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.

Twins: 5 months

The brothers have entered my favorite phase of babyhood where they are no longer luggage but are still immobile. They have personalities but they don’t yet have behaviors = Pretty fun.

“Where was I before I was your kid,” Avery asks.

“In the sky,” I say, “waiting to be born. I was waiting for you to come.”

“And the brothers?”

“They were in the sky too,” I answer. “Only I didn’t know it. Are you happy that we got them?”

“Yes!” she says. “Toren is the best baby in the world!” Eirik should not be offended as both babies are unequivocally Toren.

I have this feeling too: Our babies are the best babies in the world. The anxiety I felt when I found out I was having twins has melted into this bliss of being the mother of a large family I never knew I wanted. I get to have three.

*

My experiences of parenting these children are so different. Avery’s love is oxygen; I can’t imagine life without it. The brothers are as gifts. Eirik is the baby I wanted; Toren is the baby I never could have imagined.

Eirik

I don’t mean to compare my boys and find them lacking; I only mean to learn a little more about what each one is by noticing what he isn’t; like noticing the ways in which a wren is not a chick-a-dee.

Eirik is an old friend. He pauses while nursing to look up at me and his smile cuts straight through my heart. When I’m sad I can hold him and feel better. He is round and scwunchy and my only hope of a south paw in the pack. He initiates giggle fits with Avery. There is nothing complicated about his love. His hands are so wide that I have counted to make sure he doesn’t have six fingers. He will either grow into a strawberry-blonde version of Clark Kent or a big guy with a comb over. Possibly both with enough time.

Toren is both sweetness and drive. With the way he gets a baby chair bouncing I wonder why it isn’t yet an Olympic sport. He has already gained three pounds on Eirik to become the larger of the two. His legs are like tree trunks and I couldn’t be more proud. (Who da big brother!?) The first thing he taught me is this: If you want to be cuter all you need is a little fat and a better mood. Eat the pie; lighten up.

Toren

Being the mom of infants again is made simpler by knowing that it gets harder with time and not easier. As this blog emerged with Avery’s mobility, I have no written record her infancy. I’ve enjoyed having another chance to catch these early days.

At five months, Eirik still accepts swaddling for sleep; Toren is done. Eirik nestles in like a teddy bear when I carry him so I can smell the back of his head. Toren rides straight and tall like a miniature prince. Eirik indicates his desire to nurse with a subtle lift-of-head and a penguin flap of the arms; Toren gets loud. Eirik nuzzles and sips; Toren yanks at my nipple and pumps his feet against the wall to maximize flow.

Everything changes so fast. Even as I write these words, I wonder, is that still true? We are always free to reinvent ourselves.

*

These boys have traded roles from how I understood them at birth. Toren was insecure as a newborn: He cried a lot and I was uncertain about how to handle him. Maybe it was his time in NICU; or my hesitation about having twins. Maybe he didn’t feel welcome. Maybe he is less trusting by nature.

I felt that I would have to earn his love, but how? In a home swimming with babies, how could I compete for one child’s affection? I wore him a lot and hoped for the best.

But Toren wasn’t asking me to meet unrealistic expectations. He just wanted to know that he would be safe and loved in his new family; which happens to be my specialty. When I realized he only needed me to be myself, worry lifted from my bones. Fear not, little child. You will be mothered.

Our problems ended. Eirik struggles to sleep but this baby drifts off silently; snuggling down under his giraffe blankie with his matching pacifier. I love you too, ‘lil buddy.

*

There’s the love

“I miss you mama,” she says.

“I miss you too, Avery.” I return the gesture but I don’t quite understand. Unless she’s at school, my girl and I are together in every waking moment.

Since the brothers came along, people have been asking: How is Avery? Sigh. She is still a high-energy three-and-a-half who does very well with direct adult interaction. How about being semi-ignored except to make sure she’s on target? Less well.

All of the advice I received on how to support Avery as we welcome new babies into our family was the same: love, love, love. Make time for her. Make sure she knows mama still cares. I have; but it’s not the same.

We lost co-sleeping but we cuddle every morning until Toren calls for a diaper change. We read in bed before nap and bed time; unless Eirik starts to cry. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I tell her.

Parents opt in for second (and third) babies so that our first learns to share an adult and loses the impression that she is the only show in town. We thought having siblings would help our daughter grow into a more awesome person. Being that this was the plan doesn’t make it easy.

I am coming to understand, without understanding why, that beneath her antics is an extreme love for me. In intense moments, I’ve learned to ask: What does she want? Where’s the love?

