Noah is going through a Super Why phase right now. That adorable little Woofster, those catchy songs, the sparkly letters and slow questions and lots of pausing for thought. . .who could go wrong, really? When he climbs up on the couch and says, "I watch some Super Why pweeeze, Mommy? A Woofster? A Super Readers?" who am I to say no?? PBS is like the kale chip of television. OF COURSE you can have some! Oh, did you just eat the whole bag? Oh, well! At least it's kale chips! Right? The highlight of the Super Why episode for Noah is the part in the book club where Whyatt asks everyone to say their name and put their arms in, culminating with "Super Readers, TO THE RESCUE!!" Noah screams his own name and then screams for me to come put my arm in, too, and wherever I am in the house I come running. Mommy can't miss "arms in" time, it's a recipe for toddler devastation. As I put my arm in with his yesterday, I marveled at his chubby little hand and his sweet eyelashes, his raspy little voice and that precious little round belly. I don't know if it was just the fact that it was the same denim couch, or the same jazzy music or the blonde hair or the way the Fall sun was slanting right in behind him but I started to well up with tears.
I had a clear picture of my 2 year old Daniel, five years ago, on that couch (less faded) with the blonde hair (more curly) and the raspy voice (even more raspy), begging me for arms in time during Super Why. In those days I would hear the cry of "MOMMY!! ARMS IN!!! MOMMY!!! ARMS IN TIIIIIIIIIME!!" and drag my tired booty from wherever it was in the house where I was just trying to have a hot second of peace and quiet, typically with an infant Joshy hanging asleep in the crook of one arm. A crazy-haired haired little Phil would be sitting next to D, scratching the top of his head with both hands because he was so anxious that I wouldn't make it to the couch in time for "ARMS IN!" And we would put our arms in. Even though I didn't feel like it. And I could barely move my arm out of my personal cloud of sleep deprivation. And I was sort of cursing myself for walking so far away in order to get to my spot of peace and quiet because now I had to walk back. But I remember saying to myself, "It won't be like this forever. He won't always want me to do this." So I did it.
"Super Readers- TO THE PESCUE!!" Daniel would scream with a huge grin on his angelic face.
"WESCUE, Sir. WESCUE. Not 'PESCUE',"Phil would correct him. Every. Single. Time.
And I would shake my head and half-smile, reheat my coffee for the tenth time and shuffle back to my remaining 20 minutes of peace and quiet and they would sit transfixed by the Super Readers, changing the story, solving the problem, working together with powers to read. . .wow those 20 minutes went fast!
It won't be like this forever.
And it wasn't.
This week at the bus stop, Daniel hasn't wanted to give me a kiss in front of his friends.
He watched Super Why with Noah, but didn't want to put his arm in because, "That's embarrassing, Mommy."
He is now an ACTUAL SUPER READER, and reads to himself at night. Mostly Captain Underpants.
He doesn't ask me to sing him "Sunshine on My Shoulders" to help him fall asleep, or really sing anything for that matter.
The things his friends say and do are so funny and cool that they are now our topic of conversation, not Whyatt or Wonder Red or Alphabet Pig.
My baby boy is growing.
But, the tears in my eyes weren't for him. He HAS to grow! He NEEDS to grow! And he's adorable and smart and wonderful and funny! And I didn't miss out. Although I don't remember much, I took lots of pictures and wrote some stories down. I did the "arms in" and tucked him in every night and sat on the couch through Mister Rogers marathons and took them all to the park for a whole 20 minutes before everyone got tired and we had to haul them back home and made sandwiches shaped like penguins to get them to eat their meat. I did all the things. He remembers with his heart. He was loved, and that love is a part of him now.
The tears were for me. The me I was. The me I am today just wants to go back and give five years ago Jen a hug. "Dear God, Jen, don't be so hard on yourself. Don't expect yourself to be perfect. It's OK to be tired. You haven't had a whole night of sleep in ages!! You've only been a mom for three years, you aren't supposed to have everything figured out. It's OK to let them sit there and watch Super Why. They are tired and so are you. AND THEY ARE GOING TO BE REALLY GOOD READERS!! You may actually be some sort of case study on how PBS makes kids smart someday, who knows. But it's OK. They know you love them because you smile really big when you turn on the PBS and hug them on the couch while you watch Elmo. The house is a mess, but that will get easier. Lower your standards. Ask for help. It will all get easier and then other things will get harder but you will have what you need when the time comes."
