Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

****

The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

***

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Deluge

Early December brought a downpour to Southeast Alaska that the National Weather Service described as a 1-in-200 year event. Twelve communities were affected in all. Haines suffered the most extreme damages with 6.62 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. There were landslides, sinkholes, roads washed out, loss of nine homes, dozens of people displaced, and two fatalities.

The rest of our communities hardly make news. It’s rain, after all. Y’all are used to that, right?

I’ve never experienced anything like it. On the second day, flooding begins. Gustavus gets almost 4 inches of rain; just under the 24-hour record set in October of 1994. Eleven inches fall in the City of Pelican in 48 hours. Eleven. Southern California is lucky to get that much rain in a year.

For these two communities, last month was the rainiest December on record and second only to October of 1978 for the rainiest month of all time.

My neighborhood loses power in the late morning. Someone from the utility company stops by all of our homes to explain that a transformer is underwater. They are waiting to see what additional flooding the high tide will bring. “Hopefully power will be back on tomorrow,” he says.

I love a good power outage. When I was a kid we lost power to wind storms all the time. Mom would get the kitchen glowing with kerosene lanterns and warm us with the blue flames of our gas-powered stove. It felt very pioneer. We ate cereal and listened to AM radio. Gusts to 60 mph. French toast sticks for school lunch. We suited up into snow pants and jackets and went to the bus stop. No big deal.

Fast-forward thirty years and I feel dramatically under prepared. My husband is in Juneau. I have a range top and a wood stove, but no heater and no oven. Without the booster I can’t text or make calls. We have water in the reserve tank but it will run out soon.

First things first. I make a batch of play-dough and dig through the Christmas decorations to find two LED candles and enough AAA batteries to power them.

I place one of the candles on Avery’s nightstand as I tuck her in at naptime. “This is your candle,” I say. “Keep it with you until the sun comes up tomorrow.”

During her nap I prepare for nightfall. I mix a quick soup, put out oil and popcorn, place an empty bucket under the downspout, scoot living room furniture aside to create a sleepover scene, prep the laptop and DVD, and gather thematic books.

Avery wakes up and walks out in her light shoes click, click, click. Pink and purple fireworks with every step. She is carrying her candle. “Mama?” she asks. “It’s 6 p.m.?”

She wants to know if it’s time for the episodes she watches in the evening while I put the brothers to bed. “Not yet,” I say, and we read Dinosaurs before dark by faux candlelight.

My ability to slap a silly solution on a somewhat serious situation is my strength as well as my weakness. Maybe I should dig deeper, plan harder, think bigger; but that’s not where my brain goes. If the kids are safe and happy, if I can manage to make this into another one of our adventures, then that’s good enough for me.

It’s time to drive into cell-signal land and call daddy. I load the kids into our old truck and brave the flooded driveway.

Photo by S. Neilson

I dial my husband from the library parking lot. For a few minutes everyone is copacetic but then Toren starts in with his metal-on-metal scream. My husband is irritated. “Why don’t you call me back when everyone is settled?” he asks.

I get out of the truck to tell him how it really is. That making this phone call took a journey. That all I’ve got to get us through the night is popcorn and light shoes.

Covid-19 makes this strange storm even stranger. At another time people would be visiting, playing games, and waiting together for the weather to clear. But for the millionth time this year, there is nowhere to go. So we go home.

All of us are dealing with multiple stressors: People have too much work or too little work; too much time or too little time; anxiety or boredom; friends or family. We have nothing left to give, but keep giving anyway. We get out of bed in the morning, get along with others, pay the bills, get some sleep, and do it all again tomorrow. It’s not our best work but it will have to do. We forgive ourselves. We call it giving ourselves grace.

This endless rain at the end of an endlessly rainy year taxes whatever stamina remains. I wonder what kind of resiliency I have left. Six p.m. finally comes. With Avery plugged in and the brothers asleep, I sit down to eat soup and reevaluate. A generator, I think. Tomorrow I will find a generator.

Just then, a neighbor rolls up with venison steak, fun lights, and a generator. Turns out my husband made a few calls of his own, and Covid-19 doesn’t stop everyone.

