But it really makes me sad when I see all these people, mostly mothers, I'm talking about now, who walk about after their children at the park, or the Children's Museum, or the playground, and they look like they are driving little remote control cars. They are following their children, but their eyes are down in their hand, where their phone lies. They flip through messages, check email, see what's going on on Facebook. Their children wander, not unhappily, exploring their world as children will. The mothers are there, sometimes answering absently as their children prattle on, eyes down. They are missing most of what is going on in front of them.
I can't blame them, I'll say it again. The lure of connection, of somebody else out there, of someone who cares, or can make you laugh, or can remind you of the self you have when you aren't alone with your children, is enormous. We all need that link to our former selves. But Oh! how quickly childhood passes, and how fast the days of being able to be with little children will go by. Here are mothers who have the privilege of being with their children, yet they are gone. I feel sad for them. I feel sad for myself. I worry about where the world will be when my children are older, a world where people only interface by handset and ignore what's going on around them.
Here's why I can watch this: I don't have a phone. Yet. Because what will I do when I have one? I will look at it. I will try to keep it in my purse but sometimes I, too, will be overwhelmed by the curiosity of who might be thinking of me, loving me from afar. I know it's hard. I'm resisting joining this club until I absolutely have to.
Another reason why I can see this is because I have been here before, with Liam and Aoife. I have walked the parks, and visited the pool and the library for those early years and have watched the minutes and days be gobbled up before my eyes. Now they are in school, they are away from me for seven hours a day and I miss those early days. The knowledge of how incredibly fleeting early childhood is gives me seemingly infinite patience for the little things, the boredom, the beauty of puttering around with two little girls. I am already anxious about its end, about what the next stage will bring. I am dragging my feet, and I don't want anything to distract me from the warm hugs and cream cheesy kisses that I get today.
I'm so lucky to be here again, with these two little ones, and to have the joy of the big ones, too. I love, love, love our big family. There is so much figuring out to do with two children. The first comes, and then the second, and it's all a big guessing game, it's walking in the dark. But this second time, with number three and four, there is no mystery. Life is an open, clear book. I have walked this path. Suddenly it all seems easy, even the new things with the older kids. I realize it all comes around, ends up alright. Things don't cause stress. I'm so lucky to be here.
Home we come, and Maeve is already at the door, arms open, calling for me. I pick her up and her strong, wiry arms wrap around my neck like a baby monkey, clinging to me as if I'd been gone for days or weeks. She claws at my shirt to nurse, mouths my cheeks and seemingly tries to climb inside my body to infuse herself with as much me as possible. Her warm body, her closeness, her intimacy makes me almost weep with joy. I never want this to end. Yet I can barely walk from one end of the room to the next without her needing me, and leaving her unsupervised is taking a mighty risk. There is nothing, not one, single thing, that is easy about Maeve. Yet I want to freeze-frame her just how she is, tiny and needy and warm, sticky with dried soy yogurt under her chin, marker in her hair, her little nose wrinkled with a perpetual laugh. She melts into my arms, beautiful, joyful Maeve, and I want her to stay a baby with me forever.
Which way do I want to go? Do I want my children to be big, so I can be easy with them? So I can walk with them, and laugh freely, and play games, and have them accompany me on my daily life? Or do I need them little, where I carve out their life but they dictate mine? I am in both places now, stretched long and lean with babies on four places of the spectrum. They are all amazing. How lucky I am.
But I can't shake the fear of not having a baby ever again. Will I ever love anything again, ever, in my life, as I have loved raising a baby from tiny, mewling, naked bird to walking, talking, thinking creature? What if I never do?
When I arrived home from the lake this year, I noticed how loud it is at our house.
On the shores of Lake Simcoe, where we pick up the Augusts of my past 36 summers each year, there is no sound in the night except the occasional waves lapping against the soft, sandy shore. A motorboat might happen by and on the weekend there might be the occasional party on the lake, but on a quiet, weekday evening there is almost nothing to hear. I walk across the common, the cold dew having already fallen and chilly on my feet, and there is almost the sound of the breath of the earth. The stars shine in the enormous black sky, and the lake looks like a black mirror stretching out to the nearly invisible horizon.
