babies · grandparents · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · speed-posts

Not Done Yet: The You Your Kids Haven’t Met Yet (from the Momplex Blog archives)

My living room walls are painted the color of old Coors cans. It’s a sort of muted golden yellow. I didn’t even realize I’d chosen Coors yellow until this week, when I got to feeling sappy about my childhood. The walls have been that color for five years. How could I miss the connection?



Coors Banquet Beer made regular appearances at my parents’ neighborhood barbecues when I was a little kid. And I can still almost taste the sweat I’d swipe off the cold ones, freshly popped by my dad and other mutton-chopped men, after golf tournaments in the crusty mining town we called home. They’d scoop them with their gloved hands out of ice barrels near the patio where their scores were posted. I can still hear the hot locusts buzzing as I sat cross-legged in a shady spot watching them, my hair smelling like chlorine and the sun-blistered skin on my shoulders starting to peel. I liked being there around all the dads. They looked mighty high on their low handicaps and tossing back those Coors.

I don’t remember my mom drinking beer, even though she’s the one out of my two parents who will indulge in a cold one now and again. “I never really was a drinker,” I’ve heard my dad say. I can’t argue with that. Knowing how memories go, there were probably just a few backyard barbecues and not nearly so many sweaty Coors cans as I like to imagine. We fudge our childhood memories a lot, maybe more than we think. And some of us take a longer time than others to realize it wasn’t all about us.

I spent this past Saturday in a primitive little hilltop cabin for a quiet getaway with my mom. We had no electricity or running water. The bathroom was an outhouse about 30 feet from the cabin. Snow was up to our knees in some spots, and we had only a wood-burning stove to warm our food. We took little hikes and naps and read quietly from our books. We ate homemade chicken-noodle soup and salad by candlelight and corked a bottle of wine using a shoe and a steak knife. (By God, we were going to open that #%$&* bottle!) At night we curled up together in a loft bed and talked. In the morning we chatted and giggled before heading out to build a snowman and then stab the snow with so many pretty icicles, it looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Wait, I think I'm overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source:
Wait, I think I’m overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source:

None of this was the elemental thing of it all. No, the whole point, for me, was discovering that my childhood version of my mom wasn’t the “real” her.

My mom stayed home taking care of my sister and me for a long time. She and my dad were close friends with several couples that also had kids, and when we congregated, there was drinking and loudness and so much hilarity, the kids running wild and staying up a little too late and all of us playing games of badminton or cards. We were happy and nuts. I can still see my mom laughing and smiling in all these scenes.

When I was in college, she started to change. In fact, though she’s always been an angel to others, over the years, she’s become almost obsessive about helping the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, animals—just everyone and everything that breaks your heart. Her latest thing is the fight against human trafficking. Sometimes talking with her is depressing. “Mom, I’m sorry. I know you think some of these death stories are sweet,” I remember telling her when she was working with hospice, “but they just terrify me.” There is sadness all over the world, and she can’t just relax. Sometimes I just wish she’d be her old self. I miss the real her.

But as we talked this weekend and I told her how much I hate these Wisconsin winters that I was never cut out to endure, she said this: “Imagine that you’re sitting behind our old house in Arizona, and it’s 100 degrees out, and the LAWN has just been put in—a lawn has been PUT IN—and you’re staring at the wall of dirt over you, where they’ve just cut through the earth so you can have a house, because they just did things like that. And flies are buzzing around your head, and you think, ‘This is where I live now, and I’m going to just live here for a long time, and this is it.’” She explained to me how she made a good life there, how she sought her friends and found ways to make it work, but the things that gave her days meaning were not the things I would have expected. It sure wasn’t the Coors banquet beer cans.

