Is Being Good at Something the Point?

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This is baby Pip on his favorite vehicle back in the day, the helicopter. But I’m such a good artist I doubt I had to tell you that, right?

I was a good student and a good librarian. At best, I feel like I’m a tolerable stay at home mom and a lopsided housekeeper (maybe better than usual baker? Worse than usual mopper?).

But I’m reminded of what I heard a priest say this All Saints, while I wrestled my toddler in the back pew, still seething at the preschooler is left with his merciful papa: “God doesn’t ask anything of us we can’t do, but he also doesn’t ask any less.”

I had heard the old cliche first part before, but never stopped to consider the second part. Easy isn’t a sign you’re doing things right, that you’re basking in God’s favor.

I feel like I’m pretty bad at being pregnant. On the one hand, I’ve brought two babies successfully into the world and so far things look good for this one. But the process is violent and draining for me and I can’t do anything much else while I’m brewing a baby and I certainly don’t make it look elegant or even desirable.

But I’m not sure being good at something is the point. When I was a kid, I took the classes I was good at, and hated and avoided the subjects in which I lacked aptitude (looking at you, geometry). But then I grew up (well, a little) and met this handsome boy not afraid to suck at things. He’d fearlessly invest time and money in a new hobby, limp along, and figure it out.

We see this throughout the Bible, too. Moses, for instance, was a terrible public speaker and still got recruited. And I’m not entirely sure sanctity is about efficacy, either.

My husband is a polymath, so the odds are stacked in his favor in a way they probably are not for me. (I’m not sure there’s enough practice in the world to help me understand Euclid, and he still laughs at that time he walked in on me doing a pregnancy exercise video.) But I came to admire that willingness to be bad at something, and even to imitate it a bit: in Uganda, where you were expected to just improvise and figure things out; in homeownership, where my dad cobbles together brilliant solutions and learns on the job; certainly in parenting where I find myself hitting Wiffle balls and doing funny voices while I read and trying not to be so damn self conscious.

Life is more interesting, for sure.

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Easy Only Means Easy

I have a confession: In my life right now, I have an easy kid, and a not-so-easy kid.

At the moment, it’s not evenly distributed — not as if one sleeps better and the other eats better, or one has fits about x while the other throws tantrums over y. One kid is just mostly sunshine and the other…is not.

I feel bad admitting this, but let me tell you what it doesn’t mean: I don’t have a favorite child. Instead, let me argue this:

Easy really only means easy.

Think of some of your favorite children of history and literature. Anne Shirley? Probably a tougher child to raise than Diana Barry, even before you factor in the damage done by loveless years, but whose favorite is Diana? Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer also provided more than their fair share of irritation to their caregivers, but there’s a reason most of us prefer the spice of Jo to the purely angelic Beth, even if one was probably a much easier child to raise for Marmee.

Or think about it another way: I can’t imagine raising Jesus was an easy prospect, especially for Joseph, tainted like the rest of us fallen parents with original sin. Knowing it was always your fault? Probably not a comfortable situation to experience with your six-year-old. I think most pint-sized saints would have been a similarly challenging undertaking.

Easy also doesn’t mean much in the long run, I don’t expect. Will I have a closer relationship with my easier child when everyone’s grown up? Who knows! Will the stormier kid grow up to create a more lucrative, successful or rewarding life? We’ll have to see. Stubbornness and feeling things deeply and getting fixated on interests and failing to learn social skills as quickly as their peers — these are all tropes we are familiar with from the biographies of the kind of people of whom biographies are written.

In the meantime, I just try to make sure I’m not doing anything on my own part to contribute to an easy/tough dynamic: I try not assume that the shrieker is always the victim, and try to look for points of connection with my thornier babe.

And I wait it out. Because this, like so many perplexities in parenthood, is probably just another stage.

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Unrelated photo meant to further obscure which particular children I’m talking about

 

On Curls and Treasuring the Moment

If you want to become dead to me, go ahead and tell me Scout’s hair won’t always be curly.

And yet, I know it’s true. It’s strange to consider, because right now it’s what people comment on most about her, her identity to the world, having finally left behind her newborn bug eyes.

When she’s running wild in just her diaper, her scrawny 23-pound-frame and giant halo of golden curls make her look like some sort of fairy child, 90% uncontrolled hair. She is my faerie second born.

When Pip was a very small baby, I misread a label on one of his onesies as “Just One Year” instead of “Just One You” and thought with panic, “Just one year? It feels like eternity.”

