Try Hard

T was sitting alone on the side of the tennis court, legs and arms pretzeled together to make himself as small as possible. I walked onto the court with C’s balance bike and passed Z. “He just said he failed,” Z muttered to me. “Seriously?” my heart stuttered. I walked on a few steps towards C. “He said that exact word?” I called back over my shoulder. “Yes.”

Z and I decided, oh ok….I decided that T wasn’t allowed to ride his balance bike anymore. He had to practice with the two wheeler or not ride at all. Trying new things is hard for him. He wants to get everything right the first time.

When he gets frustrated I remind him of the three things he needs to do in this life in order to make us proud. Three things. That is it. He must be kind. He must try hard. He must treat girls the same way he treats boys. He does those things and we will be proud of him no matter what.

I approached him. He turned his back. “I need some alone time.” “Ok. You can have some alone time. Then we need to talk.”

A few minutes later I led him off of the court. He chose to crawl under a towering pine, the lowest branches were high enough to form a private hideout as the boughs draped to the ground. “T. Look at me. You did not fail. Did you try?” He looked everywhere but at me. “Yes,” he sighed in exasperation. “Listen, what will make your father and I proud? What three things?” He folded his arms and looked away and I repeated the three items. “You did it. You tried. So you didn’t ride the bike on your own. So what? You aren’t going to magically do it. Everything takes practice. It is because you tried that you didn’t fail.” He started to roll his eyes and caught himself. “Before we go home you have to try one more time. You can’t leave here thinking you failed. Because the only way to fail is to not try.” He stared at me. “I’ll tell you what. You try again and I’ll give you a marshmallow before lunch.” He perked up. “How about five marshmallows? Because I’m five.” “How about one marshmallow….and five mini M&Ms.” “Yes.”

He did try. He didn’t learn to ride a two wheeler today, but he tried. And Z and I were proud of him.

He’s off to kindergarten tomorrow, which colored the whole bike conversation.

He’s off to kindergarten and I will not be there to talk to him in the shade of a grand pine tree. I will not be able to encourage him and support him in the moments when he feels like he has failed. Or when he is scared. Or when he is hurt. Tomorrow is one of the many small separations that will continue until he is his own man. That trajectory is right, it is what we all want for our children. But the selfish part of me is mourning. It doesn’t want to let him go. Or expose him to the cruelty of the world.

I’ve been wallowing today. Head bent, I wept in the car before pulling myself together to head into Wegman’s. This afternoon my heaving sobs drew Z to the kitchen as I swept the floor. In a sabotaging act of indulgence I’ve been listening to This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush. Hell, I’ve even been watching the damn scene in She’s Having a Baby where it is used.

He needs to grow up. I need to grow up. My heart is breaking.

This evening we talked about failing again. I changed tactics. “It’s ok to fail, you know.” I told him after he brushed his teeth before bed. “I fail all the time.” “Really?” he asked doubtfully. “You fail?” I laughed. And appreciated his confidence in me. “Oh baby, I fail every day. I fail many times every day.” “How?” “Well, every time I get mad at you and yell. Daddy fails too, when he gets mad and yells.” He looked thoughtful. “You know what? Nothing new is created without failure. People fail and fail until they get it right. Nothing good happens without putting yourself out there and failing.”

So I was giving him the opposite message that I did in the morning. Well, I failed during that conversation and was trying to get it right.

“A couple of years ago we got Daddy’s car. Do you know it is different from Mommy’s car and I didn’t know how to drive it? I had to learn. And I failed and I failed. Do you know how long it took me to learn?” “No.” “More than a year! Can you believe it?” “How is it different?”

Ok. Maybe he didn’t get the message tonight. But Z and I will continue to have the conversation with him.

Tomorrow is a day T and I let go of each other a little. It is also a day of excitement and adventure. I am proud of my small man. He is trying to figure out his place in this tricky world. I am trying to figure out how to be there to catch him when he stumbles while also giving him room to grow.

