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Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week: The Most Unsexy Jobs of All

You can smell Jakari from eight feet away. The combination of unwashed clothes and hair, shoes that have seen an extra winter of wet and dry feet. As if that didn’t already put her in the shallow end of the popularity pool, she weighs in at least forty pounds above the average fifth grader.

There is something so incredibly unsexy about any profession that gets an appreciation week. Teacher appreciation week shows up at the same time each year as nurses week, and quite honestly, both professions boil down to dealing with other people’s feces, literally and physically. Is it any wonder that Mother’s Day is only five days away? The role of mother falls solidly in the “dealing with feces” category.

This week is full of small gestures of thanks. Cups filled with chocolate, vases filled with flowers, boxes filled with jewelry. My cynical self can start to wonder if these appreciation weeks and days are lip service, a compulsory nod, the thank you we throw over our shoulder at the cashier as we take our receipt. As if that could possibly match the contributions our mothers and teachers have made to our lives.

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This past two weeks my sweet little toddler has learned that he can have an opinion, and that it is most exciting when that opinion goes in direct opposition to mine. I can’t blame him. That’s his job, to figure out the boundary lines of mommy and baby, to test the limits of my patience, to experiment with the rules until he learns them all, and then to experiment some more to make sure I wasn’t kidding.

But last Sunday morning was tough. It started with screaming and didn’t stop for almost three hours until he collapsed asleep in a pile, just in time for us to pack him in a car to head to church. He woke up, of course, right when we walked into church fifteen minutes late (also of course). The sermon had started and I knew his dazed cuddling was a ticking clock, no way it would last. Sure enough, the angry fish flopping started as soon as I told him he couldn’t run around in the pew.

I took the elevator up to our church’s nursery, my son upset, again, because he didn’t get to push the “up” button. I pushed into that deep inner resolve, the one I channel when I need to stay calm in trying situations. And maybe there was a little bit of self-pity. You know, the “I deserve a break” or the “somebody should be helping me right now” feelings. The “I deserve a holiday to celebrate my massive contributions to my son and society” feelings.

And at that moment, right as the elevator doors chimed and opened, my son turned to me, put his tiny, perfect, chubby hands on my cheeks, grinned with his lovely twelve teeth and his tiny dimple, and said, “Mama.”

He spoke the words with the awe and wonder that I so often feel for him. This incredible realization that we are part of one another, that our lives are forever entwined with cords stronger than DNA; that we are sewn together with love.

I had surgery recently, and I was desperate for help during the recovery that the doctor had misled me to believe would only last a few days and has instead continued for six weeks. Within a few days of the surgery my mom caught wind that I was struggling, rearranged her schedule and drove down to spend a week caring for me, cleaning my house, cooking my meals, and most notably: waking up with my son to spend the mornings with him. (Is there any greater gift than this?)

I often turn to my husband, when my mom is at our house and caring for our every need, or when his parents have extended some truly incredible gift of generosity, and ask how we could ever repay our parents for all they have done for us. We are disgustingly fortunate to have such loving and supportive parents. And he often will say, “We can never repay them. We can only pay it forward.”

And that’s what I keep thinking as I watch Jakari’s teacher sit down next to her and teach her to read, inviting her after school, allowing her to keep her siblings in the room during homework help, since Jakari is their primary caretaker. Jakari is still so often ornery in class, still bullies other students, still talks back. And yet her teacher comes back each day with a deeper resolve to help Jakari learn to read and write. Could Jakari ever pay her back for this?

That’s what I think when my mom works tirelessly to make sure that I am healthy, being willing to exhaust herself so that I can rest. That’s what I think when she insists I go to bed instead of helping her do the dishes or wash stains from our clothing. Is the card we send her, with someone else’s words printed inside a joke?

Maybe Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day (and Nurse’s Week) help us to remember that there is no way that we can ever repay the people who have loved us, who have parented us, who have shown grace to us. No chocolates or flowers, stuffed animals or crayon-scribbled cards could ever repay the mothers, biological or otherwise, who have nurtured us.

But maybe those sentiments are a statement, a reminder that there is enough grace to go around, that we are all better when someone loves us more than we deserve, more than we could ever repay.

And maybe these appreciation weeks and days are a chance for us to turn around with awe in our eyes and acknowledge those people who have loved us well. Not because we can pay them back, but because their love has allowed us to pay it forward.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

PARENTING

My House and I Are Breaking up. Here are the Juicy Details.

So, I’m moving. Well, not just me, I think my husband and son plan to come along, too. But we are in the process of packing up all of our belongings from one house into boxes and moving all of those boxes into another house.

Along the way, I’m learning some things about myself. The loudest and clearest message is that I really hate moving.

Growing up we never moved. My parents still live in the beautiful brick row-house in St. Paul, Minnesota that has always seemed like home, and probably always will. A house has a way of accumulating stuff. Which is to say, people have a way of expanding their possessions to fit the space in which they live.

Which is to say, I have too much stuff.

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I’ve started reading this book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I want to hate it, but I don’t. Mostly so far I’ve cried when I’ve read it. It asks you to think about asking yourself what items you really care about, what items you want to allow to share your space. When I stop rolling my eyes, I’m wiping them.

It hits close to home. (Pun intended?)

