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Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 11.28.08 PMIn a darkened Tennessee motel room, just a mile from the Virginia border, my children are sleeping, each splayed across a double bed. At some point I will have to squeeze in beside one of them so I can sleep. It will most likely be Zeke, because he is smaller and therefore slightly easier to move, and he is less likely to leave bruises on my legs when he kicks me during the night. All those years of martial arts and soccer and running have endowed Zoe with very strong legs. Over the past nine nights of this trip, I have slept in a variety of beds in four different states with each of my children, occasionally my husband, and once–I think–alone. I am very much looking forward to being home in my own bed with space enough to sleep peacefully. Randy sometimes steals the covers but he never thrashes around or elbows me in the face.

On this trip I saw three cousins, two cousins-in-law, four second cousins, an uncle and two aunts. It had been so long since I’d seen some of these family members that they’d never met Zeke, or interacted with Zoe since she was an infant. I also got together with a high school friend, whose kids instantly befriended my kids. As we were leaving her house, Zoe asked, “can we exchange information?” I instructed her before she went to sleepaway camp this year to make sure her friends wrote down their names and contact information if she wanted to keep in touch with them, so she wouldn’t come home with scraps of paper saying “mom’s #” with a phone number and not know whose it was. Zoe drew one of her signature dragons for her 16-year-old cousin Elizabeth, with whom she was greatly enamored, as a thank you for Elizabeth giving her two stuffed animals from her childhood collection. Zeke came away with a large plastic version of a Swiss army knife, which he called his “tool,” and he spent hours asking everyone he could find if they had a problem, which he would then attempt to solve with his tool. He stuck the tool in his pocket and carried it everywhere. He dissolved in sobs when he was FaceTiming Daddy and couldn’t find his tool to show him. Zeke can’t seem to remember the name FaceTime. Earlier today he asked if we could TimeFace Daddy, and then as we pulled up to the hotel he asked if we could HotelFace Daddy. I said yes.

On this trip we hung out with five different dogs–Bella, Maisy, Lily, Dewey, and Lucy–in three different houses. Even though Zoe was reluctant to even walk into the house when Bella was standing at the door, after less than 24 hours with her, Zoe and Randy wanted to adopt her. On the way from South Carolina to Georgia, Randy was looking at dogs on an animal rescue website. Discussion quickly turned to how many pounds was too many and which dogs were better with kids or required a fenced yard. The jumpier, louder dogs at the next two houses perhaps curbed Zoe’s enthusiasm to adopt, yet by the end she was sad to leave the dogs who had seemingly terrified her moments before. Zeke was unfazed by all of it. He just couldn’t remember that some of the dogs were girls, saying, “Hi little fellow!” as he pet them.

IMG_0045On this trip I tried to pack in as much family time and adventuring as possible and therefore did not plan for adequate napping for Zeke, which resulted in several meltdowns and a lot of huffing and puffing. I suppose this is to be expected from a three-year-old, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. Zoe was a good sport about almost everything and usually continued to do whatever she was supposed to be doing while I dealt with Zeke. Sometimes she helped. It is easy to forget that it is hard for three-year-olds to adapt. All things considered, Zeke probably adapted really well. We did a LOT in 10 days–the Georgia Aquarium, Legoland Discovery Center, the High Museum of Art (exclusively the Eric Carle exhibit, family gallery, the outdoor climbable sculptures, and the ArtLab, IMG_0093lest you think I tried to coax my kids through the Walker Evans exhibit or anything too sophisticated), Zoo Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, and the climbable sculptures at the Abernathy Greenway. We shopped all too briefly at Little Shop of Stories and devoured ice cream at Butter & Cream (I recommend the OG Goodness).

