Tag Archives: Relationships

It Took 40 Years To Be This Person

One recent Sunday morning I set my juice on the table next to a piece of rolled up paper tied with ribbon. “Is this for me?” My family took me by complete surprise. In 40 days I would be 40. They planned to celebrate me in some way every one of those days.

When you’re a kid, every birthday is special, filled with anticipation. Adults mostly try to push them back like the sand that keeps sliding and filling a carefully dug hole.

Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about turning 40. Not worry, not dread. Reflection. I’m more excited about this birthday than I’ve been since I turned 21.

To me, 40 is not old. I’m lucky enough to have a father who never looked at age as something to dread. “I’m just glad I made it this long,” he says every year. I feel like this is my chance to take everything I’ve learned and go forth.

But 40 does feel like a crossroads. This big year of tumbling into a new decade. Do I keep trudging through my days the same way as always? Do I shake things up a bit? When is the right time to get out there and do the things I’ve always wanted to do? If ever there was a time to try something, this is it. Though I feel like I finally have wisdom backing me, I no longer have the luxury of an expanse of time.

I’m what you call a late bloomer. It took me a long time to come out of my shell. I remember a time, decades ago, when boys wore their best flannel shirts and stone-washed jeans to the high school dance. I gathered all the courage I had and blew it on walking in the door, forget dancing. I watched as everyone else without a date gathered in groups and bobbed together like boats on the horizon. Their bodies pulsed to the beat, they laughed, they goofed off. It didn’t matter what I faked. Smile or laugh or whatever, the only thing hearing me was the wall and deep down, I fought the tapping in my toes and the bouncing in my knees. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have as good a time as the kids on the dance floor.

In time, I learned. I learned not to care what I looked like. I learned that confidence and beauty really can go hand-in-hand with making a fool of yourself. People see your smile, hear your laughter. They move and smile and laugh with you. No one is moved to hold the wall up with you all night.

And I want to be an example. I don’t want my kids to be that person. I don’t want them to sit on the sidelines and watch. I want them to participate in life and jump in and not be afraid. I don’t want them to hold their happiness in.

When my kids are mortified to see me dance, when they hear me scream on a ride, when they see my step falter on a high climb, when they hear me speak up, when they see me try something new, I want my kids to know that it has taken me nearly 40 years to be this person. That you don’t ever have to stop growing. Every year I learn something new because I learned to let go of the part of me that was holding me back.

This was tough but quick. Almost at the end!

Something new and terrifying.

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We Learn From the Tough Stuff

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. “I think you’re old enough now to make some of your own decisions.” I remember looking at my dad and thinking, “Are you kidding? Just tell me what to do.” I didn’t really want to make this decision, but my parents suddenly thought I was capable—at 13—right or wrong, whatever I decided was it.

It wasn’t a life or death decision, but tough on the social life of a teenage girl. I was deciding between going on a field trip that would last until late evening or going to a friend’s dance recital that same evening. I had already told my friend yes when we found out about the field trip. Of course I picked the field trip. Twenty-six years later, I still feel bad for letting my friend down.

I made other bad decisions. I shed some tears over them. I learned my lesson.

I faced many situations I wished I didn’t have to face. How could I deal with the girl who kept picking on me? Why did I admit that I liked Billy Bentley? Why did Tiffany seem to like Beth more, and what could I do about it? How could I face a boy who just broke up with me?

Those struggles helped me to be brave later. They helped me to know that I did have limits and I could stand up for myself. That sometimes a friendly smile is the best revenge after being dumped. That saying good-bye to a toxic friendship is the best cure. That I do have morals. That I actually could start over again and again.

But being the parent, taking a step back and letting my kids make their own decisions, it’s tough. I want to protect them. Sometimes the Mama Bear advice I want to give isn’t appropriate. But my kids know what they need to do just like I figured it out when I was their age.

All these years, it’s been the tough stuff that I’ve learned the most from. The lesson is just getting to a decision.

I’ve seen my kids make some tough choices, whether they knew it or not. A friend who makes fun of you maybe isn’t the best friend. When my son got glasses and his friend made fun of them every day, I noticed he hung around that friend a lot less.

