whole point is for me to be able to spend the holidays roasting in front of an open fire rather than chipping royal icing off the walls, but I’ve been surprised to discover that this isn’t something I just want to get over with. (The dishes, yesOMGhelp; the Christmas craftery, not at all.)  It has been so very… well, fun hanging out for uninterrupted afternoons with my girls, hearing their thoughts on poop (a word invented for the express entertainment of five-year-olds) and boys (she’sonlyinsecondgradeOMGhelp). Even the mess has been fun—the kind of sloppy, delightfully imperfect creativity I hadn’t indulged in decades.

I’m realizing that I owe a large part of my perspective this week to what was happening at this same time last year. I was working outside the home then—teaching English in the mornings and evenings, translating in the afternoons, scrambling to plan lessons and run errands in my time-margins, and having very, very little of myself left for the girls. I was only here to tuck them into bed three evenings a week, and I missed them so heavily that it felt like my heart would collapse in on itself. I didn’t have time to take care of their basic mommy needs, much less to help them paint the kitchen in sugar.

While I might not have turned into the patron saint of carpe diem as a result, the experience did serve as the perfect backdrop for gratefulness. It added the contrast, the depth missing from my perception of our little family circle. Each night after putting the girls to bed this week, I’ve been knocked off my bearings once again by what I can only describe as a wave of wow. An I get to tuck them in wow. An I have time to be an intentional mom again wow. A just… wow wow. And to think it was brought on by something as terror-inducing as craft time…   

Wow.

27Nov

O[ur] Tannenbaum

Last weekend, the fog drew around our house like a heavy silver curtain. Sophie was sick and Natalie’s school was on strike*, so we had the deep-settling thrill of burrowing into our own little world for a day or two. The girls had been reverberating for weeks with pent-up holiday cheer, and even my no-carols-before-Thanksgiving resolve had crumbled in the home stretch, so it was clear to everyone how our hibernation weekend should be spent.

* Clarification point #1: Kids here typically go to school six mornings a week and get out at lunchtime; it’s inconvenient and awesome all at once. Clarification point #2: Schools go on strike in our district about twice a month, each one formally announced ahead of time. Again, inconvenient + awesome.

Our Tannenbaum - 1

We bought this tree seven years ago for Natalie’s first Christmas. At the time, the three of us were living on a single graduate school stipend, and fresh-cut pines were up there with cable TV and new shoes on the Hierarchy of Unnecessary Expenses. However, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection went on sale at our local K-Mart, and our baby’s squeals of joy right there on Aisle 5 decided for us. It was nothing fancy; we knew our tree would never evoke nostalgia for either Appalachia or Anthropologie, but the point was that it was ours.

And is it ever ours. Though our collection of ornaments has grown steadily over the years, only two of them—a set of crystal love birds from Dan’s grandparents—actually match. Ours is a tree of keepsakes and fingerprints, cross-stitching and salt dough. We have a wooden bell that Dan colored with markers when he was in preschool and I blotched with melted candy canes a few years back. We hang it anyway. There are the two cartoonish and slightly disproportionate Loch Ness monsters I coaxed out of modeling clay for the girls to remember our summer in Scotland. Natalie hangs hers next to a pony she once made out of pegboard beads and strung up via a hair ribbon with an artist’s pride. Meanwhile, Sophie chooses a single branch for a series of paper hearts displaying a four-year-old’s scissor skills and enthusiastic joy.

These now-dusty limbs sport chocolate lips and jingle bells, felt daubed with formerly-hot glue, a couple of miniature storybooks shellacked into submission, and a rocking horse that may or may not have been through a war… and each year that goes by gives me greater satisfaction in declaring that what our tree lacks in fashion sense, it more than makes up for in memories.

Admittedly, I still pause every time I wander into the Christmas section of the party store. I can’t help scanning the shelves of baubles and lights and blown-glass snack foods—seriously, why are those a thing? and why do I want them so badly?—and imagining our living room transformed into a magazine spread. It’s easy, far too easy, to envision how a cartful of decorations would change our lives. Don’t we want our holiday pictures to reflect perfection? Wouldn’t our daughters’ experience be improved with icicle lights or topiaries or at least an identifiable color scheme?

