Good Enough

My local radio station started a new series for the holidays, “Good Enough,” about just relaxing and letting Christmas be, well, good enough. The first time I heard the announcers talking about it I smiled. Yep! That’s me! I’m hosting 15 in the midst of closing a business I’ve run for 12 years (which means emptying the house of tons of baby equipment), starting a new job (working at home so I need to set up an office), and finishing my classes (at my age I should be having a mid-life crisis, not pulling all-nighters). So yeah, they’ll be lucky if the house is clean and there’s food, and that has to be good enough this time around.

The radio host said she wasn’t really feeling the Christmas spirit, and that also resonated with me. Of course there’s the busy-ness listed above, but in recent years I’ve had a hard time summoning the joy. I think it’s something beyond feeling overwhelmed but I couldn’t put a finger on it until I did some holiday shopping. There was a mom showing her daughter the Frozen toys, while the girl’s eyes opened wide as saucers. The little boy who was literally screaming while running toward the Star Wars display. I don’t get to revel in that excitement because my kids are older now.

My teenagers don’t jump for joy in the aisles. They’d rather melt into the background. As I shopped, I longed for the days when I could just buy whatever junk off the $1 pile and have them react like it was the best thing they’d ever seen. Now I have to take a hard look and think, do they really want this, and is it worth what I’m investing, or will it end up in the pile under their bed? And will they think I’m completely out of touch because why would they even want something like this? I remember the Christmas mornings where the gift opening went on for an hour because the tree was piled with Play-Doh, Matchbox cars, and plastic dinosaurs, and every gift was a treasure. Now they’re still happy with their gifts but it’s over much faster, and are the cinnamon rolls done yet?

I’ve got one kid who stubbornly clings to the magic of Christmas, and I told him he’s carrying the spirit for our family this year. He started a tradition of bringing candy canes to his class, which I totally forgot about. He followed me grocery shopping this weekend just so he could pick out his canes. When I pointed out he only needed one box (I thought for his teachers), he said “Don’t you remember? I give them to the whole class.” OK, now on top of being the Grinch I’m a lousy mother to boot.

For this boy, I’m rallying. He gave me a list of items he needed for the teacher presents he assembles every year: pencils, dry erase markers, sticky notes, erasers, and of course chocolate. He found bags, stuffed them with tissue, and put labels on each one. He found an old soccer ball of his own and taped a candy cane to it for his gym teacher. My heart swelled (3 sizes that day?) and I felt it – the joy of the season comes in a different way, and it doesn’t just disappear because they’re older.

It doesn’t have to be about what Santa left and how high they’re going to jump when they see it. Both of my kids are so happy to have their entire family coming here, they can’t stand the wait. At first we weren’t going to host (see paragraph 1) and they were disappointed. They started talking about how awesome it was when we had the family over and my husband and I just melted. If I can’t give them joy through gifts, I can give them their family. And when I started thinking of it that way I remembered it’s not the presents, food, and hubbub they remember about Christmas. What they want is their loved ones nearby. That’s enough for me.

 

Advertisements

I Know How to Get Through Winter with Six Kids

Sometimes you have to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Or at least an embarrassment into something useful. For example:

Why is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" stuck in my head?

I often have piles of laundry this big and am ashamed to let people see them. Why? We all have laundry piles and no time to fold them. I’m not alone. Still, I usually tuck them away in a corner where I think they’re less obvious. But they’re always there.

Anyway as you can see by my groovy sectional couch (circa 1984, I kid you not) there is a perfect way for littles to climb up a seat, go over the table, and down the other side for a lovely roundy round jumping game. That is if they don’t stop in the middle and throw themselves off the table. I like to call it the “Make Amy Insane Game!”

I can stop this activity in a variety of ways:

1. Nagging
2. Physically removing them (which hurts my neck)
3. Pushing the table into the corner every day (which hurts my back)
4. Blocking them with the laundry

Ahh, the laundry blockade. The perfect solution! Sometimes you have to be creative.

