A mother’s worry

“Jack got in a fight at school today,” she reports, pushing an accident slip toward me.

I take the slip and crouch down to examine a fingernail-shaped scratch on my son’s head. “Poor buddy,” I say, pulling him into a hug. I look up and ask, “What happened?” “He and another boy wanted the same toy,” his teacher answers. I pepper her with more questions — does this happen often, is Jack getting along with the others, is the other boy hurt — while Jack wriggles in my arms, eager to escape.

Later, as I slip Jack’s red Velcro shoes on his little feet, our eyes meet. “Honey, I’m sorry about your fight. Are you OK?” “Uh-huh,” he nods his head and looks away. I am not convinced. “Fights are gonna happen,” I go on. “We need to play nice with our friends. We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we mess up. And we forgive others when they hurt us.” The words hang in the air and I realize this is only the beginning. In three years, Jack will start kindergarten. Then he’ll face schoolyard squabbles and bullies and even lockdown drills. This thought hits me squarely in the gut.

One of the most painful truths of motherhood is that the more my son grows, the less I can protect him from getting hurt. I blink back tears. I take my son’s hand in mine and we walk out to the car in silence.

Later, at bedtime, Jack rests his head in the crook of my arms as I rock him back and forth. At two years old, his lanky legs spill over the side of the rocking chair. Together, we sing the ABCs, the rainbow color song and happy birthday (his current favorite). Someday he’ll outgrow this ritual, I think.

Despite Jack’s protests, I lift him out of my arms and gently place him in his crib. I kiss his head and whisper, “I love you buddy.” Jack stops whining for a moment. “I love you too, Mommy,” he sighs.

The world is harsh, but it is also beautiful. Although I cannot keep my son from experiencing pain, I can carry him with my love. And though I’ll never escape my unspeakable worries, I can hold onto this moment and let it carry me through the night.

Diary of one day

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

5 a.m. ~ The sound of chimes, my iPhone alarm, breaks my dream. My eyes dart open. The bedroom is bathed in darkness. My dog is snuggled up against my husband, who’s snoring blissfully on the other side of the bed. I wrestle myself out of bed; the cool air shocks my body awake. I’d much rather retreat to warmth of my covers, the delight of my dream. Instead I rise. Time to start my day. First, a shower.

5:30 a.m. ~ A few mornings a week, I set aside time to tackle freelance projects and write for myself. My wet hair is drying and I’m dressed for the day, so I flip open my laptop and get to work. I prepare an invoice for a story I wrote for The Everymom and answer a couple emails. I scroll my Instagram feed a bit. OK, enough. I set down my phone and switch back to the laptop.

Finally I start to write. I’m workshopping an essay about my tendency to hover parent and my son’s tendency to stick close to me. I type: He is always in my orbit — I’m the earth, he is my sun. I pause and think. Maybe it’s the other way around? I go on: I’m barely done with my meal and my son is already tugging my hand toward his playroom. He wants to sit in my lap and play with his blue playdoh, make snakes and snowmen and pretzels with it. He wants me to be in his orbit, and honestly, I do too. So why do I feel so ashamed of this?

I keep writing, thinking, writing, grasping for the story.

7:08 a.m. ~ “Mom-my, Mom-my, Mom-my, Mom-my!” My son’s squeals derail my train of thought. I haven’t finished the essay but I’ve made decent progress. I stand, satisfied, and head to his room to start our day. (I don’t always feel satisfied. Some days I feel annoyed, reluctant to leave my work. Sometimes I skip my morning writing altogether in favor of sleep.)

I open the door to Jack’s room. He stands at the end of his crib, ready for breakfast. “Good morning, my love,” I say, striding toward the window. I open the blackout curtains and light spills into the small space. “Mommy, I hungry!” Jack shouts. Before we head to the kitchen I heft Jack up on the changing table, which faces the window, and give him a fresh diaper. He whines and rubs his eyes as they adjusts to the morning light. I change his diaper easily, thinking soon I’ll be doing this less and less, once we start potty training. Now we’re ready for breakfast. My husband is stirring across the hall, but I see Gus, our dog, nestle deeper under the covers, unready to face the day.

Breakfast of champions.

7:45 a.m. ~ After munching on Eggo waffles and fruit and washing it down with milk (his) and coffee with cream (mine), then getting Jack dressed, it’s time to pile on our winter gear and head to Jack’s Montessori school. This, along with getting dressed, is one of the most difficult parts of the day. It’s hard convincing our strong-willed toddler to get ready when he’s too busy exploring the world around him. Today he’s decided to scatter his sock collection around his playroom like confetti. Never a dull moment here.

8:10 a.m. ~ We are finally out the door and en route to Jack’s school, after kissing my husband farewell. Kissing goodbye and hello is a ritual in our family — we try to do it no matter what, even we’re fighting or having a not-so-good day. It’s those times especially when I think we need the physical affection, a little reminder to be softer with each other and ourselves. I turn on NPR and drive cautiously; the roads are icy today.

8:20 a.m. ~ This morning while dropping Jack at school, I meet his new teacher. Now that Jack’s two and talking lots, he’s transitioning from the toddler to the twos classroom. Jack stands waiting at the door to go in his classroom. “Hug and kiss?” I ask. He nods and I wrap my arms around his little frame and kiss his cheek. “I love you!” I shout after him as he bounds toward his peers.

