Birthday woes? Forget about it.

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I think the glow stick border makes my mangled birthday brownie sundae look a little extra special.

It’s 10:38 p.m. Friday, and I’m sitting on my bed listening to my kids outside my bedroom door. They are decorating the house for my birthday tomorrow, and they are not exactly doing it stealthily. There is a lot of muttering and “shhhhhh!”-ing and scraping of dining room chairs against hardwood floors.

It is making me cry the good kind of tears, even as I listen to them argue about where things should go and how much tape the little one is wasting.

It is the second time I’ve cried tonight. Just a few hours ago we were sitting at dinner reminiscing about the time I ate a chocolate-covered ant at a Bug Show we went to in town. When that turned into them dreaming up disgusting chocolate-covered things and asking me if I’d eat them, I finally said, “The only way I’d eat that stuff is if your lives depended on it.” That shocked them, and Kostyn said, “But what if you died eating it?”

That was a bit more morbid than I’d anticipated for pre-birthday dinner conversation, so I breezily said, “Well as long as you guys were alive that would be OK. I’d do anything to save you.” Then I smiled, eager to lighten the moment. “I hope you’d miss me.” That’s when my sweet 6-year-old, in all innocent seriousness, said half-apologetically, “Actually, Mommy, if you died I probably would forget you. Because I’d be with Daddy all the time.” I stared at him. I tried to keep my smile frozen as I envisioned my heart splintering jaggedly down the middle like a cartoon character’s might.

“But I would try to remember you,” he said while popping another raspberry into his mouth, not having any idea what he’d just done to me. I mumbled a few sentences to turn the conversation in a different direction, then excused myself to the bathroom before my heart splattered all over the table.

A half-hour later, eager to shake off the heartbreak and enjoy the only night they’d be with me this weekend, I suggested a special pre-birthday dance party, which typically involves lots of glow sticks and very loud music. In the middle of the second song, Evan jumped up and smacked my face with his head. Blood gushed from my nose, and we reluctantly had to cut the dancing short.

But I still had brownie sundaes coming! I’d looked forward to them all day, and after filling their special sundae bowls with exactly the kinds of toppings each one wanted (“Two cherries for me!” “Only the green sprinkles, Mommy!”), I made my masterpiece – a warmed homemade brownie topped with ice cream, hot caramel sauce, Hershey’s syrup and a candle. I picked it up and promptly dropped it, upside down, all over the stove and kitchen floor.

It will not surprise anyone to know that after I made a second sundae, joined the boys and lit the candle, I inadvertently blew it out right before they started singing to me.

It was, by all accounts, not the night I had envisioned. And then, as I tucked them in, Evan asked out of nowhere, “Where do you keep the streamers?” I smiled in the dark.

“Honey, you don’t have to decorate for me, you can just come into my room in the morning and snuggle with me and wish me happy birthday, that would make me so happy.”

“But you do that for us,” Kostyn said from under his covers. “On our birthdays you stay up in the middle of the night and decorate so when we wake up there are banners and streamers and balloons everywhere.”

I tried to explain how that’s different, that I’m their parent, that I want their birthdays to be special in big ways like that and that mine is special just because they’re here. They were not having it. After a few minutes of arguing about whether I would agree to wake them up when I was going to sleep, I finally let them get out of bed and decorate tonight.

My laptop clock now says 11:17 p.m. It is way, way past their bedtime. I can tell they are trying mightily to hang streamers from the top of my bedroom door frame, so that I might walk through them tomorrow morning, on the 43rd anniversary of the day I entered the world.

“My tip-toes are hurting like crazy,” Kostyn says quietly, and I feel the urge to go out there and hoist him up so he can easily reach it. But I know they want to do this on their own. And I want them to.

“That’s what Mommy always does on our door, so we need to do it to her door,” I hear Evan whisper encouragingly, and I sigh and breathe in the best birthday message the universe could send: There is no forgetting a mother’s love.

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When the Hug Is More Than the Goodbye

Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.
Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.

Sometimes it’s only after they’ve rushed out the door and climbed into their father’s car that I realize I didn’t hug them goodbye, not for any real reason except that Evan was complaining about his shoes again and Kostyn was chasing after a squirrel, and there were jackets to remember and backpacks to exchange and reminders about Picture Day tomorrow at school. And then the car doors were closing and I was yelling “I love you guys!” and they were yelling back “Bye, Mommy!” and “Love you too!”