And that’s what getting through winter with six kids in the house boils down to. Being VERY creative. I try to come up with projects they can all do, including the toddlers who eat stuff and the three-year-olds who want to use the beads. We sing hour-long renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and man is that a wild and crazy bus (the dogs on the bus go woof woof woof. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the bus go “Cowabunga!!”). I dig through the music collection for favorite songs, games and dances, we do yoga (most of them have a pretty mean downward dog), I get out the giant box of stickers, and then there’s coloring. Lots of coloring.

Sometimes the solutions are simple. The kids love reading a book in my lap, as much of it as there it to go around with four of them vying for it when they see someone else in it. I also have two teething babies who want to eat the books. So I found a giant box of board books and just brought the whole darn thing out of storage. We have been working our way through them, several books a day, and aren’t even close to reaching the end of the pile. It’s a perfect activity – they get my attention. They are learning. And they love being in a puppy pile of kids on the couch (until somebody starts asserting dominance. Much like puppies).

We spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes they make. Because they are literally climbing the walls. We lost our chair privileges last week when Mr. W taught Mr. P how to use them to climb up and get what we want off the high shelves. So when they get bored with the toys that are available, they find their own. Watching piles of construction paper cascade off the art shelf is very entertaining. Or letting babies empty an entire box of kleenex. So fun. Evil geniuses.

But the thing is, I can’t get mad at these activities. I know this is what two-year-old boys do especially when they can’t get outside to run, jump, spin, climb, and get rid of that energy in a positive way. We just keep cleaning up. I try to explain how some things in this room belong to Amy and shouldn’t be touched. But I know logically they don’t get that. They see a challenge, they want something, they problem-solve to get it. Two.

As I process all this information and think of what’s happening in the education community today, it makes me sad. The teachers in my neighboring city of Holyoke are facing a new academic hell, something called “receivership,” which I’ve never even heard of, due to low test scores. This means that the state can make them re-apply for their jobs and force the school to get outside help (paid for by who?) even though it’s been proven not to work time and time again. (Oh and standardized tests have been proven not to work time and time again but we’re basing receivership on that. Follow the money trail, friends. Your kids are a cog in the wheel. Child labor. But that’s another story.)

I think about what would happen if some state educational representative walked into my program on an 8-degree day in January. When toys were strewn all over the floor and kids were cranky, noisy, and hard to please. I would say Yes, it looks crazy. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and I know that this is what two-year-olds do. And I know how to handle it. But my voice would not be heard, because a politician and a businessman sitting in a quiet office somewhere, while other people raised their children (if they had any), decided that that’s not what kids should be doing at their age.

I’ve gone from creative laundry uses to a dark place here. I guess what I’m trying to say is, where kids are involved, some things are predictable, and some things are controllable. The rest is beyond us, and being the creative, supportive, patient, guiding adult is our job. And the voices of the professionals who do this job are the ones we should be listening to, no matter how ridiculous the solution may look to an outsider. Because believe it or not baby, I am a pro.

 

Getting Through Christmas, One Moment at a Time

I finally figured out what it is about Christmas that gets me down. I wrote last year about it not being all that great (much to the chagrin of my Christmas-loving mother) and I have the same feeling going into this season. I’m doing all the work, making all the plans, and I’m happy to do it all, but I just can’t feel joyful like I used to.

I realized that the “magic” of Christmas for me was a few years during college and after, before I had kids. Going home for Christmas, to my parents’ house, where I knew I would be cared for and lavished with gifts, and I had the warm memories of my own childhood to define what Christmas meant for me. Now my kids are in – and almost done with – those brief magical years. And mama bear is sad.

Whenever someone says “It goes by so fast” I know, and I believe them. Because already, it’s gone by so fast. It’s not my own mortality that bothers me – it’s knowing how brief and precious this time with my children is. We haven’t even properly disposed of last year’s Christmas tree. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s still moldering away in a corner of the yard. Every time I saw it I felt the shame. I really have to take care of that. But we somehow managed to miss every day the dump was open (which, to our credit, is only like every third Saturday so can you blame us?).

