Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Find That Smell

There's a little game we like to play in our family called "Find That Smell." Maybe you've played it before. If you haven't, the rules are pretty straightforward: When something stinks, start sniffing. Whoever discovers The Source of the smell first is declared the Winner and gets to dispose of The Source. It's not really a game you want to win.

In our house, the game can start at anytime. Often it begins when my husband comes home from work and asks, "What stinks?" I consider this a head-start for him, since clearly he can smell something that my nose is already accustomed to. That's good, I suppose, since I want him to win. But still, the game is on and we head off to sniff the most obvious sources: the kitchen garbage, the upstairs diaper genie, and our children. Personally, I like to save the children for last, since they are the most frequent Sources.

The thing about Find That Smell is that it's a versatile game that can be played at home, at school, and even in the car. However, it may take weeks to find the source of that particular smell, since "car stink" tends to be very gradual. Several weeks ago, I got in my car and took a good whiff. Ugh! What is that smell? Since I was running late and needed to drop the girls off at pre-school, I only had time for a preliminary search. I found a few suspects -two sippy cups of solidified milk and three dirty socks - and removed them from the car. However, rather than dissipate, the smell only intensified as the day went on. That evening, I rolled the windows down to let the car air out, and did a second check. No luck.

The smell was even worse the next day. Tyler got in the car and groaned. "Ugh! What is that smell?!?"

"I don't know," I replied. "I checked the car twice yesterday and didn't find anything... Wanna play now?"

We got out of our seats for a round of Find That Smell. Still nothing, though I suspect neither of us looked that hard. Fortunately, it was a short drive and a nice day, so we just drove to the store with all our windows down.

By evening, the smell was so bad that I considered calling in a Haz-Mat team. But I decided to do one final check of my own before calling in the authorities. The smell had to be coming from somewhere, and I actually found myself determined to find The Source. I checked the grill of my car, under the hood, in the trunk, and under the seats. And then I found IT. Where is Tyler??? I thought, gagging. I ran into the house for a trash bag and rubber gloves, and then came back to remove a Tupperware full of moldy mac and cheese. When did we have mac and cheese in the car? I wondered. Tyler and the kids are claiming innocence; I confess I still have no idea.

Believe it or not, however, the absolute worst game of Find That Smell I've ever played was not the moldy mac and cheese round. Although it was a car stink that, surprising, we could not link to our children. A few years ago I came in the house and announced, "Something has died in my car! It smells horrible!!!" I was trying to be dramatic, but after a few days of suffering through a stench that permeated not only the car and garage, but the entire house, Tyler discovered The Source: something had indeed died in my car. A dead bird was wedged in the grill of the mini-van; at least, we assume it was a dead bird, since all we could see were a bunch of feathers and a beak. Since Tyler was the Winner, he went out with a garbage bag and shovel to remove the remains, while I hid in the house and retched.

I feel bad that he got stuck with such an awful job, since I was probably the one who hit the bird in the first place. But those are the rules of the game. Whoever finds The Source of the smell has to dispose of it. I don't always love that rule, but I'm getting older and I think my sense of smell is starting to go. Maybe it will be completely gone by tonight. There's a two-week old jack 'o lantern rotting on my front porch that I'm hoping not to find.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Naughty Sticks

With three little girls experiencing the "terrible twos" roughly all at the same time, my husband and I have experimented with a lot of different forms of discipline. We've tried room time. We've tried the time out chair. We've tried the nose in the corner. We've tried the ticket system, going to bed without dinner, and the wooden spoon. All of these strategies work to varying degrees, but we've yet to find one technique that just really succeeds. So today, we tested another one. It's called the "naughty stick."

The naughty stick isn't actually a new idea, although I suspect the politically correct will find it horrifying. (My general experience is that the "politically correct" aren't usually parents yet.) Nonetheless, the naughty stick was recommended by a friend who tried it out after a counselor recommended it to her. The basic concept is this: Put a paint stir stick in every room of the house. When the child disobeys, give him or her a swat on the bottom with the naughty stick. In other words, give that disobedient kid a spanking!

Of course as I was picking up a load of stir sticks at the hardware store this morning, it occurred to me that the sticks by themselves didn't look particularly threatening. I thought they needed some motivational "embellishments," so I ran next door to the craft store and picked up some additional supplies, including black paint and stickers. By the time I went to pick up the girls from pre-school, there was a black stir stick hanging on the doorknob of every room in the house. Each one was decorated with the scariest stickers I could find, which weren't all that scary since all I could find was a collection of smiling bugs, spiders, and bees. But white letters spelled out the ominous words NAUGHTY STICK, and looked very threatening to me.

When we got home from school, I introduced my kids to the naughty stick: "Girls, this is a naughty stick. There's one in each of your rooms. If you disobey mommy or daddy, or if you yell "NO", you will get a spanking with the naughty stick." Ella was thrilled.

"Mommy, will you use the naughty stick on Emily if she says 'no'? And on Evie if she says 'no'? Can I put a naughty stick in their room? Don't worry, Mommy. I'll put mine in their room too!"

The twins, however, were not so enamoured with - or threatened by, it seems - the naughty stick. Within minutes of nap time starting, they were out of their beds and battling over a Barbie doll. I walked in and picked up the naughty stick. "Do I need to use this girls?" They both screamed "No!" and ran for their beds - one with the Barbie and one with her leg. I confiscated the maimed doll, tucked them in bed, and walked out into the hall. Ella was peeking out her door.

"Did you use the naughty stick on Emily and Evie?"

"No, Ella. Close your door and get in bed, or I'll use it on you, though."

"Okay, Mommy." SLAM.

Moments later, I heard a second crash. Emily and Evie were out of bed again. I sighed; it was time to make good on my threat. They each got a firm swat on their diapered bottoms. "Go to sleep!" I said in my sternest Mommy voice.

But it wasn't to be. I walked in and spanked them three more times before they finally got wise to me. Oh no, they didn't go to sleep. They hid the naughty stick. I eventually found it this evening when I was digging through a drawer for clean jammies. Sure enough, there was my naughty stick, crammed in the back of their underwear drawer.

My kids aren't dumb. They may grow up to be sleep-deprived hellions, but they aren't dumb. I guess I'm going to have to find a higher place to hang my naughty sticks. But I'm determined. I am going to make this work!

There Once Was a Woman Who Lived in a Shoe...

I was three months old when my grandmother passed away, so I've always regretted not getting to know her. Like me, she was the mother of two singletons and a set of twins - the same ironic combination of four children in three years. I've always craved her company and a good long chat, but probably now more than ever. If God ever allows us an afternoon together, we'll find a quiet corner and sip on some tea, and she'll answer the burning question, "How did you do it???"

I mean, I never aspired to be like Grandma. Even as a child I recognized the huge responsibility she bore as the mother of four young kids. It was actually kind of a joke the day my husband and I announced we were pregnant for a second time (just 9 months after Ella's birth); Dad laughed and said, "You know, my mother had four kids in three years."

"Yes, well your mom was a saint as far as I'm concerned. I'm NOT trying to fill her shoes!"

The next day, I called my dad. "Uh, Dad. You know how Tyler's always wanted two kids and I've always wanted three? Well, I win."

There was a moment of silence and then, "What? Noooo... You're carrying two?"

The ultrasound that morning had confirmed it; I was pregnant with twins. I suddenly envisioned my feet getting a little bigger than planned. But I still wasn't about to fill Grandma's shoes. After all, four kids in three years is just crazy! So a year after the birth of our twin girls, I asked the doctor about tubal ligation. He sent me to his surgery scheduler, who in turn informed me that I would have to wait at least three months before she could fit me in. No worries, I thought. There's no WAY I'm getting pregnant again.

Of course, two days before the scheduled procedure I was staring down at a giant plus sign on my ClearBlue Easy. In shock, I wasted no time spreading the news. My mom nearly drove off the road when I called, crying hysterically and screaming, "I'm...PREGNANT!" Tyler didn't handle the news much better; he wasn't driving and I don't think he actually cried, but there was definitely a manly whimper or two. Finally, though, I accepted the truth: I was stepping into my grandmother's enormous shoes. They have to be big, I thought at one point, because isn't that how the nursery rhyme goes? "There once was a lady who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn't know what to do." Well, I sure don't know what to do!

People who heard about my situation didn't really seem to know what I should do either, because almost overnight I became "The Story". You know - the story that everyone tells their friends in order to make them feel better: "Oh, you're having triplets? Well, don't feel bad, because I have a friend who knows this girl who heard about this mom who was having her tubes tied when found out she was pregnant with her fourth kid in three years!"

Of course, nothing is worse than when someone tries to tell you "the story" and it turns out to be YOUR story. This actually happened to me shortly before Ty's birth. I was shopping - alone, amazingly - in a local boutique and the shop owner asked me about my pregnancy.

"Is this your first?"

I sighed. "No, this is number four."

"Wow! Well, don't feel bad. I heard about this girl who was going to get her tubes tied and found out she was pregnant with her fourth kid. She's going to have four kids under the age of four!"

"Yeah, uh, that was me. You probably don't recognize me with make-up, but I was in here a few weeks ago..."

Of course, once people find out that you're "the story", the inevitable question gets asked. And it's the same question I want so badly to ask Grandma: "How do you do it?" More and more often though, my answer is, "By the grace of God."

