Pizza and Joe

During my teenage years I babysat for several families.  One family had a seven-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, and I watched them four days a week, nine hours a day.

On the summer days when we played in their backyard, it was just a matter of time until it happened.  Slowly, steadily, neighboring children wandered out of their houses to join us.  Within a half hour, I'd find myself watching not only my two babysitting charges, but also the rest of the neighborhood kids -- enough to field a legitimate soccer team or stage a rousing game of tag.

Mothers in that Pittsburgh neighborhood must have loved that I was the neighbor's babysitter.  Just like a pitbull smells fear and my husband can sniff out a golf course from miles away, these mothers sensed my teenage energy and capitalized on it -- sending Joey, Tommy, Brian, Billy, Bobby, and who-knows-else out their backdoors to play.

I had more energy as a babysitter then than I do as a mother now.

The reason is simple: As a babysitter, I could leave at the end of each day. There was a finish line in sight.  (Being 16 didn't hurt, either.)

I thought of this the other day when Reese asked me to play outside as her sisters napped.  he wanted nothing more than to rope me into a game she had concocted called Pizza and Joe. I wanted nothing more than to have a personal time-out (just a half hour of silence), preferably in air condition.

But there was something in her request that drew me outside as the afternoon sun pounded our backyard, scorched our grass, and caused beads of sweat to run down the nape of my neck.  eese seemed not to notice the heat. She was immersed in the world of Pizza and Joe.

We played hard for nearly two hours.

I must confess that I still don't grasp the rules. Rules in any game created by children are fluid, subject to change at any point without warning. She was Pizza; I was Joe. (Or was it the other way around?)  She held a beach ball and I wielded a jump rope. She stood still while I had to run. She determined that base was the swing set, that is, until I arrived there -- safe! -- and the base had shifted to the fence post.

It made no sense. No sense at all.

We took three water breaks where we sat in the playset and pretended to catch fish with the jump rope.  We cooked the fish. The backyard morphed into an ocean and, argghhh, we were pirates... two pirates named Pizza and Joe.

I acted like a babysitter that day, exerting more energy in pure, unadulterated play than I have in quite some time. By the time we finished we both were sweaty and grimy. My hair frizzed; her cheeks flushed. She had a brush burned knee; my legs itched from rolling in the grass.  It felt really good.

Sure, I'm older and slower than I was at 16, but it probably wouldn't hurt to adopt the babysitter mentality a little more often. When we went inside, Reese gave me a sticky, tight hug, making me realize that the payoff is much better as a mother than it ever had been as a babysitter.


We're driving down the road in our minivan, and Reese points out the dark clouds ahead. Storm clouds -- or any weather that remotely hints at a thunderstorm -- always catch her attention, revealing the twinge of nervousness she's harbored since our house was struck by lightning two years ago. But this time she didn't seem nervous, just thoughtful.

"What if," she began, "instead of raining rain, it rained apples. Apples would pour from the sky and they'd be all over the ground. Instead of thunderstorms, we'd have an applestorm."

Her eyes shined with the possibility. Apples! Falling from the sky!

"Would I be able to eat the apples?" she asked.

Joel answered her before I had the chance. "I tell you what, Reese. If it rains apples, you can eat as many as you want."

"Really? Yes!" She paused then added, "Thanks, Daddy."

For the next few minutes she looked out the window, quiet. I wondered if she was imagining how she'd harvest the apples, if she was pondering what she'd do if apples actually rained from the sky. Would she eat them until her stomach hurt? Throw them like baseballs? Attempt to stack them like blocks? Ask me to bake pies? Run outside with an umbrella and a helmet to soak up the experience?

I'm so glad it was Joel who answered her question. I was poised to answer with a less exciting response -- a literal response, an adult response, a response that would have highlighted the boring fact that apples are not a form of precipitation.

It would have been true. It also would have stifled.

