Everything as it should be

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Avery is shredding the house faster than I clean it. Eirik just pooped on the carpet. Toren is shrieking at an eardrum-blowing decibel. Why expect anything less?

My mom just left. She came to visit for the week and she played with my kids, put in my garden, and did all my chores. For the first two days I barely got off the couch. I didn’t realize I was so tired until I had an opportunity to stop and sit down. Then I struggled to get back up.

Everything is as it should be.

It’s time to discover how summer works with all three of my littles. Since I found out I was carrying twins there have been so many things I feared that never came to pass. Like I imagined I would never survive that first night before the milk comes in with two babies; but then Toren was in NICU and I was only responsible for the one.

Worry, often enough, has been useless enough, that I rarely bother with it. I don’t look at weather forecasts either – same reason. Because, sure, maybe the future will be terrible, but maybe not. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it will be great. Better to wait and see.

The end of the school year, however, with my husband working out of town, is so far proving to be as hard as I thought it would be. The things I’ve found that help are a dinner rotation limited to spaghetti and tacos, and these words:

Everything is as it should be.

Mothering a bunch of kids at once is no laughing matter. When I ask advice from women who mother twins plus other kids they mostly shrug. Good luck with that. One twins-plus mom tells me she was so stressed raising her kids that she lived in fight or flight for twenty years. “Find a way not to do what I did,” she says.

If I get through the day in my usual way (sympathetic nervous system kicked into high gear) then everything gets done. We have a good time. The children don’t know I’m strapped. And isn’t that the point? To knock yourself out without anyone realizing how hard you’re working?

Everything is as it should be.

“What helps” changes too fast for moms to take mental note (the amygdala isn’t known for its glittering memory). The best advice on how to keep up with my flock comes from the big sisters of twins.

Everyone waits their turn,” says L. She is a photographer who helped me select photos from our twin sitting last summer. Because of her advice I flash a W to any child who starts crying. “Wait,” I say. “You’re next.” Unless someone is bleeding I finish what I am doing; there is no way I will get back to it. And when I’m nursing and Avery freaks out with jealousy, I invite her to flip a sand timer. “Five more minutes for the brothers,” I say. “Then it’s your turn.”

Another twin big-sis sends me flatrate boxes. Inside are 10 books recently outgrown by her child and individually wrapped in newspaper. “Use them any way you like,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it through the preschool years without books as incentives.” Avery earns them whenever she has the opportunity to wake up the brothers, but doesn’t.

Everything is as it should be.

The idea of self care is an inside joke I keep with myself. Sometimes, I say (to nobody), I like to poop. I’m never alone, I don’t have much time, and it’s never when I actually feel the need to go, but sometimes I do it anyway. If you’re going to eat then you might as well poop.

Whenever I get a moment to feel and experience what is going on in my body I learn things I didn’t want to know: That my lower jaw hums with tiredness. That the freedom-loving part of me waits for these precious early years to pass into something more manageable. That what I sacrificed in becoming a mother is so much more than any childless person can understand. I can’t unlearn these things and whether or not it’s helpful for me to know them is debatable. So, unless I’m very careful, all of the laundry gets thoroughly put away and I don’t take any time for myself at all.

Everything is as it should be.

My actual self-care system is a matter of mindset more than a function of time. I do what pleases me and turn away from unreasonable demands. Every day I get outside, cook something I want to eat, and write a little. My needs ride the revolving carousel along with everyone else’s (mama gotta eat). I nap the brothers exclusively in their cart to keep us mobile and avoid conflict with my big kid during nap time and I will continue to do so even if you think it’s weird. When everyone is sleeping (praise Jesus) I write instead of scroll. I am currently reclaiming 30-minutes a day for yoga and I have a kitty tattoo for anyone who lets me get through it without interruption.

Everything is as it should be.

*

40

Avery counts the deep lines etched across my forehead. “One… Two… Three… Four.” Then she asks, “How many do I have, mama?” I tell her there are none but she doesn’t believe me. She climbs a stool to look into the mirror. “Zero,” she says; surprised and faintly disappointed.

This is what 40 looks like.

Forty hid far enough over the hill that I never gave it much thought until I turned thirty and the inevitability dawned on me. Looking for a fuller picture, I started asking 40-year-old people, “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they said. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

What’s so great about 40? For starters, I know who I am, what I do, where I live, and who I love. I’m calmer and more confident. I have courage enough to admit what I don’t know. I forgive more and react less. I choose people who show up in my life over those who don’t.