For example, we have two rooms in our house that are filled with items from my past lives. Namely, the room in the basement and the entire attic. I like to think that my husband and I share our space an even 50-50, but I think it’s really more of a 20-80. Except when it comes to the bed. Then he definitely takes up more room.

Anyway, the eighty percent of the space that I am taking up in the attic and in the room in the basement is filled with stuff from my classrooms, stuff from my last apartment, stuff from my childhood, stuff others have given me when they’ve moved, stuff that may be of use to someone, someday. So. much. stuff.

And truth be told, if a hurricane hit our house and I had to itemize a list of what was in either of those spaces I would probably be able to name about a third of the items, and that’s being generous.

Case in point, our real estate agent came over and wanted to see the upstairs, and I said, “Oh, it’s pretty empty up there.” Then I followed her up to see piles and piles of my books, clothes, towels, sheets, and school boxes.

This is the point when I tell you how that moment made me realize that I don’t really need any of those things in the attic, and I gave them all to Goodwill.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, I went up there, and my stuff started grabbing at me with it’s long finger-nailed claws. I sat down and read through boxes of letters, throwing away one for every twenty I kept. Besides the fact that this is a much slower process than I have time for if we’re going to list our house in two weeks, it is also not very helpful in the whole “tidying up” regard.

So I haven’t given it all away to Goodwill.

But it did make me realize that those rooms are not empty. Not in my house and not in my life. There are a lot of rooms with a lot of baggage in my heart and the very physical act of cleaning out a house has given me a close up to stuff, physical and emotional, that is weighing me down.

Which brings me back to the whole thing about how moving sucks. And about how this whole process fills like one big break-up.

As soon as we found out that our bid was accepted and we had a close date for our new house, I did what everybody does. I started crying. I started apologizing to our current house.

I felt like I’d been cheating, looking at MLS in my free-time, fantasizing where I’d put the furniture in my new place.

“Sorry house, I love you, I really do, but I have to think about what’s best for me. I don’t know that I ever loved you the way you should have been loved, etc, etc, etc.”

All super normal.

Moving is supposed to solve your problems, right?

But now that we’ve gotten this incredible house, I’ve started to realize all the things I’m leaving behind. And some of the issues I’ve had with our house are my issues. Like the fact that it’s always a mess. The fact that I can’t figure out how to organize the kitchen. And suddenly I’m starting to see that those are going to be moving in with me at our new house. Unless I deal with them now.

Meanwhile, like a good spited lover, my house is starting to really pull itself together. While I’m gone on vacation in a week, it will have a complete rehab of the upstairs. The walls are getting painted. It’s getting in shape. Just to let me know what I could have had if I’d been willing to stick around.

There’s a lesson in this, right? About how our lives will teach us the lessons we most need if we pay attention. About being awake enough to let the piles of garbage in your life help you to realize the areas of your life that most need tending. About how leaving isn’t always the easy thing, even when it is the right thing. About how you can run away, but your baggage is really good at keeping pace.

Or maybe a box is just a box, a cigar is just a cigar.

Here’s what I know. Each box we take to Goodwill makes me feel a little bit lighter. So as much as moving sucks, maybe my house isn’t the only one that is coming out of this breakup better off.

Also, on a happy note: We’re buying a house!!!

pieces of her life

 

“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said.” -Brian Andreas

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING READING

My Screen-Free Bedroom (And the 4 Best Ways It Has Changed My Life)

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About a year ago I was reading an article in the Atlantic that quoted Arianna Huffington recommending that the bedroom to be a device-free zone. It was one of those moments in life when you’re brought up short. A time when you watch your excuses for why you live your life the way you do turn to colanders, no longer holding any water. Because if Arianna Huffington, creator of Huffington Post and Forbe’s Most Influential Woman in media can unplug before going to bed, what’s my excuse?

It was a little like the moment when I was talking to my dad and off-handedly mentioned that it has been hard to find time in the mornings or evenings to pray like I would like to, especially now that I have a kid. I said it fishing for some commiseration and empathy. Instead, my dad said, “What do you mean? Susanna Wesley had ten children and a ne’er do well husband, and everyday she would sit in the corner, throw her apron over her head, and pray. And she’s the mother of John and Charles Wesley, the mother of Methodists.”

In other words, “What’s your excuse?”

Anecdote noted. (And, while I may act kind of crusty about it, I have been finding more time for prayer since that conversation.)

In any case, life is full of solicited and unsolicited advice and interjections, and yet I’ve found that it behooves me not to be overly fast in dismissing these little (or big) nudges.

So it’s been percolating, this idea of giving up screens in the bedroom. We don’t own a TV, preferring instead to ingest our media via laptop computer and Netflix, and therefore we have reason to be quite smug in the comparison contest about media intake. But it turns out that you can consume just as much media on your computer as you can on your TV.

Anyway, I off-handedly wrote in a previous blog that maybe one of my New Year’s Resolutions would be to have a screen-free bedroom. It had been on my mind for a year, so I decided it might be time to put the guilt into action. But I decided in a, “I’m gonna write about this on my blog” kind of way, not a, “I’m gonna make a lifestyle change” kind of way.

And then a commenter went ahead and told me that it was essential, nay imperative that I make this one simple change. This change= the answer to all my problems.

OK, that might be an exaggeration.

But she did speak about it with an enthusiasm only the truly converted, born again evangelists can muster, and I was intrigued.