Here, the first thing I noticed when I came home was the chorus of wild things. Crickets, frogs, and other creatures create a constant din that surrounds our home when night falls. That, combined with the river, which can babble or roar depending on rainfall, make a stream of white noise that almost drown out the occasional passing car. Our windows are always open wide to the night. The cat sits on the sill, watching the moths that play with the escaping light. Upstairs, the children, all four of them, are asleep.
This September marks a change for me. After almost a year and a half of being with children almost all the time, I have finally gotten my two younger girls on the same napping schedule. At noontime each day, I tuck each of them into bed and I come downstairs to a house that is quiet. That time is very different from the quiet time that I have now, when it is dark. During the day the rooms are brilliant with sunlight, spilling over with energy and I have to go, go, go. Of late my favorite pastime which absolutely qualifies as useful, housewifely work is just tidying. the. place. up. No matter how long the girls sleep for, if this is my chosen task, I use the whole nap time to do it. The whirlwind of destruction-- or actually, I should call it misplacement, as in placing items in places where they don't belong-- that happens each day in my home with the four children all going at full tilt is just astounding. So, for an hour, or half an hour, or today almost two, I attempt to return things to the places where they are supposed to be. I never finish, but I have been able to look around every evening since school started ten days ago and feel almost relaxed in a home where I can see the tops of tables and the rugs are visible (albeit not vacuumed). Physical order (or somewhat order) somehow makes me feel more calm in general. I know this about myself.
The girls are happy little dumplings. They play together now. It's just absolutely breathtaking. Maeve is walking, running, climbing, laughing, talking. She's a small girl. She's still my baby, but she's a force to be reckoned with. She's up on rocking chairs, clinging to the back and rocking full force. Fiona is laughing, egging her on. She's sneaking out the door to pick green tomatoes. She's over by the chicken coop, methodically opening and closing the bottom latch, wondering why she can't open the door (there are two latches). She's emptying out the plastic recycling bin for the 25th time that day, stacking yogurt containers and hiding small shoes in other plastic places.
Fiona, meanwhile, might be setting up a school. Or making a nice, wide bed out of blankets on the floor that might hold all 17 baby dolls. Then she'll call Maeve, leading her gently by the hand, and try to reel her into her play. She's too much a baby herself to understand that Maeve can only maintain the drama for less than 60 seconds. But she does, Maeve does, she'll lie down cooperatively on the blanket next to the dolls, then rise and cradle one of them and load her into the stroller. Fiona, at two and a half, is so flexible in her play that this works for her. They're off. I'm watching them, amazed. Two little sisters, playing together.
In these days when Liam and Aoife are in school I almost feel I'm beginning to relive my life with two children, like I did in the old days with the two of them when they were little. I'm visiting, or planning to visit, the same places we enjoyed four or five years ago. I know where to go, what to do. I've done this before. What a gift to be able to do it again. And as I look at them, two little girls, I can't help but wonder whether this would have been my story, if Charlotte had lived and I hadn't been gifted my bonus boy. Would she have been followed, two plus years later, by some other daughter, a phantom that never existed because of her loss? It gives me goosebumps to imagine that there is an entire family of children that might have followed her. Goosebumps to imagine who they might have been, and also to think of the fantastic, tremendous flip side of my dead-awful luck: these four magnificent people with whom I now share my life. Just amazing.
This afternoon we visited "Big Bend" in the river again. I "dove" into the swimming hole, feeling the bracing cold of the river water as Aoife and Fiona squatted in the soft mud examining the raccoon tracks we had discovered and Greg (holding Maeve) and Liam hurled rocks at a rotted tree trunk on the riverbank. It was a glorious end to the week.
Fiona would not stop bawling. She cried and cried. We left the table, we came back. Maeve threw the bowl of pasta. She cried. I threw both girls under my arms and went inside. My wine and pasta were untouched. The girls both fell asleep without eating supper, they were so tired.
Going back outside, Liam and Aoife were in the middle of bickering when I returned to the table. I screamed at them. The neighbors heard. I shoveled in my pasta, drank my wine, and was glad I had ruminated on the beauty of last night, because otherwise I might have cried.