My daughter had a tough choice this week: dissect a fish or don’t. And that left me with a tough choice: encourage her to do it or don’t. She worried the smell would make her sick. She thought it was gross and said she wouldn’t do it. Stress and drama overshadowed what I thought was a great opportunity for a third grader. I told her that maybe she could just leave the option open.

Where do I draw the line at encouragement and telling her to try, and being too pushy and making her decisions? I thought of all those choices I had to make growing up. Sometimes I didn’t want to make them. But I did and I did OK.

She knows in her gut what’s right for her. In the end, I told her to do what she needed to do.

This week, she did dissect a fish. She showed herself what she can do. She showed me what she can do—and I never thought removing an eyeball was on that list. I certainly don’t like watching the struggle, but the growth makes a mom proud.

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Life Through a Mason Jar

Everything had been picked over. Or claimed. Like birds had pecked at the flesh and picked everything clean to the bones, taken what they wanted and left the discards. I scoured her bedroom for something, a memory, a part of her. I took some earrings that I had never even seen her wear.

As the youngest grandchild, I had spent a lot of time with my grandmother. When my mother worked, I spent time in the big two-story house, certain that Chewbacca lurked behind corners. The fridge was always stocked with Nehi in every flavor. I grew up spending my Friday nights with her, eating at diners and making her laugh.

At 18 years old, I wasn’t ready to watch her die. I was still a kid, and I barely had the strength to say goodbye.

She always told me that when she died, a certain ring she wore would be mine. From the time I could talk, I always knew it. When she died, that was really all I wanted. It was the token I most associated with her.

When I see the ring now, it takes me back. But it’s not something I use every day. It sits tucked away. And so do the memories.

My grandmother’s ring was always on her hand. I used to sit on her lap and she’d ask me whose it was. I knew. She’d bounce me on her knees. She’d sing to me. She’d smile. I sing those same songs to my daughter. I remember.

But I found out quickly how sour things turn when loved ones die. People become greedy, wanting things for value or feeling others don’t deserve anything. It’s not about that. When someone dies, what I want is something that makes me smile when I see it. That takes me back to that time and that place and that sound and that smell. That moment in the kitchen when the snow was falling. That clink of metal when loose change hits a box. I want the one thing that will remind me of that person forever. And it could be a fancy ring, a cheap metal cross, or glass marbles. And every family member deserves that.

When my other grandmother died a year ago, I had a feeling dividing up the estate would be similar, bitter. I took one last look around her house while I could. I was rushed. I saw one of her old blue Mason jars and held it. She always had some near her stove, filled with tea or pasta or other basic ingredients. She was a cook like me. My grandmother had given me things through the years that she wanted me to have, but I wanted something that made me think of her when I saw it, something that evoked different memories. It didn’t need to have value. It just needed to take me back.

I’m glad I took the jar. It was the only token I got. The house is gone now. I know that with time, I’ll remember something and wish I had it. Something small like the milk glass that, after twenty-some years, I wish I had from my other grandmother. But at least I have the jar that spans my childhood memories of every kitchen that grandmother cooked in.

I hope that when I die, my kids don’t fight over things. I’d rather them bond over our time together and to think about the Mason jar: it appears old and empty, but through the glass I only see memories of a life lived.

jars mominthemuddle.com

I took this photo before my grandmother died because the jars reminded me of hers.

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The Owl Search That Delivered a Moment

The first time I heard the owl, I thought of Owl Moon. Many years ago I had read Jane Yolen’s picture book that describes a father and child owling on a cold winter night. “Oh, to have that moment,” I thought the first time I read it. I didn’t even have children at the time, but the story moved me.

Wishes of seeing the owl that was hooting somewhere near my house penetrated dreamy half-slumber. But at 3 a.m., I wasn’t about to climb out of my toasty bed and trek into the cold to go owling myself. Maybe it would come at a time that fit my schedule better?

Many times over the course of a year, we heard the owl, then two owls calling back and forth, then possibly three. Sometimes they were far away. Sometimes we’d swear they were in our yard. At 4 a.m., their calls kept us awake. Still, I never left the comfort of my bed to find them. So much for Owl Moon. I looked up owl calls online, trying to figure out what kind they were. Still unsure, I settled on the Great Horned Owl. That’s a pretty big bird, with a body size of 18 to 25 inches.

