He Shows Us How to Be Brave

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The day before his birthday, I asked Dairy Man what he wanted to do to celebrate. He thought about it for a beat and then said, “Let’s just hop in the car and drive.” My planner brain instantly had questions: “Where are we driving exactly? How long will it take? Should we pack a lunch? What about naps? Does the car have gas?” But I (mostly) quieted my thoughts and said, “Ok.”

Our kids are not going to learn spontaneity from me. How to make comprehensive packing lists? Yes. How to organize Legos by color and type? Sure. How to make a detailed itinerary to maximize every moment of their European vacation? Definitely.

But he will teach them how to be adventurers.

I tend to play it safe. Kyle tends to take (calculated) risks. His fearlessness—going all the way back to his days as a high school BMXer—has allowed him to take chances in life, trust his instincts, and adapt to changing circumstances. He welcomes failure because he knows there is no better way to learn. He doesn’t get mired in “what ifs,” but instead asks, “Why not?”

In a lot of ways, I want to be more like him.

Yesterday morning as I flew around the house gathering snacks, sunscreen, and extra underwear for the kids (because you never know) for our ambiguous adventure, my pragmatic calculations told me it wasn’t worth the stress. But as we drove away from the farm—Kyle singing along with the radio and corn fields flying past the windows—I felt my muscles loosen and my fingers unclench. As they always do.

We ended up at a small beach that Kyle remembered from his childhood. The sand was warm under our feet as we kicked off our shoes and tramped eagerly over the dunes, fingertips grazing the tall grass. Anders and Ellis squealed as they followed Kyle through small pools of water and over makeshift bridges of driftwood. Their hesitancy at the water’s edge was forgotten when he took their hands. It was clear that our meandering drive had brought us exactly where we needed to be.

Happy 35th, my love. Thank you for pushing us. Thank you for often knowing what we really need.

Thank you for showing us how to be brave.

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How to Work from Home with Kids During Quarantine

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This week Wednesday marked day 100 (ONE HUNDRED, people) of my working from home with three kids underfoot. Quarantine has been a swirling whirlpool of joy, rage, anxiety, and peace–often all within the same five minutes. If you want to read more about that, check out this post on my Instagram.

I’ve learned that gratitude and sorrow live together. In that spirit, after you read my more introspective thoughts about life lately, I suggest you come back here for this highly useful and not at all hyperbolic list.

How to Work from Home with Three Kids During Quarantine

Maintain regular hours
Even though time has felt like a meaningless quagmire since March, try to keep a consistent schedule. Tell your coworkers you are most available at 5:30 a.m., from 9:15-10:23 a.m., 1:00-3:03 a.m., and after 7:30 p.m. when you have successfully cajoled, coerced, and threatened three children into their beds. Realistically, you are trying to get a week’s worth of work done in 15 minute increments between peeling stickers off the television and arguing about the fluidity of time (no, it is not snacktime again).

Keep a dedicated office space
A clean desk is a sign of a clean mind. If that’s true, try not to think about the state of your mind while working amidst mashed crayons, a child’s left shoe, three crumpled tissues, and a pile of kinetic sand. Ideally, your workspace should have good lighting, labeled file folders, and an organic soy candle that smells like seawater. If you find yourself hiding from the kids–who think your laptop is a video portal to Grandma–under the dining room table to send an email, you are doing something wrong.

Get dressed
It’s important to dress for the job you want. I know it’s been 100+ days of quarantine and you are low-level dead inside, but no one will take you seriously in your high school show choir t-shirt and faded black joggers. Wear something clean and professional for your Zoom call, for goodness sake. Your coworkers don’t want to play “guess the stain” with whatever that is on your shoulder. (Sweet Jehoshaphat, please let it be applesauce.)

Create an optimal environment for meetings
Talk to your spouse and other cohabitants about your work hours and expectations. It’s important they know when you cannot be disturbed. During video calls with work, make sure the little people are subdued with hours of Shaun the Sheep, bowls of dry cereal, and proper instructions: Do not fight, do not yell. Do not use the couch as a trampoline. Do not call for me unless someone is actively bleeding. Provide the baby with ample toys to be entertained at your feet for two hours. Do not despair if, instead, he chooses to eat dog hair or clings to your leg wailing like a deranged pterodactyl. That’s why you have a mute button.

Get enough sleep
Sleep is vital to your survival. Get at least eight hours in a dark room that smells like lavender and is kept at precisely 65 degrees. Pay no attention to the child on the baby monitor singing “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” at dawn or your 3 a.m. insomnia spurred by rising infection rates, systemic racism, the patriarchy, or the work project you’ve been ignoring for three months. Dreams about the futility of the human condition also have no place here.