Don't misread this. If you've ever truly experienced the grace of God, you know that there is nothing pat or cliche about God's grace. And if you have ever truly experienced His grace in your life, you also know this: God doesn't give it ahead of time. If I'd known from the start what motherhood was going to be for me, I'm not sure I would have started the journey. Instead, God revealed His plan just a little at a time. Three miscarriages. Severe hyperemesis. Multiple hospital stays. Drugs, tubes, and machines. Surgery. And four of the most precious and amazing gifts I've ever received: my children. God extended His grace to me in each of those circumstances, day by day, sometimes even moment by moment. He didn't pour it out ahead of time; I wouldn't have needed it or appreciated it anyway. But step-by-step He gave me - and continues to give me - what I need for each part of this journey as a mother of four.

So I'm trusting Him to provide. Even if what I need is a giant shoe...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Warning: DON'T Expect When You're Expecting

OK, time to come clean: I am one of those hypocritical mothers who buys junk food and hides it from her husband and kids, only to pull it out when every body's out of the house or down for the night. That being said, the girls are at school and I'm heating up my Pillsbury Toaster Apple Strudel - after reading the directions on the back. Yes, another confession: I read the directions before toasting my preservative-packed, overly-processed strudel. I'd hate to make a mistake. Fortunately, I've used a toaster a time or two. But for those who haven't, the Pillsbury Doughboy offers some helpful tips:

"CAUTION: Pastry will be hot. BE SAFE - Never use a toaster without supervision and never walk away when something is heating. Toast at medium setting until hot and golden brown. Do not use a metal utensil to remove the pastry. CAUTION: Pastry will be hot."

Those Pillsbury employees sure are concerned about the welfare of my family and my strudel. They should write a parenting manual. I bet they'd be a lot more thorough than the books I've found on the market - even the iconic What to Expect When You're Expecting. I read it cover to cover, and it did nothing to prepare me for bringing home my first - or even my fourth - baby. Because anyone who's had a baby knows this fundamental truth: You can't expect anything!

Of course, as a first-time mom, I was not aware of this truth. From the day I discovered I was pregnant with Ella, I started fervently reading What to Expect and setting my expectations. I also read books about childbirth, baby schedules, and parenting; I took the hospital tour, the 12-week marathon birthing class, and the Infant CPR class; I braced myself for the sleepless nights, the dirty diapers, the teething and the drool; and I stripped my house of everything breakable, and therefore appealing to small, sticky children. In addition to my enthusiastic preparations, I felt fairly confident that my own upbringing and education would fill in whatever gaps were left. After all, I grew up in a stable and loving home, with two great parents. In college, I majored in education, and then went on to teach high school for five years. Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to believe that all my parenting prep would make motherhood easy. But I did think I was ready to make practical, common-sense decisions about raising kids. Funny how none of the books I read, the classes I took, or practices I experienced prepared me for making practical, common-sense decisions about raising my kids. By the time I completed my first three years as a mom, I'd sold all my books and graduated to professional help.

One therapist I tried suggested I try using a very strict form of "time out" in order to get my discipline-challenged three-year old to obey. The method sounded great, and even came with a handy flow chart to post on my fridge, which is perfect for someone like me who wants to follow directions. All I had to do was give my daughter a five-word command and then follow the chart as she responded. I drove home eager to practice this revolutionary technique, and I didn't have to wait long to begin. Ella was snatching a toy away from her sister as I walked in the door.

"Ella, take your hands off your sister and give her back her toy!" I paused and counted up the words in my head.

Fourteen words. Shoot. Try again.

"Ella, don't take toys away from your sister."

Seven words. Drat. Overshot again. Um, let me think about this. 'Ella, give Emily back her toy.' One, two, three, four, five, six words. Does Ella's name count as a word? I can't remember. Wait, where is Ella? "Ella? Ella???"

Ella, having successfully commandeered her sister's toy, was heading for the playroom. After practicing five-word directives in my head for a few minutes, I stuffed the flow chart in my pocket and went off in search of her. Sure enough, the old toy wasn't good enough, and she was embroiled in a new battle. "Ella, give Emily the toy." Yes!

Naturally, Ella's three-year old response was, "NO!" I pulled out the chart to see what I was to do next. It instructed me to say, "Go to the corner." I did this, and naturally Ella's three-year old response was "NO!" I checked the chart again. At this point, it instructed me to take Ella's hand and escort her to the corner. Naturally, Ella's three-year old response was to go limp. I checked the chart once more, confident I would find my solution; but nothing was mentioned about what to do with 30 lbs. of screaming dead weight. I improvised and dragged her to a corner. Then I checked my chart. At this point, it said, I was to have Ella put her nose in the corner so that her "forehead, shoulders, and toes were all in contact with the wall." I looked at the heap of child next to my feet, pulled out my cell phone, and left a message for the therapist to call me back and "BE MORE SPECIFIC!"

No, I did not expect to have difficulty disciplining my children. That really was a shock to the teacher in me, who was certain the answers could be found in a book. I also didn't expect my house to be so messy, my children to be so loud, or having fun to sometimes be so hard. I expected motherhood to be a bit more idyllic - like the picture on the front of What to Expect, which shows a glowing expectant mother sitting peacefully in her rocking chair, her hand on her belly.

But I also didn't expect to LOVE my kids the way I do. Nothing in that book, or any other, prepared my for the intense passion I have for these precious children. They might make me cry every day, but they make me laugh every day, too. There are no words to describe the emotions I feel when they fall into my arms, giggling, or wrap themselves around me for a hug. I didn't expect Ella to be so smart, Emily to be so snugly, Evie to be so funny, or Ty to be so sweet. I am grateful to God for every moment I have with my children, and in my moments of frightfully unprepared desperation, I know I can turn to Him for help and strength.

Maybe that's why nothing we read can truly prepare us for parenting. God created us to have a relationship with Him, but it's hard to spend time with Him when we're so busy satisfying our expectations. Nothing brings us to our knees faster than those children He created and entrusted to us, though. And if God sent us our children wrapped in strudel packaging, I suspect He would include the following directions:

CAUTION: Children are unique. BE LOVING - Keep yourself under God's supervision, and allow your child to be unique. Love, care, and pray for your child every day, as you build him into a strong, responsible adult. Don't place impossible expectations on your child. CAUTION: Children are unique.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cheese - and Praise Songs - for Jesus

My sister-in-law called me from the mall yesterday in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. She practically shouted at me over the phone: "Our daughters can never, ever grow up!" I was in the middle of fixing dinner, but having made a few recent trips to the mall myself, I stopped what I was doing long enough to ask her, "Was it the kids or the clothes?"

"Both!" she replied.

I feel her pain. As a Christian mother, I am loathe to raise 3 daughters and a son in the image-conscious, consumer-driven, sex-saturated culture that surrounds us. In a few short years, these sweet and innocent children I tuck into bed each night will be facing every temptation I've ever encountered, plus dozens more I don't yet know exist. Nothing drives me to my knees faster than the responsibility of raising godly children in a godless culture.

The good news is my kids are still a few years away from having to face that culture on their own. For now, Tyler and I are their primary teachers about what is right and wrong, Who God is, and why He loves them. And their secondary teachers are people that we've hand-selected to be a part of their lives: family members, teachers, and friends who share our heart for the things of God.

But for some reason, I worry that I'm failing my children when it comes to teaching them about God. Perhaps its because I have an unrealistic image of how I'm going to instruct these kids. I'll confess that when Ella was still a baby, I used to dream about that precious moment when my daughter - clean and damp from her evening bath, and snuggled up next to me in her bed - would look up and ask, "Mommy, tell me about Jesus?" I suppose in anticipation of this imagined conversation, I've spent the last three years preparing myself for that special moment.

Of course, my first discussion with Ella about Jesus wasn't quite the special moment I thought it would be. It happened early last December, just before Christmas. To borrow from the King James' Version of things, I was "great with child," and trying to waddle my way out of the shower when Ella strolled in to the bathroom and popped the question: "Mommy, where does Jesus live?" She took me off-guard, especially since my clothes were in the next room; but I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity. I wrapped myself in a towel as best I could - given my considerable size - and replied, "Well, Jesus lives in my heart."

Ella eye-balled me for a minute, and then asked the obvious follow-up question: "With Baby Ty?"

"Ummmmm.... Well, no. Jesus lives in my heart. Baby Ty is in my tummy."

"Does Baby Ty get to play with Jesus?"

It turns out Ella's interest in Jesus - and the fact that it coincided with my pregnancy - made for some pretty interesting theological questions. A few days after our initial conversation, I was eating a piece of cheese to stave off a round of pregnancy-induced nausea. Ella was watching me from the backseat of the car. "Can I have a piece of cheese, Mommy?"

"Oh no, honey. This is all the cheese I've got, and I need it for Baby Ty."

Ella was quiet for a minute, and then patted her heart and replied, "But I need some cheese for Jesus!"

I wish I'd had some great response ready to correct Ella's obvious confusion. But as most moms know, it can be hard to argue with the logic of a three-year old. I broke off a piece of cheese and handed it back to her, wondering how I was going to correct Ella's misconceptions about Christ dwelling in her.

