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.

All things being equal

Life is about balance. Work and play. Give and get. Spend and save. (Although this time of year it feels more like we’re spending our savings…)

Each Christmas, I attempt to reign in our holiday spending. With recent tax hits, looming lay-offs, and market slumps, we really do need to proceed with caution. (We also decided that this would be a great time to make a large, unnecessary, emotionally-driven investment, because obviously.)

I love Christmas, and all the gift-giving, cookie-baking, tree-decorating merriness that it brings, but I want our kids to know that there’s more to this season than get, get, get. They will have an amazing Christmas, and even though our household is feeling the pinch, we’re feeling it with vet bills, hockey fees and vacation plans. We still have food on the table. Many folks do not.

It was actually around the table that our family had this discussion. In an attempt to keep the kids in their seats long enough finish their meals, my husband and I asked them for their Christmas wish list. They’re aware that Santa brings one gift, and that there are limits to what that gift can be. (“But if Santa builds his toys, why does it matter if it costs too much?” says the six-year-old about the iPad that Santa will not be bringing.) Their want lists were a mile-long, which accentuated the fact that our need list is mercifully short.

Food Bank use in our province, Alberta, rose dramatically in the last year. (So much so that it increased the national average.) It’s up 83 percent since 2008. We do our part when it’s asked of us, for school food drives or clothing donations, but I’ve hardly been proactive when it comes to supporting our community. It’s shameful, really, because we all had much more to give during the boom. Now, during the bust, it’s the time when it’s needed most.

So on Tuesday, December 1 (officially proclaimed Giving Tuesday by the City of Calgary, following Black Friday and Cyber Monday) we’re starting a new tradition. Our doorbell will ring. Our girls will see that Santa has left a box of wish list items for the Calgary Food Bank’s Emergency Food Hamper. And they can do their part for their community, year after year.

It’s a small step. So small it’s almost nothing. But it’s something. And hopefully our kids will get the message that it’s ok to want something (other than an iPad, sorry sweetie) but it’s important, more important, to give.

Full speed ahead

In September, the leaves changed. In October, they fell.

This month has been a tough one for me and my family, and I’m ready for November. (Who is ever ready for November?) But it’s true. It’s time to take those leaves and turn them over.

When the time comes to get things done, there’s a temptation to do them quickly. It’s very attractive to opt for a quick fix. Take weight loss. You want to lose 10 lbs. (Damn you, mini chocolate bars.) You could just re-adjust your lifestyle and lose a little weight in a slow and sustainable way. Or, you could cleanse and fast and remove a limb. As someone who knows what would work for my body (slow and sustainable) and what wouldn’t (voluntary amputation), in this case I can avoid the temptation of quick fix.

This is not the case for me when it comes to writing, however. When it comes to writing, I need the dramatic. The deadline. The ultimatum. I rely on it. I rely on the ticking tock of the last few minutes of the final hours to hit submit. I have no accountability otherwise. Amazingly, I can say to myself, “Shannon, dear, you can put down the bite-size Kit Kat. You’ve had 37. They all taste the same.” But a writing task that’s self-imposed? Impossible. Who is there to enforce? Who is there to keep me accountable?

Well, this month, I’m appointing someone. Me. (My husband was a close second, but I decided this was too much pressure on our relationship. Like the time I told him to hide the box of Halloween candy from me, it could only end in disaster.) I have some exciting things happening in the New Year (more on this later) but I can’t wait until January to pick things up.

One way to jump in feet first is to sign up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you follow any writers, publishers or agents on Twitter, its buzz is inescapable. I have no experience with NaNoWriMo, but I’m intrigued. And maybe an intense, unrealistic, destined-to-fail, writing-equivalent-of-a-juice-cleanse is the perfect way to turn over a new leaf.

Yep. I think I’ll sign up. Right after I finish this Kit Kat.

(Hey, there’s still a week left of October. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Into the woods

When we consider our reaction to stress, fear or pressure, we often think in terms of black and white. Fight or flight. Cope or crumple. But everyone knows that stress is more complicated than that, and even the most even-keeled can have a rocky road towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

This week involved an unexpected trip home to Nova Scotia to be with family. All is now well, and I’m excited to return to Calgary tomorrow to my husband and three beautiful girls. I’m sure they’ve had a busy week, too.