Last weekend, as the fog wrapped us tightly into the warmth and music of our living room, I remembered as I do every year why I always leave the Christmas aisle with an empty cart. This tree of ours, with its missing PVC needles and mismatched lights and homemade ornament parade, holds a magic all of its own—a magic all of our own. It glows with our family stories and preserves evidence of our personalities, our creativity, our thumbprints. The girls reminisced about each ornament as they chose the imperfectly perfect spot to hang it, and when we were done, it was like someone had hung a sun in the room; all we wanted to do was bask. 

Our Tannenbaum - 2

~~~

Do you ever struggle with holiday-decoration-envy?

13Nov

Epicenter

The rain is a vertical river, thunderous and steady against our gabled roof. It’s my favorite kind of storm; its intensity and intention speak to the part of me that is always craving more movement in my life, and I love the way the water envelopes our house, the lamplight by my bed its epicenter.

The girls crawled under the comforter with me a while ago, and now they’re curled together like kittens, the older one reading softly, the younger one listening more softly still. Without really intending to, my mind wanders back to the night before Natalie’s second birthday. Some secret blossoming instinct had compelled me to take a pregnancy test, but I’d been too nervous to look at it, because what if it was negative? And what if it was positive? I simply couldn’t get the edges of my imagination to meet on the other side of that possibility—my tulle-haired toddler becoming an older anything, the cells of my own mama-heart dividing and multiplying into a new species of love. It was like glimpsing my face in a sci-fi film and having to work out if I was dreaming or if the laws of the universe really had just staged a coup.

I had Dan look at the test for me while I stood tiptoe on the line between before and after. When his eyes turned into carnival lights, I knew, and my mind spun tilt-a-whirl into this new now. Two children, two—double the territory of motherhood I was still exploring with the caution of a foreigner. I thought of my own childhood relationships with my siblings and imagined rivalry and manipulation sown like minefields across our family’s future. At the same time, the slender, precious hope of sibling rapport was already gestating in my conscious. I hoped and feared in equal measure and didn’t sleep well again until the day we brought Sophie home from the hospital and our family of four clicked into place.

This evening, the circle of lamplight by my bed glows off of the unimaginable—two colors of hair, two brilliantly diverse personalities, two hearts galloping headlong in their own directions but always, somehow, linked to the other. The longer I watch my girls, drinking in the curve of their cheeks, the earnest trajectory of their eyes, the tender nonchalance in the way their legs pile on each other under the covers, the less I am stirred to restlessness by the storm outside, and the more I am pulled into this epicenter of light and sweet familiarity. Sci-fi no longer—we are home.

~~~

How has the concept of family stretched your horizons, sent you whirling, or redefined your sense of place?

12Nov

Tidal

I don’t know anyone who needs sleep the way I do, except maybe for our girls. Other parents are always shocked that Natalie and Sophie voluntarily drape themselves across their pillows at 8 or 8:30 in the evening, their small bodies purring from the liturgy of storytime and cannibal kisses. There they dream, one burrowed under the comforter like a dormouse, the other sprawled as carefree as a ragdoll, for eleven hours straight… and sometimes even then, they wake up with snarled voices betraying their need for an afternoon nap. The other parents’ faces take on the same free-fall expression we would get when friends found out our newborn was sleeping through the night and I would guiltily shuffle my postpartum exhaustion out of sight.

I see so much of my own internal composition in my daughters, and I would sleep for eleven hours a stretch too if not for these night-owl eyes turning bright and round under the influence of moonlight. My mind swivels at the end of a day in search of some small skittering amusement to pounce on, or I mellow into the luxury of time alone with Dan. No matter how tired I am or how pointless my diversion, I’m never quite ready to consign my day to the past tense, so my bed becomes a tide, pushing, pulling, rising, and eventually floating my feet out from under me.

In the morning, there is no tide—only the deep, watery warmth of sleep and my nocturnal feathers bristling against the alarm. Some days, I have just enough resolve to drag myself up and out into the faint pink of pre-dawn, knowing that every day started in quiet, with pen and lined paper and a sleep-dredged mist obscuring my usual doubt, is a day centered over who I want to be. Other days, I calculate the last possible minute I can snooze before lurching to get the girls ready for school. Once every so often, I sleep without agenda or alarm and wake at noon, discombobulated and regretful over the missed morning.