But before I could come up with a solution, Ty's birth created a new complication that I suppose I should have anticipated. Shortly after bringing Ty home from the hospital, Ella announced that she needed to go to the doctor. I was taking Ty to the doctor's office anyway, and decided to let Ella tag along. When the doctor walked in, Ella plopped herself down in my lap.

"Jesus lives in my heart," she told the doctor, patting her chest.

My pediatrician, who I'm sure is used to kids' strange comments, just smiled and said, "Well isn't that nice."

"I need you to get Him out..."

Ty is 9 months old now and Ella seems to have lost interest in Jesus' living arrangements; to be honest, I'm relieved. It's given me the opportunity to begin again - starting with daily Bible stories, Scripture memory, and prayer. I'm not sure how much she understands yet, but I woke up this morning to the one of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard. My little girl was sitting in her room, singing:

This is the day (This is the day)
The Lord has made (The Lord has made)!
I will rejoice (I will rejoice)
And be glad in it (And be glad in it)!
This is the day that the Lord has made!
I will rejoice and be glad in it!
This is the day (This is the day)
The Lord has made.

Ella loves singing praise songs to Jesus. She loves saying grace at the dinner table and bedtime prayers each night. She knows the answer to questions like, "Who made the sun?" (God made the sun!) And she gives me hope that God can use an awkward, inexperienced mother like me to raise a new generation of believers who will minister to a world in need - or a least offer hope to some of those kids at the mall.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I just added two-dozen articles of clothing to my mounting pile of weekly laundry. And I couldn't be happier, because it's finally official: my twins are wearing big girl panties! I realize that if you haven't suffered through potty-training recently, you probably don't understand why I'm celebrating this addition to my wash pile. But I know you'll appreciate my enthusiasm when you understand the journey to this point.

Since Ella was born in 2004, I have changed approximately 17,865 diapers. No joke. I just did the math. Twice. Which means that in the last four years, I've stuffed around $7,800 into my diaper genie.

With all this money going (figuratively) down the toilet, it's been my mission to get the girls out of Pampers and into panties as quickly as possible. Which is why my mission failed from the very beginning, since my kids - particularly Ella - aren't quick about anything. Thus, what began 2 1/2 years ago with Ella, a cup of water, and a child-sized potty seat has ended in thousands of wasted diapers, a library filled with quasi-repulsive books like Everyone Poops and Once Upon a Potty, several pounds of M&M rewards, a state-of-the-art carpet cleaning system, and countless hours of my life I can never get back.

One of the reasons potty-training was so complicated is that I forgot a cardinal rule of parenting: The three things that no one can force a child to do is eat, sleep, or poop. I made the mistake one day of pumping Ella full of water, parking her training potty in front of the TV, and making her sit on it until she "went". In my defense, we'd been potty-training for nearly nine months and I was desperate for Ella to contribute even a drop in the bucket! But I didn't realize my approach inadvertently violated the rules of parent-toddler engagement, and that I was locked in a battle of the wills. Ella claimed victory when I surrendered after three hours and ran upstairs to grab a diaper; in my absence she hopped off the potty, piddled all over the new hardwood floors, and ran to perch herself back on her throne.

The other reason potty-training was so complicated is that while I was obsessing over Ella's unaccommodating bladder, the twins were developing some pretty nasty habits of their own - the worst of which was taking off their diapers during nap time. I tried everything I could think of to keep their pants on. The most obvious solution was duct tape, which works sometimes. However, I learned that there are three important factors to consider when duct taping a child into a diaper: 1) If there are 2 children in the room, they will work in tandem to remove the offending tape. Given enough time, they will succeed. 2) Tummies are rounder after a meal, and contract over time. Eventually, the diaper can slide right off. 3) You look like a redneck.

Probably the most distressing aspect of the girls' unwillingness to use the bathroom appropriately was the destruction of their rooms - particularly Emily and Evie's room. The usual progression of events began when the girls broke free of their duct tape and took off their diapers. The stinky contents were then discarded on the floor, and my bare-bottomed twins ran freely around the room, sitting on their pillows, quilts, and dresser. Sometimes I found fanny imprints on the windows, where they leaned to rest during this naked free for all. I never knew what I was going to find when I walked in their room. Frankly, I should have ripped up the carpet, thrown two mattresses on the floor, and painted the entire room chocolate brown. Perhaps they would have been less interested in using their poop as an artistic medium. Of course, if I'd actually done this, you'd probably catch me crying on the evening news as my diaperless children are escorted away to foster care.

Needless to say, this whole experience has left me - if you'll pardon the terrible pun - completely pooped. In fact, I called my husband a few weeks ago in hysterical tears: "I'm exhausted! I just can't, can't, can't scrub the carpet, strip these beds, or wash these quilts ONE MORE TIME!!!" Thankfully, I think Somebody else must have heard my cry. I know it might sound like a lot to some, but honestly, I think I can handle adding a couple dozen panties to my laundry pile.

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Now, I know what you're thinking: Are you seriously going to get this song stuck in my head in the middle of August? I know you've got kids, lady, but take a look at your calendar once in awhile. It's hot, it's humid, and I've got at least another month before the holiday trees and menorahs go up in the mall. But I promise I'm not nuts. Even though I've been humming that tune for a week, it's not Christmas I've got on my mind. It's that other most wonderful time of the year: the First Day of School.

Come to think of it though, Hallmark and Russell Stover are missing out on a major First Day of School market. I mean, it's not an official holiday, but as a mom with three kids starting pre-school next week, I think it should be. What better way to celebrate the kids' return to the classroom than with a card and a box of candy? And if you're one of those mothers who gets weepy watching her babies walk into the schoolyard for the first time, wouldn't you feel better with some chocolate and a note from the kids?

I feel guilty admitting it, but I don't fall into that latter category of weepy moms. I'm pretty sure that while all the other mommies are sobbing into their Kleenex wads next Wednesday, I'll be shouting "Praise Jesus!" as I lay a wheel speeding out of the parking lot. Don't get me wrong. I love my girls and I love spending time with them. But I also love grocery shopping alone.

Of course, the privilege of strolling through Kroger with my solitary grocery cart and a cup of tea in hand doesn't come cheap. I think we're going to need to take out a second mortgage on the house just to cover tuition. And don't forget the hidden costs those sneaky pre-school teachers slip in when they send home innocuous-sounding lists like "School Supplies" and "Mrs. Martin's Classroom Wish List." I spent $140 at Target today on a list that included a disposable camera, brown pillowcases, copy paper, a box of tall kitchen trash bags, paper towels, and vegetable oil. I don't know if I just supplied the kids' classrooms or did Mrs. Martin's grocery shopping.

Of course, the cherry atop the school preparation parfait was getting my hands on the girls' immunization records. Ella was due for her 4-year check yesterday and, in anticipation of a taxing appointment, I left the twins with Nana and took Ella in for her annual check-up and vaccines. Despite planning ahead, we arrived in the parking lot 10 minutes past our appointment time. This was due in large part to the unbelievable tantrum Ella pitched from the time I pulled out of Nana's driveway until the time we arrived 45 minutes later at the pediatrician's office.

We made it, though, and somehow dodged a reprimand from the front-office nurse who checked us in. Maybe she remembered me from our last visit. That time I had all four kids with me, and I was really late. I think I also said something to the effect of, "These kids had better be sick. Otherwise, there is no excuse for their behavior and I'm giving them away!"

We were quickly escorted back to the exam room, where the nurse asked me the basic check-up questions and then asked if I needed any forms.

"Yes, I do. I actually need to get immunization forms for all three girls."

"Well, I'm sorry, but since the twins aren't here, there's going to be a $20 fee for their forms."

Of course there is...

Despite paying out yet more money towards school, the appointment continued to go relatively smoothly. The pediatrician came in and completed his exam, asked me 21 questions about my daughter's development, and then said, "I don't know how you do it, Mom."

"It's a challenge," I replied, "Especially with Ella leading the band."

He smiled, as if remembering something, and said, "Yeah, if you were giving your kids away today, I'd take that one," pointing to Baby Ty playing quietly in his stroller. He pointed to Ella then, who was making faces at herself in the mirror. "Not so much that one."

He wished me luck and left to hunt down a nurse to administer Ella's shots. Ella typically doesn't do well with surprises, which is a trait she inherited from her dad. But Ella is also terrified of needles - also a trait she inherited from dad - and so as we sat in the exam room, I debated between telling her about the vaccine and just letting it be an unpleasant surprise. At the last minute, I decided to give her a heads-up:

"Ella, come here sweetie. I want you to look at me for a minute. Not the mirror. Look at me. You've been a brave girl today. I know it's not fun coming to the doctor's office, but when we're done, I'll take you downstairs to pick out a treat."

Gasp. "A TREAT, Mommy? I LOVE treats!"

"I know, Ella. But honey, first there's going to be a boo-boo."


There were a lot of limbs flailing around as Ella threw herself to the floor screaming. Just then, the nurse walked in. She watched the frenzy of arms and legs for a moment. "Um, why don't I have you hold her on your lap."




I pulled Ella up on my lap and wrapped my arms around her to contain hers.

"You can hold that arm, ma'am. I've got this one."


"I said, "YOU CAN HOLD...OW!"

"Ella! Don't hit the nurse! Tell her you're sorry!"


The nurse was holding her nose. "Okay," she said, "Let's just get this done." I held Ella's arms down and the nurse did a quick prick in Ella's arm. In less than 3 seconds, it was over.