Every time they leave, I stand just inside the front door and watch them back out of the driveway and speed off. I wave every day, even on the days when I know they’re distracted, telling Daddy about their day or marveling at a new toy he’s left on their seats for them. I see their little hands fly up at the last moment and I know he has just said, “Wave to Mommy,” because he knows I’m standing there, and he knows what it feels like.

It’s not hard like it used to be, like it was last year. The goodbye hugs used to be dreaded embraces carefully orchestrated inside my heart. They had to be not too clingy and never sad. They had to express love and assurance without a hint of “please don’t leave me,” lest their little minds linger on the fact that one parent might be lonely without them. So the last-second squeezes with my wiggly boys would be motherly but quick, as I’d breathe them in and feel them nuzzle their faces into my neck just for a second. Many times I had to fight back tears, knowing that when I saw them the next day they’d be just a tiny bit bigger.

It is easier now. Some days I look forward to the silence, the sweet end to the bickering for a bit, and the ability to make dinner that nobody will complain about. It has become routine, this back and forth life we lead. It is not ideal, but we tell ourselves that they have adjusted beautifully, that they never missed a beat in school, never acted out at home. They know and feel great love from both parents, and they believe that we are still a family, just different. We’re grateful that they’ve had each other, that in a sea of changing lives and new homes and dinners for three, each boy could count on one constant – his brother.

When their silver car is out of sight I turn back inside and close the heavy front door, walking toward the kitchen to start the transition. There are always remnants of our day left to pick up, capes and Nerf gun darts and stray Trio blocks and always, always one more marble. On this day their snack plates and cups and crumbs are still on the table. Kostyn’s homework is in his dad’s car, finished and neatly tucked into his backpack, but his pencil is right here on my kitchen table where we were working on rounding up and rounding down. I smile thinking about how in the middle of adding and estimating my third-grader suddenly dropped that pencil, stood on his dining room chair and turned toward me, his brown eyes wide and his smile spreading.

“Mommy, stop what you’re doing and open your arms!” he commanded like some sort of pint-sized game show host, and I had two seconds to drop the backpacks and lunch boxes and take-home folders I was just gathering up at the table before he was flying at me, his bony legs grabbing for me, his arms around my neck. He clung to me like a koala cub, like those little stuffed animal figures whose legs and arms pinch open and closed and can snap onto just about anything.

For a second I had the usual knee-jerk parental reaction, huffing to myself that I was just in the middle of something and can’t he see how busy I am doing all these things for them and I know this is just his way of avoiding his homework and I am not some tree to climb whenever one of them feels like jumping on me. Huff. Sigh.

But I didn’t say any of that, I swallowed that first instinct and went with the second one, which was to hold on tight. Because he’s mine. And because he’s still young enough to want to jump into my arms, and he’s still small enough for me to catch him, and he’s still smart enough to know I always will. And math homework can wait.

Forty minutes from that moment I will realize that the flying leap of a koala bear hug, the one right here in the kitchen with his brother jumping up and saying “Mommy, my turn!” and Kostyn giggling into my ear and threatening to stay like that forever, that was our hug goodbye today. And I am grateful that it doesn’t have a hint of “goodbye” in it.

(This essay was published on The Washington Post’s On Parenting site.)

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Summer Bugs: Who Lives, Who Dies

Too pretty to kill.
Too pretty to kill.

Summer is that time of year when I open my home unwittingly to all kinds of unwelcome guests. No, I’m not talking about my kids’ friends; I’m talking about bugs. Lots of bugs. Squishy bugs, flying bugs, crunchy bugs, angry bugs, bugs with agendas. And while I pride myself on teaching my sons the value of all life and creation, the fact is that belief system collapses pretty quickly when you start finding creepy crawlies in your bathroom, doesn’t it? Here’s how we handle things in my house:

Fruit flies: Fruit flies are obnoxious and annoying and can kiss my frantically clapping hands. I hate fruit flies so much that I have literally thought Well, maybe I can go without bananas for three months. BUT I CAN’T, because I have a daily smoothie habit, and because I shouldn’t have to. VERDICT: Kill, as soon as possible, and maybe celebrate by killing another one, because they seem to magically multiply when you squish one.