I just pray I make it back to the car after dropping him off before my tears come.

bike learning

His first try on two wheels.

k and t parking lot

My boy and me.

crazy t

He is going to rock kindergarten. In that exact outfit. Just realized that is what I laid out for him…

Dining Out

Last night my parents took us out to a very nice restaurant for dinner. Going out to a fast food joint with the boys makes me anxious. So as much as I was looking forward to a really delicious meal, I was a wee bit worried (by which I mean my stomach was clenched in fear) about the behavior of the two young men in my life.

Sometimes those boys surprise me. Ok, so Z took C for a quick walk outside before the meal came, and Z and I tag teamed the two mid-meal trips to the bathroom. But other than that it was smooth sailing. Star Wars stickers worked their magic yet again.

Near the end of the meal a friend of my parent’s walked by the table. She has young grandchildren, so she bent down to chat with T. He is a bit of a rambler when he gets going and dude was on a tear. “Do you know what? Well, tomorrow is going to be me and Charlie’s birthday. But, but, but…tomorrow isn’t really me and Charlie’s birthday. But we get our birthday with Grandma and Grandpa tomorrow. And we are, um, we are, uhhh, we are going to have presents. And a cake. I want a….Star Wars Angry Bird cake. And we are getting presents! I want Star Wars legos. I want a Chewbacca figure. I saw it at the Lego store. The Chewbacca figure, well, it has a slot, not a put on head. Like the Gamorrean guard. They are the only two with a slot, not a put on head. But we already have the Gamorrean guard. And I want a big Star Wars Angry Birds play set. A big one.”

This lovely woman was a total sport. She just let him talk and murmured little hmmms and yeses at all the right places.

T paused for a second, took a deep breath, and looked her square in the face.

“I just farted.”

He is totally my child.

T in the pool

Loving the pool with Daddy. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith Photography.

popsicle love at floyd fest

T and Z went to Floyd Fest. First music festival for T.

playing at Floyd fest

He had a really good time.

How To Use Photoshop

Last weekend we had a mini reunion with Z’s side of the family. One of Z’s sisters is a professional photographer so a photo shoot is always part of our gatherings.

Before we had kids I really dreaded the photo shoots. My anxiety disorder comes with a side of self loathing that is so obsessive it is its own type of narcissism. I am sure everyone who sees me is overwhelmed with pity and disgust. As I’ve learned to manage the disorder I’ve come to the realization that most people are not wasting their time thinking about me at all. Score one for therapy.

Anxiety disorder aside, I don’t think my discomfort is unusual when it comes to having my photo taken. For 37 years I’ve been bombarded with images of female beauty heavy with subtext that both says I must strive to achieve perfection and implies that I never will. For 37 or 27 or 17 or 57 years you have received the same message. If you have enough self confidence to ignore popular culture and advertising, I admire you. I also think you are very much in the minority.

Since I started running a year ago I’ve been Instagraming post-run selfies using no filter. I’m proud of my running, I feel strong and more comfortable in my body. I also think we don’t see enough pictures of real women. Women who are careening towards middle age, who have forehead wrinkles and freckles that are fast becoming age spots, who are sweaty and red faced after working hard, who are not wearing a lick of makeup. So I post those pictures myself. I post pictures of the woman my boys see every day to combat the images of perfect women who do not exist.

sweaty run

I try to be satisfied with who I am. I try to not focus on who I’m not. Do I succeed? Well, not very often. But I try, and that is what matters.

And having my boys has changed everything. I want pictures of our family. I’m grateful that my sister-in-law is such a talent and that she shares her gift so generously. Her nature shots are lovely, but I prefer her work with people. I don’t know much about photography, but it stuns me how she can photograph humans with such compassion. She brings out the best in her subjects. Joy and humor and beauty radiate from her shots.

She edits her work like any photographer who shoots digitally. What she doesn’t do is use photoshop to achieve perfection. As an avid mommy blog reader, I’ve seen a lot of tutorials on how to photograph your kids over the years. So many of them are primers on how to airbrush the hell out of your children. How to remove the baby acne or uneven skin tone or even scrapes and bruises.

Why do we do this to our kids? Why do we show them that they aren’t good enough from the day that they are born? Why do we need to fix them rather than enjoy who they are? Perfection is not only impossible to achieve, it is flat out boring.

