On Father’s Day

I said I needed a man who was tough enough to take on my problems.

I said I needed a man who would let me hide behind him.

I said I needed a man who knew how to cook, knew how to fix cars, and could iron his own clothes.

I said I needed a man who did not mind that my email address was in latin, that I read medieval history books for fun, and that I know some of the weirdest trivia facts.

I said I needed a man who would be a good father.

I said all that, in a note. I tucked the note into my journal, almost 10 years ago, and forgot about it. I got busy with school and work, and life.

And then -he- wandered into my life.

I had 1,001 reasons why it wouldn’t work. The age gap (I’m older), he was in the Army, I didn’t want to leave Texas, I didn’t like to cook, I had baggage from a string of failed relationships. He was nothing if not persistent.

I found myself, somewhere around 2 years after writing that note, sitting in a bathroom in a rental house in Georgia, south of Savannah, a few minutes from the gates of Fort Stewart. My pants were around my ankles, a Route 44 Strawberry Limeade was on the bathroom counter, half-empty. And 3 pregnancy tests were sitting on the counter.

Every single one was positive.

He became a father while on an airplane coming in from Iraq. He didn’t hold his first born until the next day. He smelled like dirt and sand and airplane, and his ACUs desperately needed to be washed when he dropped into the chair next to my hospital bed, and held his little girl for the first time.

And that was all she wrote.

Family life has heaped a heavy burden on his shoulders. He took it.

He held on as I cried through the loss of a sibling, and then another. I lost an aunt, then grandparents that never really liked me, and still I cried. He has endured countless mood swings; both girls inherited my temperament. He carried first one baby, and then another, on his shoulder, propped in the crook of his elbow, changed diapers, changed their clothes, brushed their hair. He’s learned how to give breathing treatments, allergy medicine, how to put on cortisone on itchy skin, where to put a humidifier to get the maximum effect.

He has gone to work on little sleep, after spending the night up with a sick baby and a wife too stressed out to remember how to measure out baby Tylenol. And slept with a sick baby in a recliner. And slept with a sick wife propped on his shoulder.

That note, with my list of things I wanted in a man is long gone. But I remember the last line, he has to be a good father.

He is the best father.

~Jennifer

Here We Are

I wasn’t planning on writing this post anytime soon. I have a couple I’ve been working on, writing and saving as I come up with ideas. But like most of my life, plans changed.

On June 6, 2017, I washed the last load of cloth diapers for my kids. A little over a month before my 37th birthday, and we are done.

Tonight, the 11th, Pudge fell asleep without her milkies. She asked, but this time when I told her that bottles were gone and I would be happy to get her a cup of milk, she whined, and then fell asleep. It probably helps that she was up almost 2 hours past bedtime.

I am sitting here, drowning my sorrows in hummus, tortilla chips and Dr. Pepper.

The long, sleep-deprived trek of my life that has involved babies is over. My youngest is 2. My oldest is 6. And the days of rocking a sweet-smelling infant to sleep have slipped through my fingers.

I am at turns unsettled and comfortable with this.

On one hand, both girls are sleeping better lately.

On the other hand… footed pajamas. Neither girl liked them much past when they started walking. So they have come to symbolize babyhood for me.

The Jennifer of Before Kids is not back. And honestly, she may never back as she was, so much has changed. But the Jennifer as I Am, the who I am beneath Mom, I can see her now. There is still so much I want to do, things I want to accomplish. I finished up my Bucket List, the one I wrote a week before high school graduation, before 30. In between 30 and 37, I have been Mom. And The Mrs. There hasn’t been much time for a new Bucket List, I’ve been too busy washing bottles and diapers, wiping faces and butts, rocking babies, folding clothes, pumping gas, carrying children.

To go back to those times of babies will be to give up what little Me I have rewritten. There is so much story still left to write, so many pictures to take and songs to learn, and tattoos to get. There is so much to do still.

But…

They were my babies. Long before they started claiming their independence, long before they started snipping apron strings, they were babies. They were my fiercely guarded lion cubs. They were mine. And I will have to give them up, to their own lives, far sooner than I realized.

I would stay longer in the Land of Babies, if I could. I would linger here, with tiny clothes, tiny fingers to curl around mine, and a tiny head propped on my shoulder. But the girls will not let me. They didn’t linger here any longer than they needed to, and now they are pulling me through their childhood.

We have tea parties to play, and dolls to dress up, sidewalk chalk to color with, and bubbles to blow. We have toes to paint, and lip gloss to use up. We have childhood to get to.

While I will throw myself into their childhood, just like I did their baby years… I may stop to look back. A few times.

