Up the Down Slide

It’s hard to believe that I will soon be celebrating my 11th Mother’s Day. The other day, while trying to climb up the slide with my four-year-old in my flip flops and skirt, I was reminded of all the unexpected things that being a mother has taught me.

In honor of all you moms out there, here are just a few bits of hard-earned wisdom (if you can call it that):

1. Children’s games often involve hot lava. I have no idea why.

2. Vomiting in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t finish your meal.

3. Children wake up early on the weekends and sleep in when you are trying to get them to school.

4. Kids never eat their school lunches, no matter how hard you try.

5. Your bed is the most comfortable bed in the house, and everyone knows it and wants a piece of it.

6. By the time you have mastered the latest trend and gotten all the needed supplies (hello, rainbow loom), that trend will be over.

7. Cooking with kids isn’t as fun as everyone says it is. But you still have to try—even when their favorite thing is to crack eggs by squeezing them.

8. If a child dresses himself completely backwards, keep your mouth shut. The child dressed himself—be happy with that.

9. Kids’ movies are better than you remembered. And that Frozen soundtrack rocks.

10. Being a parent volunteer will involve you in projects more complicated than any you will ever take on for work.

11. At some point you have to just trust your nine year old boy is really washing his hair in the shower. And washing his hands after using the bathroom.

12. The bigger hazard of boys in the house is not the toilet seat left up, it’s the toilet seat left down.

13. Don’t ever bother picking your daughter’s clothes out for her the night before.

14. The human bladder can hold pee for a remarkably long period of time.

15. Roly polies are the best pet investment you can make. And the only one your kid will care for himself.

16. Glitter, sticks and some paint are all you need for a good time.

17. Fairies are real.

18. Slip and slides are more about slips than slides. But band-aids cure all, even hurt feelings.

19. Sleep is overrated. And reading is a lost art.

20. Baby books are meant to be finished when the baby is in her 40s.

21. Just when you are ready to go have some fun, someone is going to throw up.

22. If you lie down with your children right before they fall asleep, they will tell you all their secrets.

23. Your kids will never be too old to hold your hand.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Green Thumb

Today I had a rare hour with no meetings or school commitments of any kind. I thought about doing something crazy like catching up on work in the morning rather than at midnight. But then I remembered two little words that have been haunting my recent days: Fergal O’Gorman.

Fergal O’Gorman is a force to be reckoned with. No lame-o Elf on The Shelf smiling beatifically down at you, Fergal O’Gorman wrecks the place. He leaves chairs on the kitchen table. He spews toys across the hall. He scatters pillows throughout the house.  He knocks over lamps. And even more disturbing, he leaves elaborate, rhyming notes and St Patrick’s Day candy, which can only be bought at See’s Candies (yes, I have looked at Target). Every single night in March.

I am not sure at this point how Fergal O’Gorman even came to be. Back when my oldest was first in preschool, a leprechaun visited their school and made a small mess. Danny built a trap with his classmates and brought it home. And then he built more. And then Annie built more. And JayJay added some in. And Conwayville, our annual village of old toys and cleat boxes, was born. Fergal O’Gorman emerged as the wilder brother to our Elf on the Shelf Johnny (who incidentally manages to keep his magic despite sleeping with people every night he is here), a sprite who demands gold (and occasionally Irish cheese—for what reason, I really can’t remember, there must have been a sale) and leaves candy in an attempt to win the Conway treasure.

Fergal O’Gorman is in fact the name of a Dubliner I knew in college. He was tall, dark, with wavy hair and a brown suede jacket worthy of Eddie Vedder. I almost dated him my freshman year. Now I run around in my ratty bathrobe destroying my own house on a nightly basis in his name. Fergal, eat your heart out.

Sometimes I think maybe I should just retire the leprechaun. Send a note that says, hey, kids, thanks for all the pennies, I think you’re great. I’ll come every year and leave you some cash and a nice big pot of candy but not until St Patrick’s Day, ok? I mean, Danny barely even look at the traps anymore—except to collect the spoils.

