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Fall Wreath Craft for Toddlers

I LOVE fall. As the daughter of a high school football coach, I was taught to adore the season from a very young age–crisp air, Friday night lights, frozen asses on hard bleachers..the whole nine. Now that I’m older, there’s a lot more to love and I’m determined to get my kids into the spirit, too. My toddlers and I have been talking about fall for the last few weeks and we’ve done a variety of activities that celebrate the season. I got the inspiration for this craft from Toddler Approved and decided to hit up my local Dollar Store to see what I could rustle up for our own take on this fun fall craft for toddlers. Here’s what we used:

  • Torn pieces of tissue paper in fall colors
  • Fabric leaves
  • Cup up pieces of construction paper
  • Actual leaves, acorns, and pinecones we found on our nature walk last week
  • Glitter (GOD HELP ME)

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You could use any number of materials for your wreaths, depending on what you have on hand/can find near you. Markers, felt pieces, colored buttons, pieces of fabric, wrapping paper, pom poms…the options are endless. 

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The only other materials you need are:

  • White glue
  • Scissors
  • White paper plates with center cut out

Here’s my sample wreath to show the kids:

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We did this activity with our Tuesday morning playgroup so I set it up as its own craft station. The kids were able to apply their own glue and choose from the materials displayed, with some needing more help than others (especially with the glitter). fall-craft-toddlers

I love how they all turned out a little bit different.

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Overall, this is such an easy but fun craft for this age group. I should add that it appeals to older kids too–one of the little girls at our playgroup is four and she loved the activity so much she ended up making three different wreaths to take home. 

What’s your favorite fall craft to do with young kids?

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Am I a Good Enough Mother?

The good enough mother forgot picture day last year. It’s not because she didn’t have it marked on her calendar or she missed the notice that went home three weeks before; it’s because there is always something to remember and sometimes a ball must drop in order to juggle the rest.

The good enough mother made the hand-sewn octopus costume her daughter insisted she needed for Halloween but accidentally missed a tentacle. The story will be funny a decade from now when the daughter tells it as an icebreaker at freshman orientation, but at this moment, it is nothing short of catastrophic.  The truth is that the mother hasn’t sewn a single stitch since high school Home Ec class but she said she would try, and she did.

The good enough mother gets a call from the principal because her kindergartener insisted that the marker was “f*#king broken” when the teacher asked why her paper was blank. It’s not that the mother isn’t cautious about her language around her kids or just doesn’t care that they could grow up to be foul-mouthed heathens; it’s that when her husband asks her if she’s sure the malfunctioning air conditioner is plugged in, there’s really no other answer than “it’s f*#king broken,” even though the kids are within earshot.

The good enough mother reads all the positive parenting manuals and the books about raising spirited children and she still loses it every single time her willful son throws his dinner on the floor. It’s not because she doesn’t recognize the value in using calm but firm language or employing gentle redirection techniques; it’s just that it she was so damn proud of her lasagna and seeing it on the floor is enough to make her momentarily forget everything she’s learned.

The good enough mother uses frozen meatballs instead of making them from scratch. While looking in the mirror, she slips and calls herself fat before she realizes her daughter is listening. She isn’t patient enough to teach her kids fourth grade math, always lets houseplants die, and burns the crescent rolls every single time. She is human. She is flawed. She is a realistic example for her kids about what being a mother looks like.

What the good enough mother is not is neglectful. She doesn’t starve her children or avoid taking them to the doctor for years or let them wander the streets at night because she just doesn’t care about where they are. Good enough is not the same as not enough.

Good enough is also not the same as giving up or never trying in the first place. It’s because the good enough mother cares that she tries, but it’s because she’s human that she doesn’t always succeed. She fails her kids in manageable ways—though they sometimes feel like huge, unforgivable ones—and she teaches them what it means to be imperfect, to admit a mistake, to ask for forgiveness. Through her flaws, she introduces her children to the idea that sometimes it’s more about the response to the mistake than the mistake itself.

The good enough mother might be exceptional at a lot of things, but it’s impossible for her to be an expert in everything. She cannot be flawless at baking all the homemade cakes, helping her daughter write the perfect sonnet for English class, and breastfeeding for the recommended 12 months while also volunteering for the PTA, killing it at her day job and still having energy leftover for regular sex, scheduled “me time,” and phone calls to her own mother. When it comes to some things, good enough just has to be good enough.  

I am the good enough mother. Maybe you are, too. If you are, chances are good that you’ve been called lazy, overly permissive or even neglectful at some point in time. And chances are also good that, at some point, you believed it. You might have figured you weren’t cut out for this parenting thing, that even when you’re trying your hardest, you seem to fall short.

In your time as a good enough mother, you might have noticed that no one has thrown a parade for you. There have been no adoring love songs composed for you or statues erected in your honor. No one has hired a string quartet to serenade you at dinner (mostly because it’s unlikely a string quartet would perform while someone eats cold macaroni and cheese over the stove) and no airplanes seem to have been commissioned to write your name in the sky.

But here’s the secret no one’s telling you: there’s none of that for the world’s best mother either.

Like you, she’s on her hands and knees cleaning up crusty spaghetti sauce from under the table and yelling about how easy it would be to put clothes in the actual laundry basket instead of two feet away from it. You can bet your ass that on Mother’s Day she’s getting macaroni necklaces, wilted dandelions, and crayon portraits with exaggerated facial features that she will pretend to love more than the spa gift card she really wanted. Like the good enough mother, she knows what it’s like to feel lonely and under-appreciated, even if she did make the best cupcakes in the history of the elementary school bake sale and manage to shave her bikini line before her yearly gynecologist appointment.  

Am I a good enough mother? I often find myself wondering that when I screw up or miss the mark, when I fail my children in ways that feel too big. But it occurs to me now that maybe I’m asking myself the wrong question. Am I trying hard to raise good people? Yes. Am I meeting all their basic needs? Yes. Am I letting my kids see me fail, teaching them that failure is part of life, and making sure they understand that perfection is unattainable but you should always try anyway? Yes, yes, and yes.

The proof is right there: I am a good enough mother. You are, too. Don’t let anyone convince you that’s the same as not enough.

