So here’s part one of my Tips for Bigish Families Series. Read the introduction here.
Tip numbero uno: Grooming is overrated.
I am always eager for spring and the gradual greening and warming that comes along with it. What I am usually not ready for is the greater need for daily baths. Winter means less time spent digging in the dirt and frolicking outdoors, which translates to less baths. Now my well-groomed, daily-shower-loving husband would likely disagree with me here, but a daily bath really is not a necessity especially when kids haven’t been getting dirty all day outdoors. Like many Europeans, we don’t do baths every day. Sometimes I am just too tired to partake in the elaborate bathtime routine. I’d rather squeeze in more storybooks than scrubbing behind the ears. I’ll never forget a story my nana, who died two summers ago just before she hit the 91-mark, told. Her youngest and ninth child was looking quite gray and a peaked to her, so she decided to take him to the pediatrician to make sure his health was not ailing. The diagnosis? A nice layer of dirt! Seriously, my uncle had just been dirtier than usual, and the pediatrician rubbed a bit off and showed my nana, who sheepishly and quickly left the doctor’s office but loved telling the story later on as evidence that dirt really doesn’t bother kids or hurt them. This might horrify our clean-obsessed-frequent-hand-sanitizing-culture, but I find it rather funny and comforting. All of her nine children are healthy, happy, and productive adults now. A little dirt never caused them any harm.
And fancy, smocked clothing, well, it looks pretty, but it’s not necessary either. Which brings me to tip number two: It’s not what they’re wearing that matters; it’s the memories you’re making.
I dressed my first child like a baby doll. No matter that she was constantly ripping the pretty bows from her wispy hair and I was always cursing the tiny buttons that were awfully difficult to work with. I also wanted her clothes to match when we out in public. Not so anymore. When we go to Mass or perhaps a nice restaurant or another “finer” event, then, of course, I expect a certain level of decorum. However, I also give my children far more freedom in choosing their clothing these days and am not bothered so much by mismatched outfits or slightly messy hair.
I was at a birthday party for little girls a few years ago, and many of the girls were impeccably dressed in smocked gowns (smocked clothing is very popular in the South); however, there was one child who showed up in play clothes with ragamuffin hair. I heard another mom whispering about her, saying something about how she couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t brushed her hair. This kind of superficial comment infuriated me. I knew that this child was the oldest of five young children, and all of them were homeschooled. Perfectly coiffed hair probably wasn’t a big priority, and why did it matter? These kids were playing at a birthday party; they weren’t having tea with the Queen. Some girls might love smocked frocks. Some moms might enjoy dressing their girls up as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t feel guilty if you’re not into that or just can’t be as a matter of survival. Likewise, don’t sweat the small stuff, and kids who don’t look like Suri Cruise in public is most definitely small stuff. Honestly, we moms often dress up our children just to impress others.
Another time this lesson was hammered in for me was during a trip to a pumpkin patch this past fall. We attempted to get a group photo of all the kids, and I had to laugh at our motley crew. I have a photo from when I was pregnant with Mary Elizabeth, and Madeline and Rachel were wearing darling fall outfits. I had more time to pay attention to the details back then – time that is more of a luxury these days. Not surprisingly, in last year’s pumpkin patch photo, the kids were wearing all different colorful ensembles. Best of all, Mary Elizabeth was wearing a pink, homemade Valentine’s shirt in October, which makes the memory of that crisp fall day all the more vivid in my mind. Remember Annie’s wisdom: Your kids’ smiles are their best accessory.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the series where I talk about how behind every no there is a yes. New posts won’t arrive until after the Triduum, however.
Dear Mary Elizabeth,
Happy birthday, my fairy-loving, yellow-is-my-favorite-color-of-the-moment-but-I-love-all-colors, sweet little girl! I can’t believe my little flower child is five now! You truly are a free spirit, who floats through life (always highly accessorized, of course) and notices whimsy and beauty all around you. Wild violets poking up through blades of grass. Clouds shaped like big cats. My new lipstick shade. A cameo appearance of Rapunzel in Frozen. You’re drawn to all that is beautiful: babies, flowers, makeup, chic shoes, butterflies, good storybooks.