Practice self care
Working from home is stressful. Being in a worldwide pandemic is stressful. Take time to recharge your batteries and hide in the kitchen eating spoonfuls of ice cream from the freezer while the kids watch just one more episode. Sure, your childless coworker Karen is managing to log nine hours a day on Microsoft Teams while also taking up needlepoint, meditating for two hours before bed, and writing a screenplay, but on Tuesday you went to the bathroom alone without anyone barging in and that should be celebrated too.

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Happy Sixth, Anders

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When Anders woke up on Sunday, he asked, “Can I get up early because it’s my birthday? I just want a little extra time.” I smiled as I clutched my still-hot cup of coffee, ready to give him what he needed.

He always wants more. More time outside. More time playing with his dad. More time to work on his Legos. More time snuggled into my side reading another chapter of the Boxcar Children.

Even under normal circumstances, I often feel like I’m not giving him enough.

The night before he turned six, Anders and I both had trouble falling asleep. He vibrated with excitement thinking about presents and a party. I ached deeply because I worried a birthday in quarantine would fall short. Would he notice all the empty seats around the table? How could I make a day special when they all feel the same?

These worries hung over my head all day. Through the farm party at our table with feathered rooster cups and a towering cake. Through the sun-filled hours he and Ellis spent in the red and yellow bouncy house I bought on Amazon. Through a gift exchange in the driveway with his grandparents standing six feet away. Through it all, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, wondering if he felt a lack.

Instead, I saw joy. I watched him laugh and cry and fight with his siblings and it all felt mercifully… normal. Even our half-hearted attempt at dinner after an afternoon spent outside—an eclectic charcuterie platter of everything from Triscuts to frozen peas—made his pale blue eyes light up with excitement.

When I asked him if he had a good birthday as he gathered up his new Legos before bed, his voice was annoyed. “Moooom. Yes. Why do you keep asking me that?” I laughed and pulled him to my side, noticing how his tousled blonde hair nearly came up to the top of my rib cage.

I hope that when he looks back on his sixth birthday, he simply remembers being together.

That would be enough.

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When The Table Isn’t Sacred

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“Anders, if you blow bubbles into your milk again, I’m taking away your cup,” I snap.

Ellis rubs chili into her hair. As I turn my back to grab a washcloth, she dumps the rest of her bowl on the floor. The dog almost knocks me over as he pushes past my legs to clean up the scene—at least someone is having fun. The baby cries in the bouncy seat, his chest covered in spit-up. My head throbs as I drop to my knees (how fitting) to deal with the mess under the highchair.

“Mom, I need a plate,” says Anders.

“Why?” I say from the floor as I mop up chili with a paper towel.

“Because my chili is getting everywhere.”

A quick look up reveals that he’s right. The tray of his highchair and front of his shirt are splattered with red chili like a beef-laden Jackson Pollock painting. I take a deep breath and hand him a plate from the drawer.

“No, I don’t want the green plate! I need the piiiiink one!”

Ignoring him, I squeeze my eyes closed and tip my head back to release the growing tension in my neck. Another glance at the clock tells me Kyle is late, again. Bedtime can’t come soon enough.

I wipe spit-up and melted cheese from my work pants. There wasn’t time to change when we got home.

As I refill milk cups, my elbow accidentally knocks the stack of dirty containers from today’s daycare lunches to the floor. Ellis hurls a handful of chili at the wall, and Anders stops wailing long enough to cackle hysterically.

I bang my fist on the counter. “Where is your father?!”

***

I used to love dinner time. Before babies, our table was a sacred space.

When Kyle and I first got married, we ate Hamburger Helper and Bertolli frozen skillet meals for six months straight. He was working long hours at the dairy and I was commuting three hours a day to my job at a college in the city. It was all we could do to dump a bag of frozen vegetables and chicken into a pan at the end of the day and call it dinner.

Eventually I moved away from the freezer section and learned the art of cooking. A glass of red wine by my side, I crushed garlic cloves into tomato sauce, minced red onions for pineapple salsa, and roasted sweet potatoes until they caramelized. I found my footing as a cook as we settled into the rhythm of a life together.

In the midst of a busy season, sitting at the table (or occasionally standing at the kitchen counter) was the one place we came together.

***

Today, dinner is a frazzled rush after long days at work and daycare, full of spilled milk, high volumes, and sheer chaos. The needs from our three small people are endless. I’m up and down—always on my feet—filling glasses, wiping spills, rinsing daycare dishes, breaking up fights, loading the dishwasher, and cutting fruit. I vacillate between hot flashes of temper and distracted attention.

