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.

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The art of quitting

I will begin by saying that, when it comes to committing to something new, I always have the best intentions.

Actually, I put a lot of thought into the programs in which we participate, the events we choose to attend, the schedule we keep. I remember the first time I registered my newborn daughter for something other than lactation counseling. I agonized for hours over the choice between baby genius music class and infant phenom sport-palooza, even though our daughter was barely holding her head up at the time. I was so excited to get out and do something that I eventually signed up for both. And not too long thereafter, I quit. Both.

Our cumulative ‘quit list’ is as long as my arm. For one reason or another, our family has failed to last the entirety of the following activities: baby music, baby art, baby sport, (baby anything), ballet, gymnastics, ballet (2nd attempt), swimming, ballet (3rd attempt) and one ill-advised mommy boot camp when I was six-weeks post partum. (This was the only occasion in which I wanted my calm, contented newborn to fuss uncontrollably, while I breathlessly did my burpees. I was always jealous of the moms who had to sit out certain intervals to attend to their screaming, crying babies. Lucky ducks.)

Yeah, so we quit things. A lot. We never quite know when the quit is coming, but there are some warning signs. They usually fall into four categories:

Convenience. Swimming is our thing. Knowing this, it may surprise you to see that swimming is on our quit list. This was the season that we failed to get into our preferred pool program and tried a new location. Close to downtown. At 5pm. Rushing to make a swimming lesson in rush hour? Sorry, no. This one lasted two lessons.

Cost. Gymnastics was new and exciting for my husband and I, and it’s one of the least lame programs for very young kids. So as soon as our first born hit the 18-month mark, we were ready for the rings. The classes were… fun, and we eventually enrolled our second born for balance-beam training, but when it came time to sign up for a second semester ($$$), we bowed out. Average attendance: five lessons.

Enjoyability. Here’s where most of the music, art, sport, yoga, salsa-dancing, craft-making endeavors fit into. Basically, they were kind of basic. Once the kids got older and could actually enjoy music and and sport and performing, things changed, but for years there were a lot of empty spots in semi-circles throughout southeast Calgary because we just simply lost interest. After about one lesson.

Vibe. This is a big one. Even when all the other factors fall into place, this is the kicker. Like ballet. We have three daughters who love all things pink. Ballet, buns and body suits were seemingly inescapable. But each time we took the plunge, the vibe just wasn’t right. I can’t explain, except to say that things were a little too serious for a three-year-old in a tutu. So we quit. (But kept the tutus for amateur use.) On average, we lasted about a month or two each time.

So there you have it. The encouraging news is we haven’t quit a single program in almost a year. I’m not sure if this is because I’ve become better at selection, or because the quality of the programs have improved, or because our kids have become too old to swallow the line, “Sorry, honey, but ballet always ends in November.”

Either way, we’re on a roll. Maybe it’s a good time for another mommy boot camp?*

*It’s never/always a good time for mommy boot camp.

The year of the swagger wagon

My parents had four kids. Although I have a few vague memories from the angular backseat of a navy Volvo sedan, the mode of transportation for almost the entirety of my childhood was a minivan.

There was the dark blue Chrysler, which we affectionately dubbed, “The Bluenose.” Then there was the upgraded Town & Country, with wood panel sides and state of the art sound (perfect for two teenage girls learning to drive and blasting ‘Bootylicious’ on the way to basketball practice). It endured more than a little wear and tear. Eventually, at certain speeds, its sliding doors would open unprovoked, negating any safety features that typically entice people to purchase passenger vans in the first place.

Then my parents made what was one of their proudest purchases, a brand spanking new Honda Odyssey with all the bells and whistles. It had power sliding doors! You have to understand, in the early 2000s, in my small hometown, power sliding doors were a thing of sorcery. My siblings and I drove that pretty gold van into the ground (literary, at one point), until it had well over 300,000 kms on it and would only drive in reverse. When my parents finally sent their youngest child off to university, they downsized. But for decades, we were a van family.