You were born with a glam gene and remain our resident fashionista. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I’ll throw on something sporty and casual or wear my manly but cozy, oversized cardigan, and you’ll say, “You’re wearing that?” On the other hand, when I dress up for a date with Daddy or to go to church, you are always quick to compliment me. You watch me get ready and it’s like you’re under a spell. The whole process enchants you.
When I was finally ready to wean you (you nursed the longest out of all the kids and still talk about it sometimes), the only way I could gently make it happen was to bribe you with your own makeup kit. You were giving Gaba [my mom] a stunning makeover, and she asked you where you got your elaborate makeup, and you just a wee bit wistfully said, “This was my big-girl gift when I stopped nursing.”
You are such a big-girl and boy, do you love mothering your babies – or Layla [our dog] or Fang [our cat]. Your big sisters will list all the things they want to be when they grow up, and then you’ll proudly say, “I want to be a mommy.” Your desire to have babies and to grow up to be a mom rattles my heart in a good way every time. Just a week or so ago, I was making funny faces at you and your brother while I was pumping gas. I can’t recall when I started doing this (and sometimes regret it when people look at me oddly as I contort my face while seemingly checking out my reflection in my minivan windows), but it’s become a ritual you love. When I got back into the van, you said, “I am going to do that to my kids when I’m a mommy.” That was one of the best compliments you could have given me. What you were saying is: You make me happy. I notice the little things you do and appreciate your silly faces. I want to be a mommy like you someday.
Thank you, sweet girl, for building me up. You have a way of doing that. You’re so wonderful about thanking me and complimenting me as a mom. (You’re also always telling me I’m pretty or that you like my shoes.) And it’s not just me you freely give compliments to. We once went around the table as a family and we all named one trait we really appreciated about each other. Well, we all agreed that you are wonderful at complimenting people and noticing them. Your feminine genius is at work big time.
You’re also a great big sister to Thomas. He can be a pain right now and rough with your toys and with you! You very rarely retaliate and are very patient with him. The other day the two of you played outside for over an hour with no sign of squabbling.
You’re protective about Fang, too. When he’s outside, you worry about him even though he doesn’t stray far from the backyard at all. You’re an affectionate snuggler. You love it when Rachel sleeps with you and if she doesn’t end up spooning you, you find your way down to Daddy and my bed (we play musical beds around here).
You’re very in to art and coloring right now, and your pictures are becoming increasingly detailed. You drew a picture of Uncle Jason recently for his birthday, and we all laughed because you even included his goatee. Your portrait looked a lot like him!
You make me laugh all of the time. You still say “pisappear” for “disappear.” The other day you spotted a train and you were very proud you saw it and pointed it out to us (as if we could have missed it roaring passed the van), and you said, “My eyes are good to see that train. My eye was peeled.”
Let’s see. What else do you like these days? You love your new baby doll Daddy and I got you for your birthday. You named her Courtney, and you take very good care of her. (Madeline and Rachel are her nannies.) You love tomatoes. Your best friend is Will, who lives right down the street, and you draw him pictures all of the time. You taught yourself how to ride a two-wheel bike without training wheels in one day and love to zip up and down the driveway. You play with my hair sometimes when I read to you, and it feels heavenly. You’re counting the days until summer swimming lessons. You’re quite independent and always dress yourself without any help from me every morning. Your hair is very important to you and most of your rare tantrums involve a bad hair day or me styling your tresses all wrong. You’re extremely nurturing. I was going to a bible study at church and one day Daddy was home so I told you could just stay with him rather than going to the nursery, but you burst into tears. “You want to stay in the nursery?” I asked.
