fall

To the Siblings Left Behind

I had prepped all summer for my oldest kids, the twins, to head off to Kindergarten. 

We prepared in tangible ways. I checked off the list of school supplies: crayons (both twistable and regular), scissors, notebooks, glue sticks: double of everything. We shopped for new clothes and set aside time for hair cuts. We went through the Kindergarten workbooks from their preschool teachers. We practiced opening lunch boxes, granola bars, and applesauce pouches; I showed them what was trash and what to bring home.

I tried to prepare them socially. We talked about how some kids in their class might have different skin colors. Some might have two mommies and some might have only one parent. Some friends might not celebrate the same holidays or eat the same foods we do. I told them I wanted them to do well in school, but the most important thing is for them to be kind.

Emotional preparation was more difficult. I wondered how the long days would affect them, something impossible to prepare them for. Would they be absolutely exhausted when they stepped off the bus at 4:00 pm? Would they need a snack, a hug, a nap?

I made lists to reassure myself. At least I had control over some things. I shopped for crackers and cheese and organic juice boxes for lunch and snack time. I added important dates to our family calendar. I stuck a note on the refrigerator: water bottle, snack pouch, lunch box, juice box, homework folder to help us remember everything in the morning rush.

I thought about how those long days would affect me. Just what was I supposed to do all day with their younger brother? I’ve never had only one kid at home all day. What would I do with Nolan and all three-and-a-half years of his energy, his spirit, his mad drive for socialization?

The first day of school arrived, and as that big yellow bus pulled away that very first morning (they ran on without a look back), I held Nolan in my arms to wave goodbye. And then it happened. His lower lip pouted, his eyes filled with tears, and he reached after the bus in despair once he realized what had happened. His 5 1/2-year old brother and sister, the built-in playmates he’s had for literally his entire life, were gone. And he was left behind.

In all these preparations, I hadn't taken into account what all this would mean for him. Not once had I thought about how all this would affect Nolan, number three in my trio, born exactly two years and two days after his brother and sister, who wears the same shoe size they do, the three-and-a-half-year-old who is so big strangers frequently stop to ask if they’re triplets.

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Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog.

Life in the Busy (or The New 4:00 Hour)

In “The Habit” newsletter this week (a weekly email devoted to writing), Jonathan Rogers wrote:

 “If what you're looking for is an excuse for not writing, the busyness of your life is a good one. I should know: I use that one all the time. But having more time or a better desk probably isn't going to help as much as you think if you're not already using the hour or two you have at that little desk in the corner.”

It struck me. Since the school year began - really since August hit with all of its NO-ACTIVITIES-FOR-YOU business - I’ve felt pretty dried up. The kids sapped most of my energy in August. Then school hit, along with ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Dance and religious education started. I’ve said “yes” where I used to say “I have three small kids so NO”: to volunteer positions, a writing class, a leadership position at church. Things I feel I have some space for now.

At night, I often stare for awhile at a blinking cursor, with a blank mind but a full brain. At my own little desk in the corner, I struggle to find something to say. 

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And I wonder how much is hiding behind the busyness and how much is actual...busyness?

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The hour from 4:00-5:00 pm used to be the single longest hour in my entire day. To survive for one more hour until the clock flipped over to 5:00 felt like an eternity.

4:00 was about the time I gave up for the day. Where I plopped in the grass and willed our neighbors to come over and play. When I lay down on the couch, to hell with the quantity of toys scattered across the floor or whoever was wailing about a minor bodily injury around me.

Really, I don’t think 4:00 pm has ever been a great time for me. It was the least productive time in my professional life. I often tackled busywork tasks like sketching out floor plans or scanning tile catalogs. I dreaded phone calls during the 4 o’clock hour, when my brain was fried and my introvert side was all d-o-n-e.

I’m still ready to be done for the day at 4:00 pm. But since that’s the time Caden and Brooklyn’s bus pulls up to release them back to me, 4:00 feels less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and more like entering another tunnel.

“It felt like I went from a nine-hour day to a twelve-hour day,” a friend said to me recently, regarding the transition to full-time-all-day-every-day-school. That hit me as exactly right.

While my day was far from over at 4:00 pm previously, the end was in sight. Another hour until there was another set of hands to help wrangle small children. I could begin my mental check-out from the day, devote time to dinner and dishes and not much else. (Tyson had bedtime duty.) I was almost free for the day - free to leave the house to write, to do yoga. (*ahem* to mindlessly scroll Instagram…)

Now at 4:00, it feels like my day starts all over again.

There are new nighttime responsibilities added to the ones that already existed: filling water bottles and snack bags and tucking them in backpacks, checking communication folders, planning lunches for the next day. I often do bedtime now with Caden and Brooklyn since I don’t see them all day. These duties, unlike many of my other nighttime tasks, can’t be pushed off. The toys, if need be, can still be scattered across the front hall all day tomorrow, but those lunches need to be packed and ready to go by 8:15 am.