This experience reminded me of an old Calvin and Hobbes comic. Calvin approaches his mother and announces that he's decided to grow a beard -- a long beard like the guys in ZZ Top. His mother's response? "That's nice, Calvin. Go ahead and do that."

Hers was a perfect response, as was Joel's. The responses didn't promise the kids that they'd get what they hoped for, but they also didn't snuff out their creativity. Kids will learn soon enough that beards don't grow overnight and that apples will never rain from the sky. Why dampen their imaginations before they can dream about what would happen if they could?

Why I'm Behind on Cleaning

Title: Why I'm Behind on Cleaning

Subtitle: This is what happens when your child eats a cupcake and uses the sliding glass door as a napkin.

Guilt and the Local Library

This summer I've decided to do something nice for myself. I'm avoiding the local children's library.

Throughout the year we visit the library nearly every week. The girls dart toward the shelves as we enter, and we lug stacks of books with us as we leave. So why would I avoid it? It's educational. It's pleasant. It's kid-friendly.

The answer is simple: the summer reading program. Or perhaps more accurately: my current inability to keep up with the summer reading program.

I visited the library with the girls just once after Kerrington was born, and the place was bustling with more strollers, more children, more parents, and more decorations dangling from the ceiling than I could absorb. Instead of settling into a relaxed space, we were swept up into a crammed feeding frenzy of little readers.

Don't get me wrong. I love reading to my children. It's just that this summer with a new baby I wasn't up to the task of tracking that reading. Titles. Authors. Page numbers. Genres. Reviews. Pamphlets. Deadlines. Considering that my energy waned and my left eye twitched with the mere thought of the documentation involved, I suspected that the pleasure derived from snuggling a child into my lap with a book might diminish if I needed to follow it up with record-keeping.

So, I opted out.

And shortly after I felt badly. Why would any mother withhold something good from her children? My girls enjoyed participating last summer, so why am I depriving them this summer? What about the opportunity to win prizes? The coupon for the free soft pretzel?

Come on,
I badgered myself, you're causing your kids to miss out.

How often do we try to do more, even when our better judgment advises us to do less? I had to reason through my decision. The purpose of the summer reading program is to get children to read. We already do. That settled the matter. We didn't need the program, and the girls wouldn't suffer from its absence.

In fact, they probably will benefit from its absence. Sure, they might read a few less books. They won't get their free soft pretzels. But they'll have a mother who recognized and cast off a false expectation of what constitutes "good" parenting, one who was calmer and happier for it. It's a worthwhile trade-off.

Come fall, we'll begin visiting the library again on our own terms. The pace will be slower, the aisles less crowded. We'll still leave with a stack of books, and I'll even take them across the street for a soft pretzel.

The Beauty of Darkness

Our whole family stayed in the same bedroom during our recent travels. We placed the bassinet for Kerrington beside our bed. We situated an air mattress for Reese beside the dresser. Given Brooke's recent track record with sleep, we assumed that she'd be fine on the floor. Then we opened the door to the closet. Jackpot. It was long and narrow, the perfect length and width for the air mattress, and there was just enough extra room for Brooke's blanket and pillow. Our girls would sleep in the closet.

On the first night I tucked them in and stood outside of the closet door for a few moments, doubtful that they would stay tucked in. Reese whispered to Brooke, conspired some plan, and soon both girls began bouncing on the air mattress, occasionally thudding into the walls or colliding into one another. Within a few moments they simmered down. Brooke quietly sang to herself, and then there was silence.

The next morning they emerged from their closet bedroom with tousled hair and small hands rubbing away sleep, reminding me of moles unaccustomed to the light. They staggered. They squinted. Best yet, they slept in. Oh, they slept longer than a child in our household has slept for the past five years.

The closet had an advantage that their bedroom at home did not have: pitch blackness. I never knew darkness could be so beautiful, so beneficial. How had I been missing this?