8:57 a.m. ~ I’m logging into my computer now, prepping a file for my one-to-one meeting with my supervisor. I only have a few things on my list for her so it should be a relatively quick conversation. That’s good because my editing list is quite long — it’s deadline day for our magazine’s features and I have several stories to file and another meeting to attend.

Werk, werk, werk, werk, werk, werk, werk.

9:20 a.m. ~ I hunker down in my cube and pull up my first story to edit. I’m refining a second draft of a story about medical justice. The copy’s fairly clean, just need to tighten up a few more turns of phrase here and there. Editing requires one to cut and rearrange words to make a story more clear while maintaining a writer’s voice. It’s a fun job, one that consistently challenges me. I dig in, losing myself in words.

10:35 a.m. ~ It’s time for another meeting, this time with my coworker Allison. Allison runs our brand’s social media accounts and I’m lead for my publication’s social media, so we try to meet on a monthly basis to discuss relevant content for our shared audiences. As we walk through the building, I list off our best articles from our February issue so Allison’s team might share a few on their Facebook account, which has a sizable following.

11 a.m. ~ Back to my desk for another hour of work. I have another story to work on, plus emails to tend, which keep me busy until it’s time for lunch.

12:15 p.m. ~ My coworker Michelle and I use our lunch break to run a quick errand at Target. I have to make a return and pick up a few toppings for dinner tonight — turkey tacos. She has to pick up supplies for a presentation. We move quickly; lunch and work await us at our desks.

Wearing my smarty pants glasses today.

1:30 to 4:30 p.m. ~ I eat a salad at my desk and finish editing my last story for the day, then I write and work through more emails with writers. I’m finishing my last assignment for our May issue, and starting on preparations for June. I look out my fifth floor office window. There’s still snow on the ground. The sky is gray. Summer feels light years away.

4:45 p.m. ~ After saying goodbye to my coworkers, I head toward the elevator. It’s time to pick up Jack, and my heart feels light. I also have a 30-minute drive to look forward to where I can listen to a podcast. This evening I choose Modern Love. I’m catching up so I select last week’s episode, which is a replay of the essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal before she passed away from cancer. It’s a beautiful, funny, poignant story, and the reader does an exquisite job capturing the complex emotions in her story. Tears build up in the corner of my eyes when the essay reaches its climax. Eventually it ends; I switch to NPR as I navigate a tangle of traffic.

5:20 p.m. ~ I’m at Jack’s daycare. His teacher opens the door to his room and yells “Jaaaack!” He comes rushing toward me, smiling. “Mommy!” he says. “Hey buddy!” I wrap him in a bear hug and kiss his cheek. “How was your day?” I ask.

5:45 p.m. ~ I unlock the side door and usher Jack into our warm house. I smell turkey tacos, Jay must have started dinner early. I hear Gus whimpering and scratching, anxious to greet us. We remove our winter layers — first scarves and hats, then jackets, finally boots — and Jack is chattering away. “Daddy?” he asks and I see Jay open the door at the top of the stairs. Jack lumbers up the stairs toward his father. We are home.

6:30 p.m. ~ Dinner’s finished and Jack and I are in his playroom, building towers of red, green, purple and yellow plastic blocks. It’s time for Jay to go to the gym. He lifts Mon/Wed/Fri when he’s not traveling for work, and I practice yoga on Tue/Thur, when he’s in town. I feel dread sink in my stomach. Lately evenings with have been hard. Our son doesn’t want to go to sleep, and I struggle with all my might to convince him to do so. Bedtime antics are at an all-time high, “I want milk,” “I want a snack,” “More stories,” “More songs,” anything that will delay sleep, my son will try it. I don’t want to do bedtime alone.

I try to smile as I say goodbye to Jay. I try to focus on the fun I’m having with our son but inside I’m anxious. I pull out my phone and distract myself as I scroll through others’ highlight reels on Facebook. I stop on an article from The Atlantic about “sharenting,” I begin delving into the story, then bookmark it for later and switch attention to my son, who is currently scaling his little gray armchair like a little daredevil. (I finished this article later and instantly checked myself by setting my Instagram to private, but I’m still pondering how I can respect my son’s privacy while also sharing meaningful stories about our lives with friends, family and followers.)

Scenes from The Velveteen Rabbit.

7:40 p.m. ~ I’ve successfully executed the first leg of Jack’s bedtime routine, which includes: bubble bath; diaper; “jamas” (tonight Jack selects a dinosaur pair); teeth brushing, which Jack and I do together; and an extra glass of milk. Now it’s story time, my favorite part of the evening. We select three different books: The Book With No Pictures; The Velveteen Rabbit and Jack’s Winnie the Pooh storybook. Jack snuggles in my lap and we read together in his rocking chair, Gus curled up like a cat near my feet.

I love reading to my son, and sometimes he even joins in repeating words and phrases from his favorite books. I love children’s books; my favorites are the ones with actual stories not just rhymes — The Snowy Day, Corduroy, Where The Wild Things Are. In this moment, reading to my son, I feel happy and present and loved. After we finish I will sing to Jack and place him down gently in his crib. I know this will be hard. I’ll ask him to lie down, and he’ll resist. I’ll lie down next to him and sing some more, encouraging him to quiet his mind and go to sleep. I’ll try to quiet my mind, too.

