Aces

 

I wear an awful lot of hats. Possibly, the weightiest one is that of mother. It’s a huge part of my life, so it’s not surprising that I’ve written a great deal about motherhood. It is joy and pride, as well as sorrow. It is hard work, and incredible reward. Mothering small children is simple. Not easy, but fairly basic. You make sure they are nourished and clothed, and you start to teach them skills like sleeping through the night on their own, expressing themselves in socially acceptable ways, and treating other people decently. You work out household rules and discipline tactics. You try not to lose yourself in the process – you want to be more than just Mommy.

In terms of the daily grind, big kids win – no contest. They bathe and dress themselves, and do their own hair. They get their own snacks – and even their own meals (though not every day, unless you don’t mind them coming down with scurvy). They do their own laundry. They can manage most of their homework on their own. I have not encountered many people who hate homework more than me. Your kindergartener is adorable, believe me – but I’m done coaxing kids to sound out words, pushing them to read and write in french, and proofing penmanship, and I like it that way. When I am rushing to slap some dinner down in front of my hungry family at the end of a long day, I can ask Fiona or Bridget to set the table, take and fill drink orders, chop veggies and meat, throw a salad together. They empty the dishwasher. They mop and vacuum. We don’t have to pay for daycare. We can play board games more complicated than Chutes & Ladders and Hungry Hungry Hippos. We appreciate many of the same foods, songs and movies. They have a wicked sense of humour, strong opinions, interesting takes on the world. The pleasure of their company outweighs the work and fuss.

All that being said, sometimes I feel like time is moving too fast … For one thing, people love to tell me how awful my life will be once I have two older kids. Just wait, they say. You’ll be nothing to them. They will ignore everything you say and do until they’re about 25. Though there have been challenges, neither girl has been as horrible as these assholes seem to hope they’ll be. Turning 30 didn’t bother me. Pretty sure 40 won’t phase me, either. But Fiona turning 13 this summer? That has hit me hard. I have a teenager. Yesterday, Fiona and Bridget returned to school after a long, lovely summer break (yes, I know, I owe everyone a blow-by-blow of our road trip – I’ll get to that). Grade 8 and grade 6! Back-to-school is bittersweet for me. I’ve never been one of those parents who can’t wait for September. But I am very excited for the girls. They’ve been planning their look and their moves and their whole damn school year for days. They woke up like firecrackers, and they couldn’t stop grinning and giggling. But I am also sad. Each school year brings challenges and opportunities that will change them utterly. I will never see these kids, as they are right now, again. They’re gone the moment they set foot in the classroom on the first day, and they’re never coming back.

Yet, when we hang out together, watching TV or reading, they both want to sit next to me. One on either side. They lean heads on my shoulder, they sneakily sniff my hair. Their hands creep their way into mine. They need just a few minutes, talking to me about their dreams and joys and frustrations, before we say goodnight. Every morning, they come find me, still warm from the bed, for a welcome-to-the-new-day hug. I have not lost two cuddlers – I have gained two young ladies, self-sufficient and smart and sarcastic, who still need my hugs. They may be as big as me, but they still need me. Everything’s still coming up aces for this mother.

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I’m not all “pass-the-mimosas” about back-to-school.

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The contents of my Facebook news feed over the past couple of days have consisted mainly of children heading for higher learning. Some of the pictures are a bit much – heavily posed, complete with props (sigh). Most of them, though, are simple: a grinning kid (or two or three) looking first-day-of-school cool, with shiny new gear strapped on his or her back. Fuzzy new haircuts, missing teeth, eyes bright with anticipation.

