5 Lessons I Learned Staying Home with My Sick Three-Year-Old

IMG_5769 Winter in northern California is hardly challenging. Even during the years we get lots of rain (not this year or last), it’s rarely freezing cold and it certainly doesn’t snow where I am in the Bay Area. Despite the mild weather, we do still get hit with colds and flu though. My youngest ended up getting sick with a cold this weekend and stayed home from school today, which meant I stayed home too. Here’s what I learned during our sick day together. Continue reading “5 Lessons I Learned Staying Home with My Sick Three-Year-Old”

Lunch With a Friend

The other day, after dragging Lilah around on errands all morning, I decide to take her to lunch. Technically, she’s on a toddler moratorium from eating out at restaurants because it’s too stressful for me. It’s such a nightmare convincing her to stay in her chair and not throw her food on the floor and not to wander over to the next table to ask the unsuspecting diners if she can have a bite of their burger.

But, there I am at 11:37 a.m. with eight minutes to go until her preschool lunchtime, which she enjoys, on schedule, three times a week, and not a crumb of food in my bag. Not even a few stray Goldfish. Not even a half-eaten Z-bar. I’d forgotten one of the Top 10 Commandments of Motherhood: thou shalt not leave the house without snacks. Mayhem and meltdown will surely ensue if I don’t come up with food, pronto. Luckily, there’s a California Pizza Kitchen right there at the mall we’re traipsing around in search of picture frames (don’t ask). Pizza

The restaurant is quite empty, a sea of open tables, but the hostess takes that telltale turn towards the back of the restaurant to the dreaded Kids’ Corner – the area where they stick all the parents with small children as though we’ve got the plague. The only other people there are another mom with her toddler daughter. The girl has broken free of the high chair (I don’t even try that anymore) and is walking along the bank of booth seats where no one else is seated, pizza crust in hand. The mom is diligently eating her salad.

She glances up at us as we sit at the table across from them then calls out to her daughter, “Lucinda, come sit down please.” The tow-headed kid, gives her a quick look, then continues her trek across the seats.

“Sorry,” says the mom, her eyes creased with apology. She has a lovely English accent.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “There’s no way mine is going stay in her seat either.” We look at each other and laugh. And that’s all it takes for the floodgates to open. She has three kids; I have three kids. We both worked once upon a time and now stay at home. We’re both killing time with our toddlers, wondering how we’ll fill the next three hours before the much anticipated bliss of nap time. She tells me about a horrific experience she’s just had flying on Alaska Airlines that almost ended in her being cited for violation of FAA regulations. What are we parents supposed to do? Keep them strapped in the entire plane ride across the country? I totally agree – ridiculous – then tell her about the time I was shopping in Target with my toddler and the baby and the toddler took off, running into a man in the next aisle over who then yelled at me to control my kids. I was so shaken I abandoned my cart, put the girls back in the car and cried into my steering wheel. “Yes! yes!” she says. She’s done that too.

It’s amazing how we moms make these immediate connections over plane rides, meals gone awry and unfriendly encounters with the curmudgeonly. We swap war stories, getting to the heart of the matter within minutes: yes I love my kids but parenting is hard. So much work goes into keeping it altogether. Planning ahead, knowing the limits of each child, being able to abort a necessary outing because of a meltdown or just having to suck up that meltdown because you still have to fetch your 5-year-old from school and you still need milk.

We bond immediately, understanding what it takes just to be there with the little ones: you have to eat, you have to travel, you have to shop and more often than not, you have to do it with your kids in tow. And it’s stressful and mind-numbing and joyous and exhausting and there’s nothing you’d rather do than this mothering gig and then again, you’d give your left arm to be anywhere other than in the middle of an airplane or grocery store or playroom floor with an inconsolable, tantrumming 2-year-old.

We let the girls run around our mostly empty little outpost of CPK, we glance at them and lob warnings over the empty tables, admonishing them as expected, but really, neither of us care that much. They aren’t hurting anyone (yet). They aren’t tripping up any of the wait staff (yet). They aren’t that annoying (yet). And we need a break. We need those moments between us to shore ourselves up, pool our lives together for a few minutes, swim in the shared love and frustration of motherhood and know we are holding life jackets for each other. We lean into the aisle between our two tables, nodding and understanding each other, encouraging and eye rolling.

Ten minutes later, we collect our kids and head for the door, saying how great it was talking with each other, wishing each other a wonderful rest of the day, all the while corralling the girls, steering them towards our exits. As I cross the parking lot to my car, feeling somewhat rejuvenated, I realize I don’t know her name. I feel that dip of disappointment, the pang of a potential friendship lost, but it doesn’t last. Even if we never see each other again, I know she’s out there, doing the best she can everyday, just like me. We’re in it together.

