Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When Motherhood Changes and You Do Too


Three years ago I was lying in bed at 5:45am staring at the ceiling and wondering how long I could let the baby cry and still be considered a good mother. I already knew what the day held and I didn't want to do it. It was the same routine on repeat, like the movie Groundhog Day but way less funny with way more bodily fluids.

The baby lived on my chest, wrapped tightly against my body, over and over, in a cloth that stretched approximately 75 feet. I loved the way her tiny form nestled into mine. I would lean my head to inhale her sweet baby scent and use every last bit of restraint to keep myself from stuffing her into my mouth where I would keep her for eternity, which is something that makes perfect sense when you're running on post-partum hormones and 2 hours of sleep.

I loved babywearing. For the first 30 minutes. At minute 31 my cozy wrap began to feel more like a straight jacket. I could feel beads of sweat forming in places I couldn't itch and my vertebrae began violent protests and threatened to leave my spine to join another part of the skeletal system because they certainly did not sign up for this nonsense. I couldn't agree more and if I could have used them to form a third arm I would have, because I clearly did not have enough as it were. I couldn't hold a newborn and chase after a toddler and help a preschooler draw a lion, except not that kind of lion.

So the baby slept in the wrap on my chest and nursed in the wrap and I probably would have driven around with her in the wrap except it was too hard to maneuver my arms around her body while steering. I would like to suggest post-partum women be sent home from the hospital with some kind of supervisor.

Having a baby was the hardest thing I've ever done. Having a bunch of babies in a row made me fantasize about going to jail so I could be left alone in a small room with nothing but a bed and a Bible. 

Lock me away, Your Honor! I'm guilty! Guilty of not enjoying every minute of having babies. I probably enjoyed 30% of the minutes. The other 70% was just hard work. Long, hard, exhausting, cry-your-eyes-out, pray-for-strength-to-get-through-the-day work. Was it worth it? Unequivocally, absolutely, YES.

Do runners enjoy every minute of a marathon? Do medical students enjoy every minute of residency? Admittedly, I have done neither, but I imagine people take on hard things not because they are fun or easy, but because somewhere deep down they know that the hard things are really the only things worth doing. It's the hard things that show you who you really are, what you are capable of and where you draw the strength to keep going. There is often unspeakable joy hidden in the midst of hard places and the only way to find that joy is to do the work it takes to get there.

Sometimes we take on hard things not by choice, but by circumstance. Either way, the result is the same. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, as they say. Of course, that still doesn't mean we should enjoy every second of our near death experience.




The quickest way to make a new mom feel like a failure is to tell her "enjoy every minute! It goes so fast!"

Really? I wanted to say to that older woman with fresh makeup, leisurely making her way down the produce aisle. May I smear some yellow poop in your hair? How much would you enjoy that? You know how long I've been awake? Twenty hours. That's 1,200 minutes. Every night I pray for time to speed the frig up.

It's been seven years since I had my first baby and three since I had my last. I feel like I've crossed over this bridge of diapers and sippy cups and naptimes and I can't believe I'm already on the other side.
Although, when it comes to photos, some things never change.

2 out of 3. I'll take it.
I see a young mom with a new baby and I'm nostalgic, longing to hold my tiny babes one more time. I still want to put her baby in my mouth, but I also feel a sense of relief, maybe even a feeling of accomplishment that I have pushed through all those endless hours. I have this urge to lean over and whisper "enjoy every minute! It goes so fast!" I've almost forgotten all the hard work and tears and one million ounces of breastmilk that it took to get me to this place. Instead I tell her "you're doing a great job! Your kids are amazing! Yes, I would love to hold your baby while you rescue your toddler from the third story of the playplace."

I may have crossed the first bridge, but there are still many miles to go. And this place I'm in right now? I think I'm going to like it here. Here are some things I've done today that at one point I was convinced I would never do again:
1. Took a shower. Alone. Without someone crying. Including myself.
2. Rode in the car with 3 other people and only buckled my own seatbelt.
3. Walked around for several consecutive hours without a human person attached to me.
4. Enjoyed an actual conversation with my kids because they are clever and funny and amazing.