When I look back on my 20s, I wish I’d been easier going and kept a lighter mind. For a while, fear of never finding love and family juiced the sweetness out of life and left me sucking a dry lime. Even when I got what I wanted; I found that I didn’t end up wanting what I got. Sure, I had some fun. But I lacked the perspective to understand how good life was; so it almost didn’t count.

The runes offered the same advice often enough that I started to pay attention: Be receptive, they said. If free will made me miserable, then maybe receptivity could bring something like happiness. So at twenty-eight I decided to do it: I would pursue nothing in favor of radical acceptance. For a few years, it worked. Aside from one bad night on the floor of a south-bound train out of Mumbai, it went very well.

Life is a game of Twister; not darts. Once I calibrated to this way of thinking the pieces started to come together. As my 30s ticked by (where did that decade go?), a lot of the things I lost sleep over in my 20s came to fruition. Partner. Home. Kids. The spinning brain cogs clicked and some of life’s overwhelming number of possible paths melted away. Anxiety dissipated. I gave up movement – temporarily at least – for a wild and terrible stillness.

A note of warning: When you open to the will of the universe, expect the unexpected.

At 40, I feel grown up. I’ve finally started to refer to myself as woman, rather than girl. I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em. I’ve lost my thin tolerance for pop music. I’m quicker to drop grudges. If absolutely necessary, I can drink coffee black. Other than that, I’m the same person I was at twenty-eight.

Forty is where it is at. I’m ready settle in to the quiet landscape of my body; to stop living every day like an emergency; to recognize the miracle held in every pale, tangerine sunrise.

I miss the strength, infatuations, collagen, and wide-eyed aspirations of my 20s, but I wouldn’t go back and do those years again. Unless I could go back to my 20-something body and keep my 40-something mind. Then, I would definitely go back. That would be awesome.

*

When my friend T turned 40 she took a new job. Right away she knew it wasn’t for her, and she quit within the week. “At 40 I don’t have very many fucks left to give,” she said, “and I’m careful who I give them to.” We reveled knowing that at another time she would’ve stayed in that job for a year. Or years.

Mother. Adventurer. Artist. Healer. Advocate. I love who I am, and I have stopped hoping to become someone else. The best part of being 40 is a surprising sense of the unknown. Family restricts my freedom; but with my need for belonging saturated I can finally relax and wonder, what could the rest of my life be about?

The universe is full of solar systems a galaxies light years away. Everything matters, and nothing matters. Because what are we made of, but star dust?

*

The first age spots appeared on the backs of my hands this year, and I’ve been preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my daughter. It’s probably too late for me, but who knows? If I start wearing it now, maybe I’ll look great at fifty.

The same friends who turned 40 when I was 30 turned 50 this year. So I ask again: “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they say. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

One of those 50-year-old friends is a photographer. I recently caught him taking pictures of a beautiful old tractor that sits gathering rust and lichen in a field near my home. He’s lived here twenty years, and I’m sure he has a thousand pictures of the thing. Yet the evening light was nice. I couldn’t resist calling out: “Haven’t gotten around to capturing that one yet?”

Tractor, September 2018
Tractor, September 2021

He shrugged in response. Maybe returning to whatever we love over and over again is as good a way to mark the passing of years as any.

What am I excited about in the coming decade? Play. Laughter. Movement. Delight. I exist well enough in this world of straight lines; but I would like to meet a version of myself with more my oil in my hips. I want to inhale deeply, and exhale fully, without thinking about it. I figure I might as well start being young now, before it’s too late.

***

Avery’s universe

First self portrait

Photography has been a great way to connect Avery with the baby brothers and offer her a special “big sister” role at the same time. Here, for her 4th birthday, I share some favorite photos of hers that I keep in a folder called “Avery’s Universe.”

A good place to use a phone

Through these pictures I see what my daughter notices about our family. I learn more about who she is and about who we are. Best of all, these photos reflects the totality of her love; a sense of what else would I photograph?

Baby brothers
A study in brothers 1

As a photographer, a kid has this advantage: I reach for the camera when everyone is copasetic and I have a free arm. I hand Avery the camera when everything is hectic and I am hoping to occupy her. In this, she captures the speed of our life more accurately than I ever will.

A study in brothers 2
A study in brothers 3

I like her portraits. I feel drawn to them the way I am drawn into any still frame of art that captures a thing in motion; a living, breathing being in transition from one moment to the next.