So. Tired.

9:10 p.m. ~ Finally I retreat from Jack’s room to mine, exhausted. Some nights I go straight to bed after this, others I read for fun and do what I call “evening pages,” essentially journaling stream-of-consciousness to get out all my errant thoughts, write prayers, record special moments during my day, especially with Jack, and make mental notes of to-dos. Tonight I rustle under the covers next to Jay, who’s munching a bowl of Raisin Bran and drinking a protein shake, eager to tell me about his latest PR at the gym. Gus snuggles up between us in the bed. I try to listen but I slowly nod off to sleep. It was a long, full day. A good day.

This busy life of mine — raising a toddler, nurturing a marriage, juggling full-time work and freelance gigs, working out, connecting with family and friends and making room for me — reading, journaling, prayer, a hot shower — is such a blessing. I thought writing this diary-style blog might make me feel exhausted and burnt out and overwhelmed. Instead it made me immensely thankful for the life I’m privileged to lead. Writing my story summons within me a deep gratitude for everything God’s given me. That’s what I try to remind myself anyway, even when the day feels not-so-good, wasted, ruined, dull, unproductive. Each day is an opportunity to learn, grow, encounter grace. Each day is a gift.

What does a regular weekday look like for you? I’d love to hear from you.


Two

StrybisTwo years ago, I gave birth to you, little one. You burst into our lives in the most dramatic fashion and left us breathless, in awe of your tenacity.

Two years of singing lullabies, tickling your belly, making you pancakes. Two years of pediatrician visits, sleep deprivation, gnawing worry. Two years of surrender. Two years of joy. 

These days you’re wearing bigger jeans and bigger feelings — on your sleeve.

Suddenly your legs look longer; your grasp of language is stronger.

You run-jump-tumble-flip in the span of a blink.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I had you snuggled in the crook of my arm, smelling sweet and fresh?

Yet here you are, my not-so-baby boy. You are SO alive.

Lately you’ve been taking my hand and pulling me into your imaginary kingdom where Elmo, Mickey and Snoopy play together. You’re singing your ABCs and “Jingle Bells” at random and you’re obsessed with playdough. You have strong opinions about fruit snacks (love them) and socks (you prefer mismatched). You love to read. You hate bedtime. You chatter constantly. You notice everything. You still need us to help you get ready, but daily you’re becoming more independent. And strong-willed. 

Sometimes, raising you pushes me past my limit. For all the times I’ve let you down–and those to come–please forgive me. Hands down: being your mama is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

It’s also the greatest privilege.

The ache, the bliss of watching you grow heightens the tenor of ordinary days, blessing my life with meaning.

Two years of loving you deeply. The toughest two years of my life. The most beautiful too. 

Happy birthday, son. May your year ahead be filled with delight and discovery.

Keep watch

Little boy looking out plane window

“I see cars!” my son says, his face pressed against the window.

“Good. Jack, what else do you see?” I ask.

“It’s sunny! It’s sunny!” he declares with a grin.

We discuss the clouds and the wing and the plane’s descent; he’s testing his growing vocabulary, a tiny reporter riveted by the world around us. Eventually Jack sighs and settles back in my lap. I kiss his head.

While our plane dips toward Orlando, I’m so focused on landing with minimal crying/disruption/noise, I don’t appreciate the sweetness of this exchange until later. Looking back, it’s my most poignant memory from this vacation.

If we let it, parenthood imparts us a second chance to see the world anew, to witness its startling beauty through the eyes of our children. It wakes us up to the wonder of an ordinary moment, looking out an airplane window.

Although I’m the one that started our game of observation, on the way home, closing in on Chicago, Jack initiates it.

“I see planes! I see lights!” he says, turning to me, eyes dancing.

“That’s great, buddy,” I reply. “What else do you see?”

Lately I’m realizing I too need to keep watch for goodness in the world. To look for the light. It is the only way to seize hope when all looks grim.

Keep watch. Seize hope. Our children are leading the way.

To have and to hold

erin and jay strybis
credit: Chris Ocken

And you have a person in your life whose hand
  you like to hold?
  “Yes, I do.”
It must surely, then, be very happy down there
  in your heart
  “Yes,” I said. “It is.” 
—Mary Oliver  

My husband Jay and I celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary on October 13. If you count dating, which I certainly do, we’ve been together over a dozen years. At first, after we married, it didn’t seem much different than dating. For six years we’d been serious about our love, on our wedding day we said vows to prove it. Marriage didn’t change much for us, at least not in that first year.

Our life circumstances have shifted significantly since 2012, the year we became husband and wife. After years of city living with minimal responsibility, we have a car loan, a dog, a mortgage and a baby (procured in that order). We officially crossed into the realm of “adulting,” and have oodles of paperwork to prove it. In recent years, we’ve taken to commiserating with one another, stating the obvious, “Being an adult is HARD!”  The hard stuff feels a little easier when you name it.