The nurse left (probably to have a doctor examine her nose) as Ella continued screaming. In fact, she continued her mantra of "Owwww! It hurts!" as I got her dressed, packed up our things, and headed out to collect our $20 school forms. It didn't take long for us to draw some attention. Within moments, children in the adjoining waiting area were staring at us bewildered as Ella wailed. Two of them were standing close enough for Ella to twist her arm around and show them her Band-Aid. "OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!" she cried. "IT HUUUUUURTS!" Their mother shot me an irritated look and dragged the paralyzed kids towards the back of the waiting room.

"Sorry," I muttered.

We headed out of the office and down the elevator as promised for a visit to the candy aisle of the first-floor pharmacy. Ella was still proclaiming her ill-treatment as we walked in the door.


"Ella, do you want to pick out a treat? Ella? ELLA!?!"

"OWWWWWWWW! IT... Oh. Oh! Mommy, they have M&M's. I want M&M's, Mommy. I love treats!"

Mommy bought herself a treat, too. Well, maybe two treats, in honor of the upcoming holiday. After all, I earned them. Yesterday's trauma is over, and as of today, I have all the school supplies on the list laid out on my kitchen table, the coveted immunization forms tucked away safely in my teacher folder, and the girls' school clothes picked out. I am officially ready for pre-school to start. I might even buy myself a card and some more candy to celebrate. Too bad the most wonderful time of the year doesn't start for another 8 days.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pitching my Tent

It's been a really bad week. It began with a nasty stomach bug, and at some point descended into a dark mental place that's hard for me for write about, let alone share. But part of my reason for blogging - aside from the regular writing practice I get - is to encourage other mothers of young children by being honest about the experiences I have with my own kids. I can usually laugh about our daily escapades; but more often than I like to admit, I also find myself in "the depths of despair."

I've battled this despair for years. The causes have varied from bout to bout: chronic illness; hyperemic or unexpected pregnancies; three miscarriages and three post-partum recoveries... I didn't make it past Psych 101, but I'll go out on a limb and call it situational depression. Exercise, counseling, medication, and rest all help to a certain extent, but those things are next to impossible to do when I'm trying to take care of four children. Sometimes I just go THERE.

If I'm really being honest, I've been THERE for quite a few months this time, although I didn't recognize my surroundings immediately. It took a women's conference in Atlanta last month to open my eyes. A young mom and teacher - Priscilla Shrier - was sharing a story that is familiar to those of us who grew up in Sunday School. It's an Old Testament account of the 40 years that God's children, the nation of Israel, spent wandering in the desert (Exodus 19). It wasn't much of a stretch for Priscilla to liken that story to our present-day struggles. Most women find themselves "wandering in the wilderness" at least once in their lives. I've done a few stints myself, as I mentioned, and as I listened to this speaker's message, I just knew I couldn't go back. In fact, I was physically ill at the thought of ever being in that place again. I cannot do this, Lord. Please don't make me go back THERE. I don't have the strength...

Girl, open your eyes and look around. You've been THERE. Pitch your tent already!

I don't know if motherhood is making me lose my mind, but there it is: I heard the voice of God, and apparently He speaks to me like one of my girlfriends. Yes, it was really more of an impression I felt from His Holy Spirit, but it was real. And accurate. I recognized right away that I'd been hanging out in the desert - but that I'd been too busy sticking my head in the sand to pitch my tent. At that moment, I finally surrendered and made myself at home in that dry, familiar place.

The Israelites waited in the wilderness for 40 years; I'm hoping I don't have to live there quite so long. But God is gracious, because if you know the story, you'll remember two things: 1) God had His people in the desert so He could personally teach them about Himself; and 2) God sent manna from heaven every morning to feed the Israelites in the desert. (They just had to get out of their tents and gather what He daily provided.)

Unfortunately, I wasted days' worth of time crying in my tent last week - which made me a miserable wife and mom. I didn't take one bite of His provision; I just sat around thinking, "I don't want to be where I am right now. I don't like who I am when I'm living in this place!" But I want to learn what it is God teaching me about Himself, and I usually process those lessons through writing. So tonight, I'm going to ask God what He wants me to write about - right after get out of my tent and grab something to eat! Hopefully, I'll have something to say again soon.

(PS - Someone sent me a YouTube link that speaks a bit to the theme of this entry. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did! )

Saturday, August 9, 2008

My Day Off

It's tough to remember my life before children, but if I think hard enough, I can recall a few details from the past. For example, I have a lot of job experience outside of homemaking. I actually started out at a Chick-fil-a, which is ironic, since my kids exist to "Eat Mor Chikin." But I've done plenty of things since then, too. In addition to working the drive-thru, I've been a waitress, a sales-clerk, a receptionist, a jeweler, a switch-board operator, and a teacher. I hated most of those jobs and loved at least one, but the best part of each was, without a doubt, The Day Off. Whether it was a sick day, or too many people on the floor, or inclement weather, I always loved getting that little unanticipated gift of time.

Unfortunately, there's pretty much only one way for mothers of small children to get a day off from work: communicable disease. And let's be honest, it's not really a day off. It's not like the kids are suddenly rendered mute on account of Mommy's throbbing head. If anything, they get louder in order to make sure they're heard over the retching.

I got an unexpected Day Off this past week when I came down with suspicious, flu-like symptoms: fever, aches, chills, and all the gastroenterological indicators for Montezuma's Revenge - in the midst of a 90 degree summer day. Unfortunately, no one received the memo for "Mommy's Sick Day," and life continued in its normal, chaotic fashion: Ella woke up at the crack of dawn, donned her princess costume, and started giving orders; Emily and Evie pulled their diapers off and then redistributed every item of clothing they own from their drawers to the floor; and Ty was... Well, Ty was just as easy as ever, until he came down with similar symptoms that required multiple diaper changes an hour. Unfortunately, since three hyperemic pregnancies have made me permanently nauseous, I didn't recognize my symptoms for what they were until after I hauled all four kids out for a morning of indoor playground fun at Monkey Joes.

After two hours of watching the girls run, bounce, and slide down the assortment of brightly-colored inflatables (which did nothing for my symptoms), I fed them a quick lunch and hustled them out to the car. We barely made it home, and once I had finished wrestling them down for a nap, I gave up and did what any woman in my position would do. I called my mom.

She's a saint, so she showed up just as the girls were getting out of their beds and I was crawling into mine. She did her best to keep them happy and occupied, but nonetheless I had several visitors to my bedside. The first was Ella, who grabbed the thermometer I'd just used, stuck it under her armpit, and asked, "Mommy, do you need a fever?"

I was suddenly worried that perhaps I'd just used the wrong instrument and stuck the kids' thermometer under my tongue. "Um, no thanks, sweetie. I already have one. Can you put that back now?"

"No, Mommy, I want to have a fever, too."

Oh Lord, please no...

Ella left to go talk Mimi into watching Snow White with her and I settled back into my bed. But Evie strolled in a few minutes later, just as I was drifting off to sleep. "MOMMY? MOMMY? YOU SLEEP? MOMMY, YOU SLEEP?"

I kept quiet at first, hoping that she would interpret my silence as an answer. But then she touched her nose to mine. "MOMMY?!?!?"

"Yeah, baby, Mommy's asleep..."

"OH." The bedroom door slammed behind her as she left to report my status to her grandma: "MIMI! MIMI! MOMMY'S SLEEP! OKAAAAY?"

A few more minutes passed and I slipped gratefully into an aspirin-induced coma just as Emily tip-toed in, blankie and paci in tow, to climb into bed with me. I was so tired that I probably wouldn't have noticed her presence except that her foot slipped and she landed butt-first on my face. "I sorry, Mommy! I sleep with you, okay? Okay, Mommy?"

My muffled grunt must have sounded like a "yes," because she lay down next to me and pulled the covers up to her chin. "Night night, Mommy."

I eventually got some rest without any kids in the room, and by the next morning, I thought I was feeling better. But my viral bout ended up lasting three long days, during which time my mom and my husband handled housekeeping, meals, and childcare. I'm not sure who's happier about my recovery - me or them. But one thing I know: unless there are spa treatments involved, I don't want another Day Off!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Just When I Thought I Had it All Together...

Friends call and ask me all the time how I can manage four young kids and still keep the house picked up and the refrigerator stocked. I used to just smile and reply, "Oh, it's really not as bad as it sounds. Things have to get done, so I just make it work!" What they didn't see was me down on my hands and knees mopping up the jug of orange juice Emily just dumped on the floor and hissing at my children (with my hand over the mouthpiece, of course), "Be QUIET. Mommy is on the PHONE right now. And no, Evie, you MAY NOT have the scissors!"

The truth is, I've always overestimated what I am capable of accomplishing with four kids. Just a few weeks ago I took the whole clan with me to a doctor's appointment. I didn't think it would too bad since it was just a quick meeting with my psychiatrist. The doctor evaluated me (or was it my children?) for about 10 minutes, and then recommended additional medication. I don't know why. I thought the fact that only 2 of the kids cried and I didn't was pretty impressive. As a reward for their good behavior, I offered to take all four of them to the mall playground for lunch.