Kyle is preoccupied too, eyes darting to his phone every time there’s a call or text from one of his farm employees. We all know that he could be called away at any moment. His body is here but his mind is not.

Our conversations follow a staccato beat, starting and stopping and losing their way. Instead of wine-warm lovers, we settle into our positions as co-cruise directors. “Did you find his library book?” “Can you cut her meat?” “Don’t forget you have a dentist appointment tomorrow.” Against the onslaught of constant kid interruptions, we give up on telling stories or finding true connection until later (or never).

Somehow the place that used to bring us together highlights how far we are apart.

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Read more about falling apart and coming together in my essay this week on
Coffee + Crumbs.

On Repeat: A Photo Essay

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It was sitting on my pillow when I crawled into bed—a small green piece of paper folded in half. I picked it up, smiling, and admired the black block letters spelling “MOM.” The handwriting was still shaky, but there was no mistaking the words. He’s come so far, I thought. It wasn’t that long ago that Anders couldn’t even identify his letters, much less make place cards for a family dinner. I held the green paper and briefly considered the trashcan across the room but instead opened the book on my nightstand and slid it between the pages. The voice in my head—usually urging ruthless clutter elimination—gently murmured: don’t forget this.

Too often I allow myself to be numbed by the sheer monotony in our life. The tasks “on repeat” in our life can feel futile. But when I shake my head, clear my eyes, I start to see the vibrations of wonder everywhere.

There is wonder in adorably mispronounced words at breakfast, labeled water bottles on the counter, the smell of rosemary shampoo, a bubbling pot of macaroni, Legos on the floor, the fuzz on a baby’s head, childish laughter long after the lights go out at night, and my husband’s hand on my hip. I can’t save every scrap of paper my kids write on, but I can save moments, tucking the loose-leaf pieces close to my heart. Familiarity can be the enemy of inspiration (or appreciation, frankly), but often life’s most profound moments are found in the shabby and ordinary places.

You just have to look.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “On Repeat.”

@pheonixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2020

Dear Ellis: welcome to three

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Dear Ellis,

We met you three years ago today. You blew into our lives like a hurricane: breakneck and wild. I was only in labor for 2.5 hours and you were almost born on the gray rug on our bathroom floor. You were delivered 10 minutes after I told the ER receptionist, “I’m having a baby right now!” Later as the nurse checked me in, you already lay heavy on my chest, wet and warm.

From the beginning, my girl, you were untamed.

The first few months of your life were a blur of tears, witching hour meltdowns, and 40 minute (never more) naps. Unlike your brother, you did not eventually bend to my BabyWise will. You had your own agenda and kept your own schedule. When I dropped you off at daycare that first morning, I felt a guilty sense of relief as I told them, “Maybe you can get her to sleep.”

As the months went on, you leveled out (as most babies do) and transformed into a bubbly ball of delight. Complete strangers would comment, “She’s such a happy baby!” And you were—in your own time. That’s how you have to do most things.

Today, you’re three.

It’s hard for me to remember you’re only three. You already speak like a five-year-old, which isn’t surprising since you try to keep up with your brother in every other way. Last week you told me, “Mommy, I do not have the appetite for this dinner,” and I was so impressed by the phrase I wasn’t even annoyed that you refused to eat anything other than shredded cheese and fed your sweet potato to the dog.

You are a fighter. Your body is a map of bumps and bruises from foolish feats of bravery and stubborn acts of defiance. Your eyes flash with mischief when you’re about to disobey. When I try to shield you from bodily harm (also known as “Anders”), you push my hands away and dive back into the fray.

You are also loving and empathetic. When something bad happens to a character in one of our books, your brow will furrow with concern: “He’s sad, Mommy,” You thrive on physical touch—putting your feet on my knees at dinner, pressing against my side when we read. You are rendered fully immobile by a good back scratch. Sometimes you cup my face in your hands and press your nose against mine. Your unblinking blue eyes hold a magnetic pull, as if to say I am yours and you are mine.

You are noise. Our car rides to daycare are punctuated by gibberish songs sung at ear-splitting volume. At night I hear your voice through the monitor after the lights are turned off, singing and swapping stories with your stuffed animals. I say “Please don’t yell,” and “Use your inside voice!” on repeat, but deep down I hope you never let anyone silence you. Your voice matters. You matter. I will go to battle with anyone who says otherwise.

Can I tell you a secret? I felt a mixture of joy and fear when your brother pulled that pink piece of paper out of the envelope three years ago. Deep in my heart, I was terrified to have a girl. The responsibility to raise strong, self-assured little women can feel heavy. But as the news sunk it, I realized I had never wanted anything more.