Touching down on Maritime soil is always a restorative experience for me, even when (especially when) I’m not feeling particularly grounded. Sometimes you comfort, sometimes to need to be comforted. Sometimes you cope. Sometimes you crumble. And sometimes, you just need a good walk in the woods.

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Let’s try this again

One of my proudest moments of the summer came in line at an amusement park. My oldest daughter and her many cousins had waited with as much patience as they could muster for their turn on the go-karts. It was the ultimate amusement park experience and they had counted down the minutes to when they’d be behind the wheel.

When it was finally their turn, they each ran for a machine. It was a busy day, and in the musical chairs of go-kart selection, my daughter was the one left standing. There weren’t enough karts, and there wasn’t enough time to wait for another go-round. Her aunts and uncles held their breath for the breakdown that never came. She did that awkward shrug she does when she’s holding back her disappointment, and she coped.

I was reminded of that moment the other night, when my husband and I held her hair and rubbed her back as her stomach churned with a nasty flu bug, and we told her that she would miss her first day of Grade 1. You don’t get many first days of school, and while they’re tough for some (mostly us parents) they’re important. They’re the ultimate school experience, and our daughter had counted down the minutes to her first day of school all month. And now, not only was she staying home, she was sick.

I probably don’t need emphasis when I say that stomach bugs are the worst. They’re awful, especially when they happen to your kids. I was hit first, and despite our best attempts to quarantine, our oldest daughter was next. The day before she was due back to school.

I felt awful, not just because we were in complete and utter agony, but because my daughter was missing her big day. But between sips of water, saltines and a lot of laundry loads, I was reminded of three things:

One, my husband is an excellent care-taker. While I was crippled and cramping, he handled our kids and their demands like the pro that he his. He even made banana bread. Banana bread! I’m grateful for his care and will try to hold back my huffs the next time he comes down with a man cold. (I will try.)

Two, we’re going to get sick. It’s that time of year again. This bout of bellyaches was a timely reminder of the importance of washing your hands all day, every day. Anything to avoid any more nasty little bugs.

Three, our oldest girl is tough as nails. She took the news of her delayed debut in Grade 1 with grace. She battled her bug and although she arrived in her new classroom this morning one day behind, she was renewed and ready to tackle this school year. These first days of school do more than just remind me of how much she’s grown, but how well she’s grown, despite all of my missteps, my fears and my many, many shortcomings. She’s incredible, and I can’t wait to hear about her second attempt at a first day of school.

Now, waking her up at 7am each day without groans and grumbles? That’s an entirely different story…

28 days

It’s been 27 days, 12 hours and 49 minutes since I last laced up my running shoes.

Even though it was a foggy Maritime morning, I remember it clearly. (Mainly because its digital memory remains logged in my GPS watch, mocking me with the strength of a thousand satellites.) It was 6am on the day before we left PEI for Nova Scotia and then the airport, and I ran my near personal best. It was humid, smelly (I ran alongside a dairy farm) and wholly satisfying. Even the cows were impressed.

A quick jog in Nova Scotia

And I haven’t run since.

At first, I considered my break a well-deserved hiatus. I’m certainly not fitness-obsessed, so a week or so without running didn’t bug me a bit. It was hardly a thought in my brain. But then another week went by, and it started to nag. Now another has come and gone, and it’s not only a thought in my brain, it’s a twitch in my legs. A fly in my soup. A bee in my bonnet. In other words, it’s starting to really, really bug me.

Now, if the fact that I haven’t gone running lately bugs me, a human adult of my own volition, then why don’t I, aforementioned adult, go running? Good question.

The truth is, I don’t know. Mustering myself up for a run can be the effort equivalent of convincing my kids to floss. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it. (I kid, I kid, they floss…) I’m not very good at reward-based systems when the reward comes afterwards. (Are there many systems where you reap the rewards upfront? Those, I like.)

Sure, maybe there’s an intense sense of accomplishment and boost of adrenaline after I run, and it’s possible that my body feels stronger and my clothes fit better and my life is extended by regular, moderate exercise but what can you do for me now?

The nag of not running has almost completely invaded my headspace. It has escalated into a thing, this question of “Should I run today?” and my mind is just a murmur of opposing thoughts of will she / won’t she and it’s all become very awkward in there.

I’ll probably go for a run. Maybe not this month (certainly not tonight) but soon enough, I’ll go for a run.

So for now, it’s 27 days, 12 hours, 49 minutes and counting…