It ended with the six of us sitting around our glass topped table, under the big green umbrella, out in the backyard. While Greg grilled, I had set the table while Liam played with Maeve on the back lawn and Fiona and Aoife perfected a pillow fort in the living room. We joined at the table and it wasn't until we were all eating ice cream for dessert that I realized how beautiful it was. Here we were, six of us, including the two year old and the one year old, and we were all still sitting here. We had all eaten our meals. I hadn't gotten up from the table even once. Nobody had cried to get down or asked to be excused while somebody else was still eating. We had all just enjoyed the meal together, and we still were. It was like we were... we were... six people eating dinner together.
This might not seem like a remarkable accomplishment. Clearly I am a person with a strong sense of family and one might assume a family dinner is part and parcel of this package. We do sit down, the six of us, every single night. This means five o'clock meals for Greg and I, but we're happy with this arrangement. We envision pleasant conversation, laughter, and good food... but you know the rest. Somebody isn't happy with the meal. Maeve starts to dump rice on the rug. Aoife needs to go to the bathroom. Somehow, it seems every meal unravels in some way so that we're almost never six people all eating and talking, as we imagine we might do.
But tonight, we did. It felt almost like a first, although it might not have been. The beauty of sitting there for so long, so pleasantly together, under the sunset-lit pines, needed to be captured.
And, rewinding, it seemed especially beautiful because we ventured out for the second time this afternoon to a new place we discovered that we call "Big Bend". It's a little further down the river that's behind our house. The river makes a huge curve and we discovered a big, deep soaking spot that comes past my waist and is wide enough to actually SWIM. The river is riddled with gigantic, glacial boulders and only 15 or so feet downstream from the soaking pool are all these pebbled islands that are perfect for the little girls to perch upon and throw rocks into the river--only six inches deep at that point. All around us in the river the boulders are covered with deep, green moss above the high-water mark and the land rises steeply-- and I mean so steeply that one couldn't possibly walk up it-- on the east bank where the old hemlocks are all that anchors the earth to the rock. It is so impossibly beautiful and I still can't wrap my head around the fact that my little children have this as their own backyard, their childhood, this beautiful gift we have given them.
Remind me, at all costs, I must never move.
My kids didn't fight once this afternoon, they cared for each other and played beautifully and it was magical. (and imagine that I choose this day to write... it paints a lovely picture, doesn't it?)
This day I chose to capture here because I can look back and remember, on the days where more squash ends up on the walls than in their mouths, where there is yelling and crying and despair, that there are days like this where the sun shines and there is beauty in everything.
Aoife, ever creative and unintentionally hilarious, is always full of new ideas. An ongoing theme over the years has been the birthday party. So last night, pondering the fantastic pinata that had been the highlight of one of Liam's end-of-year events, she created her most amazing birthday party idea yet. Folks, I'm thinking of patenting this one, so please don't use it yourself unless you give Aoife the credit for the copyright.
"So, Mimi," she says. "I've been thinking of a few ideas for my next birthday party".
"Mmm hmm," I answer absently, having heard so many ideas and knowing I have eight months to plan.
"The theme I'm thinking of is war."
My ears perk up. I look at her, and my head is probably tilted to the side the way a dog's does when he hears a strange noise. "War?" I ask her.
"Yeah, war. I'm going to have this huge pig pinata, and it's going to be made of wood. Daddy's going to carve it. We'll carve the pig and fill it up with some kind of red liquid. Then the guests will stab the pig with wooden spears, stab it until holes are poked all in it and the red liquid oozes out all over the place... "
So there you go, folks. If any of you think I'm not raising a creative little girl, you might have to think again about this one. As to her understanding of what war actually is, I am pleased to realize she is still blissfully unaware. She seems to be confusing carnivores with warriors, and while bacon has always been one of her favorite things to eat (and she'll even joyfully exclaim such disturbing things like, "Pig tastes great!") she seems to imagine it takes a great deal more strategy and planning to get the bacon from farm to table.
And, just as an FYI, she knew she was being hilarious. This isn't an expression of pent-up anger. She's just... well, a ham. (sorry)
Summer is here. We've been on summer vacation for a week now. I could not be happier.