“I want to help with the babies,” you told me. Apparently, you were a big help with all the little ones there!
You like to build fairy houses outside with moss, flowers, bark, and other natural artifacts. You very rarely nap, but you are amazing at quiet time and will color on your own for an entire hour or play quietly. You like to pretend I’m your little girl sometimes, and you’re always make believing it’s my birthday and treating me nicely.
You are genuinely happy, and nothing seems to upset you for long although the last two car trips we went on, you started throwing a tantrum over having a wedgie. You go with the flow (so long as your panties are in a wad), and I frequently find you twirling about like the princess you are. You have so much beauty to offer the world – and I’m not talking about those gloriously green eyes and long lashes or strawberry blonde hair – I’m talking about your kindness, your sweetness, and your love for life. Just the other day Thomas was tired and crying , and you started singing him a sweet song (you love to make up ditties and often sit at the piano and “compose” music and come up with lyrics). “It’s alright. Don’t you cry…” you softly crooned. And – viola! – he stopped crying. You noticed he was sad, and you tried to make a difference. Keep doing that, my sweet child. Love with that big, beautiful heart of yours. Dance barefoot in the grass. Pursue beauty and Truth. Give of yourself. Be kind. Don’t be afraid to tell others you want to be a mother. Some will say it’s not enough. Or you’re too smart to “just” be a mom. But you will make an amazing one. I’m already praying for you to find a husband who will treat you the way you deserve and help you find that family of your dreams. Of course, I will love you and support you if your dreams (or reality) change. I will love you always, no matter what.
Happy fifth birthday, Mary Elizabeth! I can’t wait to see what life has in store for you.
You requested a woodland fairy cake, so that’s what I gave you We had a simple family party, and we all ended up in the backyard playing soccer and enjoying a beautiful spring day. Madeline remarked, “Family parties are the best.” I agree.
My baby brother (AKA Uncle Josh) shows off his soccer moves.
And now a blast from the past. You were such a peanut when you were born! You were my smallest baby, and you were born on Palm Sunday weighing just 5 pounds 14 ounces. When you saw this photo, you said, “I’m so little. My head is like a little grape.”
You always loved my nana who passed away almost two years ago. You also had a special thing for an elderly neighbor who is sadly no longer with us either (you used to toddle over to him when he sat in his yard and hug his legs), so this birthday I bought you the book, I Know a Lady, which shares the reflections of a little girl about her kindhearted elderly neighbor.
I always tell people that my babies start out small and plump up very quickly thanks to the “cream” my body miraculously produces. You were one of the deliciously chubbiest of all. Papa used to call you Chunk Style. Daddy says you look like Newt Gingrich in this photo. It’s one of his favorite baby pictures of you.
Oh, how I love you, Mary Elizabeth!!!
With only four children, I am not completely comfortable identifying myself as having a big family, especially when I know plenty of families who have enough children to field an entire baseball team. However, my husband frequently reminds me that we have more than average, and we do get comments when we’re out in public with our brood.
We were blessed to be at the beach not too long ago and eating at a noisy, crowded restaurant when my oldest dropped her flip-flop and accidentally bumped into a man when she was trying to retrieve it. His entire table turned to look at us, and I said, “Sorry!” thinking they were annoyed by my daughter’s wayward elbow or perhaps my 2-year-old’s happy but loud giggles as I magically pulled a broken piece of red crayon from his ear. But to my surprise, they all smiled and said, “Oh no. We’re just amazed.”
They didn’t elaborate, so I’m not sure if they were amazed by the sheer size of our family or the fact that the kids were staying put in their chairs and not scaling any tables, hurling food, or partaking in any other form of rowdiness. Give my kids food, and they will eat. When their mouths are full, they are pretty quiet. I am lucky to have four kids with voracious appetites.
On the way home from dinner another group of older adults marveled at our family as well. This time the kids were walking in a straight line like obedient, little ducklings. They were docile on account of all the ice cream cone licking. My husband and I chatted with the adults and they joked about how we’d better start saving for all those weddings.
