Bedlam in the Badlands

Blue skies.

We did it. We came, we saw, we camped. We ate, we hiked, we left a teensy bit earlier than planned due to the blistering heat in Alberta’s badlands. Overall, it was a successful summer memory. Our kids, who complain in the best of times, somehow slid pretty effortlessly into a camping state-of-mind.

The day we were heading out, I made a discovery that proved invaluable: podcasts for kids. I downloaded a few modern fables from Storynory and a couple TEDTalks for Kids and Family. My intention was to play them during the long drive from the city, but I forgot. It worked out for the best, though, because we listened to them together at bedtime, as we lay in the tent in the dark. It was the calmest our family of five has ever been in a 100-square-foot space.

My concerns for our kids’ sleep had been unfounded, since they melted into a deep, blissful slumber around midnight. My husband and I, on the other hand, lay awake until about 5am, nodding off just in time for what the Alberta Parks staff call the dawn chorus—a fitful, morning cacophony of birds and insects and I’m assuming tortured frogs.

Fortunately, there was coffee. Enough to make the dawn chorus seem special, even cheerful. When we packed up our things at the end of our stay, the birds were resting in the very little shade and for the most part, spared us from their melodic squawks. Still, I think we left on a high note. Who knows, we may even do it all again.

Can we do it? Yes We Camp!

Coffee and campfire songs. What could go wrong?

We were rummaging through a bin of old belongings when my daughters unearthed a (somewhat scandalous) photo of my husband and I. It was taken in the summer of 2003, sometime in the early days of our bourgeoning courtship. We were cuddled, tightly, in a tent during a small town folk festival in Nova Scotia’s eastern-most tip. The photo had made its way among the junk during our moves as a couple from Nova Scotia to Ontario and eventually Alberta.

My girls were agasp at this photo. It wasn’t our tangled limbs and locking lips, or the bottle of Alexander Keith’s dangling in my hand. It wasn’t even the unfortunate khaki bucket hat my husband was wearing without shame. They were shocked. Incensed. Stunned.

“YOU WENT CAMPING??!!”

I’m proudly Canadian. I know and accept that camping is a thing. But here in Alberta, camping is a thing. It’s the thing. I was not prepared. I was also not prepared for my three daughters to make it their thing. The last time I went camping was exactly that time in the photo, when I was falling in love with an older boy who invited me camping. Nine years of marriage and three kids later, I was finally being called out on my bullsh*t. If I could go camping for their tall, dimpled father then I could go camping for our little, dimpled kids, because EVERYONE IN THEIR CLASS GOES CAMPING AND WHY CAN’T WE.

Ok, ok, we’ll go camping.

Since the total sum of our equipment equaled one French Press and nothing else—in our family, coffee is a camping essential—I had a lot of work to do. One of my first lessons on this wilderness journey: camping ain’t cheap.

You’d think it would be, but starting from scratch for a family of five meant collecting everything from a tent, sleeping bags, stove, right down to the matches. (Thank God I had already invested in a French Press.) I stockpiled our inventory over the course of a year, and the day that Alberta Parks opened its site bookings in early Spring, I was finally one of those Albertans who was part of the buzz. I picked our date and site in one of Alberta’s super popular Provincial Parks. Which lead me to my second lesson: camping is a culture.

Convinced we would stick out like sore (city) thumbs, I did a little research about camping etiquette. I practiced pitching our massive tent, I assembled and test-ran our cute little stove. I may have even roughed up our cooler a bit, so everything didn’t look so, you know, shiny. Which was completely unnecessary, due to the third lesson that I’ll likely learn very soon: camping is dirty.

As I’m gathering our equipment, planning our meals and packing our bags for our extra-long weekend in the wilderness, I’m also preparing myself for our time in the great, dusty, bug-filled outdoors. Our kids are ecstatic. My husband is relaxed. My breath is shallow, my to-do list is long and my internet search history is filled with tips for identifying rattlesnakes. But I’m now totally confident that we’re fully prepared and fully equipped to have some fun (and maybe a few Keith’s). If I have time, I may try to find that old photo before we leave to remind me of those early days. The bucket hat, though? Sadly, the bucket hat did not make it.

(Not so) Slow and Steady

From the day you became a parent, you’re either waiting for time to speed up (When will they crawl? When will they walk? When will they talk?) or for time to slow down (Stop growing! Stop changing! CRAWL BACK IN MY BELLY!)

