The girl on the plane

It’s not often that I find myself travelling alone. When I was in my twenties, most of my terminal hopping and orderly boarding was done solo, but since getting hitched and having kids, my airport experiences have shifted in flight.

I no longer have the luxury of time and tranquility that comes with traveling alone. I used to love lounging in an airport, coffee-sipping and people-watching, while more burdened travellers herded their children and awkward carry-ons towards their elusive gates. (Now I am one of those burdened travellers and can say that it’s about as enjoyable as it looked to me back then.)

The first time I boarded a plane I was eight years old. My slightly older sister and I were escorted to our seats by a friendly flight attendant while we sported special buttons that read, “I’m travelling alone!” (Oh, how times have changed.) My parents sent me and my sister to Ottawa to spend a weekend with our uncle. We (and another sibling set on the same flight, also travelling alone) were whisked to the cockpit for a quick tour and given warm, gooey cookies with milk. I was hooked.

There have been other flights since. There was the Halifax-Ottawa-Chicago-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Lukasa-Lilongwe milk run to Malawi when I was twenty. There was the longest 55 minutes of my life flying over southwestern Ontario on an 18-seater Beechraft during a lighting storm (I will never again be excited to sit in seat 1A). There was the first flight that my new husband and I took together, which surprisingly didn’t end in divorce. And the first flight we took with our newborn, which unsurprisingly did end in three shirt changes and a shortfall of diapers and clean soothers. (Flying with kids lends a whole new meaning to turbulence.)

My memories of waiting in the airport are even sweeter. Waiting in for my boyfriend to arrive from Ontario while I was still studying in Halifax; waiting for my sister to arrive at Heathrow when she visited me in the UK; waiting at the gate in Calgary with each of our newborns in our arms as family from the east coast ran down the moving escalators towards us. Airports have always meant something to me. When I was young, they were a gateway to a world I was itching to explore, and now that I’m older(ish), they’re an emblem of going home.

During my most recent round-trip, I was alone again. I was traveling to Nova Scotia to say goodbye to someone and I was sad. I saw young people flying alone, couples old and new, and many, many young families making the trek ‘home’ from Alberta to the Maritimes as summer finally begins. I bought my coffee, a chocolate croissant and a certain best-selling thriller that I’ve felt compelled to read for months now, and I sat. And read. And watched. And I felt grateful for everything.

Farewell

I remember talking to a friend shortly after the birth of her first child. She felt anxious more often than not, and admitted that when she heard the occasional sirens of a passing ambulance, she immediately and unequivocally believed that someone she loved was in it. That was never the case, but for a while she was consumed with this fear of an inevitable loss or heartache.

While her thoughts were a little extreme, I doubt she’s the only person to ever think this way. At some point we’ve all had our hearts in our throats when the phone rings in the middle of the night or there’s an unexpected knock at the door. Usually, it’s nothing. A telemarketer. Sometimes it’s my dear mother calling, whose been known to occasionally forget the time difference between here and there, unaware of the anxiety provoked by a 4 AM phone call from home. Sometimes, however, it’s real.

I traveled to Nova Scotia last week to say goodbye to my beloved aunt. She had been diagnosed with cancer, but her sudden passing was unexpected and devastating. She battled, admirably, and in a way that makes you question your own strength. Could I have ever been that strong?

Her children showed the same strength in their goodbyes as the community rallied around them. Their mother was given a Nova Scotian farewell, with family, friends, fiddles and bagpipes. When my family and I return to Nova Scotia next month, we’ll visit her at her final resting place, on a hill overlooking a river that leads to the Atlantic ocean. And I’ll know that she is at peace.

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.

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.)

One poem, two poem, old poem, new poem

On the eve of a writer’s conference I’m attending in Edmonton this weekend, I’m busy tinkering with some abandoned poetry that didn’t quite make it into my manuscript.

I’ve heard people say that for every poem you include in your collection, there’s usually five or six that don’t make the cut. That’s an intimidating number of poems, but considering the length of my “Poetry Drafts” file, I’m just about there. Sometimes it’s easy to know when a poem isn’t working, sometimes it’s hard to let go.

A particular favourite of mine is a poem about Mother Nature and her Christmas baking. While writing this poem, I imagined a child looking out into a white, wintery world and imagining Mother Nature busily baking for her visitors at Christmastime.