If anyone can rise, it’s you.

I admire your bravery, your tenacity, and your strong will—even though these things drive me crazy sometimes. You will rule the world.

After 30+ days of you waking up saying, “Is it my bur-day!?” I am happy to finally say YES. Happy third, my sweet girl.

Everyday Magic

“Children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present, which very few of us do.”
– Jean de la Bruyere

Today I am thankful for warm October sunshine, wondrous caterpillars (RIP Catty–you lived a full life), and small, magic moments with my four.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Everyday Magic.”

Image via Kristine Farnum

Some things are worth saving

I’m not a very sentimental person. At least that’s what Dairy Man tells me.

I hate clutter. I want everything to be organized. I spend my evenings rearranging drawers and closets. I get far too excited about bins and chalkboard labels.

I don’t save birthday cards. Almost all of the kids’ art projects from daycare go straight in the trash after bedtime. I ruthlessly purge my clothes at least twice a year (those old t-shirts from high school musicals are long gone). I will ALWAYS say no to free furniture or old china. Anything that isn’t nailed down in our house can end up in the “donate” pile.

My mom is the same way. It’s not that we’re cold or heartless, we just don’t need to be surrounded by a lot of unnecessary STUFF to hold on to our memories. When I was a college junior (living in a rental house with four other girls), my mom showed up one day with boxes of my old stuffed animals, Barbies, and even prom dresses and said, “I need to clean out my storage room. These are yours now.” Not having an abundance of space to hoard nostalgia, I kept a few of the toys and donated everything else. Circle of life.

Dairy Man, on the other hand, has what I affectionately refer to as a “farmer mentality.” He’s inclined to hang on to everything (old tractor wheels, extra bike parts, broken shoes) on the off chance it can be used, fixed, or jerry-rigged with duct tape and a prayer someday.

But I DO get sentimental about family. That’s why we made an exception to my “no old stuff” policy for The Camp.

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My grandpa built this little hut 40 years ago for my uncle.

Almost 28 years later, it traveled from Jenison to Holland and found a new home in my parents’ backyard. My dad added windows, a door, bunk beds, and a deck. My siblings and I spent years making memories within its four walls.

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Last weekend, the camp made yet another journey. It was loaded onto a giant hay trailer (because farmers have access to the best toys) and found its way to our backyard.

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It’s been at least a decade since anyone has played inside. It needs paint, shingles, a new door, and a whole lot of love. I have dreams of white walls and a wraparound deck and a yellow slide. I’ve lost at least a week of my life to “playhouse ideas” on Pinterest and Dairy Man started glazing over when I mentioned a chalkboard wall, string lights, and kid-sized ghost chairs.

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We could have just built a modern new playhouse, but there’s something beautiful about this. A family legacy on four stilts. A chance to take something that’s a little worn, a little decrepit, and make it new again.

Because some things are worth saving.

Not a bad reminder for a ruthless minimalist like me.

My girl is one

One year ago, this child came rushing into the world with speed and fury.

My first contraction was at 1:10 a.m. and within 30 minutes I could no longer stand up. Birth plan? HA. We barely made it to the hospital. Ellis was delivered 10 minutes after we arrived by an ER doctor whose name I don’t even know. The birth happened so quickly she was still fully encased in her amniotic sac. Being born “en caul” is extremely rare (1 in 80,000 babies) and carries historic superstition about good luck and a destiny of greatness. I didn’t buy into the hype, but I couldn’t help feel that she was marked as special.

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But our first three months were mired in the deepest exhaustion. My special baby was beautiful and healthy, but she was inconsistent and stubborn. She wouldn’t nap. She wouldn’t fall into a routine. She screamed bloody murder every night from 6-10 p.m. Nothing soothed her and my nerves were shattered. I felt the constant weight of failure. Every two steps forward meant three steps back. I was stretched to new limits of patience and grace, drowning in joy and despair.

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Then, the haze cleared. Suddenly my unhappy baby was easygoing and full of giggles. She (FINALLY) slept through the night. She smiled quickly, delighted everyone, and settled into her role as amenable second child. Complete strangers would say, “She’s such a happy baby!” and they were right. She came into her own with fervor, all joy and light. Our life wasn’t easy but it was wild and beautiful.

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Which brings us to today. This little girl is ONE. Just like that.

My love for her has grown in leaps and laugher. She’s a ball of energy and mischief. She refuses to be left out of the action. She adores her brother and Daddy and will follow them anywhere. She never stops moving unless on my hip.