Photo by S. Neilson

Sometimes we have what we need; other times we don’t. Maybe resilience lives in the community collective: A place where even when people are tired, someone has the energy to make a difference, knows what to give, has the right thing to give, and the truck to get it there.

*

The evening begins anew. We eat and play. I run the generator for a bit of light and comfort before turning in. “You might hear me up in the night,” I tell Avery. “I’m adding wood to the fire. Call Coo-ee! and I’ll come tuck you again.”

The pounding rain keeps me awake. I remember another time, far from this life, when I pretended the wind rattling my metal roof was the Southeast rain and let it lull me to sleep. This is not that rain. For the first time, I wonder what constitutes a monsoon.

Daylight makes everything better. I pack everyone up and drive to a friend’s home where I sit on a couch, drink tea, and feel normal. People joke about their new lake-front property. The power comes back on.

But the rain continues. After three days the volume drops to a normal sort of torrential angle-rain that continues through days four and five. On day six my friend H texts me: How is it still raining?

After a week, the sun comes back out. My husband flys home. We cut a Christmas tree. I ignore the wet things haunting my crawlspace. M spends three days evicting voles from our garage.

The New Year offers an opportunity to exhale and celebrate all that we have come through. With the last full moon of 2020, I spend a quiet moment letting the past year go and making room for the year to come.

Resilience sometimes shows up as a reserve: A full tank of gas. Love handles. Money in the bank. Good health. People who pick up when you call. A shiny new degree. An adequate resume. A reliable vehicle. The padding we hold onto for tough times.

But rather than a fullness, resilience might be a space. A capacity for looking ahead to a challenge and wondering, How might this change me for the better? In lean times a reserve can be exhausted. But a space can grow and deepen forever.

I talked with a friend in Haines today who parents an almost 2-year-old from before sun-up to long after sun-down. He is also remodeling a kitchen, emotionally supporting his partner who is a pandemic-era medical professional, repairing his home after national disaster-level flooding, and with each day addressing that relentless question, What’s for dinner?

“It feels like a little too much,” he says.

Yet I know this man to be highly resilient. Even under stress, he loves. He knows his gifts and gives of them generously. He cultivates an attitude of gratitude. Kindness is a prerequisite. Play is a priority. He lives by values, rather than resolutions.

Resiliency requires imagination. It says we must not expect life to behave predictably and we must not despair when everything crumbles. There is always a new chapter waiting; another chance to rise from the ashes. What is the point of living as less than we are?

On the brink of a new tomorrow, resilience is resisting the urge to rush back to the safety of everything you’ve ever known. It is singing our sorrows with lifted voices; even if we can’t carry a tune. It is the courage to look out over the edge, and fly.

The first 100 days

I adopted a new mantra when my twins were born: Life is a hurricane; I am the eye of the storm.

We are still marveling over the basics; still saying, There are two of them. My husband is working in Juneau 10 on 4 off. After two months of being mostly alone with my kids, we have reached a delicate equilibrium.

Photo by R. Evanson

Time is used for the highest possible purpose (safety/emergencies > food/toileting/sleep > cooking/laundry/dishes > art/adventures/fun. The microwave stays dirty). My thoughts travel no further than immediate needs. I make do. Who needs a third arm? I have a prehensile chin.

My combat training began with a lactation consultant who is the mother of four, including a set of twins: “You’re going to learn how to pick up a baby with one hand,” she barked. “Grab the baby by the front of his pajamas and pull him into your lap. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible, but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.”

I’ve just completed the fourth trimester with our new babies and I am learning to operate within the chaos, rather than trying to control it.

The hardest part of twins is definitely their big sister. I invest 75% of my daily energy into her. Maybe 90%. “Prioritize your big kid,” recommends my friend E, who became a twin mom last year. “The babies wont remember.”

Crying isn’t dying. “Twins cry more than a singleton,” said one mom on a twin podcast. “Everyone waits their turn. You have to accept this if you ever want want to shower again. If they’re crying, they’re breathing.”

Toren’s cry is shocking; even to the dog. His screams remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West in that scene from The Wizard of OZ where Dorothy pours water over her. What a world! What a world!

“How can you stand that?” asks my husband.