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Spring Cleaning

When I first spot it, I’m stretched out across the multicolored tiles of the playroom floor assembling a puzzle with my older son. From this vantage point, it’s very clear what I’m seeing: a huge filmy patch on the otherwise clean floor directly underneath the nearest dining room chair. I have self-diagnosed Cleaning A.D.D.—I often neglect huge swaths of floor when mopping or vacuuming—and it’s not surprising that I missed it with the mop. But my kids and I spend most of the day in the adjacent playroom, so what is surprising is how I managed not to see it before now.

I stand up to investigate. At this angle, it’s virtually unnoticeable, inconspicuously blended into the hardwood. I feel better. My eyesight isn’t going; it’s just impossible to see from this particular viewpoint. When I rejoin my son in the playroom, I realize there are literally dozens of crumbs littering the floor that I didn’t notice until now. The surface that I considered nearly spotless moments before now seems filthy.

Apparently, the vantage point makes all the difference.

***

For most of my life, I was terrified of people looking at me too closely. I had so many secrets, so many flaws to cover up, and I lived in constant fear of being found out. From my unhappiness to my paralyzing self-doubt to my uneven skin tone, I desperately needed to ensure that everything about me was adequately concealed—au naturale was not the look for someone as flawed and broken as me.

As it turns out, keeping up appearances is difficult, exhausting work. Juggling lies, saving face, repeating the “I’m fine” mantra when I was everything but—it was a full time job. In my attempts to fly under the radar, my relationships suffered, my motivation withered; even my health took a turn for the worst. The act of assuring everyone around me that I was fine used up every iota of my energy until I had literally nothing left to give.

Simply writing about it now is draining; it’s astounding to me how I lived that way for so many years. But I suppose if you do anything for long enough it becomes your new normal, even when it’s the furthest thing from it.

After years of studiously maintaining my poker face, I finally had no choice but to crack. Things started to fall apart in a way I could no longer conceal and, rather than ante up, I decided to simply fold. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally wrung out and it was time to put my energy toward fixing the problems rather than masking the symptoms.

This revelation kicked off several years’ worth of proverbial spring cleaning. With nothing overlooked, I dragged it all out into the harsh light where I was forced to stare every dust mote and unsightly spot right in the face and acknowledge each for what they were. This time, I didn’t half-ass it; I dove into couch cushions, beat the hell out of the throw rugs, stood on my tiptoes and dusted every windowsill. Self-hatred, addictive behaviors, body hang-ups, marriage, friendships, faith—I left no stone unturned. One by one, I moved through the laundry list of issues that were keeping me from being truly happy and confronted them head-on. There was no fail-safe in place and I didn’t leave myself the option of saving it for another day; it was now or, as I truly feared, never.

When I compare it to a tough bout of spring cleaning, it sounds so simple. There’s something therapeutic in systemically ticking the items off a list:

Scrub toilets

Dust radiators

Vacuum carpets

Mop floors

But what about when the chores on the list are huge and unwieldy? Rebuild trust. Develop confidence. Repair friendships. Forgive old hurts.

Dragging those things out into the light was just as painful and uncomfortable as it sounds. So many times I wanted to give up and take the path of least resistance. Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to pretend like a relationship was running smoothly rather than tackle the real problems at the root of it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just fake self confidence rather than force myself to really feel it?

The answer to both of those questions is an unequivocal yes; there’s no disputing that. But, for once, easier and more pleasant wasn’t my end goal. I wanted happiness. Complete, utter happiness that looked exactly as good up close as it did from far away. It wasn’t enough to settle for an illusion–I had to have the real thing.

After years of cleaning out cobwebs and scouring the darkest parts of my life, I have finally found the happiness I was working towards. It is every bit as worthwhile as I hoped it would be. Now when I see someone who appears genuinely at peace with themselves, I don’t automatically assume it came easily. Rather, I discreetly tip my hat to them, knowing that they’ve probably put in just as much work as I have.  

***

So go ahead, come in close. Throw open the curtains, look under the rugs, swipe your finger over the floorboards. I’m not perfect—you’ll still find a patch of dirt here, some stray crumbs there—but it’s all out in the open now. This is me and I’m not hiding anymore. 

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The Hard Season of Motherhood

I saw you last week in the Walmart checkout line, wearing rundown flip flops and faded maternity pants, hair hanging down your back in a hastily scraped together French braid. I recognized the maternity pants because I still wear them, too. From back by the tabloid rack, I watched as you endeavored to enter your PIN number and load the shopping bags and boxes of diapers into your cart while three children demanded your attention. The scene was familiar.

The little one, still young enough to be confined to the cart, snatched anything within his reach off the conveyor belt; the older two begged you for those oversized lollipops they always put at children’s eye level in checkout lines. When you told them no because it was almost dinnertime, they pouted and wailed dramatically, undoubtedly aware that if they tried hard enough they might very well break you. The baby, spotting the unopened container of Puffs just out of his reach, saw fit to lend his voice to the chorus of howling. Without much warning, the spotlight swung in your direction and you became the subject of everyone’s immediate interest.  

You absently rubbed your temples and apologized to the cashier, probably expecting sympathy and maybe an understanding smile, of which you got neither. The people between us in line remarked loudly about your daughter’s tantrum. From the look on your face, I guessed that you wanted to shrink into the cheaply tiled floor and disappear altogether. Their sanctimonious expressions made it clear that they also did not approve of your shopping haul; the sugary snacks and family size packages of highly processed chicken nuggets sat idly on the conveyor belt as the cashier struggled to find the code for your non-organic bananas. I wanted to point out that their cheap earbuds were probably packaged by children in foreign sweatshops.

Exhaustion was stamped on your face—not in the shadowed eyes and tight-lipped smiles everyone always associates with lethargy—but in those intangible ways that only fellow mothers can instantly recognize. It’s the general aura that envelopes a person who hasn’t slept well in years, a person whose ever-turning hamster wheel of thoughts and worries produces its own kind of fatigue. As you loaded the last of the bags into your cart, I watched you accept your receipt from the morose cashier and attempt to funnel your brood of children toward the exit. Your shoulders sagged and your spine rounded, defeat evident in your posture. Though surrounded by children clamoring for your attention, you looked to my trained eye like an island; desolate, stark, lonely.   

