The parent trap

Yesterday was cleaning day. I washed, wiped, polished. I dusted, freshened, frenzied. I even scrubbed an inky handprint from the bathroom wall. It felt great. It was like getting a tiny high five. Great job, Shan!

The true mark of a thorough cleaning day is to tidy the kids’ bookshelf. It’s one of those low priority, high reward tasks. I sorted and stacked our cherished collection of board books, picture books and chapter books to perfection. I felt refreshed.

By bath time, I was still feeling great. I drew the girls a bubble bath in our soaker tub, a rare treat for them, and calmly cleansed the day from their skin (and the offending blue ink from my two-year-old’s hands).

I went downstairs to pour their milk. When I returned to the top of the stairs, I saw that in a matter of minutes, my bed-ready babies had laid out their many, many books in intricate, messy pathways along the floor.

I snapped. I yelled. Yes, from a healthy perspective this imaginative little mess wasn’t really a big deal. But to me, right then, it was. For three reasons: One, I like a tidy home. When our house is clean, I feel calm and in control. Two, we have friends coming to visit today. Sure, it’s unlikely that they will inspect our bannister for dust or even be impressed that our books are (were) alphabetized by author, but my tidying efforts lend themselves to an overall welcoming feeling in our home, and I like that.

And three, maybe most importantly, cleaning the house was basically what I did all day. This is what I had to show for myself. I did other things, but this was my big accomplishment. When the bookshelves were emptied onto the floor after hours and hours of effort, it was like a day’s work of data entry being deleted from my hard drive. (I chose data entry as a comparable to this aspect of stay-at-home parenting, because I’ve done both and know that either one can lead to insanity.)

I should point out that this pressure of what did you DO all day comes from me and no one else. Sure, there are mommy wars waging outside my window, but I’ve been a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, and I found both to be very, very hard. I chose to stay at home this time, for reasons maybe one day I’ll blog about, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder if I made the right decision.

I mourn the months lost of building my career just as I mourn the minutes that pass as my babies grow up. I love being here to help my children develop (and deliver them safely each day to school and beyond) but my thoughts also drift to what else I have to offer. When it comes time for me to focus on my professional self again, will I be ready? Since having kids I’ve gained and lost weight, lost and gained hair, and permanently misplaced some marbles. What will the state of my brain be when my kids are in school full time?

After my overblown explosion about the books, my three daughters and dear husband scrambled to replace each title on the shelves. I stood there, feeling utterly ridiculous that I cared this much but not quite ready to concede any ground. I could tell I was being appeased but not totally understood, which was ok, because I’m not sure I could have articulated my complicated feelings in that moment.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, for me to keep a checklist of daily progress as a stay-at-home parent. House clean: check. School fees paid: check. Children met expected developmental milestones today: check. Most days we’re lucky if we end the day without anyone (including me) shedding any tears.

But I do sometimes need some evidence of a productive day, outside of parenting, so I can foster that flicker of hope that I’m still a capable adult. While I’m busy preparing my kids for the outside world, it’s sometimes comforting, sometimes worrying to know that I will one day return to it, too.

Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. But I guess the lesson is that if I’m here, home, now, I should make the most of it.

(Is that the lesson? Is it?? No really, I’m sincerely just guessing.)

Good morning, Nova Scotia

We survived the plane ride. We forgot only one, maybe three essential things (which is an improvement). But I did remember my running shoes. My husband and I have snuck in a couple of runs since arriving, and I can think of no better way to start our day than with this view around mile one:

Nova Scotia

Yesterday I ran my personal best, and this morning I beat it. It could have something to do with running at sea level (I consider my tougher runs in Calgary as altitude training). But it’s also because we’re so damn happy to be here, it’s impossible not to have a skip in our step.

Our vacation will be a whirlwind. We plan to squeeze enjoyment out of every humid, happy second we spend on the East Coast. But when you’re in a place this beautiful, it’s impossible not to stop and enjoy the view.

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. (But also the destination)

I should start by saying that at one point, I really did believe I could achieve it. At least, I wanted badly to believe I could achieve it. A year ago, I set my goal: I will run five miles by July 2015.

I’ve wanted to run in the annual 5 Mile Road Race in my rural hometown for years, but this was the summer when the timing, training and intention would all line up. With months to prepare, I could finally get myself into the sort of shape that would carry my 30-something-year-old post-baby body across the finish line (which is traditionally and cruelly half-way up a hill on Main Street). I’ve attended the race before, as part of the small cheering crowd, but this will be the summer that I race. I will run 5 miles.