Accompanying many of these pictures is a line or two about how much the kid’s parents love back-to-school. There are pics of parents cheersing with champagne flutes as the bus drives out of sight, parents dancing through the halls of their home, parents sprawled on couches with a beer and a remote – and I get it. Back-to-school is, for many, a return to regularly scheduled programming. September means that you finally have a solid reason for telling them to take a bath, go to bed, wear clothes that match, brush their hair. I’ve written before about how good back-to-school is for our kids. And, if you are a stay-at-home parent, when the kids go to school, you get a break – one you’ve earned after a summer of being with your little monsters all day every day. I have Fridays off. In the summer, I spend that day with Fiona and Bridget, and it’s lovely. Lovely as it is, though, I also appreciate the Fridays when I am at home and they are not. I can do any shopping that needs doing (and, with four people who hold fast to the high-maintenance habits of eating, practising good hygiene and wearing clean clothes while living in a clean house – not to mention two people who keep growing – there’s plenty of shopping to do). I can whip the house into line before the weekend, which means I don’t have to waste the weekend doing stupid things like weeding, scrubbing and vacuuming. And I can eat lunch all by myself. This benefits nobody but me, of course, but it’s a nice novelty.

For the most part, though, I can’t join the yearly fall conga-line with Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” soaring in the background. (That was fun, though, eh? Great song ….) For one thing, I’m not a stay-at-homer. So, for me, school doesn’t mean much of a break from my kids, and it adds fuss. The need for agenda perusal, early bedtimes, clean clothes, neat hair, nutritious snacks and meals to promote learning …. Daycare don’t care, school does. Alot. School supplies, indoor shoes with non-marking soles, a bajillion little snack-sized plastic containers (with rogue lids). Hauling your kids out of bed before dawn and barking at everyone while doing things at silent black-and-white movie speed – only to be late again. Homework. Sweet cousin-of-Jedidiah, what is it about homework that so often leaves the kids and me teetering on the brink of hysteria at the end of what’s already been a long day?

More than the fuss, though, back-to-school means change. On Fiona’s first day of school, when I saw her itty-bitty four-year-old face pressed against the bus window as it rumbled away, I cried because I would miss her. Her backpack was almost as big as she was:

Getting on the Bus

My days would be so different without her – but I still had two-year-old Bridget to deal with, and I grew to cherish my Mommy-and-Bridget time in the afternoons while big sister was at school. By the time Bridget’s first day of school rolled around, I was back in the office. Her daycare provider, one of the sweetest women I’ve ever had the privilege to know, sent me a picture of her all ready to go:

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And I cried again. Not because I would miss her. She and I were already apart that day, and many days. This time, I cried because I knew what I was losing – my baby. I knew that, although the child who stepped off the bus that afternoon would look the same, she would be different on the inside. New surroundings, new friends, a new role model. And I knew that she would keep changing. She would lose her babyish pronunciations. Manners and the influence of other children would turn her from a human tornado to a little lady. Her end-of-day stories would be filled with people I might never meet. For the first time in her life, I would have no control over a significant part of her world: the classroom. When I dropped her off at daycare that morning, I knew I’d be picking a different kid up at the end of the day. Still mine, but different.

You’d think I’d get used to it. Yet, every year on the first day of school, I get a little watery thinking about my girls. I know as I’m taking the requisite back-to-school picture that I will never see these kids again – they’re passing through this phase at the speed of light, and the coming year will change them utterly and irrevocably, starting with who’s at the front of the room and who’s sitting next to them. This is as it should be, and I’m cheering them on every step of the way. I can’t wait to see who they’re going to become. But I’m not ready to knock mimosas with other mothers about it …. I miss them already.

Saying “no” is allowing us to say “yes”.

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Fall is the season when kids usually go back, not only to school, but to scheduled activities. Hockey, gymnastics, music, ballet, pottery, swimming …. Of course, some kids go to these lessons all year long, or switch to something different for the summer, like soccer, but many families choose to synchronize their children’s school and organized activity attendance (like we did).