When I look back on the past few years of my life, my biggest regret is not being more gentle with myself in the times where I was struggling. I tried to hold it all together by holding myself to a standard of perfection instead of a standard of grace. If I could go back, I would make myself big signs that said, "You don't have to be perfect to be loved!" and "It's all going to be OK!" and "You are exactly where you are supposed to be!" and hang them all over my house to read, instead of looking at myself in the mirror and criticizing my messy postpartum crazy hair and smudgy mascara and squishy belly and wishing that I was doing something measurable with my days instead of doing the same dishes over and over. Perhaps five years ago me might have found current me unbelievable and totally annoying, but maybe, just maybe, I could have helped her out. I just wish that I hadn't been so hard on myself. I gave my kids a lot of joy, but I deserved some for myself.
But at least there's now. And that's why I was crying during Super Why as I put my hand on top of little Noah's. The joy of now and the joy I missed and all of the messy and beautiful days in between. And that's why I write. Since I can't go back and hug five years ago me, I can at least write for myself now. To call myself to a better way of living. To invite others to be more gentle with themselves, too.
My grandma, Darlin, was my dear friend and a wonderful woman. She loved baking, thoughtful gift-giving and note-writing, black jelly beans, her Catholic faith, and being classy. She always felt her best in nylons, heels, hairspray, big sunglasses and big earrings. I will never forget the time I slipped getting on the escalator shopping with her in L.S. Ayres and as I started to fall she managed to catch me- high heels and all- without missing a beat. She was my hero, and I felt like she was always there to catch me with her steadfast love and prayers through every phase of my young life. (But I am still scared of escalators :)
Darlin was still alive for the first several years of my motherhood. She rarely offered advice, but if she did it was always worth remembering, like "You know, Jen, sometimes babies just have to cry!" It was always humble advice, because my grandma would be the first to admit that she wasn't a perfect mom. She raised four girls in the 1950's-70's as a military wife, living all over the world. Over family dinners my aunt and mom would occasionally tease her as they told stories about the some of the conditions that they lived in growing up or the foods they ate or their general lack of supervision. As we all laughed, my grandma would say defensively, "I did the best I could with what I had!" She said it so much that it was a running family joke. If anyone criticizes you in our family, you just say "HEY! I DID THE BEST I COULD WITH WHAT I HAD!" and remember Darlin as you do.
And for me, that is the biggest lesson. Despite the big glasses and perfume and nylons, she wasn't a perfect glossy magazine parent. Who is, really? I am sure if she could have gone back there would have been some things that she did differently. She was just trying to do a good job with the resources available to her. She had a small military income, a frequently absent husband, four very young children, was often half a world away from her home in Buffalo, NY, and wasn't able to drive a car. I think it's safe to say she had some things stacked against her. But she did the best she could with what she had. . .and what more can you do?
I say this because a lot of times mommy friends and I are chatting and I hear the weight in their voice of "mommy guilt." I can't put my finger on it but I sense it is an overall fear that we share that our kids watch too much TV, don't eat enough vegetables, should be doing more crafts, love processed foods too much, are too attached to their pacifier, don't sleep through the night, are still having potty accidents, haven't learned another language or insert any other insecurity amplified by what others are doing on Pinterest and Facebook here. We can easily look around and feel like everyone else has it all together and we are messing everything up. But the truth is, you're just doing the best you can with what you have. I am, too. And so is most everyone else. We all have a different set of external and internal resources to match up with the demands of our daily lives. We each have unique gifts, talents, circumstances, people, finances and personalities that impact the way we parent and live. And NO ONE, I mean NO ONE, no matter what they blog or pin or facebook or even tell us to our face, does all of the things "right" all of the time. Whatever those things even are! I sure as hell hope doing things right means feeding your kids lots of hot dogs and cueing up the PBS with a big smile on your face, because that's how I roll. We can trust that we won't get everything "right" all of the time, but that we can get the important things right. God knows just what those important things are, and they are different for each of us. If He wants it to happen, it's gonna happen! Who can stop our God? Who can limit Him? If we give God our best, he's going to make that not only enough, he is going to make it abundant. If He can feed five thousand people with a few loaves and some fish with enough to spare, He can bless and break what we have to offer, too.
The very last thing our kiddos need is a mama who is beating herself up because she perceives that she is not giving her kids the "best". If we are giving our people our true, honest selves, we are giving them the best! You're the best!! You are the best mom for your kids, just like I am for mine, and Darlin was for hers. We're doing the best we can with what we have. You don't have to be perfect to be the best. Darlin was a living testament to that. People can and will love you just the way you are, just as we loved Darlin. . .and still do.