Wellllll, that’s probably not going to happen. At least not in time for the race, which is just two weeks away.

I started ‘running’ last summer. Before then it had been a very long time since I ran, for exercise, on a regular basis. I had fallen out of favor with ‘health’ and ‘exercise’ and physical ‘well-being’ during my grad school and baby birthing years. I had sporadic bursts of aerobic activity, but overwhelmingly my time was spent wishing I could improve my lifestyle instead of actually doing it. Then, about a year ago, my husband and I fell (pushed ourselves) into a routine of eating food that made us feel better and doing activities that made us feel stronger. Running fit neatly into that lifestyle change, and we’ve been pounding the pavement ever since.

My first big milestone was running 5K. I started running for three minutes, walking for two, for about a half an hour. I adjusted to running four minutes, walking for one just in time for my first 5K race in October of last year. This was huge for me. Even though I had already been running a distance of 5K on some of my training runs, crossing the finish line that day meant the world to me. I ran my next 5K race bedside my husband in May of this year.

My second major milestone was running 5K without stopping to walk. While at dinner with my very dear friend, I was lamenting about my sluggish runs. My friend, who was training for her first full marathon, told me that my barriers were more mental than physical. Just try it, she said. So I did, and that week I ran 5K without stopping. I was pumped. (A side note, she ran 42.2K at a quicker pace than I ran 5K, not just because I’m very slow, but because she’s amazing.)

The natural progression would be to then increase the distance of my runs, which would conveniently coincide with training for, say, a certain 5 Mile Road Race that has been on my radar for years? Yes, some people might think this, but for some reason I’ve chickened out. I let my training slide and allowed the little voice inside my head who said, You can’t, drown out all the other voices who said, Maybe? I dunno. Five miles is kinda far. (I need new voices.)

It’s now two weeks away and I won’t bore you with the list of reasons I’ve cultivated as to why I’m not going to race. (My most altruistic being that I wouldn’t want to pull precious rural resources away from those who truly need it when I require medical attention at about mile three.)

I’m disappointed that my goal won’t be realized this summer, but I can’t be discouraged. The truth is, every time I wanted to stop, collapse and heave violently into a bush during my many runs around our Calgary suburb, I pictured myself crossing that finish line on Main Street in my small hometown. And it kept me going. So I may not be racing this summer, but in some ways I feel like I’ve already won.*

*Ok, ok, I have not technically won. But there’s always next year.

Indulge, repent, repeat

Mondays are ugh enough, but this Monday feels particularly ugghh. It’s been almost 40 days and 40 nights of BBQ, beer and birthday celebrations and today, I’m feeling all of it. We’ve now entered into a 10-day reprieve from any celebration obligations, a period which I will consider my eating-to-excess rehab sentence.

I had no idea you could suffer from food hangovers. Before I became somewhat diligent about my diet (I think of my diet as the food I do eat, not as the food I don’t eat), I didn’t really notice an upset stomach here or there. Probably because I was eating digestively-challenging* food all the time. When I started to clean up my act, and my plate, I realized that I was also probably feeling bad all the time. Now that I’ve improved my menus, I really notice the treats I can handle (beer = A-OK!) and those I can’t (cupcakes are assholes).

One of the reasons I embraced a new take on food (aside from the very frank lecture from my family physician, who addressed my BMI like it was a broken bone during my physical last year) is so I can enjoy those occasions of indulgence, on occasion. Ice cream tastes even better when you remove one unnecessary ingredient: guilt. I can handle a double scoop now and then when I’m eating ‘right’ most of the time.

Summer is a little more challenging, though. (As are holidays, birthdays, weekdays, Saturdays, Sundays…) Summer food is so easy to indulge in, because it’s social, it’s usually served buffet-style, and it’s sooo good. I try my best to make our standard dinner-plate meals during the week, but it seems like almost every other day we’re picnicking, partying or eating on the run. The last four or five days were especially challenging, (thanks, Calgary Stampede, for deep-fried Oreos, really, thanks) so I’m in a hurry to feel better.

I’ve learned, however, that I cannot rush recovery. I have no quick fixes, and no other answers, so I just resume my tried-and-true regular meal plan and hope for the best. It takes a few days, and at least one wave of withdrawals from sugary sweets, but eventually I feel fine again.