“I’m thinking about how to make fun of him in a blog post,” I say. Clearly.

*

I’ve learned to protect myself against situations where all three kids have needs (read: are crying) at the same time. Any combination of two is fine but the third has to be sleeping.

I get a lot of mileage out of lowering my standards. The other day I heard myself say, “Hey Avery, want to drive around and eat cookies while the brothers fall asleep in the car?”

Um, yes.

The hardest question to answer: Can I help? Thank you to everyone who has asked. Food gifts are awesome. They allow me to admire my babies and not just care for them. Otherwise, there is a pandemic, and having adults visitors requires more mature conversation than I usually have to give. If you come around I will inevitably end up dealng with my train-wreck pile of kids; only now with an audience. Not fun.

Help can be confusing even from my husband. M is a fantastic doer. He brings groceries, cooks, cleans, and drives Avery around. But he doesn’t do this parenting thing where his time (all day, every day) is overtaken by the needs of others. He doesn’t do anti-productivity well.

When I’m alone I do what needs to be done, and I don’t think about it. But when M is around, I compare my day to his and notice that my life is insane. I resent him when he makes a phone call or eats his entire breakfast. I feel jealous when he clips his toenails. Then, I feel crazy.

I stopped feeling crazy, however, one day when I got specific with him about how to help with the kids. “Feel free to clip anyone’s nails, anytime,” I said. “I have 40 just between the boys and I can’t keep up.”

“Plus your own,” he said. “That makes 60.”

“Avery makes 60,” I said. “Mine make 80.”

Not crazy.

*

How am I? Surprisingly good because Avery goes to preschool five mornings a week. Still, strategic mommery must roll continuously through the background or I get my wrist slapped. For example, I am about to wake the brothers and give them their circus (feed/diaper change) before we pick Avery up from school. Hopefully the babies fall asleep on the ride home so I can put Avery down for a nap without them crying when we get back. If they don’t fall asleep, I got nothin.

I grit my teeth from 4 to 6 p.m. every night, but at least it’s predictable. We eat dinner (out of bowls) as early as possible. At six I plug Avery in to a DVD while the brothers get their circus and are put down for the night. They’re asleep by seven. Then I clean the kitchen, feed the dog, and put Avery to bed. It’s a full shift. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.

I don’t run a tight ship; more like a buoyed Land Rover set adrift. It’s not easy, but it is easier than I thought it would be in that it is possible. Please do not drop by unannounced.

Once the brothers are asleep, Avery and I have a lovely ritual. She dons a baby-blanket cape fastened at the neck with a rubber band. We choose three books and fly out of the front door and run around to the sliding glass door. Yes, we could just go out that way but that is beside the point.

Outside of the glass door there is a cracked and weathered rocking chair; something I bought on impulse a few days before Avery was born but never used. It landed on this porch where it waited three years to become a well-loved fixture of our home.

We wrap ourselves in blankets and read and watch the stars come out.

“There’s Venus!” Avery says.

It’s actually Sirius; the dog star. But I mistook it for the planet Venus on our first night out, and I can’t bring myself to tell her differently.

“There it is,” say.

I try so hard to create special moments for my kids; to live the dream I imagined family life would be. Even now, in all of this sweetness, Avery can’t stop wiggling and jabs me repeatedly with her elbows.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Good,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

I’m ready for a new mantra. I’m moving out of the eye of the storm and into the ocean. What’s the difference between the hurricane’s eye and the ocean? The eye builds a wall to protect itself from what is outside: The ocean is a container. It holds everything and takes nothing personally.

Be the ocean.

As the eye I waited for the unpleasant things to shift. As ocean, I am the environment my family drifts in. Moments come, and moments go. Even if the surface is ruffled, I can sometimes manage to keep things calm underneath. The eye holds it’s breath: The ocean, breathes.

***

Second baby dilemma

Found this gem from October 2019 in the drafts folder. Enjoy!

As a young person I pictured myself as the eventual mother of two kids. Upon learning what parenting actually is, however, I am fairly on the fence about a second baby.

One kid slowed me down a lot, but not completely. When A was one I hiked a ton and once even enjoyed a bonfire among friends with a beer in my hand and a sleeping baby on my chest. “You’re winning right now,” said my friend K. Yes. I am.