And that’s when it hit me, how blind I’ve been. I know good and well my kids don’t really know the whole me. They have no idea what a detour was taken when we decided to have them—before we moved to a town with polar vortexes that make me feel murderous. Before I quit my editing career to raise them. Before I put on stretch marks and wrinkles. Before I learned how to speak in whole G-rated paragraphs. Before I knew anything about time-outs or changing diapers or making sure homework gets done or shoveling snow or volunteering on school committees or teaching Sunday school—or, really, most of the things they’ll probably remember about me at this age. They have no idea that, like them, I’m not a finished product. There’s more than meets they eye. I’m still becoming something, and I may become many more somethings before I’m done.

So, that pretty much tells you where my “real” mom went. She went to the cabin with me this past weekend. Turns out she’s been with me all along.

career · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · Past life · preschoolers · writing

See that Mountain? Redefining Glory Days (from the Momplex Blog archives)

The month before I graduated college, one of my writing professors approached me to ask if the university’s English department could use my senior writing portfolio as a model for future classes. She said it was one of the best she’d ever seen. My sophomore year, there was some sort of essay-on-demand writing-proficiency exam required for all sophomores, and my graded essay came back with a letter saying it was so good, the grader had stopped the rest of the judges to listen to it read aloud. True stories.

My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This one, from Savanna, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband's headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he'd ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That's what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.
My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This headstone, from Savanna, Georgia, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband’s headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he’d ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That’s what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.

I think about these experiences sometimes, mostly how they make me feel (and sound) like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite: “See that mountain over there? What do you want to bet I can throw this football over it?” He takes his bite of pan-fried steak, his hairpiece glistening, and, oh, it’s such a pathetic sight. I guess I’ll take comfort in knowing I’ve done a few things between my supposed glory days and my current life.

It’s been about 15 years since I graduated from college. Before I even turned my tassle, I was working at a small educational publishing company as its managing editor. Since, I’ve worked from coast to coast. I’ve been a newspaper editor where Southern hog farmers and retired Yankees are fighting the final, fizzling skirmishes of the Civil War. I was the editor for the largest private-equity research firm in the Northwest, on the receiving end of a nana-nana-boo-boo letter from Bill Gates’ dad about a typo he found in a report I edited. (Yes, the rich and famous are just like us!) I’ve been a stringer for public radio. I’ve coordinated publications for the National Endowment for Democracy, where I got to meet some incredible champions of freedom, like escapees of North Korean forced-labor camps, survivors of rape warfare in the Congo, and one Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. More recently, I received a Pushcart Prize special mention and wrote a book. See that mountain over there?

Let’s be real. I haven’t landed among the stars, at least not the ones anyone expected. To quote a former classmate of mine from my 15-year high school reunion, a guy with something like 17 children and enough ATVs to entertain them all, “I thought you were going to go somewhere, be something big, like a lawyer or a doctor.” To boot, that was said during all the aforementioned accomplishments. He didn’t even know I was about to become what I am now.

These days, I am a mom and a wife in a Wisconsin home with a loud dishwasher that is making it hard for me to think as I type. My day went like this: shower, wake up the kids, make lunches, wake up husband, wake up the kids again, dry hair, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, search for kids’ socks, diffuse tantrum over socks not being fresh from the dryer, replace said socks with better-fitting socks, search for snow boots, drive kids to school, go to work, blog for a camera company, blog for a jeweler, pick up kids, go grocery shopping, miss yoga, make enchiladas, watch eldest pick onions out of enchiladas, go to science fair, do bedtime, and finally, sweet finally, watch some Modern Family. What can I say? I have two kids and came this close—this close—to choking a passive-aggressive, competitive parent tonight at a school science expo in a cafeteria, where the fluorescent lights no doubt showed off the greasy child-sized fingerprints on my glasses. Every day, I am so much more tired at the end than I intended to be at the beginning. Yes, I have #firstworldproblems. But, God, I love my family so much more than I ever loved anything I ever wrote. There’s that. No, there really is that.

