How to Make a Summer

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Each morning, my husband and I sit in our favoured places in the living room, sipping our respective cups of coffee with cream and green tea, the kids fully immersed in intense dragon battles. He’ll look at me through blasts of dragon fire and when there is a lull in the roar, he’ll ask “when does school start up again?”

It’s a hopeful question, and a useless one. They’re here, all three of them, every day. How will we get through the summer? Just by getting through. One day at a time. Tuesdays and Thursdays we go to the pool. Every morning we walk to the pond near our house and throw rocks. There may be more rock throwing later in the day at the river. There are car naps, and french fries, and mosquito bitten ankles. Yesterday, there were wild strawberries.

At work the other night, someone tipped me off to a strawberry patch accessible from town, so on Wednesday after our lunch, we loaded into the truck and drove to town, drove all the way to the end of Front street and parked under the slide, where every August the mud bog is held. As we got out of the truck, I could see the strawberry plants spread out in a mat over the hillside, amoung soapberry bushes, golden rod, plantain and the odd raspberry cane. The kids ranged over the patch, grazing. Colm, who wouldn’t eat fruit if I paid him, brought the berries to me one at a time to drop into the container I’d brought. We’re late in the season or this particular patch has already been picked clean, because the berries were sparse. I let Charlie eat what we’d collected, gone in two fistfuls.

I want to be the person who fills her freezer with wild berries each summer, lines her pantry with jewel-toned jars of preserves.  But truthfully, I find gathering wild berries to be tedious. They are so small: a good sized wild strawberry isn’t even as big as the tip of my pinky finger. Whenever I do pick wild berries, I can’t help but think of the Han people who have lived here and gathered here for thousands of years. Of the devotion they must have had to picking wild produce as it ripened. It’s not for me. I’m content to graze and to let the kids do the same. The berries are a tart burst of flavour, best enjoyed in the sun that brings them to fullness.

The kids went to bed last night with their mouths and fingers still berry-stained. Today is a pool day, maybe a rocks-in-river day. Now that we know what it’s like to have a kid in school, having three at home seems impossible, like filling a pail with tiny berries. But we get through it, one day at a time, and I try to make them about more than just “another one down”, if that makes any sense.

I’m not writing much, I am working more and the days are busy in other ways. It feels like I can’t fit it all in without letting something slip. It’s always the writing that slips. I have notes and half-poems started in my journal. I think about poems. I’ve been trying to read some poetry every day (to do that I’ve let slip the Trump-Russia fiasco and I gotta tell ya, it feels really good). I imagine that some day I’ll have it all figured out: work, family, writing, myself, so delicately balanced that even the seasons changing can’t throw it off. More likely, life will continue to be one day at a time, dragon fights and berry stained fingers and poems jotted down in between it all, each day never quite the same.

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It Ain’t Easy

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It’s still dark when we set out to romp n’ run. I push Charlotte, bundled in the stroller, behind her brothers, bumbling down the snow covered dirt road, through yellow blots of streetlight. The wind is cold and in our faces, but we’re not far from the school. I can see the lights on and soon we’re inside. I get the kids out of their gear and together they cautiously enter the gym, where the playgroup facilitator, Sue, has set up the room for the preschoolers. On one side are balls large and small, Plasma cars and push toys for the toddlers. On the other side there are fabric tunnels and tents set up, big foam blocks for climbing and jumping, tumble mats and boxes of toys. We’re the first family to arrive.

I sit down next to Sue as the kids begin to play: they take advantage of the space and range around the entire room, touching a bit of everything. Sue and I chat about putting Aedan in kindergarten. I’m wary, because these playgroups often end with me near tears, dragging my rambunctious kids out early. So far, though, so good.

The first parents and their little ones begin to arrive. I try to be aware of the huge amount of space my oldest commands: he’s loud and boisterous and he throws the big balls after Colm, who pushes himself around the room on a plastic car. Repeatedly, I caution Aedan to stop trying to hit his brother. Roll the ball. Let’s play catch with a smaller ball. Stop. Please stop. Don’t do that. Over and over until I feel absolutely ridiculous. I’m acutely aware of the other parents and daycare workers in the room, who are likely not watching and judging my every move but it certainly feels like that anyway.