I love having my children home, and I love having the weather beautiful and us all outside. I love the sudden liberty of being able to stay in our pajamas or cross the street to the river or eat from the gigantic glass jar of Whoppers that Aoife won at a birthday party (for guessing the right amount, 220) at 9 in the morning if we feel like it. Yesterday Aoife and I went to the grocery store and bought a package of Bubble Yum bubble gum so I could teach her how to blow bubbles. That's how good it feels right now. Organic lettuce from our farm share, beef from our neighbors, the chickens roaming in the backyard, and some good, old fashioned Bubble Yum, which may or may not have been on the shelf of the grocery store since the 1980's (which was the last time I chewed Bubble Yum). Sometimes you just have to wow your kids with the power of YES.
I love this so much, yet to me, vacations feel to me like springtime in New England: I love this freedom and this ability to live life on a whim because I am scheduled the rest of the time. I can remember the end of last summer feeling grateful for the clock and the ritual of getting up, getting dressed, sharing breakfast, and heading off past the green fields and winding river to our sweet little school every morning. During the school year I love hearing the stories the children share with me, and knowing that they are independently developing themselves in a place that is only theirs. I am incredibly grateful and lucky to be able to have them in a school where they can operate as independent learners, where they are met at their own level, where they investigate and explore and laugh and run around and sing together every single day. I love the privilege of their school life, but I also love the privilege of this. Of being here, together, with absolutely NOTHING to do.
Today, Greg joined us on summer vacation. He's done for the summer. It was a hot, hot day. We gathered the troops, threw bathing suits into a bag, peanut butter, jelly, bread, and watermelon into a cooler, and headed up the hill. There is a beautiful lakeside park, nestled in the hills among tall pines, with hiking trails, campsites, and a busy, bustling beach. We arrived early and staked out prime real estate by the waters edge, where a little creek runs out of the lake. Maeve and Fiona puttered around in the shallow water, the big kids swam and laughed and met friends and explored the creek, and we were all just happy together. We tried not to worry about who wasn't napping when, and when everyone had completed their trip to the cooler and their dunks in the lake and we were feeling hot and fried we moseyed back down the hill to home, where the little girls snoozed away the afternoon and the rest of us quietly escaped the hot sun.
This has been a challenging year. It's why I had to stop writing completely. There are moms who say they have no time. Most of them actually do have time. This year I actually didn't. The combination of the most extreme sleep deprivation I've ever met with and two very busy little girls who have to be watched like hawks at all times and never, not ever, not once nap at the same time, left me so breathless I had to carve everything except taking care of the children and family out of my life (and that's not really even factoring in the other two children, who are lovely and well behaved and who I'm desperate to gift some of my time). It was hard, but I knew it would be short lived. And now that summer has arrived, and Greg is home, and I am determined to nap the girls together come September, I feel a lifting of sorts. I can breathe now, and think about maybe working on a photo album, and posting on the blog, and pulling a few weeds with one hand while I shovel dirt out of Maeve's mouth with the other hand.
Greg and I had a real day of reckoning on Charlotte's ninth birthday. It was an emotionally charged day, I need not say, and so it came to the surface finally and all at once how completely and totally burnt out we both were. We were parenting like crazy, each of us, almost separately under the same roof. Our four children, all different ages, all different needs, were running us ragged. We had neither time for ourselves, nor time for each other. Something needed to change.
Was it really that something changed? Or did we just say the words, and suddenly things seemed easier? It's true that things have felt hard. Having four children (or is it that the two little ones were so close?) seemed easy for the first five or six months. Maeve was an easy little baby, content to snooze in a wrap or be toted around in a sling. But once she started to need naps in bed, a bedtime routine in the evening, and started to crawl like a girl with a plan at around eight months, things became much more busy. Suddenly the little girls were ripping things off the shelves much faster than I could pick them up. I was juggling and jostling schedules of two, small, relatively inflexible people. I had them napping on an alternating schedule so that I could not leave the house. This was intense. Just writing it down makes me realize that much of the frenetic pace was the result of the 18 month gap. The two older kids were constantly having to wait. I felt insufficient.