We wasted no time upon arriving home. One $9 curtain rod and a $14.99 room darkening panel later, and we were in business. It's revolutionary. You can't put a price on sleep, but if you could, $24 is one I'm totally willing to pay.

Conversation Interrupted

If given a choice, I vastly prefer to talk to someone in person than over the phone, especially for an extended conversation. I suspect that I'm not a good phone conversationalist. I miss the accompanying mannerisms and facial expressions. I'm more apt to consider a moment of silence awkward, so I attempt to fill it. On top of this, I'm frequently switching gears in mid-sentence to address one of my children instead of the caller, making the dialogue even more fragmented.

I'll be setting up an appointment, and before I can finish that yes, Tuesday at 10 would be fine, I instead find myself saying, "Would you please stop licking my leg?" or "Stop hammering your sister."

With enough practice, you can gauge how a mother's day is going by the number of times she deviates from the conversation and the level of intensity and specificity of the interruption.

If she addresses a child with a simple, "Not right now, honey," things are running pretty smoothly in her household.

If it's an exasperated, "I've told you before, you cannot ride your bike down the stairs, and while you're at it, take the handcuffs out of his pants already," well, pray for her.

Just last week, a dear friend of mine called with the wonderful news that she was pregnant with her first child. I longed to hear every detail: the due date, how she was feeling physically, how she was feeling emotionally, the report from her first doctor's appointment. At some point during the call, my children came unglued -- falling off chairs, spilling drinks, annoying each other. I took one look at them and figured my best option.

I locked myself in the bathroom.

Yes, I was going to finish that conversation, even if its duration would be brief. What beautiful irony that I was congratulated my friend on the child she would be bringing into the world while hiding to escape the ones that I've brought into the world myself.

Choosing Your Battles

Shortly after our youngest daughter was born, Brooke, our two-year-old, began sleeping on the floor. As far as Joel and I can tell, she's boycotting her bed. Whether this is a silent protest against her new sibling or just a random coincidence, we're not sure.

It started in late May during one of her afternoon naps. When I heard her stirring, I entered her bedroom and almost stepped on her. She had been curled up on her blanket, head on her pillow and arm around her puppy, directly at the base of her bed. We both seem surprised. "Hi, Mommy. I sleep on floor," she reported.

"I see that."

I thought nothing of the exchange until that night's bedtime when she laid down on the floor instead of climbing up into bed. Since that day, that is where she's slept every nap and every night.

We've occasionally tried to dissuade her. One night Joel crept into her room, lifted her sleeping form off the floor, and carefully lowered her into bed. We silently high-fived each other as we walked down the hallway to our own room, confident that one good night's sleep back in her bed would turn the tide.

Clearly we had underestimated her. That night at three in the morning we woke to her loud proclamation: "Brooke sleep on floor! No bed!" Scratch that strategy. We tried logic, explaining that her bed would be more comfortable than the floor. I put on her cute flowered sheets. She didn't budge.

She loves that floor.

It bothers me. Why is this child of mine trading the comfort of a perfectly good bed -- a bed where she slept for two months without a hitch before her baby sister was born -- for a hard floor? I don't have the answer. Only Brooke does. Somewhere inside of that little two-year-old mind of hers, she has a reason.

We could exercise our rightful parental authority and demand that she return to bed, but I guarantee that every bedtime would become a battle of the wills. And what would be the purpose? Only that I would feel better because things would be proper once again. Other than my unease, letting Brooke sleep on the floor causes no problems. She goes to bed each night obediently, sleeps the whole night through, and wakes up happy. She's in no danger. She's not being rebellious. She's just being quirky.

So, I bite my tongue and get down on my hands and knees to tuck her in each night. I sing her favorite song, pray for her, kiss her, and stand back up to leave.

I suspect that I'll open her door one morning and the blanket on the floor will be empty. We'll look at each other, surprised, and I'll hear her little voice: "Hi Mommy, I sleep in bed."