I’ve barely put out one fire before my boys have run to the other side of the room. They are ripping apart the plastic tunnel structure even as kids are trying to crawl through. A mom is trying to talk to me: it’s useless, I can’t hold down a conversation. She smiles apologetically and hurries away. The boys throw themselves on top of the tents set up: they collapse them. I feel frantic but I try to look calm, disinterested even, as I reassemble the tunnels and tents. And then again. And again one more time. I’m fraying. I issue a threat. We’ll leave if you can’t listen to me. I hate this particular threat because he’ll never learn to be with other kids if we leave every time it gets hard. And it punishes the other two. Aedan hardly looks at me as he tears off again.

He throws balls as hard as he can. He launches hula hoops like weapons. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lights that blare overhead, or the sounds of the kids voices that echo in the big room. Maybe it’s the other parents, sitting along the wall chatting and drinking coffee and tea out of travel mugs while their preschoolers placidly ride the cars or crawl through the tunnels I’ve reconstructed five times. Maybe it’s my own inner critic who never fucking shuts up, but I feel flayed wide open, on display. And even though other parents tell me: “Oh, they all go through this,” I don’t recall seeing another child quite like my oldest at any of these playgroups.

For the third time, Aedan takes a train track from one side of the room, dashes over to where the other kids are riding the little cars, and hurls it. Thankfully he doesn’t hit anyone. I take his hand and say as calmly as I can “We’re leaving now.” He doesn’t protest too much. Colm bursts into tears as I herd all three of them out. Sue calls a goodbye and I can barely get mine out.

Monster! I think, unkind both to my kid and myself. I try to replace it with something a little nicer, a little closer to the truth: High energy. Playful.  I try not to diagnose. I feel totally defeated (it’s a common feeling for me, in parenting) as I get us all dressed again.

Out in the street, the sun is finally up, though it’s another grey day. The little boy who, minutes ago, couldn’t be contained, and seemed on a mission to hurt someone, looks up at me, his toque pulled low over his forehead, and says in his little boy voice: “I love you, Mama!”

My heart explodes for the millionth time this morning. I pick up the pieces, again, smile a tired smile down at him. “I love you, too, buddy.”

Image via Flickr user Kevin Dooley

Permission to Have a Bad Day

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Yesterday was one of those days where I woke up exhausted. I muddled through breakfast and my first cup of tea. I lay down in what passes for the kids’ playroom and watched them play, trying to stay awake. I had my second cup of tea, the sun still not even close to being up in the sky. I felt low, in general. My negative self-talk was a grumble in the background. You should be doing more. You should get the kids out. You should put pants on. What kind of mother are you? Get up. Get up. Get up! On top of that, I was feeling anxious about Halloween (how am I going to get through trick or treating when I’m already so tired? I don’t want to do small-talk in the street!) I was also feeling distress at the state of the world and my place within it.

I struggled with this as I drank my second cup, and then I told my chattering mind to just hush. I stopped following those anxious thoughts and just let myself rest. I gave myself permission to just have a bad day. Though that’s not quite right, either. I gave myself permission to be feeling low right then. No promises or expectations for the rest of the day. And so that’s what I did. I spent the morning watching the ebb and flow of the kids at play, reading books when asked, redirecting when things got too rough, dozing when things were calm. Charlotte went down for an early nap as the sun came up at 10 (10!), I wrote a blog post, and then P came home from work.

Lately, I’m big on doing, as Glennon Melton calls it, “the next precise thing.” And what I wanted at precisely that time was a shower. Not even to wash: just to stand in the hot spray, the close humidity of it, the absence of little hands tugging at me. And that was just enough of a reset for me to get dressed, get the kids dressed, and go for a walk along the river after we ate lunch.

All in all, it wasn’t a stellar day, though our friends did pop over for tricks and treats, so that when Colm fell asleep at 5 and actual trick or treating didn’t happen, nobody was sad about it. I went to bed early, too. The thought crossed my mind more than once that maybe I need to get antidepressants. But today dawned differently. Even though it started at 4:30 for me and Colm, I don’t feel nearly as exhausted as I did yesterday; I’m already dressed, we made muffins, we walked to the store and back.

Part of my recovery from PPD, and from a lifetime of bouts of depression, has been learning that just because I have one bad day, or two bad days, doesn’t mean I’m doomed. It doesn’t mean I’m failing, it doesn’t mean I’m going back “down” again. Sometimes, we just have a shitty day. We’re tired, our energy is low. It’s winter and sunrise is 10 a.m. Giving myself permission to feel that way yesterday was an act of self-love and self-care. Staying present with whatever feelings arise, without making sweeping statements about what they might mean for tomorrow or even five minutes from now, is what’s getting me through each day.

Today, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to feel your feelings, whether they’re high or low or just neutral, without making any judgements. Love yourself as you’d love your best friend.