We saw sea lions perform and beluga whales glide gracefully by and we touched sea anemones. We learned that sea lions have ears you can see and seals do not. We pedaled into the air and shot at bad guys on the rides at Legoland, and admired a Lego model of Atlanta’s famous buildings. We read Pancakes, Pancakes and learned about Eric Carle’s technique of sweeping paint onto paper on the floor with a broom and then cutting it up to create his vibrant illustrations and how growing up in Germany and walking through the woods with his father influenced his work. We built block towers and created collages and Zoe and Randy made a stop motion animated film. Zoe and Zeke fed romaine lettuce to a hungry giraffe with a long and powerful tongue. We saw orangutans and pandas and flamingos and giant tortoises so calm and contemplative that I thought at first they were IMG_0160statues. We rode the train and the carousel and an exceptionally kind zoo employee went out of his way for me. I had bought a souvenir cup at lunch and refilled it with water which I was sharing with the kids. While I was watching Zoe climb a very tall net structure, Zeke finished the water and went over to recycle the cup. I tried to stop him, shouting that I had bought the cup to keep, and he pushed it further into the recycling big and then hung his head, Charlie Brown style, which he does when he realizes he did something wrong but seems powerless to stop himself. The zoo employee, who was on duty at the climbing structure, but there was no one else there but Zoe, said he would be right back and he went to get me another cup. I thought that was amazingly kind of him. It wasn’t a big thing, but he really didn’t have to do it at all, and I never would have asked. We watched a clever and engaging puppet show called Old MacDonald’s Farm. I bet you think you already know the story, but there was really a lot more to it than you’d expect, and it was quite well done. Then we made our own chicken puppets, even the grown-ups. We visited quite a few gift shops and came away with too many souvenirs (the number diminished at each stop), except at the Children’s Museum where we bypassed the gift shop altogether because the kids’ behavior there was especially unpleasant.

I learned more about my Dad’s family–that they used to drive from the Bronx to Yonkers on Saturdays to visit Grandma Yeager and eat delicious Hungarian food, and take leftovers home. I learned that Grandpa Rosenblatt was some sort of peddler and that he traveled back and forth from Romania to the US but once to Argentina–speaking only Yiddish– for some time because he couldn’t get back in the US, and Grandma Rosenblatt worried that he was going to abandon the family so she sent Max (my grandfather) to America when he was a teenager to make sure his father would send for her and her daughter Sara. I learned that my dad and his brother and sister and their mom spent several summers at a bungalow colony in upstate New York, which they loved, and my Uncle Larry and his friend went fishing and unexpectedly caught an eel. And there’s more, for another post another time.

We enjoyed seeing my Uncle Larry appear suddenly as Bobo the Clown, which initially frightened Zeke but then delighted all of us with magic tricks and corny jokes and a couple skits. Zeke was still talking today about how funny it was when Bobo the Clown was trying to sleep and a bee was bothering him. Zeke cracked up both watching and remembering the scene.

We enjoyed eating authentic Southern junk food at the Varsity in Atlanta. I had two hot dogs with chili and slaw. I don’t think I’ve had hot dogs like that–or that good–since my Nana died because I used to have them at her house. Chili and slaw in Arlington are not the same. This morning we hit Waffle House. I was reminded of my desire to eat at Waffle House by the Waffle House-replica kitchen at the Children’s Museum, where Zeke served Aunt Susan a stack of six fried eggs. I decided we would stop and eat not long after we left Atlanta this morning, worried that we wouldn’t encounter another Waffle House. As it turns out, there was one about every other exit for hundreds of miles. Not to worry. I took my aunt’s advice and ordered hash browns covered and smothered.  Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 11.30.27 PMThe kids had chocolate chip waffles. Which means I ate my breakfast and half of Zeke’s waffle while he ate bacon and my biscuit.

I love how Zeke made himself completely at home with all of my family members, most of whom he’d either never met or hadn’t seen in years. And if you’re three and you haven’t seen someone in years, you might as well never have met them. He just jumped right in with no hesitation. Zoe is more circumspect, but still enjoyed bonding with the family, especially getting silly with my uncle and glimpsing the glamorous lives of her older cousins–ages 12, 14, and 16. As soon as we left each of our family’s houses, she declared that she missed them already.