“We are already encouraging eloping or barbeque-style receptions,” my husband joked.
I’ve often said that I felt like it was having the fourth baby that escalated me into the big family category or in some eyes’, the freak club or the we-hate-Planet-Earth-and-are-going-to-use-up-obscene-amounts-of-resources groups (as if our carbon footprint comes even close to the green Hollywood stars who take weekend trips to Cabo). It’s also taken having four kids fairly close together to teach me some valuable lessons that might be helpful to other parents of bigish families. (Although, honestly, most of these tips would be helpful to parents of any size family. )
For instance, what we think really matters when we welcome our first child into our arms, doesn’t really matter all that much – or at all. Like a nursery. Fortunately, we couldn’t afford to decorate a fancy nursery with our first. We didn’t have the room for it either. My husband was still in school and I was a freelance journalist when Madeline arrived. We squeezed a crib (the Consumer Report’s best buy that cost us 99 bucks) into a nook of a room that also had a coat closet and our computer in it. I remember being kind of disappointed that we couldn’t do more for our little love, especially when I’d see some of my friend’s Pottery Barn-inspired nurseries but four kids later, I know a grand nursery would have been an epic waste*, especially for our crew since our kids tend to make use of the family bed. I also know that like so many things in parenting a lovely nursery is not really for the baby. All she needs is love and her basic needs met. That nursery is more for the parents. Aside from a nursery is purely optional, I am going to share some other lessons I’ve gleaned as my family as grown in a series of upcoming posts, so stay tuned!
*Please know I am not judging any parent who does design a beautiful nursery. To be fair, I am also not too good at the whole house design kind of things or DIY projects. It tends to feel more like a chore than fun, but I know some people really enjoy the process. But if you don’t enjoy it and/or don’t have the financial resources and just feel pressured to have a nice nursery because you feel like it’s a sign of your love for your baby, know your little wonder could care less about whether her room is painted in Benjamin Moore’s “Sounds of Nature” green and outfitted with chevron curtains and a Serena & Lily crib and bedding. Your nursery’s style is NOT correlated to your love for your child. Got it? Good.
This post is part of my Recycled Series, so it wasn’t so recently that my husband cut the watermelon. However, I have recently reminded myself to embrace the now and to enjoy the process.
Attention Editors: These columns have been previously published, but are available for reprint. Please contact me at kmwicker[at]gmail[dot]com for reprint fees and further information.
Recently, my husband volunteered to cut a watermelon, a chore I detest because of the mess it makes and due to several close calls with the knife and an errant fingertip or two.
As I watched him push the sharp blade through the juicy, pink flesh, I wondered what was on his mind. His eyes were focused, contemplative, his jaw slightly clenched. Surely he was thinking about something important.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“But you look so deep in thought. You had to be thinking about something,” I insisted.
“I was thinking about cutting the watermelon,” he said simply.
I began to think of the many times I’ve been hovering over that same cutting board wielding a knife, and I was pretty sure I’d never been only focused on the act of preparing food.
Oh, I’ve cut a watermelon and cooed to a baby in a sling. I’ve sliced and diced grapes and a hunk of cheese into miniscule, choke-proof pieces for my toddler while chatting on the phone. I’ve chopped onions while thinking about what culinary exercise I needed to tackle next. I’ve sliced tomatoes while giving my oldest the “don’t even think about it” eye as she wound up to pitch a Lincoln log at her sister.
But I’m 99 percent sure I’ve never done anything as simple as just cutting the stinkin’ watermelon. My hands may be working the knife, but the rest of me is far removed from the task.