Despite the voice in my head telling me I was nuts (maybe that explains the new meds), I didn't really think I was overestimating my maternal capacity. I popped Ty into his stroller and latched the girls into three harnesses discreetly disguised as monkeys. (The "tail" of each animal is actually a leash, but don't tell my kids - they still think it's cool to carry monkeys on their backs.) I was feeling pretty proud of myself as we strolled into the mall. And I could tell that people were impressed by my resourcefulness, although I did overhear one guy comment to his friend, "Did that woman have all her kids on a leash?". Clearly he has never had to steer four children through the cosmetics department at Macy's during free gift week at Clinique.

We eventually made our way to the playground, where I was planning to feed a hungry Ty his bottle. Just as we arrived, however, Ella announced that she needed to go potty. Not wanting to be left out, Emily and Evie quickly climbed aboard the bathroom bandwagon, and within minutes I was on my way to the family restrooms (which are conveniently located up one level and on the other side of the mall) with one hungry baby and three little girls in tow.

Since Evie is still in the midst of potty training, I let Ella and Emily lead by example and complete their business first. Emily made the mistake of flushing, however. Evie is terrified of loud noises combined with swirling water; she shrieked and sprinted to the other side of the bathroom. While I was calming her down and trying to convince her that "potties are fun," Emily got bored and plopped down on her bare bottom to peer at the drain in the floor. "Ohmygoshthatissodisgustinggetupnow!!!" didn't really motivate her to move, but it made Ty cry. I abandoned Evie and hauled Emily over to the sink. Meanwhile, Ella started rubbing her face against the tile walls of the stall. After yelling at her twice to stop, I gave up my hand washing efforts, whipped out the antibacterial gel, and smeared it over all three kids. "That's it. I don't care if you're done or not. Everybody out of the bathroom NOW!"

When I walked out into the Food Court with one hungry baby and three little girls still in tow, I knew it was time for an executive decision:

"Okay girls, let's eat!"

The lines weren't too bad and the girls were excited about eating at the mall. By the time we sat down with our chicken nuggets and french fries, I was feeling like I had things back under control. The girls were sitting in their chairs, eating ketchup-laden fries and chattering to each other over juice boxes, and Ty was sucking contentedly on his bottle. I could see people walking by our table and smiling at the kids, and I overheard a few moms comment on my bravery. "Wow, this is really going well. And we sure are popular today," I thought, as yet another cluster of people smiled and pointed towards our table.

Just then, Emily's chatter pierced my thoughts. "Wait a minute. What is she saying? Something about pee-pee? That can't be right. She already went potty." That's when I heard it: "Evie go pee-pee. Evie, you go pee-pee? Evie go pee-pee on floor." A wave of panic rolled over me as I slowly bent over to look under the table. Sure enough, there it was: a tell-tale yellow puddle under Evie's chair. No wonder people are pointing and laughing. With no graceful way out, I mopped up the mess with a pile of napkins, stripped Evie out of her soggy shorts and stuck her in a diaper, then waved to on-lookers as we took the walk of shame back to our car.

I'd like to say that I learned my lesson, but I didn't, because I took all four kids back to the psychiatrist's office today. Not that I had a choice. There wasn't a babysitter available, and as my shrink so compassionately reminds me: "You chose to have four kids, so you're just going to have to figure out how to deal with it!". Ouch. I'm doubting she aced Empathy 101.

She's right, though. I just need to deal with it. If there's one thing I've learned as a mother, it's that I have NO control over my children. I can teach them, steer them, pray for and encourage them; but I can't actually make them do anything, so I shouldn't worry about what other people think. Sure, I might be embarrassed when Emily hands Ella's pre-school director something she dug out of her nose, but all I can do is apologize and explain to my daughter once again that "boogers aren't for sharing."

I'm getting better, I think. I don't worry as much about other people's perception of me as I used to. I'm better about being honest when my friends call, so plenty of people know that I don't have it all together. My laundry room is overflowing with clothes, the breakfast dishes are still sitting on the kitchen table at lunchtime, and there is more than one science experiment growing in my fridge. But I'm dealing with it. And someday, when the kids are teenagers, I just know I'll have it all together.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Waiting on the World to Change

Ella celebrated her fourth birthday this month. She's been talking about "The Big 4" since January, so despite my disdain for large children's parties (because I host one every day), I sent out a few invitations and planned a little gathering of family and friends. Of course, as is the nature of motherhood, things did not go according to plan. In the end, the entire family and a bucket-load of friends commemorated my daughter's birth during a two-day extravaganza that included a princess-themed birthday party, lunch at Chick-fil-a, a trip to Monkey Joes, a pink pinata, a gigantic pile of presents, and approximately 58 cupcakes.

The magnitude of the celebration, however, didn't diminish the significance of the event: Ella is four years old. My mother reminds me all the time that "the days are long, but the years are short;" but somehow I find myself shocked to realize that my baby girl is four! How did I move so quickly from two pink lines on a home pregnancy test to the pile of pink clothes now heaped on my laundry room floor?

The irony, of course, is that my mother is right, and that the days really are long. It's hard for me to take pleasure the swiftly-passing years when I drag myself through each day, up to my eyeballs in dirty diapers, dishes, clothes, and kids. But those early days, when I was newly pregnant and dog-sick, passed just as slowly. And suddenly, here I am on the other side of 27 months of pregnancy, a mother four times over, wishing for one of those quieter moments when all I was doing was waiting.

Of course, it's human nature to be consumed with anticipation. My little sister is in the final throes of planning her August 1 wedding. My sister-in-law is likewise consumed with the August 1 birth of her second child. (Are there two bigger events in the life of a family? A few, perhaps, but I would argue that a wedding and a birth are definitely in the Top 5; and Tyler and I get to experience both in one day!) I'm not the bride or the new mom, but even I'm sleepless with anticipation.

But seeing Ella turn four last week, and realizing how right my mom really is, I also find myself savoring these last few days. One sister will never be single again and one sister will never be pregnant again - and even though it's time for them to move on to the next stage, I want them to enjoy the last few days leading up! Marriage and motherhood are wonderful. But so are those moments in the days before, when you're sitting on the sofa, dreaming of the future with your husband-to-be, or when you're curled up in bed and feeling your baby kick and squirm. Those are the "waiting moments." They don't last long, because all of a sudden, the waiting ends and the world changes: two become one, a new life is born, and the waiting moments are memories swept up by the years.

I suppose I'm in one of those moments now, and that I'll eventually miss the chorus of little voices arguing over princess dresses and baseball bats. The days feel so long, but I know that the waiting will end, the world will change, and my babies will no longer be babies. They will be children, and pre-teens, and teens, and then grads. And I'm bracing myself, because I have a feeling that cupcakes and pinatas just don't cut it at graduation parties.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Are You Smarter Than a 4-Year Old?

First-born children are bossy, controlling, picky and perfectionistic. Also, they are never wrong. I can actually say this with a degree of certainty, because I am the oldest of three children, and I am bossy, controlling, picky and perfectionistic. (You can ask my husband. I'm pretty sure he'll back me up.) The problem with being a first-born mother with these qualities, however, is that I often butt heads with my own first-born, Ella - who is all of those things I just listed. And like any number of eldest children, she is also never wrong.

The secret to never being wrong, by the way, is recognizing that it's more important to use the right tactic than to actually be right. For many first-borns, this means confronting disagreeable truths with a loud voice. Ella is VERY LOUD.

Ella actually "found her voice" (which is her Nana's generous term) when she was only four months old. I have the first scream on video tape, because she introduced it at her baby dedication in front of 40 guests. Don't blow me off, by the way, because I am well aware that most babies scream. But this scream was so ear-piercingly high-pitched that it could shatter glass. And she would do it over and over and over and over again, for hours on end. Most of the time she did it to show displeasure, but sometimes she did it when she was happy. And sometimes she did it just because she could. As a result, I couldn't take my otherwise portable baby anywhere. I certainly didn't risk walking through the china department at Macy's. (Think of the carnage!) Of course, I was also afraid that I was going to lose my mind. I asked everybody I could find for a solution: my mother, other mothers, grandmothers, neighbors, nurses, pediatricians, pastors, and even a family therapist.

Despite the blank stares I got from most of these child-rearing professionals, Ella did eventually outgrow The Scream. What she didn't outgrow was her need to be heard. I remember a day just this last fall, when Ella was being exceptionally loud and domineering. My mother was in the car with me, and we were on our way home from picking Ella up at pre-school. It turns out that listening and sharing can be pretty exhausting for a child who is used to being in control, so the drive home from pre-school is always packed with drama. Whether it's screaming for her Veggie Tales CD, snatching books away from her sisters, or kicking her chair, it's always a grueling ride. On this particular day, my mom was trying to distract Ella with all the points of interest we were passing, but my daughter would have none of it:

“Look, Ella! There’s a horse!”

“NO, MIMI!" Ella shouted back. THAT'S A COW! I WANT MY CD!”

“Oh." Then pointing to a fire truck, Mimi called out, "Ella, here comes a fire truck!”


We actually did pass a school bus a few minutes later, and, trying to be amenable, Mimi called out, "Look Ella! That must be a fire truck!"


Realizing at this point that she'd lost the distraction game, Mom sighed and flipped on the CD we can both sing in our sleep. The rest of the drive home was silent, save the harmonious vocal blending of a cucumber and a tomato singing "If You're Happy and You Know It."

