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.

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.

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

Good expectations

People often ask me, “How do you do it?” And although these people are my small children and they’re usually referring to complicated board game instructions, I thought I would take the time to share my recently discovered secret to success: good expectations.

I like to set my sights high-ish. I have goals-ish. My expectations are good, not great. That way, I hardly ever fall short of life’s seemingly endless challenges and spiral down a rabbit hole of failure, fear and regret.

It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, I had laughable, lofty expectations of life, love and prom. I blame American television shows. But as life, love and prom (and my vocabulary) proved to be a bit less glamorous than that of the sesquipedalian kids of Dawson’s Creek, I adapted.

For example, when I was a new mom at home alone while my entire family lived on the East Coast and my husband travelled for work, my daily expectation for myself was pretty low. The lowest of the low. Did my baby attempt a nap? Yes? Success! Is her belly full of breast milk and her bones still intact? Seemingly so? Success! Did I shower today and remember to rinse the conditioner from my hair? Who can be sure? Success!

Aside from the tears, fears and unsettling hormone imbalance, my year-end parenting performance review was outstanding. (So much so that I promoted myself to mother of two. Then tree. With each new newborn, my expectations lowered even further. Does everyone have a pulse? I think so? Success!)

Now, as my youngest daughter approaches age three and my mind, body and soul emerge from the trenches of tantrums and toddlers, I’m slowly starting to raise my expectations ever so slightly. But there are levels to this sh**. And since you asked I’ll share with you my approach, which involves a tertiary goal system and exactly zero accountability. (You have to find what works for you.)

Level One: Daily life.

While some people might call this category a routine, or universal parenting responsibilities, or simple mindless tasks a monkey could do, I call these goals, simply so I can give myself extra credit when we make it to the bus stop on time or I remember to pack my daughter’s lunch. Bus, lunches, dinner, drop-offs, pick-ups, these are all my daily life goals. (In addition to these daily life goals, there are also what I like to call add-ons, like permission slips, library books and special events. If I can successfully accommodate these add-ons at a frequency of three out of five, I pat myself on the back.)

Level Two: Nice to haves.

These goals are less things I should accomplish and more things I pull off somehow. Like hitting (and surpassing) 100 posts on my blog. Applying successfully to the WGA Mentorship Program. Showing up on time to hockey / piano / dance with equipment / homework / all three children safely in tow. These are nice to haves. Did the sweet teacher receive her gourmet chocolates on the last day of school before Christmas break? No? My daughter forgot them in her backpack? Oh well. No biggie. Appearing as a put-together, appreciative mom of a girl who had a great beginning to the school year was a nice to have. Besides, who doesn’t love getting chocolates in January, four days into their resolutions?

Level Three: A girl can dream.

Here’s where I store the unmentionables. Goals that seem about as achievable to me as winning the lottery. Run five miles. Publish a book. Win the lottery. These are the loftiest of all my goals, so lofty that acknowledging them at all makes them even more elusive, like a birthday wish or another Jays pennant run. Raise three happy, well-adjusted, independent kids. Retire early and travel the world with my husband. Retire at all. Find a job from which I can eventually retire. Have perpetually manicured hands. Overhear my daughters’ friends say, “Your mom is so cool,” and my daughters say, “Yeah, she’s pretty great.” Like I said, a girl can dream.

So there you have it. The anatomy of ‘good expectations’ provided by someone who managed to shower this morning and make the kids lunch. In that order. You’re welcome. And good luck. (Or, should I say, great luck.)

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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Jet lag white flag

It was at an amusement park in Prince Edward Island where my two-year-old daughter grabbed my hand and led me into a glass-walled maze. My husband had already entered ahead with our oldest two girls, so my fearless youngest daughter was left with her anxious, hesitant mother to guide her through the creepy fun house. (When you have two or more kids of a certain age, you’re almost always dragged into the action.)

At first, we giddily moved through the maze with our arms out in front, carefully avoiding the abrupt dead ends. I even did the bit where I slammed my foot into a deceptively clear glass panel and threw my head back in fake agony. She loved it. (Why do kids love it when we pretend to get hurt?)

But after a few wrong moves and getting absolutely nowhere, I started to feel a little disoriented. The entire experience lasted only a few minutes but I’m embarrassed to say I was more than a little relieved when we eventually found the exit. True to form, my two-year-old’s immediate response was, “Again! Again!”

That dizzy, disoriented feeling hasn’t really left me since our vacation. (Although it could also have to do with the many, many rounds on the carousel and tea cup rides. “Again! Again!”) I’m also still jet-lagged, often waking up at 4AM with the sensation that I should go running, dye my hair blonde or start my own blueberry business. (I would love to embrace an onslaught of brilliant ideas at 4AM if they were actually brilliant.)

I’m also dealing with a little bit of calorie-withdrawal. After subsisting almost solely on a diet of s’mores, shellfish and COWS ice cream (not consumed all together, I’m not an animal) I’m trying to right-size my menu now that we’re back in Calgary. While I’m not technically hangry, I’m a little hanky (hungry/cranky).

To top it all off, we chose this week to take our two-year-old out of her crib and out of her diapers in a potty-training, bed-upgrade boot camp. Another one of my brilliant 4AM ideas. To be fair, though, our toilet-training attempts have never been that strategic. We usually make the move when our kids are about a certain age and we’ve simply run out of diapers.

I guess my sluggish adjustment to regular life is to be expected, considering everything we have on our plate. (Or don’t have on our plate. I wish I could shake this craving for two scoops of Messie Bessie in a signature waffle cone.) And it’s also likely temporary. I’m sure my energy levels and REM cycles will return to normal soon.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to teeter around my tottering toddler as she excitedly runs to the toilet. Obviously, the best part is hitting the flush.

“Again! Again!”