I don’t know for sure but I can guess how the rest of your night went. You likely got home and unpacked grocery bags while breaking up several fights over a toy that no one even liked until someone else wanted to play with it. You probably spent half an hour preparing mac and cheese that one child took six bites of, another refused to touch entirely and that the baby could not yet eat. When all three were finally in bed—seven bedtime stories, two glasses of water, one diaper change, and thirteen choruses of You Are My Sunshine later—it’s possible you stood over the stove and devoured the cold remnants of the off-brand macaroni and cheese that cost you 75 cents, five Weight Watchers points and a little piece of your remaining self-esteem. It’s possible that you poured yourself a generous glass of wine—I’ve pegged you as a lover of cheap but respectable Cabernet—and sat hesitantly on the couch, waiting for the sound of a child who felt you relax infinitesimally from the next room and suddenly required your attention.

Maybe, like me, you have a husband waiting at home; or maybe you don’t. Maybe instead of my bevy of potted plants in various stages of decomposition, you have a series of goldfish named Bubbles that you keep finding belly up in the tank. Maybe instead of staying home with your kids like I do, you go to a job that you love or merely tolerate or have been secretly plotting to leave for the last ten years. Maybe your eight-year-old is autistic or your husband travels five out of seven days a week for work or your boss doesn’t have kids and can’t understand why yours get sick at the most inconvenient times. Maybe you live 3,000 miles away from family and you envy those other moms who are constantly taking date night selfies because Grandma is always willing to babysit. Maybe your friends might as well live that far because none of them keep in touch now that you no longer have an impressive tolerance for cheap vodka in common.

Or maybe there’s none of that. Maybe, like mine, your life looks perfect on paper—healthy kids, a loving, available spouse, plenty of support from family and friends—but so many days just feel hard. Maybe every day does. Maybe on certain days you find it all but impossible to be the mother your children need you to be. Maybe you long for your old life and the person you were in it. Maybe the thought of your children growing up and leaving you is paralyzing; maybe you hate yourself because it’s not. Maybe you want to grab the adorably pregnant woman in Costco by the shoulders and tell her that motherhood is nothing like they say it will be. Maybe in your lowest moments, you’ve entertained the idea of just disappearing, evaporating like a dew drop from a leaf, never to be be seen again.

I don’t know you in the traditional sense; we’ve never so much as made eye contact or brushed past each other in a crowded mall. But I do know you. I know you because I am you, have been you, might be you again tomorrow. I have weathered the fog of pure exhaustion, endured the sting of utter loneliness, felt the burn of a hormone-driven remark bubbling up from my throat without my consent. I have withstood the weight of motherhood crushing my windpipe, stealing all my oxygen like a slow-growing algae choking out an unsuspecting ecosystem. I know all too well what it feels like to be in the midst of a hard season of motherhood.

But I also know how it feels on the first day the fog lifts and a tiny sliver of light breaks through the clouds. I know what it’s like when the winds finally change course, when the ice thaws, when the flower bursts through the sidewalk crack, improbable but alive. I know the relief that comes from throwing open the curtains and seeing that the world is no longer dismal and bleak, but actually kind of beautiful. And when the sun finally shines on your face after a thousand days of darkness? Well, I know that feeling too.

Every season has a beginning and an end; it’s just the natural order of things. When we’re mired in the throes of winter, trudging through knee-deep snow drifts, buttoned up tight against the cutting wind, spring seems impossibly far. But, just like all the other seasons, it always comes eventually.

Your spring is coming too, mama. 

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Don’t Call Me Supermom

Supermom.

Every time someone uses the term to refer to me, I bristle at the inaccuracy. Often, this praise is thrown around by people who don’t know me all that well. They see the big picture facts—that I stay home and raise two young boys, that my house looks fairly clean in pictures, that I run a blog and have published a book—and they assume I must have superhuman powers or at least extra hours in my day that everyone else doesn’t. How do you get it all done? I usually smile and tell them about writing in the dark at 4 AM before my family wakes up or at midnight after they’re in bed; they applaud me for having the discipline to sit hunched over my keyboard banging out book chapters while the rest of the world sleeps.

It’s a nice fantasy, but that’s really all it is. Supermom, I am not.

Being a work-at-home mom is a constant balancing act of tasks and priorities, schedules and limited time. Everything is a trade-off and, more often than I’d like to admit, I get it wrong.

There are nights I miss out on family time after Adam gets home from work because instead of playing outside, I’m upstairs rushing to finish a blog post. It always takes so much longer than I expect even after the writing is done—editing for errors, hunting down royalty-free images, tinkering with HTML code—and I don’t realize how long I’ve been working until I hear Sam’s telltale cry and know I’ve got three minutes to hit publish before the bedtime routine gets underway.  

There are mid-morning video calls with my publishing group during which I am not available to play with—or properly supervise—my kids. Throughout the hour-long call, I have to hustle my toddler to the potty no less than three times, break up six fights, dispense eight snacks and apologize 46 times to the other participants who weren’t aware they bought a front-row seat to my three-ring circus just by joining the call.

There are mornings we miss playdates so I can schlep my kids from bookstore to bookstore, restocking my titles. There are frantic calls to Amazon about my book listing while my toddler screams, “STOP TALKING! I HAVE TO POOP NOW, MOMMY!” in the background and I beg him to please hold it. There are doctor’s appointments I forget about entirely while I’m busy playing referee in my mom groups. There are hurt feelings when I remember to post on my Facebook page but forget to return text messages for two days. There are times my kids wear the same outfits as the day before because I just couldn’t fit laundry into my schedule. I am constantly choosing and, the truth is, I choose wrong all the time.

I don’t offer this window into my world as a way to discredit myself or make light of my accomplishments; I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in my writing career while simultaneously raising two very young children and running a household. But I’m fed up with the supermom myth. Much like their comic book counterparts, these characters are purely fictional and appearances can be similarly deceiving. Instead of Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark under the cape and mask, you’ll find regular women behind the “supermom “designation; tired, overworked mothers just trying to decide whether to spend the last hour of the day doing laundry or playing with their kids. They, like me, don’t consider themselves worthy of any kind of superlative; they just worry when the day will come that they drop the wrong ball.  