There are still hard days and there are good days, but most often the days are some of both. The hard work to enjoyment ratio seems to be balancing out a bit though. This motherhood gig doesn't always get easier, but it changes and becomes different, and that's usually what you really need anyway.





As for me, I'd like to think I'm older and wiser, but probably I'm just older and less anxious. I know some things now. I know that whether you choose to sleep train or not, your child will sleep eventually. I know that despite your effort to raise your baby solely on breastmilk and organic broccoli, one day you will walk in the kitchen and find her dipping cheetos in maple syrup. I now know that my opposition to my 3-year-old wearing his Batman underwear over his clothes was not worth the fight.

When I look over my shoulder I see the days that seemed to last an eternity evaporate in an instant. I know it goes so fast, but I also know it's impossible to enjoy every minute.

I won't give you unsolicited advice on potty training or discipline practises, but if you ask I will tell you to just lean into it, all of it: the joy, the pain and everything in between. It's all part of the maternal package. Just embrace the chaos, the mess, the snuggles, the belly laughs, and if you can't because you need to go cry in a closet for a little while that's ok too.

Now I am (mostly...sometimes) the one who gets up first. I now wake them up to start the day. I miss my babies, but I am loving these kids.

I don't know what tomorrow may bring, but if I've learned anything from motherhood it's this: these days with these little people are more than I could have hoped for and nothing like I expected.

I have less control than I think and more grace than I deserve.

I don't have a plan and I don't have answers, but we have each other and all I know to do is lean in and count it all joy.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Our Disney Cruise: Important Life Lessons and an Ungodly Amount of Frozen Yogurt




I was bitten by the travel bug young. In my late teens and early twenties I spent my summers finding excuses to travel the world. I spent one summer teaching English to school children in rural Nepal, another holding babies in a Romanian orphanage. In college I spent a semester abroad, running all over Europe and painting a lot of naked people. Hashtag long story.

Most of my journeys were missions-related, focused on helping others or a cultural exchange of sorts. Of course, it's probably safe to assume that no life was changed as much as my own. I was a travel junkie chasing the high of self-discovery. No books or classes or teachers taught me more than what I learned stepping outside my comfort zone into a world of new customs and possibilities.

Still there comes a point in every journey, no matter how enthralling, in which you stop and very loudly ask yourself “WHY DID I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA??” Maybe things are not quite going according to plan or you’re just a little homesick. Maybe you got head lice from a Chinese airplane or you just miss ice cubes because why are Americans the only people in the world who don’t drink things at room temperature??

But time tends to erase the unpleasantries from your mind until you're mostly left with a picture-perfect-postcard impression of your journey and a longing to return to that idyllic space.

When my youngest was born I had a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a newborn and it was so hard that I wanted to run away except I would have missed all the little stinkers too much. I longed for an escape to all those exotic places. Instead, for whatever reason, I decided that 3 was surely the magic age at which having children becomes easier and that when Elise turned 3, life would stop being so crazy and we would take a fabulous trip to celebrate our survival of the baby years. (I would like to suggest that when one is surviving on 2 hours of sleep a night, one’s loftiest goal should be to get oneself dressed by noon, not construct universal truths based on zero scientific evidence.)

So I researched and planned and finally booked a Caribbean cruise for our family, a Disney cruise to be exact, because the Disney cruise commercials promise the children will be completely entertained and the parents will be entirely relaxed. I knew cruising wasn’t exactly the “real, authentic” travel I fell in love with, but who cares about cultural exchange? I was just looking for a nap.

Finally, after weeks, heck, years of anticipation and preparation we sailed on the Disney Dream in March. We were excited. Like, really excited. I couldn't wait to island hop and to share the wonder of new experiences with my kids. I was especially excited to spend the mornings on the adult-only pool deck while the children were sequestered to the Disneyriffic Kids' Club. 

It only took about 10 minutes after checking in for us to very loudly ask ourselves WHY DID WE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?? Harsh reality smacked us across the face in the form of our 4-year-old flinging his tiny body on the floor of the main deck during Mickey's Bon Voyage party. 