Regular flies: Eh. Don’t get me wrong, flies are annoying and buzzy and supposedly they throw up on everything they land on (thanks a lot, disturbingly graphic middle school science film), but they’re also hard to catch and their life span is, like, three days, so whatever. I chase and swat, chase and swat, chase and swat until I’m out of breath or my brain gets diverted to something else, which doesn’t take long. Parenthood is a real-life “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and my train of thought is more erratic than a fly’s flight pattern. VERDICT: Sometimes I squash them, and sometimes they live to puke on my Pop-Tart another day.

Ladybugs and fireflies: Pretty creatures lead a charmed life, and bugs are no different. (Stop looking at me like that; I didn’t make the rules.) Frankly, ladybugs and fireflies barely even qualify as Registered Bugs in our house. Ladybugs get a trip up my son’s arm, a pic or two of their playfully dotted backsides and then a sweet, safe ushering into the yard. A stray firefly in the living room gets an awed stare, a gentle catch in cupped hands and an escort outside, with whispered wishes for finding his family and lighting up others’ lives. VERDICT: Fly away, my lovelies, be free!

Bees: Bees aren’t a big deal to me, but WOW do my children believe otherwise. To them, a happy honeybee trying to pollinate my sliding glass door is basically the same as a dead-eyed zombie dressed as a clown carrying a giant mason jar of scorpions. So if I can’t quickly shoo it outside, I give it the ol’ swat-squish, as promptly as possible. VERDICT: Sorry, honey.

Spiders (Smaller Than a Dime): While I do have a prized photo of me holding a very hairy, very living tarantula, I’m generally not a big fan of live spiders of any size or hairiness level. However, my father used to say that spiders are good to keep around because they trap and kill other unwelcome guests, and so I always pause when I notice one setting up shop in the corner of my windowsill. I can almost see it winking at me: “You keep enjoying that summer breeze, darlin’. Nothin’s gettin’ in here tonight, ’cept supper.” VERDICT: OK, Charlotte, you can stay.

Spiders (Larger Than a Dime): Spiders of this magnitude are too big to be trusted. They have brains and fangs and sinister agendas. We cannot peacefully coexist, no matter how many pests I imagine they’d kill on my behalf. VERDICT: They gots to go, and I don’t mean out the door. This house ain’t no Little Critter book.

Mosquitoes: HELL NO. There is nothing worse than the unmistakable high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito hovering over your bed in the middle of the night, taunting you as it searches for the fleshiest part of you on which to feast. Any glimpse of a mosquito and my entire house is put on lockdown until that sucker is brought to justice. VERDICT: By “brought to justice” I mean “dead.”

House centipedes: Have you seen these things? House centipedes are thin and light-colored and have a zillion lanky, thread-like legs that move at the speed of light across the floor when you’re trying to switch the laundry. I don’t like how many legs they have, or how fast they move, or how many babies they’ve probably left in my house. The problem is I’m often not fast enough to catch them before they skitter into some unreachable crevice. It’s so unfair that I only have two legs. VERDICT: Squishity squish, if I’m fast enough.

Stink bugs: Stink bugs have singlewingedly ruined cilantro for me. Because that’s exactly what they smell like when you squash them, which I’m told you’re never supposed to do because that actually attracts more stink bugs to your house. You’re supposed to flush them down the toilet or light them on fire or something. VERDICT: No stink bug survives on my watch. I usually flush, but only because playing with fire sets a bad example.

Moths: These things are like my kids: Everything they touch gets dirty. Also, size matters with moths. The tiny ones who flitter around my desk lamp will most likely be belly up by sunrise, so I don’t pay them much mind. But the giant ones with beady eyes and heads big enough to include little moth brains and the ability to team up with Spiders (Larger Than A Dime) are marked for death immediately. Or whenever there’s a commercial break. VERDICT: That’s right, guys: Fly toward the light – the eternal one.

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It’s a Brave New (Sobering) World

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Since the beginning of time, parents have lived by the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do.” I was recently challenged to think about that contradiction in one specific aspect of my life.

I attended my first blogging conference last month, and on the first night there was a pep rally-themed social event. Pom-poms were given out, a photo booth was set up and bartenders served beer and wine, which we sipped while listening to the winning essays from a contest held exclusively for attendees. The event was, oddly enough, hosted by Responsibility.org, an organization that educates families on ways to combat drunk driving and underage drinking.

After everyone had imbibed a little, the Responsibility.org representative stood up to thank us for attending. Then she showed us this video and talked about the kind of alcohol-based humor we bloggers frequently use on social media, and how many young eyes and minds might be seeing and internalizing those messages.

It was kind of a buzzkill.

