Summer sixteen

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Photo: Shirley Lynne Photography

I’m not sure if packing for a family of five has become easier, or if I’ve just become numb to the entire process. Tomorrow we leave for our yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast, and even though I’m not quite ready to go, I’m more than ready to get there.

In many ways, it’s been a super sweet 2016. But in others, life feels a little unsure. We have lots to be grateful for, lots to look forward to, and lots of hard work ahead (gulp!).

In the meantime, there’s packing to do! Today, on our wedding anniversary, my husband reminds me that all we need is each other. Which is good. Because I have a feeling I won’t get around to packing much else.

Happy summer! x

To get to the other side

Things have been… busy, lately. And when things get busy, I start to notice my sanity unravel. I’m loath to admit this, because of course I’m perfect, but unfortunately it’s true. I’m not built to be too busy. I like being just busy enough.

My tipping point arrived a few days ago, during one of those ridiculous weekdays in which every minute was scheduled, every task was essential and every word I spoke to my kids was, “Hurry up. Quiet down. WHY AREN’T YOU DRESSED YET?” Everyone had been sick, including our pets, and I had committed myself to several things that were outside of our typical timetable. In between hours of errands and our very limited minutes at home, I prepared dinner in advance. I made chicken.

In the past, one of my most stressful daily experiences was driving home during afternoon rush-hour and having absolutely no plan for dinner. Now that I stay at home and our kids are a bit older and my brain is almost at a functioning level, I have all of our weekly meals planned. I have our fridge efficiently stocked. I have food on the table every day by five o’clock. It’s not just my best attempt at a Norman Rockwell painting, it’s part of my self care. (It’s also delicious.)

Minutes after the meal was cooked, I had just enough time to pat myself on the back before running out the door with all the kids for another appointment. It would be quick, and we would all be back in time to meet my husband at the door when he got home from work and sit down to a family dinner. What I didn’t have time to do was put the piping hot chicken just out of reach of our naughty nine-year-old dog who sometimes (enough for me to know better) has the habit of eating off the counter. When I returned home around five o’clock, it took me two seconds to realize where the chicken went. And my head exploded.

It wasn’t just that I was upset about the chicken. That’s not how my brain works when I’m overworked. Instead, in those moments, my brain pulls every bad memory, every moment of weakness, every failure on record and parades them in front of me like a slideshow of shame just to say, “See, Shannon, this is why you can’t have nice things. Or chicken.”

I couldn’t stop the tsunami of thoughts that went very quickly from, “Dinner is ruined!” to “Our dog’s going to get sick! Our vet bill was already enormous this week and shoot, did I give my daughter her medicine this morning? Why is this house such a mess, I just cleaned it and why did the school call, was I supposed to volunteer? I didn’t write today, no one’s socks match in my family, what happened to my career and F*** YOU NORMAN ROCKWELL!”

Or something like that.

Eventually, I calmed down. This was after my husband came home, we pulled together a meal, put the kids to bed and coaxed our darling dog out of the corner where she was hiding because she knows what she did. When I was finally able to breathe again, I was almost grateful for my breakdown because it gave me the chance to say, “I can’t do this. Today was too much.” And for my husband to remind me that that’s ok. And that we have each other. And to remind me that I am, in fact, perfect. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The next day, when I had to clean up our dog’s barf which consisted of my perfectly cooked chicken and some undigested grass, I wasn’t even mad.*

*Ok, it was barf. So I was a teeny, tiny bit mad. Like, the appropriate amount for cleaning up dog barf, if there’s a scale for those things.

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.

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.

Mugshots

It’s been a minute since our last family photo. We missed the boat on Christmas cards last year (sorry Mom), and our last ‘professional’ photo was a few years ago, when our baby was still a baby and my body had a bit more bulk. So this year, my husband convinced me that it’s the perfect time to update our old, tired portrait for a new, shiny version. Just in time for the holidays!

There’s just one problem. Having our photo taken makes me itchy and anxious and irritated. Add an eager photographer and three restless kids to the mix and it’s a one-way ticket to disaster town. And with our crazy schedules between now and the end of time, I wasn’t sure if we could even find the time to book a session. (Also $$$).

So, because I’m brilliant, I made the decision to take the photo myself. I have a great camera (that I never use). A tripod (hidden somewhere in the basement). And access to helpful how-to YouTube videos (just after I watch Adele seven more times). I could take our family photo in the comfort of our own home, with minimal to no mental breakdowns. Yes?