Happy Birthday, D.
"Society is asking so much of parents and caregivers in today's world: "Make sure your child is safe and healthy"; "Develop routines"; "Set Limits"; "Read to your child each night at bedtime"; "Help your child feel secure and loved." And all that is added to the other things we are already doing in our lives. Many adults feel that they are falling short in one, if not all, of the "assignments" of their lives. They often feel they are failures. Well, people are not failures if they are doing the best they can. If parents are managing to cover most of the important bases most of the time, they have every reason to feel good about who they are and what they're doing. Our performance doesn't have to be measured against anyone else's- just against our own abilities to cope." - Fred Rogers (from the book Many Ways to Say I Love You: Wisdom for Parents and Children from Mister Rogers)
I can always tell when Daniel gets off the bus if something is on his heart. Much like his parents, he doesn't hide his feelings super well so what you see is what you get with Sunny D. When he's not sunny you know something is up right away. Instead of his usual joyful lumbering gallop down the bus steps, he'll poke along as the last one off then sort of plow himself into my side headfirst as a half-hearted attempt at a hug. Tuesday was one of those days, and the words pretty much poured out of the floodgates after my first teeny-tiny question, "Is something wrong, buddy?"
"Oh, Mommy," he wailed. "I'm never going to get picked for Athlete of the Day! Everybody has gotten picked. EVERYBODY. And they get their name on the board and everything! And Phil got picked today! He did so good. And I try really hard but I'm not fast and I like never get as many points as everybody and everybody got the ball more than me and I just know I am never, ever going to get picked!"
Tears were pooling in his eyes as I sent Josh and Phil running ahead of us to the house. I hugged him close on the sidewalk as he continued to pour out his heart, thinking about how he had been holding this inside all day and also my own athletic ability (or lack thereof) which Daniel has definitely inherited. (Sorry, buddy!!) He makes up for it with heart, as he absolutely loves P.E. class and idolizes his teacher, and plays soccer at recess with such passion that he ends up in the nurse's office more days than not with skinned knees. But I knew that even more than the athletic side of it, Daniel really, really wants to be chosen. Plain and simple.
Poor D, as the middle child it is probably hard to feel like the chosen one. Also funny because of all of my children, Daniel was the only complete and total surprise! When I found out I was pregnant I might have dropped the test on the floor in shock. Paul's first words might have been, "Um, are you sure?" But I have always felt so deeply that Daniel was truly chosen just for our family. I felt it from the first time I held him in my arms, and I feel it over and over again every time I go in to look at him at night after he has fallen asleep, his light blonde hair curling a bit around his sweet face, a little cherub statue in Lego Star Wars jammies. There is just something so special about him, an angelic quality caked in little boy energy and clumsiness and messiness, a humor beyond his years, and a tenderness in his spirit for the "least of these" among us. If I can manage to teach him to use a Kleenex and put his clothes in the hamper and brush his teeth without just chewing on the toothbrush and staring into space, I swear this kid is going to grow up and change the world with his smile. I always tell Daniel he was my happiest surprise, the best surprise I have ever gotten in my life. Chosen just for me. No one could be better.
I took the opportunity to tell him that, too. I know how it can hurt to be the last one picked for a game, or when you aren't invited to that party that everyone is talking about, or your friend chooses to sit with someone else on the bus and you are left alone. Even as grown ups we can have those feelings! When someone doesn't friend us on social media, or there isn't room for us in the circle, or someone else gets the place of honor,wins the prize, earns the award, gets the promotion, we start to feel a little less than inside of ourselves. Why wouldn't they pick me? Aren't I good enough? It can feel like everyone has a special place besides us. The hurt feelings take over and make us start to doubt our inherent worthiness.
But then there is the truth underneath, which conveniently, I had just been reading about that afternoon. (Good timing, God.) I was so grateful to have Henri Nouwen's words on belovedness right in the front of my mind to help my little guy at that moment.
"Daniel," I said. "You know who chose you before the world even began?" Daniel looked up at me with a glimmer of recognition like, "Ohhhhh, here she goes again." But he didn't seem too annoyed so I got right down next to him and kept on going.
"Daniel, God made you just the way you are and you are JUST RIGHT. He will always choose you again and again. Even if your friends or teachers don't choose you, God chooses you. And I choose you, too."
