Thursday, May 5

Mothers - Masters of Change

(from May 2011 Montana Woman)

Most days my children trot off to elementary school, and most nights they sleep till morning without a peep. The hourly feedings and changing diapers are a hazy memory replaced by schooltime stories, playdates and craft projects. But a visit to a friend with a new baby boy and nighttime feedings for babies of another kind recently reminded me of the demanding work of mothering.

The farmyard stork, a.k.a. my husband, deposited two newborn lambs in my basement laundry room in February. He raises sheep at work, but we live in town. It was one of those “other wifely duties as assigned” and was a fun novelty for me and the kids. One was so weak, I wasn’t sure it would be strong enough to let us know when it was hungry. But, at 3 a.m., I heard persistent “baaahs” coming from downstairs. I stumbled around in the dark, mixed bottles, filled the little tummies with warm milk replacer, and watched them curl up again until the morning. During the day, they jumped around the laundry room, testing out wobbly legs and nibbled the edges of the laundry basket. If I disappeared around the corner, I could hear the tap of their little soft hooves as they ran to keep me in sight. Thankfully, the late night feedings for baby lambs only lasted a short time. When I was nursing my own children in the middle of the night, it felt like a slow motion fog of fatigue that seemed to last forever.

Many of the phases of caring for infants and young children feel like they will never end. A friend and mother of five told me once, “This too shall pass.” The baby that won’t stop crying, the dirty diapers, the shrieking toddler will all end and change and grow. As will the trying to survive a trip to the grocery store with a three and a one-year-old. I used to have to bite my tongue when a sweet old lady would tap my arm and say, “oh enjoy this, they grow up so fast!” and I would think, “you have SO forgotten how hard it is to go shopping with toddlers!”

But it is true children grow up fast; just please don’t remind me when you see me at the store. Someday, they will go to the bathroom, go to school, even go to camp all by themselves. Someday they even buckle their own seatbelts and shut their own car doors – hallelujah! And yet, someday they won’t insist on good night songs or blow kisses on the way to the school door. Now, I don’t have to do so much to physically keep my children alive as they can feed and dress themselves. Now, I comfort sad hearts when a playmate moves or feelings bruised by playground conflicts. I can only guess at the challenges my kids will bring me in the future. The job of mothering never ceases to be demanding, but what it demands of us continues to change.

After visiting my friend and her baby, and caring for little lambs, I am again impressed with us mothers as we constantly adapt and do the hard invisible work of caring for infants and children and families every day. Way to go, Moms!

Thursday, December 9

The Power of Cardboard

(From January 2011 Montana Woman)

I hear older folks say that kids don’t need all those fancy toys they make these days, but it’s easy to forget in the advertising and rush of our modern Christmas season. Now that the decorations are put away and the new toys are sorted into the kids’ rooms, I’m reminded of the simple toys that occupy my children the longest, such as sticks and dirt. But my personal favorite, and the best for use in my living room in winter, is cardboard.

One of the surest ways to brighten the faces of my son and daughter is to ask who would like to go to the appliance store. On grey Montana winter days, when it’s too cold or too wet to go outside, we’ll take a drive to the back of the nearest store that sells washers and dryers and find ourselves the biggest cardboard box we can fit in the back of the minivan. Then using my trusty box cutter stashed in my glovebox for this purpose, I break down the box, slide it in the back of the van over the kids’ heads (my son’s favorite part), and head home to reassemble.

Once home, we set the box back up in its full size and days of fun ensue. The big box transforms into a dragon’s lair, a fighter jet, a pirate ship, a kennel for packs of barking dogs, a cozy playhouse or an ice cream shop all at the whim of my children’s imagination. With the handy box cutter, we add portholes, drive-thru windows and garage doors. With crayons and markers, the kids decorate the insides and outsides to match their imaginary project.

When the box no longer holds up to the pirate attacks, wild hyenas, and ice cream sales – or I can’t stand the box in the living room anymore, whichever comes first – we cut the sides apart to make giant Viking shields, two-handed swords and magic wands. Glitter, paint and markers aid in the transformation. And a month later, when the allure has faded, all that mangled cardboard gets sent off to the recycle bin – it’s the ultimate “green” toy!

For the Sistine chapel of cardboard box play, go to (check out the cardboard kitchen!) where super achiever moms can get intricate directions on cardboard creations … but really, a washing machine box with a hole cut in the side, some crayons and a child are all you need.

Thursday, June 17

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me!”