We’re no strangers to the kid-tivity circuit. When Fiona was five, we enrolled her in rhythmic gymnastics. It didn’t seem to be inspiring her, though, so the next year, she tried ballet. She liked it a little better. Ryan’s parents bought the girls swimming lessons for Christmas, which they attended during the winter and spring of that year. The following fall, when Bridget turned five, she started ballet, too. We had an unofficial family rule that there were no extracurricular lessons until the age of five, mainly because we both think that classes for babies and toddlers are pretty silly. (The swimming lessons were an exception, as we were about to spend a week at a cottage with its own beach, and we wanted the girls to have at least a rudimentary grasp of swimming.) Even though both of the girls were attending ballet, it wasn’t overly stressful – their lessons were at the same time, and the ballet school was in the same building as a Food Basics. Ryan and I would do the weekly grocery shop while they did whatever it was they did in ballet class. Learn ballet, I guess. There was a recital, in which they both demonstrated that they had spent time in the same room as the other kids on stage, and then it was summer again. In mid-July, as if they both knew the drill by now, they started talking about which activity they’d try when fall came. Neither wanted more ballet. Fiona said she wanted skating; Bridget said she wanted gymnastics. Since extracurriculars for children are simply what one does, we signed them up. Fiona’s skating was on Mondays. We’d get home from work and daycare, scarf down spaghetti, then Ryan would take Fiona to her skating lesson while I stayed home with Bridget and we made the next day’s lunches together. Bridget’s gymnastics was on Tuesdays, earlier in the evening. We’d have dinner at Subway, then drop Ryan off at home, where he’d slap together tomorrow’s sandwiches while I drove Bridget to gymnastics. While she was at gymnastics, Fiona and I would shop for groceries. I enjoyed those little slices of one-on-one time with each girl. But I didn’t enjoy our family’s schedule, and neither did Ryan. Neither did Fiona and Bridget, after the novelty of skating and gymnastics wore off. Sure, they had fun once they arrived and started their lesson, but many weeks the announcement that it was Monday or Tuesday and we were working around the corresponding activity was greeted with sighs and groans. “But I wanted to play with my hamster / make a craft / read my new library book / play a game!”

The girls were tired. Two scheduled late bedtimes every week isn’t good for kids. And heaven forbid something else was added to the week, like a birthday party or dinner guests or a weekend away – or something equally disruptive but less pleasant, like a major homework assignment or head lice or a water main break. That could push them to the cracking point. Ryan and I were tired, too. Tired of saying “no, you can’t do insert-requested-activity-here; it’s Monday / Tuesday, and you know we have skating / gymnastics today”. “No, we’re not reading one more story, you need to go to bed early – remember you’re up late tomorrow night.” “No, we really can’t fit this in right now, we’ve got enough going on.” Tired of going to bed Sunday nights with the one-two punch of Monday and Tuesday hanging over us. Tired of dragging kids who’ve already had a long day at school and daycare to yet another place where they needed to pay attention and play along. Tired of thinking the girls should miss their class this or that one time, then guiltily pushing them to attend anyway, because we’d paid big bucks for each lesson. Tired of strangling spontaneity with the chains we’d forged ourselves. Just tired. And we only had two kids in two extracurriculars! I can’t imagine how families manage more than that, yet I know they do. There are families who live in their minivan, eating drive-thru dinners behind the wheel, ferrying the kids all over the city four or more nights per week, and maybe Saturday mornings, too. Kids who do their homework in the waiting areas of dance studios, arenas and gyms while their sibling is taking a lesson. Why? Because it’s what one does, of course.

This year, after much discussion, Ryan and I decided to say “no” to organized activities. We didn’t sign the girls up for anything. They considered their options again, but never actually asked for any particular lessons. So we let the registration deadlines slide by …. At first, it felt like a negative choice. Every other family does the extracurricular thing; so should we, right? Our girls are enrolled in …. nothing? Really? It’s just not what families do. It felt strange even discussing it with other parents. Some parents expressed admiration for our choice, and said they wish they could do the same (without explaining why they couldn’t, of course). The father of one of Fiona’s friends confessed that he doesn’t enjoy the extracurricular grind, and he doesn’t think his daughter does, either. Yet, he has enrolled his daughter in a couple of weekly lessons because he doesn’t want her to end up outclassed by her peers – a misfit because she is just a regular person with no sharply-honed talents. This thought has crossed my mind the odd time, too – I don’t want Fiona and Bridget to feel out-of-place when they are all grown up and their friends are showing off their mad skillz on the oboe, the balance beam, the rink and the canvas. But do they need to be experts in any of these areas to be well-rounded? No. This is simply what we’ve been programmed to believe. They’ve had many different experiences in many different situations, and I highly doubt they won’t have anything to talk about when they are older just because they’ve never spent a summer’s worth of Saturday mornings on a soccer field.

