Let me take a selfie

You know what they say about the best-laid plans. Even the most meticulous planning can eventually make a mockery of you. Add an attempt at a little impromptu sightseeing and a bundle of tired kids? It will quickly go off the rails.

The other day I was driving with my three daughters, who were strapped in the cab of my father-in-law’s truck. We had 30 minutes to kill before supper, so I decided to drive down the local coastal highway to an impressive tourist look-off. The drive spans a sprawling ocean horizon. I watched in the rear view as my daughters’ tired eyes widened with amazement as they processed the view.

My husband and I are terrible at remembering to take photos, so I decided with great determination that I would snap a vacation selfie of our smiling faces when we arrived at this look-off. With the ocean in the background, it would be beautiful. Breathtaking. I could already count the Instagram likes.

When we arrived, however, things started to fall apart. Before we even unbuckled, my girls broke down. We’ve had long days with little rest, so I should have known that just one or two more bumps in the road would lead us straight to meltdown town. There were tears, skinned knees and a very uncomfortable experience in a port-a-potty before we even left the parking lot. We (myself included) were a total, complete and utter mess.

I knew I had to fix things, but I also knew I needed a minute or two to compose myself before putting the pieces of our scenic excursion back together. We sat slumped in silence on a picnic table with our backs towards the Atlantic. It was hardly picture-worthy.

But despite the occasional breakdowns, itchy bug bites and bouts of bad weather, our time in Nova Scotia was absolutely amazing. (I could do without the humidity, however, especially since my four-year-old asked me why my hair, which I had just spent 30 minutes drying, looked like worms.)

We may be exhausted, but we’re totally uplifted by all the love and delight showered upon us in our beautiful home province. It’s the last week of our vacation and we’re now in Prince Edward Island, a place with just as much magic, a little less rain in the forecast and, as always with our family of five, a lot of love.

I didn’t get a picture of our smiling faces (we did eventually smile) at the look-off that day, or many other vacation photos for that matter. But we did create many, many memories that will last us forever. Or at least until our trip ‘home’ again next summer. Or this Christmas. Or a really good seat sale around Thanksgiving. (Does WestJet accept unused go-kart tickets?)

On a jet plane

Our bags are not quite packed and we’re far from ready, but either way we’re leaving tomorrow for our three-week vacation to the East Coast. I’m not even panicked. Not because I’m completely confident that all will be well, but because I’ve entered into a state of hurried stillness. (Like when you watch in slow motion as your child’s Frozen cake fall out of your hands just as your party guests hit the high notes in “Happy Birthday.”)

At this point, I’ve shifted focus from what we will bring to Nova Scotia to how we’ll fare on the long flight from here to there. Flying with little ones is challenging, and I’m not one to never back down from a challenge. But the reward (arriving in Nova Scotia! To the land of sea, salty air and babysitters grandparents!) makes it totally worth it.

We haven’t had any terrible experiences while traveling with kids. We’ve typically fared pretty well. Probably because we keep three simple things in mind:

  1. Be prepared. (Preparation and a few strategic travel toys go a long way.)
  2. Be patient. (Take deep breaths, even if it is stale, circulated air.)
  3. Be thankful. (I’m always grateful for a friendly flight attendant or an understanding seat buddy. I’m grateful for the chance to travel. And, more importantly, for a smooth, safe landing.)

And if all else fails, which it usually does, I’m not above bargaining, bribing and begging. Desperate times (otherwise known as days of the week, when you’re a parent) call for desperate measures.

On that note, I’m signing off. Maybe for a while. But I’ll think of you when I dip my toes in the frosty, frenzied waters of the Atlantic ocean.

Let’s do this!

The final countdown

It’s one week until we leave for our three-week vacation, and I have about a month’s worth of things to do.