A study in brothers 4

I appreciate the honesty of her lens. There is no secret working of camera angles to hide an undesirable mess or the bags under my eyes. Everything is shown as is. Life looks that way. Why wouldn’t it be in the picture?

The sun
This happened once

Casual moments, sticky surfaces, propensity for all objects to land on the floor. From a child these recorded realities come naturally; her pictures are accurate without being insulting.

Mamadada
DIY haircuts 2020

Yes, I delete ten pictures for every one I keep. But also, she is starting to ask for the camera when she sees pretty light. We are adding art words to her vocabulary: Design. Palette. Frame. Subject. Shade.

A study in brothers 5
A study in brothers 6

These pictures feel special for so many reasons, including the gaps where I use my imagination to fill in the time that passes between pictures. Flipping back through these images, I watch my sons emerge from neonates to older babies with spunk and personality. And I watch my daughter shake off the remnants of babyhood and become a strong, confident, capable kid.

A study in brothers 7
A study in brothers 8

One last special thing: Mama gets to be in these pictures. Avery is the only person who documents this chapter of my life. When she photographs me holding a baby – smiling at him or playing with him – there is no end to my pleasure. She catches me in the middle of my work and tells me that the job I am doing is good enough.

*

What we pay attention to grows

Give me back my sock!

Give that sock back! Give it back nooooooeeeewwwwww! She is laughing, running around the bedroom, tossing this purple and black striped sock into the air. Is this why mama it’s always the last one dressed and out of the house?

Um, yes.

Chase, laugh, repeat. Just days ago I would’ve grabbed said sock and made sure we moved on in a timely fashion. But I have a new goal: Make Avery giggle every day and keep it going.

The figurative Puritan farm wife in me has never allowed for enough joy but my new goal is helping. Also this week: Airplane rides. Grandpa walks. Special Time and the The Don’t Do It game. I discover that I know a surprising number of silly songs about horses. Tickle chase in a grassy field substitutes for the workout I never seem to get.

Why would I ever shut this down?

*

Last week was rough. “Don’t wake the brothers,” I said as Avery climbed into the car after school.

Avery and I have been in a terrible cycle. She’s been aggressive towards the babies, seeking attention through negative behaviors, and generally wound up for months. If you say, One more time and I’ll... she’ll get right on that.

Ruptures within our family are never about one incident. Major conflicts fall on top of years of broken sleep and “normal” household chaos (this morning I found play dough smashed into the rug and half-eaten tomatoes in my daughter’s bed). Even if I maintain through offenses A, B, and C, there is no way I will make it through to X, Y, and Z. I have been mad, yelling, slinging consequences, and even spanking.

Already we suffered a string of conflicts this morning. If the babies stay asleep then Avery and I will get some desperately needed one-on-one time before her nap; but I am hoping for the impossible…

“Hi Eirik!” She yells into his face. Two little blue eyes blink open.

With three car seats across the back of my SUV, car time offers Avery unsupervised access to the babies that I find impossible to avoid. Eirik gets the worst of it. At times she has pressed a thumb into his fontanelle until he cried or finger-popped the side of his mouth and made him bleed.

“Hi Eirik!” she yells again, this time poking at his mouth. As she reaches for him now, I go ballistic.

*

I am a good parent; meaning I am committed to the process. Communicate well. Lead by example. Each of us takes responsibility for our role in a conflict. Focus on the beauty. I hold this vision for the long road and offer myself forgiveness in all the moments.

Every now and then I stumble upon a hard topic to write, which also means that I have to do it. This is that topic. Conflict within our family. My child’s overwhelming behavior. Trying to be on the same page as my spouse. The role I play in all of this. It might take a few posts.

At times, Avery’s love for the brothers recalls the curly-haired Animaniacs character Elmyra who gathers the animals into her arms, saying, “I will kiss you and love you and squeeze you all up!”

Parenting is insane and whoever says it gets easier is a filthy rotten liar. The twins get a lot of press, but what makes our family functional or fraught is Avery’s behavior. I wont divulge too much lest I shut down reproduction for the human race, but this list is a pretty good summary:

Avery isn’t a toddler anymore; but Preschooler = Toddler with more brain and muscle. Since I’m the one who’s talking people worry about me but that’s not the point. Please, pray for us all.

*

It’s sad what a big kid loses when she gains a sibling (or two). She had mama entirely to herself for three years and must now compete for my attention (aka take turns).