To that point: Hands down the past year has been the hardest year yet of our marriage. I thought this on our fifth wedding anniversary, the year our son was born, not knowing the challenges we’d encounter leading up to this anniversary. As new parents, we fought over diaper changes, the dishwasher and even dog food. We battled sleep deprivation and took turns caring for our son Jack when he got sick. There were many joyful moments too, like witnessing Jack’s first smile and his first shaky steps. Also figuring out how to date each other again (pro tip: finding a trustworthy babysitter helps). We were shocked by how hard parenting was, but at least we were doing it together.

This past year, however, showed me the meaning behind our vows, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . .” We faced the greatest obstacle of our life together when my husband got sick. This summer we lived in sickness, for worse and for poorer. We didn’t always live gracefully–in fact, I definitely didn’t live gracefully. Most of the time, I felt terrified and tired. I became intimate friends with anger, anxiety, fear and heartache. A lot of the time, I was parenting alone.

In the middle of the summer, I went on a five-day work trip to Houston, a brief escape from hardship. The trip couldn’t have happened at a more horrible time. Not only was Jay having a difficult health week, but our son managed to catch the dreaded hand, foot and mouth virus two nights before my flight out. Luckily, I’d arranged for my in-laws to visit and care for Jack. Low on sleep, I kissed my family goodbye and headed to the airport, feeling a mix of deep relief and nagging guilt. Ultimately the work trip was fun, and sleeping in my own bed for days, with no snoring or cries or worries to wake me, was heaven.

The last morning of my trip, I looked at myself in the mirror and struggled to hold back tears: I envied my former single self and all my single friends. I wanted to turn back time or fly home to a different life. I wanted to be free. I touched my face, then noticed my ring. My heart ached for my family too.

When I came home, I could barely contain my joy when I hugged and kissed my son and husband for the first time. Later on, snuggling my husband and our dog while they snored along in our cozy bed, I struggled to imagine my life without Jay. I’d spent much of the summer going over what-if scenarios regarding Jay’s health, pushing myself to be a caretaker, primary parent and provider even though it felt like I was barely holding on myself.

Holding my sweet husband that evening, I realized I didn’t have to. I could choose to thank God for each day we have together, rather than worry about the future. This outlook sustained me through the rest of the summer–and continues to be a guiding force in my life today.

to have and to hold
credit: Mona Luan

Six years ago, on a rainy October day, Jay donned a slate gray tux and I wore cream-colored lace dress as we stood in our alma mater’s chapel and recited our wedding vows. We were–and are–surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who support our union.

That moment in the chapel is where marriage diverges from dating. As one year leads to the next, and life circumstances shift, living vows is not for the faint of heart. Here’s what I know: My husband and I faced great adversity in this past year of marriage and we are stronger for it. And now, as we enter into our next year of marriage, we’ll continue facing lows and highs.

I’m just glad we still get to do it together.

Husband of mine, I’m grateful for everything you do and are. I’m deeply grateful for your presence. Happy Anniversary, my love.

How I coped with weaning my son

Erin and Jack

About a month ago in August, after a three-day work trip to Boston, I stopped breastfeeding my son. He was 17 months old, and my husband and I thought this trip was a good opportunity to wean him.  Prior to the trip, he comfort nursed twice a day, in the mornings and evenings. I dropped to these two sessions when Jack turned one–I’d planned to stop when he simply lost interest.

Jack loved nursing, and I did too. Yet over time, it became clear those two feedings were affecting Jack’s sleep. Bedtime wasn’t so bad, but I knew Jack needed me to fall asleep. Mornings, on the other hand, were a challenge. Jack rose every morning at 5 a.m. crying out for me to feed him, a call I loved and hated. I loved starting the day with him. I hated the 5 a.m. part.

On one particularly exhausting morning last spring, I took Jack to back to our bed, positioned him the crook of my arm and elevated his his head, then fed him, blissfully, until we both fell asleep. This became our new routine, and it was something I savored. Early mornings became much easier, until Jack’s wake-up time started creeping from 5 to 4:45 to 4:30 to 4 a.m. By summer it was clear something had to change to remedy the situation.

For months I was so afraid of what was on the other side of weaning. Weaning marked the end of Jack’s babyhood, even though he’d dived into his toddler phase in February, when he took his first steps. Once Jack was weaned our relationship would inevitably shift. In August, it was time for that shift.

A difficult transition

Weaning, like breastfeeding, was surprisingly painful. Unlike breastfeeding, where the pain is raw and physical, the effects of weaning hit me squarely in my heart.

The night after I returned from Boston, I led Jack through his usual bedtime routine, skipping his feeding. He’d already experienced three nights like this; I hoped it would seem normal. Standing at the foot of the crib, I cradled Jack and sang him a lullaby, the final step in his routine. He wrestled and craned his neck toward my breasts. “Milk? Milk?” he asked sweetly. My heart dropped.

“Mommy doesn’t have any milk now,” I answered gently.

“Milk? Milk?” Jack asked again, and I shook my head no. He screamed violently. I tried to stay calm, but I could feel the panic rising inside my chest. I put Jack down in his crib; he went ballistic. I picked him up again, he tried to nurse, then cried, so I put him down again. He cried harder. I hated that I couldn’t soothe him with nursing. I worried: Did I wean him too soon? Soon I was crying too–big, heavy tears.