A few weeks ago when I took out the box of Christmas crafts for the day care kids to play with, I found a coloring book with Younger Son’s name on the front. It was from the early, early years of child care. It contained his precious scribbles, one purple swath over several pages. And here I am after what feels like only a few seasons saying, “the early years of child care.”

Younger was born into care and with me constantly for all those years. I remember his face, his hair, his smell even. The sound of his voice, his first steps, a few silly memories and places we went. But it’s only glimpses – I have to rely on pictures and video to give me the whole remembrance of that little boy. He is still here with me today, and our bond is stronger than ever. But he is different. And he will continue to change dramatically over the next few years as we rush here and there doing all the things we need to do to help him grow.

We have so many Christmas traditions that we love to do, and those are the moments of the season that I relish (and the boys do too, for the most part). One tradition is my husband’s comment when he drags the tree in through the front door: “Didn’t we just do this like, last week?” I think the tree laying in the yard can attest to that.

Every year I make a photo album for the Grammies. It’s a nice exercise in looking over the past year and remembering all the good times. The boys like to peek over my shoulder and see the pictures, and they both agreed that their favorite memory of the year was their aunt’s wedding. The reason: because all our family was together for a long weekend. To them, the family gatherings are their favorite times. And that’s why we all do this every year.

When I start to get grumpy over too much work to do, and stressed over their feelings regarding Santa, and just cranky and exhausted from all the work to be done, I stop and think of this. The time is flying, the magic is fading, but that’s just my experience. My kids still get it. So quitting all this sentimentality and being in the moment with them is the most important thing I can do today. Happy Holidays everyone.

Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

Trying to Find the Spirit

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Well, it used to be. As a mom with a full-time job, it’s the living on no sleep, drinking too much coffee, downing Emergen-C shots to fight germs I can’t afford, stumbling through the mall at 10 PM like a zombie time of the year. I’d like to see someone turn that into a catchy tune.

I really used to love Christmas, I really did. And even up to the last few years I still loved it, having surprises in store for the kids and reveling in their excitement. But now it feels like a grind that starts at Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it was this hard for my parents when they were putting on Christmas for us, but they never showed they were cranky about it.

I’ve had the privilege of reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” with Younger Son lately – as a real and true geek, this is a moment I’ve looked forward to for a long time. Now with just four days ’til Christmas, I can identify with Bilbo when he handed the ring to Gandalf: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Oh, Bilbo. I do know what you mean. I am the butter. But Younger has finally agreed to reading all four books together, so even if that’s not Christmas spirit at least it makes me ridiculously happy.

I was excited for a white Christmas after so many years of way-too-mild Christmases. Not one but two little snowstorms gave us over a foot of snow blanketing the yard. And now in these last few days before the holiday it’s supposed to jump to 50+ degrees. So the low hum of global warming dread that had been quieted is back.

My Kindle offered me a free version of “A Christmas Carol” so I decided to jump into that, thinking maybe the classic tale would snap me out of the doldrums. As with every book I’ve read as a child and come back to in adulthood, the experience of reading it is so much richer.

However, I also came to find out that it’s because of Dickens and this very story that we’re historically supposed to have a wonderful Christmas. In fact Christmas was a dying religious celebration until Charles came along and decided it should be a life-changing event. Oh, the irony.

My favorite song has become the Vince Guaraldi/Peanuts version of “Christmastime is Here” because everyone knows it’s depressing while trying to be cheerful. Thank you for your insight to human nature, Charles Schulz. Your gift to the world may be truer than Mr. Dickens’.

My family has several holiday traditions, activities that we’ve done with the boys year after year, and I wouldn’t miss them even if I was feeling Grinchy. I’ve enjoyed doing those because it’s precious, stolen time with my boys away from the madness. And we have fun no matter what we’re doing. Those times make me exceedingly happy, but it’s not technically Christmas spirit.