I remind myself that I am the guardian of Avery’s sense of security, and she expects me to model what reasonable interactions look like. I want to harness her “creatiful” energy for the greater good and find a way forward where I am not mad all the time.

Avery demanded the full hippie swim-up bar until she was two-and-a-half. Watching two babies tethered to my boobs is too much for her to take. If I don’t want a baby at each breast and a jealous kid wrapped around my neck then I nurse in my bedroom.

While I hide behind a locked door, Avery finds outlets for her angst: Sewing needles scattered across the floor. A stick of butter nibbled at the corners. A spool of thread woven through the house like a mad spider’s web. Furniture covered in maxi pads. Wet washcloths wrapped in toilet paper and carefully placed in the freezer. Framed art askew. Electrical fixtures swinging.

Isolating her from her family isn’t what I want to do. It’s bad enough that the other four of us, plus the dog, sleep together in one bedroom while she sleeps alone. (We tried rooming the dog in with her but he couldn’t take the pressure.)

I have an idea. Next time I nurse on the couch and ask, “Want to play hide and seek?” Without waiting for me to finish, she runs away to hide. I count long and slowly then I go find my girl.

My sense of safety is renewed but it’s a bit like tossing a steak for a troublesome dog. There must be a better way.

Time to use a lifeline. My friend E has the same constellation of children only she is a year ahead. She recently spent a long weekend with friends who have preschool-aged only-children and was amazed at how much attention those kids got. “We have to remember our daughters are still really little,” she says.

Knowing what not to do does not help a parent to know what to do. Thankfully, my desperate late-night Google searches yield new ideas at ahaparenting.com.

The blog is written by Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. She talks about fresh ways to be in relationship with children that shift parenting away from consequences and towards fun. In all the margins, I see my daughter.

She writes: Laughter relieves stress as much as a tantrum, and it’s so much more enjoyable for everyone. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.

Peaceful Parenting has three parts:

1. The parent commits to regulating his or her own emotions.

2. The parent prioritizes strength in the parent-child connection, the relationship, which is the reason children cooperate.

3. The parent loves the child unconditionally. No withdrawal of love around undesirable behaviors. No rewards or consequences to manipulate the child into doing your will. Only loving guidance and opportunity for everyone to learn how to manage big emotions together.

All of this takes a lot of effort. But as one playful dad, V, once told me: “I find I have to put in the effort one way or another.”

*

Kids (and grown-ups) act out when they have big feelings they can’t put into words and don’t know how to express. When our needs for attention and power (two big needs behind undesirable behaviors) go unmet we get whiny, controlling, aggressive, and territorial.

At first I couldn’t imagine a world without consequences. Do the crime, do the time, right? But then I realized that punishment doesn’t really accomplish anything helpful. Remember the last time someone yelled at you. Did it increase your respect? Bolster your relationship? Make you want to please them? Improve your behavior in the future? Nope. Me neither.

From a kid’s perspective, there is no need for discipline; only for connection, listening, and stress relief. Kids need insightful adults who imagine what’s going on inside of them. They need us to understand their intentions, believe in them, forgive them, expect the best from them. That’s the adult I want to be.

*

For the first time in a long while, I see positive change in my child’s behavior and it isn’t because I found some magic wand to wave over her. I started with the only behavior I can change: Mine.

In doing away with consequences, I committed to figuring out what my daughter is trying to tell me. The message was obvious: Avery needs to know she hasn’t lost me.

I’ve been slow to understand all the forms separation anxiety takes. That’s why we’ve struggled so much at bedtime. That’s why time outs make her behavior worse. Avery has a case of the mamas and she’s willing to drag a brother around by his arm if it means I’ll come running. She wants to be with me, glued to me, no matter my mood. This is also why she continues to think I hung the moon and stars even on my yelling days.

*

I am having fewer yelling days. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking about my intentions, screwing up, apologizing, seeking accountability in my friends and support in my husband, doing it all again.

Photo by H. Landers

After several months of hard work, I rarely use punishment and consequences anymore. When I am proactive; when I cuddle my daughter and make sure not to leave her on the back burner, the behaviors disappear (okay not completely) on their own. When they surface, at least I know where they are coming from.

What fills the void? Singing of show tunes and whispering of silly things in each others ears. Saying yes when other adults make excuses. Rip-roaring, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor giggle fits that allow me to see more of my daughter’s beautiful spirit and my own.

What we pay attention to grows.

***

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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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.

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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.

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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.

*

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.

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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.

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