Here’s a small snippet:

Meringue mountaintops
Stand stiffly whipped and sweet,
Above valleys of marshmallow mounds…

I guess I have two issues with this poem. One, it doesn’t rhyme. Obviously not all poems have to rhyme, even poems for kids, but all the other poems in my manuscript do. They follow a similar rhythm and are riddled with snappy, silly lines (in my humble opinion). This poem, while lovely (ok, in my not-so-humble opinion) just doesn’t fit in.

The second issue I have this with poem is the language. It’s a bit sophisticated for a children’s poem. I personally love language of all levels when it comes to reading to my kids, but there are limits. Using the word meringue in a children’s poem pushes those limits just a wee bit. (And I have to be prudent since I’m already sneaking in words like quandary, kinfolk, ponder, fickle…. Oh dear. I might have to revisit these. At least the kids are learning something?)

Still, I do love the sweetness of this poem, so it’s hard to let it go. The editor I’ve been working with suggested rearranging it slightly so it makes a better fit, but I haven’t been successful. I’ll keep trying.

Another favourite is a poem I wrote in 2009 after my first daughter was born. She was a few weeks old, I was post-partum and possibly high on hormones, and I kept catching glimpses of myself in her. She had my eyes, my nose, my ears, my toes. It was trippy. So I wrote a poem about it:

Are those my lovely little digits?
My wiggles, wobbles, fits and fidgets?

This poem does rhyme and has some fun, fanciful words (which is great when reading to kids) but it’s told from the perspective of an adult. And it’s a little sappy. It just didn’t fit in with the other poems in the collection, which are told from the POV of kids (and animals) and are much more light-hearted. So this homage to my daughter, while cute and meaningful, didn’t make the cut either.

It’s tough to mine through your very personal, mostly random work to create a collection that makes sense. Most of my poems are silly, some have themes of the sea or the seaside, and all of them feel very special to me.

I’m hoping to find some inspiration (and courage) this weekend to make those final finishes to my collection. Because if you’re ever in need of some brutal but necessary feedback, just ask a roomful of writers. Or a roomful of kids. But at least writers can buy you a drink afterwards.

Happy Friday!

It’s Victoria Day weekend! We love this time of year in our house because May kicks off Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, four family birthdays and of course summer! My husband’s birthday is tomorrow and this morning I’m busy over-beating some cake batter while my girls ‘help.’ (By eating waffles, watching cartoons and generally ignoring me while I fiddle with the buttercream recipe. Until it’s time to lick the spoon.)

I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

Like daughter, like mother

This was an incredible weekend, and not just because it was Mother’s Day. (Although I loved being presented with three beautiful cards, homemade by little hands and all the glitter glue in the galaxy.) This weekend was also jam-packed with two huge events: my daughter’s highland dance competition and my first 5k run of the season.

My oldest daughter and I left town on Friday afternoon and headed south to Lethbridge for her second ever dance competition. I’m sure the hotel waterslide was the main source of her excitement, but I was razor-focused on the Saturday morning comp. Watching my kids perform – whether it’s a dance competition, piano recital, or simply just ordering their own meal at a restaurant – makes me disproportionately, excruciatingly anxious.

I try to hide my jitters from my kids, but the jitters still simmer under my skin along with a quickened pulse, gargling gut and shallow breaths. I often focus on the tasks leading up to these big moments as a distraction to the actual event. Hotel check-in – check. Pool time – check. Dinner – check. By ten o’clock my daughter was sleeping peacefully while I was running through the directions to the school in my head like a bobsledder visualizing a track for an Olympic trial run. I didn’t sleep.

My chipper girl was up and at ‘em early Saturday morning, and even mildly compliant as her semi-competent mother styled her hair into an acceptably smooth bun. We arrived at the school early (and in Olympic qualifying time because of my direction prep) and she reveled in the atmosphere of young dancers milling about in their kilts and ghillies. After hours of practice and one competition experience already under her belt, I knew she was ready to perform whatever the result.

And she was. Before the competition even began, she totally blew me away. On the suggestion of her instructor, my daughter took the stage with fifty other tiny dancers for a non-compulsory warm-up ‘Fling,’ and even though she missed some (all) of the unfamiliar steps and fell down just before the big bow, she bravely finished the dance despite her bruised knees and ego. She went on to perform above and beyond expectations in both her categories and we took away so much more from the entire experience than just her fifth and third place medals.