~Jennifer

Death Valley, March 2016

I was watching the news and there was a segment on the super bloom going on in Desert Valley. It’s been on my list of places to visit, and I said I wanted to go either in the Spring or Fall, when it is slightly cooler. The temptations of flowers was too much to pass up.

Hubs and I spent our 6th wedding anniversary (how has it been that long?!!) in the park, taking pictures, eating lunch, letting the girls wander around. By the time we got home we were tired, and hot and dusty… and I had some incredible pictures. I could go down there every weekend and take pictures for a year and still not get all of the park photographed.

Things to Know, Part 2: Leaving Home

You are tiny now, little girls with faces so small I can hold them in my hands, and hands so small they can still curl around my fingers. The smell of baby powder and shampoo still dominates my life, mixed in with milk and now bubble gum toothpaste.

It will not always be this way, my lion cubs. Life, your life, will call you, come for you, and claim you, one day. You will not, despite what you say now, want to live with me forever, you will want to have a home, a family, of your own. And that home may not be down the street, or even across town from me and Daddy.

You will see, as you grow up, that I get homesick. The lush grass of Papa’s backyard, where I spent my childhood, the wide acres of my uncle’s ranch, the smell of horse and saddle leather and hay, somedays I want that more than I want anything else.

But I would have withered at home. Under the nearly over-bearing guidance and watchful eyes of my family, I would not have dared to dream. I would not have picked my camera back up, I would not have tried to plant flowers, or cook a Thanksgiving dinner out of dishes I had never even tried. I would not have dipped my toes into the Atlantic Ocean in January. I would not have sat for hours getting those butterflies you are so fond of inked into my skin.

I would have married who I was supposed to, lived in the house I was supposed to, raised children like I was supposed to. I would have put my cameras up for a stable job, I would have cooked and cleaned and kept a perfect house. I would have withered away.

Wildflowers do not grow indoors, my babies. They have to be outside, in the sunshine. And the rain.

Being away from home, I have grown. I am not the baby of the family, but rather a lioness, leading my own family, sometimes battling with Daddy, but forging my own path in life. I want that for you, and I know that will only come if you leave home. You will not grow, you will not challenge yourself, you will not dream big dreams, accomplish them, and then find new dreams, if you stay here with me. Remember Rapunzel in her tower, after she was finally brave enough to leave, she found a big world waiting for her. That’s the same world, waiting on you.

So when the time comes, I will cry. And you might too. That’s ok.

But you will, no matter how many tears you shed, find yourself packing up, and finding your path.

If you do not have the courage, and strength, to find your own life in this world, I will have failed you as a parent. If I teach you nothing in life girls, I want to teach you how to be strong, on your own. I will never leave you, never abandon you, but you will have to leave me. It is the natural order of things; all babies leave home to make families of their own.

And if you are afraid to do that, then I have not done my job as your parent.

So when the time comes, I want you to run out into the world, conquer what you can, and leave the rest for someone else. Build your own home, whether that is down the street, across the country, or across the world. Just save me a spot in the guest bedroom.

If you get lost, follow your heart, it’s the best compass you have, and you will come back to Daddy and me, if you need to take a break from the world.

 

~Mama

The Cowboy Hat

On a random morning, just before we started school, Sprout asked to have me take pictures. This is a rarity, she is starting to get camera shy; I can’t really blame her, she’s had a camera in her face at least twice a week since she was born.

She agreed to wear the Big Sister shirt, and do pictures with Pudge on one condition, she get to wear her new Sheriff Callie hat. Sheriff Callie is a cat sheriff on a show on Disney Junior, Sprout loves the show. I could have spent the morning cleaning, or writing lesson plans. But in the spirit of Making Cupcakes, I skipped laundry and instead, we took some pictures. I think the outtakes are my favorites.

~Jennifer

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The Night Before School

When you have a baby, when that monumental moment in time comes, and you literally bring your child into the world, the doctors, nurses, your family and friends, they all forget to tell you one thing. That you are taking a piece of your heart, and putting it into a being separate from you, and that with each nap, with each play date, with each breath they take, they are pushing further from you.

All those firsts you look forward to, first smile, first time baby rolls over, first steps, they are firsts that will separate your child from you. From the moment you give birth, you are separating, the act of giving birth is the first step in letting your child go.