The noise woke my husband, who was asleep in the other room. “Erin, Erin, are you OK?” he called out sleepily. Jack cried. I cried. Jack cried some more.

“No,” I finally blurched. “Help me.” I was so overwhelmed, I wasn’t sure I could last any longer. I wanted to run far away from this baby, this choice, this heartache. I tried to hold Jack and rock him, but he continued to wrestle. On the verge of collapse, I felt my husband’s loving arms encircle my waist. He stood behind me and rocked me–and our son–in his arms. “Shhh” he whispered, urging both of us to relax.

Jack finally fell asleep that night, but I couldn’t. I tossed and turned, plagued with anxiety. I couldn’t stop turning over this choice in my head. Had I made a mistake?

I loved everything about breastfeeding my son: the soothing effect it had on him, the bond it created between us, the feel-good chemicals it created in my body, and heck, the calorie burn was a nice treat. Most of all, I loved that it was a way for Jack and me to start the day together, and to reconnect after a long day, usually spent apart at work and daycare. Now our special time together had ended, and I was full of sorrow and doubt.

Morning came. Some time between 4 and 5 a.m., Jack called “Mommy! Mommy!” I felt so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. I roused Jay and asked him to take over. I couldn’t do this, it felt too damn painful. Jay helped my son with his morning routine that day. For Jack, that morning and the one that followed weren’t as painful. Morning nursing sessions were easily replaced with breakfast. He had some moments of frustration about the change, but they paled in comparison to what we saw at bedtime.

Bedtime, which was once so easy, became a war. Jack didn’t want to be rocked to sleep. He didn’t want to be patted to sleep. He didn’t understand why we were skipping his favorite part of bedtime, when he reconnected with his Mommy. He was frustrated–he longed for his old routine. I did too, but I knew it was too late to go back.

Some nights I cried, but other nights I got angry. Once I got so angry at Jack for refusing to lay down in his crib I stalked out of his room and slammed the door loudly. “I can’t go back in there,” I fumed. My husband roused himself from bed and finishing putting Jack down.

My whole body, especially my breasts, ached for Jack. My hormones were out of control. I was irritable and grouchy, and also weepy and sentimental. I mourned the change in my relationship with Jack. Would we ever be close again? I kept googling “weaning and depression” and only came up with a few helpful results. I read all of them. I texted my mom friends for advice. I called my mom. I wrote in my journal. I went to yoga.  I allowed myself to feel sad.

A week passed and one day, Jack slept until 6 a.m. When I looked at my phone I could barely believe it. Finally the early rising we’d grappled with for 17 months was righting itself. We had made the right decision after all, I thought, and my heart felt a little lighter.

A silver lining: Reclaiming my time

Jack’s sleep continued to improve, and so did our moods. We were getting along better, learning to connect in new ways. The breastfeeding hormones were leaving my body, and after about two weeks of sadness, anxiety and frustration, I began feeling like myself again. The only thing that hadn’t changed? My body kept rousing itself around 5 a.m. each morning.

I’ve always been a morning person, but after giving birth to my son that shifted due to his schedule and my sleep deprivation. Honestly my whole world shifted when Jack arrived and I never thought I’d be able to reclaim my mornings–until now. I used to get up early to workout, but I had a pretty established evening workout habit these days. What to do with this time?

One of my dear friends is a full-time working mama and prolific, accomplished writer. I’ve always admired how she prioritizes her writing amid her many responsibilities as a manager at work and mother at home. She told me her secret: getting up early a few times a week to fit in writing. When she shared this with me, Jack wasn’t yet one, and I knew it would be a long time until I could try this for myself. At August’s end, I had an epiphany: the time was now.

Thus I began reclaiming my mornings and rising early to write. Replacing something I loved so much–nursing Jack in the morning–with something I love that’s just for me–writing–has been amazing. It helped me let go of the final dregs of sadness about nursing Jack, and it’s helped me move forward in my writing goals. It’s been about a month since I started, and I’ve worked on a handful of writing projects–some to pitch to publications, some to share in this space and on Instagram, others just for me.

I worried I’d lose steam but I haven’t. It feels amazing setting aside this time for myself to do something I love most mornings during the workweek. It’s only an hour or so, but writing in the mornings before Jack’s awake, making time for myself first thing, sets the tone for my entire day. As many mothers know, feeding a child takes a lot of your time an energy, especially when your child is young and you’re on call about every two hours. Now that I’m finally on the other side of breastfeeding,  I’m so grateful Jack and I were able to share that special time together and I’m also delighted to finally reclaim my time for myself. This is a new beginning for me; these writing sessions are my silver lining.

Children grow so quickly–from exclusive breastfeeding to fruit and veggie purees to table foods to weaning, from crawling to toddling to walking to full-out running, from cooing to babbling to words to phrases–and each time Jack grows I continue to be amazed and surprised. Sometimes, like with weaning, the change is especially hard. Other times, like when Jack started talking, I was thrilled.

What I’ve learned from this is that it’s OK to mourn change even while you celebrate a new beginning. Looking back, I can barely believe I breastfed Jack for 17 months. I’m grateful was able to and I’m grateful we had that time together. Although weaning Jack was painful, he is sleeping better, is more independent and we’ve grown to connect in other ways.