So it may surprise you to learn that I hate vans. I never wanted a van. Yes, safety, Yes, room. Yes, convenience. Blah, blah, blah. To me, family vehicles do not have to begin and end with minivans. Even back in the day, my cousins, who were also a family of six, drove around in a massive, mafia-esque black and chrome SUV. They were the COOLEST. I would never get a van. Nope. Nope. Nope.

This sentiment stuck with me well into parenthood, when we were searching for a new family vehicle to accommodate baby #3. We didn’t even test drive one van. SUVs, please. We ended up buying a bulky seven-seater and I was a happy camper. (Tow package included!) We may have comprised on year and mileage to get the model and trim we wanted within our budget, but that’s ok. We didn’t get a lemon.

We got a lemon. Well, it could have been much worse, but after only two years and a ridiculously low amount of kilometers, we have reached a crossroads: put more money (a lot more money) into our aging seven-seater or cut our losses and trade it in. I reluctantly admitted to myself that I don’t want another big SUV, thus a familiar question has once again raised its ugly, uncool head. Should we get a minivan?

This time, my husband wanted to at least test-drive one. As much as I’d like to deny their appeal, I knew that once my husband got behind the wheel of a minivan, he’d be lulled by its features, convenience and (ugh) drivability.

I desperately tried to distract him in the parking lot of another dealership. Look! A zippy five-seater! It’s perfect! Trust me! We just need to spend $1200 on aerodynamic space-engineered car seats and no one can exhale while the vehicle is in motion! We can literally make this happen! (My husband has learned that when I invoke, “Literally!” in any argument, I’ve lost all ground.)

There at the dealership, I jammed our three car seats in the back row of a small SUV to the point that they were unsafe, and unsuccessfully attempted to shut the doors. I then slowly, sadly arrived at the same conclusion my husband had reached weeks ago: We need a van.

So that’s where we are. Researching, test-driving, adjusting our life-long identities. I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Update: We got a van.

Growth charts

Ok. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit of a grump when it came to all the programs my kids participated in this year. (I should also be the first to admit that I chose those programs. Even Kindergarten isn’t technically mandatory in Alberta. I technically could have kept everyone home from everything all year, so I’m technically to blame. Just technically, though. In theory, I’m perfect.)

The last few weeks have been filled with year-end recitals, year-end parties and year-end losing of the tempers. With all the year-end activities we’ve had to partake in lately, June has made December look like the month of new beginnings. Everything has been in celebration of being over: school is out, soccer is done, swimming is finished, fini, finito. (Until the Fall, of course, but that’s September’s problem.)

I’ve been so busy hustling from one year-end event to another that I’ve barely had the time to consider what we’re left with. After all the programs, practices and participation medals (yay for showing up!) what did we learn? How did we grow? This is important, because if you’re a grump like me, you need a really good reason why you should do something to counter your catalogue full of excuses why not.

I don’t have to look far. The truth is, my husband and I have taken note of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle growth in our girls since we signed away some of their free time in September. With just Kindergarten and preschool alone, our two oldest kids have each had their most formative years to date. It’s been a school year of firsts and friendships. Of falling down and getting back up. And while I’m very proud of their official progress as noted in their report cards, my unofficial standard of success is that they both want to do it all over again in September. (I think that wears off by junior high.)

But it’s not just the institutional learning that lends to growth. Our extra-curriculars have given us a lot as well. For the record, I really did try not to overdo it this year. It’s so tempting to attempt everything (especially when your kids want to attempt everything) but I did my best to take a tempered approach. We never had more than three once-a-week commitments at any given time. This may still seem like a lot, because it is, but it was as minimum as I could get. And it gave us maximum enjoyment. I really believe our kids were buoyed by all of their activities, sports and otherwise. Not only has their coordination improved, but their confidence has shot up as well.

Now, would our kids have grown this much without the daily lessons, evening practices and weekend games? Sure. Maybe. And our wallets wouldn’t be as light. And our time together might not have been so rushed. And there would be fewer kilometers on our vehicle. And I could have avoided some awkward small talk with the other parents. Maybe had a little more time for myself… (I’m just going to walk myself back from this tangent before I sob into my coffee.)