I broached the subject with my husband and he was immediately on board. I didn’t even have to tell him about the blog comment, or her guarantee that this would mean more snuggle time in the bedroom. (If you know what I mean and I am pretty sure you do.)

The first couple weeks were a little tricky since our cell phones were also our alarm clocks. It had me yearning for my High School CD alarm clock that I had begged my parents to get for my birthday. (They did, and I set it to blast Contemporary Christian Music every morning. Those were the days.)

We worked around it, leaving cell phones in the next room over, set to top volume. While snooze isn’t nearly as effective when you have to walk fifty feet to press the button, it does help start the morning earlier.

So here’s that moment in the blog when I tell you how it has dramatically changed my life, my marriage, my family, and me. (AKA, here is where the list starts, you can stop scrolling past the frivolous opening paragraphs.)

The 4 Ways My Life Is Better Because I Have A Screen-Free Bedroom

1. Better sleep

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Since starting this, I have found that I go to bed earlier than I otherwise would have, and probably more importantly, I don’t pick up my phone and check Facebook when my son wakes me up in the middle of the night. Yeah. I was doing that. Also, I don’t scroll through Facebook, promising myself I will only read one more article, and then go to bed. I just go to bed. Imagine that.

2. More reading

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With no Candy Crush Saga level to beat and no Lorelai Gilmore quote to listen to, I pick up the nearest book to read in the moments before bed. And not surprisingly, reading has this incredible calming effect on me, making it easier to fall asleep. (See above: better sleep)

3. Easier waking

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This one has come as a surprise, not only because it coincides with our eighteen month old’s most recent sleep strike, but also because I didn’t think it was possible for waking up to be considered anything in the family of easy. But miracles do exist.

Not having the phone next to me in the morning means that I can wake up, wander around my room, cuddle with my son, start making breakfast, pack a nutritious lunch, take a shower, blow dry my hair, brush my teeth, etc, etc, etc, and NOT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT WORK! I had no idea how quickly the hounds of the day nip at my feet.

And while it may disappoint a few people to not get an email response from me at one in the morning, somehow I think we will all survive.

4. More cuddling

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I’m not going to go into a lot of details here, but when I say this I’m not just talking about sex. I’m talking about how this has forced my husband and me to be intentional about having time together, not just deciding that binge watching “How I Met Your Mother” counts as a date night. Suddenly we have started to talk about if we want to watch a show, or if we want to talk about our days. And often if the choice is to watch a show while sitting on the couch, or talk to each other while lying snuggly under covers… it isn’t hard to choose snuggles.

There you have it. World peace has not yet been achieved, but I have a lot more inner peace. I gotta agree with my blog commenting friend, I don’t regret it. This is one resolution I think we’ll keep.

(And maybe not looking at my phone or laptop at night is a little like Susanna Wesley throwing an apron over her head. Sometimes you just have to unplug.)

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

 

fathering mothering PARENTING

Will You Be My Friend?

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It’s been a long last couple months. It started when my son projectile vomited all over me at my husband’s thirty-first birthday dinner. His parents took us to one of our favorite Italian restaurants to celebrate. We had just finished the first course of the chef’s tasting menu when my son reached for me, nestled his head into my shoulder, then pulled back to look me straight in the face. It was a sweet moment. Then he threw up for what seemed like hours onto the entire front of my body until I was sufficiently soaked in his vomit. The waiter came by moments later with our next course. I wasn’t hungry. (Though I did manage to finish my martini.)

The sicknesses passed from one to another of us over the next six weeks, culminating in a trip to the ER and the determination that my son will no longer be receiving drugs in the penicillin family.

People have been asking me how my “holidays” went, and I either say fine, or say way too much, their eyes glazing over thirty seconds into my ER story.

Let’s just say, in the words of Counting Crow’s Adam Duritz, “A long December, and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last…”

So I hadn’t been feeling my best self. For awhile. In fact, that night when we decided to take our son to the ER, as I pulled my son’s pants off to change his diaper and saw a full body rash and swollen limbs hot to the touch, my exact and immediate response fell solidly into the expletive category. Well, expletives and tears. Which would probably be my band name if I ever formed a band.

What followed was a night of holding my screaming, beautiful baby boy while he was stuck with needles and having thermometers shoved into his rear end (there has GOT to be a better way to take a temperature, accuracy or not), while trying to interpret the doctor’s well-meaning but overly technical jargon at one in the morning. (Is it that hard to say fever instead of febrile? Seriously?) It all left me a little bit crusty. Or crustier.

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We had emailed friends to tell them about our ER experience and ask them to pray, and so many friends emailed back and told us they were thinking of us and praying for us. Most of the emails ended with, “Let us know if we can do anything to help.”

I was touched by the immediate email responses from our friends, reading them each to my husband. And then Crusty piped in with her thoughts. “Really? What can you do to help? Come hold our kid for a few hours so we can get some sleep!”

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Without missing a beat my husband (who loves both Rachel and Crusty) replied, “I bet there at least five people who would be willing to come over right now and do that if we asked.”

I didn’t ask.

But he was right. There are at least that many friends who would make time to help us, even at an inconvenience to themselves. So why is it so hard to ask?

My husband I met at church, and got to know one another through a church small group called Faith For Life, where we discussed the Rule of Saint Benedict, hospitality, and spiritual disciplines. I know, words like disciplines are so unbelievably not fun. It reminds me of spankings, dread, and not being able to eat chocolate.