She challenged us to join the #RefreshYourFunny campaign by refraining from posting any alcohol-based humor over the next month, and to write a post on our blogs with our honest reactions to the campaign.

As I stood there, swirling what was left in my wine glass and guiltily wishing I had one more drink ticket, I scanned the crowd for reactions to her presentation. They were, by and large, not very good. It seemed like some assumed the Responsibility.org rep was asking them to put down their wine glasses right then and there, and to drink less around their children, if at all. Certainly to be a censored version of themselves online, for the sake of their kids and others.

That’s not really what she’s saying,” I thought. In fact she told us more than once to have a great time and enjoy the bar. “Or was it?” I wondered, swigging the last of my wine.

One obvious difference between our lives and our parents’ lives is that ours have become publicly posted scrapbooks. We have carefully constructed, tightly edited versions of ourselves put out there for public consumption. People’s feathers were ruffled that night over the very idea of self-censorship, but can anyone honestly say they’re not already doing that in some fashion? I certainly am.

I don’t air my dirty laundry on Facebook, or share every fear and failure (or, for that matter, success) on Twitter. I don’t post a selfie of my angry mom face after I’ve told my boys 17 times to Pick. Up. The family room! or Stop. Touching. Each. Other!! Sometimes, but not all the time. I have a penchant for using foul language in my personal life, when my kids aren’t around, but I don’t swear in front of them and I keep the f*cks off Facebook because they’ll see that, eventually. (And my mother will see it now. Sorry, Mom. Also, you’re welcome?)

I censor my life online all the time, and I bet most everyone else does too. So what’s the big deal about easing off the wine memes? Perhaps I’m down with the idea since it seems like it’s become a tired joke anyway, bordering on a cliché – the frustrated mom pacing in her kitchen, waiting for 5 o’clock so she can use some of the wine in her house to soften the edges from all the whine in her house.

Trust me, I do that too. Sometimes a glass of wine at the end of a very, very long day feels like the best kind of reward. But do I have to share that glass, or that sentiment, with the world, where my kids might eventually see it and wonder how they were so awful I had to self-medicate just to get through the day with them? If I need to share, can’t I instead opt to commiserate about my terrible day with a trusted girlfriend over the phone while I sip my wine, or have a riotously funny text exchange with a former college pal who enjoys the same beer I’m drinking?

Social media has tricked us into believing that if we don’t share it with the crowd, if people don’t “like” something we’re doing, then we remain alone, unvalidated and unheard. It’s a tough line to toe for bloggers and writers like myself, who want to connect with others by sharing the parts of our lives that might resonate with you, there, also alone in your kitchen and frustrated as hell. *Clink!* But are we sure that what resonates today won’t ripple across tomorrow and beyond?

I don’t want to be all doomsday about social media in general, or adult beverages specifically. (Because yum…) Lord knows Facebook alone has given me a means to keep up with friends, connect with colleagues and get a much wider audience for my work. But sometimes it feels like the whole world is a social experiment. My boys know words and phrases that didn’t exist when I was a kid. They swipe and click and ask to see my phone all the time.

“Can I look at the pictures on your phone?”

“Can I check the weather?”

“Can I send a text message to Daddy?”

And I give them access to that technology – certainly not unfettered access, but access nonetheless. And they soak it all up, in ways we notice and in ways we don’t. Because there is so much about this brave new world that we simply don’t know. We don’t yet know how they’ll be affected by all this oversharing, by all these public stories and jokes, by how we make our lives — and sometimes them — a punchline. We don’t know what the result of all these selfies and memes and instant updates on their lives and our lives, their triumphs and our triumphs, their mistakes and our mistakes will be.

The other day I asked my kids if they knew what alcohol was. They didn’t.

“It’s a certain kind of drink that’s just for adults,” I explained. “Like beer and wine.”

“Ohhh, I don’t like that at all,” said Kostyn, who’s 8.

“How come?” I asked, genuinely surprised he had an opinion.

“Well, because Evan and I snuck some once, a long time ago, we tried it, and it tasted awful. Awful!”

Sure, the childhood sip of beer is practically a rite of passage. But the point is I had no idea they’d done it.

Even when we think we know, we sometimes don’t know what they’re seeing. What they’re thinking. What they’re tasting. And that’s a sobering thought.

This piece will be submitted for a writing contest sponsored by Responsibility.org, but I am not being compensated for the post, and all the opinions are my own.