Ella turned four last week, and nearly a year has passed since that memorable ride home. Ella is still loud, and strongly opinionated, but I've noticed that the passage of time is making her smarter. Last fall, she knew how to get a point across, but she wasn't always right. (The subtle distinctions between cows and horses, fire trucks and school buses escaped her.) This year, however, she is loud and accurate.

I came to this realization at the pool a few nights ago when I overheard Ella telling her sisters to "SWIM LIKE BIRDIES! COM'ON GIRLS, LET'S SWIM IN THE WATER LIKE BIRDIES."

"Ella," I said, "I think you mean fish. 'Let's swim in the water like fish.' Birds don't really swim."


Hmmmm. The kid's right. Time to back off on the Baby Einstein DVD's.

A similar situation occurred recently in the parking lot of a medical center, where I was yelling at Ella. "Let's hurry up, girl! We're in the middle of the street. Ella. Ella! There's a car coming! Get moving!"


I was totally exasperated. "Yes, Ella, we are in the middle of the street. I think I know what a street is. Now move!!!"


Huh. Right again.

Now I'm starting to wonder if our intellect peaks at four and then begins the slow descent into stupidity. I remember a time back when, like Ella, I knew it all. But it seems the older I get, the less I know. I should be smart enough not to engage my child in these ridiculous exchanges, but I just can't help it. I'm a first-born. I am never wrong.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Just Say No

Sometimes I think I must look one of those characters on Bugs Bunny. I suppose I'm addressing a specific audience here, but if you're a Loony Tunes fan, you'll know what I'm talking about. I think salespeople look at me and see a giant "Sucker" where my head should be. That, or they see me hauling my four kids from one place to the next and think, "Here is a woman who needs my product! Look at that dull skin!" Or, "Look at her rough and uneven nails!" Or "She looks like a candidate for the latest in-home water filtration system!"

OK, maybe I'm not a sucker. I've only purchased one skin care system, three nail care sets (they were made out of products from the Dead Sea!), and - hooray for me - I do not currently own a $6,000 water filtration system (although now I drink my tap water with a certain level of informed concern). I do, however, possess what those in the home sales business call a "yes face." I can say this with confidence, since I have made two forays into the home sales business myself - once as a beauty consultant and once as a jeweler. (By the way, please call me if you are interested in purchasing a ten-year old make-up kit or $300 worth of discontinued jewelry.)

A "yes face" is that one person in the crowd who makes eye contact with, and smiles at a sales person - which is apparently something I do when I'm walking by the Dead Sea kiosk on my way to the Food Court. I also do this when I answer my front door, because I just can't say no to the earnest appeals of small children selling wrapping paper for choir, or high school kids selling magazines to pay for football camp. Or to the vacuum guy who is trying to win a week-long, all-expense paid trip for himself and one guest to New Orleans.

This latest seller showed up on my doorstep recently to offer a free carpet cleaning of any room in the house. It was 6:00 in the evening, Tyler had just walked in the door, the baby was still in his carseat, and the kids were starving. "Perfect," I said, as two of the girls wrestled over a toy behind me. "One of the twins took her diaper off during nap time and got poop on the floor. Won't you please come in?" Somehow he got a glimpse of my yes face, because he wasted no time lugging his enormous vacuum cleaner and a box of cleaning supplies into my living room.

As the girls battled over which episode of Clifford they wanted to watch, and Tyler tried to figure out how to boil a pot of water for spaghetti, Joe* set up his machine and jumped right into his spiel. Five minutes in, I could tell it was going to be a long spiel. This vacuum doesn't just suck dirt out of the carpet; it inflates pool floats, cleans lampshades, mattresses, and walls, shampoos carpet, and details your car. I asked Joe if it could fold laundry and babysit, but he was staring at Evie sitting on the chair behind me.

"Um, I think she just had an accident."

Sure enough, there was Evie, sitting in a puddle on my upholstered chair.

I tried to be nonchalant, but it took an effort to mask my horror. "Why don't we test out how good that machine really is, Joe?"

While he went to work on the puddle, I took Evie to the bathroom and changed her clothes. Being that we're in the midst of her potty training, I slipped her into a fresh set of panties and shorts and reminded her that "Pee-pee goes in the potty, not in your pants." Meanwhile, Joe had decided that his vacuum cleaner probably wasn't as effective as a good old-fashioned washing machine, so I came back, stripped the cover off the chair, and plopped Evie down. "Where were we?" I asked.

Just then, Emily strolled into the room sans panties and shorts. It seems that Evie had inspired a demonstration. But Emily, having properly completed her toilet duties, couldn't figure out how to put her pants back on. Not to be left out, Ella then pulled her pants off and ran into the bathroom.

"Um, I'll be right back," I said. "I think the girls need a little help getting their clothes back on."

While I was standing in the bathroom, trying my best to explain inappropriate nudity to my daughters, I heard Joe call from the living room. "Ma'am, I think she just had another accident!"

Sure enough, Evie - whose bladder can apparently more liquid than a small horse - had once again gone pee-pee on the chair. And on the ottoman. And on the hardwood floor. At this point, unable to hide my horror, I actually screamed. Not words - just one really loud, frustrated scream. Unfortunately, the noise woke up Ty, who had been dozing in the Pack 'n Play during the chaos of Joe's increasingly lengthy presentation. I sent Evie with Tyler to get cleaned up (again), and picked up Ty to comfort him. Of course, he was not to be outdone by his sisters, and immediately unloaded a better portion of his dinner bottle onto the rug.

"Do you think we can get that spot out, too?" I asked Joe, as two naked children streaked by.

"I can try," he replied.

While he went to work on the spots and Tyler and the kids ate dinner, I tried to push this now excruciatingly slow demonstration along. But Joe was not about to lose a sale. (And really, who could blame him at this point? He was still stuck with cleaning the girls' poop-stained floor.) He pulled out all the stops and did a side-by-side comparison of his vacuum to my newly-acquired (and very expensive) machine. Tyler just gave me "the look", and headed out for his tennis workout. Since we've been married for eight years, I recognized "the look" to mean: DO NOT SPEND ANY MONEY. I knew I was now set on a collision course with Joe's hard sell.

I have to give the man credit. He asked all the right questions, pushed all the right emotional buttons, and wheeled and dealed with his "non-negotiable" - but really negotiable - price. He kept reminding me of how much easier his machine would make my life. (Had he really been in my house for the last 2 hours???) I could hear my "no, thank you" getting fainter as he pushed harder. I knew that I was a desperate woman when I considered compromising my marriage, and handing him $1600 to leave. But once again, we were interrupted by my children.

The sound of breaking glass shattered any prospect Joe had of selling me a vacuum cleaner. As I shot up the stairs, I knew exactly what had happened - the heavy mirror over the girls' dresser had fallen off the wall and crashed to the floor. Even as I ran my sub-par vacuum cleaner over the mess of wood and glass, Joe packed up his box and headed for the door. (But not before he graciously helped me move the broken frame to the garage.) Call it gratitude, but I told him that my neighbor was in the market for a vacuum and sent him next door with renewed hope for a profitable night.

When Tyler came home from tennis, we had a brief chat about inviting sales people into our home. We've probably had this conversation before, but I'm pretty sure that this time it's going to stick. The next time someone shows up on my front porch with something to sell, my face is going to have "no" written all over it. Unless of course they have a machine that folds laundry and babysits.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Laughter in Life

I laugh every day. My husband doesn't actually believe this, but that's only because he comes home during the infamous "witching hour" - a three hour block of time spanning the end of naps, dinner, and bath time during which one would rather put a fork in one's eye than be the mother of those three little hooligans doing battle over a naked baby doll. But I really do laugh in some form or another every single day, even if it's just the hysteria-tinged laughter that one might hear coming from a mental patient staring at the blank wall of her padded room.

Of all the kids, my youngest daughter Evie makes me laugh the most. Whatever she does, she does it at full throttle and with wild abandon. As a toddler, she loved to run. She always reminded me of a baby bird making that first attempt at flight - she'd throw her arms back and take off running as fast as she could to wherever she was heading. Unfortunately she didn't have the sharpest maneuvers, so she frequently took her corners too wide and ended up plowing into the adjacent walls. She never learned to put those arms in front of her, either, so she usually smashed into the walls head-first. We could always distinguish Evie from her twin by checking their heads for bruises.

Needless to say, at two and a half Evie frequently finds herself in a pickle. Truth be told, I think that Emily is the strategist of the two, and that Evie just goes along with whatever her sister suggests. In the future, I suspect that Evie will spend a great deal of time grounded because her twin said, "Hey Evie, I have an idea..."

Of course, Evie is just as capable of creating trouble on her own as she is with her sister. Last week I sat outside the twins' bedroom door in an attempt to get them to stay in bed, which is not an easy task. My idea was to watch for one head or another to pop up, and then say in my sternest teacher voice, "Lay down!". Evie kept standing up to cram her two teddy bears Hot Tub and Beer between the wall and headboard of her bed. (The bears are actually called "Buttercup" and "Bear", but Evie has a tongue thrust that recently created far more interesting names for them.) Despite my continued reprimands, Evie kept popping up.