It sometimes strikes me as a great cosmic injustice that each day must start with waking up and end with going to sleep, though I realize that between the universe and myself, I am likely the one with her wires crossed. I am the one with the free-fall expression when friends describe rising at 6 on instinct alone or tucking themselves contentedly under the covers when the day’s chores are done. From my occasional dalliances with early-to-bed, I know that the mathematics of sleep don’t apply to me the way they do to others, that repressing my night owl does not turn me into a sun goddess any more than waking with the sky curbs my evening wanderlust. This is just the nature of my relationship with sleep—fiercely resistant, deeply dependent, tidal.

~~~

What is your relationship with sleep like?

6Nov

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

~~~

At first, I saw only the string of miracle-buoys in our wake—the friends whose windows of hospitality had perfectly coincided with our needs, the airport officials and new olive-skinned neighbors who had made our move as smooth as choreography, the precious immigration documents issued like stepping stones just as we needed them, and finally, her, our Sophie-girl, born as plump and serene as a Budai the day after the local maternity wing opened.

We had followed our heart-pull across the sea to Italy, and I knew we were living the stuff of story with a brilliant Narrator whispering plot twists into being. I could have gone hoarse tallying up the good in our lives. I knew how much I had to be grateful for, I knew with all my might, but that wasn’t enough to stop black water from spilling over the sides of my mind. In retrospect, I realize I should have expected this, made some kind of provisions. After all, there was the toll from mothering a two-year-old throughout an exhausting pregnancy, the depletion from several months of suitcase-living, the strain of our move, and the cultural obstacle course I faced every time I left the house. Once postpartum hormones swept in with their rusty machetes and guerilla raids, I fell straight down a year and a half of the darkest mental dark.

There are many kind souls in my life who would have helped me had they known, but the bars trapping me at the bottom of my own mind were so very thick; I simply couldn’t reach beyond them to ask for help. To this day, I still don’t know what I could have asked loved ones to do for me short of a lobotomy. I felt isolated and unlovable, incompetent and crushingly sad. I knew that my own un-wellness was hurting my family, and the guilt magnified my sense of hopelessness. I could almost taste how completely my faith had abandoned me.

While I would never want to relive that year and a half, I can now see the fairy lights projecting their faint, ethereal ballet through the deep of it. I was never alone; I just hadn’t met God-is-Love yet, didn’t know to recognize the flickers of peace and beauty as gifts rather than flukes. That recognition would come in time, gently, free of the urgency or harsh exactitude I’d always associated with religion… and in the meanwhile, I had her.

The beginning of cannibal kisses

This wonder-baby of mine, she started smiling on purpose at three weeks old. I can’t tell you what that did to my heart except to explain that I was on the last precarious edge of overwhelmed, home all day with two tiny children and next to no energy. I was reeling from the impossibility of mothering two little girls well, their needs and fledgling complexities cupped like live minnows in my hand… and then my newborn grinned wide into my eyes. I’ve never met a person in my life with such uncontainable joy, and when she would nestle up against me, all milky contentment and round-cheeked delight, I could breathe again.

Sophie didn’t heal me—that was never her role—but she lifted me out of my own heaviness more often than I can remember. From the very beginning, she lavished affection on her big sister, assuaging some of my mother-guilt and forming a sweet sibling bond. She brought laughter back into our home, cultivated silliness, and adored without reservation, and not to cheapen her personhood or individual significance in this world, but I can’t help seeing her as a gift.

Sunbeams in the darkness, love when I felt unlovable.

Grace.

Sophie turned five last Wednesday, and I still can’t wrap my brain fully around the idea of my baby in kindergarten, chattering a thousand Italian words a minute with her best friends, trailing golden hair like a comet on the swing set. I still snack on her cheeks before bed—our own darling and slightly disturbing Cannibal Goodnight—and she still hugs wholeheartedly. However, she has grown so thoroughly herself that I can’t lay claim to her the way I did as a drowning mother five years ago. I no longer need to, which is a gift for us both. Now, I’m simply grateful for these years we get to coexist, to imprint our unique brands of struggle and beauty on each other’s lives, and when I look back, I see her babyhood as a miracle-buoy floating in our wake.