I almost forgot how we started the trip with the Insane Inflatable 5K in Virginia Beach. Zoe and I signed up for this fresh off her excitement about the Girls on the Run 5K she ran with my sister in May. We watched videos of the Insane Inflatable 5K and it looked fun. And it SBW3158was, mostly. It was also very hot that day and traversing those inflatables was way harder than we anticipated. But we did it, and we were proud of ourselves. And I got a migraine later that day but that’s to be expected. We also enjoyed the Children’s Museum of Virginia that afternoon. I think I am done with Children’s Museums for a while.

I did not accomplish much of anything else this week. I thought I’d be able to squeeze in some work because this week was a completely inconvenient time for me to take off, in terms of my work schedule, but this week was when we could make the trip. So, sorry clients. I’ll be back on task next week. I was so exhausted I fell asleep two nights this week putting Zeke to bed, and stayed asleep for the night. I apologized to my uncle for being antisocial but he said he understood. I am thankful to everyone we visited for their flexibility. They were all remarkably solicitous and accommodating.

The last leg of our journey is tomorrow. Roughly six more hours to go, not counting stops to eat and pee, of which there are always plenty. We had a terrific adventure, but we are all ready to be home. And now it’s time to claim my sliver of bed, next to Zeke and Kitty Kat and Uh Oh Dog. Good night.

gourds!Zeke is so delighted with himself.

Lately he loves to careen into my office, which doubles as our guest bedroom or the bed where Zeke sleeps with one of us when he won’t go back to bed during the night, and scramble up onto the bed and throw himself onto a pillow. He grins this huge grin like he has gotten away with something amazing. Then he pats the pillow next to him, indicating that you are supposed to lie down there with him. Then he pulls the covers up over himself and grins some more. He also loves to climb up on his sister’s bed, using the Lego bins or the dress-up bins as a stool. If there are objects sitting on the bins he will fling them away so he can climb unencumbered. If you move the bins away so as to discourage him from climbing onto Zoe’s bed, he will move them back or find some other way to scale the foot of the bed, perhaps channeling his inner Spiderman.

For an 18-month-old boy, Zeke is remarkably committed to good hygiene. For example, if the bathroom door is left open he will climb up to the sink and wash his hands with some frequency and plenty of glee. He loves turning on the water. He will also sit in the bathtub and play long after you’ve drained the water out. I don’t know why he enjoys this or how he doesn’t get cold, but sitting wet in the empty tub with his toys seems like nothing less than paradise to him. He loves the tub so much that one day when he and his sister were both driving me a bit batty, I stuck him in the tub with his clothes on. (Naked he tends to slide around some). I retrieved from a kitchen cabinet an enormous metal bowl that I have only ever used for food when I once made a huge quantity of salad for a picnic for people who were homeless. The bowl is now primarily used as a musical instrument or for science experiments. So I put some water in the bowl and threw some bath toys in and let Zeke play in the tub fully clothed until he was soaked enough to be uncomfortable. It bought me some time. We’ve recently resumed our efforts to brush his teeth because he has some now, but he prefers to do it himself. I think he is mostly brushing his tongue, but that’s important too, right?

Whether he is gathering and distributing or cuddling with gourds, or trying to scoop Chex cereal out of a snack cup with a small pasta ladle, pasta ladle!or turning on Randy’s clock radio so he can dance, Zeke does things his own unique way. He loves the co-op preschool where he goes two mornings a week. After a few mornings of crying when I dropped him off he now runs (as best he can) for the classroom and tries to scale the baby gate to get in as fast as he can to investigate the sensory table or squish playdough between his fingers. Last week I co-oped in his classroom and they were painting pumpkins with acrylic paint (the kind of paint preschoolers usually use doesn’t stick to pumpkins well, I guess. Or maybe it washes off too easily). Zeke had a paintbrush and a cup of black paint. He painted a bit on his pumpkin. Then he carefully painted the palm of each hand and all his fingers. Then he gestured for his teacher’s hand and painted it black as well. Then, as any creative genius would, he ran his fingers through his hair. Then, after washing hands, he wandered over to the book corner and laid down on a blanket and pillow and rolled around, adding his black paint touch to the pillowcase (I’ve since washed it and you’ll be relieved to know the paint came right out after being soaked in Oxi-clean.

