toddlers

What I See (Part II)

Thursday afternoon, we went to Nolan’s Early Childhood Screening appointment. I guess I’m not sure how this works in other states, but here in Minnesota, all children are screened at the age of three by their school district to prepare them for Kindergarten. They check vision and hearing, standard doctor appointment stuff, but also their verbal abilities, fine and gross motor skills, etc. The goal is to intervene and help kids as soon as possible - refer them to speech therapy or an appointment with an optometrist - to catch potential problems sooner rather than later.

I wondered as we drove if I should have rescheduled Nolan’s appointment. The twins had done theirs at his age, but they seemed more mature. Maybe I should have waited six months or so. He was smart but was he really ready? I thought of his energy, his defiance. Would he even answer the teacher’s questions? I prayed the next hour or so would go well. If nothing else, I figured we’d be directed to a therapist.

I sat in the hard, blue plastic chair across the room filling out paperwork as Nolan copied the teacher as she stacked blocks, drew a circle and some lines on a page. I listened as he quietly told her all about the yellow car she handed him with the red wheels that were circles and went vroom. My shoulders relaxed; it seemed to be going well.

It did go well. It went very well.

“He scored a 23,” the educator told me as we went over his score sheet afterward, “He only needed a 14 to pass. I’ve almost never seen a 3-year-1-monther do so well.”

I stared in disbelief at the paper, noted that he scored far past what he would have needed even six months from now.

“His cognitive abilities are impressive,” she told me, “He was able to do things even the four-year olds I see have trouble with. And he is very verbal.” (Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.)

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The day before, Wednesday afternoon, I had knocked gently on Tyson’s office door. I try not to bother him during the day. I usually only knock on the door if I need to raid his office for a fresh roll of tape or some batteries.

He opened the door and I put my head on his chest and started crying. I could sense his surprise. (We can both probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried in our eight years of marriage.)

“I’m so...tired...of parenting Nolan,” I finally told him.

That morning Nolan had tried every single ounce of patience I had and even a couple extra ounces I didn’t even know were there.

“Nolan, don’t go in the sandbox right now, it’s too muddy,” I told him. About twelve times. (Along with a few other variations such as “Keep your feet on the sidewalk” and “Show me how you go down the slide instead.”)

“Leave the chalk in the bucket,” I told him. Only to find him a few minutes later sending stubby piece after stubby piece down the slide.

“Put the chalk back in the bucket please,” I said. He defiantly looked away. I touched his cheek to make him look at me. “I told you before not to take it out. Your consequence now is to pick it up.” It took a few minutes, but he did pick up a few pieces from the rainbow pile on the ground, now wet from the morning dew and still-melting snow. Half-heartedly. I found him eating pieces of chalk not long after.

These were not isolated incidents in an otherwise calm morning. This was all in the same eight-minute span. Previously he’d also waved a stick around and hit two people in the face, taken off both his shoes and socks at the park in the 42-degree weather (one landed in a puddle), and refused to throw his granola bar wrapper in the garbage at snacktime. As Mad-Eye Moody would say, the boy needs constant vigilence!

It wasn’t an unusual morning, either. It was just the latest in nearly three years of days that had gone just the same. Three years of attempting to balance his needs for high energy and high socialization without burning myself out in the process.

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The drive home from the screening appointment was very different from the one there. I kept glancing back at him in my rearview mirror, his big, bright eyes searching the sky for airplanes as they so often do, munching on some bright orange crackers that were leftover from his earlier snack.

Who are you? I kept thinking. His score was high, higher even than Caden and Brooklyn’s when they completed their own screening just two years ago. I was just hoping you would pass and now I feel like my world is upside down.

It’s not that I didn’t think he was smart - he is. But Caden and Brooklyn’s high scores for the same screening weren’t a surprise for me. They’re the ones I’ve always been concerned with pushing academically. Nolan with all his energy — I’ve just been concerned with trying to keep him alive.

As I drove I thought of my prayer for him every night, Lord please just channel his energy into good, and I wondered at the blue-eyed boy in the backseat, babbling about PJ Masks and oblivious to all of my thoughts.

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“So how’d it go?” Tyson asked as I made dinner that night.

I looked at him, wondering how to answer. “It went fine. He passed,” I finally said.

He sensed the hesitency in my voice, “Just barely?”

“Tyson, he more than passed. He scored even higher than Caden and Brooklyn did.”