While my specific choices are somewhat unique because of my work-at-home mom status, the idea of having to choose is far from uncommon. There are only 24 hours in any mom’s day and we are all stuck between choices: dishes or “me time,” son’s school play or daughter’s gymnastics meet, long overdue sex or sweet, blessed sleep. The so-called supermoms are no different than the moms who feel like they’re barely holding it together; we each do what we can with the hours we have and wonder how the hell everyone else is making it look easier than we do.

Moms: can we call a truce? Can we agree to lose the mask, drop the act and just admit that we can’t do or be everything? Can we all cop to the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day, that sometimes little things—and even really important things—get skipped out of necessity? Can we stop constantly comparing ourselves to some mythical mom that doesn’t really exist?

I, for one, am done pretending; keeping up appearances is exhausting and I already had to give up a nap to prep dinner this afternoon. My energy is better put toward things that really matter, like figuring out how to get in some precious alone time without staying up until midnight five nights a week. If we’re being honest, I don’t have time to keep up the kind of laundering that a specialty suit requires anyway.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Netflix account is currently sending out the bat signal. The dishes and laundry pile will have to wait until tomorrow.

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The Anatomy of a Mistake

Yesterday afternoon I had the rare opportunity to run errands with just one child in tow. My older son, Chase, was still down for his nap so I took my younger son, Sam, with me to grocery shop and pick up our weekly Walmart haul while my husband did some work around the house. Normally my car is bursting with noise—I almost always have the radio on and the sunroof open; Chase is usually chattering away in the backseat from the moment we pull out of the driveway until the moment we reach our destination. With just my 11 month old in the back, the radio off and the sunroof closed in favor of the air conditioning, the interior of the car was eerily quiet.

My normal Sunday routine is to run these particular errands when both boys are down for their afternoon nap. It’s quicker and easier without them in tow and Adam is home if they wake up before I’m back. Already fighting through a fog of exhaustion from being up the previous night with my older son, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about Sam’s missed afternoon nap—I knew shopping would take twice as long, thereby lessening my chances of getting in a nap myself before both kids were awake. As I navigated my car to the grocery store across town, I found my mind drifting between the strawberry shortcake I planned to make later that evening, the half-finished blog post I should really complete this week and several other idle thoughts marinating in my sluggish, swampy brain. I was anesthetized to the world around me, pleasantly zoned out.  

Just as I pulled up to the stoplight before turning into the grocery store plaza, Sam made a tiny, almost imperceptible noise; if I’d had the radio on or the windows down like I usually do, I would’ve surely missed it. In that moment, a sudden realization grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me to look it full in the face: I had forgotten that Sam was with me. After just a few minutes in the car, I’d somehow managed to forget all about my sweet, loveable baby boy who is one third of the most important people in my world. All it took was a change in my normal routine, a few minutes of zoning out in an exhausted haze and a quiet baby for me to forget that I was still on mom duty. The thought was horrifying. It was also uncomfortably eye-opening.

Almost two years ago when I first started my blog, I wrote a scathing post (that I have since deleted) about the reason children die in hot cars, forgotten by their overly-distracted parents. I was prompted by an article I’d recently read about putting one’s shoe or purse or cell phone in the backseat with the child in order to prevent a situation in which they could be forgotten. I was instantly enraged. How the hell could someone remember their fucking iPhone but not their life’s most precious asset? It was incomprehensible to me and I was ruthless in my assessment of these parents with their horribly skewed priorities.

Then I had a second child and it suddenly became very apparent to me how these accidents happen. A change in routine, a quiet car, an overfilled, exhausted mind: all the things I experienced yesterday. For the better part of a year, I took both kids to the grocery store with me on Monday mornings. I only recently started this Sunday afternoon solo shopping routine and yet, it is already burned into my brain, a fully-formed habit after just a couple months. Though I don’t drive to an office everyday, I can imagine how easily one could find herself operating on autopilot, driving the exact same route Monday through Friday every week for years on end. And then, when suddenly the child that she never drops off at daycare is her responsibility because of a spouse’s dentist appointment or early morning meeting, she forgets entirely that he is there in the car with her. Nine times out of ten, something will jog her memory:  a noise from the backseat or a glance in the rearview mirror that reveals a soundly-sleeping child. But what if she were that one in ten? What if she got out of her car, entered her office building and didn’t remember that she never brought her child to daycare until it was already too late? What if she jumped out of her SUV, grabbed a shopping cart and began filling it with bagels and hummus and cans of tuna and didn’t realize until she reached the fruit snacks and applesauce that her toddler wasn’t with her in the store?

Now, what if instead of some faceless suburban mom halfway across the country, that woman was you?

We, as humans, are not infallible—we are capable of making terrible, fatal mistakes. Looking away for three seconds at a crowded zoo. Letting a toddler dip his toes in a pond with a “No swimming” sign. Leaving a child in the backseat on a swelteringly hot day. No matter how horrifying or tragic, they are still mistakes. It all qualifies as human error.

I am not a monster. I think of these children who lost their lives because of their parents’ mistakes and it feels like I’ve swallowed a cannonball. Now that I am a mother, the loss of a child—even a virtual stranger to me— is a weight that can so easily sink me. I picture one of my own precious children being killed in front of my eyes or breathing his last breath in the backseat of our overheated car and it’s all I can to keep my lunch from making a reappearance.  

But then I think about the parents. I think about the mother who is forced to live with her mistake—a mistake that rests squarely on her shoulders alone but has repercussions that span families and generations—the mother who knows that if she’d done one thing differently, her child would still be alive. I think about the father who took his eyes off his daughter for a fraction of a second, never realizing that one second would alter the entire course of his life. I could be that mother. My husband could be that father. I have made so many mistakes in the short time that I’ve been a mother and these recent news stories have forced me to put those slip-ups under a magnifying glass. I see my transgressions play out in my head with very different outcomes; I picture my son’s face on the news or my name on the lips of parents at the playground as they shake their heads sadly and say I’m an unfit mother who didn’t deserve to have a child in the first place.