Umm, no. When I’m having my photo taken for the purpose of a family portrait, which will exist as definitive proof of our carefree yet photogenic candidness, I want to shoot myself. (And not with a camera.) I cannot do family photos.

The proof is in the pudding. If you looked above the piano in my parents’ home at our big family photo of 2011, you would see several beautifully dressed, perfectly posed people in their Christmas finest, all smiling at the camera. And then you’d see me in the middle, seemingly on the verge of tears. (Although 2011 was also the year of my ill-advised pixie cut, so to be fair I was always on the verge of tears, camera or not.)

Or you could look at our little family photo of 2013, taken in Nova Scotia to a beautiful backdrop of sand and sea. You would see one smiling husband, three smiling children, and then me, looking slightly murderous. In my defence, we were swarmed (SWARMED!) by blackflies during that shoot, so my homicidal undertones were somewhat justified. But overall, it’s just  me. I cannot do family photos.

So, as you might expect, our attempt at a family photo this weekend did not go well. We had three tired, cranky girls, one tired (I would never say cranky, but…) husband, and one helpless, hopeless photographer/subject/mom with murderous undertones.

We did not achieve a perfectly presentable family photo. We did get some slightly blurry, tremendously silly ones that we may send as part of our Christmas cards (it’s hip to be ironic, right?) or we may try again. (Although the tripod has been bannished to the basement once again, reminding me of why I buried it so deeply before.)

But at least we have the memories of squirming toddlers, sulking six-year-olds and screaming, pleading parents as the self-timer ticked down time after torturous time. And those memories? Those memories will last a lifetime.

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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All hands on deck

One of the simplest truths about parenting is that the bigger person needs to be the bigger person. Simple. But not always easy.

It’s also true that I can be a bit sensitive at times. And while it’s easy to reason with yourself when your toddler looks at the lovely dinner you’ve prepared and goes eewwww, there are other times when the reasoning takes a bit of effort.

Like many stay-at-home parents, the bulk of the weekday shuffle is left in my moderately capable hands. Monday to Friday I’m the cruise ship captain of our family vessel, trying my hardest to be chipper and cheery as I muster my slowpoke passengers from the poop deck (so much poop deck) to our daily activities. Sometimes, most times, all goes well. But other times, there’s a mutiny.

Lately, our oldest daughter has been a little…fiesty. With our crazy September schedule and the ever-evolving experiences she confronts on a daily basis, I can hardly blame her. I’ve also probably failed at being more ‘Mom,’ and less ‘Captain Get Dressed for School, We’re Late Again.’ I’ll admit, as the oldest child she’s the one I expect the most from. But I could also afford to give her a break once in a while. Because now she’s pushing back, and I’ll admit, it’s a little hurtful.

What’s important, however, is that I don’t react as someone who is hurt but as someone who hears what she’s really saying. For example, we’ve entered into a pattern where she hops off the school bus and blurts out some ‘constructive’ observations about my failings. You forgot to pack my spoon! You were supposed to sign this form! You sent the snack in the wrong bag! Almost immediately, I can feel my defenses engage.

Instead of, ‘How was your day?’ or ‘I missed you!’, I’m tempted to say, ‘Weren’t you proud to bring in the snack for your class, whatever bag it was in? This form isn’t due until next week. And look, here’s your spoon, in the front pocket of your lunch bag.’

But we’re not really talking about a bag, or a form, or a spoon. (Although a spoon does go a long way when you’re eating soup.) I think it’s her way of showing me that she’s overwhelmed. And she needs my help in other ways. And that her shirt is stained with tomato soup.

It’s sometimes hard for me to keep my defenses down and really hear this, because (surprise) I’m overwhelmed too. It’s hard to be the parent, the Captain, the cook, the deck hand and the lifeboat, all while operating completely without a compass. (Luckily my husband has an excellent sense of direction.)

Our daughter is navigating new paths too. And while she still needs me to do all the logistical things that parents do, she also needs a safe port in the storm. Which is important to establish now, when the waters are relatively calm. Because in a few years from now we’ll have three tween-age daughters all under one roof, and I have a feeling it’s going to get rough. Or as my husband likes to put it, “Man overboard.”