One dark evening just as autumn was settling in, we heard hooting. My husband and I listened at the back door and watched as a large bird flew into our tree and another flew out of it. It was too dark and there were too many leaves to see anything else. It then became my mission to see these owls. When the leaves fell, surely I would be able to spot a large owl among our trees.

Something else had happened since the first time we had heard owl calls. At a local park, a pair of Barred Owls had been attracting visitors daily. While walking with a friend there a few months ago, I tried to show her where I had seen an owl hanging out back in the thick trees. I told her to look closely, but you can often spot them because of their size. We didn’t see one so we walked on.

A few feet away, my friend threw her arms out like an overprotective mother. Three feet above my head, gazing down at me, was a Barred Owl. Being so close to a wild owl was breathtaking, but neither of us wanted to walk under that tree branch. We felt a little like that huge bird would pluck one of us up and fly away. But it was a sight and I wished my kids could have seen it.

barred owl mominthemuddle.com

photo credit: Janet Wright

That made me want to see the mysterious owls in our yard even more. Please wouldn’t they show themselves after all this time?

One night at home, the owls did come early again. At 8:30 I heard the distinct call. Cold or no, this was my chance to go owling. My daughter and I bundled up and walked around the yard, listening to the owls’ calls. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” Leaves crunched under our feet. We looked in all the trees, certain we’d see the silhouette of a large owl on the bare branches. The cold air nipped at our fingers. Our breath puffed like bursts of steam. Beyond the moonlight, stars twinkled. It was just us and the sounds of the owls. Then whispers. A flash of movement to the right. My daughter thought she saw something land and take off far away. We couldn’t be sure.

We stood side by side in the cold, still looking for owls. Silent. Still. Just the stars and us. We waited for the chill to take over our bones, for our feet to grow numb. We searched the stars, the branches, one another’s faces. With each frosty breath, we took it all in. Silence. We never saw an owl, but I wasn’t disappointed. All I could think was, “I hope she never forgets this moment.”

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When a Writer Is Born

I see my daughter close her diary, then run down to the kitchen to put the keys back in their hiding place. She can’t have her brother getting a peek again. After school, when homework is done, she wants computer time to type up stories about finding shells on vacations or blurbs about how much she loves her family.

She writes letters to family with run-on sentences about the owl in the backyard or the possum she sees at night. Who cares if she may be taking some creative license? Thank-you notes gush with love for an item, the color, the memory it evokes. Papers at school that require only a paragraph or two end up with pages and pages of her conversational tone, explaining in-depth our trip to Maine this summer or why bananas ripened in our kitchen.

Some mornings when it’s time for school, she shouts, “One more minute!” from her great-grandmother’s roll-top desk as she finishes up a letter, a story, a thought.

I both love and hate that she does that, has this need for writing. All my life when I’ve had an urge to communicate, it’s spilled out easily into words on a page. Flowed so fast my hand wasn’t able to keep up, the scratchy writing sometimes hard to decipher when I went back to read it again. My brain always moved too fast for my hands but there has always been a connection there, brain to hand.

The connection between my brain and my mouth is a different story. Words don’t flow from my mouth as easily. I am often quiet. Things come out all wrong or not at all. I am stumped for answers, for something touching when I need to be. Or words come out too quickly. I can’t take a moment to pause, speak, and go back and try again. Once I put spoken words out there, inappropriate as they are, they’re out there, unfiltered. But with paper or screen, words flow. Thoughts come. There’s no deleting, looking for the perfect word when you speak.

I remember as a child wishing I wasn’t the way that I was. I knew it had to do with writing. I felt like I sensed things differently, maybe I didn’t. I knew that I didn’t have to be famous or published to be a writer. I just was, in my heart, always. It was the way I had expressed every thing of my life.

I love that my daughter has that in her, that passion, that need. But I also hate it for her, that curse. That feeling that you just have to get it out. That you can’t go to sleep at night or leave the house or finish a conversation until you relieve yourself of the burden. Scrawl on scraps of paper or in a notebook in the car a thought, a story, an observation, a poem, a pain. Those words, those feelings. Those things you can’t say to anyone but your paper.