Now that A is two, my husband and I are back up at the mountain trading off time on the lift and time with our daughter. It’s not the endless string of powder days I once lived and breathed for, but it’s enough.

I’ve soared through some nice snow this winter and had a ton of fun on the platter pull. It’s great to be back in the world and remembering my former freedoms. Which brings me to a dilemma. To try for a second baby? Or not?

Feeling torn over the idea of a second child reminds me of the last time I bought downhill skis. I had the option to choose high-cost, high-rewards powder boards. They slow you down in a lot of situations but man are they fun when conditions are just right. Or I could go with a more versatile all-mountain set up like I’d had in the past.

“You like to travel light and quick,” said my friend E. “Stick with the all-mountain. Less to haul around.”

She had a point. I liked what I had and I’d be safe to stay there. But what about the all-American urge to shoot for the moon and have it all?

“Powder boards,” said my husband. “You already have all-mountain skis. Time for something bigger.”

You can’t win if you don’t play.

The world seems all-in on this question. No one regrets the decision to have a second child, but no one could admit that either. Parents of second babies must encourage their propagation because they need equally slow, bat-shit crazy families with wheelbarrows full of kid gear to adventure with. All sources are biased.

The only slightly contrary insight I solicited is this: “Going from one baby to two,” says my friend S, “feels like going from one baby to 100 babies.”

A second child offers the first at least a shot at a great sibling relationship. Parents get to recycle their baby knowledge and correct mistakes from the first round. Baby stuff can be dug out of the crawlspace, used once more, and given away for good. Grandma’s heart would sing.

I miss my friends and mountains. Another baby would put this type of fun on the back burner for a few more years. Three more years of shitty sleep and no friends and not enough exercise. The inconvenience of pregnancy and lasting wear and tear on my body. Childcare for two kids would be so gosh-darned expensive. Paying for college, too. Eight-billion people on the planet. And my current baby just poured liquid laundry detergent on the carpet for the second time this month; so there’s that.

If I go for it I’ll be pushed by the same force that always drives me forward: Fear that if I don’t, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

Why else would I do it? For squaring up the family. For efficient use of chairlifts, Alaska Airlines companion fares, and SUVs. For the love of second babies, who are so funny and sweet and chill. For the possibility of getting to know you, mysterious child, who is at once me and my husband and everyone who came before and someone completely new. For watching you grow, change, learn, and become who you are. For looking at your sweet smile and tiny toes and wondering where you were before this moment in my arms. For the freaking sanity of not having to think about whether or not to have a second baby anymore.

I’m old enough that I can’t hang around in this zone much longer. Do I give up what freedom and adult conversation I have for the sake of one more potentially cool kid?

With the birth of my first child I got to satisfy a deep curiosity about what motherhood is; but where would bearing another leave me?

At home. With a kid in each arm and staring at these big fat powder boards.

***

Karma bulldogs

This morning my daughter A makes up a little game. One dog food bowl has a little kibble left in it; the other a little water; so she dumps the food into the water, the sloppy wet kibble back into the other bowl, back and forth, to create a ticking time-bomb of a mess. I allow it for one simple reason: I am washing the dishes.

Sink empty, I take on A’s fall out. Wet kibble is harder to clean up than I thought it would be… still I’m feeling fine (I chose this after all). But A is unsatisfied by my contented mood. She looks at me sideways, picks up a bowl of yogurt and berries, and chucks it into the mix.

In a moment of surprising maturity, I look at this small human, who is both so adorable and so infuriating, and in a calm voice I say, “I’m starting to feel mad.”

I’ve been wanting to talk about difficult emotions (I’m a writer; that’s what we do). It was a toss up between anger and shame, but it looks like anger just won.

Photo by N. Hanson

I have tried to build skill around anger for as long as I can remember, but I never improved much until A came into my life. Guess I needed a 24:7 immersion to get enough practice.

Baby A inspires me to do better when it comes to emotional self-control, yet I still fall short sometimes (every day?). I want A to understand how to express her emotions authentically but also kindly. I want her to know it’s possible to resolve conflicts by talking and listening.