I love to plan, and I love to execute those carefully laid plans, but I never seem to do any of it in a reasonable measure of time. I’d like to think I thrive under pressure, even though my husband might refute this, but either way it’s how I roll. Panic is my greatest motivator. It’s not that I don’t want to prepare, pack, or suspend our paper delivery. I’m excited to do all those things, because it means our vacation is right around the corner. I’m just not that motivated to do those things until we’re rounding the corner at full speed and our vacation smacks me in the face.

Say you have six major tasks on your list of things to do, and each task will eat up about half of your day. Would you leave all six tasks until the last possible minute? Yes? Ok, great, we can be friends.

The satisfaction of having everything done in an orderly fashion with time to spare just isn’t enough for me. I like the thrill of being spurred. Others may refer to this as procrastination, but I prefer to call it thrill-seeking. (Oh dear. If doing twelve loads of laundry in a day is my adrenaline equivalent of BASE jumping, maybe I do need to reexamine things.)

I wasn’t always like this. I remember packing for short weekend getaways weeks in advance. Our hospital bag was ready to go before I even felt my first baby kick. I’m not sure why it happened or when it did, but somewhere between baby one and baby three, my pre-meditation motivation waned. There’s just no point in cleaning our house the day before a guest arrives. Unless I tidy ten minutes before we have a visitor, our house will be a disaster. There’s no point in dressing our kids for a Christmas concert an hour before curtain call. When it’s go-time, we line our girls up at the door and yank their dresses down over their heads, like a frill factory assembly line.

Our vacation will be the same. The last 48 hours leading up to our departure will involve a lot of laundry, a lot of packing, a lot of cleaning and a lot of stomping. (Stomping is how I get around when I’m in full panic mode.) I plan to spend the next five days thinking about how much I will have to do in those last two days before we leave. I’m almost looking forward to it.

We always make it. I’m reminded of a quote by Lorne Michaels, often attributed to him by his Saturday Night Live alum. Lorne says, “We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.”

We’re going to get the kids in the car. We’re going to board that plane. Whether our bags are carefully packed or our empty house is left dustless and gleaming, we’re going on vacation. The only thing that really matters is how lucky we are to have this time off, and how lucky we are to spend it together.

And my daugther’s blankie. Dear God, we cannot forget blankie.

Growth charts

Ok. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit of a grump when it came to all the programs my kids participated in this year. (I should also be the first to admit that I chose those programs. Even Kindergarten isn’t technically mandatory in Alberta. I technically could have kept everyone home from everything all year, so I’m technically to blame. Just technically, though. In theory, I’m perfect.)

The last few weeks have been filled with year-end recitals, year-end parties and year-end losing of the tempers. With all the year-end activities we’ve had to partake in lately, June has made December look like the month of new beginnings. Everything has been in celebration of being over: school is out, soccer is done, swimming is finished, fini, finito. (Until the Fall, of course, but that’s September’s problem.)

I’ve been so busy hustling from one year-end event to another that I’ve barely had the time to consider what we’re left with. After all the programs, practices and participation medals (yay for showing up!) what did we learn? How did we grow? This is important, because if you’re a grump like me, you need a really good reason why you should do something to counter your catalogue full of excuses why not.

I don’t have to look far. The truth is, my husband and I have taken note of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle growth in our girls since we signed away some of their free time in September. With just Kindergarten and preschool alone, our two oldest kids have each had their most formative years to date. It’s been a school year of firsts and friendships. Of falling down and getting back up. And while I’m very proud of their official progress as noted in their report cards, my unofficial standard of success is that they both want to do it all over again in September. (I think that wears off by junior high.)

But it’s not just the institutional learning that lends to growth. Our extra-curriculars have given us a lot as well. For the record, I really did try not to overdo it this year. It’s so tempting to attempt everything (especially when your kids want to attempt everything) but I did my best to take a tempered approach. We never had more than three once-a-week commitments at any given time. This may still seem like a lot, because it is, but it was as minimum as I could get. And it gave us maximum enjoyment. I really believe our kids were buoyed by all of their activities, sports and otherwise. Not only has their coordination improved, but their confidence has shot up as well.

