Tag Archives: Children

What Laura Ingalls Wilder Taught a Modern Mom

If you haven’t read the Little House books and plan to, know that this post includes some spoilers.

“You know how Mary is always so good and just sits there?”

“Yeah because she’s blonde.”

“You remember that time they went to church and Laura wore Mary’s ribbons and Mary wore Laura’s?”

“Yeah because they were running late.”

Two little girls had just had a conversation about a Little House book in my kitchen. Not American Girl dolls they want or a TV show or a video game. A book.

I didn’t talk about books when I was a kid. When I was about nine, I attempted Little House and failed. I just couldn’t get into it. Over the past year and a half, my seven-year-old daughter and I read the series together. When we started Little House in the Big Woods, I honestly didn’t think we’d get through it. I thought my daughter would find it boring. But in the quiet of the evening, my daughter faced me and soaked it in, asking questions.

When we started Little House on the Prairie and the building of their new house is described in so much detail, I thought we wouldn’t go on, but at the end of each book my daughter couldn’t wait for the next. Neither could I. All I could think was that I was so happy I didn’t read these books when I was a girl. Reading them for the first time with my daughter has been a gift revealed page by page. We couldn’t wait to see what each night would bring. Would the wolves get into the house? Would Pa make it home? “Oh, Mom! You always stop at the good parts!”littlehouse

What’s the appeal of stories about a girl’s pioneer life from more than a century ago? Laura’s many chores, danger, and solitude on the quiet prairie with few toys and comforts is more like our childhoods than we think. After all, even then it was hard for a girl to listen and sit still.

And reading the books for the first time as an adult, the books shed some perspective on my modern life.

• The Ingalls family doesn’t have much. They can take everything they own and move from place to place in a covered wagon. My family has tons of stuff. Some of it fills me with joy but I dare guess how many covered wagons it would take to move all of our things. Wagon train, anyone?

• The Ingalls family fixes what is broken. Pa wears his patched boots to walk a hundred miles for work, saving the money for something else. I wouldn’t want Pa to see my closet full of shoes. For shame, Karen.

• Oh, that mean old Nellie Oleson! If there is one thing I learned while reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, it’s that there is always a mean girl.

• We don’t control blizzards, grasshopper weather, the outcome of our crops, or the effects of illness. The Ingalls family pushes through the cold winter, Pa finds work to make money since the grasshoppers ate their crops, and Mary accepts her blindness with dignity. No one falls to the floor in a fit, whines for pity, or sheds a tear when things go wrong. Let me be clear—there is no dignity in this house in the face of misfortune.

I know the books are historical fiction, but I also know Wilder included many facts in her books. I can’t help but think the emotion is part of that.

After reading about Laura’s life, her closeness with her family, it was hard to read about her last night at home before getting married. I remember my own last night at home when the realization sunk in that things would be different and I would take on new roles. It was hard to see Laura move on. I could barely read the words to my daughter. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Every few words I paused so I wouldn’t burst into sobs. And then my daughter knew, it clicked, and she looked at me. Tears streamed down her cheeks and we wiped our tears and laughed. “I don’t ever want to leave you!” she cried. But I know she will one day. And that’s OK.

I’ll always have memories of this time together while my kids are young, reading to them, spending time with them. In Laura’s family, Pa plays the fiddle each night while everyone gathers round. In ours, we play games together or hang out. I guess family time is something that has stood the test of time.

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If This Summer Is Any Indication of My Future…

A few years ago, when I’d sit outside to watch my kids ride their bikes after school, I’d see the mom down the street from me drive by. She’d drive by again. Ten minutes later, she’d drive by again. In the course of an hour or two, I’d see her car go by many times. In summer months, her car never seemed to stop coming around the corner. I’d look up from my reading. She’d always smile and wave.

I think I know what she was smiling about. Not a neighborly smile, but a knowing smile. An “enjoy that chair and carefree afternoon” smile because your time is coming. With four kids, she was always picking them up from different schools, then taking someone to soccer or who-knows-what.

Now things have changed. Some of her kids are driving themselves to school and practices. Now I don’t need to sit and watch as my kids play outside after school. But I’ve moved on to something else.

All summer I’ve been dropping off my kids and picking them up. Basketball, gymnastics, Harry Potter, and horseback riding camps. Friends’ houses. Sewing classes. Their social schedules are wearing me out. Between these times, I manage to find an hour or two here and there to meet deadlines and make phone calls for work I actually have. I try in vain to get some writing in because my creative juices can only be bottled up for so long before they expire. Reading blogs and keeping up has gone to the wayside. When I’m on the computer, even for real work, my family says, “Mommy’s on her blog again,” but they use an annoying nasally tone and roll their eyes like being creative, having a hobby, and staying connected aren’t productive. Pshht.