If we’re deeply, unflinchingly honest with ourselves, we have all made mistakes that have had the potential for lasting, irreversible effects. So many of us are fortunate enough that those mistakes are nothing but a slightly uncomfortable memory—the time our child ran out into the thankfully empty street, the thud from across the room when our infant rolled off the bed and onto the forgiving carpet below.

What if those mistakes were so much more than a memory? What if they played out on the evening news and within the walls of our tragically emptier homes and in our minds every single day for the rest of our lives? What if that mom in the Facebook post that everyone so flippantly dismisses as a terrible parent was me?

Yesterday I realized something that will haunt me all of the days I am a mother: no matter how vigilant I am or how much I love my children, that mom could always be me.

And if it could be me, it could so easily be you, too.  

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Yes, My Boys WILL Be Boys

I’ve always had an aversion to the phrase “boys will be boys.” As a woman, the double standard seems entirely unfair; certain behaviors that are laughed off as being characteristic of boys are deemed immature or unladylike as soon as a girl participates in them. When I hear that particular phrase, I can just imagine my inner child with her hands on her hips declaring the injustice of being told that burping loudly in a restaurant is crass rather than impressive.

As a mother of two boys, however, I sort of get it. Boys will be boys. Despite the fact that I (mostly) didn’t cave to the pressure of buying stereotypical boy paraphernalia, (our playroom boasts a large dollhouse, impressive play kitchen and all manner of dolls and stuffed animals that my older son pushes around in a purple and pink striped stroller) my sons naturally gravitate toward trucks, dirt and loud noises. They love to smash and dig and tackle and kick. They’re fascinated by their respective penises. Both under three years old, they already think farts are hysterical. To my knowledge, I didn’t actively foster any of it—they were just hardwired to think and act that way.

In all honesty, it doesn’t bother me.  I’m of the opinion that, while actions speak louder than words, certain actions speak much louder than others. And it’s not my sons’ habit of laughing at their own farts that has me worried about their future status as upstanding citizens.

So, to my sons, here’s what I have to say on the matter: 

Go ahead and throw those rocks in the street; brandish that big stick like a pirate sword; crash those toy cars together with great enthusiasm while making explosion noises with your mouths. It’s OK to fascinated by those things. You have lots of energy you need to get out somehow, which is typical of boys. Violence is not. There is a difference between hitting, kicking and tackling inanimate objects and doing the same to other people; your body is a weapon if you let it be and you should never use it to hurt others unless you are in danger with the need to defend yourself. Never, under any circumstances lay your hands on a woman with the intent to cause her pain. I don’t care if she spits in your eye or lands a kick right between your legs; there is no excuse for laying a finger on a woman. But if you want to hurl acorns over the fence or tackle the couch at full speed, be my guest.

I know you will soon come to the age at which your entire lexicon is made up of fart noises and bathroom talk. You’ll sneak the word “poop” into every single sentence you utter and you’ll yell “PENIS!” at the top of your lungs in Target while I duck behind the clothing racks and pretend you’re someone else’s foul-mouthed children. Someday, you might even swear as much as I do (or “enhance your vocabulary,” as I like to call it). I’m giving you a free pass on all of that, provided you choose your words wisely. Language is arguably the most powerful tool we own; use it for good, not evil. Instead of belittling, threatening or tearing others down, use your words to spread kindness, humor and love to the people around you. Your ability to communicate can be a force for good, if you allow it to be. And someday when you get hauled into the principal’s office because you’ll only answer to the name “Poopy McFartFace” in class, I promise to let you off easy.

Right now, you’re pretty enamored with that thing dangling between your legs and, if I’m being honest, I sort of get the fascination. You were essentially born with a built-in toy that you can flick, fondle and employ as a fire hose when all other manners of distraction are exhausted. Right now, it seems fun and entertaining; nothing more than an amusing pastime. But I’m here to tell you that, eventually, it will come with a lot more responsibility than it does right now. Somewhere down the road, you will derive pleasure from it that has nothing to do with idly flicking it while watching TV—and that’s where things can get dicey. With that appendage, comes great responsibility; once you decide to use it for its intended purpose, you have the power to change not only your own life but the lives of many others as well. Your brain resides in your head, not your pants, and you’d be wise to remember that. But if you want to rub it on the dryer, by all means, help yourself.

Chances are, like so many boys before you, one or both of you will develop an affinity for superheroes. You’ll be drawn in by their swishing capes and masked faces and captivated by their invincibility in the face of enemies, tall buildings and the basic laws of physics. I foresee an ER trip or two resulting from the realization that you cannot, in fact, fly from the top of the swingset and, while it will terrify me and I’ll probably lose my cool, I will understand you’re just trying to emulate those caped crusaders you adore so much. Be sure you don’t confuse those fictitious heroes for the real thing, however. The people who keep us safe in this world do not throw webs from their fingertips or wear shiny spandex suits; they wield fire hoses, and wear combat boots and carry badges. They are the people who truly deserve our respect and admiration. When you see someone in fatigues, thank them for their service, makes sure to remove your hat during the National Anthem, and don’t even think about mouthing off to the police officer who pulls you over for speeding. But, that Iron Man poster you’ll want to hang on your wall? It’s just fine with me. 

So yes, my boys, you will be boys. Wholeheartedly, unabashedly, disgustingly so. But, so help me God, you will also be gentlemen.

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7 Tips for Tackling Toddler Tantrums

Before I had kids of my own, I worked with the toddler age group for many years as a teacher in several daycare centers. During those years, I learned a lot about what seems to work and what definitely doesn’t when it comes to preventing and de-escalating tantrums. When it came time to field my own child’s tantrums, I drew on some of the lessons I’d learned as a teacher to help me figure out how to keep my otherwise sweet kid from turning into a full-blown toddler monster when the word “no” was dare spoken. I really swear by these tips and I put them into practice with my toddler every single day. It takes a lot of deliberate thought and carefully-chosen words, but I find that, in general, his tantrums are the exception, not the rule.  I’m only a mother to one toddler and what works for him might not work for your child, but hopefully you’ll find a tip or two here that works for tackling toddler tantrums at your house:

  1. Show respect

While small and often irrational, toddlers are people too and, as such, they’re deserving of our respect. I think we adults forget that a lot. We tend to talk down to them, minimize their feelings and brush aside their requests in favor of our own agendas—“I don’t care that you don’t want to go to swim class today. We’re going whether you want to or not, so get your bathing suit on.”