When we drive by a playground, he squeals and claps in recognition. Yesterday at Zoe’s soccer practice he walked across the field on his own to reach the playground and did what all the four- and five-year-olds were doing. I sprinted in pursuit. He loves to carry Zoe’s rolling backpack and was rolling rolling backpack!it up and down the track around the field. Eventually he abandoned it and it sat there on the track with young cyclists and grown-up joggers maneuvering around it until I had a chance to move it at a moment when I didn’t think Zeke was going to leap from a 6-foot high play structure.

I would estimate that his sleeping through the night is up to 50% to 75% of the time. His tantrums run about five to 10 per day, particularly when you’re strapping him into his carseat or changing his diaper or taking away something that he wants but isn’t supposed to have. But when he’s not shrieking in protest, he truly is delightful, to himself and to us.

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I am sitting in the parking garage — 5b North — I’ve made a note of it for later — while my kids sleep in the back seat of the minivan. My daughter is moaning slightly. Outside the garage the rain is coming down in torrents. My husband is sleeping in the hotel room after spending the early part of the day in the emergency room after spending the night throwing up. Luckily my daughter only threw up once. Did I mention we’re on Spring break? Woo-hoo!

Luckily our friends who met us here in Philadelphia for a few days were still here today so I had another adult around to help out at the children’s museum. Zoe insisted that we go even though she was tired and weak. She was definitely off her game but rallied every now and then, exhibiting an encouraging burst of energy and an occasional smile. We spent a while in the craft room at the museum, a suitably low-key place to be. One table was book making. Zoe’s book was a one-page brief, which said blah blah blah blah and some other similar blahs to describe how she felt.

As I inch closer and closer to 40, which is waiting expectantly for me this weekend, I realize this is just how it is. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and — well you’ve heard that song before. Those are, indeed, the facts of life.

I used to think I needed to be happy. That you either had a good time or a bad time or were a happy person or an unhappy one. Since becoming a parent I realize it is more realistic to have a happy moment followed by an unhappy one and if you’re lucky followed by several happy ones before something else goes awry.

Did I mention on the first day of this trip we were rear-ended on the highway in what became a six-car pileup just North of the Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge over the Susquehana River and had to wait on the shoulder for the state troopers to arrive while comforting children in the car? Thankfully, no one was hurt and our car is mostly okay. Thankfully it wasn’t in a blizzard or a rainstorm or a heat wave. Thankfully our children did not scream throughout the hour we waited.

Pause.

As I was writing earlier, Zoe woke up and said she was going to be sick so I quickly unlocked the door and opened hers and she thoughtfully puked all over the ground. She is typically both neat and accurate when vomiting, which is a good skill to have. I pulled out the roll of paper towels that I cleverly stowed in the car just for this vacation and brought her some. Just at that moment, Randy texted to find out where we were and say that he’d woken up, so I requested his presence in the garage. He carried Zeke in and Zoe rode in Zeke’s stroller. I was amazed that she fit, but she did.

I won’t go into details about the rest of the evening except that to say it involved calls to my parents and the pediatrician and some amount of weeping from various family members, and wet washcloths, and a trip for Zeke (nestled in Ergo and clad in raincoat) and me (clad in raincoat wearing Ergo) to the CVS to procure supplies for everyone. I asked the woman at the front desk for directions to CVS and she explained that it was three blocks away and I actually asked her to write down directions because I knew I would not remember them and it was raining and I just couldn’t deal.

Thanks be to God that at the tender hour of 9pm, the rest of my family is sleeping peacefully. Please let them all stay that way until morning.