I was that girl. I still am. Before bed I scrawl a thought on a scrap of paper, sometimes never giving it another thought. Sometimes it’s the perfect ending I’ve been waiting for, for months, and it came to me while washing my face. I’ve poured my heart into journals. I’ve breathed life into dramatic teenage poems that I’d die if anyone saw. And I’ve shouted, “One more minute!” so I could finish a thought that just had to be written on paper instead of whispered in someone’s ear.

I’ve always thought that writing is a lonely life.

I hope she finds the courage to share hers long before I did.

keyboard

These days, most of my writing is done via keyboard.

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How My Husband Raised an Eagles Fan Born in the South

Growing up, I knew no other team than the Redskins. In fact, for a long time I thought they must play the Blueskins, the Grayskins, the Greenskins. I heard a lot of words I shouldn’t have heard and I learned to stay away from the den on Sunday afternoons. There was always a lot of screaming and cheering and the beating of hands on my dad’s old recliner.

If I had a favorite team, the Redskins was it. It was all I ever knew.

My dad walked me down the aisle only because I didn’t marry a Cowboys fan. My husband-to-be rooted for the Eagles, a true born-and-bred fan from Philly who watched the team lose its only Super Bowl appearance at that point in 1981.

When we had our son in North Carolina in 2003 and Eagles onesies started rolling in, I told my husband it was just possible our son could be a Panthers fan. I wanted to plant that seed early. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up.

Through those early years, my son changed favorite teams as often as he changed his favorite color. He liked the Buccaneers, the Titans, the Jaguars, and the Vikings. He liked nearly every team but the Eagles. He’d get excited about football on Sunday afternoons. His dad put game gear on—the same shirt and socks with holes in each foot—and pumped up spirits with “E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!” My son seemed excited about the prospect of watching football, watching TV. But ten minutes in, he climbed off the couch and found something else to do.

More than anything, my husband just wanted my son to watch football with him. “Be careful what you wish for,” I told him.

My husband told my son stories of staying up late watching Eagles football when he was a kid. He told him about crying when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl. He was in third grade at the time. He told him stories about the infamous crowd and how they were known for booing Santa one year.

It wasn’t until around second grade that my son started to pay attention to football. Each year he’d watch the games a bit longer, snuggled into his dad’s arm. Every whistle blown, every flag thrown, my son asked why. Every player down, every player on the bench, my son asked why. Every player’s name, every player’s stats, my son wanted to know how was that spelled again and where is he from? How much does he weigh? What team did he play on before this one?

I’d chuckle in the corner as my husband tried to watch the game and hear the commentators and refs.

During every halftime, every commercial if he had it his way, my son grabbed a football and asked his dad to go outside. He had to play his own version of a game.

The next morning, the first thing my son would ask was the score from the late game. In the car he’d ask me how to spell a player’s name or who I thought would make it to the playoffs. Did I know it was Ronnie Brown’s birthday? My husband had created a monster.

Over time my son began to favor the Eagles, wearing the jersey his grandparents gave him to school every Monday after they played, talking trash with the other kids about their favorite teams.

Now after school, I’m the fill-in for Dad. I can throw a pretty long spiral and it’s only taken two years to get there. My son is a pretty tough coach.

He mentioned the other day that he dreamed the Eagles won the Super Bowl. He keeps up with their stats and thinks they have a good shot at the playoffs this year. Nick Foles is doing pretty well.

He still watches every game on Sunday with his dad. He still asks a million questions. He still knows everyone’s name. Now he keeps an Eagles roster. And he still goes outside to throw the ball around with his dad during breaks. He wears his lucky Eagles jersey, shorts, socks, and underwear when they play. It’s been working, knock wood.

My husband didn’t create a monster. He created a fan. And a bond.

football

Down here, my son gets questioned a lot about why he is an Eagles fan. The answer is always “because of my dad.”

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Hold My Hand

We walk through the parking lot headed to dinner, a store. My son runs ahead, jumping, shouting, and getting off a bit more energy before being confined to a brick box and shushing and rules. Without looking, a hand slides into mine, never breaking the rhythm of my arms’ stride as I walk. My daughter’s warm hand fits perfectly, holds me firmly. I don’t look at it or say anything. I just take in the simple moment. For however long it lasts, she’s still my little girl and she still wants to hold my hand. Tomorrow she may not want to.