I want A to grow up in a peaceful home. I know a non-violent existence is possible even if I’m not there yet. I want to be it so that I can believe it; but also I want to teach my child what is possible through my own example. What is seen is so much more powerful than what is said.

I am always looking for some tip or trick to help me break that quick link between emotion and action, but if you offer Zen advice on how to handle anger skillfully then I automatically doubt you’ve ever experienced the real thing. In my mind your advice can’t be both useful and authentic.

How are any of us supposed to break in a gas-pedal moment well enough to respond instead of react? There is no time to count to five, find compassion, or breathe. Here’s some advice from one who knows anger: Get everyone out of the house. Leave the hard-drives and important documents.

If you want to save the world, it’s best to start with yourself. Maintaining enough perspective during the kibble incident that I actually 1. Remain calm, and 2. Use my words, makes me so proud of myself. It has taken more than a decade of hard work to arrive here. And I’m proud of A too. In response to my words, she lifts her hand, touches me on the face, and says, “Pat, pat, mama.”

Pat, pat is the gentle way I’ve taught A to touch living things. Friendly dogs like a pat, pat. Plants, too, get a pat, pat. Apparently, so do angry mamas.

We laugh. Seas dissipate. Clouds part. Birds sing. At 3′ tall and just shy of 30 lbs, my daughter knows more about how to push my buttons than anyone. But she also knows more than anyone about how to help me feel better.

Just as a parent shapes a child, a child also shapes her parents. Kids are karma bulldogs who lead us down life’s path on short, taut leashes. If you seek patience, you will get a trying child, and thereby you will learn patience. If you seek self-containment, your child will make you an island. If you seek inspiration, you will get a child who makes your heart sing. My child does all of these things for me.

My old habit in handling anger was to get quieter and say nothing until I became mad enough to shut down the party. I had this secret (as in unconscious) three-strikes system: Cross me once, and you will never know it. Cross me twice, and I will maintain. But cross me a third time and I blow like Kilauea.

In a recent moment, my husband was the victim of my ‘three strikes’ system. When I blew, my reaction seemed to come out of nowhere. What he said, with confusion on his face, was: “But you can be so nice sometimes!”

Staying quiet during the initial phase of my anger does my family a disservice. No one ever tried to help me calm down because no one knew I was mad. How could they? They never even saw it coming.

Letting my family know how I feel gives loved ones an opportunity to change course or to help me change course. Also, the use of “I feel” words integrates strong emotions from the limbic brain – a place of instinct and quick decision making – through the rational prefrontal cortex to a more empathetic and reasonable place.

I watch my behavior and try to understand what keeps me coming back to anger. Here’s what I see:

There exists an illusion that anger is useful in regaining order amidst chaos. When rage monster appears in a room, everyone stops and does whatever they can to get her to go away again. When it’s all too much, there’s always the option to go ballistic and bring people back under order.

Anger is effective, but it’s not very nice. Anger justifies itself, claiming you are the only rational person in the room. But really, people appease you because they are afraid or think you’re nuts.

I am looking for a middle way. So, I’ve decided to keep this little phrase: I’m starting to feel mad. I say these words at the first hint of a spark; long before the inner Kilauea starts to boil and all the good people should run for cover. I say these words for my husband, my toddler, or for myself if no one is around. Before the dark cloud moves in solidly over my face, before I yell or threaten, I say these words, and we are all spared.

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Permanent presence

When I get around to ordering myself a T-shirt with my kid’s face on it, the word’s will say, “I’m with coo-coo.”

Two nights ago we bribed A into eating dinner by telling her that if she took a bite then daddy would bounce his legs on the yoga ball in a silly way. Last night she only ate if she could moonwalk while she chewed. Tonight I let her eat while we watched Monkey Planet on BBC.

Dinner moonwalk

Catching up on some old issues of The Sun, I recently read an interview of Jennifer Senior on modern parenting. This passage caught my attention:

When children are small, their prefrontal cortexes are barely developed. The prefrontal cortex regulates impulses and is in charge of planning. So, as the parent of a toddler, you’re interacting with a small creature who has no self-control, can’t imagine a future, and lives in the permanent present.”