 A little respect can go a long way. Give them the benefit of the doubt and talk to them like they’re rational adults that can handle being treated that way. “I know you don’t want to go to the pool. Are you tired from being at school all day? Let’s get your bathing suit on and see how you feel once we get to the pool, OK?” It’s interesting how it works: once we start treating our kids with respect, they often rise to the occasion and show us that they’re deserving of that treatment. In my humble opinion, controlling tantrums begins and ends with respect, so if you remember nothing else from these tips, remember this one.   

  1. Foster independence

My two-year-old son, Chase, is a fiercely independent little boy. I’d estimate that 98% of his tantrums stem from the fact that he wants to do something himself but can’t. After many months of fielding his four-alarm freak-outs, I started to notice a trend: he would get upset when I needed to change his diaper or put his clothes on, during mealtimes while I was preparing his food and at naptime or bedtime when we put him in his crib. Slowly, I started to realize that the majority of his tantrums were actually his way of expressing the desire for independence. I began to adjust my behavior accordingly.

We successfully potty trained him and the fight over diapers disappeared in the rearview in favor of going potty by himself. We switched his crib to a toddler bed and let him choose a book to read to himself before falling asleep; nap/bedtime battles flew out the window. I began asking him more often what he wanted at mealtimes, giving him a list from which to choose and involving him in the process of preparing it ie; giving him a plastic butter knife to slice his own bananas or letting him help make the muffins he’d eat for breakfast. These small adjustments lessened mealtime mayhem considerably. One of our last big daily battles is over getting dressed, so I’m working on teaching him how to dress himself and letting him pick out the clothes he’d like to wear for the day. My suspicion is that particular battle will also disappear once he’s mastered the ability to get dressed without my help. It’s amazing what our kids are capable of when we give them the opportunity to try.

  1. Consider their feelings

To an adult, the fact that your favorite shirt is in the washing machine when it comes time to get dressed doesn’t seem worthy of a fist-pounding, top-of-the-lungs screaming meltdown. But to your toddler, it’s a much bigger deal. Think about it from their perspective: they don’t know that there are world wars or electric bills that need to be paid on time or people that live on park benches. All they know is that they really love the shirt with the ladybugs on it and they can’t wear it like they want to today.  Try to put yourself in their shoes and avoid dismissing their feelings as unimportant, just because they might be a little bit irrational. “I can see you’re sad that there are no more granola bars left. I know you really wanted one. Next time we go to the store we’ll buy some more. Let’s see what else you could have for a snack instead.” This goes hand in hand with showing respect: their feelings are worthy of our notice and we’d do well to realize that children are allowed to have hard moments or bad days just like we do.

  1. Keep your promises

Last summer, I was at the playground with my kids when I overheard a dad tell his two young daughters that they could have candy if they got out of the slide to go home. They’d been holing themselves up in there for quite awhile and both parents’ attempts to get them out hadn’t worked thus far. The mom was pretty mad. “Why would you say that?” she asked her husband. “Do you actually have candy for them?” “Well, no,” he said a little sheepishly, “but how else were we gonna get them out of the slide?” Though I got a good laugh out of it at the time, I realized later that the father’s mistake was kind of a big one. When we tell our kids something, they take it as gospel; at that age, they’re too young to realize that sometimes people don’t keep their promises. If you’re not sure that something will pan out or you don’t have any intention of following through on the promise, don’t make it. It’s much better to surprise your toddler with a trip to the park after running errands than tell her you can go after the grocery store when you know it’ll be too dark by then. If you set them up for disappointment, they will act disappointed in the only way they know how: throwing a huge tantrum. Avoid a meltdown by being straight with them: “We have to go to the bank and the post office before they close. If we can get through those quickly, we can stop at the park on the way home. You can help by being a big girl and staying right with me in line.”  

  1. Get into a routine

Generally speaking, toddlers aren’t big into surprises. They’re creatures of habit and they crave routine, expectation and normalcy. If you pay attention to your toddler’s tantrums, chances are, you’ll find that many of them happen during transition times like when it’s time to get ready to leave the house or get out of the bathtub or go upstairs to bed. By establishing a fairly set routine each day, toddlers can expect that certain things will always happen in a specific order: for instance, after breakfast they can watch one TV show, before going outside they have to clean up their toys, naptime always comes after lunch. This makes the transition times feel less sudden and thus, less disruptive to their world.

Still, even with things that happen routinely—like naptime—there can be a lot of resistance each and every time. I’ve found that it helps my son adapt to the change in circumstance when I give him a warning before a transition is coming. “Five more minutes until it’s time to leave the playground,” I tell him and then I check in with him to make sure he understands. “Got it?” I ask. “Got it,” he says back. I do this for nearly every transition, big or small. I also warn him when he’s coming up on the last of something. “This is the last muffin in the container, OK, Chase?” I hold up the Tupperware and show him that there’s none left after the one he’s eating. Now that I’ve been doing that for awhile, he often tells me on his own. When I let him have a cookie, he says, “Last one,” even before I can tell him that’s all he’s getting right now. He’s aware of the expectation and, most of the time, it heads off a tantrum over the possibility of having four more cookies.

  1. Establish firm boundaries (but be soft in the middle)

Children equate boundaries with safety and it’s comforting to them to know when they’ve hit the edge of one. That constant boundary-pushing is often confused with defiance, however. You know how it goes: he runs off in middle of a crowded store, you get angry and yell, he cries for the rest of the trip from the confines of the shopping cart. But imagine if you didn’t follow your toddler when he ran off. Chances are very good that, instead of running out the front door into the parking lot or scaling the side of the Diet Coke display, he’d eventually come wandering back. This is because you’re his safe place and he wants to know you care enough to make rules about things like running away from you. Though it seems like toddlers do it just to push our buttons, they’re often asking for the adults in their lives to push back and show them where that line in the sand is.