"I see that," I'll say, and that will be the end of the saga. A war will have been avoided because a battle won't have been picked.

Cut from the Same Cloth

My oldest daughter has taken an interest in categorizing how she is similar to Joel and me in terms of our attributes and behaviors. She noted that she and Joel are similar because they each have straight hair, take pleasure in golf and gardening, and play the Wii. She reports that we're alike because we both enjoy eating guacamole and rolling down the windows while driving on the highway (obviously not at the same time.)

I, too, make observations. There are obvious physical similarities: Reese and Brooke both have striking blue eyes like their Daddy. There are behavioral ones: Brooke puts black olives on her fingertips before eating them like I did as a child.

And then there are characteristics that reveal the fabric of a person. When Reese gets an idea in her head she wants to act on it right now. I relate. During the seventh month of pregnancy, I decided to paint our bedroom and refurbish our old furniture. Joel and a friend carried the headboard, dressers, and end table into the garage. Over the next several weekends, I donned a mask and safety goggles, grabbed a sander, and began the tedious task of stripping and repainting each piece. You can chalk the renovation project up to nesting, of course, but something within me latched onto the idea and I wouldn't rest until it was finished.

So when Reese wakes up determined to build a fort out of couch cushions, blankets, and clothespins, or when she's adamant about creating an art project that requires tissue paper, gobs of glue, and a ridiculous amount of pipe cleaners, as much as I may want to slow her down and wait for a more opportune time -- after I've taken my first sip of orange juice or when the kitchen table is cleared from breakfast, at the very least -- I understand her drive and intensity. It occasionally causes my teeth to hurt, but I get it.

Perhaps the best illustration is when she rode an amusement park ride that she termed the "fast cars." As the ride accelerated and each car whipped by, all of the riders slid to the outside of their seats -- with one exception. There was Reese, clinging to the handrail, pulling with all of her five-year-old might, and holding her ground on the inside. She refused to slide.

I used to do this. She and I are both so headstrong that we purposely fight centrifugal force.

That's my girl.

Overcoming Lethargy

Kerrington turned eight weeks old yesterday. To celebrate, I put on my workout clothes, dusted off my Jillian Michaels' DVD, and questioned my sanity for 30 minutes as I forced my body to overcome lethargy.

Oh, I felt it this morning. Muscles that had been ignored during the latter months of pregnancy are once again in action, and I'm sore.

I had the clearance to begin exercising again when Kerrinton turned six weeks old. Then we traveled. Then we had family visit. Finally there were no more excuses, which is why I laced up my running shoes as soon as I got out of bed yesterday. Getting dressed in exercise clothes is essential for me. Even with intentions to exercise I can easily distract myself with useful but entirely unrelated chores. Case in point: I started a load of laundry, sorted the girls' clothes, began a pile for Goodwill, vacuumed the downstairs, and unloaded the dishwasher all before I put in the DVD. Had I not been wearing the clothes, I might not have followed through.

My girls watched as I began stretching. Reese placed a beach towel on the floor as her mat and followed along with the warm-ups. Mostly she asked questions: Mom, where does Jillian Michaels live? Do you think you'll ever meet her? Why not? Are they able to see us? Then why are they looking at us? Are you sure they can't they see us? Who's the other girl in the video? Brooke climbed on me each time I lowered myself onto the mat to do sit ups. Kerrington dozed on her blanket.

In between breathing out monosyllabic answers to Reese, dodging Brooke, and popping Kerrington's pacifier into her mouth, I completed the workout. It felt good. I felt good. I knew my thighs and arms would be sore the next morning, a small reminder that I had accomplished my goal the day before.

Day one of exercise, I beat you. Day two, here I come. My running shoes are on.

Laws of Parenting

Today I took a good nap. Actually, the word "good" doesn't do justice. It was the type of nap where you drool on your pillow and wake up having a hard time recalling your name and what month it is. Yes, that good. It was only an hour, but it felt like I spent the entire afternoon in a coma. I'm still a little hazy in a satisfying sort of way.