Things feel better. Things feel streamlined. We've started to go out on dates. Imagine that! And we're trying to give each other time to do what we want to do. Life is good.
The kids are super.
I can't believe this. Seems like only a few short months ago that I suspected labor at dawn and pushed out a new, mewling daughter by breakfast time. But it has happened, the circle has spun round once more and she is now a year old.
A year old, a year new. Still so much to learn, and to do, yet I feel like something has ended.
She's only a day older than yesterday.
It has been for nine years and nine months that my life has been saturated with babies and babyhood, pregnancy and nursing and waiting and conceiving and birthing. While I can hardly bring myself to face the possible end of this phase, the practicality of the life we lead forces me to consider it. I put a hand up to the side of my face, trying not to see. I don't want this to end. I want to have a baby forever. It seems like all I know.
This being said, I went to Liam's baseball game with just Aoife and Fiona on Saturday. Maeve was at home sleeping, and the girls and I brought a wicker basket full of tea, milk, sugar and snacks. We got out the china and we had a gorgeous, civilized picnic and watched the game. There was no disaster-prevention necessary. Just me and two level-headed daughters having a picnic. It felt so sane, and I could have melted into the grass for how relaxed it made me to not have a baby on the picnic blanket.
But then she reaches for me with her long, wiry, pale arms, and clings to my neck. Her mouth is wet on my shoulder and the back of her dark hair is a little sweaty and damp. Her skin is so smooth and she grabs me with sharp fingernails, clinging to me, her rock and anchor. I am everything to her. I want it to be this way forever.
She reaches for me and calls, Mama. She laughs when she comes into my arms, stroking my cheek. She points at all the things around her, labeling them when she can. Dog, ball, cat. Pop, Bob, Papa. Dad. When she's not sure, she points and says "that". She wants to know. She waves at everyone we pass, offering a delicious, seven toothed smile and a lazy, "Hiii...". She is innocence and beauty. I cannot resist admitting the delerious joy I feel at being her absolute favorite person.
Maeve is one. The baby I rushed to have, thinking that it wouldn't work to stretch things out. The baby that came so quickly, right on the heels of her sister. When Fiona turned one I was four months pregnant. Today I was sleek in new white pants and a green shirt. There will be no new baby. Our family is growing and changing and I miss already the beautiful little baby who is turning into a girl before my very eyes.
Happy Birthday, Maeve. You have brought me immeasurable joy. The beauty and completion you bring to our family is beyond words. May you live for a hundred years, surrounded with light, beauty and love. I love you so very, very much.
This is how we parent the fifth child.
Meanwhile, four hearts still beat strong beneath us, even when we want to crumple and wrap our arms around the shadow of the daughter we might have had. So we parent them, we parent them hard, and we try to be brave when they ask us difficult questions about our journey.
Tomorrow, now, our baby turns one. One whole year of beauty with her. She sleeps now, upstairs, and I can see her on my new-fangled baby monitor that I bought to ease me through the transition of her out of my bed and into a crib (five feet from my bed, but a crib) so that we could try to restore something resembling an evening to our home. Now I can put her to bed at night and she goes to sleep, and I come down here and I can read to the older children, and I can tuck Fiona into her bed and sing to her, and I can parent them all.
It is nearly midnight. I have crafts abound to finish for Maeve's birthday. But while I waited for some photos to print, it seemed right to post on the eve of the last spring birthday. Perhaps another post soon.
I made a bit of a blunder last night.
It had been coming for quite some time. I could see it in the sideways glances, the shoulder turned a little too quickly away from me when he'd leave me in public. Sometimes, I would give him a casual wave and leave, sometimes a pat on the shoulder, but today, it was clear. His look said, Don't kiss me, Mom. He looked like a calf, panicking in a too-small enclosure as I approached him to say goodbye. I reached out my hand, offering it in a gesture of affection, but he nearly pushed it away. He turned to his friends. I, too, turned away.
I'm trying to remember Liam crawling, but I almost can't. (But that was seven years ago, wasn't it?)
