Monday, May 23, 2022

Bluey Makes Me a Better Parent

 Who knew that a seven-minute cartoon could change me so much?

As our toddler son happily shared a toy SUV and trailer with our friend’s toddler, our friend said, “You haven’t seen Bluey yet? It’s life-changing.”

Before I gave into the temptation to order the adorable SUV my two-year-old now obsessed over, we had to watch this cartoon family of Blue Heelers, living in Australia.

And we quickly became obsessed. Our kids learned that asking for “just one more episode” would likely be met with a “yes,” because it’s only seven minutes, right?

After ten years of watching children’s cartoons, we found one that, as parents, we were eager to watch this one. My husband laughs out loud as Bluey and her little sister, Bingo, thwart their dad, Bandit’s, attempts to pick up his takeaway dinner.  I giggle as the mom, Chilli, gently teases Bandit, even when immersed in the family’s imaginative play.

For a few weeks we watched and laughed. Our youngest learned that we couldn’t resist when he asked for “Booey and a kicky” (translation: Bluey and a cookie) after bath.  

And then, after hours of Bluey Immersion, something clicked.

Bandit is visibly irritated that Bluey doesn’t want any of her drawings thrown away, when he tries to recycle them, but he takes a breath and explains about how paper is recycled. Chilli plays, but usually finds a way to guide the play in her favor.  

These cartoon dogs are more real than pretty much any parents I’ve seen in children’s programming, and I want to be more like them.

Bandit and Chilli aren’t perfect, and they don’t always have just the right response for each other or for their kids - Bandit goes any entire episode without talking, because he doesn’t talk while camping - but they have responses I can use with my own kids.  

I can be irritated, but not take that irritation out on my kids.

And I can play with them.

In a family favorite episode, “Rug Island,” Chilli gets the kids (pups?) new felt connector pens, and Bluey and Bingo know exactly what to do. They create an island and use the pens for everything from plates to fish to wild animals. My own children became obsessed.  

Obviously, I ordered the markers.

On one randomly stormy Spring day, as thunder and lightning boomed and sparked, all of our outdoor afternoon sports were canceled. I took the kids home, set down my bags and said, “Should we play rug island?” 

Without pause, my three kids immediately began to collaborate, build a fort, open the pens and set up the plates.  

“We don’t have a paddle board,” shouted one.

 “We can use a giant pillow,” shouted another.

Before I knew it, they had the entire scene set.  

And, hail bursting from the clouds outside, I climbed the stairs and entered their world. 

I followed their directions, which mostly required that I climb into the fort and be available for cuddles. I thought like Bandit and Chilli and relaxed into the game, forgetting the laundry waiting for me to fold, ignoring my phone’s faint buzzes. 

Even after we’d returned to our regular evening routine, the vibe felt different, and instead of television that night, my oldest set up drawing stations, complete with pencils, paper, markers, and a beverage for each of us.  

It was an amazing experience, and I want more of it, so much more of it. And I know I can change my patterns and give my family this dedicated time.

Bluey, as it turns out, is life-changing. And all it takes is seven minutes.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

All He Wants is All of Me

 We sat on the porch of our rental beach house, just after my toddler had woken from his nap. He burrowed into my chest, took a deep breath, and listened to the sounds of the waves with me.

My husband looked up to make sure I was okay, that I was okay not putting together a puzzle with the rest of the group.  

And I was perfect.

He was right to check in with me, though.  

When I was a first-time mom, I definitely resented missing out on conversations, meals, games, the freedom of not having a child in my lap.  Though I’d wanted to be a mom for my entire life, I had not anticipated the crushing loneliness of being one of just a handful of friends who had a child. The rushing off to nurse or change a diaper or handle a tantrum wore on me. I felt like I’d lost a lot of myself, even while finding a new version of me.

Motherhood came more smoothly to me with our second, as I had some idea of what to expect. But no one could prepare me for the exhaustion that comes with chasing a toddler and handling a cheerful infant who simply won’t sleep.  I remain convinced that I did not get REM sleep for the first 18 months of my daughter’s life.  

I’m grateful that my husband still remembers those more challenging moments in parenting for me. He may have shared in the sleepless nights, but our children have always needed me more during their waking hours. I don’t know if that will always be true, but it’s our current reality. I am the one who has given up time with friends and family, and as someone who leans towards being an introvert, that sense of missing out took me by surprise.  When I had to step away from social events, I resented the loss.

With our third child, though, everything has shifted.  With our first, I didn’t know how to be a mom, at all. With our second, I was struggling with my own sense of self as I became absorbed by motherhood and also faced the loss of my own mom.  