(From July Montana Woman)

We decided early on in the parenting journey to define and emphasize respect with our children. We saw respectfulness in our friends’ children that made them a pleasure to be around; and we saw disrespect in other children that exhausted and frustrated those around them. For some families, respect means calling adults, “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, or sharing favorite toys. In our family, respect starts with speaking respectfully and seeking forgiveness when we don’t.

These habits start with us, the parents. Dr. Kevin Leman, a prolific author and parenting expert, writes in his latest book, How to Have a New Kid by Friday, that the golden rule of parenting is to “treat your kids as you would want to be treated.” Children learn more from what is caught than taught he says, so, “Model respect by being respectful toward your children.” For example, my husband and I make it a point to use please and thank you when asking our children to do things. We even say, “No thank you,” to correct behavior rather than, “stop that!” In fact, we rarely ever raise our voices; we’ve found it more effective to get very close and talk lower and slower when a child needs correction. And we try not to argue with our children about little things, such as what to wear and what to eat (of the healthy options); but we will go to the mat over respectful, kind voices.

Children can start learning respectful behaviors earlier than we think. Our babies learned simple sign language for please and thank you in their high chairs. Today, I can still use the sign for thank you to give a quiet reminder when needed. When our children were toddlers, respectful voices meant practicing volume control –“use your inside voice”— and saying please and thank you. In addition, tantrums earned our toddlers a time out in their crib for a minute or two with a soft reminder along the lines of, “Uh oh, you may join us after you pull it together.” It did not take long for them to figure out that tantrums were not respectful and not effective for getting what they wanted.

Along with using respectful voices, we’ve trained our children to apologize and ask forgiveness when they hurt each other, just like my husband and I do with each other. They’ve done it so many times that when I tell them to work it out, the perpetrator will say, “I’m sorry for … (then they name the action: hurting you, breaking your toy, etc.), will you forgive me?” The victim will say, “Yes”, and off they go to the next activity. It’s more satisfying to them than the command to just, “Tell your brother you’re sorry!” because it requires the perpetrator to verbally confess what they did wrong and seek restoration of the relationship with forgiveness. In other words, they have to show respect for each other.

Finally, Dr. Leman, writes, “training a beagle and training a child have a lot of similarities. You have to tell them to do the same thing over and over until it sticks.” His comment is obviously a simplification, but in my experience, it rings true. This doesn’t mean training with shock collars, but it does mean giving simple directions for expected behavior … over and over and (deep breath) over.

Now, my children don’t always come when they’re called, say thank you when served or clean up after themselves, and neither do I! But I expect them, and myself, to try most of the time. My husband and I model respectful behavior to our children, prioritize a handful of respectful habits, and practice, practice, practice. Hopefully, we won’t have to spell out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the future because our kids’ attitudes will already reflect the meaning of the word.

Wednesday, April 21

The Things I Make My Kids Do

Today, I made my kids do something I remember thinking I would NOT make my kids do when I grew up.

We rode bikes home from school. I do remember loving to ride my bike, and I remember riding my bike to and from school as I got older. We lived across town from my school so it seemed like a long ways to me. In reality it was about 3 miles; the same distance we live from our school now.

But to get to our "neighborhood school" today, we have to parallel a major highway, navigate through the great American shopping center (Costco, Home Depot, Walmart and Target), cross a river on a busy arterial bridge, cut through two neighborhoods and skirt around a gated dirt road that looks like the product of an easement argument.

This is the part I remember telling myself I wouldn't make my kids do someday: walking and biking when it wasn't cool (maybe it was just junior high) and taking unconventional routes to do it.

To get home with the kids today, we navigated all of the above including a mud path behind the new Walmart landscaping and a weedy field between the shopping center and the community college. And the kids loved it, especially the part behind Home Depot where we stopped for a snack. We got to watch a truck driver unhitch a trailer and add another set of semitruck wheels (Brian says this is a dolly) so the truck could pull two trailers. I used to think driving a truck looked sedentary - no more! You try pulling four giant wheels attached to a huge steel hitch around a parking lot - with just your one human body.

So hopefully the kids will keep thinking mom's bike routes are an adventure for a few more years ... or until junior high at least.

Monday, April 12

Misery Loves Company

I decided, the other night while skinning (skiing uphill on climbing skins) up Big Mountain, that I just want someone to acknowledge that it's really hard.

As I watched Brian's back get smaller ahead of me, three other men passed me. One, in the neighborhood of 60 and on snowshoes (much slower than skis unless I'm on the skis in question) passed me and asked how it was going. I said, with a smile ... really! ... that it never gets any easier. He responded by asking how many times I had climbed. As if I'm going to tell him just so he, who I'm guessing isn't juggling small children and is probably retired, can tell me I should do it more. As if I didn't know that! Thankfully, for once, I had the presence of mind to say, "Obviously, not enough." And off he climbed disappearing ahead with the others.