I gave him a hug. We went inside I made him a bowl of ice cream and by the end of snack the sugar-induced wind was right back in those little sails. He pounced down the basement stairs to play Legos with Phil, Athlete of the Day sadness left at the door right next to the stinky PE shoes.
This morning I was unloading the Take Home folders (conveniently just in time to sign them) and found this.
Phil wanted Daniel to feel chosen, too.
(Insert Mommy heart explosion.)
Since I am not God and cannot bust through the ceiling of the school with a giant beam of light and be all like, "THIS IS MY BELOVED SON!! LISTEN TO HIM!!" I need to just give my boys that chosen feeling in their heart as best as I can in my own feeble human imperfect way. So when the world may not choose them, they'll know that no matter what, he's always "in" - with God AND with me. You are, too. I hope you know how chosen you are today. No matter what the world tells you- that you have to do better, feel better, perform better, earn your place. . .you are just right exactly as you are.
"When we can hear that voice, trust in it, and always remember it, especially during dark times, we can live our lives as God's blessed children and find the strength to share that blessing with others. In the Kingdom of God there is no competition or rivalry. The Son of God shares his chosenness with us. In the Kingdom of God each person is precious and unique, and each person has been given eyes to see the chosenness of others and rejoice in it. " -Henri Nouwen
Tonight was quite a night at the Zink house. When the school year begins, we move into High Intensity Parenting and it always takes me a few weeks to catch up. Or do I ever catch up? Maybe in June, right? ;) In the summer, I thrive as all of the parenting activities are spread out over the course of a leisurely day. Do a chore here, brush some teeth here, make your bed whenever. Usually if all of the "things" are done by the time I start making dinner and we've had some fun in between, I feel like we have totally rocked that day. But August-May, LOOK OUT. All parenting must be concentrated into super intense periods of time. Meteorologist Jen Zink reporting: There's a warning out for the "Getting Ready for School Tornado" M-F from 7-8:30 am, and then from 4-8 pm daily, be on the lookout for "Scattered Shitstorms."
Tonight the radar was mostly red from 5:45 pm onward. The end result was me wearing my apron for four hours straight before I finally made it to the sink to wash the spaghetti Wednesday aftermath, and the in-between was the best of times and the worst of times. THE MESS. Both literally and figuratively. But magic happened there. And that magic is the reason why I am sitting at my computer typing instead of curled up in the fetal position crying.
Sometimes I pray for things to be easy. "Let today be an easy day after school." I pray. "Why does the morning have to be like this?" I plead. But in this week of hectic, wiggly mornings and tearful yet exuberant evenings I have become aware. . .the crazy is the gift. The mess is where the magic happens. We have plenty of fun and peaceful and easy times to be sure, but the HARD parts are where we do the real work of life. I hate conflict, I avoid it at all costs. But conflict, and how we deal with it, is where we LEARN and GROW in this family. It is the biggest blessing we could have. I would love an easy morning, but an easy morning doesn't help me teach Daniel about time management. It doesn't help Phil to learn how to rise above challenges. It doesn't give me an opportunity to ask Josh for forgiveness for (gasp) HELPING HIM SET THE TABLE and give him the opportunity to extend it (update: I am half-forgiven for the table setting). It doesn't give us a huge belly laugh from Noah singing "Take it Easy" by the Eagles in the most crazy and least "easy" voice imaginable. It doesn't teach me to extend grace for spilled milk. It doesn't let me lead my family by example by admitting my own shortcomings if I oversleep or forget to run the dishwasher. Some days I would love to just hide in the kitchen and pretend to be making toast while I check my phone and the dining room explodes with little boy laughter about potty humor over their bowls of Bran Flakes and Cheerios. If I did that, though, I'd miss the chance to answer the million questions that pop up at breakfast about God and science and friendship and bullying and books and nutritional content of cereals.
By the time my kiddos get on the bus, I feel like have already taught a dozen lessons, a gift of the little obstacles of daily life. After they get off the bus at 4pm, the lessons begin anew. Someone might be crying in my arms from the moment they step into our front yard. Someone might pinch his brother, and then end up in a teary puddle explaining his feelings. Someone (ahem- his name starts with a D) might go completely boneless on the kitchen floor because of the possibility of writing out his spelling words. There's a highly volatile mix of little boy pent-up energy and I've been holding-it-all-together-exhaustion which can have my house fluctuating from joyful play to tears in the blink of an eye. In addition, meals have to be fed and cleaned, baths and showers given, teeth brushed, homework done, stories read. . .whew!! Tonight before dinner, Phil started crying because everyone was "ruining his pretend!! He was just trying to include them but they were RUINING IT!!!" Then at dinner, we were gifted with a two year old who decided not to take a nap today. He was crying so loudly about something related to his spaghetti that Phil started crying again because he "couldn't take one more second and just needed to be ALONE for a minute!" Josh was despondently poking at a meatball because spaghetti night is his least favorite, and Daniel had entered into his defense mechanism for all uncomfortable situations: clown mode Paul and I looked at each other in the same unspoken way that perhaps seasoned firefighters might as we just busted straight into that fiery mess. I prayed for wisdom. For patience for us. For a teachable moment in the whole thing.