When my daughter was younger, I’d grab her hand to cross the road and she’d yank it away. “Let go!” she’d yell. She was a big girl at two. She could do it. It was always a battle. But I learned she wouldn’t run off. She stayed with us without holding anyone’s hand. I’d have to live with her independence, heartbreaking as it may be.

Sometimes I just wanted to hold her hand, to feel her still-soft baby skin nestled in mine, to feel her squeeze my hand tight and reassure her. Sometimes I just wanted her to reach out because I knew that whole handholding time was short. I didn’t want to be gypped.

But I let it go. That time came and went. It was never something she liked, not at two, not at five. Until now. Now, at eight, when I’m not looking and that hand slips into mine. For a moment, everything is good and she’s not too old just yet.

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Road Test: What a Red Light Taught Me About Patience

I had passed my driving test long ago. Gone was the stress of when to merge into traffic, when to mash the brakes, and Mom’s horrified face as I backed onto the highway we lived on. Now I endured new driving lessons.

After the imminent death of my Ford Escort, a sleeker Toyota Corolla took its place. Dad and I had shopped for this one. It was the sunroof that sealed the deal. The only little snag was that I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. I picked up the motions quickly after a few lessons, though I still managed the occasional spine-shifting grinding when I missed a gear. In no time I would be driving that baby around town: sunroof open, permed hair blowing in the wind, Edie Brickell tape blaring. When my dad took me out on the road for one last test, we realized he had forgotten something very important.

Life on the coast meant flat streets. No sledding hills. No grassy slopes to roll down in summertime. Just manmade overpasses and ramps. As we headed home after my road test, I stopped at a red light near the top of an overpass. I realized I didn’t know how to keep the car from rolling. Dad told me what to do but when the light turned green, I nearly rolled into the car behind me. I watched in my rearview mirror, helpless and screeching, “What do I do?!” as headlights grew closer. Horns honked. We jerked back and forth like a rodeo bull and the car stalled. My dad chuckled and I panicked. Cars sped around us. The light and my cheeks turned red. I would never get through this light. And worse, someone might see me! Anyone!

Again, the light turned green and again I tried to slowly lift my foot off the clutch and tap the gas, but we rolled back. The car jerked. I wanted to switch seats and let my father bail me out. He comfortably reclined in the passenger seat as if it were his own brown La-Z-Boy knock-off, urging me to stay calm. I could do this, he said.

But I couldn’t be calm. A look in my rearview mirror again revealed flashing blue lights. “Oh, no. I’m going to get a ticket,” I thought. But no officer ever approached my car. “He just knows I’m an idiot. What if I roll back into him?” After a few more tries and with what sounded like ten NASCAR engines, I finally gunned it through the light.

My dad immediately led me down the road to a less-traveled area, found a ramp, and let me practice until I got it right. It didn’t take long.

My dad seemed so cool and calm as I freaked out. We could have argued as I so often do now with my kids. He could have lost his patience with me as I easily do these days, trying to get my kids to see that they are capable. How come I didn’t get that sense of calm? I always punish myself for not being a more patient parent. Sometimes I get it right, but I think the truth has always been there: I’m the person I always was. Even more, at their core, my kids will probably always be who they are now.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I still can’t try to find that calm. I can take a breath, try again, and remember that maybe I am capable, as a parent, a driver, a person. Maybe Dad’s lesson reached far beyond the wheel.

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Honesty and the Price of a Fish

Three fish darted frantically around the plastic bag squatting on the counter. The cashier punched in two codes, and then announced a total.

“You forgot a fish,” my son said, looking up at the woman. “There are three fish in the bag and you only rang up two.”

He was right. She had missed a $6 fish that he would be paying for with his own money. She rang it up, he paid, and we left.

“That was a nice thing you did in there,” my husband said. “Not many people would have pointed that out.”

Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether I would have pointed it out. I hadn’t even noticed the cashier had missed a fish. Maybe I would have figured it evens out with all the fish that die within a week and we never bring back.

Not a fish in my son's tank but one he'd like.

Not from my son’s tank but a fish we had to stare at for a long time.