Finally, I went in and threatened serious punishment if she stood up again. But Evie just couldn't help herself. She must have thought her bears were having a grand time smushed up against the wall, because she stood up again and, before I could act on my threat, she wiggled her own body between the wall and headboard. Evie is stuffed a bit thicker than her bears, though, and as I walked into the room she looked up at me in distress and said, "Stuck!". And stuck she was. One leg dangled in the air behind her bed, and the other was wedged tightly into the decorative cut of her headboard. It took five minutes and the tub of Crisco to get her "unstuck."

But despite Evie's growing reputation as the "adventurous one", she is also the tender-hearted one of the group. While washing the dishes not long ago, I watched her walk upstairs to her room and reappear moments later holding Hot Tub. She carried him downstairs and walked purposefully into the playroom. A few minutes later, she repeated this same purposeful task with Beer. For the the next half-hour, she walked up and down the stairs, carrying various animals and baby dolls into the playroom. When the dishes where done and my curiosity was at its peak, I stole a glance into the playroom where Evie was lining up the last stuffed animal. Each of them was laying face down on a pillow. As I watched, Evie dug around in the toy box and pulled out a collection of baby blankets. One by one, she covered her animals with a blanket and said, "Night, night!". When she turned around and spotted me, she put her finger to her lips and and said, "Shhhhhhhhh." Then she sang what I think was "Jesus Loves Me" - the song I sing to her every night - walked over to the door, and pulled it shut behind her. "Shhhhhhh," she said again. "They sleeping!"

Since that day, Evie's sweet-spirited playacting has continued in various forms. I often catch her rocking in her pint-sized chair with a teddy or two planted in her lap, singing songs that only the experienced can interpret. When I walk into the playroom in search of missing sofa cushions, I find it's usually littered with blanket-covered playthings laid out on pillows resembling a teddy-bear ICU. And just before nap time today, I noticed every that door in the house was shut; in each room, I found a Piglet, baby doll, or teddy passed out in the corner and covered in a blanket. Of course, I had to laugh.

I didn't know that Evie was going to bring me such laughter three years ago. At that time, I was 16 weeks pregnant and hospitalized with hyperemesis. The doctor's prognosis was that I was the sickest I could possibly be in a twin pregnancy, because I was carrying two girls. My husband I were shocked and overwhelmed at the thought of raising three daughters so close together, but we were determined to name and bond with our babies as quickly as possible. We already had Ella, who was 13 months old at the time, and the name Emily was next on our list of baby names. After that, we were tapped out; it never occurred to us that we would have to come up with a third girl name!

Tyler liked the name Lauren, and for awhile that's what we called Baby "B". But in my starved and hormonal state, I became convinced that we needed another "E" name. (As one of three girls myself, I know how easy it is to find a reason to feel left out.) Tyler suggested the name Evie, but now I was torn between that and my bond with the original name Lauren.

I spent weeks going back and forth between the two names, driving my husband and everyone else around me crazy. Finally, I turned to the baby name book for help; I looked up the meaning of both names and discovered that the name Evie means "life." In that moment, it felt like God was giving us this name for our little girl. Looking back, I realize that God knew Evie was going bring great life, her vivacious spirit, and a bit of hilarity into our home. I didn't even know her name, but the One Who was knitting her together in my womb knew exactly who she was and what He was creating her to be (Psalm 139)!

God also knew that I was going to need a sense of humor to survive these early years of motherhood. It's true that I could cry when I see the mass of destruction consuming my twins' bedroom every morning - and sometimes I do. But in His mercy, God is teaching me to look beyond the housekeeping and see the great joy of raising these four sweet and hilarious children. My prayer is that He will give me the strength to laugh my way through the days and the years to come with Evie and her siblings, and be allowed to bear witness to His continued good work in the lives of these happy kids.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Beauty from Ashes

Last night I woke up to find my six month old son lying in a pool of blood. His jammies, his sheets, and menagerie of stuffed animals were completely covered in the bright red fluid that was flowing from his arm. It was four o'clock in the morning, and the only thing that kept me from waking up the entire southern half of the country was my son's smiling face when I rolled him over.

Ty was born with a vascular tumor that has consumed most of his left arm. The doctors examining him after birth assumed that the large purple mark spanning from his shoulder to his hand was a just a bruise resulting from a somewhat traumatic c-section. As the weeks passed, however, and his shoulder grew large and lumpy, it became clear that something more sinister was going on in his little body.

To be honest, I wasn't initially bothered by my son's "defect"; to my untrained eye, it looked like a birthmark. But as Ty got older, more and more comments were made in my direction. The grocery store clerk would ask me what had happened to his hand; children in the park would tell me that his arm looked "gross"; our extended family started making noise about getting him checked out by a specialist; and one dear friend wrote me a letter reminding me that my son was "still beautiful on the inside." I tried not to be hurt by these well-intentioned remarks, but when I held Ty close and kissed his sweet fuzzy head, I was grieved to think that he could be hurt. I booked a consultation with a pediatric dermatologist to determine if Ty's mark could be treated with lasers.

By the time we were able to see the doctor, Ty's left arm was nearly twice the size of his right; his hand was puffy and swollen, and scabs dotted his shoulder. The ulcerating hemangioma, as it was officially diagnosed, was outgrowing its blood supply and needed to be lasered 10 to 20 times over the course of the next two years. However, no one told me that in the meantime, those scabs could get irritated and break open; last night was terrifying shock!

So this afternoon I find myself sitting in the waiting room of a top Atlanta dermatologist. The office looks like it was designed to be slick and contemporary - in 1988. It's painted dark green and black, with chrome accents and frosted glass. Since Dr. K is the only one willing to treat Ty without anesthesia, I've been forced to take my son to see a cosmetic dermatologist. I guess that's why most of the patients in the waiting room look surprised to see me; their eyebrows are pinned high on their faces, but their foreheads don't move. One taut-faced lady keeps telling me how pretty I am, and how blessed I am to be young. I guess she doesn't notice the giant zit forming between my eyes. I refrain from asking her age; her wrinkled hands give away the secret she's obviously paying so much to keep.

Ty is happy and cooing away in his carrier. He loves the one-on-one time with me, probably because his sisters usually consume the bulk of my attention. A pretty, clear-skinned nurse comes out walk us back. The work "Botox" is emblazoned in rhinestones across the front of her black T-shirt. (She probably got it as a gift from the pharmaceutical rep I see chatting with the front office staff.) She escorts us into a tiny room packed with equipment. The only place to sit is a black leather examination chair. I'm informed that the doctor will be in shortly, and without having ever made eye contact, she shuts the thick black door.

I'm feeling claustrophobic. The room is hot, and I can hear the equipment humming loudly. The only decor in the room is a large butterfly collection; the assortment of dead insects are held in place by long stick pins and hung for display in a rectangular plastic box. I'm feeling queasy, but Ty seems captivated by the pretty colors.

Dr. K and another pretty nurse breeze into the room. They don't have much to say to me. Ty smiles at them while the doctor tests his laser and decides to ratchet it up. ("He seems like a tough little guy.") The nurse hands me a pair of protective goggles and tells me to keep Ty as still as possible. There aren't any goggles small enough for him, so I sit in the black leather chair and hold his face against my chest. He doesn't mind snuggling up to me until the nurse takes hold of his tender arm. Then Dr. K presses the laser to his skin and begins zapping small portions. The procedure isn't supposed to hurt much, but Ty is screaming.

The flashes of light coming from the laser are blinding, even through my goggles. I close my eyes and press Ty close, but I catch the scent of something burning; I glance up to see puffs of smoke rising from my son's arm. I feel faint, but I know I need to be still and keep breathing. Though the session only lasts about seven minutes, it feels like thirty.

Finally, Dr. K is satisfied; he removes his goggles, shuts down the machine, and, backing out the door, reminds me to call him if there are any problems. His nurse follows. With both of them gone, I focus on my wailing child. I've got a bottle ready, so I walk back out to the waiting room and give him the meal I've delayed for this purpose. He's sucking frantically, anxious to find comfort. I'm anxious, too, so I cuddle him close and try to sooth us both. His arm is spotted with small, cigarette-sized bruises. They look like burns. I've been assured that this is all normal and that his arm will look better in a few weeks. But looking at his arm makes me feel light-headed again. I pack him up and head for the car before the tears I feel pressing against the back of my eyes spill out in front of this room full of strangers.

I'm back in my car and facing a long drive home, but Ty is calm and I've finally managed to stop shaking. A familiar verse from the Book of James is drifting through my head: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

I know that what Ty and I faced in Dr. K's office today isn't the kind of trial that the Scriptures are referring to here. James was reassuring a persecuted people that the trials they were enduring would result in a mature and complete faith. I live in freedom - free of the persecution he is referencing. And yet I find comfort in this verse, because it reminds me that we are blessed by our perseverance. Though we are in the midst of a trial, God is blessing us. We are blessed because the tumor is on Ty's arm and not his face; we are blessed to have access to the technology that can repair it; and we are blessed to have the insurance to cover Ty's numerous and expensive treatments.

As I thank God for these many blessings, I am reminded of another favorite passage - this one from the Book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning." Again, this Scripture is referring to something far greater than the medical procedure we faced today. But as I reflect on this verse, God is allowing me to imagine the pain and ugliness of Ty's tumor being burned away by the laser, and replaced with the beauty and wholeness of a healed arm.