"Sweetie, don't you want to see Mickey dancing with all his friends?"

"NOOOOOOOO!!!!" 

"Would you like to wear this flower necklace and look at the ocean?"

"NOOOOOO!!! I want to go HOME! I MISS MY LEGOOOOOOS!!"

The ship was fabulous. The service was impeccable. The food was all-you-can-eat. We did, however, overlook one tiny detail as we planned this dream vacation: we still had to be parents and our kids were still going to act like kids. In the midst of all the excitement, we had somehow forgotten everything we had ever learned about traveling with kids.

A tantrum at home? That's normal. A tantrum on a cruise? We had barely entertained the possibility. It was as if we were expecting our children to be so grateful for this opportunity that they would come to us bearing gifts saying, "Mother, Father, you are the best parents in the world and we promise to mind our manners the entire trip! And we especially promise not to growl at crew members or do anything else that causes you to die of embarrassment."

You will be shocked to discover that our kids gave us no such guarantee. In fact, our middle child decided that this trip would be the perfect time to announce that he hates water. On a boat. With 18 pools. Surrounded by ocean.

When we went ashore at Cozumel to see the fascinating, educational Mayan ruins, our oldest complained that there was nothing exciting about some old rocks and is it time to eat tacos yet? How about now? Is it time now? When are we having tacos? (Also, it turns out the tacos were "ok, but not as good as real, American tacos.")





Perhaps most crushing of all was our children's reaction to Kids' Club. The Oceaneer's Club, more commonly referred to as Kids' Club, is Disney's answer to in-house childcare and this particular kids' club included everything from Tinkerbell's tree house to a Monster's Inc. factory playground to life-sized replicas of Toy Story toys in Andy's Room. All kids love Kids' Club. All kids want to spend hours in Kids' Club while their parents sip Pina Coladas poolside. All kids except our kids. Our kids just wanted to be with us the entire trip. I mean, I can't blame them, we are pretty cool, but it would have been nice to sunbathe without a wet body laying across my chest.

On the bright side, their dislike of Kids' Club was a useful threat when they started to act up. Several times a day we would find ourselves yelling, "If you don't shape up, we're sending you to KIDS' CLUB!!"

"Noooooo, not Kids' Club!!"


Of course, it wasn't all meltdowns and sibling spats. We were enthralled by the nightly entertainment, particularly Aladdin the musical. "Star Wars Day" is one we won't quickly forget, especially Jack who was selected for Jedi training and had the opportunity to dual with Darth Vader himself.




The kids still talk about the dolphins and sea turtles we were able to touch at the conservatory on Grand Cayman.


And their very favorite thing of all? It wasn't playing in the surf at Castaway Cay. It was not the late night dance party or Pirate Night or even the fireworks display.



My children will tell you that their most favorite thing of all was the poolside frozen yogurt machine.

This particular machine consisted of chocolate, strawberry, vanilla and banana yogurt and it opened around 10:30 each morning, so starting at 6:30am we spent the first 4 hours of our day telling our children it was not yet 10:30. At the beginning of the week John and I tried to be good parents and practice restraint by limiting our kids to one cone or so an hour. By the end of the week our attitude was more along the lines of "just whatever, eat until you barf."

By some miracle not one child barfed the entire trip, a fact made even more miraculous when you consider Henry's diet the entire week consisted solely of frozen yogurt and butter packets.

So what I'm saying is, if you want to experience the magic of a Disney Cruise without actually going on a Disney Cruise, all you need to do is buy a frozen yogurt machine, set it up by a baby pool in the backyard and continuously stream Finding Nemo on your iPad. You're welcome.

I suppose as the months and years roll by, the unpleasantries of this trip (a.k.a. our whiny weirdo kids) will also fade as the sweet memories take up a more permanent residence. I don't mean to give the impression that this vacation was a disappointment - it wasn't - but it was a learning experience, and that is one thing travel always is.


I miss the kind of traveling I used to do, or perhaps I miss my 20-year-old self, wide open, ready to change the world, braced to discover myself in the process. Even if I could abandon my responsibilities to trek the African continent, something tells me it wouldn't be the same. That 20-year-old traveler is fourteen years long gone.