“Oh,” Tyson’s eyes widened and he laughed, “I just hoped he would pass. Awesome!”

I smiled even as my mind continued to swirl, wondering what to do with my trouble-making, energetic, clever little boy.

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Thursday night, I sat at my kitchen island and Googled what to do with him. I researched energetic three-year olds and smart three-year olds, and didn’t find much help. It’s not exactly like there’s advanced preschool. (Also felt like the world’s most obnoxious parent for Googling “gifted three-year olds”.) I read about engaging him in as many activities as possible, to give a direction to his energy and focus his high capacity for learning. This at least explained why he’d excelled in dance class all year.

It also gave credit to the theory I’ve had in my head for awhile, that he was smart but bored, and his energy and constant search for attention was the outward manifestation of the intelligence buried inside.

I rubbed my forehead as I searched for programs and activities - anything -  for three-year olds which were either a.) nonexistent or b.) combined with the two-year olds. I sighed and gave up for the evening, relieved that I had at least signed up him for three mornings of preschool in the fall.

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Over a week later and I’m still thinking about that screening appointment, still feel a little as though my world has been turned upside down. I’ve told some relatives and friends how well his screening went and have mostly been met with the response, “Yeah that doesn’t surprise me”. Maybe because they’re further removed from the day-to-day challenges than I am, of parenting a little someone with such boundless energy.

I feel the weight of the responsibility - even more than before - to watch over him, push him, protect him. To work even harder to engage and advocate for him. If I can help him channel his energy now, guide him, direct him, parent him, love him. If I can find him the right activities, teachers, coaches, so that he can thrive.

He burns so brightly already. I want him to shine. I want everyone to see just what he can do.

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Tyson has been playing a game with Nolan lately, taking inspiration from the book Dear Zoo.

“First God sent me an Emily,” Tyson tells him, “But I didn’t want an Emily. So I sent her back.”

“Then God sent me a Logan,” Tyson continues, “But I didn’t want a Logan. So I sent him back.”

Tyson continues on, listing off the names of Nolan’s friends and sending them back. Nolan’s smile grows bigger every time.

“Then God thought really hard and he sent me a Nolan,” Tyson finally says, “And he was perfect. I kept him”

Perfect. We’re keeping him. I’m going to watch him climb some more.

Three Under Five

When I first began listening to podcasts a couple years and change ago, I was knee-deep in small children. Like, even more so than now. The twins were two and Nolan was an infant. I began listening to podcasts to have an adult voice in my ears and to liven up my days, which were more full of diapers, snot, and Cheerios than grown-up conversation. I sought out podcasts on motherhood out of desperation for solidarity and maybe a ray of hope that this too, shall pass.

As I listened I began to notice a theme. Or at least a catchphrase. “Three kids under five,” came up frequently, like it was some Holy Grail of Difficulty in parenting. Most of the podcasters were older than me and everyone spoke of that season in tones of reverence. It was the season that buried them, one of the hardest parts of their parenting careers, maybe one of the hardest parts of their lives. Three kids under five was a lot. It was exhausting. It was to be survived.

I looked around at my own life at the time. Three kids in diapers. Three kids who couldn’t put on their own shoes or jackets or socks or mittens. Three kids who were along for the ride as I drove my minivan in circles around the parking lot to find a cart big enough to wheel everyone in the store together. Because two of those kids were too little to walk through the parking lot without a hand to hold, yet one of my arms was burdened with the third in a car seat.

Three kids under three.

Three kids under five sounded pretty good to me. Five years old — or almost? That’s big kid territory right there. Five to me represented independence, some sort of helpfulness, maybe even stability. With three kids under five, at least one of them would be in school part of the day. At a minimum, it implied they were potty trained. Surely Five must be practically able to take care of themselves.

“Three kids under five,” I would think, “Must be nice.”

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At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I’ll tell you I realized pretty recently that I still have three kids under five. In fact, I’ve had three kids under five for three years. The first year I had three under three. Then three under four. Earlier this year I upgraded at last, officially, to three under five. Before three kids, I had two under any age you could throw at me. Under a year, under a month, under a day. Under five minutes.

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I’ve been exhausted lately and annoyed I feel that way. Surely I should feel “better” by now. Whatever that means. Certainly I should feel more energized and less drained. There’s no longer a baby in our house and I’ve been a parent now for how long? The days and even years blur together, as the quantity of small children multiplies the intensity of their years. But then I stop and do the math and realize I don’t even have a five-year old yet, though I’m due to have a couple of them in just two short months.