So I had some time to think. And I concluded that I don't like climbing and I just want others to acknowledge that it's hard. And I don't want to be expected to be cheerful and perky about something hard. But therein lies my problem. Most people who do this do actually enjoy it, so evidently, they don't mind that it's really not that much fun!

Tuesday, March 30

The Friend I Thought Was An Enemy: Routine

(from the April Montana Woman)

The first few pages of my family heirloom 1961 Betty Crocker cookbook include tips on household management such as: “Have a weekly plan for scheduling such tasks as washing, ironing, baking, shopping, cleaning the refrigerator or washing floors. One task done each day provides a sense of accomplishment and keeps work from piling up.” And, “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family’s too!”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I thought the first time I read those tips, thinking they were just an amusing glimpse of the ‘olden days.’ Now, after 14 years of marriage, working from home and the office, moving several times and having two children, I see the practical truth in them. Planning what needs to be done, accomplishing a few life chores, and doing a little something for myself every day, keeps me and my family sane.

Now, scheduling a routine is my friend. Routine is my compromise between forcing my children and me into a strict schedule or being dominated by the tyranny of the urgent, dealing with whomever or whatever is crying loudest at the time. Routine gives me the structure to face the never-ending cycle of making clean things dirty and dirty things clean again. Our family routine helps the kids know what to expect and helps the parents accomplish the chores of life.

As Kathy Peel says in her book, The Family Manager Saves the Day, “Hundreds of tasks are required to keep a family going, and many of them can be fitted into routines that make everyone’s life easier. Once you decide how, when, and by whom something should be done, you eliminate questions and arguing—and you stop wasting time on the trivial. … Routines help replace time-stealers with time itself – the most precious commodity. They free us to stick to our priorities, doing what we truly feel is important and essential, and they give family members security because everyone knows what to expect.”

Routines help me with everything from paying bills and serving meals, to training and disciplining children, to deciding what we’ll do for fun this weekend. One of my most useful routines, planning a weekly dinner menu, saves me because I can’t think when I’m hungry. And here is the trick to the menu: you don’t actually have to plan seven dinners! Mondays at our house is enchilada night. Friday is pizza night. Sunday is grilled cheese. And now I only have to come up with four more dinners … that I pick off the list I have scribbled in the front of my recipe box for when I need inspiration.

Routines help me schedule day to day and month to month. On a weekly basis, my routine includes laundry and planning on Monday, a trip to the library for story time on Tuesday and church night on Wednesday. My weekly schedule gives structure, but nothing says that it can’t be changed to take advantage of events that happen sporadically.

There are slushy spring days when I think I cannot possibly hang up one more pair of wet snow pants, build one more train track in our cramped living room, or make one more healthy dinner! And then the sun will come out. Then riding bikes to the nearest playground to bask in the sun becomes better than any routine I had planned for the day, especially if it includes picking up hamburgers for dinner on the way.

The beautiful part of routine is that I have time to take advantage of “unplanned” sunny days because my chores are generally under control. Who would have thought that a Betty Crocker cookbook from 50 years ago would have such helpful advice for today?

Thursday, March 25

Turn and Pivot

While reading Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, I found a familiar moment mentioned in several essays. It's the dead spot in the conversation after meeting someone and asking each other what we "do."

"I'm home with my kids," I say. "Oh that's nice/great/important," they say. And then ... there is nothing else to say. Turn and pivot.

One writer/mom, Page Evans, found herself at a Washington, D.C., party. "'I'm basically a stay-at-home mom,' she tells a fifty-something man next to her.
'Oh, well, that's such an important job. Kids grow up so fast, don't they?'
'Yeah, they do,' she says.
And that's the end of it. Turn and pivot.
But wait. Wait! Don't you want to know what I think about what's going on in the world? I want to scream out. I've spent the past seven years trying to improve my mind, to prove that I'm more than "just a mom." I see more plays, read more op-eds, take classes, visit museums. ... Driving car pool and discussing favorite food groups is not all I'm about. Yes, I'll gladly discuss those things, but I don't want to be defined by them."

Another writer/mom, Catherine Clifford, writes, "I don't understand why taking care of one's own children is considered hopelessly tedious or brain-deadening. I know well how quickly a new cocktail-party acquaintence needs a fresh drink when he finds out I'm a stay-at-home mother. I find it odd that I'd generate far more interest if I said I raised dogs or horses or chinchillas, but saying, in effect, 'I raise human beings,' is a huge yawn.
It might, in fact, be that boring if child care were simply a series of pink-collar tasks -- bathe, dress, feed, repeat. But observing and participating in a little Homo sapien's development is fascinating to me. Furthermore, being a mother isn't just a 'job' any more than being a wife or daughter is; it's a relationship."