Here’s to difficult goodbyes and new beginnings. May you find your silver lining.

Are you an early riser? Have you had a similar experience with reclaiming your time after a major life transition? I’d love to hear from you–message me or comment below.

A backyard tale

Once upon a time, a young couple bought their first home. They had a baby on the way, and a little dog too, and after eight years of apartment living, it was time to move.

The home they purchased was in an ideal location–close to work, the airport and public transit. It was just their style–cute and cozy with modern updates. Their neighbors were friendly; their neighborhood was picturesque. Everything seemed perfect, except for one tiny detail: their new home came with a lush backyard garden.

Expertly manicured shrubbery, lively wildflowers, spindly tall grass, blooming peonies and healthy hydrangeas surrounded a small backyard patio. The back right corner of the lot featured some potted plants, flowers growing up lattices and a sizable Japanese maple. Across the lot was a vegetable garden with kale, spinach and green tomatoes. But the pinnacle of it all was an 800 gallon pond, complete with a cascading waterfall, lily pads and five koi fish. It was, by all accounts, a hidden oasis in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Or so it seemed.

backyard garden
Our backyard garden, summer 2016

Even though others assured them their beautiful new backyard was “actually low-maintenance,” the young couple was skeptical. In fact, when they purchased the home, their first concern was how their new pets would survive another Chicago winter under their novice care. Furthermore, they worried how they’d manage such a yard come summer, with a new baby and two full-time jobs to juggle. One of them was already convinced they should sell the koi, tear out the pond and replace everything with sod.

Had they made a huge mistake? Would the koi survive the winter? Only time would tell.

Year one: Welcome to the jungle

That was nearly two years ago, and yes, that darling, naive couple was us. My husband Jay and I found our first home in August 2016, closing on it Halloween Day.

There’s usually something on which you compromise when you buy a home, and for us, it was the backyard garden. Neither of us pictured ever owning such a space nor did we have much gardening experience. We loved everything else about the place, and we knew, theoretically, if the backyard didn’t work we could always change it.

At first, everything went OK. My husband read up on koi care, winterized the pond, and the fish survived their first winter with us. On January 30, I gave birth to our son, Jack, and we began the lifelong adventure that is parenthood.

pond with koi at winter
Koi pond, winter 2017

We survived three months caring for Jack, and when spring arrived, Jay thought he’d give the garden a try. I was already back to work, and with breastfeeding our son, my free time was limited. I was too overwhelmed to help with the garden, and, since Jay resumed traveling for work, he could only work in the garden when he was home.

Weeks passed. Day by day, plants grew taller, bushes grew wider, weeds sprung up in the vegetable garden bed and by the middle of July, we found ourselves the unwitting owners of a backyard jungle, complete with a hidden koi pond.

The prior homeowners had always participated in our neighborhood garden walk, so when our neighbors suggested we consider doing the same it took everything in our power not to break down and laugh until we cried.

Although Jay kept feeding the koi, I avoided the backyard whenever I could, I was so embarrassed by its demise. I began parking on the street rather than in our backyard garage to steer clear of the overgrown plants and thriving bug life.

You know that expression, the grass is always greener on the other side? This was literally true for us. On either side of our lot stood our neighbors’ basic, green grassy backyards and I coveted them. Oh, how I coveted them. I fantasized about green, grassy lawn — no crazy weeds, no scary bugs and safe space for our dog and son to play. I lamented our situation — caused by our own inability to act — and wished someone, anyone would just swoop in and save us from this mess. I vacillated from feeling ashamed and embarrassed to completely apathetic.

Mercifully the remaining summer weeks passed quickly and the garden began to wilt away that fall. Eventually my husband braved the backyard to cut away weeds and tall grass and to prepare the pond for another winter.

As the seasons changed, my heart felt a little lighter, less worried about our crazy backyard. When snow fell for the first time, I felt giddy. Finally our yard looked like all the others! We vowed to do something about it next summer, to hire contractors to create the backyard we always wanted — a basic plot of green lawn.

Year two: The tipping point

In the margin of my 2018 planner, I wrote: Call contractors this spring. And in March, I promptly began bugging my husband about it. Jay, an engineer, is the one in our marriage who researches everything; he made spreadsheets comparing prices for our first car, spreadsheets charting our son’s sleep, etc. Naturally I assumed he would quickly and easily complete this assignment, but he repeatedly put it off. His inaction (and my own) was exhausting. Eventually we had one contractor we weren’t completely happy with, then the project stalled.

I wish I could say that this summer was different. It was different, in ways I’m not ready to share here, but in other ways it was identical. We couldn’t make time to tend our garden. Come July, the yard looked eerily similar — if not more overgrown — and I was parking in the street again, ashamed of our jungle backyard.

Late that month, on a particularly stressful night, I was doing a few sun salutations in the sun room after putting our son to bed. Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement in the backyard, but continued flowing. Inhale upward facing dog; exhale downward facing dog . . .

Wait, was that a racoon in the pond?

I stopped, mid-downward dog, and rushed to the window as a large, agile racoon slipped over the waterfall and out of our pond, closely followed by another racoon, and another, and another… I counted a total of four large invaders. I stared, breathlessly, as they romped through our backyard and on to our neighbors. Something in me snapped.