The truth is, I’m still in that “three under five” season the podcasters spoke of with such exhaustion. I’ve been in it for a long time. And while we’ve introduced some improvements over the years, (Caden and Brooklyn 3.0 learned to put on their own clothes, the 4.0 versions can buckle their own car seats, and glory hallelujah everyone is potty trained), my days continue to be filled with the management of temper tantrums, multiple snacktimes, and the wiping of little bottoms. (They learn this essential life skill eventually, right?)

At first, it was a novelty, having three kids so close together. We drew stares and questions and compliments everywhere we went. Each day was a challenge, a puzzle to figure out, a new adventure to survive. Now, to be perfectly honest, I’m tired of it all. Physically weary, yes. Exhausted from the mental burden of caring for the same three kids day after day. Worn out from always carting three kids from place to place to place. The past few years have been more or less the same scene: me in the minivan with three small kids in car seats and an overstuffed diaper bag.

I’ve been the one at classes, at storytime, at the park, at playdates, at Target, and the drive-thru of the nearest coffee shop with three kids in tow for three freaking years. The novelty has worn off.

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My kids love open gym time. The benefit to having three kids in a two-year timespan is how they all enjoy the same activities. They laugh at the same shows, play with the same toys, and here they’re all the same age to tumble around together for a couple of hours. Even better is that they have yet to mind me dressing them in matching shirts. It’s one of the tricks I picked up in the past few years: when doing a headcount I only need to look around the cavernous space for the exact same shirt three times. I think other families use this tactic for Disneyworld. I use it for open gym time on an average Wednesday.

The local school districts throughout our state offer exceptional parent-child classes and weekly playtime events. These have been staple activities in our house. I’m used to having more kids in my lap than anyone else at circle time. Other parents may have three or more kids, but with more traditional age gaps, they only attend with their youngest. I’m so used to dividing myself in three so there’s enough of me to go around the room I hardly notice anymore.

I discovered early on that those enormous minivan-versions of carts at Target (bless them) can hold twin two-year olds, a baby in a carseat, a week’s worth of groceries, and a box of diapers. For the first six months of his life, Nolan lay in his carseat while I piled groceries around him, higher and higher, usually throwing a loaf of bread and a bag of Goldfish on top of him as I ran out of space.

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But the kids used to fit better in those enormous carts than they do now. They’ve gotten bigger over the past couple of years, as kids do. On our most recent Target run it felt like I could hardly contain them all in the big red cart. The cart felt heavy, burdensome. I still get stares, but the exclamations and questions over how cute or how old they are have more or less subsided. More frequently now they’re asked when they’re going to start school.

Last week at our parent-child class the teacher told us to put our kids on our laps as we sang a song and bounced them. I looked around the group of a dozen other parents; two had two kids with them, the others had just one. Once upon a time, I would have risen to the challenge, and plopped all three kids, two toddlers and a baby, in my lap. Now, at a collective weight of approximately 109.2 pounds, I listened to that instruction and gave it a hard NOPE. “You guys can sit next to me and bounce yourselves,” I told Caden and Brooklyn. Let me experience having one kid in my lap for once.

Soon enough I’ll have only one kid at open gym time. Then none at all. A staple of the past few years will become a thing of the past, a remember when that they probably won’t remember. I’ll remember, though. I’ll remember taking a headcount every couple of minutes, the few photos I have in their matching shirts where they’re not all a blur, the way they chased each other around and around the cavernous gym pretending to be their favorite characters together — “Catboy!” “Gecko!” “Owlette!” “Let’s go!” — without getting tired.

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As the weather has turned colder, I’ve been refocusing my attention in the afternoon, to play with the kids purposefully. We watch a little TV, have a snack, build or bake something, circle up around the table for art time, and often I just watch while they run around the house like crazy people, because, after all, they’re still three kids under five.

When Caden and Brooklyn were younger, I was more intentional with our afternoon time. Mornings were for activities and errands, but the afternoons were ours. I’ve been trying to reset myself back to that time, to that routine. Because, as hard as it is to imagine, we have less than a year of afternoons left before Caden and Brooklyn head off to Kindergarten.

I can’t wait.

Also, I wish it were still three years away.