And when I’m eyeing that second fifth slice of sizzling pepperoni pizza, I try to invoke the memory of how it will make me feel around midnight, because my brain has a habit of forgetting. It’s the same trick I use when someone hands me a fragrant newborn and my tummy starts to flutter. Remember how it feels to not sleep, for a year??

Oh, who am I kidding? There’s always room for more pizza. And babies.

*I hesitate to label food ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I love it all so much, it just doesn’t seem fair.

Things that make you say ommm…

Life can be stressful. I’m always searching for new methods for dealing with stress, especially since becoming a parent. Parenting isn’t my only or even biggest source of stress, but when you’re caring for kids, you can’t afford to live in a broody, anxious state all the time. Because when the milk gets spilled and you don’t have balance, you’re probably going to blow.

My first big encounter with being overwhelmed was in university. I can remember my last few weeks of my undergrad like it was exactly 10 years ago. I was over-loaded with exams and assignments and organizing grad week activities for my fellow classmen. I had just been accepted to grad school with no idea how to pay for it, and I was saying goodbye to my roommates and dear friends. At the time, I was big into list-making. It was the best way to help me cope with stress and get things done. I can laugh now at what my seemingly stressful list of tasks must have been:

  1. Hand in final essay
  2. Pack for Cuba
  3. Find a summer job? (Note the question mark. Oh, to be 22 again.)

Flash forward a few years, to my first pregnancy. When I discovered I was pregnant, I had what some might call a mini (mega) meltdown. My new husband and I had just sold our home in Nova Scotia, left our cushy jobs and moved across the country to Calgary. We were still living in a hotel when the little blue line appeared on the stick. I had no career, no permanent place to live and unrelenting nausea. List-making just wouldn’t do.

So I tried yoga. It wasn’t the first time I’d done yoga, but the first time I stuck with it on a consistent basis. Yoga helped me pre and post pregnancies, and even though I deeply disliked pigeon pose I always looked forward to class. Especially Shavasana. (How could you not be relaxed in something called corpse pose?)

Since then I’ve dabbled in all sorts of other stress-relieving activities. Some good (mindfulness, meditation) and some not-so-good (retail therapy, Ben & Jerry’s). Recently, exercise has re-entered my life in a big way as one of my go-to coping methods. Even though I’m usually moving in slow-motion (speed has never been my strength) running is one of the quickest ways for me to get some relief.

Then there’s writing. I write almost every day, and each time it brings me a sense of peace. It’s tempting to think about where my writing might eventually go, but the truth is I’m totally happy to focus on the act for now, as opposed to the outcome. Because it’s just one of many outlets that help me stay balanced and buoyant. And without them, I’d probably be drowning in spilled milk 😉

10,000 stumbles

The other day my husband forgot his beloved pedometer on the bathroom counter when he left for work. For the last month, he’s been tracking his activity with this wicked little wristband. He fawns over his daily, weekly and monthly step charts like a newlywed fawns over her wedding photos. He’s become even more proud of his unbroken record of 10,000 steps per day than his ability to grow a formidable ‘vacation beard’ each summer. (Men are weird.)

I noticed his prized pedometer on the counter when I woke (much later than he) and thought little of it. I’m even less inclined to become obsessed with steps per day than I am to appreciate good facial growth. But then I had a thought. How hard is it to reach 10,000 steps per day? I’m a busy person. I’ve always thought that my days are more active than not. My daily routine must reach at least 10,000 steps. Easy.

So I put it on. My husband was all for it, since my sub-in might maintain his perfect record. The little display on the wristband gave an encouraging blink of light and I was on my way. By one o’clock, I had walked to the bus stop, strolled the aisles of the grocery store, picked up my daughter from Kindergarten and taken the stairs more than 20 times. And I was less (much less) than half-way to 10,000 steps. Even more to my surprise, I had zero active minutes.

I made a decision. I plunked my two youngest girls in the jogging stroller and strapped a helmet on my five-year-old. Even though it was a blistering 30+ degrees Celsius outside, we went for a run. My oldest girl peddled ahead on her bike. About half-way into our jog, we sought some shade to picnic and rehydrate. While my two little ones sipped, I asked my oldest daughter how she was doing.

Earlier that day, she had greeted me at the double doors of school after class with a flushed red face and a breathless message: “My teacher wants to talk to you.” (Like me, my daughter doesn’t just blush when she’s embarrassed, her capillaries actually burst into flames. I used to hate the crimson colour of shame that would creep upon my cheeks, but on my daughter I find it endearing.) The teacher eventually found me to say that my daughter was a little too chatty in class. I nodded and offered my most serious parenting face and thanked the teacher for letting me know.