We are heading into the third week of the school year, and already it feels like we’ve made the right choice – and it doesn’t feel negative anymore. In fact, by not scheduling our kids’ downtime, we’ve been able to say “yes” more. “Yes, you can explore the pet store at the mall, even though we’re only here for Subway and the bank – we’re not in a hurry.” “Yes, you can tell us this long, complicated story of what happened on the playground today, because we can linger over dinner.” “Yes, you can spend a bit of extra time with your hamster – it’s no big deal if bedtime shifts by fifteen minutes. We can make up for that tomorrow.” “A two-birthday-party weekend? Sure – nobody’s overtired and in need of make-up sleep.” We just said “yes” to an outdoor concert on a Thursday night (Dear Rouge, Lorde and Serena Ryder were wonderful) – and all four of us had a great time. We might not have done that if Thursday came after two or more late bedtimes, or if there were lessons of some kind scheduled for Thursday evenings. Fiona once wistfully said “I wish I could just relax today”, and I remember thinking “how sad that she is saying that at the ripe old age of eight“. Everyone should have time to relax, especially kids. They should look for shapes in the clouds, compose short stories with fantastic plots, inventory their rock collections, watch ants at work, spin until they’re dizzy, empty their mind and just be.

We’re not going to spend all our free time dong nothing …. We’re planning to go swimming and skating together, and maybe we can spend more time at the park. We used to go for walks alot – maybe we’ll start doing that again. I’m going to start teaching Fiona and Bridget how to play the piano, and some basic sewing skills. Ryan and I have been toying with the idea of one-on-one dates with them, where we split them up to spend quality time with them as individuals, then trade kids the next time. We’ll still be busy – but the schedule will be a flexible one that we set ourselves, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be happier as a result. There will definitely be some couch spudding, though, and that’s ok, too – because we’ll have time for it now.

Back-to-school is not for everyone – but I’m trying to see the other side of the coin.

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Where, oh, where has summer gone? There’s less than two weeks left! Yes, I hear you, gotta-be-right windbags: summer doesn’t technically end until late September. You probably also like to remind people that black is not actually a colour, and that “I can’t get no satisfaction” really means that you can get at least some. Whatever. We all know summer’s over when the kids go back to school.

Most of the items on my summer bucket list have been crossed off. I’ve watched all the flowers come and go in our garden. Having lived in this house for a couple of years now, I know there are more to come, and I’ll be watching for them, too. I’ve enjoyed several sun-drenched happy hours on one of our plastic chairs with a book and the buzz of cicadas and crickets all around me. I’ve made three or four different kinds of popsicles, lemon cream, blueberry-cinnamon-Greek-yogurt, blue raspberry and peanut-butter-chocolate-pudding (new this year). We’ve had a few picnics – on a sunny, breezy day, packing a bag with sandwiches, pickles, cheese, fruit, cookies and juice (or, if you will, vodka), and heading for the park is lovely. We’ve had some barbeques, and dined al fresco both at home and at various restaurants. We’ve spent the odd lazy afternoon at the beach. I took Fiona and Bridget to Mont Cascades for a day. Fiona and I kept pace with each other as the daredevil half of the family. Bridget faced up to a few of her fears and enjoyed some of the tamer water slides – and surprised us by riding Mammoth River with us twice! We went to the Capital Fair, where we all enjoyed the ferris wheel and the Wacky Wurm (which, after a unanimous verdict by Facebook friends, was declared to be, in fact, a caterpillar). Ryan and Fiona had a go at the bumper cars, and Fiona challenged for my Queen of the Thrill Rides title with the Cannonball. I saw her Cannonball, raised her a Pharoah’s Fury, and won that particular hand. There was a musical instrument petting zoo, and a regular petting zoo, and both were great fun. Food trucks galore …. Ok, this post is starting to become an advertisement for the Capital Fair. What was I talking about again? Oh, yes: my summer bucket list. We went to an outdoor concert, Earth, Wind & Fire, and enjoyed some good music and a summer sunset. The girls enjoyed a few nights in their itty-bitty tent. It’s technically a two-man tent, but I think the two men would have to be very close …. In fact, they might have to know each other in the biblical sense to share this tent.