Now, would our kids have grown this much without the daily lessons, evening practices and weekend games? Sure. Maybe. And our wallets wouldn’t be as light. And our time together might not have been so rushed. And there would be fewer kilometers on our vehicle. And I could have avoided some awkward small talk with the other parents. Maybe had a little more time for myself… (I’m just going to walk myself back from this tangent before I sob into my coffee.)

I have a feeling life will only get busier. Our youngest daughter isn’t even enrolled in anything yet (like most little siblings, she learns everything through osmosis) and as the kids continue to grow, so will the demands on our free time.

But I still think it’s worth it. (It has to be, otherwise we’re very, very foolish people.) And as my husband often reminded me as we dragged the bags of soccer balls from one field to another, this is what we signed up for.

*For the record, I do not remember signing up to be equipment manager.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming

I’ve been so busy counting down the days to summer vacation (and the end of pick up, drop offs, practices and programs) that I forgot to consider one important thing. What are we going to do with all this free time?

Before our kids started school, summer vacation was exciting (better weather, BBQ, our annual pilgrimage home to Nova Scotia) but otherwise meaningless. Back then, my countdowns surrounded my jailbreak from work for maternity leave and then my subsequent jailbreak from maternity leave to return to work. When our third daughter was born and I left my job to stay at home full time, we enrolled our oldest in pre school. We embraced the September to June calendar from that day forward, until the end of time. Or at least the next seventeen years.

Now that the final days of June are creeping hastily upon us, I should probably consider our game plan for July and August. Our family thrives on routine. I’m assuming most do. Although our schedule is sometimes grueling, it also fuels us. When I know I have to be here and there at this time and that, I can do it. We’ll probably arrive missing a shoe and a little bit late, but we will be there. I rely on our crazy schedule to keep me from going insane.

Having a routine also benefits our kids. (As long as they’re not over-scheduled. I try not to overdo it.) While shuffling from A to Z can get tiresome at times, their weekly activities burn their energy, stimulate their developing brains and provide some order in the busy, bustling business of growing up.

So again. What are we going to do when we have nothing to do?

Well, a big chunk of time will be our vacation within our vacation. To say that we’re excited to visit Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in a few weeks is the understatement of the summer. And then there’s the week or two leading up to the trip, which will probably be filled with prepping and packing. And then the days following our return to Calgary, which will be hours and hours of laundry and apologizing to our dear, darling dog who won’t be accompanying us this year. (She will be in good hands.)

That brings us to mid-August, when our daughters will attend a summer science camp where they fully plan to concoct a shrinking potion (I think I wasn’t clear enough when I read them the brochure). Then it’s basically back to school preparations. Somewhere in-between I promised the girls plenty of visits to the water park, the zoo and visits with their friends who have air-conditioned homes.

All of a sudden it’s September again. (Did I just hear a leaf drop outside?)

I’m sure there will be plenty of boredom and breakdowns, but hopefully there will also be lots of impromptu fun. Which I will schedule in whenever I can.

Peace and quiet (and waffles)

My siblings and I used to groan when we would ask our mother what she wanted for her birthday, because her answer was always the same: “Peace and quiet.” This was her wish list for birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and any other day that celebrated her in any way. What did she want? Peace and quiet.

Over the years, we interpreted this request in many ways. Gift cards, clothing, spa sessions, jewelry. She always seemed grateful and happy regardless of our gift highs (an anniversary trip to Italy, all credit to my father) and lows (a garment steamer, which I maintain was also my father’s idea).

This weekend I celebrated turning 32. As I’ve mentioned before, May kicks off a celebration binge in our family due to a coincidental cluster of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and four family birthdays. By the summer, we’re buttercreamed-out. So for my big day, we forewent birthday cake and dined out on birthday waffles instead. Our kids were (shockingly) well-behaved in the restaurant as they proudly presented me with my elegantly wrapped gift.

I’m the beneficiary of many things from my beautiful mother. I love when people say I look like her and I find myself acting more like her everyday. But there are a few traits that have skipped a generation, and I’m embarrassed to say that chief among them is her graciousness when it comes to receiving gifts.