But then tonight I watched as Annie and JayJay constructed what might be the most elaborate trap yet, involving a decoy stuffed animal in shamrock sunglasses, a camera (to film the leprechaun), a slingshot armed with a little green monster, some fake jewels, a Small World doll, a Nerf gun and numerous notes to lure Fergal in. They were having so much fun that they even dragged Danny down and got him into the act. And even as I struggled to figure out how I am going to actually create a picture on their camera tonight, I realized that it is all strangely worth it. And weirdly fun. It may mean I write that press release a bit later, but how often as an adult do you get to play, to let your imagination run as wildly as it might have when you were six?

I might never finish my younger two’s baby books. Pretty soon, when they are in middle school, they will think that I am the lamest mother in the world. The leprechaun traps will just be quaint decorations. But, eventually, when they look back on their childhood and they know that every single night in March their mother crawled around, tripping over her own messes, creating havoc for herself in the name of their fun, they will know how deeply I care. How much I want there to be magic in their lives and joy in their little souls.

And if they don’t, well, when they have kids, Grandma and Fergal O’Gorman might come pay them a visit. And he just might leave their kids some See’s Candies and a promise to return. Every single night in March. Right before Grandma heads out of town.

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Let Her Go

In less than a month, my six-year-old Annie will sing “Let It Go” at the school variety show. While this fills me with terror, her biggest concern seems to be with the lighting for her entrance and if she should leap into the audience for her finale.

I’ve bitten my tongue about what I think maybe should be her bigger concern. I think she might be as tone deaf as her mother.

In a quest to try and figure out if this was indeed the case, I took her to a singing teacher a few weeks ago. The thing about Annie is that she is a bundle of manic energy. She talks fast. She moves fast. And that means she is either groping you inappropriately or knocking something over. She is like Mary Katherine Gallagher from the old Saturday Night Live skit. While she doesn’t smell her armpits, she might pick her nose. Apparently she recently even ate a booger in front of a friend’s mother last week while singing “Let It Go” in her face. But, in most scenarios, Annie—with her sheer love for living, her boundless enthusiasm for style and glamour—is able to pull it all off with her own kind of grace. Even if her butt crack is showing more times than not.

The singing teacher, however, was instantly not her biggest fan. While she tried to rein Annie in, my girl bopped along to the piano, belting out “Let It Go” as joyously as if she was in the studio when they recorded “We are the World”.  At one point she even bounded over to my perch in the corner (the teacher had wanted me to stay—I think for protection) and whisper-screamed in my ear, “This is the most fun EVER.”

The signing teacher wasn’t quite as enthusiastic and, after wrapping us up early, she suggested that maybe Annie should find a more appropriate song for her age. She said, “Just because it’s Disney doesn’t mean it’s easy.” And for good measure added, “I hate seeing young girls sing adult songs like Britney Spears.”

Now clearly our beloved Idina Menzel is no such hussy. And thankfully Annie somehow missed the content of all this and took it as a compliment. For me, the question remained: could she sing or not? The teacher had said “good” a few times. But did she say that to everyone? And, seriously, when you are as tone deaf as I am, would I even know?

School vacation came and we kind of forgot about practicing. And then a family friend told us yesterday about the huge national Frozen sing-a-long that Good Morning America was airing today. We saw the site was still taking submissions and quickly videotaped Annie in her Elsa nightgown singing her favorite segment of the song, arm thrusts and all.

So today it aired and Annie of course was not in it. She was devastated. I explained to her that even though the site was open they probably had already wrapped up the video. And then I realized not only was she shocked not to be in the video but she had thought they would have flown her out to be on stage for the live sing-along. I tried to deflect this growing outrage by turning her back to practicing for the variety show. I even intimated that maybe the variety show could end up on Good Morning America.