I have a feeling life will only get busier. Our youngest daughter isn’t even enrolled in anything yet (like most little siblings, she learns everything through osmosis) and as the kids continue to grow, so will the demands on our free time.

But I still think it’s worth it. (It has to be, otherwise we’re very, very foolish people.) And as my husband often reminded me as we dragged the bags of soccer balls from one field to another, this is what we signed up for.

*For the record, I do not remember signing up to be equipment manager.

I’m guilty, Your Honour

I’m sure this isn’t a phenomenon unique only to me, but ever since I became a parent, I carry with me a tremendous sense of overwhelming, all encompassing, sometimes crippling guilt.

It usually surfaces, unsurprisingly, when I surface. That is, when I emerge from the clutches of stay-at-home momness and leave kid-less for whatever errand begs my attention at the moment. Whether it’s buying groceries alone, shopping alone or (like last night) getting a pedicure alone.

My trip to the salon was supposed to be a restorative mini-retreat for my soul (and callous heels), but despite my attempts to be mindful and zen, I was a jittery, guilty mess. I felt terrible that the dishes from dinner were left undone on the counter, I felt guilty that this was the second night in a row that I had met my husband and the door after work and left him to fend for himself during bath and bedtime, and I felt guilty for the time and money I was spending on my toenails when there are a million other things that could use my attention and funds.

When my solo errands are a little less me-centric, I can usually mitigate the guilt with the relief that productivity brings. I can do ten times the errands alone in the time it takes to caravan the kids around town grabbing groceries, mailing packages and depositing cheques. (More likely withdrawing cash.)

But when my nights off or weekends away are all about me (i.e. pedicures, hair cuts, very necessary and very painful swimsuit shopping) I find it hard to justify my absence from home. I worry about the state of the house, the stock of food in the fridge, the mood of the kids and the sanity of my husband who I’ve left solely in charge. I sometimes judge myself so harshly that it makes it impossible for me to enjoy my few minutes of freedom.

But this is where things get ridiculous, because as my co-parent and legally binding partner often reminds me, he is perfectly capable and totally happy to do this. He loves it. He’s an awesome dad, and the kids usually prefer their fun Daddy-time to the hours of hustle and shuffling of Mommy-time.

And this makes me feel every more guilty.

It’s no secret that during the day, parents who stay at home with their kids have shit to do. There is very little time to relax and connect with your kids, and when those wonderful moments do arise during the daytime hours, you have to be very mindful of them or you will miss them. When my husband gets home from work, this should be the time when I can clock-out of the housekeeping, bookkeeping and kid-keeping and enjoy my time with the kids. This is what my husband tries to do.

But lately, instead, I’ve been zipping out the door to try and tackle the mounting to-do list that accompanies this time of year, this stage of parenting and this mom’s attempts at maintaining sanity.

Yes, I know these private moments away are good for me. I know that I’m a better mom and partner when I’m feeling restored. I know that these feelings of guilt are not only useless and unnecessary, but a little destructive. I know the sky will not fall.

And I guess I can reluctantly admit that I love my new toes.

(In a shade called Lobster Roll, because obviously.)

Babes in Toyland

Our house is where toys come to die. It’s a Barbie sarcophagus. It’s a Lego tomb. It’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle wasteland.

We’ve moved homes three times since moving to Calgary and having kids, and each time I’ve dreaded the daunting task of sifting through our obscene assemblage of toys. Not only are there a lot of toys, there are a lot of toy parts. Our toys do not remain whole, with doodads and accessories stored neatly within reach. Nope. We are that family, whose puzzle pieces are always missing. If we ever had marbles to begin with, we would have lost them already.

In fact, I’ve noticed that playmates have stopped bringing their own toys to our house during their visits, for the very real fear that their precious dolls and dinkies will be swallowed whole by the stuffy quick-sand that is our toy baskets and bins. Never to be seen again.