However, one of the disciplines we discussed was asking for help. And we agreed to ask one another for help at least once a week for that summer, to practice what it was like to admit that maybe, just maybe, we can’t do it all on our own. Sometimes we have to reach out for the hand of a friend.

My one attempt to ask for help that summer was to call my husband for directions. This was before Siri could do that for me.

So it turns out that I am really really not good at asking for help. Like really, really not good. And it also turns out that being a parent has made the moments when I need help cluster together like grapes on a vine. (Which is obviously a coincidence and has absolutely nothing to do with life handing me the lessons I need to learn.)

It’s just so hard to be the needy one. It’s hard to be the one who has to ask, who has to kneel. It’s hard to admit that I DO care what people think, that I care deeply if my friends love me. My friends and I joke about “The Friendship Bank”, and I desperately want to be the one with the most money in the bank, and I’m always afraid I’m instead the one making the most withdrawals.

But I also think my fear of those things keeps me from the intimacy and friendship I might have if I was willing to stop keeping score, willing to reach out a little more often, even if all I have is a wrapped present full of my need.

Last Sunday some couples from my church got together, and shortly before leaving I turned to two of my favorite friends, looked them in the eyes and said, “It’s been a hard couple months and I have been avoiding everyone. And I really need connection and my friends. Will you two pursue me?”

They laughed, because who says that?

But they said yes. And last Tuesday we went out to have sushi. And they told me that if I had called them, they would have come to hold our son while we napped.

I’ve had a wonderful few days since then. Which I think is probably related.

So don’t be surprised if your phone rings sometime soon. It might just be Crusty asking for some help.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING

How’s that New Year’s Resolution Going?

I got a head-start on my New Year’s resolutions. In November I joined a gym four blocks from our house. It’s a functional, affordable, women-only gym. It isn’t fancy and they keep the temperature slightly higher than I might choose, but the price was right, and I was immediately appreciative that the sounds of weights slamming together, loud grunts, and congratulatory slaps on the back was completely absent from the space. It’s actually kind of eerie how quiet it is.

It seems as safe a space as any to let my baby belly hang out.

Like most gyms, there are motivational posters all around, reminding you why you’re there, preventing you from leaving before you’ve changed into your gym clothes. (Maybe it’s just me, but some days that feels like a work out in and of itself.)

One phrase particularly caught my eye:

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(If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.)

For some reason, that struck me as incredibly profound, and I kept thinking about it during my work out. It got me thinking about how often I give up and give in, how many times I make a plan, and how few of the times I can keep it going long enough to see the results I want to see.

Then the self-talk started. “Stop giving up!” “Don’t be a quitter!” “Stop giving in to what is easy!”

I don’t know if you’re hearing the trend here, but I did. Shame is such a sneaky, sneaky thing, and there it was again, rearing it’s ugly head. Despite the success of joining a gym again after a year and a half break, my first self-talk wasn’t one of celebration or success, but one of shouting and failure.

This is not how I want to feel going to the gym. Actually, this is not how I want to feel. Period.

Like many people, I find myself excited to make New Year’s resolutions. It’s such a great starting-over point. It’s so wonderful to make plans and dreams, to wish for better.

But I think it can be a dangerous time, too. Because if I’m not careful, it turns into dissatisfaction with myself, my accomplishments, my surroundings, and my choices. It’s not that there isn’t a time and place for change, it’s just so easy to forget about the other stuff. The good stuff.

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It’s so easy to make plans and dreams for the year to come without fully appreciating the year that has passed.

Over break my in-laws watched our son so my husband and I could go to dinner. Between bites of sushi and sips of champagne I asked my husband, “What are some of the things this year that you’re really proud of accomplishing? What are some of the things that you have stuck with and even got better at doing?”

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For the next hour we went back and forth, sharing stories and examples of ways that we have changed and grown. We talked about how we’ve learned to be more gracious with one another’s needs even while attending to the needs of our son.

We talked about how we’ve made time for one another: having date nights, shared Netlix shows, reading together, and having an overnight without our baby. (A huge thanks to my in-laws for that one!) And how we’ve made times for our son, sitting on the floor and playing with him side by side.

I shared how this year has been about letting go. As I have changed jobs I have had to learn how to leave graciously, how to walk out the door without resentment, desiring the best not only for my future, but for the future of the people and places I leave behind. I talked about how I have had to let myself grieve, and it has taken longer than I expected, and yet I feel like I’ve managed to find peace.

There are other things, too. Like reading 65 books, logged on goodreads. Or not eating sugar or white carbs for the first four months of the year. Or mostly keeping up with my blog.

I even mentioned the gym. Going one to two times a week. Not as many as I might want, but more than this time last year.

I’d go on, but it’s already starting to feel a little braggy.

It was a moment of lovingkindness, a moment of gratitude for what has been. It was grace.

I have some ideas of goals for this coming year. We’re starting to eat a more plant-based diet. We’re going back to cutting out white carbs and sugars. We have goals of going to the gym. We’re even talking about making our bedroom a screen-free space. (She says, as she types in bed.)

But somehow, the goals don’t feel like badges of my failure from 2014. They feel more like continued successes, like picking up some of the strands that were dropped, and carrying on.

And I suppose that’s my wish for this year: a little more grace, a little more love, and a lot more kindness, day in and day out on this journey.