I stalked into our bedroom. “A racoon gang just took a dip in our pond,” I declared.

My husband, who was half asleep in bed the dog, sat up. “What?”

“You heard me. A gang of racoons,” I said. “This backyard is out of control. I’m calling the contractor tomorrow.”

The next day, I called the contractor. When we spoke, I was surprised to learn his team could come out as soon as the next Monday. I had a work trip to Boston, but my husband and son would be home sowe decided to move ahead. With one simple call, it was booked. WE WERE GETTING A NEW BACKYARD!

Finally, a new backyard

That weekend, Jay scrambled to call a local fish store and found a home for the koi, and I flew out for my trip. While in Boston I received a series of texts from my husband, mostly pictures:

weeds
Backyard, August 2018 (It’s a jungle out there.)

backyard
Backyard re-do, August 2018 (Praise the Lord!)

Staring at out bulldozed backyard covered in dirt, my heart burst with delight.

Was the change I’d so desperately wanted really that simple? All the hours I spent agonizing over the inconvenience of it all, what the neighbors might think and my own shortcomings could have been applied to solving this problem earlier. I was relieved the contractors finished so quickly, and a little embarrassed it had taken it so long to get to this point.

I hadn’t been there to see our contractor’s team in action but reports from the home front indicated it was a big, dirty job. (And we have a hefty bill to prove it.)

The next image my husband texted was surreal: a basic, green grassy backyard — no koi, no tall grass, no weeds, no bushes. Just lawn, a sight for sore eyes.

grassy backyard
The final product, August 2018

Finally our son and dog could use the backyard for playing. Finally I could walk through the backyard unashamed, and park in the garage again. In a summer marked by family hardship, this new backyard was giving me life. I couldn’t wait to get home and see it for myself.

The night I arrived home from my work trip, I embraced my family, put my son to bed and walked straight into the sun room. As I looked out the window, I almost cried: there, basking in the moonlight, was our new backyard.

***

Have you ever had an ongoing home project like this one that drove you crazy? Tell me in the comments. 

Adventures in toddlerhood

DSC_5408-2Hilarious. Frustrating. Joyous. Alarming. Welcome to our adventures in toddlerhood.

Ever since our son Jack turned one it seems time–and Jack himself–is in overdrive, slowing only for the occasional skinned knees, tantrums and snuggle sessions with mama or daddy. At 17 months, Jack’s scaling furniture, testing boundaries, chasing the dog and uttering words (“No!” and “Daddy” are current favorites).

Each day he’s becoming more independent and fleet-footed. Although I can’t really call myself a new mama, I continue to be newly amazed by all the changes Jack’s experiencing on a weekly and even daily basis. After returning from a recent five-day work trip, I couldn’t believe how tall our son looked. (Did he grow an inch while I was away?!)

More and more I’m realizing that if I don’t stop to capture these moments here, I might not remember them as well. So I’m writing a snapshot of this moment in time for our family, and also for everyone interested in what’s new in our world. Some observations…

Jack’s motor development has grown leaps and bounds.

Whenever we’re at home, he’s constantly trotting back and forth from the dining room to the living room to the playroom and back. He’s so fast, if we’re not careful, we can lose track of him in our house and once discovered him standing on the couch, which was funny/frightening.

The playground near our home is one of Jack’s favorite spots. Running to and from various platforms, sliding, playing in the nearby dirt and grass, and sitting on the firetruck are his go-to activities. He also enjoys interacting with neighborhood children who play there. Seeing him smile at and play with others melts my heart and makes me glad Jack’s building valuable socialization skills at daycare.

We had one injury scare–Jack konked his head on the sidewalk a month ago (we iced it; he was fine)–but I know given his age we’ll likely see more. I dread this, but I’m trying to accept this is just a part of parenthood that makes me very uncomfortable. The lack of control, the knowledge I can’t protect Jack from everything, it’s … terrifying.

Toddler communication is fun! (And it can also drive me crazy.)

Though our precocious, willful toddler quickly mastered and loves the word “No,” one day after daycare we discovered Jack can shake his head “Yes!” Awesome! The occasional affirmative head nod from him is a fun treat and balances out his endless (frustrating) refrain of “No.” More and more it seems like we’re understanding each other better and I just love that.

Other words and phrases we hear on a regular basis: “Bubbles!,” “Shoe,” “Mama!/Mommy!,” “More?,” “Woof-Woof,” “Where’d you go?” or just “Go?” He recently learned our dog’s name, “Gus,” though his pronunciation sounds a little more like “Gu-uh.” I’m looking forward to later this summer, when Jack turns 18 months, as our pediatrician said we could look forward to a “language explosion” at this age.

Also on the communication front, I was fascinated to discover Memorial Day weekend that Jack will respond to requests from his dear great-grandma. At her house, she’d suggest Jack pick up a toy and bring it to her or to me. Most of the time, he actually listened to her and followed directions! I was beside myself in surprise and delight.

Sleeping through the night and other pipe dreams.