Image via Flickr user Asja Boros

Reset

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Powerless. That’s the word that I held in my mind as today started. Powerless as Aedan revs up, pulling the cushions off the couch before I’d gotten halfway through my first cup of tea. Powerless, as he dumps the box of Duplo on the floor and runs away laughing. Powerless, as he throws pillows across the room. Powerless.

It’s not a very positive mantra, and I let it do its work on me.

“Don’t throw your toys in the house,” and a block sails past my head.

“Stop bugging your brother,” and he tackles him on the couch.

“Leave your sister alone,” and he grabs her face and kisses her as she cries.

Can you see where this is going? I’d like to say I was Calm, Cool, Collected Mama. But when your mantra is “powerless,” you start to really believe it. To really feel it in your bones. I was still holding on to a thread of self-control. He wouldn’t stop. It’s like he wants to hurt people. That’s a a script I need to rewrite, though. He couldn’t stop, because his brain is still developing, because the connections haven’t been made between his lizard brain (dragon brain might be more appropriate for this kid) and his centers of impulse control. He doesn’t want to hurt people. It’s just all he knows right now. He’s fumbling in the dark, and I need to guide him.

So I sit down with him, hold him facing away from me, hold his hands so he can’t hit me, and I tell him we would sit there until he felt calm and ready to treat other bodies with respect.

“Idiot! You’re an idiot, Mom!” I feel that last thread slipping out of my grasp. He swings his head back, hard, and butts me in the chest. I know he feels trapped. I let him go, step away, but not before he turns and kicks me in the face, knocking my glasses askew.

I think he can’t handle all the big feelings in his head, the stress he must be feeling over the move, the winter outhouse, the faraway family. I think when he’s hurting, he tries to make everyone else hurt, too. I know it, because it’s what I did next. That little thread of self-control slipped through my fingers and I lost it.

I push him away from me. He picks up a book and hurls it at me. I grab his shoulders, yelling. Propel him into the kitchen, plunk him on a chair, tell him to stay there until he could be more respectful. I half expect him to grab the bowl off the table and throw that at me, too. I’ve never understood how kids can be put in a time out and just stay there. But he does.

“Idiot!” he throws at me. I throw it right back.

Crying now, he screams: “I want you to go away and never come back!”

“I’d love to!” I respond. “I’d love to just get in the truck alone and drive and keep driving until I’m far away from you!” Now we’re both crying. The fog of anger is lifting, replaced by deep shame. I’m supposed to be the adult. My sweet middle child, Colm, wanders over and informs us that we are having a fight. Yes, we are, baby. Thank you.

The oven timer beeps (did I mention we somehow managed to get muffins made before shit hit the fan?) Aedan sniffles, asks if he can have a muffin. I tell him they need to cool down. I tell him we all need to cool down. Charlotte is toddling over with a book. “Read? Read?” I sit down with her, but I can’t read because I’m crying. Aedan is crying. Colm is confused because I’m crying. I put the book down, I put the baby down. I go to Aedan, and ask him if I can give him a hug. He nods and collapses into my lap.

We hug each other tight, and I tell him I’m sorry. That I lost my temper. Why? he wants to know. I think, because I told myself I was powerless. And I hate feeling powerless.  Instead, I tell him that he hurt me, so I tried to hurt him back. I remind him that he does that sometimes, too. I tell him I will do better; we both need to do better. We hug a few minutes more, and then we all eat warm chocolate banana muffins.

If not daily, then at least a few times a week, I feel certain that I have fucked this up beyond repair. I feel certain that I should not be in charge of these children. Surely, there is someone more qualified than me. But this is it. They’re dependent on me. Aedan is me, basically. Maybe that’s why I feel so powerless against him. Because it reminds me of how powerless I sometimes am to my own faults.

I need to let go of this desire to control everything. But what the hell am I supposed to do on the days where they just won’t listen? I try to change things up, get us outside or otherwise distract them from destruction, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Sometimes I’m too tired, things move too quickly, they refuse to be distracted. Sometimes it feels inevitable that I’m going to snap.  That’s the same as telling myself I’m powerless though, right? And we’ve seen how that turns out. Maybe it’s not inevitable. I keep writing about staying present, being mindful. That’s my key, I think. It’s just really fucking hard, in practice.

I’ll reset my mantra for today, I’ll pick a new word. Connect. With myself. With my kids. With the present moment.