Getting a nap with three children is no small feat. Recently at least one child always seems to be awake or needy at any given point, so timing is crucial.

I theorize that my girls are just following physics, adhering to the principles of the Law of Conservation of Energy where one child always must remain in an awake state to keep the total amount of wakefulness in our household constant over the course of any day. (This happened yesterday, too, just in the form of crying. When one kid simmered down, another began to wail. The crying was neither created nor destroyed, just passed from one child to the next, leading me to believe that physics in real life is just as draining as it was during high school.)

It caused me to think of a few other Laws of Parenting:

If you scrub the kitchen floor, you will have a spill that day (likely in large quantities of something unprecedentedly sticky, like an unset bowl of Jello.)

If you change a baby's diaper and have the diaper open anywhere near his or her foot, that foot will land squarely on top of the diaper in the poop.

If you have a holiday family gathering, at least one child will be sick. Count on it. This one is non-negotiable.

If you are out with your significant other (sans children), you will spend a good portion of your time talking about the children.

If you lift up a couch cushion, you will find small toys and food products that you do not recall ever entering your house in the last few months.

If your two-year-old witnesses you lift the couch cushion, he or she will immediately grab and eat that piece of food you found.

If you have an exasperating day with your child, you will still smile if you watch him or her sleeping that night.

If you wear a white shirt, your child will get tomato sauce on you that day even if you do not eat pizza or spaghetti. You will never know how the child had access to tomato sauce, and they will hold out from telling you.


Title: Outnumbered

Subtitle: If size 11 running shoes for men came in pink, my daughters would want my husband to own a pair.

For the Third Child

My third daughter is named Kerrington.  I steal moments just for the two of us, moments when I'm not with the older girls playing hide and seek, doing arts and crafts, or disciplining someone for taping the dishwasher shut.

Kerrington is nearing two months now, and yesterday morning she smiled at me.  She didn't just look happy to see me, she looked ridiculously happy to see me.  I actually woke my husband (who was stirring already) so he could see her smile.  He confirmed that it was legitimate.

I enjoy Kerrington in different ways than I was able to enjoy my firstborn.  She doesn't get all of my attention.  She sometimes has her schedule interrupted because of the older girls.  She's a typical third child, shuffled along with the rest of the family, already flexible because she has to be.

There are days when I want to pause everything else and focus only on her.  After all, she's only going to be nearly two-months-old once.  So I cling to what I can.

I breathe in deeply when I nestle my face into her neck, savoring her baby smell.  I caress her soft skin.  I stroke her dainty feet.  I watch while she's having tummy time on the quilt and laugh when she kicks her scrawny legs as though she were swimming, as though she were expecting to go somewhere.  I attune to her noises, those distinct sighs, squeaks, and grunts.  I hold my breath when she yawns -- yawns so big that time stands still until she closes that pouty mouth again.  I marvel that I can cradle her entire body in one arm, that I can cradle her head in one hand.  I stare into her bright eyes, amazed that they're shifting from the steely gray of a newborn to the crystal blue typical of my older daughters.  I kiss her cheeks, which are so full, so chewable, that I almost want to cry as I look at her.

She's beautiful.  I love her.

And the funny thing is that Kerrington hasn't done anything to earn my love.  She caused me nausea during pregnancy and pain during labor.  She spits on me.  She's peed on me.  She's pooped through her diaper onto me.  She won't let me sleep the whole night through.  She has not yet presented me with a fistful of dandelions, and she's never told me that she loved me.  Yet, I'm crazy about her.  Absolutely head over heels.

This is because she's mine.

I am not a perfect mother.  (So, so far from it, in fact.) Yet I love her with a passionate love because she's mine. How much more does God, who is perfect, look at me with love?  Even when I've done nothing to earn his love, he loves me.  Even when I've caused him pain and spit on him, he loves me.  Before I decided to love him back, he already loved me.  Why?  He created me to be his girl.

