Things I say on a Tuesday

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Good morning. How did you sleep? What did you dream? Get dressed. Go potty. There’s nothing wrong with these pants. They are not tight. They do not itch. They are not the worst in the whole entire universe. We don’t say hate.

Here’s your milk. Here’s your oatmeal. You can’t switch to the pink bowl. Stay on your stool. Jersey doesn’t need any more treats. Here’s a paper towel. Stop kicking your brother. I don’t know if orcas eat sharks. Maybe. Who will you play with today? Who is your best friend? What do you do when you’re away from me?

You’re going to be late. Where are your socks? Where is your library bag? Did you finish your homework? Get your boots on. Can someone let the dog out? Do I smell a poopy diaper? Pick a mask. Here’s your backpack—go with Dad. I love you. The rest of you: three minutes. Finish your picture. Find your socks. Let’s change that diaper. Have fun today. I love you too.

What time is my video meeting? Where is my laptop charger? I need to change into a nice shirt. The joggers stay. Why is the internet not working? Where are my AirPods? Why am I hungry? Bob, you’re on mute. What’s the deliverable? What’s your target drop date? Who needs to be looped in? I’ll have to circle back with you on that.

Out of the car. Just one episode. Time for dinner. It’s chicken. You don’t know if you like it until you try it. Here’s your milk. Dad will be late. No, you can’t do fieldwork. Because it’s a school night. Because sleep helps you grow. Hands to yourself. Use nice words. Cake isn’t on the menu. What did you do today? What was the best part? Did you have fun?

Brush your teeth. Go potty. Where are your pajamas? Why are you naked? We have time for three books. Stay on the couch. Don’t climb on my face. Did you lick me? Thanks for the kisses. Now I lay me down to sleep. One more sip. One more hug. I remember—it was fun. We’ll do it again. Sweet dreams. I love you the most.

***
(Epilogue: You’re home early. Ted Lasso? With ice cream and a cookie? Yes. Obviously. You have the best ideas. You are my favorite.)

An Awakening

What does hope look like?
Sunlight dancing on the ground,
the earth stretching out
her cramped fingers after a
dormant winter’s slumber—
she whispers of rebirth

What does hope sound like?
Geese blaring from above,
a flock of nomadic feathers,
nearly vulgar in their inelegance,
carrying the tidings of spring on
gawky brown wings

What does hope feel like?
The way her children’s laughter
vibrates across the surface of her skin
while bike wheels and small boots
slosh through puddles of mud
Joy spattered on their faces

Is this what it means to be a green shoot in a sea of dead things?

Is this how it feels to thaw?

This post is 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 view the next post in this series “Make A Mess.”

Socks and hidden grace

“Another one!?” I exhale through my mouth and bend to look under the couch. Among the dust bunnies and lost Legos is a small red sock.

I grab it and add it to the pile already clutched in my hand. The setting sun’s light dances across the floor as I toss the sock into a basket of others gathered from all corners of the house.

“This is an exercise in futility,” I murmur into the empty room.

My children leave socks everywhere, you see.

Maybe their feet get hot. Maybe they want to wiggle their toes. Maybe they reject restrictive foot fabric on moral, religious, or philosophical grounds. Whatever the reason, my children shed socks like molting birds shed feathers. I find them in the car, on kitchen stools, in the dog’s crate, crumpled in the corners of the living room, and even under my pillow.

llogically, the wayward socks feel like a referendum on me. I can’t keep my house clean. I can’t keep socks on small feet. I can’t control the world (or the people in it).

I’ve been in a slump lately. When I shared this with a friend, she said, “I think the secret to getting out of a funk is to practice gratitude.” A line I read by John Milton seemed to agree: “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

I started small. Every day for a week, I wrote a list of things I was thankful for in my journal. After a few days of intentional noticing, I started to feel the gentle flickers of awe within.

Simple things sparkled: warm eggs cooked with flecks of bacon, the sound of my children giggling in the dark, a boyish grin on my husband’s face when he said, “I like you in that sweater,” the very existence of breath in my lungs. Imagine my surprise when one day my hand—as if of its own accord—wrote “small socks scattered everywhere.”

Because this isn’t really a story about socks.

It’s about love for the people who wear them.

It’s about faithfulness.

It’s about seeing the world as bigger than I allow it to be.

And, above all, it’s about recognizing small flashes as what they really are: breadcrumbs leading me back to grace.

My Girl, At Four

One of the first noises I hear every morning is your voice, singing made-up songs in bed with gradually increasing volume. By the time you’re practically yelling, I can’t help but smile. You start each day with joy.