I love buying gifts for people, but I don’t love getting gifts from people. I’m terrible at it. Not because I’m unselfish and altruistic. It’s because I’m… hmmm… what’s the word? Oh yeah. A brat. People hate buying gifts for me. My husband sees it as a challenge, and although he often triumphs, most have given up. I’ve grown up enough to know to be ashamed of it, but I haven’t grown out of it.

It’s not that I turn up my nose at someone else’s taste. It’s just that I prefer to pick things out for myself, by myself. With all the time, energy and money that goes into raising our family, it’s hard to justify accepting something just for me. I feel tremendous guilt when I spend money on myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want things. So when excuses like birthdays or Christmas roll around, not only would I like something, but I’d like the (dare I say) permission to take time, energy and money to pick it out myself. That’s the gift.

So this weekend, I unwrapped my birthday gift lovingly presented by little hands with the knowledge of what was already inside. I had spent a blissful evening shopping for myself the night before, without guilt, and was sincerely thankful for everything life has given me (and the new shoes).

I’m not exactly sure what my mother meant when she used to ask us for peace and quiet. Maybe she did want a day at the spa. Maybe she wanted a little respect and validation. Or maybe she just wanted to be left alone. What’s funny about it now that her four children have grown up and moved away, all she wants for her birthday is for everyone to be together.

I’ve come to appreciate my mother even more since becoming a mom myself, and maybe one day I can adopt her gracious attitude towards receiving gifts. Because it truly is the people who surround us who matter most of all.

(That said, if someone ever tries to give me a f***ing garment steamer for Christmas, they’re dead to me.)

Gender robes

Every morning, when I walk into my toddler daughter’s room at the break of dawn, she pre-empts any thoughts I might have for her outfit of the day with one word: “Princess?”

This is her word for dress. I’m not sure how it started, maybe there was a time she was twirling in tulle and my husband or I called her a princess. The connection stuck. Now, her daily demand is that she wears something, anything, princessy.

We’ve been through this before. Our two-year-old has two older sisters, who’ve bestowed a closet-full of twirl-worthy dresses and robes. As expecting first-time parents with no sneak preview of our baby’s gender, my husband and I bought everything “gender-neutral.” (Which was funny to me, since the options were a very palette-pleasing mix of primary blue, green, red and yellow… or pink.)

We would have never put money on a family full of girls. And we really had no expectation that it would resign us to a lifetime of pink. But, whether it was pre-determined or prescribed (inadvertently by us and blatantly by toy manufactures) our daughters have all been lured by princesses and pastel hues.

I don’t mind living in a world of dresses and dress-up, as long as it’s a choice. (Although I do die a little inside when my daughter objects to wearing her grey pea coat because it’s a “boy” colour.) I think it can be creative, valuable and fun for kids of both genders to explore their personal style, and if that involves wearing nothing but dresses, I’m all for it. I never want them to feel ashamed of their choices. But how, in this world of not-so-subliminal messaging for girls and boys alike, do you know that it’s a choice? Or are they just fulfilling the gender roles as prescribed by some very successful marketing?

Obviously, not all young girls adore the adorable. While there is no shortage of girls in my daughter’s Kindergarten class who are pretty in pearls, her very best friend greatly prefers Bruce Lee to Barbie. This doesn’t seem to hinder any interaction between them, and I secretly love that my princess-loving daughter gets exposed to the world of superheroes, video games and street hockey from her best girl friend.

And it’s not all pink, all day, every day. Our daughters do plenty of things that have nothing to do with society’s idea of a girl or a boy. Like most kids, they follow the fun. They do what feels good. We just want them to know that playing with dolls doesn’t make you a girl any more than riding a blue bike makes you a boy. And neither one is a bad thing to be.

Perhaps the most important role is our role as parents. It’s up to us to help our kids navigate this tricky world of gender notions so they have the freedom to paint their own pictures. And if that picture happens to be pink? So be it.