Tomorrow, Sprout starts Pre-K. Like everything we have done so far, and everything we will do for the foreseeable future, she’ll be at home. The school corner has been cleaned and organized, I put together a new Circle Time board, and she has new crayons and colored pencils. When the store did not have the color glitter glue she wanted, I bought clear and added glitter to make her preferred color. I bought her a new backpack, even though we use that more for trips than school, she has a lunch box and a thermos, and I had to promise her tonight, during bath time, that I would pack her lunch in it. So we’ll have school in the living room, and she’ll eat lunch at the kitchen table, out of her lunch box. Or maybe we’ll sit outside.

But she’s starting Pre-K. And all those First Day pictures, and the cupcakes, and the certificate (of course she has a First Day Certificate), and all the projects. They’re other ways of letting go. When she mastered holding her scissors the right way, and told me she was a big girl, I was in the middle of feeding Pudge. It didn’t hit me until later, when I was picking minute pieces of paper out of my carpet, cut neatly, that I realized she had done it again. Taken another step away.

Those fingers that are holding safety scissors will one day hold real ones. She’ll put together college projects, work projects. Those fingers might sign laws into effect, might write legal briefs, might guide a rocket to Mars. Might dig holes for flowers, or cut silk for a designer dress. But she gained another step on the road to independence, when she remembered Thumb Up Top, Pointy End Out.

Your children are not really yours, they belong to themselves. Sprout has belonged to herself since she made her entrance into the world, serene and calm, watching the world through foggy eyes. The face that echoes my own at that age, the eyes that are duplicates of mine, they are hers. She belongs to herself, and she is slowly but steadily learning that.

I can hear her now, “Slow and steady wins the race Mama. Just like the tortoise in the story.” She still calls me Mama, and I dread the day that turns to Mom. I’ve liked being Mama, even when I get tired of hearing that name. Mama is the world of littles, of little fingers and toes, of nursery rhymes and rock me to sleep and I’m scared let me come sleep with you. I like this place. I know this place, of little girls, of toes barely big enough to put paint on, of untangling hair first thing in the morning, of frilly dresses and bare feet on a warm day. This place of Sesame Street and You Are My Sunshine is the place I have been the happiest.

Really that’s it, I don’t want them to grow on me for purely selfish reasons. I am happy.

I am tired. I am exhausted. I want a hot shower and a days’ worth of sleep and someone to cook all the meals for a year. But I am happy here, in the land of littles.

And my girls are determined to lead me out of this place, where I am happy. I am sure the next stage in motherhood will be happy too. But this stage was where I met happy, where I learned that I could meditate with a baby in my belly, or in my lap. That in the moment meant coloring in a princess themed coloring book with my pajamas still on, and coffee growing cold on the counter. This stage taught me the healing powers of a baby asleep on your chest, on the peace and contentment a child could bring. I like this stage because it has healed me, as much as I have raised my children through it.

So this is why, as I pulled together what we’ll need for the week, I found myself crying. We are ready, we have everything we need. I am not ready.

My littles are leaving this stage, and I would happily stay here for a lifetime.

~Jennifer

Little Architect

This was supposed to be summer vacation. This was supposed to be the summer Sprout learned how to be bored on her own, and come up with marvelous things to do. I envisioned her building forts out of  blankets and sheets, filling up her drawing books with the best work since Picasso got into Cubism, creating sticker pictures, playing Doc McStuffins with her toy collection. And she did that. And then…

Two weeks into summer break, and she was coloring on the walls. I mean that in the literal sense of the word.

I realized I do not have a child who can just be on her own, who can figure out how to amuse herself. Let me rephrase that, who can figure out how to amuse herself in ways that do not involve destruction or the permanent markers she snatched from my desk.

So I started coming up with activities to do. Some of them were home school activities, simplified for easy play. We’ve done more arts and crafts, used more glue, paint and glitter than I care to reminder. Or can get out of my carpet.

But I had a box of packing peanuts, saved from a delivery, sitting on the top of my fridge. And I had toothpicks. Putting them together meant nearly an hour of building, taking things apart, and rebuilding. I should have done this on a sheet, to avoid the risk of stepping on lost toothpicks. Or even better, I will do this outside next time, and I will not have to worry about toothpicks getting jammed into small toes. Or my toes. I’ve had to go the ER once to get a piece of toothpick out of my foot, years ago, I don’t care to do it again.

But she was occupied. She wasn’t in trouble, wasn’t scheming to do something she shouldn’t or playing with something she shouldn’t, or pestering the cats, or any number of the Do Nots. I try to avoid the Do Nots as much as possible, but there are times when you have to have a Do Not. But on this afternoon, I forgot about the Do Nots, and let her build. And build. And build some more.

~Jennifer

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Tie Dyed Shirts and Kinetic Sand

Or… I need to keep my child occupied.