Today has been a hard day.  As I type, I'm leaned back ever so slightly and Kerrington is resting on my chest, dozing off to sleep.  She's secure.  She knows that she's safe.

Today I need to lean into God and rest securely.  I need that comfort.  I am reminding myself that I am loved, even when I've done nothing to earn it.  Even when I've snapped at my kids.  Even when I haven't figured out what we'll be having for dinner.  Even when my house is a mess and my shoulders are tense.

I'm loved.  That's a good place to be.

A Lesson from the Carousel Attendant

The elderly woman who runs the carousel at the beach had two remarkable features: deep wrinkles from too many summers in the sun and hot pink lipstick. A few years from now it is likely that I will only vaguely recall what she looked like, but I think I'll always remember her actions.

I stood between Reese and Brooke after they had mounted their horses. With my hands resting lightly on the small of their backs, I listened to the unmistakable carousel music and waited for the bell to signal the ride's start.

The bell rang. The carousel began to turn and then abruptly stopped. One more child had run toward the ride, and the attendant slowed it down in order to usher him through the entrance, help him onto his horse, and fasten his safety belt. Two more kids approached, and she let them on as well, slowly assisting each onto their horses, meticulously buckling them, and walking back to her station. She rang the bell once more, only to postpone it yet again when another girl neared.

Oh, come on, I caught myself thinking. They can catch the next ride.

Although impatient, it was a valid thought. The carousel ride only lasts a minute or two, tops. Those children could have waited at the gate, their hands gripping the rail, their faces peeking between the bars. They would have gotten on the next ride and been no worse the wear from the wait.

Then I thought about those mornings when I had run to catch the bus on my way to work, my heels clattering on the pavement as I picked up my pace. Some bus drivers pulled away regardless. They were on a schedule, and they were sticking to it. I'd wait the extra eight minutes until the next bus came, no worse the wear from the wait.

Still, how much nicer it was on the mornings when the bus driver stopped, reopened the door, and welcomed me aboard. I'd smile as I mounted the steps, offer a grateful thanks, and settle into my seat. Those days I felt as though I had won, as though I were eight minutes ahead of the game.

The carousel attendant must have known this. She had been attending that ride long enough to know that patience should trump punctuality, especially when dealing with children. It was her most remarkable feature, even brighter than the lipstick.


Five Minutes

Five minutes. We only had five minutes left before we had to pack up, dust off, and head out. We had been at the beach for nearly two hours, and it was time to return to the house. I had built sand castles. I had collected shells. I had diligently watched my daughters, nieces, and nephews anytime they approached the water's edge. I had stuck my toes in. But I had not swum.

I love swimming in the ocean. The salt, the spray, the feeling of bouyancy, the power of the current, the thrill of a wave cresting -- everything about being in the ocean reminds me I'm alive. I resist getting into a pool that's too cold, lowering myself down the ladder tentatively, holding my arms aloft, standing on tiptoe. But the ocean? Cold will not deter me.

But five measly minutes nearly did.

Who begins swimming during the final five minutes at the beach? That's when you dry off and begin the impossible task of wiping sand from your legs. I figured that I had missed my window. That is, until my father-in-law suggested, "Why don't you go in, Robin?"

My immediate response was to decline. Why get soaking wet now when I'll just need to sit on a folded beach towel during the drive home? Why bother with the hassle?

As I hesitated, he added, "Anything that gets wet dries off."

Good point. The girls were being cared for by others. The only person holding me back was me. I took off through the surf and battled through the first breaking wave. For five amazing minutes I swam in the ocean -- fully aware of the chill, the salt on my lips, the sound of the pounding waves, the sunlight glinting off thousands of swelling tips of wavetops stretching toward the horizon.

I'm dry now when I type this. It was entirely worth the hassle.
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