 

Image via Flickr user Dino Giordano

The Journey from There to Here

We left my parents’ house last Thursday. My mom dropped us at the airport and we said a goodbye that was like ripping a Band-Aid off. I wiped my tears, and then dove headlong into the ordeal that is traveling with three kids. We checked our bags and our car seats, we found some dinner, we joined the mass of people waiting to board the flight to Vancouver. While we waited, Aedan lay on the floor, blocking the way. He refused to listen to us. He and Colm decided it would be a really good time to wrestle. Charlotte twisted around in her umbrella stroller to look at me. “Nur? Nur? Nur?” I sighed, pulled the boys apart for what felt like the millionth time, and told Charlotte we’d nurse on the plane. Finally, we heard the pre-board announcement for people traveling with small children, wound our way to the front, and got onto the plane.

We were in a middle row, four seats across. Me, Charlotte on my lap, Colm, Paul, and Aedan. We stashed our bags, and buckled everyone into their seats. Colm wanted his headphones out so he could watch a movie. Charlotte was like an octopus in my arms, hard to contain. Aedan puked all over himself. A very kind flight attendant helped Paul clean him up. They got him settled with a blanket and extra barf bags. All I could do was offer words of sympathy and encouragement while I tried to keep octo-baby from hammering on the seat in front of us. It was a lesson in letting go.

Aedan puked a few more times, and fell asleep. Charlotte fell asleep. Colm fell asleep. I gazed longingly at a woman a few rows ahead, traveling alone. She was watching a movie (X-Men: Apocalypse) and drinking red wine. Silently, I willed her to enjoy every moment of it. I watched Finding Dory without the sound and drank gingerale.

After nine hours and two airplanes, we were in Whitehorse. We checked into our hotel and all fell asleep.

The kids, however, were still on eastern time. Friday began at 4:30 in the morning. We did our best to contain them until it was time to do some quick shopping and hit the road. I got onto the North Klondike Highway, heading to Dawson, by 9. The kids were all asleep in their car seats. The trees were bare brush strokes against the clouded sky. I had tea and classical music on the radio, until I lost the signal. It was bliss, and I let it fill me up. Eventually, the kids woke up. We stopped for lunch by a rushing creek. Charlotte cried a lot because she hates the car seat. I looped through the half dozen kid’s songs I know until my voice was hoarse. After about five hours of driving, we were home.

I took the kids to a friend’s house while Paul got our cabin warmed up. It’s winter here in the North. Snow is falling as I write this; temperatures are well below zero. When I finally brought the kids home, they were so excited to be there: they ran around the living room yelling and laughing, they dumped all of their toys on the floor, they jumped on the furniture. We all collapsed into bed beneath a pile of blankets, feeling deep love for each other and our little home in the woods.

The next day, our first full day back, was a challenge. Aedan was afraid to use the outhouse in the dark. Repeatedly, I plopped the crying baby on the floor so I could take her brother out there, with a flashlight, to try again. A mix of the sudden cold and the dark kept frustrating the endeavor. This would be so much easier, I thought, if we didn’t live in the bush. I felt myself growing irritated. I’d been having such kind thoughts about this place, about our life here, but the reality of it is different. We hardly had any water, so I had to ration it until Paul came back from town with more. It took forever to get the kids dressed to go outside once the sun came up, and they’d only been out a few minutes before they were cold, bored, hungry. I longed to call a friend over for tea, but we live 40 kilometers from town, with no neighbours in walking distance. I felt trapped, as usual. By the end of the day I was yelling at the baby because she wouldn’t stop crying as I cooked dinner. I wanted a glass of wine. I wanted the whole fucking bottle. Instead, I overate and went to bed the minute Paul got home.

It’s a hell of a trip, coming from the drawn out, balmy autumn of southwestern Ontario to the sudden and decided Yukon winter; from the comfort and support of my parents’ and their home to the challenges of life in an isolated bush cabin. But things are getting better as I re-adjust to our reality. We’re moving into a rented house in town in a couple of weeks, and the nuts and bolts of life will be simplified. The baby will still cry to be held when I try to cook dinner. It will still take forever to dress all of us to go outside, and they’ll probably all want to come in the minute it’s done. But I won’t have to take Aedan to the outhouse in the dark. And I can call my girlfriends over for tea or take a yoga class or get a babysitter without too much trouble.

As for the here, in this moment: Paul has taken the boys to town to fill our water tank; Charlotte is asleep. The first snowfall is coming down over the black spruce that crowd the edges of our property. The woodstove is ticking away and I can smell the birch burning and it’s just beautiful.

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