The article goes on to explain how you’ll often disappoint your young Buddha as the adult world has places to go and people to see and you are expected to be on time. I’m not worried about any of that. I’m thinking:

This explains why A works a spoon through cottage cheese like she is trying to solve it, rather than eat it.

We have all attended enough yoga classes, watched enough Oprah, or read enough Eckhart Tolle in this decade to know that the present moment is a good place to be.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Certainly, being present is the main thing I know about how to live happily and be a good parent.

But I have not been doing a good job of this lately.

A is having fun and I am not because I am operating under the expectation that I will accomplish something adult with my day – something saner, more appreciated, and with better pay. But most likely, I wont, and so I feel unhappy.

For example, I am good at the work of parenting (a lot of my time is spent preparing food and cleaning up) but I do not play with my daughter as often as I could.

I don’t play because I don’t recognize what A is doing as play. She opens drawers to fish for objects. She flicks light switches on and off. She tears things off shelves. She asks for snacks and then throws them on the floor. She pulls the dog’s tail. She grabs whatever she can reach off of the counter.

I never wanted to be that parent constantly saying no! And don’t do that! And stop stop stop! But baby A spends a lot of the day doing the wrong thing. It is also true that these naughty behaviors are her trying to get my attention. For better or worse, the good times come when I do almost nothing except watch her unfold.

The same spontaneous, daring, curious qualities that make raising this child difficult are the same things that make it fun. The other day a box store’s background music caught her fancy so she threw up her arms and started pulsing like Katy Perry. One moment you’re pushing a cart and looking for a shower caddy and the next moment you’re raising the roof. Thats my baby.

Why does her present moment look like so much fun while mine feels like such a struggle? Why am I feeling bonkers while she is on a spiritual quest? Oh, right. We are both on a spiritual quest.

Some of my chore-ing needs to be done. Actually it all needs to get done, and with our slow progress there is good reason for me to keep working. But in part my busy-ness is about my wanting to finish something today – even if it is just a pile of dishes.

The unwritten part of presence, is that it involves a lot of not doing what I want to do. Or what I thought I was going to do. And it is very often uncomfortable. Nothing pushes a person toward spiritual growth so extremely as adversity.

As long as I’m trapped in a permanent present, I might as well have a little more of what she’s having.

Tonight we are ready for bed a little early so I pull out these wind-up cars. You know the type – roll them back and forth a few times and they’ll race forward under their own power. I am doing this because I don’t want to fight a not-quite-tired kid to sleep. I run them; A retrieves them. Back and forth, back and forth.

But then the purple pick-up really takes off. It zips across the kitchen and runs smack into the wall on the other side of the house. I laugh out loud. A hoots and claps her hands.

For a moment I am not responsible-mommy-ing anymore: I am up past bedtime and having fun.

Her need for love does not shame her

I started this blog in early 2018 when my daughter was already eight months old. Lately I’ve been trying to write a little bit about who she and I were together in those first blissed-out, mama-fog, fourth trimester months before she went mobile and my happy stay-home parenthood got served up with a daily side of bonkers.

I thought I remembered it all – the first smiles, the endless nursing, the sweetness of getting to know M as a father – until today when I met my new niece Baby S (!). It’s hard for me to remember that Baby A was ever so tiny and helpless.

The best part about holding S is remembering that a baby’s nature is that of a fierce pink glow with skin. She can’t focus her eyes all of the time (a girl gets tired), but she loves like nobody’s business. Babies are such awesome little battery packs.

Sifting through my sparse notes from the early days with A, I find this line – Her need to love and be loved does not shame her. No matter what anyone else says, this is the best part of being a parent. You’re just rambling along through your own life, trying to do your best and often falling short, then bam, there’s a new precious human to remind you, and everyone in a two-relationships-removed radius, that each of us in our original state is an embodiment of love.

If I dig deep, I can remember being love. I sit on my mom’s lap, snuggled to her chest in a calm, warm moment. Her skin is so soft. There are no pinging text messages to interrupt us, nobody is taking our picture, she is not scrolling through social media or wishing to be. It is just me and my mom with her fleshy arms wrapped tight around me.

Mom would never break that spell so I must have done it. And that’s ok–little minds should not know that love is rare and fleeting. Kids should be free to bounce toward whatever catches their fancy, assuming that love is always just a few steps and an upward glance away.