So what am I to do? Besides a delicious meal, perfect gifts, my contribution to our economic stability, joy, peace, love, and happiness, I’m supposed to have Christmas spirit. Just the requirement makes it feel less possible (and all the more depressing).

In the end, spirit came to me in flashes this year. In explaining to Younger what Habitat for Humanity is, that there are people who are willing to give up their time and money to build homes for others in need. In a neighbor whose picture order got mixed into mine, and instead of tossing them in the trash, she delivered them right to my door. At the school band concert when the kids played Good King Wenceslas all on the same notes. Singing “Dahoo dores” at our Whoville flash mob. Younger picking a fancy red “Christmas” shirt to wear on Christmas day, and being the general curator of Christmas spirit all month.

It came in a long and detailed email from my aunt, telling stories of Christmas in her house as a child and everything her mother did to make it special despite not having any money to spend. How family and friends were welcome all week and the time was spent visiting and eating bad sugar cookies with the silver balls that break your teeth.

That is what I have to settle on, finally, as the meaning of Christmas for me this year. After all the long hours, hard work, stress over finding the right gift, forgetting to bring out the silver and praying it wouldn’t be tarnished just hours before the meal was to be served, it comes down to family. It’s simply a tradition for family. I am blessed with a large, happy, and healthy one, and while it’s exhausting to fit them all into the schedule, it’s worth it. And we’ll continue to do it every year, while searching for the meaning behind the insanity. Isn’t that what family’s all about?

How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.

Feeling the Love

Sometimes in the middle of the insanity you can feel so much appreciation. Or maybe it seems even better than usual because you’re in a bad place. I needed it today, and boy did I ever get it.

This is a job where you don’t always feel that love, especially in summer. Parents are stressed out because they’re juggling schedules and trying to find care for kids who are out of school. My kids are home feeling neglected and bored while I work. And then there’s just the normal job stuff of making everybody follow the rules and managing extra equipment and activities for multiple ages – in your living room.

Today was looking to be a doozy. Without school in session I am IT for both my usual crew plus the after-schoolers, and I am overloaded. Usually the house and yard are trashed from one end to the other by the end of the day. I was expecting chaos from the get-go.

Instead, I started my morning with the sweetest moment. One of the moms was dropping off and she commented, “Your house has a certain smell and I realized what it is when I came in today. It’s comfort.”

Wow. Could you say anything better to someone who spends her life trying to comfort many little people? (And isn’t it nice that the soccer and baseball equipment are laying right there in the front hall, but she could still say that somehow.)

Another wonderful thing today has been my boys. I finally offered to pay them if they would stay with me and help with the kids, and geez why didn’t I think of that before. They have been all over me, doing everything I ask IMMEDIATELY. I need to mention that I’ve spent the first half of the summer begging them to put away their dirty laundry and dishes to the point of wondering, is there something mentally wrong with them?

Not today. Throw a little cash at them and they’re suddenly professional child care assistants. Having them with me has been delightful. They’ve carried babies (I’m still hurting from the bad back), set up pools, served lunch, and led the arts and crafts time. They’ve been simply amazing.

My five-year-old who already spent a week at camp commented, “Your house is like a campground!” So we decided that my boys are the camp counselors. They didn’t mind. In fact I think they kinda liked it.

Finally, I have a little one who has been fighting nap and her mom has been very concerned because she wants her on a good sleeping schedule. Today, after a few days of fighting through nap, she fell asleep for the first time. I was thrilled and immediately texted mom. Her response: “YOU ARE A SUPERSTAR.” (Her caps.)

It may sound silly but that’s exactly what I need to hear. A little bit of praise is so nice. When it comes to kids, I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for a long time, I get good results. But on a day when eight of them are running through my house in various states of nakedness and/or dripping wet, I have my doubts. So that little bit of extra love every once in a while is just what I need.