Sometimes I’m plagued by the thought that I have not become what I could become. There are still little voices telling me I thought you would be a big deal. This is when I have to remind myself that life is longer than 15 years between college and now. What am I? Dead? It is no small deal raising children well while still becoming who you were meant to be. In fact, in my case, the two are inextricably related. And so I do my best. I march down from curing the hiccups, negotiating over cold or hot lunch, doing so many endless experiments with baking soda, and I try to turn on that thing—that magic thing—that’s still somewhere in there. Usually I can’t find it. It’s so hard to create beauty when you’re exhausted. In the end, I believe this isn’t a choice I have to make right now. I believe the writing will keep. My kids will grow up and move away, for we all know childhood’s fleeting. But the writing will keep.

dads · discipline · husbands · intentional happiness · marriage

Forts (from the Momplex Blog archives)

“Mom, can you help me build a fort?”

Ugh. At least once every week, one of the kids asks me this question. Whether I say yes or no, what I’m usually thinking is Here we go making my living room look like a Mumbai slum again. They usually ask after I’ve just cleaned, because as any parent can attest, there’s nothing like a clean house to spark little kids’ imagination. And by “imagination,” I mean the metaphorical taking of a toy-dump.

“Sure, honey, take a nap,” hubby said.
Same room, when I woke up an hour later. “Mom, we made a tea house!”

My husband is the fort god. He creates kick-ass multiplexes of blankets and pillows and cushions and chairs and heavy anchors that may or may not result in concussions if pulled down. The kids spend hours playing in these forts, dragging in collections of books and stuffed animals. They always have to eat in the forts, so they sneak in snack-cups full of perishables, such as applesauce or pretty much anything that can roll away. (Our holidays wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t find a petrified baby carrot while rearranging furniture for our Christmas tree each year.)

Dining room table, moved into corner and re-imagined as a roof, walls of blankets. See the child engrossed in a book inside the belly of this fabric condo?

I do not build awesome forts. I suck at them on purpose. I suck because I want them to be easy for lazy American children to clean up:


Honestly, last week my 9-year-old said the worst part of her day was having to go up and down the stairs not once but TWICE while getting ready for bed. She made sure I read the exhaustion all over her face, and my response—indignant laughter—totally puzzled her. For a kid who often makes our living room look like scenes from Slumdog Millionaire, she shouldn’t need me to point out the first-world luxury of having a house let alone one that requires a staircase.

My husband’s and my differing philosophies about forts are telling about the dynamic in our house. He’s helpful and patient and laid-back with the kids. He lets them climb all over his back like spider monkeys despite his herniated disk, and can be easily badgered into playing a loud game of chase in the house, a game in which he howls like a hyena and takes two steps at a time to seize his deliriously willing victims. Me? I’m the one always spoiling movie night by forbidding popcorn in the living room; the one who burns up over Jackson Pollack toothpaste scenes on the bathroom counter; the one who doesn’t tolerate so much as a smidge of backtalk or an ounce of sass. In other words, I’m the bad guy.

Before you give me an amen, before you dwell now on the times your husband indulged in being happy-fun parent while you toiled over dinner dishes and shouted at the kids to put on their jammies, just let me finish. I’m actually not complaining. Sure I’ve done my share of that, but in my heart, I’ve grown to feel yin-yang parenting is actually quite good for the kids. As long as Mom and Dad are a solid front on the big stuff, the yin-yang approach means the kids always have discipline and structure but also have a soft place to land. Besides, what comes with being the “bad guy” is that I’m also the one the kids tend to run to when they’ve had a bad day and need security. I’m honestly the goofier, wilder one in my marriage, but in our parenting life, even though I’m easily up for a fart-off or booger jokes, I think I just might be their rock. And it’s me who’s cast myself in this more serious role, because I’m wired to play it, not because my husband made me.

This isn’t about an imbalance in our responsibilities. My husband hasn’t shirked anything. I’m not picking up parental slack. It’s not a competition, and I’m not jockeying for first in a game of who’s-the-favorite. We’re being the parents we’re wired to be, and fortunately it creates balance. My kids just get different needs fulfilled by their two different parents’ very different natures. Yeah, they need to slum it with daddy, but they need their mean old mom, too.