“I miss you, mama,” she says. “I miss you too, Avery.” * Avery stayed home from school for the past two weeks because of Covid concerns, and has gone almost entirely ferrel. I’m hoping her teachers reign her back in. On Monday, Avery finds me in the bathroom where the brothers and I do our morning yoga. “Hi, mama! Hi brothers! It’s biiiggggg sister!” We move to the kitchen. Eirik is rubbing his eyes so I put him down for a nap in his carseat (#StrategicMommery). I still have to make her lunch feed the dog find a mask think outerwear change my pants load everyone into the car. Avery just has to eat and get dressed. Usually she can handle that, but not today. It’s time to go. “Avery!” Next for you is socks! Go get them!” I say this and return to the PB&J I am crafting. She returns a few minutes later completely naked.

“Where are your clothes?” I ask.

She looks at me straight-faced and says, “I couldn’t get my bracelet off.”

Indeed, she is wearing a bracelet.

*

Avery is smart. She recently did the zipper on her sweatshirt and announced: “I don’t need adults anymore!” She loves books – from Winnie the Pooh and Trucks Go to the Magic Treehouse series and graphic novels. She often rocks side-ponytails because they work with her DIY haircuts. She can do somersaults and fireman poles but struggles with basic human functions: Fall asleep. Eat with a fork. Keep food within a 2′ radius of your plate. Sit in a chair without falling out of it.

My girl doesn’t take orders so I work around them. Please go get dressed. What do you want for breakfast? I make requests and ask questions. I model exact language and respectful communication. I try not to break down like David Seville:

Avery? Avery!! AVERYYYY!!!!!

On Tuesday she still doesn’t want to get dressed. I say: “When I am ready the brothers and I will load up and wait for you in the car. But it doesn’t come to this. Somehow we get where we need to be.

On Wednesday, I do it. You are not the one who is late for school, say the books. Make it her problem. I’m fussing with the Bluetooth and trying to enjoy myself. I expect Avery to run out of the house at any minute. She does not.

This is why I avoid power struggles with my girl: She always wins.

After eight minutes I find her inside sitting in what remains of a house plant. She is wearing pants but is still topless. “My shirt was inside out,” she explains.

Consequences fly. Minnie mouse lunchbox? Gone. Sleeping bag and sleeping pad? Gone. It is my stacking of library books into a dramatic pile that stops her in her tracks.

“You return my library books?” she asks. “Without my books, I can’t reeeeead!”

“Get dressed,” I say. “I’m going to take books until you get dressed.”

*

Writing this post holds some shame for me, but so it goes. When I became a parent I did not become a perfect person.

All of us struggle through raising kids. Maybe I’ll imagine that parenting provides us each with a similar level of struggle. Even as this is not true, we might feel similarly maxed out, and in this we are together.

I am trying to shift from shame, pain, and blame punishment (physical or emotional) to inquiry. I ask questions and try to figure out what’s going on. Infuriating behaviors are a form of communication: She has so much to explain.

*

I’ve strategized and on Thursday morning I’m ready. “I made a biiiigggg breakfast,” I tell her. “When you are dressed please come out of your room and eat with me. I will leave the door half open.

She comes out, still in her foxy nightgown.

I returned her to the room, and repeat my clever line. “This time I will have to shut the door, but it won’t be locked,” I say. “When you are dressed, come out and we will eat breakfast. I hope you come soon, because I’m hungry and ready to see you.”

Again, she comes out in her nightgown.

“Avery, what is going on?”

“Mama, I feel sick,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. Clearly, she isn’t.

She beckons for my ear: “Sometimes,” she whispers, “when people are sick… they don’t… go… to… schooooool.”

“You are going to school,” I say, but gently.

No tears come but her voice breaks. “Mama,” she says “I don’t want to go to school. I just want to stay home with you and the brothers.

There’s the love.

“My girl,” I say. “You have to go to school (so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind), but the brothers and I will miss you very much. Know what? We could put some gummies in your lunch. You know what else? Today is Thursday and it’s almost the weekend….”

All the while I am walking her back to her room. “Avery, I have to lock this door. Call me Coo-ee! when you are dressed and I will come get you to eat breakfast.”

A minute passes:

Coo-ee! Mama! I am dressed!”

*

Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

*

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

*

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.

***

Letting go

Since I was away from Southeast Alaska for the summer I am still able to enjoy the rainy weather. On most days I take the babies on a walk right after I drop Avery off at school, but today is torrential; we will stay in.

I set the brothers up in front of the fire hoping they will fall asleep in their bouncy chairs if I steam them slightly.

I’m happy to be at home with kids again; even if I am limited to breakfast cereals that benefit from a lot of soaking. The brothers are almost four months old. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and how little time has passed.