One of the first things I feel each day is your feet pressed against my leg at breakfast. You inch your stool closer and closer to mine, wanting to be as close as possible without actually sitting on my lap. You show your love through touch.

One of my favorite moments each night is our “special hug” right before bed. Twenty full seconds—and not a moment less—with your legs wrapped around my waist, our hushed voices counting in the dark. You can never get enough.

One of the things I love most about you is your ability to feel deeply. Once we listened to a classical song in a minor key and you said, brow furrowed, “Mommy, this is a sad song.” I was amazed by your awareness. You don’t fear your own heart.

What else? I’m captivated by the constellations of freckles across your nose, the way your eyes mirror the cerulean sky, the red-glint in your hair when it catches the light. You glow from within.

Ellis, you joined our family four years ago and life has never been the same. Last week we had a rainbow-themed birthday party in your honor and it seemed fitting.

You bring color into the world.

The Things We’re Building

The Things We’re Building

It is a Tuesday night and the bedroom doors are finally closed. 

I press my hand to the small of my back and open my eyes to survey the damage. 

“It looks like a bomb went off in here.” I speak the words aloud, to no one. 

The pieces of our day are strewn about like debris from a storm. Books are all over the rug. Toy tractors, magnetic tiles, and colored pencils have been dumped into one massive pile under the dining room table. My desk is covered in papers. A glance into the kitchen reminds me that I have dinner plates to load into the dishwasher and lunch bags to unpack. I lift a green hoodie from the floor to shake off clumps of dog hair and my nose wrinkles in silent judgment of the woman who allows her house to get this messy. 

In defense of that woman, she’s just trying to stay afloat.

Since we started corn harvest in September, I’ve put the kids to bed by myself nearly every night. My mind feels as messy as our floors. Standards have slipped, resilience is low, and things around here have slowly devolved into Lord of the Flies territory. We all wept for the end of innocence last week when the baby pooped in the tub.

Kyle isn’t faring much better. While he’s dealt with late nights, broken equipment, and weary employees, I’ve dealt with isolation, endless food prep, and juggling kids and remote work. To say nothing of seven months of a worldwide pandemic and constant anxiety about the future. We’re both running on fumes. 

“Kitchen first,” I murmur, needing to break the chaos into manageable bits. I kneel down to wipe milk off the floor as the jackhammer sound of brakes fills the air. I lift my head to see yet another silage truck turn and rumble down the dirt road to the north of our house. The truck’s load of chopped corn will be dumped at the base of the massive pile Kyle’s been building since dawn. I think—not for the first time—that I would lose my mind if I had to drive a tractor up and down a pile of corn for 14 hours straight. How repetitive

Then again,” I cringe internally as I retrieve Henning’s fork and cup from the floor, “This is exactly what I did last night.”

Twenty minutes and a few more thoughts about futility later, the dishes are cleared, the countertops are wiped, and lunches are prepped for the next day. Onward. I pull my hair up into a messy knot and begin the nightly reset. I move from room to room methodically, gathering the wreckage of our day in my arms to set things right. Books go on the shelves, crayons back in their bins, pillows are fluffed and returned to the couch. After I wriggle under a chair to retrieve a small green tractor, I step back into the dining room. 

Even though the toys are put away, it’s a mess. At least to me. What used to be a relatively clean space pre-pandemic for dinner parties and weekend date nights is now a hybrid office/playroom. My narrow desk is shoved into a corner and the room is divided from the rest of the house by a barricade made up of a large plastic tub, an IKEA toy kitchen, and a wooden book bin. Anything to contain the kids. I’ve spent hours in this room since March, trying to write press releases while Daniel Tiger blared in the background, holding a baby on my lap during video meetings, and vacuuming kinetic sand off the floor. 

This room, this house has never been so lived in. Each day is a never-ending cycle of taking things out and putting them away. Meals and naps and so much screen time. In the past seven months, this place has been both a prison and a sanctuary. 

How can it all feel so claustrophobic when all I ever wanted was a full house? 

How can I be so battered by a life I prayed desperately to have? 

***

I once asked Kyle how he could do the same thing—drive a tractor back and forth, in this case—for hours, days, and weeks on end. “Don’t you just go crazy?” I said. He shrugged and said, “I’m building something. Every day I’m making progress and it feels good.” 

In his case, he’s building a pile of shredded corn stalks the length of a soccer field. Every hour he spends driving back and forth means our cows will have food for the next year. But it’s bigger than corn, I think. This philosophy guides his life—everything he does is in service to this business and a desire to keep moving forward.