So, as Paul gave some baths I got right into the thick of it with our oldest. It turns out Phil just isn't "feeling like himself." We talked about what that meant and what he might do about those feelings. Daniel was eavesdropping and started to chime in about his feelings, too. We talked about how Daniel was like Ferdinand the Bull in the story, with the flowers and the butterflies and all. Josh went downstairs to play, where I later found him asleep with a Lego clutched in his hand. Paul got the over-tired Noah to sleep with some Best Nest and a cup of milk, and I spent some time with my buddy Phil talking about what was going on inside that little noggin of his as he cried big giant tears and I wiped them with a Kleenex that Daniel brought us.
"Mommy, I just don't feel like me, I can't explain it." Phil said.
"Well, sweetie, I'm here. I'm here to listen."
"I feel like I just want to be by myself!!" he wailed. "I just want to go in my bed and not even brush my teeth and read a book."
"I totally understand! When I have a hard day reading one of my favorite books always really helps me. But, like, I always brush my teeth first. That's important." (seriously, kid has another cavity. gotta get that part in) ;)
"What books do you like to read, Mommy?"
"Well, one of my favorite books is called "I'm Proud of You" It's by my friend Tim. Do you know he was real life friends with Mister Rogers?"
"Really?" Phil's eyes got big and I could see that Daniel was listening intently from two beds away.
"Yes, real friends! They hung out and emailed and talked on the phone and everything!"
"Wow!" Phil said, as he waited for me to go on.
"So, Tim had a brother. His brother's name was Steve and they were really close, just like you and Daniel. But when his brother Steve was a grown-up, like your Daddy's age, he found out he had cancer. And later he died. And Tim was really sad just like you would be if you lost Daniel. But his friend Mister Rogers helped him through that sad time. And do you know what he said to him???"
"Anything mentionable is manageable. So if you can talk to Mommy about how you feel, I can help you with it, OK? You don't have to feel your feelings alone. If you tell me, I can try to help you."
So we sat together for a while, Phil and I. He totally stopped crying because once you start thinking about someone else's pain it's pretty hard to stay focused on your own. His mind was all wrapped up in Tim and Steve. He never did find the right words for his feelings, but we brushed teeth and read Stellaluna and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Tub People. By halfway through the first story he started to melt right into my arms on our comfy denim couch.
"Do you feel more like yourself, honey?" I asked, as we wrapped up Mike's adventures with Mary Ann in Popperville.
"Yes, mommy. Yes I do. That helped." And I started to melt, too. His little ash blonde head all cuddled under my chin, his big eyelashes, his even bigger heart.
See where the magic was in that mess? I would have missed that. If there wouldn't have been a hot mess of tears and conflict and boogers and spaghetti and silliness, I would have missed it all. The mess conspired for that moment. It was so worth the spaghetti-crusted dishes in my sink. As much as I love the easy days, the fun days, the no-strife days, the pizza nights, the lazy walks, the playground trips. . . I need these messy times, too. The crazy school mornings, the rollercoaster evenings. . .they teach us. They mold us. They're a gift to our family, even if they are about as fun and glamorous as a savings bond that you can't cash for years and years. But the investment is being made. And for that, I'm grateful.
As I corralled the kids through the early morning rush yesterday with Noah on my hip, Daniel was watching me from the bathroom with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth and an inquisitive look on his face. "Mommy, how long are you going to carry Noah around like that?" he asked. "He's like half your size, you know."
My first thought was, "That's ridiculous! He's just a baby!" but then I realized Daniel did have a point. I mean, Noah is almost two and half and I trot him around my house in footie jammies with his paci and blankie like he's 10 months old. No shame. I hadn't even considered it. He's my baby because he's the youngest. Size be darned. And I pointed that out to Daniel. "Well, sweetie, Noah is like my LAST BABY. So, you know, maybe. . .for-eeeeee-veeeeeeer?"