The rapid, relentless progression of childhood leaves me breathless. The minute I start to feel comfortable in my parenting role, the ground shifts beneath my feet and I’m behind again. What’s that? It’s fun, you say? You could find it fun, the way a cat finds it fun to chase a laser around the room. In this case I’m the cat, my parenting goals are the laser, and my kids have already moved on from the game while I’m still trying to land on the little red dot.

I couldn’t tell you what has made us so incredibly busy in the last couple months. School, schedules, stomach bugs (enough with the stomach bugs!) plus a myriad of other excitements and challenges. The pages in our full family calendar have flipped by even faster than my daughter grew out of her back-to-school clothes. (Seriously, STOP!) But I can tell you that I’m working very hard to keep up. I haven’t gone for a good long run in a little while, or even a little run in a good long while, but my parenting fitness has been given a strenuous work out lately.

Parenting isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s psychological Ironman. It’s emotional CrossFit. It’s sometimes, literally, Formula 1. (We’re late for hockey, people!)

And just like my measly 5K performances, I’m actually grateful to hit my less-than-perfect personal best. Which means we’re not first, we’re not last, I’m on the verge of collapse, but we’re happy. Winded, confused, and hungry… but happy.

Harry Potter and the Half-Witted Parent

I swear I even Googled it. “When can my child read Harry Potter?”

Admittedly, I was a little selective with the search results. Like when you Google “How bad is yelling at your kids, really?” and scroll until you find an article titled, “I yelled at my kids and they turned out fine!” By Dina Lohan.

Some search results suggested that yes, indeed, my seven-year-old daughter might be old enough to read Harry Potter. She had been asking me all year to delve into his world, having heard about Harry Potter from some (possibly older?) school mates.

I was tempted too. I was an avid reader when I was young, and I just couldn’t wait for my daughter to experience getting lost inside a world within a book. She was already reading some chapter books that I thought were pretty poorly written. Maybe it was time for some first rate material? What’s the harm? So at the beginning of the summer, I ordered a gorgeously illustrated version of The Philosopher’s Stone and settled in to re-live the magic with my willing, wide-eyed daughter.

Of course I’d read the books before. But somehow the scarier, murder-y details of the story had since escaped me. Dead parents? Abusive caregivers? Attempted infanticide? All within the first chapter? I started getting nervous. I became uncomfortably and acutely aware of every age-inappropriate paragraph and passage as we read deeper into the story. But I did my best to make it sunny. Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens… We forged on to the fun stuff, and soon enough she was hooked. It was literally magical.

We read a chapter as often as we could, and she was just. so. into. it. I was impressed at how much she was able to retain, and when my husband would pop his head in the room to ask if it was any good, I would chuff at him in my best (still bad) Hagrid voice, “NEVER-INSULT-ALBUS-DUMBLEDORE-IN-FRONT-OF-ME!”

Because it was good. It was very good. Until it wasn’t. I’m not sure at what point the image of He Who Shall Not Be Named seeped into her head, but it did and it stayed there. When we finally reached the end, she was simultaneously smitten by the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and irreversibly, inconsolably terrified. Not exactly the result I had been hoping for, but probably one I could have predicted.

On a particularly bad night, I peeked over at my husband as our oldest daughter lay shaking between us, and I whispered, “I think I goofed.”

He said, “Don’ look at me, it was yer daft plan.” (His Hagrid voice is better than mine, which is surprising since he’s never read the books.)

Since then, things have improved. Luckily, as with most dark arts, my daughters love for the story has overpowered her fear. She’s hooked, and even hopes to be Hermione for Halloween. (Note to self, order costume early this year.)

I made it clear from the beginning that we would have to wait before we read the next book in the series. Harry Potter is a process. A wonderful process, a sometimes scary process, and one that we will be returning to soon. When the time is right.

A year in words

I’m not really one for resolutions, or regrets, or radicchio. (Although I am one for alliteration, at all costs.)

But I can’t help but look back on 2015 and think it was a raging success. I had some ups, some downs, and some life-turned-upside-downs, and (lucky you) they were all documented here for your reading pleasure. Here’s a snapchat:*

This year, I said yes. A lot. Like joining my husband and daughters for a family run instead of standing in my pantry eating handfuls of gummy bears. (I did that, too, and it was amazing.)

I said no. There were times, especially in the last few months, when I felt overwhelmed. On top of stumbling through my day job and dreaming of my dream job, I felt the pressure of the four million other things I should be undertaking. I had to slow down, practice self-care and say no to some less important things, so I could eventually say yes to more important things.