Somehow that feels more important than another diet.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING

Chocolate Chip Cookies, Boogers, and Board Books: An Honest Inside Look at the Life of a Working Mom

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Let me paint you the scene. It’s midnight. I just finished baking Nutella stuffed chocolate chip cookies. I’m in charge of our “connecting activity” for work tomorrow and I have carefully planned five “Minute to Win It” games. I’ve somehow also managed to sign up to bring food for the breakfast tomorrow, so along with the white elephant gift exchange present, the props for Minute to Win It, and the 9 X 13 pan of cookies, I am picking up bagels and cream cheese early tomorrow morning.

For a minute this afternoon I contemplated trying to make it to the 6:15am group work out class at the women’s gym I joined last month. Don’t worry, I’ve eaten enough chocolate this evening to tamp down that idea.

Tis the season, right? The season of way, way, way too much to do. I have always felt this way, but somehow having a son and wanting to squeeze every moment of time with him out of each day leaves very thin margins on the book-ends of my day to accomplish, well, everything.

And I do mean… everything.

This week we had a professional development for work. And she was there. You don’t know her, and yet, I’m pretty sure you do. She’s adorable, she got a work ethic to make Ben Franklin proud, she’s a step higher on the career ladder. She’s so nice that it’s annoying and yet, you realize that you can’t not like her because, ugh, she is so nice. She doesn’t have a kid yet, but I can guarantee that when she does, her days will have extra hours and she will not be awake at 1am writing a blog about how much she envies someone else. She will instead be busy being the President of the United States. Or something like that.

I’m exaggerating. Obviously. But there’s nothing like showing up to a work event having barely brushed your hair and wearing a Coldwater Creek shirt you bought from Goodwill that may or may not have gone out of style ten years ago that can send you into the spiral of down, down, down into the comparison game. Or maybe it’s just me.

I do not need anyone to remind me about how this is NOT what Christmas is all about. For that matter, I don’t need anyone to remind me that this is NOT what mothering, being a woman, being a person is all about.

And yet, here we are.

For some reason, what keeps coming into my mind over and over, and I do like to pay attention to such things, is this moment of conversation I had with a coworker this week. Not “her”. A different one. Her name is Katie. She’s the kind of person that asks how you’re doing and really wants to hear the answer. So I told her.

“Last night my son screamed for three blocks through the middle of downtown Oak Park, bucking his body wildly against me because I wouldn’t let him play with a knife at the restaurant where we’d ordered dinner.”

She had true compassion in her eyes, probably because her son is only a few months older than mine, so she gets it. And then she went into a several minute long story about, and I am not making this up, sucking boogers out of her son’s nose with the Nose Frida.

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It might have been the best conversation I had all week.

What in the world do boogers have to do with Christmas, the comparison game, and being up way too late?

I guess nothing. And everything. Because she offered me such a gift. Katie offered me the honest, real look at her day to day life. And right now, in a tale that is very familiar, her day to day life consists of… boogers.

Right now my days consist of speculation on and about the rhyming patterns of Sandra Boynton books. I can explain in incredible detail how and why Barnyard Dance is superior in every way to Birthday Monsters. My husband can chime in on the conversation because (and this is a little embarrassing) we talk about it. Kinda a lot.

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I was an over-committer long before my son came along. I can’t blame him for that. But having a son has spread the icing on the cake thin enough that it’s embarrassing to serve it. Things have slipped, and there are glaring holes in the facade I like to believe I used to be able to pull off. (For those who know me well, just go with me here. No need to burst my bubble.)

Yet, here I am. Blogging in the middle of the night after a marathon day of “doin’ too much.” Adding a few more things onto my plate so that maybe I can fool everyone else into thinking that I haven’t slowed down at all since becoming a mom. I really can do it all.

But the truth, as I’ve already laid out, I can’t. These days I get really nervous just trying to make small talk. I hate the moment in conversations when it lulls and I am expected to fill it with some thoughtful remark. I scan the Rolodex and more often than not land on… boogers. Or Sandra Boynton. Or my son’s screaming through Oak Park. Not exactly cocktail conversation.

Maybe the best I can do is this. Writing this. Telling my own version of the booger story and letting it all hang out for you to see. Would it probably have been even more meaningful, a larger step away from the comparison game, if I had bought cookies from the store? Maybe. Does it help make my point to know that I ate way more than my fair share of chocolate chips today? Maybe.

But know that despite what my chocolate chip cookies and sunny Christmas card may imply, I’m just winging it. Like everybody else.

Probably even “her”.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

PARENTING

How I’m Talking To My Son About Race and Police Brutality (Guest Blog)

I recently asked my friend Conni if she had any ideas about how to raise her white sons to become thoughtful people, engaged in the conversation about race, willing to speak up, but not over. Willing to listen and to learn.

Because she’s wonderful, she agreed. Here is her post:

Right now we are in the throes of what we will come to remember as the glory of boy days. My oldest is four with a blonde, pageboy haircut, bright eyes, and a ready smile. He is, as the expression goes, “all boy” and will spend hours playing with Legos, swords, and cars, and loves rough-housing with his daddy. He is not too old to snuggle in Mama’s lap, to listen to silly poems, or dance with the family in the kitchen. He kisses his baby brother and is a help around the house.