So, when the time came for my Sunday run, for which I had done much less prepping and about the same amount of fretting, I was challenged to be brave like my five-year-old daughter. There was a small part of me (all of me) that was rehearsing excuses for bowing out of the early-morning race, but there was a larger part of me (my husband) who said, “Let’s do this!” So we did.

I didn’t run as fast as I wanted, but I ran faster than I expected. My husband and I crossed the finished line of the race together (which was, cruelly, 5.4 kms as opposed to an even 5.0 kms, but who’s counting…) and it felt great.

I learned today I was 88/408 in my category, which doesn’t really mean much to me other than the fact that there were about four hundred other women in their thirties pounding the pavement alongside of me. And because it was a special Mother’s Day run, I wonder how many of those ladies were also inspired by their brave, bold daughters. I know I was.

The evolution of anxious parenting

I’m sure most people are familiar with the concept of birth order (although I’m sure less people have experienced anything close to an orderly birth). While it’s easy to find studies to support the theory that our personalities and predilections are prescribed largely by the order in which we exit the womb, it’s just as easy to find convincing scientific evidence to the contrary.

Whether you prescribe to the theory or not (I’m on the fence), it’s hard to deny that we parent differently depending on the birth order of our children. This is out of necessity, first and foremost, because most children are not carbon copies of each other and you learn very quickly that what worked for your firstborn (say, sleep training) will in no way, no how, it’ll-be-a-cold-day-in-hell work for your colicky second born.

It’s also out of natural progression. We get better at parenting. (Or, at least, we become less anxious.) With your firstborn, your body, mind and hormones are still vibrating from the trauma and upheaval of entering this new territory of terror and teething that you cannot possibly be a rational person. You’re not irrational all the time, but when binky falls on the sidewalk half-way through your very orchestrated afternoon walk, you will need a blow torch and a Hazmat suit before that thing is placed back into the mouth of your precious papoose. By baby number two, you just dust it off and plunk it in with little to no thought (unless someone is watching).

By baby number three, you don’t even realize your baby had a binky until you look down and see one in her mouth. Maybe that’s why that other baby was crying at Starbucks when you were waiting in line for your latte, extra hot, which you will now sip precariously over your soothed baby’s head while she sucks contently on her stolen goods in your loosely tied Moby wrap. Oh well. C’est la vie.

This is where we are with our third born. She’s now two, and I can already see the affects of our … relaxed … parenting style evolution. (I’m not sure if relaxed is the right word, as this implies that our blood pressure isn’t always sky-high. I guess you could call it wilted attentiveness.)

I couldn’t count the number of times she’s fallen down or the number of bruises she’s accumulated due to our wilted attentiveness. Up until the time she was 18 months, I had never lost a person before. (That’s a sentence to engrave on my parent-of-the-year trophy.) I feel the urge to explain myself, but really there’s no way to look good here. My husband and I actually lost sight of her on a soccer pitch last summer in a crowd of hundreds of people, while we were engrossed in a conversation with another parent about whether or not we’d ever have a fourth kid. (Luckily, our daughter was immediately found, unharmed and under the impression she had just kicked our butts at a hysterical game of tag.)

I’m sure in some ways she benefits from our hands-off approach. We’ve stretched ourselves too thin to muster up the same level of irrational worry for all of our kids. Now, all three are left very much to their own devices. We’ve learned that two of our children (our oldest and our youngest) thrive off of this independence. Which leaves us a little extra time to attend to our middle girl, who thrives very much off of cuddles and reassurance (like her mother).

I’m not sure what the right approach is, if there is one, and I can’t say for certain that our parenting style won’t evolve once more, or again and again. I’ve got plenty worry left in me for the tween and teenage years, and a few more for adulthood.

One thing I do look forward to, though, is seeing my daughters fret and frazzle over their own firstborns. While I stuff their children’s tummies with chocolate. Because that’s what grandmas are for.

Delete, delete, delete

It’s spring-cleaning season, and while I have yet to tackle the teetering towers of old toys and bins in our basement, I decided to purge another aspect of our household: my Facebook account.

I hadn’t really considered my private Facebook page as a part of our household until recently. It’s not like my husband and I share an account. (Although I could probably guess his password in less than 10 seconds. He might have a more difficult time deciphering mine; my passwords have become so obscure and complicated I’ve reset them more than I’ve remembered them.)