On the way to her Daisy Scout meeting, she sang along to the karaoke track, with me hovering in and trying to get her back on track when she would get behind tempo. I’d sing over her, trying to get her on key. Frankly, I was starting to get worried. How the hell was she ever going to get up on stage and pull this off? This was going to be an off-key, off-tempo disaster. Annie got sick of me singing, shushing me and then shutting down completely. I felt like the biggest jerk ever.

As we walked out of the car, I told her I was sorry and I said, remember what you need to do to have a great performance? Yes, she said, have fun.

As I drove home alone, I excitedly cranked up that karaoke number and started doing some belting of my own. (I may be tone deaf but I am the most enthusiastic karaoker you will ever meet.) And you know what? Without Annie’s voice there to anchor me, it was really hard. I was cracking all over the place, running out of breath. Annie had been somehow guiding me all along.

And I realized, she might be totally off-key, she might be tone deaf, but that girl has spunk and spirit. Who cares if her voice is as bad as mine. I would never have the guts to get up in front of an entire school and sing, not now let alone at six. My daughter may be a spazz, but she is a confident one. And despite all my training and worries, she held on to the only good piece of advice I had given her.

She is having fun. She’s sweet, spunky and innocent. She has nothing she needs to let go.

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The Winner Takes It All

My four year old really enjoys games.  And he plays to win. But sometimes the rules in his quest for success can get a bit troubling. Which is how I recently found myself turned into a dog while playing basketball in a bouncy house. As I crouched in the corner in the “stay” position that JayJay would command me into whenever I tried to move, he would shoot away, winning the game without ever landing a basket. Perhaps the most troubling part of all this: I barked and went along with it as other parents peered inside.

It’s easy to blame society. Sure, little kids get trophies and medals for every sport they do. Show up for whiffle ball, and there is a trophy bigger than your head waiting for you. Go to ice skating class and you get a patch to sew onto your coat (or, if you are my child, stick in a drawer waiting for the day your mother learns to sew). Attend a few Little Gym classes and your lopsided forward roll might just win you a gold medal bigger than any at Sochi. Everyone gets a medal, everyone is a winner. I even tried to smooth over a potential sibling rivalry hotspot after bowling this weekend by proclaiming Danny the gold medal winner, JayJay the silver and Annie the bronze. See, everyone wins, I said. You all get to stand on the podium. The kids were happy. Until JayJay realized I didn’t actually have a medal for him.

Sometimes I wonder if I should force JayJay to lose a few times. For my oldest, losing can still be a bit of a shock. He is even personally offended that the U.S. did not win the most medals at the Olympics. At nine, Danny is at the age when his sports teams don’t all get trophies, where play-offs are involved and even getting on a team isn’t a given. In general, he is a good sport when his team doesn’t win. He works hard for what he gets. He also knows that any grumblings of anything being unfair will result in him being benched by us for the next game. He really is a good sport and a team player. And I can’t take any credit for that.

I have let him win since the day he was born. Monopoly games, extra tries at bat, sneak peeks at Mad Libs. If there was a way to let that boy win, I would. He still tends to beat me at everything today, although sadly for me this is becoming less and less of an act on my part. He smokes me in swimming races to the point where they aren’t even fun for him. He legitimately beats me in board games. One of his biggest victories recently was beating me in Clue. So you can imagine Danny was feeling pretty confident when we started up a game of Clue at his aunt’s house today with his cousin Jenn, family friend Adam, myself and six-year-old sister Annie, who routinely gives away more clues than one would think humanly possible.

It was clear towards the end that Danny had the right answer and he was on his way back to the center to claim victory. And then, Adam swept in and stole it from him. It was like the air was sucked from the room. Danny didn’t cry or freak out, he just looked shocked. An adult (well, a twenty-something) had just beat him. He had almost won. But he hadn’t. As I watched his little face process it all, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. He had been so close. I was glad that he handled losing well. It proved to me that he was capable of doing so. But my instinct was still to somehow give him a do-over and let him win. That is probably coddling. But if your mother doesn’t coddle you a bit, who will?