Lately I have been consumed with a fear that I am disappearing – that my need for work, stimulation, and relief will never rise to the priority slot of our family’s needs; at least not in a satisfying way. Millions of mothers over countless generations have lost their I: Nobody else is going to remember my dreams if I don’t. Somedays are not mama days’ but I am not going anywhere. My need for a public voice is too strong to let my passions quietly wither into a cool undertone of defensive anger. There must be a better way.

I remember all of the different forms of love that came after my mom. I think back to early experiences of romantic love, when I was near to someone and consumed, wanting the moment never to end. But no other person has ever been so willing to stay there, locked in, as she was. At some point, I became the one who was unable to just be.

I lie nursing my daughter and wishing for precious time. Like pain, love is intense, and these thoughts pretend to serve me by pulling me away. Held inside of my being, love is safe, but shared love is vulnerable. Love is ephemeral and busyness is a constant. We learn to go with the sure bet.

As much as I hate to admit it, the root of my desire to write, meditate, eat chocolate, or do something else is my need to love warped into a new form like a shirt put on backwards: Love isn’t waiting to be created when we get back to doing something real–love is there all along. We only need to remember how to give and receive it.

Over and over with baby A I remind myself of where I am, that the full force of my love is appropriate and matters here, that her turning away is still a long way off.

I allow myself to stay and bask in her steady, pulsing presence. She gives me everything she has, asking only that I do the same. I put in the effort and glow my pink light back to her. My darling, I have nowhere else to be.

I have this (mobile) baby

I’ve had this baby for nine months. Generally it’s been dreamy; we think she’s great. But until now I mostly did what I wanted to do. The secret of being a stay-at-home, I’ve been known to say, is that you get to do whatever you want as long as you bring the cub. All of that changed around the New Year when she went mobile.

Suddenly (a slow, diaper-changing, banana-eating, dog-climbing kind of suddenly) I have to redefine my self-worth by something other than productivity.  All day I’m flooded with ideas: Become a great cook! Cultivate the most productive garden EVER! Write a book or two! Prepare some singer-songwriter sets! Sleep-train the baby!  My mind makes wild, ambitious leaps like it always did. But time moves differently with a baby in the house, and none of these projects are at all realistic.

The truth is, I wasn’t some uber-productive success story before I had A either. I’ve been writing for years now, but all of those words are still tucked safely away on my computer. It’s not that I’m afraid of putting myself out there (says my inner excuse maker), I’m just not done yet. I used to at least work (a lot) on my impossible goals, but lately my ego has started to freak out.

My actual accomplishments this morning include that I have washed at least several dishes, ate eggs, fed A, made and drank (yeah!) a cup of decaf, and continued to unpack the duffles from last week’s trip (day 3 of this project). All this while A pushed the furniture around the house. But I also started this blog, which I’ve been meaning to do for a decade.

Right now, in order to finish this post, I’m allowing A to tear all of my books off of the shelf again, and I’ll intervene only to keep her from eating my favorite ones (not Barry Lopez! not David Sedaris! Here, have a DVD!). This is not the only place where my theoretical parenting deviates wildly from my actual parenting (i.e. sleep).

My only explanation for my unprecedented burst of exposition, is that while before I thought about starting an online presence, maybe even wanted to, it wasn’t until today that I needed to. Because today, amidst the squirrel games, the need to dump my brain took precedence over the safety of privately and endlessly preparing my thoughts. For better or worse, allowing my words out into the world is one small but important goal that I can actually get somewhere on right now – even though nap time never lasts as long as I wish it did.

My kid needs love and care, but so much more. I want to be the first of many to teach her that effort makes a difference. I want her to grow up knowing that each of us has the power to make our community more whole and beautiful through conversations that matter, and that what we do is not half as important as who we are. I can’t raise her to be more than I am.

This essay will post at the end of the week, whatever state it is in. I no longer have time, or the necessary brain power (mom brain, it’s real), to agonize much over the details. I have just enough time to say what I have to say and move on. I still imagine that I will come back and agonize over every word, but I probably wont.

That’s all for now; she’s awake.