He is also “all four” in his insistence on testing boundaries, his emotional stability (his tantrums call to mind images of drunk rock stars trashing dressing rooms), and in his seemingly limitless curiosity. These days there are scores of questions. He asks all the questions. And no matter what answer I give, how simply it is packaged or how long I take to answer him, there is always a follow-up question. He would make an excellent reporter (just not TMZ, okay? ::crossing self::). And the follow-up question is almost always, “Why?” Thus, nearly every question becomes existential in nature.

Here is an example of a typical conversation:
S: Mama, what does that sign mean?
Me: It means cars need to slow down and look out for each other
S: Why do car needs to slow down?
Me: Because there’s not a lane for everyone in this part of the road
S: Why is there not room for everyone?

See what I mean!

I can’t fault the kid. He’s trying so hard to organize this grey world into neat compartments in that growing mind of his. He wants to know wrong and right. He wants to know how things always are or never will be. What all boys do and what all girls do. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. He loves words like always and never. They’re clear. Safe.

And so making dinner at the end of the day, the contents of the stove-top bubbling, the news on the radio blaring, my heart is turning over all the race-based headlines, the discussions on police brutality, comments on Facebook that suggest I must pick a side: blacks or police.

Here is the bottom line about my son and his race: nobody will ever be surprised by his success or question it, they will not assume they know what kind of music he listens to, or question that he has a right to be wherever he is. We know that, statistically, he will pay less for a car, get paid more than female or minority peers at the same job, and if he should have to interact with the criminal justice system (again, ::crossing self::) will be sentenced less harshly than men of color.

In light of this privilege, how will I begin to talk to him about the others who will meet a very different reality? How am I talking to him and his four-year-old brain about race?

As adults we realize that there’s no group of people that are always the “good guys” or always the “bad guys”. We know of others in trusted professions (clergy, teachers) who have abused their authority. But these nuances can be trickier to impart to a four-year-old.

My approach is based on the following Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

maya

This is what I tell my son, “When people, your friends and especially a group of people, tell you their stories, believe them.” Believe them. Believe them when they tell you it hurts when you climb on their head or that they despise grape jelly. Believe them when they tell you they are afraid of the police (even the people you know and love and trust!) Listen for all the feelings behind their words. Focus on the people as they share their stories and fears.

Someday we will talk about the history and science behind racism. We will discuss what is known about the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the GI bill, the Tuskegee institute, and the mass incarceration of black men and what that has done to black communities. We will discuss the differences in how white and non-whites are sentenced, how they are treated when they apply for a loan, or enter a department store.

But not today. Today we will talk about people we know and their stories.

My friend Robyn is black with a young son and bravely navigating this alternate universe that I had little idea existed. Her boy’s name is Alex and he has amazing chipmunk cheeks and a dimpled grin. He knows all about trains and knows the soundtrack of the DC metro. “Door opening, please step back” he chirps.

In an email, Robyn writes she is thankful Alex smiles so readily at strangers because maybe this means the police will perceive him as friendly, less threatening and suspicious. Because one day soon, Alex will be a young black man and will be perceived as more threatening than my son who could be walking right beside him.

Robyn worries at night. She wonders if her husband has enough storage and charge in his phone so he can be sure to video tape any encounters with the police in case anything should happen to him. I worry about my son and husband getting in car accidents. She worries they will encounter the police.

And here’s the thing: hers is only one story but theirs are the faces I see. I know there are many, many more stories like hers. But as my son grows and I encourage him to believe people and their feelings and respond accordingly, I don’t want him to think abstractly about “black people”. I want him to think about Robyn and Chaz and his friend, Alex. I want him to understand he doesn’t have to abandon what he has come to trust in order to hear and believe their stories and advocate on their behalf.

I know most of this is beyond his understanding now but I can’t help dreaming. Dreaming that together my husband and I can raise a listener, a man who can see and hear and believe experiences that are radically different from his own and then, in turn, use that knowledge to be a peacemaker. To be able to hold two hard things at once and with belief: his love and value for his friends in the black community along with respect for the policing profession.

conniConni

PARENTING

Winter is Coming

My maternal ancestors were homesteaders. They traveled across oceans and prairies, mountains and rivers, and settled in Canada, Northern Wisconsin, and ultimately North Dakota. Growing up, one of my favorite books was My Prairie Year, a picture book with pencil sketches that tells the true story of one year in the life of a girl growing up in the prairie: canning foods, hanging out the wash to dry, tying string from the house to the barn during a blizzard so the path wouldn’t be lost in the mountains of snow. You know, the usual.

my prairie year

To be totally honest, there is little to connect me to the life of a homesteader. I got excited last night because I managed to make a crockpot dinner, which I believe was delicious, with only five minutes of prep. I literally dumped items into the top, put in some thawed chicken thighs, and then picked up my screaming son, who was of the opinion that five minutes not in my arms was five minutes too long.

But I think about my homesteading great great grandparents, especially as the weather turns from crisp to frigid. I remember visiting my grandmother one Thanksgiving a decade ago. We had eaten too much, so I decided to go for a walk. My mom had talked about being young in North Dakota, the wind cutting through you like a knife, and a Minnesota native, I believed I knew what she meant. I didn’t. Bent at a forty five degree angle, pushing with all my power, I managed to walk to the edge of town, probably only due to the houses breaking up the wind. Once I hit the farm land, game over. I nearly had to crawl on hands and knees to get back to my grandma’s home.