Anytime you want to have lunch in the Kids’ Corner at CPK, I’m there.

The Toddler World of Why

I am up to my earlobes in the toddler world of “why.”

“Lilah, put on your shoes please.” Why?

“Because we have to go pick up your sisters from school and you need to wear shoes to walk to the car.” Why?

“Because the pavement is hot and it will hurt your feet if you don’t wear shoes.” Why?

“Because the sun is shining really brightly today and that makes things very hot outside and things that are very hot can hurt you and give you an ouchy.” Why?

“Because our bodies don’t like it when we touch things that are very, very hot. It hurts.” Why?

Anyone who’s ever attempted a conversation with a toddler knows that it is a never-ending banter that eventually spirals down into a teeny tiny pin-dot, a badminton birdie, being lofted back and forth. As soon as I answer her “why,” she gently thwacks another one at me, until I’m left with three choices: squash this irksome inquiry with a firm “Because I said so!”, come up with a toddler-friendly way to explain bodily functions or astronomy or laws of nature or change the subject.

“Do you need to pee? I think you should pee-pee before we go,” I say as I shuttle her off to the bathroom, barefoot.

Toddlers are relentless. They want to know everything. It’s annoying and tedious and awesome and brilliant. At a few months shy of three, Lilah is on to me. She no longer takes my simple answers as absolute treatises on matters like why trees have leaves (so they can breathe) and toes have toenails (um, I don’t know). This kid wants more and I am her walking, talking encyclopedia, her life-coach, her Google, her all-knowing Wonderful Wizard of Mom.

Yes, it’s irritating, but there’s also something in it for me. I find myself paying attention to small things I might otherwise have skipped. I’m seeing the layers, peeling back the “what” to think about the “why.” Why is the moon still in the sky in the morning? Why is it warm outside even when it’s cloudy? Why is cheese stinky? I know the basic answers to these questions, but I don’t really give myself the time or space to really wonder. Not in the same way little Lilah does.

IMG_1999This morning while walking the dog, I point out the newly blooming jasmine along the front of our house. “Give it a sniff,” I say and Lilah sucks a great big gulp of air through her nose. I silently hope she’s not allergic to pollen.

“It smells sweet,” she says. Then she turns to me with big eyes and says, “Why?”

I’m about to go into an ad-hoc explanation about how some flowers are fragrant while others aren’t when I stop myself.

“You tell me,” I say, waiting to see what turning the tables will do. She peers through the flowers as if the answer is hiding deep down in the bush’s tangled inner branches. The dog pees. A minivan drives by.

“Because so the bees can smell it and make their honey house!” she says, completely delighted. “And then Pooh can eat it,” she adds.

The toddler’s why is infinitely more beautiful and simple than anything I could have mustered from my way too grown up brain. For her, the real and the made-up weave around each other to make sense of the world. And why not? Not every lesson has to be based in fact.

Lilah takes my hand as we start back down the street, both wondering about bee noses and talking honey bears and where we might find the next why.

P is for Princess Power

princess: a non-reigning female member of a sovereign family; a girl that has been pampered, sheltered and spoiled her whole life.

“Anna-n-Elsa!, Anna-n-Elsa!” shrieks my almost-three-year-old as we cross into the magical world of Disney. She tugs at my arm, expecting to see the royal sisters from Frozen any minute. No such luck. Turns out they’re carefully guarded inside a smallish, Nordic-looking cottage in a corner of Fantasyland and there’s a four hour wait to meet them. Frankly, I’d rather kiss Sven.

I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed myself. The two latest members of the Disney Princess Club are pretty awesome: sisters torn apart in childhood by one’s strong magical powers find their way back to each other through the sheer force of sibling love. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks they’re cool. The day before we arrived at the park, there was a three-hour wait at the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique to buy the Elsa dresses delivered that morning. They won’t be getting a new shipment until June.

Princesses are my guilty pleasure. Both my older girls went through what is commonly known as “The Princess Phase” so I’m no stranger to tiaras, sparkles,  poofy gowns, princess parties and endless loops of the latest princess movie on the nearest screen. In fact, I’m looking forward to Lilah’s foray into this very glittery, very girlie world.

That’s right. I’m looking forward to it.

So much has been written, discussed and debated around the idea that it’s dangerous for us to quietly stand by and watch as our daughters are, to paraphrase Peggy Orenstein, swallowed whole by Cinderella and her pretty little friends. There is the theory that little girls’ love of princesses is based primarily on their beauty. I don’t deny that looks are a big draw, but that’s not the only thing the princesses have to offer.