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Can we hold both of these things, simultaneously, and let them be true at the same time?

I’m sick of having three kids under five.

I’m going to miss having three kids under five.

If Only (On Changing the Story in My Head)

It was 4:45 pm on the Friday of a week Tyson was out-of-town. The ultimate witching hour. He wasn’t due back until morning. It had been a long week. (Understatement.) It had been 45 minutes of gritting my teeth and summoning every ounce of patience left in my body. The living room had more LEGOs visible than actual floor, though that wasn’t the issue giving me dental problems. What set my teeth on edge was Nolan, once again displaying his full 2 ½ years of age as he attempted to tear apart every creation his brother and sister made.

“Don’t touch. Look with your eyes,” I said on repeat. I attempted to engage him in building his own tower over and over again. He’d been sent to time out once already for destroying Caden’s Batcave handiwork.

I had just taken a two-minute break to order dinner - take-out from our favorite Thai place for a Friday night win - when Nolan Godzilla-stomped Caden’s LEGO masterpiece yet again.

“NOPE,” I barked, and plopped him on the bottom step for another timeout. Caden and Brooklyn gathered up the pieces and continued playing. I figured a timeout would buy me the two minutes I needed to gather up my wallet, keys, and phone so we could run out the door to pick up our dinner. Nolan had other ideas. He bolted up the steps and I dashed after him, enraged. He laughed as he ran and that only made me angrier; I wasn’t playing, this was no game.

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If only he were a little older. If only his inner being weren’t so set on destruction. If only he could keep his hands to himself. If only he could play nicely for once. If only I could complete a simple two-minute task without everything falling apart.

It happened suddenly. He tripped, three steps from the top, falling and slamming his mouth into the edge of a step. Instant wail. Instant blood. Everywhere.

I picked him up and carried him to the nearby bathroom, ripped off his bloodstained shirt and set him in the sink, pants and underwear be damned. I found a washcloth and soaked it with cold water, told him to bite down on the washcloth as the blood gushing continued, which turned the white sink pink.

His wailing continued as tears sprung to my eyes. I still didn’t know what was wrong - had he knocked out a tooth? - as he sobbed and heaved up another gush of blood. With the blood running down his stomach, a bath was imminent, so I whipped around to run water in the tub behind us. This made the crime-scene that was my bathroom complete. He managed to create two tiny bloody handprints on the shower as blood ran down his arms. Water pooled around him, swirled with red, and I finally saw what happened: he’d hit the top step so hard that his front, top tooth had been noticeably shoved up into his gum, combined with a pretty good bite to the lower lip.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” I breathed as I hunched over the tub, my lower back pinched in pain as I continued to alternately sponge him off and help him bite down again on the cool washcloth. It was part prayer, part apology, part liturgy.

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Failure, my mind hissed at me 15 minutes later as we all drove to get our (now probably cold) Thai food. Nolan had calmed down enough to consent to ride for the five-minute drive in the car. He was silent; his mouth was swollen and puffy. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, though I was pretty sure he didn’t need immediate medical attention. I was using this drive to think and create a plan. And in the meantime, we all needed to eat.

If only you hadn’t put him in timeout. If only you’d disciplined him in a different way. If only you’d gotten them ready to leave instead of disciplining him at all. If only you hadn’t chased him up the stairs. If only you hadn’t been so angry. If only his nice, even teeth weren’t ruined. If only. If only. If only.

My mind told me these things over and over again, these accusations all layered with the crimson stamp of GUILTY.

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Tyson was out for his own dinner that night when I called to give him an update on Nolan’s tooth.

“I talked to the on-call pediatric dentist while we ate dinner,” I told him, “I remembered they had an emergency number. She was super nice and even had me text her some photos.” I went on to tell him how Nolan might be in pain for a few days but we could give him Tylenol, how glad I was to have ordered Pad Thai since he could eat the soft noodles, that the dentist said the tooth might even come back down out of the gum on its own over time, that the tooth could eventually die and discolor but it wasn’t a huge deal since it was a baby tooth.

“But I feel so bad!” I continued, those pesky tears pricking at my eyes again, “I chased after him. In anger. I was so mad and frustrated and I feel like I made him fall. It’s my fault.”