Sprout has been more than a little difficult lately. To be really honest, she’s been hell on wheels for several days. No amount of normal discipline/rewards were working. She is a child that cannot be left to her own devices, or she gets creative. Creative means getting into things she shouldn’t (liquid Tide poured on the carpet to clean it), or take things apart to see how they work. A bored Sprout is a Sprout that will destroy my house, and I am convinced kick-start the Apocalypse herself.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with an answer to her behavior. I firmly believe with a little patience and some observation, you can decode a child’s behavior and get to the problem.

Last night, as she was bouncing in her chair at dinner, simultaneously stuffing food in her little face and eating at the same time, it hit me. She is really bored. Not the bored that inspires you to do something new, but the bored that ends up in disaster.

I have a bookcase stuffed full of things for homeschool. Her favorites have always been the sensory stuff I’ve pulled together and collected. Last night after she was asleep, I set out her tub of kinetic sand, and her sensory tools. She happily played in it. Then she wanted her rice and beans, then she wanted her red dyed rice (ok it came out more pink than red) and alphabet pasta. All morning long she measured and poured and counted and built sand castles and played. She just played.

When that got boring, we dug out some white t-shirts and a tie dye pack I had tucked away, and we dyed t-shirts.

I’ve decided to let her play with all the stuff I have for homeschool, the paints and stickers and crayons and markers and counting bears and tanagrams, all the stuff. I’m still not writing lesson plans, but the more occupied she is, the better off we all are. It’s outrageously hot here during the day, so anything I can come up with to keep her occupied during the hottest part is wonderful. We can adventure during the morning and evening when it’s relatively cool. I can restock my supplies in a month or so when the school sales start. I cannot get back the giggles and laughter as we poured dye over tshirts, or played with “squishy sand”.

I am covered in dye (forgot the gloves). I’m sure it’s stained my back porch. The urge to grab my vacuum and clean up the mess she’s made in my living room is nearly overwhelming. But that’s what life is about, making some messes.

~Jennifer

Sleep

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How to tell you need a bigger bed.

The advice you get as a first-time parent is mind boggling. When to feed, how to feed, diapers to use, wipes to use, how to hold baby, swaddle baby, what to do with baby when baby is upset, how to handle colic, burping, what laundry soap is the best for sensitive baby skin, it goes on and on. But the advice on how to sleep, how to get baby to sleep, came in like an avalanche. I was buried under the sheer amount of thoughts and opinions on sleep.

In the end, when Sprout was tiny, and hubs was back in Iraq, she slept with me. I know that’s breaking one of the rules of deployment, and many parenting rules. But there was something comforting about sleeping next to her, my hand resting on her tummy, feeling it move up and down with each breath she took. She was the only tangible, physical reminder of Hubs. The weight of her head on my shoulder, the feel of her tiny fingers curled around mine, that was all I had left; until he came back home.  We repeated this ritual, sleeping curled up tightly together, her head on my shoulder, during his second deployment.

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One of the first pictures I got of them together was this one. Early in the morning, sleeping snuggled together.

He came back, and we set about putting us back together. It seemed natural, as we learned to be a family, for her to sleep with us. We had a routine, put her in her own bed at night, and typically in the early morning, when she needed to be changed and fed, she would come to bed with us. Some nights she was in bed with us the entire night, some nights she was in her own bed the entire night, and some nights, half-asleep I would nestle her into our bed, and we would sleep.

Once I openly admitted that yes, she slept with us, the advice really started to pile on. She’ll never sleep by herself, you’ll put a strain on you and Hubs, you need some alone time, she has to learn how to self-soothe and put herself back to sleep, on and on. Some days I felt my friends and family had all turned into broken records. I had my doubts, when Sprout was up for the umpteenth-thousandth time, when I was tired beyond all measure, I wondered if they might be right. Maybe I was screwing up my child.

But in the early morning hours, when the smell of baby shampoo and conditioner drifts to me, and a pair of over-large feet are propped on my stomach, I believe, I know… We got this right.

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Sometimes we don’t sleep though.

Night time is our time to bond, to come together as a family, to spend a few hours just with each other, not arguing, not talking, not teaching or playing. Just being around each other. Sprout is what the professionals call a strong-willed child. I have many terms for it, stubborn, fierce, independent, GIANT PAIN IN MY ASS; and the end of the day, when we need to rest and recharge, there is no better way to make peace than sharing a bed. The nights where I run my fingers through her curly hair until she relaxes and falls asleep, are the nights where we make peace, after a day of battles and negotiations.  Almost always, after a particularly trying day, when she ends up sleeping with me, she whispers she’s sorry, and drops a kiss on my cheek when she climbs into bed with me. And I whisper the same back.