Looking at photoshopped images of models is bad enough for our collective self esteem. What will photoshopping our kids to look like a J Crew kids catalogue lead to?

That photo shoot this weekend? My sister-in-law was able to execute an idea she’d seen online that would have been impossible without the magic of photo manipulation. But she fooled around with a cardboard box, rather than the faces of the kids inside that box. And the picture captures exactly who the five cousins in our family are. She created a picture our family will always love.

boxed up cousins

Photoshop used for good rather than evil.

Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith Photography.

Who Is the Real Butthead?

“I offered him a Hershey’s Kiss and he said he couldn’t have one because he lost his treat.” my friend J told me.

“Man, I love that T is incapable of lying.”

“I asked him why he lost his treat and he told me he called you a fool.”

“Yup. Last night when I was putting him to bed. He was mad at Z. I don’t think he understood exactly what it meant. Or that he would be in so much trouble.”

This conversation happened moments before J’s husband discovered that C was evacuating his bladder and bowels hidden by my car’s driver side door.

While we were chatting I could smell myself. I didn’t get the chance to shower today and my year-old flip flops reek with an odor that can only be described as evil.

It has not been a banner day.

Z’s sister E and our niece G left this morning. We had a great visit with them, and the good news is we will see them again next month. But the thing about sharing a living space with guests is you start to see how you and your kids are acting with fresh eyes.

My fresh eyes are pretty embarrassed by what they saw. All I do is yell at the boys. All they do is give me the metaphorical finger. Thank god they haven’t learned how to give me the literal finger yet, but I’m sure it is coming.

Back when I was a fantastic mother (you know, before I actually had children) I knew I would not stand for disrespect from my kids. Man, I knew so much back then, so very much. I was so self righteous, so smart, so incredibly full of shit.

At nearly five and nearly three my boys are raging buttheads.

Nearly five years into parenting there are still days when I don’t get around to bathing.

For the life of my I cannot figure out how to potty train my nearly three year old. Today included one pee in the potty, two pees on the floor, countless trips to the bathroom in which nothing happened, and as mentioned, my friend C finding him leaning against my car with one hand as he pissed, a gigantic turd dangling between his legs like a tail. Thankfully grown up C convinced three year old C to squat on the ground until the poop broke away and fell to the driveway where it was immediately swarmed by flies. But then T ran behind the car and stepped right in the shit.

Some days parenting feels like I’ve crested the top of a roller coaster, like my stomach has fallen through my feet as the tiny car that holds me plummets back to the ground. But I never level out, I just keep falling and falling while feeling more and more out of control.

My boys are not quite five and three. If they are buttheads it isn’t their fault. Which leads me to some pretty uncomfortable conclusions about my job performance.

T and turbo

See this adorable photo? Taken moments after T kissed the damn snail and hours before he’d call me a fool.

t pic of c pic of t

See this adorable photo? Taken by T of C taking a photo of T. Very meta. Taken moments before an epic physical altercation between the boys over who got to play with the playmobil dude wearing the black outfit.

leonard cousins goodbye

See this adorable photo? Cousins saying goodbye? In the next photo I snapped it looked like T was trying to pull off a chunk of C’s flesh.

Last Days of School

A year ago I watched the mother of one of T’s classmates struggle with the reality that her child was leaving the comfort of our extraordinary preschool and moving on to kindergarten. The transition proved painful for both mother and child. I sympathized with my friend, but I did not understand her sadness. In fact, I told her it simply wouldn’t be a big deal for T and me. She had the grace not to tell me I was full of shit.

Five years into this parenting gig and I still feel a twinge of annoyance when a more experienced parent tells me how my family will feel or act during an upcoming phase of development. “We are different” I think, “They don’t know us. We are special.” At the same time I cannot resist breaking it down for parents with kids younger than mine. I hear myself explaining what is coming and I hate myself for being that person. Especially as I see the look on the face of whatever friend I’m speaking to. I can see what is running through their head, “We are different. She doesn’t know us. We are special.”

