Tackle

The day that many stay-at-home parents long for has arrived — my youngest child has started school. And while Kindergarten in Alberta is only half a day, I have half a day all to myself, Monday to Friday, to… do… what. Or, more accurately, what first?

Tidy, laundry, groceries, errands, organize, meditate, hibernate?

Pitch those features, polish that short story, finish the fourth attempt at a solid first draft of my manuscript?

Walk the puppy? Cuddle the cat? Spend quality time with our 12-year-old dog whose slip into senility has been hard to ignore?

Retail therapy? (Better not.)

Exercise? (Probably should.)

Coffee? (Start here.)

Despite imagining this moment for months, even years, its arrival has been surprisingly anti-climatic. Maybe that means I’m ready to manage my time, maybe that means it hasn’t quite hit me yet. Either way, the kids are at school, husband’s at work, and my growing to-do list remains relatively unchanged (and largely unchecked.)

Life. Moves. Forward. So, without much choice, will I.

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Mommy and Me

Years ago, when I was a recent master’s graduate searching for my first “real” job, my husband (then boyfriend) provided this helpful theory: the only thing you need to get a job is another job. Translation: when you’re jobless, there are no jobs. When you’re working, poof! Suddenly there’s a world of opportunities.

My partner, as he often does, proved correct. My yet-to-be-paid-for journalism degrees and I accepted a job entering time sheets in the bowels of an engineering firm’s accounts payable. (Or accounts receivable? I’m still not sure…) The company needed someone who could type and file, and I needed a job to get a job. It worked. Shortly after, I applied and was hired for a dream job, programming study abroad for the local community college, while freelancing for a local magazine on the side.

Fast forward a few years, a few moves, and a few kids, and I find myself in a familiar position. In freelance life, it seems that the only thing you need to get a writing assignment is another writing assignment. I’ve only been freelancing (moonlighting) again for a year, and my busiest times are clumped together in one big bunch, when I’m happily under the gun to file several stories at a time. Sometimes I take on too much, partly because I work best under pressure, partly because I can’t say no, but mostly because it feels good. (Is that why I have three kids so close in age?)

During the slow times, when I’m tinkering rather than toiling, I have the unfortunate luxury to consider my life choices—the personal, the professional, the pixie cut of 2011 (disaster). Parenting is still my favourite full-time assignment, but my duties are shifting—not lessening, but evolving—which leaves more room for the other parts of my identity to emerge from hibernation. As the kids become more independant, it’s easier and arguably essential to revive and embrace those dormant parts. (The personal and the professional parts, not the pixie cut.) Perhaps Mother’s Day is the wrong time to think about my identity other than “mom.” Or maybe it’s the perfect time. Besides, maybe all you need for an identity… is another identity?

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.

Left, to my own vices

One of the less snooze-worthy aspects of my husband’s job in business, or projects, or business projects (I’m joking, I love you, you’re the best!) is that he gets to travel for work. I say gets to, but he’s not exactly fond of these once or twice monthly meeting junkets. He works long hours. He misses us. And sometimes the hotel pool is really, really cold!

But it’s true, things can get rough when one parent is physically and mentally absent, and the other is pacing his hotel room in Houston wondering why his wife isn’t answering her phone. (I kid! I’m very responsible when I must be.)

This week has been one of those weeks, and it’s given me reason to reflect. So here are three things I’ve learned while my husband’s out of town:

1. My other half motivates me to eat well. Don’t panic, I’ve been feeding the kids very well while he’s away, but I’m surviving (thriving?) on copious amounts of coffee and kettle corn. And I don’t hate it. But I should probably eat a vegetable or two. Soon.

2. My other half keeps us feeling safe. The night is dark and full of toddlers, who sometimes have night terrors. Things get a little out of hand when my husband is away and us four scaredy-cats are left all alone. It’s windy, it’s rainy, and the bravest one of all is my three-year-old, who would probably be pretty useless in a fight with a ghost. Let’s just say we’ve been sleeping restlessly. In the same bed. With the lights on.

3. Without my other half, my days are pretty full. When you have to do everything, nothing gets done. Yes, yes the kids are fed and well-enough rested, but my writing? It’s about as abandoned as I feel when my husband travels for work. (I’m joking! I love you! You’re the best!)

Tonight is the first chance I’ve had to review some notes from an awesome Blue Pencil session I had at my recent writing conference. During the session, I met one-on-one with an author who edited an excerpt of my manuscript and he gave me some pretty invaluable feedback. His best advice? Finish it. Which I will attempt to do tonight, in the dark, in between handfuls of kettle corn and bouts of fear-induced trembling.*

Also? Come home soon.

*Did they REALLY need to make a new Blair Witch movie? It’s been 17 years and I’m just getting over the last one.**

**I’m not really over it. I will never not be terrified.