Probably one of my favorite pieces ever published on the internet* compares babies to cake: it’s a sweet, rare, special time, sure, but awfully rich, and sometimes overwhelming. If you haven’t had cake in years, you long for it; if someone’s forcing you to wake up every two hours for cake and expecting you to enjoy every slice, it’s pretty frustrating.

Maybe it’s that I’m almost five years into motherhood now, or two kids deep, but I think it might be Scout’s curls that finally helped me to start concretely savoring these little years as such a brief season. Scout’s hair will certainly darken and possibly straighten in coming years. Someday, soon, Pippin will lose his last, delicious, babyish hand dimples, and stop wanting to snuggle me, as oppressive as snuggles from a sturdy preschooler can feel. Soon we will have the delight of this new little girl, yet unknown to us, but it will never again be just Pippin and Scout, squabbling in the backseat and making uncouth poop jokes.

Summer and second trimester are coming to their respective ends and change looms: heartburn and homeschool and potty training and so much I can’t yet anticipate. So for now I’ll run a hand through these unkempt curls and try to enjoy what we have in this single, unrepeatable moment.

*I can’t find it. I’m sorry. Anyway, you’ve probably seen it: it goes around facebook constantly. I’ll add the link when it reappears.

Helpers

I really really wish I felt better while pregnant. There are pregnant women being Wonder Womanly and kicking butt at tennis and for a very long time, just existing is a pretty major accomplishment in my book.

I’m finally some better, but in that long hibernation space, I felt like the kids were mostly just watching tv and mainlining Goldfish. As it turns out, though, Pippin was developing newfound independence and a willingness to help.

In the past few weeks, he’s started pouring his own milk (if we keep a small bottle filled for him), feeding the dog, checking the mail, keeping an eye on his sister (who he endearingly and mysteriously calls “Sweet Pete”), helping me put away groceries and helping more consistently with baking.

It’s grand. It’s a reminder for me of a couple things: first, I should keep an eye on my kids’ development and give them chances to try new tasks. And more importantly, I’m learning that even in a season of seeming stasis, the kids are growing all the time. They are not (just!) developing complexes from me repeating, “Please don’t touch Mama, please go watch more Daniel Tiger” — maybe the boredom and benevolent neglect even hastens these leaps.

Well, Sweet Pete, looks like Mama’s not getting around to it anytime soon. Should I try?

Captain Barnacles gives little sis a push on the swing

Enjoy Them

This is a hard post to write, because it’s a hard thing to admit:

Sometimes I forget to even try to enjoy my children.

On the one hand, this is good. I give myself permission not to treasure every moment, and it’s a relief not to feel guilt when I can’t feel joy. Some things just aren’t better with small children. (Stomach bugs, for instance.) Some stages are particularly challenging. That’s ok.

But there have been times when I’ve hardened my hearts to my children, just seen it as my work to shape these little people into likable humans (a task Jennifer Senior explores in the really fascinating All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood). It’s true they are my 9-5 grind, but seeing them that way means that they’re just obtrusive work emails, obnoxious take-home work, standing in the way of my real fun when the weekend rolls around. I end up like Marilla Cuthbert, vowing grimly, “But I’ve put my hand to the plow and I won’t look back.”

So it was kind of a wakeup call to me this winter, reading Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids — a book with a truly embarrassing title. (Peaceful sounds like hippie nonsense and happy doesn’t feel like it’s in my control, or necessarily the point.) Still, it was the only parenting audiobook available from the library at that frustrated moment, and something needed to change.

And the book doesn’t come right out and tell you to enjoy your children, maybe because, duh, everyone else is doing that already. But it reminds you that a kid can tell when he’s delighting you, and reminds you that connection builds a basis on which you can strengthen your relationship and influence in your child’s life. When a child can tell she’s pleasing you, she wants to please you more.

Of course.

This is pretty self-evident stuff, but for me, it was revolutionary. Now when we argue, I try to return us to equilibrium, hugging or offering genuinely kind words or initiating an activity we both enjoy, like the 500th game of Octonauts UNO. I’m trying to remind us we like each other, and you know what? It helps. Good feelings encourage good feelings and soon we are both trying to say “yes” to each other more often.

There were other helpful things in this book — particularly parts where Markham points out that a lot of the anger we feel towards our children is motivated by fear triggering fight and flight responses — but the book, despite its occasional flaws and genre-typical ramblings, is worth it for this small epiphany alone: Enjoy your kids.