I wonder what it was like to fear the coming of this intense cold, no houses to break up the wind? What was it like to watch the dying of all vegetation, hoping and praying you had planted enough tomatoes and onions to get through the whole of winter? Did we harvest enough? Did we preserve enough? Will we last until February? Will we see the first bud of the next spring?

I wonder, and I know. Because I ask the same questions myself this year. I have a Costco a mile from my house, and my survival needs are met, but it is this time of year that I wonder if I have stored enough to get me through the cold. It’s this time of year when the stark, bare trees and snow turned crusty and charcoal from car exhaust turns me thinking inward, wondering whether I’ve planted enough sunshine, goodness, and love to endure not weeks, but months of gray, gray, gray.

I could move. I suppose the homesteaders could have, too. There are places the sun never leaves, the plants always grow. But despite the fear of the shortening days, and the quieting of colors, I’ve also grown to anticipate this emptying. I’ve learned to prepare for it, maybe in the way of my great, great, great grandmothers, spending autumn soaking up the rich red and gold of the trees, eating freshly picked apples and tomatoes still warm from the sun, taking long walks in perfect sweatshirt weather with the desperation that only comes from knowing that the days are numbered and few.

And then, to quote Alice Walker, comes the time to live frugally on surprise.

frugally

It’s that time of year for me now. Today is gray, and I can’t remember the last time the sun peeked out. And as much as I’ve anticipated the emptying, when it happens all I want to do is spend my days curled in bed, hibernating for winter’s end. It’s the time of year when it seems certifiably insane that anyone ever stopped a covered wagon in this place and thought to themselves, “Here. This is far enough.”

And then, like discovering a shelf of forgotten canned produce, comes a surprise.

A kiss from my husband after a long day at work, the outstretched arms and sleepy grin from my son when I wake up in the morning. A compliment from a colleague, a phone call from a dear friend, the right song at the right time, a warm bath, a beautiful poem.

One such poem was sent to me by my father several months ago, and I pulled it out today, a jar of preserved tomatoes, and savored it’s words again, knowing that I needed the sustenance more today than I did in the summer when it was first sent.

DSC_8884

One Good Thing

It’s been a dead parade
of hours since 5 AM
a march of the bland
with the meaningless and
I can think of nothing
I have done to merit
mentioning or
remembering.

But now, at 8 pm,
I am bathing my son
in a tub filled with bubbles
and blue battleships,
the soapy water over
his Irish white skin
makes him glisten
like a glazed doughnut

and I should tell him
to stop splashing
but this is the first time
all day I have felt like living
so how can I scold
my boy who’s found joy
in something ordinary
as water? And when

I wash his hair
with Buzz Lightyear
shampoo, Liam
closes his eyes and
smiles like a puppy
being petted as I massage
the sweet lotion into
his red curls and I know

this is one good thing
I have done with my life
this day that has waited
for this moment
of water on my sleeve
and soap on my nose
to turn emptiness
into ecstasy.

…Edwin Romond

And that poem may not be enough to get me through all of winter. But it’s enough for today.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING

It’s OK to Buy Bigger Pants

Last Saturday some friends hosted a lamb roast at their house. I had worked in the morning, then visited with a family friend in the afternoon, so the fumes I was intending to use to get through the final social engagement of the day were not quite sufficient to get me through the evening. I’m generally an articulate person, but that night I found myself staring at a friend, child on my hip, realizing that a whole chunk of dialogue had passed and it was my turn to talk, but I had nothing to say. I think I nodded and said, “Yeah.” I say “yeah” a lot lately.

So “yeah”, that’s been happening.

On Tuesday night I had a whole night free to myself since my son hasn’t realized that the time change has occurred, and therefore has been falling asleep an hour earlier than usual. There were a million things I could do with my extra time. I chose to watch four episodes of Gilmore Girls while eating pickle flavored potato chips with ranch dip.

So “yeah”, that’s happening, too.

Neither of these stories are newsworthy or even that interesting. But I have found myself really down lately, wishing that I could make choices that got me more in the direction of where I want to be: namely, well rested, articulate, back in shape, consistent with times of reflection and contemplation, balancing work and friends and family. And I am so unbelievably not in that space right now.

To be fair, I don’t know that I have ever been in that space. Except maybe in college, but I guarantee I had too much angst to fully appreciate it.

My friend tells me that the key to getting a healthy relationship with myself is to treat myself with kindness and curiosity. Doesn’t that sound just wonderful? Like, “Hmm, it’s so interesting that I ate a bag of potato chips, I wonder why I did that?” Or “Wow, you must have really needed to watch those four episodes of Gilmore Girls to help unwind. I’m glad you took some time for yourself.” Instead of the tired script in my head that says, “Why did you waste so much time again? Why didn’t you just GO TO SLEEP?” Or, “Do you really want to be fat forever? STOP EATING!”

At the lamb roast, during one of the conversations I did manage to track, one of my female friends was lamenting the fact that her pants weren’t fitting well anymore. Another woman joined in the conversation and said that she makes herself go on week-long diets so she can fit back into her clothes. The first friend just looked at her and said, “Nope, I’m gonna buy bigger pants. I’m gonna do it this week.”

And I laugh thinking about it right now, since it is literally the monologue that goes on in my head, the tension I ride between restriction and resignation. And it isn’t just about the size of my jeans. It’s about everything. My use of time, the hot and cold of relationships, the way I spend money, my commitment to generosity toward others, carving out space for prayer and contemplation.