When Pudge came along, for a few nights I slept on the couch, giving up the bed to Sprout and Hubs. Sprout inevitably found her way to the couch, and one night I said to hell with it. I slept for a few hours with a newborn on my chest, and my oldest snuggled beside me. And in that hazy time of no-sleep and cracked, bleeding nipples, and post-partum crazy hormones, I relaxed.  I tried, after that, to keep Sprout in her bed, and Pudge in hers, and it just didn’t work. I’m too tired to tuck one child into bed, only to do the same for the other an hour later.

More often than not, Sprout sleeps next to Hubs, Pudge sleeps snuggled with me, and I dream of a king sized bed. All to myself. The times I get the bed to myself though, I cannot sleep. If Hubs is working nights and the girls are both in their own beds, my bed is too empty, too cold, and I am restless. I find myself snuggling first Pudge into bed with me, enjoying time with my chubby baby, and then lifting the covers when Sprout stumbles in, making more room for her. In that moment, the world shrinks down to my room, to the warm bodies that snuggle against me, and the smell of baby shampoo, and milk breath.

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But when they do both sleep, it is glorious.

The time of diapers and bottles, reading books before beds, stuffed lovies and “Mama I need you” is small. The season of small children is the fastest season of life I have known. It’s passing by so quickly it makes my heart hurt. I find myself sniffling back tears as I realize Sprout’s face is free of baby fat, that Pudge no longer has that newborn look, but has filled out and is a chubby baby. The best time of this season right now, is for me, night time, when the world is quiet, the bed is warm, and my babies are sleeping beside me.

~Jennifer

Can’t Do It All

I had an epiphany last night. One of those earth-shattering ones, that makes you take stock of what you’re doing with your life. Let me back up though, because what happened before my aha moment is as important.

Pudge has eczema. The rash started on her cheeks and then spread down to her arms, and despite my best efforts, it wasn’t clearing up. Yesterday she was uncomfortable, unable to sleep for much more than half an hour, cranky, and clingy. I was running on all of 4 hours of sleep.

It was dinner time, and I spent the better part of an hour trying to cook a full meal, keep Sprout occupied, and keep Pudge happy. I failed at all 3, nearly burnt the house down, and finally exploded. In a fit of yelling, I voiced my stress and unhappiness with the situation. I didn’t yell at the girls, but around them, at the adults in my life. It was ugly. By the end, I was emotionally worn out, and embarrassed, and exhausted.

I also couldn’t sleep.

It dawned on me, while I was tossing and turning, desperately seeking the cool spot in the sheets, that I am driving myself crazy. I should have laid out the stuff for sandwiches, opened a bag of chips, and had a serve-yourself dinner night. I should have snuggled on the couch with my cranky Pudge, or laid in the tub with her propped on my chest, letting warm water and oatmeal soothe her skin. I should have not worried about whether the carpet was clean, not stressed about the dirty dishes piled in the sink, and not cared about the laundry piling up. It would all have been there when I was ready to tackle it. In trying to do it all, I was doing nothing.

Instead, I tried to do it all, and nothing was done right. Too many irons in the fire and I got burned. Everyone got burned.

So today, I changed things around. We did the normal routine of pre-K, and I did not bother to spotlessly clean the school corner when we were done. I still haven’t run the vacuum, and it’s taken all day to do two loads of laundry.

We wandered around Wally World, buying play jewelry for Sprout, and onesies for Pudge, after school, and had quiet time when we came back. I took a much needed nap instead of cleaning. We had left-overs for dinner, and everyone fixed their own plates. I still haven’t finished laundry. We’ve had candy and chocolate and soda, because in the words of Sprout, “Candy fixes everything.”

There was no yelling, no stress, no tension headache that has me eating Advil like it’s candy.

Without the storm of “MUST DO IT”, I took the time to notice how nice it was today, opened up the house to get some air, and played with my girls.

I have decided something… my house isn’t going to be perfect. If you randomly show up and ring my door bell, there are probably going to be toys scattered around, dishes in the sink, and do me a favor and don’t open the door to the girl’s room. I have small children, and rather than worry about what anyone would think, I’m spending time with them. I have all the time in the world, after they’re grown, to have that house from Home and Garden magazine. But my girls will be this age for a moment, and I cannot lose the opportunity to spend time with them.

We’re banishing the perfect, and with it the insanity, and instead just enjoying the chaos.

~Jennifer