My husband is as easy going as they come. He’s rarely flustered. He can tune out anything. Sometimes it drives me crazy. He’ll come home from work, plant kisses on all of his girls’ cheeks, and then shift his attention to his pile of mail. Even as the natives get more than restless (they’re practically on the verge of a full-blown revolt), he’s able to calmly sift through the stack of letters. I’ll look over at him meticulously opening the envelopes, and I’m thinking, “Hellooooo? Can the mail wait? Or can you please look through it and work on helping me restore peace in this war zone?”
All the while, I’m giving myself an internal pat on the back because I know I have the power to thumb through mail and entertain the kids, no problem. Because, like a lot of moms, I’m a multitasking maven.
Part of moms’ ability to juggle several balls at once is a matter of survival. If we don’t want our families to starve, there are times when we’re forced to whip together dinner while simultaneously holding a baby or chatting with a teen about his day. In the carpool line, we learn to schedule a well-child visit with the pediatrician on our cell and file our nails. We streamline bedtime routines by brushing the teeth of a child while wiping down the bathroom counter. We’re adept at squeezing in prayers as we fold laundry or nurse a child.
But sometimes I wonder if our perpetual multitasking causes us to miss out on the peace that can be found in being physically and mentally present on a single task. Personally, I often feel like I’m living in a scattered state, hacking competing tasks into pieces and taking nothing as a whole, which can lead to burnout. Perhaps my husband’s calm disposition has less to do with some superhuman immunity to stress and more to do with how he’s able to let a minute or a task absorb him instead of being distracted by the fifty other things he should be doing or needs to do next or must do at the same time if he’s to accomplish anything at all.
I am productive, but there are days when I may tackle my to-do list with evangelical fervor without really being fully present to anything or anyone – including God. Yet, does God really want me to be constantly racing at a frantic clip? Sometimes He calls me to pause long enough to surrender my heart, mind, and body (put that laundry down; you can fold it later!) completely to Him.
So I’ve decided to make a little pact with my manic multitasking self and try to be more like my minimalist husband. How? By pausing for mini retreats throughout my day to just bask in God’s presence. By not always playing with my kids by the clock. By watching my baby’s round, moving cheeks as she nurses. By occasionally folding laundry slow enough to notice its fresh scent. By focusing on the preparation of a meal and when it’s time to eat, allowing the flavors to mingle in my mouth. By working to define my hours more by what I left undone in order to be fully present and less by the number of items I successfully checked off my to-do list.
By sometimes doing nothing more and nothing less than cutting a watermelon.
I confess that I originally wrote this feature while drinking a cup of coffee and listening to music.
If we take multitasking to the next level and attempt to juggle two jobs, one of which is completely all-consuming (I’m referring to being a parent), just imagine how we’d feel?
A dear aunt once told me she’s always struggled with finding her self-worth in doing instead of simple being.
Is it any wonder moms sometimes complain about bone-aching fatigue, constant chaos and high stress levels?
Personally, I recognize that I get the most impatient with my preschooler when I’m trying to do something else while still “parenting” her. Just the other day I was trying to shoot off a quick email to an editor for a freelance assignment while nursing the baby and simultaneously admiring Madeline’s doodles on a MagnaDoodle. “Oh, that’s a nice picture,” I mumbled, barely even looking at her artwork.
Suck, suck, from the baby.
“I did look,” I said. Now why was I emailing this editor again?
Not surprisingly, I felt my stress levels rising and so did Madeline. She started randomly pressing keys on the my laptop, vying for my attention when I abruptly pushed her aside and shouted, “Stop that!”
Madeline looked at me with her big brown eyes glassy with tears and I realized I just couldn’t do it all and that the editor could wait. I’m not Super Woman. I only have finite amount of energy. I can’t change the laws of physics and create more hours in my day. And my priority right now is my children – not the dirty dishes, not freelance work, not my blogs. If I have extra time, fine. Then write (or clean) away. But when it’s playtime, let it be playtime. Don’t try to make Madeline’s little plastic animals talk while emailing, meal planning and making a grocery list or sorting laundry.