And morning comes with its own chaos. Breakfast for three kids (plus me, hopefully), unloading clean dishes from the dishwasher, loading the freshly-dirtied breakfast ones. Drinking coffee before helping Nolan find clothes, supervising Caden and Brooklyn (make sure they’re actually getting dressed and not distracted with half a sock on somewhere). Brushing three sets of teeth and doing Brooklyn’s hair. Packing up those lunches and triple-check to see that everything is in their backpacks. On preschool days Nolan and I have to be out of the house by 8:25 am. Caden and Brooklyn catch the bus at 8:45.

It’s fine. The mornings don’t bother me so much. I thrive on routine. And with three kids who often wake before the sun, it’s not a mad dash the way I know it is for other families.

Plus, after the morning rush three days a week, I return home to quiet.

Quiet is rarely a word that can be applied to our evenings.

Dinnertime spills over into bedtime which seems to be where all those Big Kindergarten Emotions come out. They’ve held it together all day and now they’re home and they’re safe and their energy bubbles over into one more endless round of giggles at the table, whining about a LEGO they’ve lost, or sobbing that they want their room painted blue again because they liked it when it was blue and I didn’t even ask them if I could paint it white. (1: I totally did ask and we all agreed on white and 2: you’ve literally never brought this up before. Can we please talk about it at some other time - any other time - when it’s not already 43 minutes past your bedtime?)

My day feels stretched out, beginning with that four o’clock hour. And my evenings feel like they’ve slipped away.

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I sit down at the end of the day, my later-than-usual, stretched-out day. I’ve felt so caught up in those lunches and remembering drop-off and pick-up times. I’ve scribbled Post-It note reminders to bring sandwich bags to Nolan’s preschool, to pick up ingredients for the church potluck, to send money for the back to school dinner. I send an email to the teacher, place the book order, cross off items on my list, and make another for the next day: wrap presents for the party, revise that document, make a phone call, write this post for that deadline.

I don’t know if it’s busyness as an excuse or actually being busy. I see how I could get lost in this phase of life, maybe even more so than in the baby stage. Where I don’t have naptime to fall back on and more often than not have a (non-napping) three-year old around. When 4 o’clock hits and our house explodes into chaos and emotions and dinner to make and backpacks to clean out.

Maybe I am busy.

Maybe I’m hiding behind it sometimes.

Maybe that’s okay.

Maybe I’ll learn to make the most of that blinking cursor during the single hour I find in the evenings, in my own corner of my bedroom. Maybe I’ll find a way to energize myself during the 4:00 hour. (Hahaha.) Maybe it’s okay for awhile if that cursor blinks at me more than I would like. Maybe I’ll find life in the busy and return here to put it all down on the page.

Art Time

I’m a planner by nature. Always have been, always will be. My husband and I use an app to synch our family schedule and I use another one to plan our meals and create a grocery list for the week. After a two-year hiatus, I recently caved to the purchase of a beautiful, lovely, glorious paper day planner again. I’m eyeing an enormous whiteboard calendar to fill a wall in our kitchen, to help with the question my kids ask every morning at breakfast, “Where are we going today?” Bedtime, nap time, quiet time, and wake-up time are all coordinated by the Okay to Wake clocks in each kid’s bedroom. (Well...maybe those times aren’t quite as carefully coordinated as I would like them to be.)

So it should come as no surprise to you that as a stay-at-home mom I’ve given a similar structure to the planning of our days. I thrive on routine and my own kids, like most kids, do too. They anticipate the ordering of our days: wake-up, breakfast, get ready, preschool or other activity outside the house, lunch, nap and quiet time, screen time, snack time, playtime, dinner, clean up, pajamas, bed.

Afternoon playtime can be the longest and most tedious part of our day. With a two-year old who caps out at a 60-minute nap and twin four-year olds who don’t really nap anymore, the afternoon hours from 2-5 pm can drag on as we all go slightly stir-crazy from the close proximity to each other. In the summer we find relief in gathering with neighborhood friends to go run around outside, burn off all that energy, and splash in the pool until it’s time to prep dinner. It’s these cooler months, the ones that have all too soon arrived this year, that really take a toll.

Enter: art time. Four o’clock is art hour at our house. Despite the name, it’s nothing too creative. Nothing too novel. Come 4:00 pm, whatever we’re doing, I stop and call out “It’s art time!”

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Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog!

Breakfast Scene

I flip on one light after another as I come downstairs. Another cloudy morning makes it feel more like 5 am than 7. I open the wooden blinds — the bane of my existence, the way they collect dust — but they do little to add light to my space this morning. The smell of coffee, already made and waiting in the pot, helps slightly. I grab my favorite rusty-orange mug and fill it up, then take a lap around the island, making pit stops to add a little sugar and a swirl of heavy cream.