At the beginning of last week I dropped the boys off at school and on my way out found this in T’s mailbox:

photo (41)

Last fall we were asked to fill the paper with words that described who we hoped T would be as an adult.

photo (42)

That hair. I miss that crazy hair so much.

Friday was the final day of school. During the week laminated photos that decorated the boys’ classrooms trickled home with them. But the little poster of our hopes for T was the first. I lifted it out of the mailbox and suddenly my throat was burning and tears flooded my eyes. I made it to the car before the ugly crying began.

That friend of mine? I emailed her and confessed I was wrong last year. Both T and I were struggling with his upcoming transition to kindergarten. I asked for advice on how she got through it.

A year ago I was so excited for the following fall I couldn’t see straight. T would have the same teachers that he adored. C would be going to school as well. He threw a fit every single day of spring semester when we dropped T off because he wanted to stay. And the fact that I was going to have a couple of hours a day to myself helped tremendously. Our small transition included the loved and familiar for T, exactly what C needed developmentally, and a fucking break for me. Life was great. Transitions were great. Why would kindergarten be any different?

Oh, pompous, naive, foolish Karen. When will you get over yourself and start actually listening to the more experienced parents?

The unknown is hard for both T and me. Watching his anxiety rise as he realized he wouldn’t be able to bring his much loved teachers with him to elementary school was heartbreaking. His fear is real and I ache for him. I’m also kind of furious that he is growing up. His delicious little boy body is getting harder and harder to lift. His limbs dangle everywhere when he crawls into my lap. The last five years have been the fastest of my life and I know time will only continue to fly by with more speed. Even if I didn’t believe it the first time a well meaning, experienced parent told me.

walking away from preschool

T walking away from preschool for the last time on Friday. Again, I was able to save the ugly crying for the car. Victory.

preschool T

The boys attend (Um, I mean C attends and T attended…sniffle) a laboratory school on the SU campus. Undergrads and grad students work with the children each semester. The assignments include these lovely bound books made for each child that tracks development over the semester. Here are the covers of T’s 6 books.

toddler room C

And C’s first two.

Four Years and Ten Months

Four years and ten months ago we moved to Syracuse. Our sweet little house just became the dwelling I have lived in longer than any other in my life.

Before I left home for college I lived in 9 places. I attended 8 schools before graduating from high school. I did live in the NYC area from 95-06. In 99 I moved to Brooklyn and we stayed, albeit in 3 apartments, for 7 years. Over three stints from 1981-1995, I lived in Farifax County, VA for a little more than 8 years cumulatively.

But Syracuse now holds my personal record for longest stretch at one address.

The funny thing is it feels like we moved here just last year. It also feels like we’ve been here forever. There are so many firsts tied to this place. We closed on our house a week before T was born. Z truly loved his job for the first time here. I became a stay at home mom. We weathered a heartbreaking miscarriage. I got pregnant with C and we welcomed him into our family. T started preschool. C started preschool. We navigated early intervention and speech therapy. I started taking graduate classes. I started running. In a few short months T will go to kindergarten.

Syracuse was supposed to be a pit stop of sorts, a resume builder as we looked for teaching opportunities for Z closer to family.  At some point along the way it has become home.

We love it here. We are happy. We have a wonderful circle of friends. We imagine our boys growing up with this built in peer group. The kids they hang with have become important to us, we really care about them and love watching them grow.

There is so much to do in the summer that we can’t make it to every event we want to attend. Z plays music in three bands. He makes amazing stringed instruments from cigar boxes or cans or pie plates or salvaged wood from old pianos. He loves teaching. He’s involved with community outreach. He is too busy and always behind on projects and that is exactly how he is happiest.

This is not some perfect life. We struggle to pay the bills. C is entering the evil 3s and T is anxious about his transition to kindergarten. My anxiety colors everything, often rearing her ugly head to interrupt plans. The winters are brutal, there isn’t any way around it, they suck. And we do hate being so far from family. That is the hardest part. We miss our parents and our siblings.

But we have made a life here. More than that, we have made a home. One with continuity and comfort.