My son is a fairly honest boy. He’s never been a good liar. Oh, he’s tried. But I can look at him and he caves. His guilty conscience gets him. Faulty cashiers aside, I have the guilty conscience of a hundred nuns. When I know I did something bad, my guilt eats away at me like a fleet of gnawing rats. I punish myself worse than anyone else ever could. I see this trait in my son. While I grew into it, he seems plagued by it now.

He follows rules. He gets antsy when he notices from the backseat that I’m going five miles over the speed limit. When left with his grandparents for an evening, he’ll remind his sister that they can’t have ice cream again because they already had some that day.

That is a trait he did not get from me. Sure, as a kid I knew what it meant to be reliable and I was scared to not follow rules, but I would have easily forgotten a little thing like extra ice cream. I would do anything to get something sweet. I stole a box of brown sugar from the kitchen and hid it in my room to eat whenever I wanted.

I learned the hard way that lies lead to more lies and that you get caught. I stole my parents’ checkbook and hid it in my doll cradle for some authentic play. I didn’t even fess up when I knew they were looking for it. Finally, I returned it when they closed the account.

I didn’t fear dishonesty the way my son does. My daughter seems to be experimenting with dishonesty right now, testing boundaries with little white lies. Her lies often grow out of competition, not wanting to be left behind. When we heard an owl in the middle of the night, she heard it too. She even saw it from her window. In the dark. Three different nights.

Sometimes being the youngest is hard. I remember. When her older brother describes a movie that’s too old for her, my daughter insists she’s seen it too. We all know she is lying.

“Who’s the main character then?” my son quizzes.

“I can’t remember his name.” Hmm, it is a boy.

“What does he look like?”

“Uh, brown hair.”

“Wrong! He has dark hair!”

“That’s what I said!”

The interrogation continues and so does my daughter’s stubborn will.

But when I least expect it, she shows that guilty conscience too. And honesty. After a normal afternoon, she’ll burst into tears and admit she got reprimanded hours earlier at school.

At some point, I know my son will tell me lies. And at some point, I know my daughter will stop. Honestly, it’s what kids do. One day I may even look out my daughter’s window in the middle of the night and see that owl.

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I’m a Person, Not a Convenience

I am not a coatrack. Or a bookshelf. Or anything else upon which you put things. My kids see my hands or lap as an invitation to hold their things. Yesterday my daughter stared me down, determined that I would hold her books in the doctor’s office. The chair next to her wouldn’t do. I stared back, determined not to hold her load. Sometimes it’s a matter of power. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of habit.

I am not a maid or a servant or any kind of hired help. But I fear the kids see me that way. When the kids were younger, I did things for them because they couldn’t. When they were old enough, I taught them. That’s the part we’ve had trouble with.

Sometimes my kids think my hands work better than theirs. My hands make quick work of putting away toys, cutting neater along the lines, and pouring without spilling. But my hands have had decades of practice.

While driving, I am expected to hold the steering wheel and juggle a wrapper someone threw in my direction, while wadding up a tissue and tossing it swiftly into the backseat. “Mom, you missed.”

“No, you missed,” I mutter under my breath. Can’t they move an inch?

When the kids were small, I didn’t mind taking their chewed sucker stick and disposing of it as I drove. Little did I know what monsters I was creating. At the time, I thought putting used gum away was better than finding it stuck to a seat somewhere.

Later my kids would bypass three trashcans in search of my hands and me. When they would find me, they offered me something—a bit of string, a used tissue. How many times can one be offered a booger? At ages when they want to be independent, my kids sure are fickle about it. My daughter has walked through the kitchen to hand me her dish to put away. At what point does it sink in that they can accomplish this task on their own? “Dishwasher,” I say.

My kids simply can’t multitask like I can, but I’m providing opportunity. Our van doesn’t have automatic doors. Someone has to actually take two seconds to close them. Every day after school, someone leaves that damn van door open. My hands may be filled with bags and keys and a water bottle, but my kids can’t seem to handle an extra task when their load is on their back. I’ve learned to hurry to the house, remind the last one out to close it.

Habits are hard to break, even for a mom who constantly tells her kids she isn’t the family maid.

The kids have come a long way in doing things for themselves. They still need reminders. When they do need me—for a hug or help or to tell me about their day—I’m open.

And every now and then, I still look down to find that I’m holding my daughter’s book, and I wonder how it got there.

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