And since I know Danny can handle not winning, I have decided to not feel guilty if occasionally I still let my biggest baby trounce me. My daughter has no need for such victories. She has already declared herself better looking and more fashionable than me—as well as pledged to never let her hair get as frizzy as mine apparently is. She doesn’t need a medal, she wears a tiara every day. But these boys of mine seem to bask in showing Mommy up. They want to show me how smart they are, how strong they are. They want to be adored. And in a world that is bound to let them down many times in the years to come, a little extra Mommy worship can’t hurt.

 So I’ll give JayJay the easy win at Busytown Airport (a game which isn’t even supposed to have a winner), at Ninja Turtle battles and slide races. I’ll offer Danny an extra roll at the bowling alley while insisting it is really just his third ball. Occasionally I’ll miscount the Monopoly money.

But even Mommy has to keep things real sometimes. I have one rule that I have stuck to from day one with all three.

Mommy shows no mercy at air hockey.

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Adult Swim

I have been blessed with three extremely good travelers. But not last night.

Typically, on one of our frequent red eyes to Boston to visit my family, I rest across the aisle from my three little angels, who sit happily in a row, willing and able to go to sleep as soon as we “lift off”. But last night everyone decided they would instead stay up. My four year old was kicking the seat in front of him, demanding that his show come back on after JetBlue rudely interrupted his cartoon for its safety announcement. Meanwhile, my nine year old was crying because he wanted to stay up and read TinTin all night long. My daughter was trying to do some kind of craft covertly under her coat. And I, well I was sweating profusely, texting my husband, and trying to somehow stop the small talk the nice woman next to me wanted to make without seeming to notice that JayJay was hurling his headphones at me, calling me stupid mommy.

It was a charming scene. And then, as mysteriously as in the eye of a tornado, silence fell. The kids accepted their fate (and believed my repeated threat that if they did not sleep on the plane they would have to go to bed the minute they reached their grandfather’s house). JayJay’s cartoon came back on and, although I refused to return his headphones, he was happy to just look at the screen. Peace. Quiet. Three buckled children with nowhere to go.

And then, just as I began to stretch out, I heard it. “Excuse me, ma’am.” The fact that I was being addressed as ma’am by the twenty-something boy in the sleek black coat and dark denims was worrisome enough. But given he was sitting behind my kids, I knew there was more bad news in store. “Do you know your kid is watching Adult Swim?”

“Um, no,” I lied. “But it’s okay. He doesn’t have any headphones on and he is about to fall asleep.” The twenty-something gave me an incredulous look and went back to his iPad. I muttered another lie along the lines of “Oh look, he is already asleep” and then never turned around again.

The fact is, I knew JayJay had Adult Swim on. Cartoon Network is the only cartoon in town on JetBlue at 10 p.m. But frankly in this situation I just didn’t care. I wouldn’t let JayJay watch Adult Swim at home. But if Adult Swim was my ticket to a peaceful flight, screw it all, I am all in for Adult Swim.

As parents, we often do things that perhaps we never thought we would. We break the rules dictated to us by ourselves as younger, child-free observers and then as readers of horror-inducing parenting tomes like the “What To Expect” series (which are perhaps the only books in this world I truly believe should be burned).