Of course, our summer hasn’t been entirely idyllic …. There were sunburns, mosquito bites and stings of the wasp and bee variety (one per child). There were days so disgustingly hot and humid that the make-up melted down my face as I was getting ready for work. These were usually followed by nights of tossing and turning, peeling the sheets off our sticky skin and gasping in the direction of the open window, craving even the lightest puff of fresh air. There were deluges, accompanied by the awesome power of thunder and lightning. There were skinned knees, and a nasty episode of motion sickness after twisting around on a tire swing way too fast and long (Bridget doesn’t get on those now). There is a dead chipmunk in our yard, foul and festooned with insects, which is taking its not-so-sweet time to return to the bosom of Mother Nature. And there is one thing left on the list: our big summer road trip! We’re leaving tomorrow, but we still don’t know where we’re going. Which is just how we like it. The day after we return, though, is the first day of fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Boo.

I know many parents are giddily soft-shoeing down the back-to-school aisle of their nearest department store, daydreaming about the moment the be-backpacked backs of their offspring disappear down the street to the bus stop. I know a few parents who would have school go year-round if they could. I am not one of them. In fact, I might even be the opposite of those parents …. I’m really not feeling the rigid mornings, packing peanut-free lunches, tripping over backpacks stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys, spending whole evenings hunched over the kitchen table trying to work out what in the name of deep-fried butter the teacher wants from the kids (there’s that fair sneaking into the post again). I don’t want to wade through the drama of who-said-what and who-didn’t-sit-with-whom. And head lice! I. Can’t. Even. with the head lice ….

I don’t want to sink too deep in the Pit of Despair-and-Fundraiser-Hatred, though, so I’m going to try to come up with some positive things about sending my girls back to school.

There will be order in their days again. Structure is good for kids, and I honestly couldn’t be arsed to provide it during the lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer. Sometimes, that shows in their attitude and behaviour. Rules and schedules will return to two little people who really could use them. Their nutrition and general hygiene will improve, as schools like children to be fed properly for learning and bathed regularly. Ring-around-the-mouth is not a game we’ll be playing anymore for the next ten months. No whipping hair into a braid so no one can tell it’s been dragged through orange juice, ice cream and licked lollipops, then rolled in playground sand and slept on. No more scraggly fingernails with whole flowerbeds of dirt under them. No longer will the sniff test be used to determine whether something can be worn in public.

They will be using their brains for more than pondering how SpongeBob can die a dozen deaths and still be fine at the end of an episode. Yeah, we’ve taken them to the library a couple of times, and we answer their bazillion questions and toss in the occasional intelligent thought of our own – but homeschoolers we are not. We pay taxes so that somebody else will do the eju-ma-catin’. They will be able to see their friends without me having to see their friends (or their friends’ parents). A few of their friends are lovely, with lovely parents, and they’re no burden to have over or hang out with. Most of their friends, though, are other people’s kids – and, by definition, teetering somewhere between mildly annoying and simply atrocious. Usually, it takes awful parents to make awful kids – and, if you’re not sufficiently hard-hearted to ignore your child’s pleas to see their friends because they havn’t seen them all summer long, you might even end up hanging out with the entire rotten tribe. When school starts, though, they’ll see their friends every day, and it will require no effort or forbearance on my part.

I’m sure there are more good things about back-to-school, and I’ll rediscover them when September comes. In the meantime, though, I’ll treasure these last few days of summer. Starting with hitting the road tomorrow!