Our third is the youngest by four-and-a-half years. No one other child is in diapers. The older children can be reasoned with and talked back into bed in the middle of the night. My oldest even asks for more and more time with his friends.

For the first time, I feel like I can simply enjoy being a mama to a toddler who needs me so completely.  

That evening on the porch, he pulled my arms closer around his body. I kissed the top of his head and realized that all he wants is all of me.  

And I have that available to give.

At times, I feel a sense of guilt that this baby is getting a completely different version of me than my older children.  I’ll always be learning about new stages and phases with my oldest. My daughter is the middle child, having to learn patience between two brothers. 

With my youngest, I’m more comfortable with being a mom, with saying no to an evening out or an event that isn’t toddler friendly.  I see friends taking extended child-free vacations, and while I know I’ll get back to those someday, I would rather be around my kids, especially a toddler who is changing day-by-day.  I don’t want to miss any of his new words, new skills, or the moments of joy throughout his day. I want his hugs as much as he wants me to sing him to sleep each night.

All he wants is all of me, and I’m happy to hold him close and give him the attention he needs. 

I’m grateful that I’ve finally found the rhythm of being a toddler mom and let this sweet boy crawl into my lap for as long as he needs.

We sat on the porch of our rental beach house, just after my toddler had woken from his nap. He burrowed into my chest, took a deep breath, and listened to the sounds of the waves with me.

Monday, February 14, 2022

On Mothering Without a Mother

I recently published an article about my own mother's love for me on Her View From Home.

This article is a work of love, and it was also cathartic to write.

I've written about and struggled with the idea of being a mom without my mom around.  Five years after her death, I still want to call her or text her every single day. 

I want to tell her about the toddler's new words - who wouldn't want to know that he begs to "Tay ou-side!" when asked to come inside at almost any point during the day?

I want to ask her for guidance on handling my daughter's big emotions, since I can't always relate.

I want to tell her how proud she should be of my oldest for the good choices he's making and how comfortable he is talking to us about any challenges he faces.

There's the religious side of me that knows she knows, but I miss the feedback. I will never not need my mom. 

I'm thinking of her today, because she loved holidays. She always made me feel loved on Valentine's Day. While I wondered if I would ever find a partner to love me in the way I wanted to be loved, I never doubted that I had love, that I was loved. 

Because of my mom, Valentine's Day has always been about more than romantic love. 

And that feeling remains, long into adulthood, and half a decade after her death.

Hopefully, I can give that same sense of warmth and comfort to my own children. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Back on the Fitness Track

In addition to my life as a mom, teacher, and writer, I have another big hobby: fitness.

I used to be a runner, I was big into half-marathons and other races, and I even wrote about them. Things shifted for me after I had my daughter, mostly because she hated the stroller. I had a great fitness routine as a mama of one, but that second baby threw me for a loop...a loop I never quite got out of.

When running slowly faded from my life, I tried to find other ways to keep in shape, and life simply handed me more and more challenges.  Career demands shifted. My mom got sick(er). For a moment in time, I figured out how to fit in visits to the gym before picking up the kids, but those visits got shorter, and finally, the pandemic closed my gym.  I had excuses, and I had reasons. Whatever they were, they changed my fitness life. I can look back and see I've had a series of really complex, challenging years. I'm trying to grant myself some grace around that.

With a newborn, a pre-schooler, and an elementary kiddo at home during the pandemic, I knew I needed something for myself, so I invested in what I lovingly called the fauxleton

I joined the Peloton App during a free promotion, and I started riding. In addition to countless afternoon hikes during those early days of the pandemic, I carved out time for rides, strength workouts, and even yoga. 

My body changed. I really started to heal from having my third kiddo. That summer was full of hiking and swimming and tucking into our family activities. And then we hit the hybrid school insanity of the 2020-2021 school year. I sat too much and weakened my back, then that weakness turned into actual injury, which took three months of careful recovery.  

By January of 2021, I was anxious and uncomfortable. I reached out to my friend, Katy, who has her own nutrition business, Macrolytes. She offered some tips and tricks for how to better nourish my body, and I made changes. 

The weeks and months went on. My back stayed healed, and my food routines changed. By summer, I felt strong and confident, even if the numbers on the scale remained mostly unchanged. At least I had routines again!

In November, I had the opportunity to purchase a used Peloton. 

And it's been a game changer.

By mid-December, I'd doubled my total number of rides taken since I joined the app in March 2020. Six weeks...150 rides.  The Peloton really does feel different to me - the ride is smoother, the seat is more comfortable, and the big screen is 100% better than watching rides on my phone.  