Five-year-old smiles~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

18Sep

Schooled

Today marks one week back at school for the girls. Summer lasts long in Italy, and I can no longer contemplate freshly sharpened pencils in the same month when all our neighbors are headed to their beach homes, or apples for the teacher when we’re still in the syrupy peach haze of August. No, the backpacks come out of storage with the skinny jeans here, and this, my fifth back-to-school as an expat mother, is the first time I haven’t been afraid of it.

You have to understand that few personalities are less suited to the learningcoastercrazyspiral of expat life than mine. Two words: shy perfectionist. I’m easily intimidated by the challenge of opening my mouth in my own language, much less a foreign one, and I desperately want to do every last little particle of life right. Moving to a new culture where I am 100% guaranteed to make mistakes every time I a) step out my door, b) open my mouth, and c-z) try to pass myself off as a confident, capable adult who knows what the hell she’s doing in line at the post office has been an ongoing exercise in recovering from mortal embarrassment and pinning my worth on something other than social finesse. (Baked goods, perhaps?)

The girls’ back-to-school transition is particularly prone to trial and error because parents are expected to know through a combination of telepathy and strategic neighborhood networking who to register with, where to order books, how to stock up on supplies, which uniform is required, and what day and time of day school starts. I am inordinately grateful each year when we manage to show up before the bell and with a majority of the right supplies. This year, however, my gratefulness was due less to beating the telepathy game and more to having a great group of friends we can hit up for details. I didn’t have to worry that my child would end up the only second-grader without 5-millimeter graph paper or that my other child would be kicked out of kindergarten for lack of a sun hat. I really didn’t worry at all, which was a welcome departure from tradition.

This lack of anxiety was significant for another reason too, another kind of cultural divide overcome. See, I was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist Christian lifestyle based almost entirely on fear. First and foremost, we were afraid of God; he was demanding, judgmental, and vindictive, and he dangled the threat of hell above our heads like a sword hanging on the gossamer strand of his patience. We were so afraid of incurring his wrath that we accepted every passing religious do and don’t at face value and left critical thinking to those damned (literally) liberals.

We were almost equally afraid of “The World,” the term we used to describe any society or person who did not share our beliefs. The World was the government who collected taxes and redistributed them as welfare and failed to enforce our country’s founding values. The World was secular media, with its television programs and feature films and news bulletins all designed to glorify sin. Most of all, The World was public school, Satan’s greatest ploy for corrupting young hearts and minds. The only times I set foot in a public school as a child was when my parents went there to vote, and despite the empty classrooms and quiet halls, I was terrified that the godlessness of the place would seep into my pores like an airborne disease.

I’m a parent of school-aged daughters myself now, and I understand more than ever what my parents feared about sending me off to school. When I pass my girls into the waiting arms of their teachers, I relinquish a very large measure of control. I no longer act as filter and gatekeeper to my children’s minds, and yes, it is incredibly scary to imagine what ideas and mannerisms they could absorb away from home. My kneejerk reaction would be to protect, protect, protect, to turn our home into a bunker of parental-approved thinking and only let in whatever wafts of the outside world won’t disturb our family ecosystem.

I know from deeply personal experience, however, that mind control is a losing game for everyone involved. Discernment can’t grow in an environment where only one side of an issue is ever presented. Conflict resolution can’t be learned where conflict is never allowed. Grace can’t thrive in a relational or ideological vacuum, nor can compassion, courage, or humility. We were designed to live in a multifaceted world full of wonderfully unique people who hold diverse opinions, and I want my children to experience the horizon-expanding beauty of this design instead of hiding from it in fear.

Beyond the fact that I would be a terrible homeschool teacher (seriously, the worst), I don’t actually want to be the only adult my girls look up to or learn from. I don’t agree with everything that their teachers and Sunday School leaders and even relatives tell them, but those differences in opinion have a way of sparking great conversations with the girls, conversations we wouldn’t get to have if they were getting a single-minded stream of information from me. Besides, facts aren’t everything. The girls also get love from the “outsiders” in our lives, and part of the joy of their return to school this year was in their reunion with much-beloved teachers and classmates.

How could I be afraid of that, I ask?

First grade done

(I can’t.)

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