Daniel laughed because he totally gets me. "Um, OK, Mommy," he said. "But you might want Daddy to take over. You are looking kind of ridiculous and people might think you are a crazy mommy."
"I will consider that, Daniel. Thanks for the feedback."
We laughed and crazy mommy scurried down the stairs with "baby" on hip to finish up the trio of lunches.
After the boys got on the bus, I was still running over all this in my head. I had to see for myself, so I went to the full length mirror with Noah on my hip to scope the situation out. I laughed out loud and Noah couldn't help but giggle, too. Daniel was so right. Noah is huge. His legs are so long they could wrap around me and his head is about the same size as mine. We do look like quite a pair with our brown eyes and blonde hair and goofy grins. But after having a baby on my hip (or two) for eight years straight, I'm just not quite ready to let go of this phase of my life. For one thing, I don't have a lot of time to sculpt my guns, so Noah really helps with that. And most importantly, I know there is a day I will put Noah down and never pick him back up and plop him on my hip to cook dinner or run into the store again. I'll never even notice it. . .the hip carry will just melt into history until one day I will be bouncing and rocking in the pew in church with no one in the crook of my arm playing with my hair. Hopefully I'll stop myself before people think I'm too crazy, but I am sure when I do I'll have a touch of longing for my hip mom days.
I also couldn't help but reflect on how my perspective has changed. When Phil was 13 months old I was hoping, praying, encouraging, prodding, anything to get him to walk! I had a newborn and a not-yet-toddler and I was dying for one of them to be able to help me with the trek from our bungalow to the car parked down the stairs on the street below. Or get into the high chair by himself. Anything. NEED A LITTLE HELP HERE! And not just as a toddler, poor Phil being my oldest has received a lot of pressure from me over his eight short years on earth to do all kinds of things on his own and have adult level reasoning skills. Before he was three he was a big brother twice. Since he is RELATIVELY larger than his baby brothers, sometimes I can forget how little he truly is. Something about being in a house with just your tiny people can make it very possible to lose that perspective of their size in the grand scheme of things. I'm guilty of losing perspective of my own size in the grand scheme, too! One look up at the sky usually cures that. And for my kids, usually it takes hearing their small voice on the phone or looking at them from a distance at the playground to gain that sense of small. Every single one of these guys can still count their age in mere double digit months. I've been alive for over 400! It's hard to put too much on them when I think about it that way. I have found myself growing more tender as I have transitioned from the desperate years of early toddler parenting, and especially so since the birth of Noah. I've learned that small kids means I need a smaller agenda, and I need to trim down the number of things I say I can do and the number of places I say I can be. I have also learned that I can't project too much worry about their future on their tiny behaviors. He won't need me to push him on the swing forever. It's just small stuff, all those things. . .the potty training and wiping your own tush and pacifiers cutting your own food and not spilling the milk at every meal.
So, yesterday I asked the big kids if I could go outside and push them on the swings. They didn't need it, but boy did they love it. I've also found myself giving more piggy back rides even though they could practically give me one. Reading more picture books, even though they can read themselves. Listening to the sweet, small sound of their little boy voices and soaking it in, even though I have no idea what minecraft-y thing or whatever they are talking about. I can't go back and be more gentle four years ago, but I can be the kind of mom I want to be now.
When the kids got home from school that day, Phil and Josh ran off to build Legos and Daniel and were enjoying some end of summer cantaloupe at the kitchen table with Noah.
"You know, D. I've been thinking a lot about what you said this morning. About Noah?"
Daniel seemed flattered. "Really, Mommy? Yeah, well, I just wanted to let you know. You know, crazy mommy and all."
"Yes, you really had a point." I said as we looked at Noah. "He is pretty darn big!"
"Yeah, look at his legs!!" Daniel laughed and Noah started laughing, too. "Hey, maybe you should pick me up, Mommy!"
So I picked D up and plopped him on my hip by the kitchen stove, just like we did in the old days. We giggled and looked at ourselves in the mirror. Unfortunately, as Daniel pointed out, he looked only slightly less ridiculous than Noah.
I told him he wasn't heavy at all. I'd pick him up any day.
A week ago as we ate a lazy vacation breakfast at the cottage kitchen table, I casually mentioned to the boys that they would be starting school, you know, in like a week. The response was less than spectacular. "Don't even tell me that, Mommy," said Phil, groaning and covering his head.