In addition to a routine I actually stick too, what I've missed though, without realizing it, was the competition I used to have in running. While the live rides don't often fit into my complex work life/mom life schedule, I do love seeing where I rank against all-time riders. I also appreciate the monthly challenges and knowing how many miles I've ridden. I keep finding new instructors, go back to favorites, and enjoy creating the perfect balance of rides on any given day - sometimes a 30 minute ride is exactly right, and others I need to build a 5, 20, 5 ride...same numbers, totally different experience.

I'm inching towards my fitness goals, but for the first long stretch since before I had my daughter (and she's in first grade...), I feel back on track.  I have clear, reachable goals. I have a form of exercise that makes me happy. I can fit exercise into my life without feeling anxious or annoyed at the imposition of it.

I'm back to creating and honoring this space for myself, and it's making everyone around me happier, too.

I'd call that a win-win.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Down the Rabbit Hole

Our kids teach us so much, and lately, watching my kids, I'm reminded of how I pursued my own passions as a child.

Over Winter Break, we stuck well to our little schedule and more or less tucked into a bubble within our home. That meant that my kids had oodles of time to dive deep into anything they wanted to do.

My oldest doodled around on the piano, learning Luisa's song "Under Pressure," and followed his deep and abiding love for Lego building. He became mildly obsessed with building World War II Lego scenes, which resulted in a deep dive into children's books about World War II and some cool conversations about my own family's involvement in the war (as an aside, I wrote a YA book loosely based on family experiences, and, maybe someday, the world will get to see it!). He attended camp for a couple of days and learned how to play, naturally, he came home and built a working foosball Lego table.  

This isn't just a big ole list of what my kid did over Winter Break, it's a journey into how his brain works, and how I'd like mine to work, too.  When he's interested in something, he follows that interest down a wide and winding path. He dives down the rabbit hole, and I totally admire that trait.  

With my own fractured, working-mom mind, I spend more of my hobby time watching ridiculous reels on Instagram (or, as I describe them to my husband, "dumb tiktok videos," because that's the same thing) than I do pursuing my actual interests.

A goal I have for myself this year - a multi-faceted goal - is to actually pursue my interests. This doesn't mean that I need to go out and buy a million new supplies for a hobby, but it does mean I need to read beyond the first book in a series before moving on to something else.  It also means that if I'm interested in a topic, whether it's a musical artist or an art project, I should let myself fall into it.

I've gotten started. I'm reading the second in the Wayfarer Series by Becky Chambers and have other sequels to other series in mind. I'm insisting that when we start a movie as a family, we finish that movie before we move onto a new one.  I'm hoping to pull all the fractured parts together and make my mind into the fine tuned machine it once was.

And do you know? It's working.  When I settle in to read a book with characters I already know, or a writer's familiar writing style, it feels good.  When I picked up the yarn to finger knit for a second time (gasp), I liked that I had a better grasp on what I was doing. I like that, over break, we finished a home improvement project by painting a single wall and installing a plant shelf - a fairly simple task that had eluded us for months. I'm getting back to feeling satisfied by my interests and pursuits.

I admire how my son picks up an interest and actually follows it. He's always got a few threads of interest trailing behind him, at varying levels, but he's not constantly picking up something knew.  He allows himself to dive in and really learn about a topic, whether it's fishing, making working Lego machines, or improving his soccer skills. 

My children teach me constantly, and I want to actively take on this lesson my firstborn teaches me daily.

Here's hoping I can feed myself with more than quick videos on social media and pursue interests with the same interest as a fourth-grader with no responsibilities.  

Friday, December 17, 2021

Ten Tips to a Successful Winter Break (I Hope)

I am about to embark on three weeks off with my children, all three of them.  

Our school district offers a longer break than most, and it's easy to sink into life away from school, but I have to keep at the forefront of my mind that my kids need to be ready to get back to a routine in January.

It was hard enough heading back to school and work after one week off at Thanksgiving (hello, getting to work at the exact minute I need to be there...whoops). 

So, these tips are as much for me as for anyone else.  

1. Keep a reasonable bedtime routine. This is the easiest routine to break when none of us has to be a functional human in the morning. My husband will remind me that he still has to go to work, and that will help tremendously, but I need to remember that getting lax around bedtime doesn't help any of us.

2. Limit the treats. Ugh. As with the first tip, this applies to me, as much as to my kids.  Once the baking goes into full effect next week, our access to delicious treats will double, triple...quadruple. I need to remember that none of us benefits from mass quantities of sugar.  

3. Underplan.  My whole family is exhausted from the demands of the first half of the school year. This was as close to a return to normalcy as we may get, and we definitely packed our calendar. Now, we need to take the opportunity nothing. Not everyone has this opportunity. My oldest wants to build endless World War II Lego scenes (it's a whole thing), and my middle one just wants to bake and watch holiday movies. The toddler wants to race cars and be held.  That's the bulk of my holiday plans for them.