Where did all these toys come from, you ask? My husband and I are the ones holding the purse strings, so you’d think we’d have some control over our material (and Matel) possessions. Yes, we have been guilty in the past of over-doing the Christmas and birthday extravaganzas, but we’ve since reformed. I would guess, based on absolutely no evidence beyond my own anecdotal experience, that the first five years of a child’s life are the peak gifting years. When the over-indulgence becomes a source of frustration and embarrassment (not to mention an unsustainable expense), most parents begin to reign in the toy-buying. Us included.

For the past couple Christmases, my husband and I bought each of our daughters two gifts: one from Mom & Dad, one from Santa. Each gift was less than $50. We set a budget, stuck to it, and had to put real thought into the gifts that we bought our kids.

But hold your applause. This budget (still extravagant to some) was a reaction to the ridiculous amount of gifts that our kids ritually receive from their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. If I were to include those gifts in the mix (and the gifts that I give in return) our Christmas expenses would make you puke. I know I feel nauseous from Thanksgiving to December 25 every year. (I did attempt to stray from our toy exchange one Christmas, but was swiftly dismissed. Apparently it’s frowned upon to be that aunt who gives a sweater when all the other cousins receive Nerf guns.)

It’s not that I don’t like giving or getting gifts. It just starts to feel uncomfortable. First of all, who can afford all this? (Not us.) And even if you can afford it, does that conclusively mean you should do it? When I see the debris of forgotten toys scattered throughout our house, I can’t help but wince. We’re gift-wrapping the almost inevitable message of excess and entitlement, and I can’t say I’m not guilty. The crazy thing is, my kids (like most kids) don’t even want all this, let alone need it.

My oldest daughter plays exclusively with a random assortment of beloved stuffed animals (barnyard and otherwise), my middle daughter plays with whatever my oldest daughter plays with, and my youngest daughter is just like any other two-year-old train wreck. She just likes to wreck things. Especially trains. If I were to swipe their shiny plastic toys from right under their noses, they wouldn’t even notice. I know this because I do it all the time.

I’ve been slowing siphoning a stockpile of toys from under the beds, basement corners and abandoned bins for years. Most are donated, although that’s a more difficult process than you’d think, especially when Buzz Lightyear is missing a limb and a wing. Some, regrettably, go to the dump. Others stay hidden from view in a plastic bag until I can figure out what the hell to do with them.

Sometimes I fantasize about removing the gift-equation from Christmas and birthdays all together. I naively believe that this would be painless for everyone. A relief, even.

Or if people insist on buying gifts (yes, some people really do insist), I’d like to encourage them to buy sustainable, stimulating gifts that my kids can cherish forever.

What are those things called again? Oh yeah. Books.

*Yes, I do realize that this is a ‘I’m part of the problem, but at least I feel guilty about it’ post. Sorry. I hate those posts. At least I feel guilty about it?

Financial times

I’m not terrible at math. I am terrible with money.

My husband is a wiz with numbers. At work, he manages budgets in the billions. (Yes, billions). At home, he trusts the household budget to me.

Which means he has terrible judgment.

I do my best. The bills get paid on time-ish, the groceries are covered and I even have a nifty little spreadsheet that outlines our monthly expenses. (After much consideration I chose a more pleasing palette of purple and green as opposed to the more traditional red and black.)

I have, however, committed some minor offenses (snafus, if you will) that would, in my husband’s line of work, get me fired.

Like forgetting to cancel a post-dated payment on a credit card that we had already paid off and (presumably) closed. It could have been worse, although my husband argues that the fact I didn’t notice this payment was withdrawn from the account each month is worrisome.

Or accidentally paying an old utility account instead of the new one after our most recent move. I did catch this one within three months, after receiving a very surprising disconnection notice in the mail, with the letters “URGENT” printed in an aggressive red font.

There may be a few other harmless anecdotes, but we really don’t need to cover them all here. I’m sure everyone forgets about a cheque they wrote for highland dance shoes from time to time. And who really pays attention to budget vs. actuals, anyway.

With summer ending, school starting and (eiik) Christmas spending right around the corner, I really do have to up my financial game. I’m just grateful to have a patient, hard working husband who (in this case) can look over my shoulder every once in a while.

Oooh, SALE!