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Commonplace Book, 18

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

Basic Cottage Pie Template

Ingredients

  • 1 lb ground beef or lamb (if lamb, then congrats, it’s shepherd’s pie)
  • 1 1/2 – 2 c beef stock
  • about four peeled potatoes (+cream, milk, butter, shredded cheese or whatever you put in your mashed potatoes)
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • carrots/parsnips/etc., chopped
  • frozen peas (+corn if you’re gross)

Instructions

When I’m on top of my game, I break this up over the course of a day or two, or else it’s a long process. Roast your chopped vegetables (onions + root veg), or boil the root vegetables in stock. Preheat oven to 400. Sauté your onion and cook your ground meat in a skillet. Make mashed potatoes in a third pot. When the onion and meat are brown, add herbs + roots + flour + broth + tomato paste and cook till thick (about 15 minutes). Mash your potatoes, spread on top of the meat mixture in either the skillet or an oven-safe dish. Add cheddar cheese if you’re cool. Bake till browned and cheese is melted.

I feel like I’m explaining this poorly. There’s kind of a lot going on, but it’s pretty intuitive.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can take these ingredients and follow this recipe as a template to make it in the slow cooker. Still pretty good.

What I’m reading:

  • I FINISHED BROTHERS K. NO ONE CARES. Otherwise, I’m reading the same stuff as last week, and enjoying it markedly more now that Alyosha & Co. aren’t looming over me all the time.
  • Endangered American Slang Needs Your Help“: Who knew I’d ever come across the DARE outside of reference class in library school? Let it be known that I claim whistle pig. (h/t: Prufrock)
  • Pippin’s godmother showed me this just when I needed it: How We Can Reclaim the Awesomeness of Motherhood From a Culture that Thinks It’s Awful. This is a struggle for me, to strike a balance between gratitude and transparency. Does my blog do that? I hope so. I am so grateful for my beautiful, sweet, merry little children, and so often tired or frustrated. I hope I have more, and sometimes I wonder how I will possibly survive more. I need to remind myself:

“Parenting is hard, for sure; but the difficulties don’t have to be dreaded. The point of parenting is to teach other, smaller, people how to live well and be happy. We cannot teach what we, ourselves, don’t know—so if we aren’t happy doing it, then we’ve got it all wrong.”

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My Halloween baby is way into fall spirit, yes he is.

On Becoming a Regular Mom

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Did anyone else watch Mean Girls, like, a lot? We introduced it to my sixteen-year-old sister-in-law at Christmas, so maybe it’s just fresh in my mind, but I’ve been thinking of the creepy Amy Poehler mom character in it a lot lately.

See, because, for a long time, I kind of thought of myself as a cool mom. Or, if not cool, then bohemian or…something. Not a regular mom. In western Massachusetts, I was a very young mother at 26, where many first-time mothers were a decade older, and it felt kind of edgy to have a baby when we were young and pretty broke. Also, at the time, I did other stuff, cool stuff. I didn’t just have a baby — I traveled abroad while pregnant! I worked! I finished a graduate degree and hung out at bars with my classmates! I’M A COOL MOM.

Let me be clear: I did not think that not being a regular mom made me a better mom. If anything, it gave me justification for so often feeling like a fish out of water, more than a little lost. I was younger, and poorer, and only slowly building up a tribe of kindred mothers who could share their secrets. I was on the fringes of Motherdom.

But increasingly, that doesn’t ring true. I don’t just have a baby — I have two kids, and one of them is starting preschool. (There is no cool way to say “the children.”) I also have a mortgage, and a husband with a real job. Now I attend mom events, like orientations and playgroups and La Leche League. In this season, my energy and time are more consumed than before with the tasks of motherhood. And I’m 30 now, in an area where women have babies much younger than where Pippin was born. I am not always overwhelmed now, though I often am. (That’s just the way I roll, I’m afraid.) In short, I am the target market for diaper cream applicator brushes.

This shift is good, and right, and humbling. I want to be a regular mom. I’ve met so many moms I admire, and I’m honored to join their ranks. I want to progress in motherhood gracefully, cheering on my growing children, slipping into comfortable mom clothes and mom interests (though never, I hope, becoming fully subsumed). I’m grateful to be in this difficult, beautiful part of life, especially when so many women I love long for children of their own. I don’t want to waste time grasping for youth and hipness, posturing and winking in a push-up bra like Amy Poehler’s character.

I’m ready to be a regular mom.

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