“It’s not your fault, you’re still a good mom,” Tyson assured me. “I’m so impressed. I can’t believe you did all that on your own. You got them all dinner and fed them and took care of Nolan. You thought to even call the dentist and managed to text her pictures and cleaned up the bathroom. All by yourself. That’s amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that.”

I paused. Huh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

The negative labels come so much quicker to my brain: failure, awful, incompetent, not good enough to be a mother, sinner. The timeout, the chase, the fall, the blood, the tears, the mess, the guilt. You chased him. You were angry. You made this happen. It’s your fault. All yours.

What about the positives? I have to dig for those. My brain is more prone to condemnation than to praise.

For 45-minutes we played with LEGOs. I was patient.
I had the foresight to order take-out to relieve the stress of what had been a long week. I practiced self-care.
I was able to console Nolan after the accident and clean his wound. I was his comfort.
I served up plates of food to all four of us and we all had full bellies. I fed my family.
I remembered the on-call dentist and was able to both make a phone call and send photos during the course of our meal. I was resourceful.
I turned the TV on after dinner so I could put away the take-out containers in the kitchen and bleach-out the bathroom while everyone took a much-needed breather. Okay, this was just a no-brainer.
I rinsed blood stains out of the sink and put Nolan’s clothes and my own stained cotton sweater to soak. We’ll call this one foresight.
We snuggled on the couch and settled into a fairly uneventful bedtime routine. I re-connected with my children.

I did all of that. Me, myself. All the things. I had a flash of anger, yes. That aside, I nailed it.

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I rocked Nolan to sleep that night, giving him some extra-special attention before bed. The pitch dark of the early autumn night was tempered by the rotation of lit-up cartoon animals on the ceiling. His head curled up on my right shoulder as I walked him around the room in circles, the calming sound of waves crashed from the sound machine. I said our bedtime prayer. I began by thanking God I get to be Nolan’s mommy, as I always do. I asked for Nolan’s overabundance of energy to be channeled into good, into play, into being kind. I asked for Nolan’s mouth to be healed, for the pain to be relieved. I asked forgiveness for myself; for chasing after Nolan, for my anger, for another chance.

I stopped by the door of his room, pausing to do his favorite bounce back and forth. He sighed and turned his face into my chest and I could see a sleepy grin as he snuggled up into his favorite place in the world: my shoulder. Between the dim light and the fact that his face has remained virtually unchanged for the past two years (the current tooth situation notwithstanding), I felt like I was rocking baby Nolan again; he could have been two months old, or six, or fourteen.

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He’s okay. I’m okay. We’re okay.

If only I had told myself that all evening.

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!

My Motherhood Journey Through Food

First pregnancy (twins!), first trimester. I want no food. Nothing. Absolutely no food. Wait, I want ice cream. Yes, ice cream sounds good. Nevermind. We don’t have any ice cream and it’s been five minutes so now it sounds terrible. Maybe an apple? No, not an apple. Chewing anything that long makes me want to puke. What about Thai food? Thai food sounds so good right now. In fact, only Thai food sounds good and I think I need some curry, stat. If I can’t eat that then I can’t eat anything. Oh and also an Arby’s roast beef sandwich. I don’t remember the last time I had Arby’s but now I want to eat one of those sandwiches every day until I die.

First pregnancy, second trimester.
Phew. Food is just food again.

First pregnancy, third trimester. I am so hungry all the time. Also, I can’t eat anything. I am so full and huge and my stomach has no room to even exist in my body anymore, much less have room for food inside. I am going to eat very small amounts of food all day long. I probably look like a glutton because I constantly have food on my person but really I can only eat one bite every five minutes or I will probably, actually, literally explode.

Vanilla milkshakes.
With every meal in the hospital after giving birth. The hospital, of all places, made the most amazing milkshakes. If there’s a time in life that you get to overdose on milkshakes, it’s after giving birth. To twins.

Meals in tinfoil.
And in take-out containers. Casseroles in disposable aluminum pans. Also individually-wrapped granola bars, dry cereal, and dried fruit. Some kind of dark chocolate. All within arm’s reach. The early postpartum months of meals from friends and constant breastfeeding.

Coffee. Enough said.

Baby food. 
Cereal puffs. Banana slices. Cheerios. Yogurt. And all of these things ground into every crevice of every high chair and car seat.

Normalcy. We’ve survived the first year and I’m making real meals again! Actual real, human meals with things like protein and carbs and fruits and veggies and healthy fats! Yay!

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(Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog!)