Traveling revealed my weaknesses, but also showed me how much I was capable of, which gave me confidence. Traveling left me inspired, full of wonder and oddly content to embrace my smallness in the world.

One night on the cruise, as I lay in bed, feeling the sway of the ocean and listening to my children giggling to each other, I had an epiphany of sorts: the same things I miss about travel, I've found in my kids.



I've got three amazing adventures right here at home with me. I don't need to leave my doorstep to be pushed and challenged, to learn and grow. I try to teach and guide them when all the while I am the one changing, stretching.

 All I need to do to embrace mystery, to be in awe of creation is to peek in the bedroom across the hall. When I do, I feel oddly content to embrace my smallness in the world.

I didn't find exactly what I was looking for on this trip. Instead, this trip taught me that everything I was hoping to recapture, I already have.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How to Travel With Kids Without Losing Your Mind

I'm honored to be posting at We, A Great Parade for my friend Shannon who recently gave birth to her third child. Shannon is witty, eloquent, compassionate and always keeps it real. Join the parade on her blog or Instagram; her writing will uplift & encourage you and also make you come up with a list of excuses to visit Iowa so you can be real life BFFs.


Family trips sound good on paper and look precious in the photos, but somewhere in the reality of the actual vacation it becomes clear that even though you would not hesitate to throw your body in front of a moving train for these people, if you have to be in a room with them for one more minute you just might die.

Obviously there are sweet moments too: the look on your child's face the first time he sees the ocean or the can't-catch-your-breath-from-laughing card game around Grandma's dining table. We travel with our kids to make memories, to escape our routine and to connect with them through new experiences.

It won't all be perfect, but there are some things we can do to ensure we come home with the same number of brain cells we left with.

Click over to We, A Great Parade to read more!

Monday, May 23, 2016

To the Teacher Who's Wondering if You're Making a Difference

I recently came across this letter I wrote last year for my first grade teacher's retirement celebration. I decided to post it for two reasons.

1) If you are a worn-out, stretched-too-thin teacher wondering if you are making a difference in this overwhelming, underpaid profession you have chosen, the answer is YES. You may not hear about it for nearly 30 years, if at all, but you never know the life-changing impact you might have on someone just by doing your job.
2) Think about someone who has made a difference in your life - a teacher, a mentor, a friend. Have you ever taken the time to tell them the difference they have made? You don't have to write a novel. Look them up, write an email, send a Facebook message. Take the time you normally spend on Zulilly and let them know. It will mean the world to them, I guarantee. 


I'm in the second row with the pigtails. Not sure what I'm doing with my face, but I suspect I'm feeling quite smug about having the ruffliest collar in the class. 


Occasionally throughout life, the question comes up: who was your favorite teacher?

Hands-down, without hesitation, since I was 6 years old, my answer has always been Mrs. Gordey.

I was in Mrs. Gordey’s first grade class in 1990. Funnily enough, I don’t remember the particulars of learning math or science that year. I barely remember reading groups or spelling tests, but what I do remember has stayed with me for over 20 years.

I remember her laugh. I remember the way she would throw back her head with laughter when one of her students innocently and unwittingly said something funny. We must have all been hysterical too, because her classroom was always filled with joy. Or maybe that was just her way of showing how she took delight in each and every student.

I remember the fun. When I was in first grade, I couldn’t wait to go to school each day. I was so excited to see who might get “cornfused” about something and be allowed to sit with the coveted box of Cornflakes on their desk for the morning. I remember “Crazy Hat Day.” I remember accidentally/on purpose saying the banned word “ain’t”, the punishment for which was to pet a stuffed yellow lion on the teacher's desk. I remember all the stories about Mr.Gordey; apparently, he was so skinny that he had to wear skis in the shower so he wouldn’t wash down the drain. (I thought she was kidding, but I was never quite sure.) I can still sing all the words to the silly songs she taught us. I remember earning stickers, wearing buttons and especially, I remember the day that Mrs. Gordey slid down the slide.