IMG_0011I used to despise the story of The Little Mermaid. I mean, really, giving up your voice for a guy? Try as I might, my daughter Ella would not be dissuaded from having that Ariel costume. She even had the bridal version. I had to get over it. Instead of being mortified at my daughter’s choice of role model, I decided to demand more from that fish-tailed floater. And I got it. Yes, she gives up her voice, but it isn’t just so she can be with the prince. Ariel chooses to trade in her voice, a thing of great value, not just for the prince, but also for another thing of value – the chance to experience a whole new world. Instead of thinking of Ariel as the ultimate anti-feminist, I decided to layer her story with more positive attributes like independence and confidence and faith. It takes a lot of courage to give up a life that is safe and known to explore the thrills and perils of the unknown.

There is power beyond the prettiness in almost every princess story. An original version of the Cinderella story ends not only with a wedding, but also with Cinderella forgiving her stepmother and stepsisters for their atrocious treatment of her. Snow White faces her disastrous circumstances by caring for the Seven Dwarfs. Belle grows to love the Beast, despite his ugliness, proving that looks aren’t everything. Merida follows her heart rather than give in to tradition, but when things go wrong, she takes responsibility. Elsa overcomes her fears and Anna, with her pluck, perseverance and pure love, helps her find her way. And the one theme these fairytales all have in common? Love. Whether its romantic love, sister love, the love between friends or the love between a parent and child, love does save the day.

Now that I’ve learned to look beyond the mirror when it comes to fairytale princesses, I can help my daughters look beyond it, too. Independence, love, courage, kindness, forgiveness, adventure, curiosity, responsibility – these are the powers I want my girls to recognize and nurture within themselves.

Now, where can I find an Elsa dress in a size 3?

I’m participating in the 2014 A to Z Challenge during the month of April using the very broad theme of LOVE to carry me through the alphabet. Check out writing by other bloggers taking on the #atozchallenge at @AprilA2Z.

Little, Big

hands“I want to be little,” says the toddler and I say, “You are little.”

“I little,” she confirms. “Pick me up.”

I steel my center as I reach down and lift her up. Her legs wrap around my waist, her cheek finds its favorite place in the hollow between my shoulder and my collarbone. She rests there, cradled in arms that have gone rigid with the effort of holding her. At two and a half she is long-legged and tall for her age. She weighs 33 pounds. She is hardly little. And at the same time, she is nothing but.

I don’t remember my older two ever wishing to be little. My oldest couldn’t wait to do “big girl” things like wear underwear and ditch the sippy cup for a proper drinking glass. My middle one simply wanted to be like her older sister and took on challenges, like skiing and summer camp, at an earlier age than the first one did, just to keep up.

But Lilah, our third and last, she wants to be little. She wants me to pick her up as often as possible; she brings her elephant lovey everywhere, even to the bathtub where he waits by the sink until it’s time to dry off. She asks me to wrap her in her favorite blanket so she can snuggle down in a sunny spot on the floor. When I ask her if she’s pretending to be a baby, she says, “No. I just little mama.”

I can’t help but wonder what she’s getting at, this little one. Is she so wise that she’s already figured out that being “big” ain’t all that? Is she so self-aware that she actually understands how to appreciate the present moment instead of pining for the future?

You be little mama,” she commands and so I try to get small. I crouch down next to her, pull my knees up into my chest, wrap my arms around my shins and tuck my chin. She laughs at me.

“You not little mama!”

“No, you’re right, I’m not,” I say. “But I was once as little as you are now.”

She gives me her opened-mouthed, wide-eyed surprised face. I haven’t got the heart to tell her that she, too, will one day be big, that she will probably grow to be taller than me, that her heart will expand with love and her agile mind with possibility, that her round baby face will give way to distinct planes and angles, that she’ll soon outgrow her new, red shoes.

In our culture, there’s pressure for children to grow up and get on with it: eat solids, crawl, walk, talk, play, potty train, socialize. Sure, there’s an age range for when these milestones should be reached, but there also seems to be a badge of honor that comes when your child does these things on the early side. Why can’t we just let our little people be little?

Last night my almost 12-year-old asked me to sing her a bedtime song. She hadn’t asked me to do that in well over a year. What was once a nightly ritual had dwindled down to the occasional mother-daughter, over-the-top duet of songs like “Let it Go” and “Just Another Picture to Burn.” She asked me to sing “Blackbird” and I did, stroking her long, caramel-colored hair. When the song ended, she clasped my hand in hers and squeezed it to her chest.

“I feel little mommy,” she said. “Like I did when I was five and free and didn’t have to do anything but play and eat and go to sleep.”

We all yearn to be little now and then and for the sweet simplicity we remember when we were small. I’m in no hurry for my littlest one to grow up. I can’t stop time, but I’ll honor her wish to be little for as long as I can.