Sometimes I wish my goals were that clear. I’m not always sure what I’m building while juggling work calls and the never-ending cycle of cooking breakfast, wiping noses, saying prayers, and picking up toys. My days are a winding road of repetitive tasks and trying to keep it together until bedtime, all while being floored by adoration for my aggravating little people. There isn’t a big payoff.

***

I drop the toy tractor into the basket and the noise startles me out of my reprieve. The post-bedtime silence feels almost eerie. Calm is what I desperately wanted all day—space to think a complete thought, answer a few emails, or take a step without a child or dog underfoot—but now that I’m here, the air is charged. It’s as if the lack of noise is just that: a lack. 

“I miss them,” I realize. This thought is immediately followed by, “You’re a crazy person,” but in spite of the dull ache in my head, I smile. 

My eyes rove the house again. Their energy still pulses through the air. Little handprints appear like evidence on every mirror, window, and low cupboard. A vase of purple and yellow wildflowers Anders picked for me sits on the counter. These scattered fragments tell the story of our life. A story of kids who build forts and have pillow fights and draw pictures for the fridge. A story of a mom who yells and fails and yet keeps on trying. 

I gather one last handful of broken crayons from the floor and straighten. 

I’m building something, and it feels good. 

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 p.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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Candles, Icebergs, and Fear

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It’s still dark outside. I pull the curtains tightly together in the kitchen before settling into my perch on a stool. My computer is open on the counter, a blank white document with a blinking cursor beckoning me.

I have so much I want to say about life right now, and yet I don’t know where to start. I feel so uncertain, insecure. I type a few words before standing up to get a cup of coffee. Maybe this will help, I think as I pour the hot liquid into the pink flowered mug with a “J” on it. When I add the milk to my cup, I watch how the white liquid slowly blooms and mixes with the brown before overtaking it.

I’m tired. My back aches. I slept fitfully again last night, dreaming of infection rates and to-do lists and an economic crash. I don’t think I’ve slept well since life turned upside down two weeks ago. Schools, churches, and businesses are all closed. I’m working remotely with three little people underfoot. After a couple of days of sleeping in, I realized that I needed to get up before the kids. My alarm going off at 5:30 felt normal, and I needed normal.

The candle next to the baby monitor flickers. Henning moans and turns over but is still asleep. Thank goodness. I’m not ready yet. The wax on the candle is getting low from spending so many pre-dawn mornings with me. I vaguely wonder if I’ll be able to get another one. Are there shortages of candles? Are there so many people trying to be soothed and find zen that there are empty shelves where all the candles used to be?

I push several crayons away from my elbow and smile–our house has never been this “lived in.” I’m grateful that the days are starting to feel a tiny bit easier, just by nature of exposure and practice. There was a time I couldn’t fathom having my kids home with me for a week. Now, this is our reality. There are no other options. There is no end in sight. And we are surviving.

But I shift uncomfortably on my stool as I wonder how many times I’ll yell today. How many times my patience will snap like a twig. I’ve been so angry lately. Short fused. Easily indignant. I blaze over the most mundane offenses and raise my voice more times per day than I care to count.

Will my kids remember how angry I was during this time?

Or will they realize that I was just afraid?

I read once that anger is a secondary emotion. It usually masks something else, something more raw, hidden, and vulnerable. Anger is just a tip of the iceberg. On the surface, my anger these days is a blazing fire. When I am angry, I feel powerful and wild, like I control the flames. It is intoxicating and it is false. Underneath the fire is a tender underbelly of my deep fear and grief. Sometimes the fear feels like smoke in my lungs, filling me up until I can’t breathe. I grieve for the way our life has changed. I grieve for the families and lives torn apart. I grieve for what’s lost.

I exhale fury. I inhale my shame.

***

Earlier this week the big kids and I made birthday cards to mail to my mom. Our dining room table–or what used to be a dining room table–is Art Central these days: covered in kraft paper, crayons, and sheets of stickers. Anders and Ellis worked intently on their projects while Henning rifled through a basket of board books on the floor. I smiled at the momentary calm, but the expression didn’t reach my eyes.

Anders reached for a red marker. “Do you hope we can stay home forever, Ellis?” He added curly hair to the figure he was drawing.

“Yes,” she nodded seriously before sticking another dinosaur sticker on her card.

“I just love it here,” Anders murmured, more to himself than anyone else.

My head jerked up. I wanted to say, “You do!?” but instead, I closed my eyes and let the shiver of gratitude roll up my back. He will be ok. They will be ok. I lifted my afternoon cup of coffee to my lips. The liquid had lost its heat, but I opened my throat and chugged every fortifying dreg. 

We will be ok.

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.

///

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.