I’m tired of my van. I’m tired of going back and forth. I’m tired of jerks riding my tail and others not moving over when I’m trying to merge. I’m damn near ready to cuss someone out for that. I’m not cut out for speeding around town trying to make it to the next activity or timing one kid’s play dates with another’s camp times. There’s always some lag time for me and I end up sitting (in my van) or going to the store for the third time in a week.

My kids have had an awesome summer. They’ve experienced some great new things and kept in touch with friends. I’m worn out. And I’m scared to look down the street and see what’s ahead.

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Sometimes Kids’ Adventure Needs to Be Mom-Free

“Mom, we did really awesome things that you would not like,” my son rambled from the backseat, along with descriptions of climbing high, wet, slippery rocks and getting up-close and personal with a possible rattlesnake.

My brain stopped at those high, slippery rocks. I knew those window falls he was talking about. He’s right. There’s no way I’d ever let him climb that.

But my son’s quote is the essence of our relationship. He seeks awesome things and I typically do not like them. Mention adventure and my danger radar goes off. I go into protection mode when it comes to my kids. I know I can’t wrap them in bubble wrap and send them out into the world. I know I have to let them live an actual life and experience actual things. None of that means I won’t worry the entire time they are away from me. And in order for my kids to have certain adventures, like awesome things I would not like, sometimes they just need to be away from me.

My son went camping this week with a friend and his dad. This dad has experience backpacking, camping in places much rougher than the hour-away campground they went to, complete with bathhouse. He’s been a camp counselor and a school principal. A pretty good resume if you are the type of mom who considers credentials before sending your child into the wild.

My breath may catch when my son climbs to new heights. I may tell him to be careful when he walks on slippery rocks. I may remind him twenty times to remember to shower so doesn’t get itchy at night. But once he leaves me, I know what I don’t know won’t hurt me, he’ll have fun, and he’ll do things I wouldn’t allow. He’ll experience life in a way I would never let him. Sometimes that’s the best part of letting go. In order for my kids to truly experience life, sometimes they need to do it out of my grasp.

When they come home and tell me their adventures, I smile and nod my head and I’m glad I wasn’t there to hold them back. And sometimes, I just pretend to listen. I don’t need to hear about all the awesome stuff.

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What Is a Picture Worth?

The afternoon sun catches my son’s face, his often-serious tone. He’s lost in a thought, about chameleons or frilled lizards or some other scaly beast he yearns for. I snap a photo. He looks up at me. A wave of brown hair covers one hazel eye and he flashes that boyish grin that melts my heart. Snap. Got it.

My daughter chomps ice on the front porch, pretending to ignore me, looking everywhere but at my camera. Quickly she shoots a smile toward me, the ice as her teeth. Snap. She smiles again and crinkles up her freckled nose. She has the best smile, the kind that uses every muscle in her face. Without realizing it, you return the favor. Her smile is contagious. Snap. Snap. Even a photo can’t capture the beauty of it sometimes.

My kids complain that I take too many pictures. For all the moments I capture, there are tons more that I miss. First steps. That stink eye my daughter used to give us before bursting into a fit of giggles.

Do I need a picture of every moment of my kids’ childhoods? No. But I’m a sentimental person. I document in many ways to keep memories alive. Pictures fill in the holes of a memory that fades more each year, like a quilt airing in the sun. Even more, I want my kids to see themselves, to see how I see them.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of my early childhood. Sure, there are plenty of those awkward years that I’d like to forget. But I’d give anything to have more pictures of the good stuff: random shots of my sister and me playing in our rooms, snuggled in bed together every Christmas Eve, playing at the beach where we went every weekend, dressed in any Halloween costume. All of those memories are tucked in my head where I can show them to no one.

I want to see the old house where my grandparents used to live. The kitchen where my grandmother ate ketchup sandwiches and peaches and cream. The room that held the old fridge where I’d squat and decide which flavor of Nehi I wanted that day, or the upstairs bedroom where at age five I’d sit and talk to my great-grandmother in her bed. We’d rub our hands over the patches on her quilt and discuss our favorites. She told me I could have that quilt when she died, and it wasn’t long before I found it on my own bed. I wish I had just one picture of her and me together.

nehi

The bottles are smaller but oh, the flavor takes me back.

I wish I had pictures of a lot of things but I don’t. We simply didn’t take a lot of pictures. So I do it for my kids. I want to remember.

I look at pictures of my kids and I’m transported. I hear their voices, their giggles. I remember the moment. I snapped a shot of my daughter tasting sand in the sandbox and her brother giggling at her toddler stupidity. I treasure the image of the two of them snuggled in her crib after her nap. When she woke up, he’d race into her room and jump in with her before I could even stand up. I’d stand in the hall and listen as they giggled, so happy to see each other after two hours. Six years later, those few photos are all I have of those lost moments. Bedhead and sleepy eyes and dimpled grins, my son looking adoringly at his sister. And knowing my memory, fleeting moments like that in childhoods that pass too quickly would soon be forgotten, taken over by the next cute or funny thing.