Tuesday, March 23

Story Time Makes Me Cry

Every Tuesday, Ethan and I go to the library for kids' story time. And every week, they sing their welcome song ...

"We're all here for story time, story time, story time, so let's get ready."

And every week, it makes me cry.

The circle of toddlers and preschoolers all cup their little hands around their ears to turn them up high and twist little hands in front of their mouths to turn them down low. And I get weepy standing in the back of the circle of watching moms. Especially if my son looks over his shoulder to check that I'm still there. I stand in the back so the others don't see me wiping the tears away. There is just something about the sweet voices all following the librarian's hand motions that just gets me. I think it's one of those moments that I just want to stamp on my mind and heart to treasure when my kids are not so sweet or not so near, like when they're teenager who don't want me around or when they're all grown up with their own families.

Thursday, March 18

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Well, happy St. Patrick's day one day late. I make a big deal of St. Patrick's day for several reasons. One is that I've been to Ireland so it's a chance to get out the pictures and tell my kids about it. We get books from the library about St. Patrick and Ireland. We cook green treats like cookies or cakes. We cut out shamrocks. And we pretend fun things about leprechauns - for the last couple of years the wee ones have gotten to the children's breakfast cereal and turned their milk green when we weren't looking!

And, every year, I tell them St. Patrick's explanation of the trinity. According to legend, St. Patrick held up an Irish shamrock and said this is a picture of the trinity. Each petal represents one part of God - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - all separate but connected. Who knows if St. Patrick actually did it, but it's one of the clearest explanations of three in one that I've heard. So either my kids will get it, or they'll wonder why they think of shamrocks whenever their Sunday school teachers mention the trinity!

Wednesday, February 24


In defense of my hunting husband (who provides all our red meat) and on behalf of all my friends who cringe when they see email from me during hunting season (what dead animal will be pictured next?), I had to tell the world that I draw the line at eating roadkill.

I just finished Mika Brzezinski's book, All Things at Once, a memoir that I picked up to read about balancing work and motherhood. Turns out I had more in common with Mika's mother than Mika (MSNBC host of Morning Joe - had to look that up as I don't get cable). Mika's dad was Jimmy Carter's national security advisor so the family moved to the Washington, D.C., area where her mother tried to balance her individualism and art with a political husband and three teenage children.

Her mom's art medium was wood sculpture so she must have been pretty handy with sharp instruments. One day before an upcoming DC dinner party, her mom was driving to pick up Mika at school when she came across a dead deer on the side of the road. "Naturally, she got out to check if the carcass was still warm. It was. So she started hacking it up right there...Some guy in a truck pulled over and helped her, and they ended up splitting the deer, and she brought her half home in the trunk of her car, thinking about how she might prepare it for her guests. To her, this was normal... Mom was a wonderful, resourceful, and courageous cook, and she especially like to cook venison, so she counted herself lucky to have stumbled across this great find. It was like winning some wild-game lottery... When (the guests) sat down to dinner, they took turns marveling at the venison... They wondered aloud who the caterer was, and where my mother got her venison. Mrs. (Pamela) Harriman was just bringing her fork to her mouth when my mother blurted out her response. 'Oh,' she said, 'I found it on Old Dominion Road. It had been hit by a car just moments before I pulled up! Isn't it wonderful?' ... She went on with her story, as mouths dropped all around the table. 'I couldn't believe my good luck,' she continued. 'I gutted the thing right there, and skinned it, and brought the best part home for my guests.' ... What happened next was like a spit take scene from an old Honeymooners episode. Pamela Harriman--midbite, midsentence--spit her mouthful on her plate and turned ashen white. This proud, grand, refined woman, who had been married to Winston Churchill's son, who had dined at the finest restaurants and banquets and receptions all over the world, who would go on to become the U.S. ambassador to France, was simply aghast. And my mother, God bless her, couldn't understand the commotion. The story made the gossip section of the newspaper. Something about the Brzezinskis serving roadkill."

No way would I do that for a deer, but an antelope or an elk, well, I guess I better say, "never say never." But I'll wait until after dinner to reveal my sources!

Did you know ...

Did you know that you can get music on the internet?! Wow, that's what everyone has been talking about! I'm not a big music person, as in I can listen to the same CD for about six months without really noticing, but setting up radio stations on is way fun. Brian and I had to laugh at ourselves pulling up all our favorite old songs on until way too late the other night. Guess we really had been living in the dark, or rather, the silent ages.