"Yes, Mommy, please don't bring that up again," Daniel said as he looked at me with a combination of terror and disdain.
"So, do you want me to just, like, wake you up next Wednesday and tell you it's time for school?"
"Yeah, that works."
"Yeah, let's do that."
Hmmmph. I looked at Paul with eyebrows raised and we sighed and gave a little shrug. We were a little bummed that our kids weren't more excited for school, but who could blame them after a carefree and unstructured summer of Legos and bare feet and silly old fashioned fun? Phil had already told me he was nervous and I know Daniel is not the hugest fan of all of the work that happens once the yellow bus drops you off, and I have to admit I really, really miss the kids when they are gone. Something about having them all here, even when they are completely wild and crazy, just makes me feel complete. Since I had mixed emotions, too, I decided not to mention too much about it (Denial!! My favorite! It's not just a river in Africa! It's a real place! Where I live!) but Monday was open house night which required us to actually GO to the school and visit their classroom.
But that's when the magic happened. I could feel the energy shift as we pulled into the parking lot Monday night. The boys were pressed against their respective windows and excitedly waving at friends they recognized. They were out of the van in a hot second and halfway across the parking lot before I reminded them that they needed to get their booties back over to the car and get their school supplies. Philip and Daniel floated into the school on a cloud despite the weight of their sacks o' crayons and glue sticks. We rounded the first corner and they had already run into a friend, and they could barely be pulled away. They waved and hugged and high-fived and half ran down the hall to their room, and when they walked in the door it only got better. They bypassed their new teacher to go straight to their desks where the excited shouting began. "LOOK! Josh is at my table!!"
"Look there's Laureli! And Jackson! And Jacob."
"Oh, Ben is going to be here, and Zach, and Tessa!"
They were going around the room as fast as their little feet could take them reading the nametags on the desks. By the time they finally got around to saying hello to their new teacher, there was a complete transformation of the boys from the week before. They were, dare I say it, excited??!?!! In the van on the way home, Daniel said, "Mommy, how many more days until I get to go to school? I can't WAIT to see my friends."
"All of our friends we know are in our class! Like, 90% of them! I didn't know they would all be here!" Phil chimed in.
Two little soon-to-be second graders could barely fall asleep last night and were giddy over their breakfast cereal planning their first day. The big question had been answered. They would have a friend. I didn't even realize that was the question until I saw the shift in their perspective, but once I did I totally got it! How many times in my life have I had that feeling, too? How many times has my stomach done flip-flops in the car, or have I hesitated at the door, or walked into a room with butterflies and scanned it for a friendly place to sit? How many of us just want to know we'll have a friend when we get there? I had to take advantage of this moment of revelation.
"Boys," I said, as they shoved cereal and bananas in their faces. "I want you to do me a favor today. I know you are really excited to go to school and see your friends, but today I want you to look for someone who may not have a friend and make them feel welcome, Okay?"
They barely looked up from their conversation, and I didn't want them to miss the point. SOOOOO, I kept on going in my droning on mom-style.
"You know how excited you are to go to school today? And see your friends? Well, there are some kiddos who are not excited to go to school today. They might even be crying this morning. They don't know if they will have a friend or not because New Britton is a new place for them. I want you to be that friendly person."
At this point I had their attention. They looked a little mystified that someone might be crying before school, so I told them, "You know, Mommy cried on the bus on the way to school her first day."
Now I REALLY had their attention. "Really, Mommy??" said Phil. "How old were you??"
"Um, I was in high school"
"WHATTTTT??? You cried and you were a TEENAGER!!!?"
"Yep, even high schoolers feel nervous if they don't know anyone. I was really scared to go to a new school and wondered if I would fit in or find any friends. I looked out the window of the bus and cried the whole way to school."
At this point kids minds = BLOWN, so Paul chimed in, too. "I was so nervous on my first day of high school, too. I was a new kid and I didn't know anyone! I mean, I didn't cry like Mommy but I was so, so nervous."
"So we really want you guys to be good friends! Think about those kids who are crying or scared to go to school. Look for someone who is lonely and reach out to them and make them feel welcome today."
"Okay, okay, Mommy," they chimed as they went right back to cereal and bananas and second grade boy recess planning.