I am very firm with my toddler about certain things—staying with an adult in a parking lot or on the street, not going near the fireplace or stove when they’re hot, not hurting others when he’s upset—and I reserve the word “no” for instances of that magnitude. I try not to throw that word around carelessly; not because I’m afraid of saying no to my kids, but because I want them to take me seriously when I say it. Same goes for raising my voice; you’ll rarely find me yelling unless my kid is about to run into the street or he’s just smacked his little brother over the head with a toy. You better believe he pays attention when he hears my voice get to that level!

Inside his firm boundaries, however, he has a lot of leeway. I don’t care if he gets paint on the floor or decides he doesn’t want to wear shoes outside or if he makes a mess trying to pour his own ketchup on his plate; I believe pretty strongly in letting him learn from experience that shoes are preferable on wet grass or that if you squeeze too hard, a lot more ketchup than you bargained for comes out of the bottle. The interesting thing is that he’s constantly checking in with me to make sure something he’s about to do is OK; he wants to know that I care enough to not let him do something unsafe.

  1. Give choices

As we already discussed, toddlers crave autonomy. They don’t like being told that they have to eat this or they cannot do that; they want to make those choices for themselves. But, as we’ve also covered, toddlers aren’t the most rational people. If left to their own devices, they’d eat dessert for every meal and never sleep. Hence, limitless options aren’t exactly for them. The key is to give them a choice between options with outcomes you consider favorable. I’ve found this approach to be hugely successful at calming my son down when he’s mid-tantrum.

Here’s a sample scenario that comes up often in our house: Chase wants to eat a snack and he also wants to watch TV. He goes into the pantry, gets a granola bar, and tells me he wants to eat it on the couch. I tell him he has to sit at the table to eat it. (We have this rule because when he runs around with food, he often ends up choking, coughing, and puking everywhere. I don’t even want to think about how many times I had to clean up puke before I put two and two together.) He starts yelling that he wants TO WATCH A SHOW AND EAT A BAR.  I tell him very calmly that he has two choices: he can put the bar on the table and eat it when he’s done with his show OR he can eat the bar now at the table and finish his show after. Sometimes he yells a little longer, but he knows I won’t give in (which is also key to this approach) so eventually he calms down, tells me which option he’s chosen and then I always say something like, “That sounds like a really good choice.” Then we go about our day without him having a 20-minute freak-out and without me having to clean up puke off the floor because I caved and let him run around with food. He’s still gotten one of the things he wanted and so have I. Win-win.

What tips or tricks do you use with your toddler to prevent or de-escalate tantrums?

Toddler Tantrums

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When I’m Quiet Online

Six months ago, you could find me posting on the One Mother to Another Facebook page seven or eight times a day. I filled up your News Feeds with pictures of my cluttered living room, regaled you with stories of grocery store meltdowns and commiserated with you about life in the motherhood trenches. I had a not quite two year old and an infant and every day felt hard. Not every part of every day—because that’s a different motherhood experience entirely—but every day had a consistently difficult quality to it. I wasn’t exactly drowning, but I wasn’t floating along on my inner tube, umbrella drink in hand either. More like I was barely keeping my head above water and hoping the undertow didn’t drag me farther from the shore.

This page was my lifeline. You thought you needed me, but the truth is that I needed you more. When motherhood felt big and messy and unfathomable, you gave me perspective. When I worried that it would swallow me whole, you assured me that I was doing better than I thought I was. When I felt triumphant, you celebrated with me. But most importantly, you allowed me to show you the hard, ugly, unfiltered side of my life as a mother and you said the two words I needed to hear most: “Me too.”

And then, slowly, with all the awkward grace of a baby bird attempting to take flight for the first time, I started to shakily soar. I KonMari’d everything we owned and got our clutter under control. My house became frighteningly clean on a regular basis. I developed a meal planning system and grocery shopping stopped being a shitshow every week. I allowed myself to say no to things I couldn’t reasonably accommodate and learned to become a little more selfish with my time. I practiced self care and rediscovered things like painting my nails and reading for pleasure. I let go of friendships in which I was the only one putting forth any effort. I stopped drinking as an escape or reward for hard days of mothering. I began wearing only clothes I really loved and felt beautiful in. I quit breastfeeding because I was in pain and unhappy and I didn’t want to be either of those things. I gave myself permission to stop feeling guilty about every single decision I made as a mother.

Mostly, I kept quiet about those transformations. Because I worried that you’d hate me for them.

I won your trust and support by being honest about the hard times and convinced myself that you wouldn’t like the new me—the one whose house is now clean almost all the time, who doesn’t feel guilty anymore when her husband lets her sleep in on Saturdays, the one who grocery shops alone and never has to apologize to the store employees about her toddler throwing yogurt on the floor. I worried that you couldn’t relate to me now that I’m comfortable in my skin, that my laundry baskets are almost always empty and my household is functioning better than it ever has. I thought you’d see that as me throwing my successes in your face.

This morning, I said this very thing to my girlfriend. I confessed that I don’t feel like I have much to say online anymore—that I had so much more to post about when life felt hard and I needed your reassurances that I would survive. I posted those pictures of my full laundry baskets and cluttered house and told you about my messy, imperfect life because I needed to know I wasn’t the only one. But now, I’m in such a good place and I’ve been afraid to tell you that too, for fear of seeming arrogant, or worse, dishonest. Sugarcoating motherhood has never been my style and I worried that if I filled up your News Feeds with the truth about how great I really feel right now, you’d think I turned into one of those people who only shares the good parts.

So I began posting less and less and enjoying my offline life more and more. I found my kids blossomed under my full attention and I felt better without a phone in my hand all day long. I made time for my husband at night instead of responding to comments and messages and emails and I started going to bed feeling relaxed and restful instead of agitated and distracted. I started really living and it felt so fucking good.

And now?