I pushed myself to write. And to call myself a writer. And to share my writing with you and a bunch of discerning five-year-olds. I pushed myself to run. And even though I fell short of a few running goals, and some writing goals, I’m still standing. (Which is the anthesis of running, so that should be obvious.)

I said goodbye. I found myself traveling alone to Nova Scotia twice this year, once to say farewell to a wonderful woman, and once to be together with my parents and siblings at a difficult time. These times were hard, but they made me forever grateful for everything.

I was surrounded by love. Lots of love. So much love. I learned a lot about my daughters, and they learned a little about me. (Mostly good stuff.)

And despite a few close calls, I made it into the New Year without losing a single person. Ok, ok, I did technically lose a person, but she was found relatively quickly and is now tethered to my body with rope and glitter glue. But I can proudly say that I made it into the New Year without losing a single person for a period longer than five minutes.

It was a good year. And I have a feeling 2016 will be even better.

Happy New Year!

*Possible new years resolution: Learn what snapchat is.

Good expectations

People often ask me, “How do you do it?” And although these people are my small children and they’re usually referring to complicated board game instructions, I thought I would take the time to share my recently discovered secret to success: good expectations.

I like to set my sights high-ish. I have goals-ish. My expectations are good, not great. That way, I hardly ever fall short of life’s seemingly endless challenges and spiral down a rabbit hole of failure, fear and regret.

It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, I had laughable, lofty expectations of life, love and prom. I blame American television shows. But as life, love and prom (and my vocabulary) proved to be a bit less glamorous than that of the sesquipedalian kids of Dawson’s Creek, I adapted.

For example, when I was a new mom at home alone while my entire family lived on the East Coast and my husband travelled for work, my daily expectation for myself was pretty low. The lowest of the low. Did my baby attempt a nap? Yes? Success! Is her belly full of breast milk and her bones still intact? Seemingly so? Success! Did I shower today and remember to rinse the conditioner from my hair? Who can be sure? Success!

Aside from the tears, fears and unsettling hormone imbalance, my year-end parenting performance review was outstanding. (So much so that I promoted myself to mother of two. Then tree. With each new newborn, my expectations lowered even further. Does everyone have a pulse? I think so? Success!)

Now, as my youngest daughter approaches age three and my mind, body and soul emerge from the trenches of tantrums and toddlers, I’m slowly starting to raise my expectations ever so slightly. But there are levels to this sh**. And since you asked I’ll share with you my approach, which involves a tertiary goal system and exactly zero accountability. (You have to find what works for you.)

Level One: Daily life.

While some people might call this category a routine, or universal parenting responsibilities, or simple mindless tasks a monkey could do, I call these goals, simply so I can give myself extra credit when we make it to the bus stop on time or I remember to pack my daughter’s lunch. Bus, lunches, dinner, drop-offs, pick-ups, these are all my daily life goals. (In addition to these daily life goals, there are also what I like to call add-ons, like permission slips, library books and special events. If I can successfully accommodate these add-ons at a frequency of three out of five, I pat myself on the back.)

Level Two: Nice to haves.

These goals are less things I should accomplish and more things I pull off somehow. Like hitting (and surpassing) 100 posts on my blog. Applying successfully to the WGA Mentorship Program. Showing up on time to hockey / piano / dance with equipment / homework / all three children safely in tow. These are nice to haves. Did the sweet teacher receive her gourmet chocolates on the last day of school before Christmas break? No? My daughter forgot them in her backpack? Oh well. No biggie. Appearing as a put-together, appreciative mom of a girl who had a great beginning to the school year was a nice to have. Besides, who doesn’t love getting chocolates in January, four days into their resolutions?

Level Three: A girl can dream.

Here’s where I store the unmentionables. Goals that seem about as achievable to me as winning the lottery. Run five miles. Publish a book. Win the lottery. These are the loftiest of all my goals, so lofty that acknowledging them at all makes them even more elusive, like a birthday wish or another Jays pennant run. Raise three happy, well-adjusted, independent kids. Retire early and travel the world with my husband. Retire at all. Find a job from which I can eventually retire. Have perpetually manicured hands. Overhear my daughters’ friends say, “Your mom is so cool,” and my daughters say, “Yeah, she’s pretty great.” Like I said, a girl can dream.

So there you have it. The anatomy of ‘good expectations’ provided by someone who managed to shower this morning and make the kids lunch. In that order. You’re welcome. And good luck. (Or, should I say, great luck.)