My upbringing was unusual and it provided me with fantastic opportunities to see so much of America and the world. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Hell, I became a teenager while we were in Phuket, Thailand. We spent New Year’s Eve of ’99 into ’00 in Doha, Qatar. I learned to ski on the South Island of New Zealand. Between all the exotic stuff I went to suburban public schools outside DC and Boston and St. Louis. My sister and I are lucky as hell, beyond privileged to have had such an odd and interesting childhood.

But it turns out that the life Z and I are intentionally building for our family is in a small city in Central New York. It turns out we love being part of a community. We love relaxing in our backyard with a bunch of friends and a pork shoulder that hung out in the smoker for a long time. Also margaritas. If you come visit us request Z’s deadly margaritas. You won’t remember the evening, you’ll feel it the next morning, but you’ll have a really good time.

Who knows what will happen or where we will be in another 4 years and 10 months from now. My hope is that we will be here. Hanging out with the same folks. The kids playing in the backyard. The margaritas flowing.

our family

Here we are putting down roots.

t runs to base

T running to first base during his last T-Ball game of the season.

c wants to play

C was ready to play. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he needs to wait two more years.

rockers

It seems to be the summer of salvaged broken rockers for our backyard. Because we are classy like that.

backyard piano

Our life involves having a trailer with a piano take up residence in our driveway. Z is making a bunch of instruments out of it in collaboration with local artists. They will create graphics to silkscreen on the face of the instruments Z builds.

summer in syracuse

Our crew of kids living it up at the Funky Flea this morning.

z at the funky flea

Z making music at the Funky Flea.

 

A Horror Story

Friends, I cannot sugar coat this. Just need to come out and say it. C took a dump on my pillow this evening.

While I’m sure he was just looking for a soft place for his shit to land, I can’t help but take it a little personally.

C spends much of his time naked from the waist down these days. We are potty training. Or he is potty training. He doesn’t really want Z and me involved. He pees on the floor. Panics. Cries. Runs to the bathroom. When he is wearing a pull up he pees. Shouts, “I poop! I poop!” while standing there bow-legged. Cries. Takes off his pants and pull ups and runs to the bathroom. We have hardwood floors throughout the entire house. Peeing on them isn’t a huge deal to clean up. It is part of potty training. We are cool with it.

Bottom line: progress is being made. He has only actually peed on the pot a handful of times, but he willingly goes to the bathroom himself about a dozen times a day. He sits there. Shouts, “I peed!” Wipes his balls with a square of toilet paper (yeah, not sure what that is about). Flushes the toilet. Except for the fact that we are wasting a horrifying amount of water, and he is completely delusional about actually peeing, things are going well.

Cut to tonight. The fam got home from a stroll to our friends’ house to drop off a food container. C ran inside. I started weeding. T and Z collected helicopter seeds from our maple tree into Z’s hat and took turns climbing into the treehouse and throwing them on each other’s heads.

C really likes to do his own thing. T ran towards the house and told us C was watching TV. Not ideal while the rest of us were enjoying being outside, but whatever.

And here is why you never “whatever” when a two and a half year old is involved. We came inside and the TV was off. C wasn’t on the first floor. Ominously his pull up and pants were on the floor of the downstairs bathroom. We headed upstairs as C sauntered out of Z and my bedroom. “I pooped!” he crowed.

Being he confuses poop and pee on the regular I wasn’t alarmed. Just annoyed that I’d be cleaning pee in my bedroom. Z was ahead of me and I heard, “Oh man. Charlie! Oh no.” I picked up the pace. Two turds. Two. Glistening on my pillowcase. C with some unnecessary bravado, “I pooped!”

After bathing the boys I noticed some shit on my pants and on my hands. Still not sure where and when the point of transfer was. Just washed my hands throughly, threw the jeans in the washing machine, and felt thoroughly defeated by life. And by poop.

photo (35)

This is the face of a woman who has spent too much time cleaning poop.

tiny hiney

Moments later he peed all over the porch.

happy t

One of his teachers sent this to Z. He was proud of the magnet bundle he made. I’m proud because he didn’t poop on any of my belongings today.