[POSTSCRIPT: I won the contest! First place winner! Scored a $500 prize and a fancy graphic as proof. Look how very official I am in my first essay contest.]

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My Favorite Summer Tradition Is Full of Trash and Treasures

 

My happily gloved environmentalists.
My happily gloved environmentalists.

“Who would do this?” Evan asks, picking up a smashed water bottle and dropping it into the plastic bag I’m carrying. We are walking to the end of our street, where it bends around a corner and spills into a gas station and convenience store. The boys insisted on starting this litter cleanup tradition a few weeks ago, fueled by a passion for the environment sparked in their elementary school. They are on summer break, but I’m finding that school is always in session for me.

This is the same half-mile stretch where nearly all of my runs begin. Here I start up my running app, and here I pause for the traffic light, and here I adjust the volume on my phone and pick a good pace song.

“Who would do this?” he says again, dropping a silver gum wrapper into the bag, and with sudden embarrassment I think about the earrings I tossed aside right here one day while jogging. They were an old pair, inexpensive, not my favorites, and I’d forgotten to take them off before leaving for my run. They were long and dangly and it took just ¼ mile of them jangling against my earbuds for me to become annoyed enough to discard them.

I pulled them out of my ears and tossed them toward the edge of the sidewalk, never breaking stride, feeling like a badass runner who sacrifices anything that gets in her way. I thought maybe I’d see them on my way back through and carry them home. But I never did.

I wasn’t a badass that day. I was part of the problem my kids are now diligently trying to solve, one stray wrapper at a time.

The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. "Someone threw THIS on the ground?"
The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. “Someone threw THIS on the ground?”

A few weeks ago they came to me and announced I had a new title. “You’re Reuse, Mommy,” Evan said. “Kostyn is Reduce, and I’m Recycle. So your job is to make old things into new things.”

“Uhhh,” I said. “OK.” Ever since then Kostyn has been turning out the lights and pestering me about water usage while brushing my teeth. Evan tries to recycle everything. Everything. And when cornered, I lamely point out how I reuse plastic grocery bags to pick up dog poop in the yard, and turn empty toilet paper rolls into mini helmets and cars for their smallest stuffed animals. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s something.

They walk a few paces ahead of me, both wearing thin black winter gloves they pulled out of the closet before we left. Kostyn is also wearing a winter hat – mine – which he says helps to keep the flies away from his head. I smile at the two of them, imagining what passing drivers think of my gloved environmentalists who occasionally stop to chase little brown bunnies through the empty field to our left.

Besides the rabbits, we see groundhogs and squirrels and bluejays and a pretty white cat Evan momentarily mistakes for a statue. We see wildflowers, and trails of ants, and berries I tell them not to eat. This has quickly become my favorite summer tradition.

“Maybe if people see us doing this they’ll want to do it too,” Kostyn says, picking up another cigarette “bottom.” I tell him that’s really the best way to teach somebody something, to lead by example, and what a great job they’re doing.

They ask a lot of questions about the cigarette butts, and I tell them smokers probably don’t think about the fact that the ends of their cigarettes contain chemicals and plastic and traces of tobacco. They look harmless, small things that don’t matter, discarded with a simple flick. Like cheap earrings, I think with shame.

The evening's haul.
The evening’s haul.

Our plastic bag is stuffed full by the time we reach the bend in the road. We cross the street hand in hand in hand, and I tie the bag’s handles together and toss it into the garbage bin, then offer to buy them a treat.

The first time I offered, Kostyn asked why they were getting treats, and I wanted to hug him, hard, for the intrinsic reward he’d already felt. This day when we walk into Sheetz, the teenager at the counter smiles.

“It’s the litter cleanup crew again,” she says.

“You remember them?” I ask, putting a Twix ice cream bar and an ice cream sandwich on the counter.

“Well, there aren’t many kids who come in here this time of year with shorts and gloves on,” she says. I smile and turn back toward them, but they are in mock battle with each other by the doors. The gloves have morphed into something else in their minds, and I rein in their superhero antics before a display gets knocked over.

On the way home I wave and call hello to an old man sitting on his front step. “Mommy, isn’t that a stranger?” Kostyn asks in a low voice.

“Well, yes, but he’s also a neighbor,” I say. It’s a difficult concept to understand, that we’re all strangers and neighbors. It is not just his yard. Or my earrings. Or your cigarette butt. It is their world. It is mine. It is ours. And every day, they are making me into something new.

Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind's failings.
Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind’s failings.

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