I covet the day our son finally naps and sleeps consistently. Parents of older kids, is this dream unrealistic? Jack was sleeping through the night around 11 months but because he’s been so sickly we’ve struggled with consistency for the past half year, having relapses in sleep health whenever his poor little body was unhealthy. Sickness would come, we would adjust our nighttime response and routines to care for Jack as best as we knew how, then he would get better. In that time night-waking would become the new normal and getting back to our old normal was always a struggle.

I never know what to write about handling sleep because I feel very conflicted about it. We’ve tried a variety of techniques–cry it out, rock it out, “no cry” sleep solution, etc. and to be honest, I’m not convinced there is one “sleep solution” even though books and expensive sleep coaches say otherwise.

Ever since Jack came down with the dreaded hand-foot-and-mouth virus, which took a toll on his little body, his sleep regressed. That was over two weeks ago and although Jack is healthy again, his sleep continues to be inconsistent. We continue to deal with this in the most gentle way we can manage. Poor buddy (and poor us!). We will get there… until the next sickness strikes. In the meantime, prayers appreciated.

Behavior highs and lows.

High – I love how complex Jack’s play and make-believe is becoming! He’ll sit by himself and play with his pretend kitchen, stirring toy car “soup” and popping fabric vegetables and blocks in the oven. He also loves rearranging his toy furniture across the house. Yesterday I found his “Jack” arm chair from Pottery Barn propped up against our master bed and paused. I wonder what’s going on our little interior designer’s head!

Low – One of the big things I’m dealing with right now is Jack testing his boundaries. He is sweet as sugar one moment, then angry the next when he doesn’t get his way. Jay and I sometimes joke that our willful little boy is a little tyrant prince. Just today we were clearing dishes after dinner and I grabbed Jack’s milk cup from his high chair. Instantly he became furious we took it away (mind you, it was empty). Cue: Screaming, laying on the floor, and shouting “Noooo! Mine!”

Friends, is this normal? The twos are supposed to be terrible and three-nagers are a thing, but I thought we had some time before things got this hairy. Or perhaps you’ll say that’s tame compared to what’s next…

High – Jack is finally showing more of an interest in reading! Praise be! He will actually fit into this family of bookworms… 😉 Current favorites are Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and Little Blue Truck. There’s always so much joy and laughter during story time. I can’t wait to continue to share the fun of storytime with him and he grows older and understands more.

Low – Sometimes when we’re walking Jack doesn’t want to hold my hand anymore. I guess this is a good thing because it’s a sign he’s developing independence, but it makes my heart hurt. Watching him grow up is bittersweet.

My no. 1 lesson

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed being a toddler mama, and I’m so grateful to have Jack in my life. Working motherhood is tough, but it makes the moments I have together with my family all the more sweeter. I want to savor every part of motherhood–laughter, tears, hugs and kisses–this is what it feels like to be fully present in this life.

I’ve noticed past six months have been so different from the first six months of Jack’s life. Last year, before and after he was first born I read parenting books and called on friends and family for parenting advice. Of course I called the pediatrician a lot too. This year, I’m doing less asking and more trusting my gut instincts related to parenting. I may be calling the pediatrician just as often but I’m definitely calling on myself more to make tough decisions based on information available and importantly, what is congruent with our family values.

The more I lean into love, grace and kindness as a parent, the more I see it reflected in the little person I’m helping raise. The no.1 lesson I’ve learned parenting a toddler is to be present and to trust myself.

Loved, not abandoned

When the ones you love the hardest are suffering and you’re unable to stop it, it’s isolating and terrifying. The pain is sharp and heavy, almost unbearable. I felt like that yesterday.

But God showed up for me in a gifted bag of donuts from a new Cambodian friend; in holy conversation with an old friend in which I felt seen, heard and loved; and in this simple note stashed in my bag by a stranger: You are loved. The message arrived just when I needed it. It gave me hope.

What I’m beginning to realize is this: God does not abandon us in dark moments. God provides people and places and signs of love every day, we just have to notice them. God loves *you* dearly. And God’s love changes everything.

Summer mom

“I wanna be one of those summer moms who makes bucket lists and pool trips and spoils dinner with ice cream,” I lament to Jay while putting groceries away on Saturday.

I envy the summer moms. I see them strolling the neighborhood in their top knots and tank tops, babies in tow, seemingly schedule- and care-free.

Our weekends, in contrast, are a whirlwind of laundry, weeding and tidying up toddler messes—always prepping for the workweek ahead. “It’s hard when we both work full-time,” he says, rinsing dishes in the sink. I sigh.

My mom was a summer mom. She had summers off from teaching, and we went to our community pool often. My brother and I spent hours racing up and down the waterslides. We’d come home—soggy, spent and smelling of chlorine—then change into warm, dry clothes and collapse on the couch with cool, fruity popsicles. The memory is delicious.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m packing for a business trip while our son is napping. I spy my swimsuit in the closet and pause. In one swift motion I grab it and announce, “We’re going to the pool!” “Which one?” my husband asks. “I’m not sure yet…”

45 minutes later we’re at the neighborhood pool. I breathe in the smell of sunscreen, wiggle my toes in the cool pool water and revel in this perfect, 80-degree day. Our son is giggling at the mini geysers in the kiddie pool, and I can’t stop smiling. I’m deliriously happy.

I am a summer mom; I just had to believe it.

 

P.S. That night we totally had ice cream for dinner.