As a believer, it's sometimes difficult to accept the transforming power of pain. But the truth for all of us is that our faith does not exempt us from trials, and so we face many - emotional and spiritual trials such as bitterness and depression, which assault our minds; physical trials such as pain and illness, which assault our bodies; even corporate trials such as the persecution of believers, which assaults the Body of Christ in nations around the world. But our Great Physician allows these trials to burn away that which is ugly and to reveal the beauty beneath, all the while holding us close to Himself. He is Healer and He is Father, and He will bring forth beauty from the ashes even as He cradles us in His arms.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

After nearly three years of taking anti-anxiety medication, I've come to the realization that the drug companies who manufacture these delightful little happy pills are conspiring with experts everywhere to make new mothers crazy. The assault usually begins at that first obstetric appointment, where the doctor gives the latest mommy-to-be a list of "suggestions" to keep her little embryo safe:

"Don't lay on your back. Don't take hot baths. Don't eat tuna. While you're at it, stay away from lunch meat and cheese. Hot dogs, too. Don't drink caffeine. Watch out for aspartame. Don't forget to take your pre-natal vitamins. And don't forget to eat lots of spinach - you need the folic acid!"

Of course, having lost three pregnancies prior to Ella, I freaked out every time I rolled over in my sleep and woke up on my back. I never took more than a lukewarm shower, and since I couldn't keep anything down, I didn't eat anything on the list of forbidden foods. Of course, since I couldn't keep anything down, I also opted not to swallow those pre-natals, and I confess that not one piece of spinach ever crossed my lips.

To make up for my dietary neglect, I decided to train for a "natural" childbirth. (There are a lot of experts - conspirators - who argue that epidurals are bad for both mom and baby.) I should have known better, but in the end my husband and I attended a twelve week marathon of birthing classes, where we were scarred by slightly pornographic birthing videos and frowned upon for eating meat. All the while, I was consumed with "kick-counts" and weight gain. By the end of that agonizing nine months, I was ready to hold my baby girl in my arms, and know for sure that she was safe.

Of course, once she arrived (after 21 hours of agonizing, drug-free labor), I received a whole new list of "suggestions" from my pediatrician:

"Don't let her sleep on her tummy, but make sure she has plenty of tummy time; we don't want her to get a flat head. Are you nursing? Breast-milk is best. But make sure your baby is getting enough to eat. Don't ever leave her alone, because she can roll over. Of course, make sure she's rolling over by six months. Have you childproofed your house yet? Here's the number for the Poison Control Hotline if you haven't. I also suggest you get a fire extinguisher."

It turns out that Ella was a whole lot safer while I was pregnant. Now that she was out, I realized that all kinds of horrible things could happen to her. Sleep was out of the question. (It was out of the question anyway, because she cried all the time.) But now I had to worry that something was wrong if she stopped crying. What if she wasn't eating enough? What if she got dehydrated? What about SIDS? What about fires, floods, wars and pestilence? In my post-partum haze, it was too much to handle.

Of course, I eventually calmed down. The happy pills helped to dull that sharp edge of fear. But I am periodically reminded that, even present, I can't always keep my children safe from harm. Like the time I locked Ella in the car, and the fire department had to come and rescue her. Or like a week later when, after delivering cookies to those kind firemen, I locked her in the car again. Or when I caught one of the twins sitting in the middle of the kitchen table, licking some questionable food off her fingers. Or even this past week when, going out to get the mail, I turned around just in time to see Emily and Evie standing on their second-story window sill with their faces squashed up against the glass like bugs on a windshield.

The truth is, short of locking my kids in a bubble-wrapped room, there is nothing I can do to protect them from the things that might, or could, happen to them. And even though swallowing a little pill every morning has calmed some of my anxiety, it can't erase the realization that bad things can happen. My ultimate comfort, then, comes only from God, Who is using motherhood to teach me a awful lot about surrender: surrendering myself to His will; surrendering my children to His plan; surrendering my time to prayer and to the study of His word; surrendering my fears to His great and loving faithfulness. Though it's hard to believe, God loves my kids even more than I do. And even though it feels like I am surrendering an awful lot to Him, I am reminded even now that He surrendered His Son not only for me, but for those little ones I hold so tightly. Surely I can cast my fears upon the Lord, because He alone is my Rock and my Fortress!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can Somebody Get Me a Manual?

My best friend had a child last month: a much anticipated baby girl who arrived two years after the devastating stillbirth of her sister. This little girl is a truly beautiful newborn. I really mean that. Somehow she managed to avoid showing up in the world looking all red and scrunchy and other-worldly. (Because no matter what our post-partum bliss might have led us to believe, most of our kids weren't too terribly cute those first several weeks out the the womb.) But Ryan is soft and pretty and pink and cuddly; and apparently she cries a lot.

I confess that my first thought upon hearing this news was, "Really girl, how bad can it be? It's one kid. Toss her in the crib, pop a plug in her mouth, and catch the last ten minutes of Oprah!"

Thankfully, four years of sleep deprivation haven't rendered me completely stupid, because I managed to avoid actually voicing my thoughts. Instead, I bumbled my way through a few words of cliched comfort, like "It's hard now, but you're going to miss this stage so much! Just keep her fed and changed. And, hey, remember to sleep when she sleeps."

It wasn't until I got off the phone that I remembered some babies - my first daughter, Ella, for example - never actually sleep. I think I'd repressed those early memories of Ella and replaced them with ones of my youngest child, Ty, who is, as far as I can tell, THE EASIEST BABY IN THE WORLD. He only cries for one of three reasons: 1) he's hungry, 2) he's wet, or 3) he's tired. That's it. Aside from those three times, he's quiet. Every day he rolls on the floor, plays with his feet, looks at his toys, and spits up 1-3 ounces formula on the new rug. (I didn't say he was perfect.)

Ella, on the other hand, is a whole other type of kid. She didn't make a peep during the two days we were in the hospital, but the minute we walked through the front door, she started screaming. I quickly changed her (dry) diaper and tried nursing her, but she wasn't hungry. I tried rocking her, but she twisted and turned and bowed her back to get away from me. After that, and as far as my new-mommy instinct was concerned, I tried everything: swaddling, patting, swaying, singing, pacifying, soothing, and - eventually - crying. Several long hours later, she took the bottle of hospital formula we'd come home with; I assume she needed it to replace all those calories she'd just burned off, because following that 2 ounce energy boost, she quickly resumed her ear-splitting torment!

I don't know when the crying stopped. I kept waiting for some kind of manual to arrive in the mail, telling me how to take care of my baby. I mean, they give you one when you buy a new car. They come with every piece of baby equipment ever created. Even plastic bags come with a warning, in case we get the urge to wrap one around our heads.

Of course Ella's manual never showed up, so those earliest days are a blur, dotted with foggy memories of dozing on the floor next to the crib, the swing, or the bouncy seat, praying that Ella would just go to sleep. Eventually, we navigated our way through those first three months by figuring out two things: 1) Ella had colic, and 2) she thrives on routine. In fact, I kept a typed copy of her daily schedule taped to the refrigerator, which meticulously detailed each of her naps (there was only one), meals, play times, baths, and Baby Einstein videos (again, only one). Every trip to the grocery store, every visit from friends, and every meal had to follow Ella's schedule.

Actually this still holds true today, because there's a third thing I learned about Ella during those first few weeks at home: she is not an extension of me! God has created her unique. It was a shock to come home with the infant I had carried for nine months and realize that I knew nothing about her. She didn't eat when I thought she should eat; she didn't nap when I thought she should nap. Thanks to the free will wired into her from conception, there were very few things about my child that I could actually control.

I'm not sure if those are the words my friend wants to hear, since her days are now consumed with trying to get her daughter to eat and sleep, but I'm thinking about passing them on to her anyway. Motherhood is, among so many other things, part scientific method; there is a great deal of observation and experimentation that goes into raising each of our unique children. At the end of it, I suppose there is a manual - but its one that we mothers have to write for ourselves.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Getting My Feet Wet

The house smells faintly of week-old left-overs and dirty diapers; my shirt is still damp with the rejected portions of my six-month old's bottle; our recently-dented minivan sits in the garage with its doors open, spewing out the remains of an ill-conceived morning trip to the pool; and when I last walked through my kitchen five minutes ago, I barely avoided slipping on my daughter's discarded dinner. It's 8:10, this kids are in bed, and after evaluating the state of my home, I've made a decision: It's perfect time to start blogging.

The truth is, I've been thinking a lot about this whole blogging thing for awhile. (Okay, I confess that I didn't actually know what "blogging" was until a few days ago - or that you could use it in a sentence as a verb.) But as the last four years of my life have flown by (and those same 1,460 days have simultaneously crawled by), I've felt the perpetual need to document the horrors and hilarity of mothering four children under the age of four.

But I have to tell you, in the words of that cranky American Idol judge: "If I'm being honest...," I am terrified of the creative writing process. Those things that sound witty and insightful in my head often make me feel silly and foolish when I see them in print. And since I'm not terribly ept in my computer skills, I'm assuming that once something is posted on this blog, I can't get it back!

So as I take this plunge into the pool of writing (or at least dabble my toes in the water), I want to be sure to thank my dear blogging friend, mom2drew, for her inspiration. She doesn't know it yet, but her talent for observing and writing about her own parenting experience is what drove me from the security of my lounge chair. And if I drown out there, I'm blaming her!!!