Oatmeal awaits me on the stove, this overnight oat recipe one of my favorite life hacks to cut down on busy mornings. A little olive oil, a scoop of steel-cut oats, toast it all up before adding some water, bring to a rolling boil, cover and switch off the burner. In the morning all that’s needed is to heat it up and — voila! — breakfast. I switch on the gas burner and give it a stir, adding a little whole milk to the mix. The kids have been begging for oatmeal for days, weeks. I’ve always had an excuse; it’s too hot, we don’t have any, or (most often) I forgot the night before. That’s when I hear six little feet thundering towards the kitchen through the mudroom, home from their morning walk with daddy.

“Oatmeal! Yummy yum! Yay!” Nolan screams as he runs in and sees me, complete with exaggerated lip-licking, mouth-smacking, and dancing. He never has been my subtle child.

Brooklyn and Caden trail behind. Brooklyn huddles close to my legs, smiling, her blue eyes gleaming up at me as she asks, “Did you really make oatmeal mommy?”

I show her the full bronze pot in response. I’d doubled the recipe last night, remembering how last winter we could go through a single pot before everyone was full. I smile, glorying in a proud mom moment as I scoop globs of oatmeal into colorful bowls and top them each with dried cranberries, ask if they want cinnamon.

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Nolan takes one bite, “Yum!” Then, because he’s two, changes his mind. “I no like the oatmeal.” He pushes it away and asks for Cheerios instead.

Caden this morning has been uninterested in the oatmeal from the start. “I just want Golden Grahams and strawberries,” he says.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yup,” he replies with a furled brow. I sigh but don’t argue. I choose my battles and this morning this isn’t it.

Brooklyn is my last remaining hope. She takes a few bites (“I want to put the cranberries on myself.”), then pushes it away, declaring herself “not really hungry”.

Huh. Well then. So much for life hacks.

Once they’re settled with their assorted food items, I grab two bowls and scoop generous portions. I slice bananas and arrange them on top, scatter dried cranberries, add lines of chia seeds, top it all off with cinnamon sugar. I grab two spoons and pass one to Tyson, along with a bowl. An Instagram-worthy bowl. Someone is going to eat this long-awaited oatmeal around here. And it’s going to be damn good.

The Summer Neighborhood

It's a wet and muggy first day today. Not for us, preschool doesn't get going until next week, but for the rest of the neighborhood. Most years the day after Labor Day has dawned sunny and bright. I usually forget it's not just another Tuesday until we walk down to the park after 9:00 am to find everything quieter than usual. Windows and garage doors closed, empty yards, general stillness.

Our neighborhood comes alive in the summer. Most Midwestern ones do, I suppose. We have to enjoy it while we can. The big kids run around, free from school (or are shoved outside, away from their screens, reluctantly), little ones chalk in the driveway (or scream bloody murder because they “don’t want to get wet” even though they’re in the pool with their swimsuit on), everyone is out grilling burgers and kabobs and brats.

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One yard or another fills up with assorted neighborhood kids and parents. Some of the older kids’ parents stay inside their air-conditioned homes. I’m not sure what they do inside. I imagine they’re luxuriously soaking up stacks of books, enjoying Netflix marathons, and eating ice cream by the pint in their pristine and organized living rooms. (I’ll report back in about a decade or so to let you know if that is in fact true.) It’s a win all around. The older kids help referee the little ones while us parents chat and occasionally crack open an adult beverage.

I’ve been taking advantage of some of those bigger kids this summer, putting them to use. As babysitters for date nights or, more importantly, as “mommy’s helpers” because I desperately need a break in the afternoon. Others wander the neighborhood, offering their services. One neighbor girl came along to pull the ever-present weeds from our landscaping. (Her rate? “$2.30 for 30 minutes”. You can’t beat that, people.) Another mows our grass. For FREE. (Okay, I guess you can beat the $2.30 girl. Though we paid the grass-mower anyway.)

For the most part I’m doing a little dance inside at this time of year. With the days cooling and the leaves about to change and the pumpkins and the apples and the sweaters all headed our way, what’s not to love? I come alive again at this time of year, a fall girl who glories in the lack of humidity, the wearing of booties, and returning to the routine of a school-year schedule.

At the same time something is lost. Not quite yet but soon. The chill will go from a literal breath of fresh air to something more brutal. Everyone will turn to the warmth of their homes and blankets and fireplaces. Backyards, sidewalks, and driveways will be empty. I’ll admit there’s a beauty to this rhythm, too. I do love cozying up, decorating for the holidays, hunkering down during the first snow, and remembering how to play inside again. But a couple months of that and I’m ready for people. For the ease of social interaction without the coordination of text messages and calendars. For the easy-breezy days of stepping just outside our door to find friends. For afternoons that aren’t quite as long and tedious since we can spend them at the park. Or in the backyard. Or anywhere but the same four walls surrounding us all day every day.

We're planning to glory in our own last week of summer. Plans to spend our last few days at the park (when it's not wet), our own backyard, the farm, and topping it all off with an overnight at a local waterpark. A last hurrah. We'll enjoy our summer neighborhood while we can before embracing the indoors all over again.