The F-word

Almost every parent I know has a line drawn in the sand. Sometimes it’s around sugar. Sometimes it’s around screen time. Sometimes it’s Caillou. (I could go on and on about this show, but if you wanted to hear someone whine for hours, you could just watch the show for yourself.)

As a parent of three young daughters, my line in the sand is drawn around my body. It’s a wall, actually. Inside the wall are only good thoughts and behaviors and words. Outside the wall is everything else, including one word in particular: fat.

It may seem small, and I’m not even sure what affect it will have, but that is my line. My kids eat sugar, they’ve binged on Netflix, and they have definitely, inexplicably delighted in watching Caillou throw a tantrum at the grocery story, the public pool, the soccer pitch, the water park… (WHYYY do kids love that show?). But they will never, ever, EVER hear me call myself fat.

Which is why it broke my heart so acutely, so deeply, when my six-year-old daughter called me that.

It happened during my foolish and fruitless search for a holiday outfit that is stunning, affordable, and appropriate for all holiday occasions. (Is that too much to ask?!) I also foolishly thought this could be accomplished in the company of my three young children during the 10 free minutes we had that day. I undressed in our crowded change room and began with outfit number one, a faux furry sweater that looked like a dog’s butt. I know this, because my six-year-old said, “That looks like a dog’s butt.”

We laughed. It did look like a dog’s swirly butt. But as any parent knows, laughing at a six-year-old’s slightly inappropriate joke is adding fuel to a wildfire. Things accelerate quickly. All roads lead to more butt jokes. And I could see the embers blaze in my daughter’s bored, blue eyes as she hungered for more laughs.

Your butt is funny,” she said as I removed the butt shirt.

More giggles from her two younger sisters. She pushed on.

“Your belly is jiggly,” she said. I attempted to temper the conversation by doing an especially silly dance as I stepped into a skirt, standing there in a state of undress in front of my three small girls.

And then she said it.

“Why is your belly so… fat?”

I assume you are now wondering what my belly looks like. Well, it’s a belly. It fits nicely inside my jeans. I guess it looks like I delivered three babies in a span of three and a half years. It looks like I gained weight and lost weight. When I do jumping jacks, it looks like Jello. When I do push-ups, it looks like a loaf of bread. My body does not look as it did when I was 16. But I’m ok with that. In fact, I love it. I love it more now than I was able to love it back then.

My husband loves my body too. He tells me every day. My doctor loves my body too. (OK, love is a strong word, but judging from the thumbs up at my last physical, at the very least she finds it medically acceptable.)

My children love it too. They trace the fuzzy freckles on my forearm like clues on a treasure map. They wrap themselves around my legs and giggle at my disaster of a pinky toe. (Show me a pinky toe that’s not a disaster.)

And almost every chance they get, they sink their hands deep into my soft belly and tell me stories of their entirely made-up adventures as babies in the womb. It’s my most favourite time. If I hadn’t learned to love my body, including my belly, if I flinched or winced or instinctively tugged down my shirt and covered my ‘flaws’ when they wanted to touch my skin, I would miss those ridiculous stories. I would never know that they commandeered a pirate ship inside my stomach. I would never know they banged on drums inside my lungs. They would never know what my body really looked like. And that I think it’s beautiful.

That didn’t come without effort. I worked really, really hard (and still work hard) to have comfort with and appreciation for my body. Initially, I faked it, motivated only by my daughters’ precious sense of selves. But over time, my self-love started to take root. And in my 32 years, this is the best I’ve ever felt about my body. Just in time for those three curious sets of eyes to take notice.

Which is why it broke my beating heart when my six-year-old asked me why my belly was so fat. Because what she was really saying was, why is your belly so wrong?

And truthfully, my heart didn’t break because my daughter called me fat. It broke for what she might one day call herself.

She immediately felt remorse. Kids are always testing new language, and I could tell she was confused why this particular word left the mark that it did.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t even know what that word means.”

Of course she’s going to learn what that word means, especially in its most negative form. The word itself isn’t bad. It’s the message. And of course my line in the sand can’t protect her from every negative thought about her body. But when she tragically, inevitably has one of those negative thoughts, I hope she remembers my response that day. It was the only thing I could think to say.

“I love my body.”

I do. And I love her body. And her sisters’ bodies. And my husband’s body. Not just because they’re strong or fast or one-of-a-kind, and not in spite of any lumps or bumps or perceived imperfections they may have. Because of one simple reason.

Every body is worthy of some love.