So let’s all embrace my preschooler’s wisdom and make a deal. At least for today why don’t we all hang up our Super Woman capes and just concentrate on being super moms? Let’s play with our kids. Stare at our babies’ round, moving cheeks as they nurse. Watch our toddlers sleep. Twine a wisp of our little girl’s hair around our fingers. Coat our kids with kisses. Smother them with hugs. And when you cut the watermelon, give yourself permission to do just that and nothing more.
And know that we’re all doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing at that moment.
As part of her 120 Days to Momnipotence Series Danielle Bean wrote about the importance of enjoying what’s going on now. She quoted from The Virtue Driven Life.
In the book, Fr. Benedict Groeschel writes:
“Enjoy what’s going on while it’s going on. If you go to the supermarket, enjoy it. Don’t make it drudgery. Talk to the cashier. Speak to the people at the fruit counter. Chat with a neighbor. Try to get to know people, get them to talk to you, and make your passage through life pleasurable. If you are a private person and find it a chore or somewhat difficult to speak to strangers, at least smile. As an old extrovert, I deeply appreciate a quiet person with a genuine smile; in addition, such a person listens to us, which practically no one else does.”
Along the same vein in The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin stresses the importance of enjoying the process. She uses the example of choosing a birthday cake for her daughter. At first, she is tempted to get annoyed with how much time her daughter wants to invest into exploring cake options, but then she realizes this is where the joy is really unfolding.
“Enjoy the process. Eliza will enjoy eating the cake for only five minutes, but she can have hours of enjoyment planning the cake.”
So much of my life is about being process-involved. There’s the process of making sure kids are dressed and the girls’ hair is quasi-brushed so they don’t leave the house looking like a band of ragamuffins. Right now I’m in the process of teaching a child to read, and there’s the arduous saying (over and over again) of those short vowel sounds. There’s the bedtime process, which frequently has more steps than it would probably take to launch a nuclear attack. There’s the process of preparing meals and getting kids ready to head out to soccer. Honestly, if I reflect upon an ordinary day, I’m in the business of processes. I’m always taking action, little steps to achieve some particular end whether it’s making sure kids’ teeth are brushed to prevent cavities and/or severe halitosis or reading a book to a child in the hopes I am feeding his mind with imagination and beautiful language.
Some of these steps I take throughout the day are enjoyable like the aforementioned reading of a book, especially if it’s a good book, but a lot of what I do could easily fall into the category of drudgery. But only if I let it. I can make it drudgery – or not. I have to enjoy what I’m doing now. I have to enjoy the process of taking care of kids: the schlepping, the cleaning, the refereeing, the teaching. After all, I am doing all of this in the hopes that I will achieve a particular end: I will raise happy, healthy, and kind children who will go out into the world with faith, confidence, and the knowledge that they were (are!) loved.
Like Rubin, I have a little girl who is similarly making big plans for her birthday cake. She even drew a picture of what she hopes her fairy cake will look like. I could let the thought of figuring out how to make a fairy house on a cake stress me out. It could become just another thing on a never-ending to-do list. Or I could approach the task joyfully, knowing full well that even if her cakes comes out looking more like a fairy hovel, she will think it’s perfectly lovely.
I don’t always enjoy what’s going on or am even aware of what I’m doing. I’m too busy thinking ahead or trying to prevent a toddler from killing himself. Sometimes I look back at my day and all I see is drudgery. But it’s not the nature of the work that makes it so, it’s the nature of the person doing it.
I can be joyful or not. It’s my choice. I can enjoy what I’m doing or not. I can see the day-to-day grind as just that: a grind. Or I can see it as a doling out of sacrificial love. I can only hope for the end, or I can savor the process. I can view children as inconveniences I have to manage or as blessings I need to revel in. I can smile at strangers, talk at clerks, or be in such a hurry to be done with my errands that I miss out on the satisfaction of a simple human interaction.
I can see my life as one of drudgery or one of joy. I choose joy.
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