They were thrilled to get on the bus. Thrilled to see their friends. Because isn't that what makes everything worthwhile? Friendly faces? People who know us and care about us? The big world is a much less scary place with a friendly smile to light the way. We'll see when they get off the bus in a few minutes if they found anyone to be that light to. I'll never forget the people who where that light to me when I was the new kid at school, which is probably why I am the first person to smother any new person in a group with my friendliness. . .sorry, new people. I can't help it. I still remember how much it meant to me. On the first day of school, I always say a little prayer for the new kids. The lonely kids. The scared kids. The missing their mama like crazy kids. The "Will I have a friend?" kids.
Dear God, please bring those sweet kiddos some friends today. Help us all to be a friend, and make the world a little less lonely together.
Today was the last day of absolutely no place to be. . .probably for the rest of summer!! How did it go by so quickly??? Tiiiiiimmeeee, why you punish meeeeee. . .AGAIN!!! Every time, Time. This is so not cool. So, I decided I was just going to treasure the absolute CRAP out of this day. Which is hard to do because as mamas we usually have a lot to do and lots of moody tiny people that we are doing it with. But truth be told, the reason I am treasuring this day has a lot to do with the fact that as my kids grow older I am realizing more and more that this is the last day in my life that is just like today. THE VERY LAST DAY where they are exactly as they are today. . .they are learning and growing so quickly! Which makes me get all achey inside and full of longing and pride and love and misty-eyed nostalgia. We aren't privileged enough to know when the last time will be for many things, but I sense this autumn coming in my life even in the midst of the hot summer of raising young kiddos. The first leaves of the river birch in our backyard have started to turn yellow, telling me that summer is marching past. I see the little signs in my boys that childhood is marching past, too- all those lanky arms and reading chapter books and showers that have replaced baths. The winks and giggles for jokes that are just between us, in a way that makes me feel like I am looking at a window right into their adult world.
And school, just about to begin.
Like Winnie the Pooh, I see my little Christopher Robins starting to grow. . .they leave me behind to go to "skull" and I feel a little bit like the Silly Old Bear, crying at the bus stop and waiting all day for my beloved friends to come back.
So, today I actually woke up before my kids (not my special talent). We stayed in jammies all morning, baked muffins, colored, played play dough. I got the costumes out and made macaroni and cheese for lunch (way fancy for me) and we went outside and were lazy in the backyard, little boys all draped over the swingset enjoying the breeze in the shade. We collected library books to return and reread our favorites. We got out a game and played about half of it. We read Charlotte's Web. I breathed in their little boy smell cuddled in my arms, and as I read to them about Fern and Avery swinging through the barn into the summer sky, I thought. . .that's what I wish for my boys. That joy, that abandon, that sweet summer of carefree childhood. It was like time stood still in that moment on our trusty faded denim couch, all arms and legs and shoulders and elbows and cheeks all over mine as we imagined ourselves right in that barn with Wilbur.
I still had to do and say all of the normal things I do and say in a day- lots of washing dishes and "put your pants back on" and "don't forget to flush" and "one more bite" and "get off the table" and "let's use our regular voice." There were a few meltdowns and at one point around 1:50 pm I looked at Noah and said, "YOU WILL TAKE A NAP RIGHT NOW." (and I might have added that Mommy was "all done.") But there's a spirit that has grown within me over the past eight years of parenting that has made it easier to take the meltdown moments with grace. In all honesty, about six years ago I would have done anything to escape some days with my kids. If you feel that way, I would not blame you in the LEAST. But here is what I was taught that made all of the difference. WHAT I FEEL is not who I am. If I am in a bad mood, that doesn't make me a bad mom. Moods and feelings are fleeting. They come and go and pass like the wind as long as we don't feed them with our thoughts. Because the next instant after I was ready to hop on the back of the mail truck and ride away from my three kids three and under, someone would hug me with chubby arms and my heart would just about burst. And I would think, "Am I even a good mom? I don't even know. Why can't I get it together?" But, slowly, I learned this: I don't have to feel great all of the time to be a great mom to my kids. I don't have to have it all together. . .as long as we're together, we've got it all.
Even though one moment isa complete shitstorm, the next moment might be the best moment of my life. I don't even know yet, so it helps to embrace the crazy and know that maybe the best moments are yet to come. Moods and feelings come and go, but LOVE. . .that's sticking around. Long after summer is gone and the birch leaves have fallen and the school bus pulls away. Love remains.
"Our emotional life is not the same as our spiritual life. Our spiritual life is the life of the Spirit of God within us. As we feel our emotions shift we must connect our spirits with the Spirit of God and remind ourselves that what we feel is not who we are. We are and remain, whatever our moods, God's beloved children."- Henri Nouwen