So much is different about this round of babies. I wore Avery constantly but I’m forever setting the brothers down; trying to rest my back or catch a minute.

When Eirik is fed and dry but not quite tired I can set him up with a game of red bird (stare and smile at the red bird) or ceiling fan (stare and smile at the ceiling fan). Left to himself in the bouncy chair, Toren just screams.

Toren prefers a playmate and often skips his afternoon nap to get one-on-one time with mom. We play a game called, Hello! Hi! I start by saying, “Hello! Hi!” and he returns my sounds and smiles. We also like A-Goo! (similar rules). Sometimes he likes to mix it up: “A-WOOO!”

*

They are asleep. I cook and do exercises to draw my abdominal muscles back together. I write every day but I rarely post. My thoughts link to everything and nothing and fill my drafts folder with frazzled half-sentences. Somewhere in here there is a theme…

It has been a hard year, this 2020. Political strife in my country and a pandemic. Some doors are closed right now: Productivity. Time with friends. Travel. But doors are also opening.

A woman in the white house.

What is this year driving me toward? I move into marriage and family. Into patience. Into risk and fearlessness. Into becoming more and more myself. Into this work that is always just beginning.

*

I belong to a generation of women who grew up with the impression that we could do it all: kids and career. I have not quite found that to be true. It is at least impractical to do both at the same time.

I have a theory that, if we dig deep, what we first “wanted to be when we grew up” manifests in adulthood. I spent my free time in elementary school writing and illustrating stories and making covers from wallpaper scraps. I wanted to be an artist.

For a few adult winters, back before kids, I spent rainy days like this playing guitar and writing essays; being time rich. I thought a winter was all I needed to record an album or write a novel. I learned that good art isn’t made by people sitting around with a whole bunch of time.

When I was home with Avery, unsatisfied career goals rolled around in my brain like cobbles in a colander. The less I worked the wilder they got: I’d like to publish a book. Or become a state senator. Either. I’m just doing all of this laundry for now.

I once told M about this problem. “Turn it over,” he said. “Dump it out.”

Good thing someone in the family knows how to run a colander.

*

I fall into this myth that one day I will make some thing and feel successful, but creativity is not something we arrive into. It is an infinite and iterative process.

I spend all day narrating in my head and find shards of time to write things down. The squeeze of family life limits me but also inspires me. I have plenty of material. Keep going. Life is stressful enough without being a writer who doesn’t write.

I keep a file called “scraps” for bits of text that don’t make the cut into a final post. I found this from when Avery was small: After more than a decade of wanting baby A, I have her now. But there’s no relief from wanting because my mind stuffs that space full of unrealistic goals…

In this, the twins have been freeing. With one baby my ambitions were just out of arms reach. Now they are so far gone I’d have to be out of my mind to stay bogged down by them. And with three kids I’m so busy that I no longer question my value in my family. Mama is a key player.

Family is not a sure bet either; but at least these people exist outside of my heart and imagination. I will make things because I like to but I won’t feel bad about the things I haven’t made anymore. I am letting go.

*

Going home

All of my babies are sleeping and so too should I be. Instead I am wondering why we let this apartment run out of chocolate and eating coconut cream straight from the can. Hopefully, I will also write a little.

Yesterday my husband and I made it, be-masked, through the airport with one preschooler, two infants, and nine items of luggage; including three giant totes, three carseats, a moving box, a duffel, and an arthritic dog in kennel. The Alaska airlines agent kindly let Talus fly on an expired vet certificate (the date on which I attempted to forge). Things could’ve gone worse.

One leg of travel down, one more to go. We will spend three nights in our Juneau apartment and then hop a ferry home to our little town in the rainforest. The interim holds two days of doctors, dentists, and the DMV. With all of my babies in tow, I will catch up on everything I put off since the beginning of COVID-19 and begin to learn what my new life holds.

It is my first night and day of parenting without grandma, grandpa, auntie, and cousins to help things flow smoothly. Avery and my husband are closed off behind a curtain in the bedroom we’ve always shared. I sleep on our fold-out couch in the living room with the boys next to me in a pack and play. Apologies to every guest who has ever slept on this thing. You are all very, very good sports.

This rental is small, and if one person in our family is awake then everyone is pretty much awake. We are up early.

After the morning circus of nursing and diaper changes I haul the boys in their carseats up sixty stairs to our parked car. The walkway is too narrow for me to take it head on so I do a side-winding shuffle with the carseats bump-bump- bumping all the way up. While I’m away Avery puts on her clothes, rain suit, and boots as instructed and is ready to go when I come back down. Love this girl.