So to me, ten thousand pictures is not too many. Nor ten thousand more. When you put them together, they’re a reminder of the beautiful life you are living.

lighthouseme

I even take pictures of myself from time to time. Usually I’m behind the lens.

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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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Mother’s Day: The Everyday Moments Are the Greatest Gift

Mother’s Day—underneath it all, it’s just an ordinary day. This one, though, is wrapped up with a pretty bow. Get up, ooh and ahh over the effort of pancakes for breakfast that I know husband really put forth; ten minutes in, tell someone to stop saying stupid; decide that going to a park for the day would be the greatest way to spend a beautiful day because that’s what we normally do. Hugs from my kids, now those are the moments I really cherish.

Gush over the cards the kids made, the ones husband gently urged, then nagged, and then threatened them about for weeks. Daughter made hers with plenty of time to spare. Someone else slapped six words to paper and called it done. After a week of battles, who can blame him? I forced him to practice the dreaded recorder. I made him go to bed at a decent hour. I told him to please for the tenth time put his dirty underwear in the laundry room. He called me lazy and that didn’t go well, followed by a very long reminder of who washes his underwear and makes his dinner every night.

A dozen questions this week started with, “I know you’re going to say no, but…” And then I did.

The kids still give me presents, ones that teachers made them do at school but they are proud of nonetheless. Things my kids took care to hide from me, to surprise me with. I love every drawing, every bit of glue and string and paper. After, their part done, my kids run off to play Legos or get ready for the park.

Mother’s Day is just a day. For me, it’s more about the moments that aren’t forced. The times when one of the kids buries a head in my soft gut and reminds me he isn’t too old for me just yet. When I sing “You Are My Sunshine” to my daughter and her eyes fill with tears every single time. When I walk into my room and find a note that says, “Mommy you’re the best!” When the child who would never hold my hand now grabs it and doesn’t let go. When in the quiet of a new day, a sleepy boy snuggles up to me and doesn’t need to say a word.Mother's Day

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Practice: The I Don’t Like It, Aha Moments

As much as I hate the consequences of what I’m about to say, I nod my head, commiserate for a moment with my defeated child, and take a deep breath.

“You just have to keep practicing. It’s the only way you’ll get better,” I say as gently as I can.

I brace myself. Either tears or a swift crack of the recorder against the chair will come next. “I hate this thing!”

“I hate it too. God, I really do,” I think.

“Squeeeeeee, skreee, skree, squeeee, squraaaa squaaaa-eeeeeeeek—BANG! BANG! BANG!”

“Don’t bang it. You’re going to break it. And you can’t expect to learn it in two minutes. Practice some more.” I leave the room.

recorder

Stuck on one song…It’s Raining, It’s Pouring will never be the same.

My son is not a musical child obviously. At least, he won’t be now because learning the recorder for school has not been a good experience. He was excited for this with his very first squeak. Now, not so much. He won’t be trying out for band in middle school, so what’s the point of learning this thing, he huffs.

I know his pain. It’s exactly the way I felt about math from fourth grade on. I’m sure I threw a pencil or two. When would I ever use math? Little did I know I’d be punished decades later with a job that required me to know those same stupid elementary skills and two children who squirmed through math homework. No end in sight to that last one.

I hate to admit it, but I think my son gets his need of instant gratification from me. I hated to practice. If I wasn’t good at something right away, well, it wasn’t for me. Even though I wanted to write from the time I started kindergarten, I was never one for revisions. I thought my first drafts were perfect. Teachers and professors and editors must have wanted to snap my bony limbs in half. Why did they never call me out on my cockiness?

My daughter reminded me last night that she is cut from a different cloth. She wants to learn to do a handstand. I tucked my shirt in my jeans, raised my arms overhead, and pointed my left toe straight out. Like gliding on roller skates, it all came back. I moved forward and felt my body take over. I proudly did a dozen handstands and I can still walk today. My daughter tried for 45 minutes to do a handstand. I watched as she somehow got her hands stuck under her knees and landed smack on her face. She laughed and she tried again. And again. And again. She still can’t do one.

Practice makes perfect. Unless you don’t want to be perfect at it—if it’s something you hate.

As for my writing, I wrote all the time in journals—practice I never realized I was getting. I knew what I could get away with for a passing grade on papers. I finally started to listen to my editors. Now, revise, revise, revise.