My Facebook is not a shared account. But I do have photos of my husband on my Facebook. And photos (lots and lots of photos) of my kids, my pets, my house, my friends, birthdays, vacations, growing bumps and delivery countdowns. When my first daughter was born, the attending nurse snapped a photo in the operating room while my husband and I held our baby for the first time (and while the doctor was literally putting me back together behind the curtain). She was not minutes old in that photo, and within hours she was on display for my 400+ friends to see. (And I was giddy with glee as the likes and comments came rolling in.)

When I take a look at my digital identity, I’m actually relieved that most of my life, especially my younger years, took place offline. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had access to (at best) the distraction or (at worst) the destruction of social media when my brain was still developing. Not that I’m a perfectly formed human being now, but my perspective has changed dramatically and I’m grateful that I don’t have to be held accountable for any bone-head moves in my youth.

But what about my kids? They aren’t even typing yet (although I bet even they could crack my husband’s passwords…) yet there they are, online for anyone to see.

Every few months I read an article about privacy and enter into a full-blown panic. Maybe I should delete my accounts entirely and live off the grid. That would certainly solve the telemarketer problem. But I like Facebook, and at this point it’s the only connection I have to many wonderful people who I want to share my life with.

But then I think of the generation of kids who will grow up entirely online. By the time these kids gain some control of their digital identity, their childhood will have already played out on our screens.

I’ve tried to purge my Facebook account before. I had never really groomed my list of friends, so last year I decided to take a wack at it. I deleted a handful of people who I hadn’t really kept in touch with or whose news feeds were a little… dramatic… for my tastes. Within hours I had messages from former friends asking why they couldn’t see my photos anymore.

So this time, instead of deleting people from my Facebook account (which I will eventually have to do) I deleted photos. Did I really need to post the exact date, time, height, weight, SIN and passport numbers (not really, but pretty much) of all of my children? Do people really want to see an almost decade-old album dedicated solely to my dog? (Yes, they do, because within hours of deleting almost all of my photos, I had messages from friends asking where all my photos went.)

I really don’t know the best approach. As my kids get older, I start to understand how important it is for them to have choices, and for them to control their own story. I still want to share our milestones, but I will be much more prudent about how I do that.

And even though I didn’t actually spring clean anything, sitting at my computer clicking, “Delete” was just as satisfying.

I’ll just have to sweep out the garage another day.

*Please don’t remind me that once something is on the internet, it’s there forever. I’d like to go about my life believing that my Angelfire page circa 1999 never existed.

The Long Con

My husband and I always joke that parenting is a long con. You set in place a series of plans, preparations and (let’s face it) half-truths in the hopes of a big payout somewhere down the road.

At almost every turn, we consider the everlasting ripples (big or small) our parenting choices may make.

When I’m abruptly dismissive of my daughter’s one billionth inquiry, when my husband ever-so-slightly cringes at the innocent mention of the word ‘boyfriend’ (why do they learn that term so young? I blame Disney), or when I catch myself cursing, or yelling, or criticizing within their precious, innocent ear-shot, I think…

…Was that the moment? The moment they’ll remember, that they’ll carry forever as proof of their parents’ ineptitude? Did I just f**k up big time? 

The answer to everything is yes, no, and who the hell knows.

That’s the thing about the long con. You don’t really know the payout until it’s all said and done. With parenting, it’s hard to know the mistakes you’ve made or the paths you should have taken until it’s (gulp) almost too late.

Now, I’m not trying to catastrophize. Nor am I trying to downplay the affects of listening, learning and asking for forgiveness. There are definite measures by which children (and parents) can set their pace, and I think we can all agree there’s no one right way of getting there.

I’m just saying it’s hard to know exactly where you are on the journey.

My parents and my husband’s parents had some similar approaches to parenting, some different. They all loved us very, very much.

In the end, my husband and I both had hard times. We both had good times. We both turned out ok. And we only blame our parents for things when we think really hard about it. (Although I will never forgive my parents for the mushroom cut of ’92. I’m taking that grudge to my grave.)

Now that we’ve become parents ourselves, we’ve held the delusional (and slowly eroding) view that we can do things differently than our parents did. Better, even. (Maybe that’s the biggest con of all. But without that sort of thinking, who in their right mind would have kids??)

I don’t know how our daring, darling girls will turn out. I’m sure they’ll have hard times. I’m sure they’ll have good times. And I’m sure (I hope) they’ll be ok.

In the meantime, my husband and I will put in the work, play our parts and wait for our payday (functioning adult children who remember us on our birthdays).

Until then, you saw nothing, you heard nothing, I was never here. Got it?