Photo by Victoria Remler

How to Be Present? Start Here

This piece was also published on the Huffington Post. 

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My 2-year-old’s been walking around with her hand down the back of her pants for three days, moaning.

“I no wanna poop!”

The kid is the definition of anal-retentive. She’s been holding it in on and off for the past six weeks. This results in terrible constipation for her and parenting uncertainty for me: Aren’t I supposed to catch these things before they get out of control? Why didn’t I see the signs? This <i>is</i> my third kid, after all.

Until now, parenting Lilah has been something of a no-brainer: sleeping through the night? No problem thanks to my year-long odyssey teaching Ruby how to sleep. Weaning her off the binkie? Nothing to it, thanks to my dogged determination to convince Ella to quit her thumb sucking. Not pooping? Not really sure.

I go with what I do know and give her ripe pear and prune juice and high-fiber everything. Nothing works. I turn to my pediatrician, who says, “Nothing major. Just constipated,” and recommends a daily dose of child-friendly laxative, which makes changing diapers a particularly smelly and watery adventure. We can’t seem to find a balance and within a few days, she’s holding in her poop again.

I scour my brain for an explanation: is our high-energy family overwhelming for her? Is there too much brouhaha around potty training? Am I not feeding her a healthy diet? Does she have a food allergy?

I’m concerned about my kid’s health, no doubt, but the real question behind that concern keeps catching my attention like a jagged fingernail on a favorite sweater: if I’d just been more attentive, could I have done something to prevent this?

The truth is, I’m a distracted mother.

Having three children swallows me whole. I love them fiercely, but I’m not always paying attention to them. With my first two, I submerged myself into mothering for a solid seven years. I was totally focused on their every need, every whimper, every delighted squeal. Then they grew up, went to school and I turned 40. Their needs became less physical and more emotional. They became more independent and so did I. The need to stay home full time faded a bit and I started to explore my place in the wider world. Eighteen months later, quite unexpectedly, I was pregnant again.

Now, I’m 44 with a two-year-old, an almost 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. Having three kids, one of whom is a toddler, makes every day exponentially more challenging for me, especially the staying present part. The very real physical needs of my little one combined with the practical daily and intense emotional needs of my older two can leave me drained and distant.

Often I feel like a ping pong ball zinging from one side of the table to the other. At one end, I’m overwhelmed by the concrete business of mothering – rousing everyone for school, making the lunches, driving the carpools, refereeing the rivalries, changing the diapers, making dinner, checking homework, tucking them in. At the other end, my brain is constantly in monkey-mode, jumping from all the to-dos I didn’t do to the appointments I have yet to make to the groceries I need buy to the texts dinging at me to reply to the next essay I want to write to the proposal I promised that client to what are the words to that Muse song? to I have to call my mom/sister/BFF and tell her about the Thanksgiving plans/amazing sale/girls’ weekend. It goes on and on and on.

I’m not saying there aren’t moments of profound connection between me and my girls. It’s just that they don’t seem to last more than those few moments. Snuggling Lilah on my lap I feel her heartbeat against mine through her purple monkey pajamas. Ruby turns her rosy face up to me for a kiss, then wraps her arms around my waist, her cheek resting on my stomach. Ella strokes my hand and says, “I love you mama.”

These moments catch me by surprise. I am so immersed in the day-to-day of running my family and corralling my thoughts, which are scattered like a billion stars across a universe of I Musts, What-Ifs and I-Didn’ts that I begin to drift out of orbit. It takes the stillness of my kids to pull me back to earth, even if it’s just for a brief moment before one of us is distracted again.

Living this way, it’s no wonder that I miss the signs, whether it’s a heads up sneeze preceding an oncoming cold or a furtive whine signaling a major meltdown. Why does it surprise me that I missed the toddler’s developing tummy troubles? I won’t beat myself up about it anymore, but I do need and want to be more attentive to the life in front of me, at least as much as my buzzing brain will allow. But where do I begin?

In the end, it’s the dog that saves the day.

After more pears and prune juice, I figure a little physical activity can’t hurt the pooping process, so Lilah and I take Sadie for a walk around the block. About a quarter of the way around, the dog begins her circular sniffing that always precedes a poop. As the dog squats, tail lifted, Lilah watches, clutching my leg, then looks up at me, eyes watering and says, “I making poop too mommy.”

That’s when I get it: even as I schlep and shop and bathe and write and yearn for myself beyond motherhood, I’m <i>here</i>. I’m in the kitchen cooking as my 3rd grader does her homework at the counter. I’m in the driver’s seat while my 6th grader belts out Lady Gaga with her friends in the back. I’m standing on the sidewalk holding the dog’s leash with the toddler using my leg for leverage as she finally poops.

We all have to start somewhere. I’m starting here.