And my son? No, I don’t think he’ll ever master that recorder. He’ll put his efforts into another passion another day. But I do fear he’ll end up with a child who wants to play first violin in the orchestra.

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What I Know About Nos

I tell myself that it’s parenting but sometimes it feels more like I’m getting away with the thing I’m telling my kid not to do.

“You’re not good at taking no for an answer,” I huff.

“I don’t care!”

“Well I do! And that’s the end of it!”

That was our good-bye this morning. No head buried in my chest for a quick hug. No fingers through hair for a quick fix. No I-love-yous. To anyone. Because my son was so intent on taking five books to school and I was so intent on telling him no. We argued about something neither of us was willing to give in to. I could see the stupidity of it as soon as he walked out the door and what-ifs began racing through my mind. In the quiet morning, I felt too dumb to run out in my pajamas and say, “I love you” to my family. I would forever be ashamed if those angry words were the last ones they heard from me. I was surprised when my kids offered limp waves as my husband’s car rolled away.

All year we’ve told our son he doesn’t need to take a stack of books to school. His backpack is thick with a school binder, lunchbox, and those reading books. He can’t even get it zipped some mornings. Extending a good foot off his back some days, he resembles the Hunchback and I worry it can’t be good for him.stuffed backpack

But he needs those books. He needs that fix. One won’t do. He could finish it during the day and then be left without a book to read, the horror! What is a ten-year-old boy to do?

It could be worse. I know it could be worse. And I know I have to pick my battles. I just get so frustrated that he can’t take no for an answer that I find myself standing too firm when I shouldn’t be. No triggers a bad reaction in him, probably every kid. I always feel it’s something he needs to work on.

But when a kid comes at you wanting a chameleon that will eventually require a 30-gallon tank, or next week bats his blue-green eyes wanting a sweet brown guinea pig with promises to keep it in the bathtub until he saves enough money to buy its cage, you become pretty adept at saying no. You get creative. You point out that his father is the one who feeds his fish most days and didn’t he just get those two months ago for his birthday anyway? You never really say the word no, you just point out the facts.

Then during the busiest weeks, the kids spring on you that they want to go to skate night. It’s easy to say no. “No, we had sports last night and we have a game tomorrow night. I can’t do something tonight. No.”

Parenting is full of nos. Maybe I say it too much. Maybe some things can be learned the hard way. I thought a sore back would be the answer to too many books. But I have to stop being so hard on myself. I’m the parent. And when it comes to lizards in 30-gallon tanks, the answer is going to be no.

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The Playground the Way It Was Meant to Be

Three days earlier, sleet and giant snowflakes fell, disrupting our way to warm weather. Now that it had arrived, the kids begged to spend the afternoon at their favorite playground. My husband and I plopped onto a metal bench, absorbing the heat we yearned for all winter.

“Remember when they were little and we always had to get up and help them?” I said. It required physical work for us to be at the park. Lifting the kids in and out of the swings. A shoe would fall off multiple times and need to be refastened. Or maybe my daughter would get stuck in those stupid toddler swings because I just couldn’t lift her up another inch to get her out. We had to push them “higher, Momma, faster.”

We had to hold their hands up the steps or help them climb the rock wall, plead with them not to stand too close to the open space at the tippy-top, or stuff our fannies into the tunnel and pretend it was a cave. We went down the slide with a kid in our lap or stood at the bottom to catch our precious cargo. We had to run at lightning speed to save our oblivious children from high-flying swings. Our arms became limp from holding our children up to the monkey bars so they could cross “one more time.”

I used to look with envy at the moms sitting on the benches, reading with not a care in the world while their children ran off and played. I’d glare at them when their kids ran up the slide and taught my toddler such dangerous maneuvers. I’d silently curse those parents for not keeping a watchful eye on their kids when they said words like stupid around my parrot-like angels.

Now I have finally graduated to the playground sidelines. No more chasing my kids. They run free and climb, the way play at a playground was meant to be. I watch as they cross the monkey bars with their own two hands. The only ache in my back now comes from the metal bench I’ve been sitting on. They explore the nearby creek and woods, sometimes out of sight for long stretches of time. I catch a glimpse of a pink shirt or hear my son’s loud voice, confirming all is well.

They follow each other like ants up and down ladders and fireman’s poles. They climb up the slide while other mothers tell their toddlers not to do the same. They say “stupid” and I tell them not to, but it falls on deaf ears.

Younger moms chase their tots, grabbing them before my kids’ high-flying swings mow them down. They help their kids up and down steps and catch them at the end of the slide. The newer moms make friends and play dates, while I just yearn for some quiet time and peace on a bench.

I watch the younger moms with their chubby-handed kids, giggling and running. I don’t miss it. I watch my kids run off, graze hands, giggling and making plans. I’ve started a new chapter. I open my book.playground

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