4. Say No to tech based homework. I realize that this may not apply to everyone, but I'm not enforcing the school's request to do 20 minutes a day for two separate programs for each day of break - 100 minutes a week?? No, thank you. 

5. Read lots of books. I mean, it's not shocking that I want to read lots of books, as I am a total word nerd who loves immersing myself into different worlds. Cozy winter days (yes, even the Bay Area has cozy, cold winter days) call for coco and cuddles on the couch with good books. Bonus: this actually serves the purpose of some of the homework elementary teachers call for, but in a different package that feels less like homework.

6. Keep a daily routine. This applies in summer, as well. I'm going to try to hit our rhythm from day one this year with a dependable routine. For us, this will likely look like breakfast, chores, any out-of-the-house activities, lunch and a baking show, quiet time (a long winter's nap for the toddler...maybe a workout for me), tea time, and then a normal family dinner time routine after my husband gets home. My kiddos appreciate structure, and it's largely up to me to at least create the scaffolding of a daily routine.

7. Listen to the kids. All of the above aside, the kids will let me know what works and what doesn't. I'm hoping that I've taken into account their fondest school year desires (MORE LEGO TIME, PLEASE) and added them into the vacation days, but I know there will be something else I need to honor. Soccer in the park? Sure. Long walks with the dog? Let's make it happen.

8. Remember the small magic. I find it all too easy to get caught up in making the holiday season magic (that's a whole thing, too), and I have to remember that the tiny pieces of magic are not so tiny to my kids. The days of baking. The cheesy holiday movies. The lights on the mantle. All of those, perhaps even more than the presents, make this time of year special for my family.

9. Take time for myself. Overstimulation and the desire to keep my kids entertained and engaged can sometimes come at the expense of the quiet time I also need. We have all been overwhelmed and stressed, and I need to remember myself as we get some relief from a hard season.

10. Close out the holidays before we head back. We will have two weeks of break after Christmas, which gives us time to set our lives back to "normal." Fall is our hard season and then we head straight on into the holidays.  In January, we can catch our breath, and if we start the new year with a tidied home, solid routines, and rested minds and bodies, I'm hoping we will set ourselves up for success.

So, there we go, a list of goals for myself - and maybe for others - to help make these next few weeks feel awesome!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Saying No

 "I said no to something today!" I say enthusiastically to my husband.

"Oh yeah? Tell me about it."

I am the queen of overcommitting. I have my reasons, a blend of a need to be helpful, a love of being busy, and, to be fair, sometimes the extra income that comes along with certain opportunities.

But that overcommitting leads to stress, anxiety, and frustration, for my family, friends, and colleagues. 

When I'm drowning in a task list I've filled myself, I miss details, I run late, and I am easily irritated.  

Regardless of the reasons why I stay so busy, this level of busy isn't healthy.

My husband shared his own frustrations. My kids asked for a slower pace of life. My friends asked for more meaningful time spent together.  

And, so, I am changing.

It's not easy. I love saying yes. I love taking on an extra work responsibility. I love attending friends' kiddo's performances. I love having guests for dinner.

But, the more I say no, the more I realize how much I was missing in all of the clutter of saying yes.

When I say no, we have time at home on a weekend to catch up on house projects.

When I say no, I have the time to write card to each of my 160 students before Winter Break.

When I say no, I don't feel stressed about sitting with my kids and helping them with their math homework or settling in on the couch to watch a cheesy holiday movie.

Wow, having some breathing room means that I can give more attention to what does make it onto my calendar.  

The pressure really came off this week as I finished a college Spanish course (someone remind me not to sign up for more college classes anytime soon), and I could come up for air and sort files, put together Christmas gifts for my kids' teachers, and give attention to friends who could use some extra love. 

The problem here? I keep relearning this lesson, season after season, and I don't know when it will stick.

My high school journals include highlighted goals to get to bed earlier and put less on my calendar. How have I been learning this lesson for (unrevealed number of) years?

I can say that this time feels different.  This time, saying no has meant that intentional moments to exercise have reappeared in my life, and I can see the difference in my body and feel the change in my mental health.  

I've moved beyond saying no when I feel obligated to say yes. This time I'm saying no to things that I actually want to do, and that's a big difference. I can tell that the lesson has really started to stick.

In the past, I've felt guilty about having less stress. Beyond the desire to say yes. Beyond the need to feel busy. I thought I had to be busy. 

Now, I'm sinking into this slower pace. And my little bubble will be better because of it.