I’ve had enough support that much of #twinlife + #covidlife remains to be figured out. What I know, is that I will wear this ergo baby carrier from sun-up to sundown.I need a safe place to set a baby available at all times. My backpack must hold water, snacks, diapers, clothing changes, and raingear and must never be more than an arms reach away. Also, it is possible to do almost anything one-handed.

Today, I wrack my brain for a fun thing to do and end up taking everyone to Whale Beach Park. I still haven’t figured out the attachments for my double stroller, or how to take everyone for a walk, but this place is compact enough that Avery can bike around on the concrete pad, and I can wear one baby while the other baby sleeps in the car. I’m shooting for possible, not optimal.

Things I don’t yet understand include what to do with Avery on rainy days, what to ask for when neighbors offer help, and how to make a phone call without everyone falling apart. September will be a month for learning.

*

The lamb and the lion

Like a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toren Ambrose was born on July 29, 2020 with his eyes open, giving the impression of one who is patient, thoughtful, and cautiously optimistic. His water had been broken ten hours prior and, as the finale to a long induction and longer pregnancy, he waited in the birth canal for two hours before my epidural faded enough for me to push him out.

Twenty minutes later, Eirik Axel came into the world red-faced and roaring. It was his privilege to wait out the entire labor with his water still in-tact. I offered him a breast before he was cleaned off or the cord was cut, and he took it.

I wouldn’t hear Toren cry for a week. At 6 lbs 5 oz, he was a full pound-and-a-half smaller than his brother. Big for a twin, it was two hours before a nurse noticed that he was small for a full-term baby and sent him to NICU.

Eirik and I were moved upstairs to the mother-baby recovery ward. At 7 lbs 9 oz, he was larger than our singleton and came with all of the upgrades: chubby cheeks, a full head of hair, eyelashes. I spent the next two sleepless days nursing him, charmed by him.

I made the trip down to see Toren for about 90 minutes at the beginning of each day and again at the end. A major design flaw of this hospital is that NICU is too far from mother-baby for a woman who has just given birth to walk there. On the first day a nurse pushed me down in a wheelchair. The next day I went on my own, pushing the wheelchair like a walker.

Toren had an IV with a glucose drip and later a feeding tube by which a nurse put 50 mL of milk through his nose and into his stomach every three hours. I held him and tried not to upset his tubes and wires. When offered the breast, he would smile at my nipple and fall asleep with it in his eye.

I did not spend enough time with Toren in those first days. The constant revolving door of nurses and doctors kept me busy upstairs. I was too hungry to be gone from my room (access to food delivery) for very long. And caring for my lion, being tangibly needed by him, felt more pressing than the needs of my lamb. My main expression of love for Toren in those first days was pumping. In training my body to provide milk for two babies instead of one, I pumped my breasts eight times a day. Whenever I fed Eirik, I pumped for Toren.

My husband, M, became the short-term NICU super-dad. He attended Toren’s feedings and came up with goals for him. He got to know the nurses and talked with them about how to get Toren out of there.

Eirik and I were discharged on a Friday. After three sleepless nights in the hospital, our family decided to go home to our daughter and a real bed rather than room in with Toren on a fold-out couch. Covid-19 restrictions meant that Eirik would not be allowed to return to the hospital once we left. M would likely continue on as Toren’s primary parent until his discharge. We didn’t think it would take very long.

Our family visited the NICU on our way out to tell him goodbye. We kept it short. It was evening, and I pretended we were going back up to our room to sleep instead of driving to a home 20 minutes away. Love you, Toren. See you in the morning.

Walking out of the hospital with one twin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. M stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to a nurse while I pushed the cart of our belongings out to the curb. Eirik, in his carseat, was perched on top.

As I walked through the lobby, stranger after stranger turned a masked face up to offer me heart-felt congratulations. This was not your standard new baby well-wishing: At one point they almost broke into spontaneous applause. I felt sad, private, and confused by the happy attention. Finally I realized: I was leaving NICU with a baby. It’s kind of a big deal. How could I tell them? This is not what you think it is.

The next day Toren had a nurse named Steve who was our game changer. ”This kid doesn’t belong in NICU,” he told my husband. Steve pulled the feeding tube and got Toren’s required feedings reduced to 30 mL every three hours. As long as Toren could keep up with those quantities, maybe he could go. M sat with Toren swaddled against his arm and patiently bottle-fed him. Steve worked down the NICU discharge checklist; including having Toren sit for 90 minutes in a carseat. Thanks, Steve.

In the morning a doctor called and said we could come get our boy. He was five days old. By day 10 he was entirely breast fed. By day 14 he had gained more weight than Eirik. Today is day 50 and you would never know he had a rough start at all. How did the birth go? you ask. Everything went great.

*