Now I’m happy. At least for the moment. I’m still coming into my own with every day that passes, but I’ve largely let go of my guilt and I’m learning that I don’t need to please everyone all the time. I certainly don’t need to keep my happiness from others just because it feels a little bit uncomfortable to talk about how great things are going. At my girlfriend’s urging, I want to tell you the God’s honest truth: my life feels pretty damn good right now. I’m confident, comfortable, and happy. My marriage is strong and my children are so freakin awesome. I’m enjoying a very healthy relationship with alcohol and food. I’m about to see my lifelong dream of becoming an author come true.

Happiness used to feel like something I didn’t deserve. In the past, I would sabotage my impending success at the last minute because I didn’t think I was worthy of good things. Happiness was scary and foreign; when life was hard, I felt like I was in familiar territory. I can see now that that way of thinking brought me nothing but extreme displeasure. I deserve good things and I know you will all be happy for me when I get them because that’s what friends do for each other. 

And then there will be hard times, because those are certainly not over, and you’ll be there for me then too. I’ll keep wearing my heart on my sleeve like I’ve always done and you’ll keep cheering me on, no matter the circumstance. I know that now. So in this season of my life where things feel good, I might be online a little less. I might be out chasing my kids in the backyard or eating too much ice cream with Adam after the boys are in bed. I might be ignoring my full inbox and forgetting to post on Facebook and just enjoying my children while they still want my attention. I’ll share those moments with you when I have a free minute and I’ll look forward to seeing your lives filling up my News Feed on the brag threads and SundayShare posts and all the things we’ve always done here.

Or maybe you’ll be out enjoying your lives too; I’ll see less of you and know you’re by the pool somewhere enjoying the sound of your kids laughing (with my book in your hand, of course!) and we’ll see each other when we see each other. In a week or a month or seven months I might start to post more about the hard stuff and the guilt and feeling swamped with life and you’ll know I’m sinking a little and in need of a lifeline. But right now, I’m happily floating along in my inner tube, umbrella drink in hand and, for once in my whole damn life, I’m not watching out for the wave in the distance that’ll roll in and knock me over. I’m just going to float along enjoying this feeling while it lasts and I hope you’ll be there alongside me, whatever comes.

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Five More Minutes

“Five more minutes.”

This is my older son’s habitual plea as my husband and I deposit him in bed each night, entreating us to stay with him as he falls asleep. New to the world of “big boy” novelties—a toddler bed and Lightning McQueen underwear chief among them—this request is one of the few remaining traces of his fast-disappearing babyhood. To be honest, I sometimes resent the request. As a stay at home mom, I am seldom without my children. The rare moments when they’re both asleep are sacred; I observe them with devout reverence, steadfastly avoiding any commitments that will eat into my precious alone time.

While sitting on the floor of my son’s room running out the clock on our five-minute agreement, I am more often plotting my next move than soaking up those last moments of the day with my child. I envision myself ten minutes from now, curled up on the couch with a remote in one hand and a glass of Cab in the other, zoning out to something mindless while no one demands my attention.

Most times, my daydreams are less indulgent, slightly more practical: I picture myself folding the pile of laundry waiting for me in the bathroom or scraping the remains of tonight’s taco dinner off the skillet in the sink. I have so many things I could be doing rather than sitting beside my son’s bed while he wriggles and squirms, the thought of my imminent departure rendering him unable to sleep. Still, I know the days of him requesting these last five minutes with us are quickly coming to an end and soon they will stop entirely, to be replaced by much different pleas.

At age six, he will beg me for five more minutes to stay outside with his friend from next door. They don’t always get along but tonight they’re playing nicely together; yesterday’s hurt feelings at the bus stop all but forgotten. Now in elementary school, he is cooped up indoors for most of the day, with a short break for recess his only time logged outside. Though he’ll have spelling words still to review and reading time to log, I’ll let it slide, knowing how quickly his childhood is passing both of us by.

At age eleven, he and I will do battle every morning over his sullen requests to sleep five more minutes. I will remind him that the last time he slept five more minutes, he missed the bus and that missing the bus today is not an option unless he wants to hitchhike to school. Part of me will look forward to the day when he can drive himself instead of using me as a taxi service; the other part will be devastated that this one last vestige of dependence on me will soon be a thing of the past.

Out with his girlfriend at age seventeen, he will text to beg for five more minutes at her house, despite the fact that he’s already late for curfew. He’ll tell me that the movie is just ending and he can’t leave now, but promises he’ll be home as soon as it’s over. I won’t buy a word of it since it’s rare they actually watch the movies at our house, always jumping apart when I enter the room like I don’t know they were interlocked like LEGOs seconds before. Still, I like her a lot and I remember my husband and I as lovesick teenagers fighting for just five more minutes together. “Finish the movie,” I’ll text back. “But your ass better be in this house by 11.”

And then not so long after, he will go off to college and no longer have to ask me for anything, except to keep the washing machine empty when he comes home the following weekend. I’ll fill my days with other things—work and errands and the other kids’ packed schedules—but my phone will never be far, on the off-chance he calls to talk during the five-minute walk back to his dorm.

_WMP9698N1Many years later, my son and his family will visit for the weekend, filling our house with the indulgent sounds and smells of children that I so often long for again. Their presence in our house will fill up the rooms and flood the common spaces until we’re drowning in the opulence of their youth. I will delight in the way my granddaughter’s head tilts to the side when she’s concentrating, exactly like her father’s used to do; I’ll see my own long eyelashes framing my grandson’s brown eyes and remember how I used to stare at the curve of his father’s lashes for whole minutes, relishing the phenomenon of shared genetics.

“I think we’ve gotta hit the road,” my son will say, looking at his wife for confirmation. “If Jack falls asleep in the car, he’ll be impossible to put to bed later. And Sophie has a school project she left until the last minute.”

I’ll know it’s time for them to leave and get back to their lives, but it will still feel impossibly hard to say goodbye. As he’s rounding up the kids’ things from where they’ve been tossed and strewn all over the house, I’ll get the overwhelming feeling of needing them not to go just yet.

“Stay just a little bit longer? I’ll ask my son; a plea I can’t help but make.

“OK mom,” he’ll tell me indulgently. “Five more minutes.”

And even if he’s just humoring me while counting down the seconds until he can get back to the rest of his life, those five minutes will give me more comfort than he could possibly know. 

Photos in this post taken by Whittney Myers Photography, 2015. 

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