My husband and I had a heart to heart this past week. It’s been a rough couple weeks for both of us. The ebb has been more than the flow. He said he had been feeling badly about not running lately. A five time marathon completer, he has been hoping to get back into the pattern of running again. When he said something about it to his father, also an avid runner, his dad just said, “Why? When you were a baby I didn’t run for years.”

And so we talked about how there are seasons of life, and having a small child may just be one of them, when maybe we have to lower the bar for ourselves a little bit. There are seasons of our life during which our triumphs are less about the fifty pound weight loss, and more about our ability to convince a fourteen month old to eat green beans. There are seasons when we need to buy the bigger pants, not out of resignation, but out of grace.

My friend Brittany, after reading one of my blogs about my body image issues, said, “You know what, Rachel? That stuff is hard. It takes time, but you’ll get there. And don’t even bother getting into shape between the first and second child. ”

It’s amazing how easy it is to treat others with curiosity and kindness, and how hard it is to do the same for myself. But in the midst of everything else, I admit that right now, I like the idea of buying bigger pants more than the idea of going on a week-long diet. At the very least, it seems much more manageable. Maybe that’s giving in and giving up. Maybe it’s resignation.

Or maybe it’s grace.

grace not perfection

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING

My Mental Breakdown in the Middle of A Target Store

I am losing my mind. Little by little.

This past month my son has been sick. It hasn’t been a major sick, it’s been a cough that wakes him up three to four times a night sick. Roughly translated, that is a “wake your parents up three to four times a night” kind of sick.

For a month.

Add to this fact that the weekends have been filled with mandatory professional developments on Saturdays.

I’m feeling a little panicky even talking about it.

My husband said recently that a baby’s REM cycle is 45 minutes. On nights when I am too exhausted to sit in a chair and rock my baby back to sleep and place him in his crib, opting instead to bring him into the bed with my husband and me, I imagine I’m waking up about every 45 minutes.

I am showering a lot less than I used to. Back to the sloppy ponytail. My brain feels like someone has replaced the gray matter with Styrofoam. As a friend of mine said, her own children grown and this stage of mothering far behind her, “This level of sleep deprivation is outlawed by the Geneva convention.”

And yet here I am.

But this happens, right? Those days when the most basic needs seem to be too much work, so they are stripped to only the most basic of the basic needs.

It became clear that my sore throat on Monday, coupled with the delirium, mandated a day away from work, a day for rest. Except, after tossing and turning for over an hour, sleep was not available to me. So I did what every other person losing his or her sanity does.

I went shopping at Target.

target122713

I had no illusions about my intentions at the Target. I was there to SHOP. I grabbed the cart, not the basket, and started making my way methodically though the entire store, letting my cart push me more than the other way around.

To be fair, this was a trip that had been needed for some time, but because I could not be bothered to write down the many items needed in our home, like outlet covers to keep our toddler son from electrocuting himself, it became necessary to walk through every single aisle just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.

Or that’s what I told myself.

Among my purchased items: a loofah, cream of mushroom soup, a sippy cup, a suspension shower rack, 2 picture frames, outlet covers, 2 bins to fit inside our IKEA bookshelf, and gum. I also scheduled an eye appointment, since apparently Targets are now small countries with infrastructure and eye clinics. I almost scheduled to get a strep culture to see about my sore throat, but I have an HMO and wasn’t willing to pay $90 out of pocket.

Oh, and I bought a candle.

It was actually the purchase of this candle that put me over the edge.

There I was, standing in the candle aisle at Target. You know the one. It makes you remember all the yoga and meditation that you should be doing to live a more mindful and healthy life. It’s the one that makes you feel like maybe if you just lit a few more of these beautiful candles in your home, a fung shei fairy would appear and magically transform your house from what it is into a Zen garden with straight lines and empty space.

PicMonkey Collage

The candle I picked up had a big red label that said, “BE JOYFUL!” in tall font. I smelled it. The combination of peppermint and sage transported me to the moments of sitting in our living room in Minnesota, unwrapping the Christmas decorations one by one. It reminded me of my dad’s collection of nativity scenes, many with candles whose heat causes the whole scene to spin and spin. It reminded me of Christmases when money was too tight for a tree, and then the doorbell rang and a tree was sitting, like magic, on our front porch.

The tears came immediately. Because I desperately wanted to hug my dad. And because those precious moments, like the ones with my family at Christmas, are so perfect and beautiful, tight with love and light. I cried because I wanted that candle to transport me to my family, to Christmas, to sleep. I cried because I knew that it may take a few months, but Christmas will come again.

I cried because sometimes just the thought that Christmas will come again can make the sleep deprived moments when I am a lunatic crying in a Target seem a little less lonely, a little less frantic, a little, well, less.

And, I cried because I was tired.

My mom promises me that one day I will wake up and I won’t feel tired anymore. I’m holding onto that promise for dear life. That promise, like Christmas, helps me keep getting up, keep doing the basics of basic, even after the days when the tears flow in the middle of a suburban Target store.

IMG_3129

I took the “Be Joyful” candle home. It has not transformed my living room. But smelling it is a good reminder that this moment is fleeting, and there can be pockets of joy even in the midst of losing my mind.

henri nouwen

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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