I've had Greg's parents in town now for almost two months. They bought a house about three years ago just over the hill from us. It's a six minute drive and the distance couldn't be more perfect. They adore the children and will help me whenever I need it. This creates a more complicated situation than what might immediately be apparent; because they are almost always available and will nearly always say yes, I am constantly worrying about when and why to ask them to come and take the children and whether I'm using them more or less than I should. In any case, this winter I've been liberal in my requests given that I am under the impression that things shouldn't be more logistically complicated ever again. (am I wrong? it's the two nappers, no overlapping naps, that seems to me can only get easier.)
Our family of six, which includes two babies and their accompanying swaddling blankets, snuggly stuffed bunnies, individual sound machines, and other assorted debris, just travelled to Florida for a week with carry-on luggage only. I could act smug, as if I have always been so streamlined. But in fact, I was inspired to think beyond the original intended purpose when it comes to the gear my family has, and use it in the way that makes the most sense for our family.
Once upon a time, Greg and I loved to hike and camp. We both had all the gear we needed to load up a pack, head for the hills, and spend a day or three or four roaming trails and sleeping in lean, lightweight, expensive tents that fit ever-so tidily in our huge, expensive backpacks. We sort of envisioned that we’d continue this sort of hiking when we had kids.
Sort of. Except that the exact kind of hiking and camping requires lots and lots of gear, and lots and lots of walking, and we now have lots and lots of kids, who have very short legs and can’t go very far. So we diversified and welcomed car camping into our life, and we bought a big, cheap tent we could all sleep in on blow-up mattresses that plugged into our car lighter. And we were happy, much happier than our uppity college selves could have ever imagined we would be car camping in a huge Coleman tent.
But we’re on the brink, here, folks. The big kids are 5 and 7 and they can hike, they can really hike. Accompanying our car camping are many weekends spent roaming the hills on 1,2, or 3 mile trails, and their legs are toned, and they can fend for themselves a little bit when it comes to carrying a load. The little girls are still little enough that they can be carried and in a few years they’ll be able to do a mile or two themselves. So we began to look ahead, down the road, and we outfitted the family with awesome backpacks from Deuter so that when that day comes... man, we will be ready. Really ready.
But in the meantime? In thinking about our trip to Florida, and feeling irritated at the prospect of paying $25 for each bag we checked, it dawned on me: why check bags? We have ourselves and our little pack horses, the big kids. Let’s think carefully about what we pack, just like when we were backpacking in the hills, and let’s skip the baggage claim and the check-in process and just print out our boarding passes at home, sling our packs on our backs, and hit the road.
And so it was that Aoife toting her Junior with her clothes and a sound machine, Liam with his Fox 30 with his clothes and a sound machine, Greg with the KangaKid pack with his luggage, Fiona’s stuffed animals and blanket, and Fiona herself, I with my Act Zero 45 +15 with my clothes, the life jackets for the babies, and our grown-up Giga Office pack with the laptop, portable DVD, kids books, and snacks, plus two kids packs of activities, got on a plane and headed to Florida without a hiccup. It was amazing-- we printed out our boarding passes at home, parked the car, and marched straight to security. I’m hoping we turned a few heads, all of us trekking across the airport with our sleek, backpacked profiles, pushing a couple of strollers loaded up with carseats to boot. I feared for the scene at security with six of us and all our gear, but truly it was easy-- with each child responsible for her own things, we all just slung our own pack onto the belt and we were through just as quickly as we had been the year before with two huge suitcases heading for the belly of the plane.
The other best part, besides the fifty bucks we now had in our pockets for take out dinners when we arrived, was that we also had everything we needed for streamlined trips to the beach-- a pack for Fiona, and multiple packs for towels, seashells, and books. Looking back to past years when I actually packed a beach bag in my suitcase I almost laugh.
The moral: One need not be hard core to use hard core gear. You just have to be hard core in a different way. Using our outdoor gear for airline travel to a beach destination made our travels easier than they’d ever been before. Will we use the same gear this summer, here in New England, out in the woods? You betcha. But for now, we’re acting the part. Me, the mom of four young kids, two under two, I like to think I’m pretty hard core. So why not act it, even in an airport?