Here are just a few of the transgressions that come to my jetlagged mind:

  1. Medicine Candy: Yes, we have seduced our children with the idea that there is such a thing as medicine candy. And that is why my nine year old now covets my gummy adult vitamins (moms like medicine candy too). What is perhaps the bigger sin is the fact that my husband and I recently had a huge laugh at the fact that we call it medicine candy.
  2. TV as a Babysitter: Yes, I have let my kids watch TV while I did conference calls. When I have been really tired or stressed out, I have let them watch TV during dinner. I grew up on TV dinners in front of the Brady Bunch, and I turned out OK. My kids probably would too, even if I did this every night. The problem is they eat so damn slow in front of the TV that it makes me lose my mind.
  3. iPads at Restaurants: Sometimes Mommy and Daddy need to talk for five minutes.  But other than those five minutes, I will be disgusted by all who are using devices at the dinner table.
  4. Bribery: Sometimes I have found myself incenting my kids to do something by perhaps offering them a toy or cash in return. I prefer to look at this as capitalism in the making.
  5. Terrorizing young mothers at the park: I used to look in disgust as some barbaric five year old slithered his obscenely large body up the outside of the tunnel slide and then leapt to the ground. I will never have a child that does that, I would think. Nope. Instead I will have three.

So, if there is something you do that embarrasses you, some Mommy code you have broken recently, know we are all out there doing the same thing. It’s what makes us human and ultimately what probably makes our kids love us more. Being perfect is boring. It’s the messiness that happens inbetween that makes families stick together. So, throw the kids some Doritos once in a while. Just don’t do it where anyone else will see.

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Vienna

For someone who has worked in tech for twenty years, I can be a bit slow on the uptake. Recently I discovered the joy of walking around listening to music on my iPhone. One of the best things about this is that you can play the same song over and over again without making your family members lose their minds.

The other day I found myself listening over and over again to Billy Joel’s Vienna, a song that has filled me with hope and inspiration for years. If you don’t remember it, the catch phrase is “You know that when the truth is told, you can get what you want or you can just get old.” (At least I hope those are the right lines. I also thought that the catch phrase in Flashdance was “take your pants off and make it happen”.)  Anyways, Vienna inspired me back when I was a teenager and wanted to publish my first novel by 18. It inspired me when I was in college and wanted to publish my first novel before I was 30. And when I was 30 and wanted to publish my first novel before I was 40. And when I was 33 and had my first child, well, then I basically said screw writing, all I really want to do with my free time is sleep.

But of course you don’t really sleep once you’ve had kids. Instead you start working on their dreams. You watch and see what they are good at and what they love. Even our holiday cards over the past few years have charted their latest hopes. Danny, at nine, is completely banking on making it to the MLB. JayJay at four is going to be an animal rescuer. Annie, at six, is—as she just told me today—going to be a famous singer, actress, fashion designer, model, author, ballerina, ice skater and ice dancer.

She told me this at free skate following her latest “intro to skating” class. This was her sixth class and frankly the first five had been pretty dire. She clung to the side of the rink. She moved at a snail’s pace. One time around the rink took a lifetime. And frankly it kind of pissed me off.

Why? Because if this truth be told, I was kind of hoping she might be a figure skating prodigy. When I was little I saw Ice Castles, starring the wide-eyed Lynn Holly Johnson and the pleasantly non-descript Robby Benson. From that moment on, my character in any game or story was Lexi Jones, just like the beautiful skater destined for Olympic greatness until tragedy strikes. I would skate around my basement in socks, doing spins and “axels”. Whenever I went to a skating rink the theme to Ice Castles (“Looking Through The Eyes of Love” by Miss Melissa Manchester) was on a loop in my mind. The sound of my blade sweeping the ice, the coldness of my hands, everything told me, yes, you, Eileen, you are destined for the Olympics. Weirdly I never even asked my mother for skating lessons. We just didn’t do that kind of thing in the 70s.

So when Annie asked me for lessons it was like a great hope had opened up again for both of us. Yes, oh yes, we will skate. And so every week I trudged along at her side, relishing the moment when she would say she wanted to sit out a lap so I could get some speed going. I would feel that same old exhilaration and think about trying a twirl, but yet I would hold back. Frankly I was terrified I might break an ankle.