All this is to say that perhaps one of the most significant things I’ve learned in my nearly 40 years is that we will survive and that it is imperative to suck the juice out of those beautiful moments scattered among the messy ones. Tonight: in the midst of her painful headache, Zoe asked to call to my mom, which immediately calmed her down and soothed her. Then she watched some Reading Rainbow videos. Thank goodness for the sanguine virtual presence of LeVar Burton. And she asked me to sing “Amazing Grace” to her, which also seemed to help. And Randy was willing to switch beds with her and take the sofabed because she said she was uncomfortable.

And: Zeke totally chill and taking it all in on our rainy mission. Zeke happily putting his toys in one of the hotel room cabinets and taking them out again. Zeke smiling and laughing and blowing raspberries. Zeke not puking. And Zeke finally submitting to sleep after I was very close to being out of jiggles.

Childless people have observed to me in the past that, from the outside, being a parent seems daunting or difficult or perhaps even impossible. “I could never do what you do!” they say. Or, for those actually planning to have kids, “Wow, that seems hard.”

Well, sure. It’s hard. But what’s easy that’s worth doing? Okay, maybe a few things. But what big things in life are easy that are worth doing? I have known since I was seven when I became a big sister that I wanted to be a mom. It took me longer than I expected to make that a reality, mostly because it took me a while to find the right guy to be my kids’ dad. But it all came together and there’s nothing in the universe like it. These little beings who need you so much, and you’re everything to them. Sometimes that can be overwhelming and exhausting, but also so satisfying and joyful. You sacrifice a lot, but you receive more in return. Being this person on whom your children can utterly rely, whose trust you have earned, who love you and need you and want you so relentlessly that you sometimes feel suffocated but usually feel so privileged. I am profoundly thankful for my little family. Even when they have made a mess all over me and all around me.

This trip was supposed to be a Spring break adventure–we never go away for Spring break. We always work and Zoe usually goes to camp. And this trip was supposed to be a little birthday present for me, since I am about to have a big birthday. Since Zoe was born and her birthday is two weeks before mine, Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.36.19 PMwe have not done much to celebrate mine. Last year I was hugely and uncomfortably pregnant with Zeke and it happened to thunderstorm on my birthday so we got pizza delivered. And all that is ok. But sometimes I feel like I should get a little treat. (I did buy myself roller skates recently, which is as close to a little red sports car kind of purchase as I would come) And I’m sure I will. But in the meantime we will drive home in the morning. I promised Zoe we could return to Philadelphia another time, maybe for a long weekend, to do all the things we had planned to do but didn’t.

In the meantime, I will just enjoy the beautiful silence of my sleeping family and hope that no one throws up on me (or anyone else) in the middle of the night. I love these guys.

 

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — to learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! To learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

Messy Beautiful footer

I’m sure everyone in my family has now seen more of my breasts, and more often, than they ever expected or cared to. My boy Zeke loves to nurse. And why wouldn’t he? Thankfully, he’s a good sleeper, usually going through the night without needing to eat these days. As a result, however, he packs it in during the day, breastfeeding six or eight or a dozen times a day. I lose count. Every day I intend to keep track, but my brain is so cloudy that I forget. He enjoys long, luxurious meals. He appreciates quick snacks. When I’m out in public, especially in a crowded place or if strangers are seated nearby, I feed Zeke under a nursing cover. I can’t imagine it’s very discreet, because anyone would see what I’m doing, but at least my boobs and my belly are not exposed to a room full of people. But at home, or on vacation, I don’t bother. So Family, I hope you haven’t been offended. I am nutritious.