I remember the life lessons. She showed us through words and actions that each student was special and important in their own unique way. She told us to “Do right, even if the stars fall.” She demonstrated the unconditional love of Christ every day.

When I was in first grade, Ms. Gordey asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her that I wanted to be a writer, a “poetess” to be exact. She encouraged my pursuit. When the assignment was to write a story, she let me write a poem instead. She even allowed me to sign my name “Poetess Anna” on several occasions. The goal of my 6-year-old life was to write poems that made her giggle.

But I did not become a poetess. I became a teacher.

When I was in college I chose elementary education as my major because 1) I was not sure I could make a living as a poetess and 2) when thinking about the people who had most influenced my life up to that point, I could not deny the impact of Mrs.Gordey.

Mrs. Gordey ignited the spark that lit my lifelong passion for learning. She saw my potential and I strove to make her proud. A laugh and a hug from Mrs. Gordey was better than any gold star. The confidence that was instilled in me in the first grade has lasted my whole life.

I can only hope to have the honor to take what Mrs. Gordey gave me and pass it on to another. I became a teacher because of Mrs. Gordey.

I am currently on a break from my teaching position as a stay-at-home mom while I raise my three children, but even as a mother I endeavor to impart the lessons I learned in my first grade classroom 25 years ago. I try to laugh with them, to have fun with them and most importantly, to show them how to love God and love others.

As a teacher I learned something that Mrs. Gordey has known for decades. I learned that you cannot teach a child anything until that child knows you truly care. You cannot instruct a child’s head until you capture his heart.

Mrs. Gordey has captured the hearts of hundreds of children. Those children are forever inspired and impacted just by knowing her. Mrs. Gordey has made the world a better place, one tiny heart at a time.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Finding Love by Letting it Die

In Charleston they eat pimento cheese at breakfast, lunch and dinner and the women wear sundresses in November.
I think I've found my people, y'all.
John and I recently celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Neither of us had ever been and we spent the better part of a long weekend savoring low-cuisine, enjoying historical tours, sampling multiple varieties of pimento cheese, wandering the old city and sneaking several plates of our hotel's complimentary dessert buffet back to our room. Do you notice a theme here?

One of the most magical things about our relationship is that neither of us believe in the concept of spoiling one's appetite, especially on vacation. And when you are in a city known for it's culinary flair, it would be a sin to miss even one meal. Or tea time. Or cocktails and hors-d'oeuvres. Or midnight snacks from the mini-bar. We are faux foodies, after all.





I was definitely looking forward to the slow pace, the quality time, and of course, the good eats. I did have one troublesome thought nagging at the back of my mind though. We have been together for so long and we know each other so well, I was a little worried that we might run out of things to say by noon on day one. I've learned how not to hate him, but had I forgotten how to date him? When you know every single detail of someone's life, what else is there to talk about?

I planned activities during the day to keep us busy - a horse-drawn carriage tour through the city, a ferry out to historical Fort Sumter - but it was actually the mealtimes that had me most concerned. There are only so many comments one can make about the bread and butter while waiting for the food to arrive.







Ever the planner, I decided the best course of action would be to Google "questions to ask your date" because the internet has the answer to all of life's problems. Sure enough, several options popped right up and one night at dinner, when the inevitable conversational lull reared it's ugly head, I decided to use one.

I pulled out my phone. John inquired as to what I was doing.

"It's a list of date night questions," I answered and he looked at me quizzically with raised eyebrows. "What? I'm just trying to keep the spark alive! Now tell me, what movie reminds you of us?"

He laughed. "Let me see that." And we both scrolled through together. We asked the questions, some silly, some serious, some slightly inappropriate (those answers whispered in hushed tones). We giggled and we laughed so hard we risked choking on our crab cakes. We reminisced and we waxed nostalgic about years already spent.

And you want to know something funny? We did not learn one new thing about each other that evening. He knew my answers before he asked the questions, and I asked him questions just because I like to hear him tell the story - "when did you know you loved me?" "what is your favorite memory of us?" "tell me how you think I'm more beautiful than Scarlet Johanssen" (I may have ad libbed a few).




C.S. Lewis once eloquently wrote that "People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ forever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change — not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one...This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time."