Sometimes it’s hard to notice your kids growing up while it’s happening. It’s almost always a realization in retrospect, like “When did you get so big?” But during these last few weeks of our daughter’s formative first year of school, we’ve witnessed weekly (almost daily) growth in our oldest girl. And we couldn’t be more proud. This has been a big year, and June is a tough month. My daughter is tackling a cruel schedule of year-end activities, tempting summer weather and a big dump of schoolwork that must be completed by the end of the year. She’s growing out of her clothes and some of her child-like comforts. On top of that, her many friendships are changing. Some are blossoming while others buckle.

So sitting there in the shade we chatted about how this all feels. It wasn’t a long conversation, and I left the ‘advice’ to my husband when he eventually tucked our girl in later that night. (He borrowed a nugget of wisdom from his dear, departed Nan, who used to tell him, “You aren’t the first Cleary to get in trouble at school. And you won’t be the last.”)

When my husband got home from work I tossed him his pedometer in a dramatic “Be gone with you!” gesture of my arms. That was enough fitness tracking for me. But I do wish there was a way to track our parenting steps (and missteps), so we could gauge, adjust and (hopefully) fawn over our successes in a neat little chart. (And use it as quantitative evidence of our parenting skills when our children turn on us in their teens.)

I suppose that’s not how it works. Nothing is ever that easy. And I’m not sure if our little chat helped my daughter in any big way, but at least our jog together got us talking. It also got me to 10,000 steps. So I guess that’s something.

Screen queens

Ok. Be honest with me. How many hours per day do your kids spend staring at a screen? One? Two? Eight?? (If it’s zero, I’m not sure we can be friends.)

I’m embarrassed to admit that the answer in our house is way. too. many. I don’t even want to put a number on it, because I’m afraid that if I actually calculated the combined total screen time in our house, my eyes would spontaneously combust. It’s like looking at your bank account. Do you really want to know what your ‘occasional’ coffee run costs you each month? Do you really need to know what you spend on the vet-recommended dog food you’ve been guilted into buying? (Most people would say, yes, I do, because budgets. Maybe I’ll address my dreadful but improving budgeting skills in another post.)

When our first daughter arrived, my husband and I were resolute about the type of parents we would be. (Sanctimonious, even, which is a parenting trait actually included in the first-time-parent package upon discharge from the hospital, along with the baby blanket and a pamphlet on lactation. Luckily, it’s quickly eroded by an overwhelming sense of in-over-your-headness.) Nope, no TV, not for our precious papoose! That was easy for the first twenty-four months, and then our second daughter was born. By that time, I was begging my teeny toddler to zombie-out to Treehouse while I unsuccessfully attempted to soothe her colicky sibling.

Then came baby #3. Then came tablets. Then came denial.

Whenever I see an article or hear a newscast about the affects of screen time on those tiny eyes and developing minds, I wince. And walk away. Just as I do when I hear about sugar intake, UV damage, fatty liver disease… Denial and I are old friends. We go way back. We meet up every now and again for a cup of coffee (or six).

You don’t have to look far to find facts on screen time. Research is published in spades about the era of phones, tablets, computers, gaming and the digital natives who will come of age knowing nothing else. I’ve already been left in the dust when it comes to technology. My daughter’s Kindergarten class interacts regularly and expertly with their classroom smart board. Kids not much older than mine are already fluent in the wizardry of the wired world. I have yet to master the DVR.

Yesterday my youngest daughter woke before the sun rose with a nasty little stomach bug. I decided to keep everyone home from school, assuming that by noontime we would all be cradling toilet bowls. My oldest daughter was disappointed to miss a special day at school, but I evaded her tears with the promise of an all-day movie marathon. By the afternoon, I felt wretched. Not just because my stomach was rumbling, but because the credits were rolling on our third animated feature and we hadn’t seen the sun for hours. Luckily, my husband arrived in time to crack a window and take the girls outside for some air.

It’s not every day that we’re screening triple features, but we could do better. I could do better. Because let’s face it, I’m the one who’s controls the access. I have all the passwords, I pay for the Wi-Fi, I’m the one who buys some peace and quiet with pixels and Pixar. I probably can’t eliminate screen time in our house, but I can do a better to regulate it. There, that feels good to say.

Now. Be honest with me. How many teaspoons of sugar do your kids consume in a day?