I sometimes feel compelled to devour her chubby little hands, her bright blue eyes, her adorably deranged six-tooth smile. “I’ll eat you up, I love you so.”

Life with two kids is no joke. It’s chaos and movement and intensity. There are days I sink to the floor in exhaustion after both are in bed. I make a lot of mistakes. This little one still baffles me with her strong opinions and inconsistencies. She reminds me that control over life is a laughable fallacy. But I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade her.

We love her so much. Happy birthday, my little.

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Joy and Fear: Waiting for our Second Child

It’s like I told my coworkers last week, “Now it’s time to freak out.”

I’m only partially kidding.

Why? Last week I started the third trimester of this lightning-speed pregnancy. And I can’t quite wrap my head around that.

For so, so long we waited, we prayed for this child. Our hearts were broken again and again. But then? She was. Growing safely inside me. Our prayers were answered in the most beautiful, soul-shattering way possible.

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I felt so blessed. So unworthy. I was almost afraid to truly bask in our happiness because it was just too good.

The tingly feelings of deep gratitude are still here, but they are sometimes pushed down by the realities of life. Of laundry and packing lunches and making dinner. Of work and travel and corn harvest.

The summer was so busy. And we’re so busy right now. The calendar over the next two months makes me want to cry. Between my work and farm insanity, there hasn’t been a lot of time to float around in a magical pregnancy bubble.

When I was pregnant with Anders, I lived in that bubble. I loved the wistful look that would come over someone’s face when I said “Yes, it’s our first.” I had nothing better to do than to take weekly photos in front of an elaborately-drawn chalkboard boasting “Baby F is the size of a kumquat!”

This time, understandably, has been very different.

Now I have a busy and egocentric toddler underfoot. Even when I was feeling my sickest (the first 16 weeks, ugh), sweet little Anders still demanded crazy things. Like dinner. Or diaper changes. Toddlers are not very accommodating to the woes of pregnancy, people. In the midst of pulling him off tables, chasing him around to put on his socks, and assuring him that asparagus is JUST DELICIOUS, I barely had time to notice I was pregnant.

I didn’t have a lot of time to sit. To think. To really imagine what our life will be like when the baby comes.

But third trimester. It’s here. I can’t ignore the fact that a baby is waiting for me at the end of this pregnancy.

Cue the freakout. I can’t believe we’re starting over.

In spite of the craziness that comes with a two-year-old, I love our life right now. Anders is hilarious. He talks constantly. He sleeps predictably. He loves so hard. He’s obsessed with farming. He has the coolest hair. He’s becoming more independent. I’m still floored by his transition from baby to little boy.

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Sometimes I sneak into his room for one last peek before I go to bed. (Am I checking if he’s still breathing? Maybe. Don’t judge. I hope my psychotic tendencies will lessen for the second kid.)

In those quiet moments, when his busy toddler body is stilled, his breath comes out sweet and slow, and his face is slack with innocence, my heart aches. My chest tightens and I can’t breathe from the sheer weight of my love for this little human. How I would die to protect him. How the thought of him growing up in this broken world renders me undone.

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It seems crazy that Dairy Man and I have willingly decided to divide our hearts again. To allow another piece of our soul to walk around in the world. A world we cannot control.

There’s so much to worry about. Especially for a professional worrier like myself.

But if pregnancy and being a parent has taught me anything, it’s that life is not about control. It can’t be. As much as I try to have the perfectly organized house and the perfectly run family, it’s not up to me. I can’t control toddler tantrums or farm emergencies or milk prices. I can’t control the sickness or tragedy that strikes those I love. I can’t control my pregnancy or be sure of a healthy baby.

Every shred of this imperfect life is in God’s hands. Not my own. That’s where sanity and comfort can be found.

Realistically, my freakout is still real and looming. Dairy Man knows nothing in the house is safe from my insane need to organize and nest. A part of me can’t believe we’re going back to blowouts, breastfeeding, and sleep deprivation.

I worry how Anders will adjust, how my heart will split to accommodate two.

The beautiful thing? It’s not up to me. My only choice is to trust that I’ll find our way. That I can bear the joy and fear of this life. That I can live in gratitude and faith. That I can rescue a toddler with his hand stuck in the vacuum while simultaneously rocking a newborn. That my heart can be broken and reassembled dozens of times a day. That our tribe will carry us when we can’t carry ourselves.

I have no idea how to have two kids, but I know we’ll figure it out somehow.

I am terrified and I am calm.

(And freakout + farm widowhood during harvest is the perfect excuse for ice cream.)

Bring on the third tri.

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