After a long and thorough search for an acceptable day care provider to care for Zeke when I go back to work in earnest, I found someone who has run her home-based day care for 33 years. Her house is five minutes from ours and she seemed conscientious and the kids there seemed happy. Zeke won’t start there until September, and even then he will only be with her two days a week and with my parents for two. I’m sure he’ll be fine, and if I decide I don’t like her, we can always take him out and find someone else. And yet. Putting him in day care at all feels like a colossal betrayal. I am his source of sustenance. Sure, he’s taken bottles of breast milk from his dad and grandparents and great aunt. But it’s me he loves to eat from and with. Sure, there’s some ego involved here. Being the mother of a baby is nothing if not a rush to the ego–look what my body developed and birthed and now I’m feeding him and he’s growing and WOW — I am doing this. Even if it’s basically all happening automatically and you’re not really doing anything yourself, just letting yourself be used as a vessel and a milk factory. Still, it feels impressive and gratifying. Much as you feel pleased with yourself when you take him to the grocery store in the stroller and buy $100 worth of groceries that you shop for with a basket attached to each side of the stroller and then you stroll home the half mile with 9 bags hanging from the hooks on your stroller handlebars. You don’t always have that many opportunities to feel really physically competent–or at least I don’t–but taking care of this baby provides plenty.

I realize that soon after he starts day care, he will likely start eating some solid food, so he won’t be as dependent on nursing as he is now. At some point, that will be a relief to me and certainly to Zoe, who is visibly frustrated with the lack of intimacy she is able to share with me now in terms of snuggles and lap time because Zeke is so often occupying my arms and taking priority. Life will be easier for me, just simpler and less demanding, when I don’t have to nurse so much. But at the same time that intensity of being needed, and being able to provide such an essential service for this wonderful little person, will diminish. And as much as constant breastfeeding has driven me insane, when I just want to eat a sandwich or go to the bathroom, the thought of giving it up makes me equally sad. I know I’m not giving it up just because he’ll be in day care, but it will all be different. And we know change is hard. Although when you have kids, change happens about every five minutes whether you like it or not.

I can see Zoe changing by the minute since her brother was born. While she seems less likely to listen the first time and increasingly able to stand and stare at us when we ask her to do something, or why she did or didn’t do something, wearing this expression of complete intransigence, she is also more independent and both able and willing (if sometimes resigned to doing so with a loud sigh) to amuse herself for long stretches. I guess she realizes it’s either be her own entertainment or stand around being pathetic while we take care of her brother. Last summer I took her to the pool almost every day after camp and played with her in the water. This summer it has proven complicated and exhausting to get in the water with Zeke, although I’ve done it a handful of times, and Zoe has adapted quite nicely. She swims by herself, throwing in pool toys and diving to catch them, or she makes friends, or she plays with kids she’s met before. She’s adapted.

Before Zeke was born, Randy and I easily agreed that we would be sure to spend one-on-one time with Zoe to make sure she got enough attention. Of course that makes sense and is what any good parent would do. But then life happens and it’s harder to do the things that obviously of course you should be doing. I had this idea that I was spending all this time with Zoe because I spend a lot of time driving her places and watching her swim, or do tae kwan do, or what have you. But Zeke is always there. And as often as not, screaming in the car.

So finally, I took Zoe out today for a mommy-daughter outing, to get our nails done. Something definitely not appropriate for babies and something only big girls get to do. She chose neon orange for her toes, and what she called sparkly indigo for her fingernails. And she got flower designs on her thumbs and big toes. Then we went out to lunch, where Randy and Zeke met us. Thoughtfully, Zeke slept through lunch.

Then after lunch I had the opportunity to indulge myself in some mommy-alone-without-kids-and-not-attempting-to-do-work-or-errands time, while Randy hung out with Zoe and Zeke at home. I had a reflexology foot massage, supremely relaxing in its own right, but also just blissful in that I was just on my own, being taken care of, and not taking care of anyone else at all. Even for a minute. My breasts safely cocooned inside my shirt.

It’s good to be needed, even when it’s exhausting. And it’s good to have the chance to give something to other people who need you besides the little one who just likes to suckle and smile. And it’s good to take care of yourself once in a while. And now that it’s bedtime for the grown-ups, that means it’s time for me to pump, to make a bottle for Zeke to enjoy with someone else who loves him.

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