I was worried that the thrills were gone, and it's true that the butterflies have long since died, but they have been replaced by a quiet familiarity, a warm fullness that comes with having a partner who knows you to your core. I had forgotten that there is actually a deep comfort in the ability to sit in easy silence with another person. Words are not always necessary. 

Our relationship has matured to the extent that all it takes is one look to know what the other is thinking. One glance may say "get this child out of my face before I go all Joan Crawford-wire-hanger crazy." Another gaze might communicate the overwhelming gratitude and love felt for this life we've created together.

That night it happened to be one calculating glance as we sauntered past the hotel dessert buffet. One look which said "obviously we need to try everything...in the comfort of our own room of course, not as the gluttonous couple who just sat down with eight plates of dessert" and just like that we were piling up plates of cheesecake, chocolate pie and cookies, and making a mad dash to the elevator for our getaway. 

Food, it seems, is our love language. And we speak it so well.
I love our quiet, mature love.

It's a world of new thrills all the time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Salad Dressing Formula that Will Change Your Life


I am a salad dressing snob.

It's true. I never even liked salads until I was practically in my 20s. At 19 years old I had a chance encounter with a Caesar salad tossed with a dressing made from scratch and a choir of angels sang from heaven with each bite. I finally understood what all the fuss was about and my life was changed forever.

After that I accepted salads into my life, but I still avoid bottled dressings like the nasty little devils they are. I will eat high-fructose gummy worms with reckless abandon, but don't you dare put preservatives in my dressing. Do not even try to feed me Hidden Valley Ranch or I will gag. I'm sorry, it's just what dressing snobs do.

Without dressing, salad is just some leaves and a sad carrot. I mean, who would actually eat a cucumber by itself? It's the dressing that separates us from the rabbits, my friends, and if you've spent years drowning your salad in Wishbone, I'm about to change your life too.



Vinaigrettes are the healthiest and easiest salad dressings to make. You can never go wrong with straight up oil and vinegar, but if you want to take your salad up a notch, here is a no-fail, one-minute, super spectacular salad dressing formula:

3 parts Oil + 2 parts Vinegar + 1 part Flavor
{with salt & pepper to taste}

Use 3 Tbsp oil, 2 Tbsp vinegar and 1 Tbsp flavor for a smaller amount of dressings - good for one salad for a crowd or for a couple days worth of individual salads. You could also make enough to have on hand for a week or two if you combine 1/2 cup of oil, 1/4 cup vinegar and 2 Tbsp flavor. Keep in mind that some vinegars are stronger than others, so if it's too tart you can add more oil, or if it's not strong enough just add more vinegar.

Personally, I like to throw it all in a mason jar and shake it til it does that emulsify thing because 1) a blender is too much work to clean 2) whisking makes my hand tired and 3) you can store leftovers in the same jar so woohoo! less dishes.

Here are some of my favorite combos:

Oil + Balsamic Vinegar + Honey = Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette

Oil + Sherry Vinegar + Strawberry Jam = Strawberry Vinaigrette

Oil + Red Wine Vinegar + Mustard & Honey = Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

Oil + Lemon Juice + Parmesan Cheese = Lemon-Parmesan Vinaigrette

Oil + Apple Cider Vinegar + Maple Syrup with a generous pinch of cinnamon = Maple-Cinnamon Vinaigrette

Oil + Rice Wine Vinegar + Soy Sauce (add in some garlic, ginger and sugar for fun!) = Asian Vinaigrette

Oil + Lime Juice + Cilantro and Garlic = Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette



Finally, I feel I must end with a disclaimer: Though I am a self-admitted salad dressing snob, if I come to your house I will happily eat your bottled stuff because I love you more than I love hating bottled dressing. Just to clear that up.

Secondly, even though I occasionally have dreams about ranch dressing made from scratch, there are some days when it is just too hard to mix 3 ingredients together. On those days I do have some bottled dressings (gasp!) that have fooled me into thinking they are home-made.

My favorites are:
-Braswell's Balsamic Vinaigrette
-just about anything from Tessamae


Happy Mixing, friends!