But today I saw a woman who had to be pushing sixty out there practicing. Over and over again she backed into a twirl. It wasn’t pretty, it was frankly pretty darn wobbly. But she was doing it. She didn’t care how old she was, she was out there trying. I felt such joy watching her that for a while I didn’t even notice that Annie and I had been skating for more than an hour, out in the middle. Annie had picked up speed, was doing swizzles and some twizzle she learned from Olympic ice dancing. (Note that I am not sure if what she was doing even remotely was a twizzle—or what a twizzle even is—but the girl was adamant.) She fell a few times without tears and got up and glided on. She was gliding. She was finally gliding. And I was too.

We were both doing something we loved together but for ourselves. And I think that is one of the things that is so easy to forget as a parent. We still get to have dreams. And seeing us strive for something makes our kids understand that getting old isn’t the end of anything. That chances don’t go away because you hit a certain age. Anyone can do anything at any time. That is the beauty of life. To not seize that hope is to waste what time you have.

So now I will tell my kids that I want to be a writer. I want to do a camel spin in a pink sparkly ice skating skirt. These are just two of the many things that I not only still want but that I can still have. And that is empowering not just for them, but for that one person I most often forget. Me.

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Pencilgram

When I was in middle school, the student council would sell carnation-grams on Valentine’s Day.  Some popular girl or boy would saunter into your classroom with a bouquet-worth of carnations, and call off names right in front of everyone. This was it. The big show. Would you get a carnation? Would it just be from a friend or would it be from a boy? Would it be from the boy?

In my case, in seventh grade, the boy was Todd B. He was amazing. His hair was feathered. He wore Izod shirts with the collars up. He and his sidekick best friend (who I learned in my 20s was also in love with him) were smart and funny. He looked a bit like a frog and for some reason that worked for me. And did I mention his hair was feathered. Just like mine. Todd had asked me to dance at the last school dance. I’d enjoyed my first slow dance ever to “Open Arms” by a little band called Journey. To this day, when that song comes on, I am taken back in time. I remember the wonder of being close to him, the crunch of my clogs consistently hammering his sneakered feet. It was just one dance. But to me it was forever.

So that Valentine’s Day I received a carnation. I was intensely relieved to not be one of those girls who got none. And when I opened the note I found the best news yet. It was from a Secret Admirer. Yup. You know who that was. Todd. It had to be Todd.

I floated. I preened. I put extra blue eyeshadow and green mascara on at lunch, not caring that there was no way I was getting that crap off my face before my mother picked me up. Let her bust me. I was loved. My Jordache bag burned with the note inside it, just like my heart burned for Todd.

And then, just like that, it was over. I saw my best friend, gasped out the news. She smiled and said, “Silly that was from me. I thought we were making sure we both got one. Secret Admirer! Wasn’t that funny?” Um, no. I felt as disappointed as the day I found out the “surprise” waiting for me at the airport after my nerve-wracking first flight was in fact my aunt and uncle at baggage claim, not the puppy I’d been begging for. I was heartbroken. And I still remember that heartbreak to this day.

So, why the hell did I just send my third-grade son Danny a Pencilgram from a secret admirer?

OK, in my defense, it’s actually from his six-year-old sister Annie, who insists she is going to marry him some day. It didn’t take anything to convince her to do it. Apparently Annie and her best friend think he is quite a looker. The weirdness of that aside, I think he will figure it is from her and be OK with it. I don’t think he is into girls yet. Although tonight when Annie told him she knew someone who had a crush on him, he all of a sudden seemed a bit interested. (Of course, she then said—as he guessed—that it was her. The girl loves love.)

So why did I do it? It was just a reflex, like sticking your hand out when you stop sharp even though you don’t have a kid big enough to sit in the front seat. I just couldn’t bear the thought of him not getting a Pencilgram from anyone. (Note that Annie and her best friend, following in the wise footsteps of all womankind before them, had already covered their bases by sending them to each other.)

He told me one of his friends was sending two Pencilgrams to two different girls, both of which had the message “Be Mine”. You have to admire a third grader who already covers his bases. I asked Danny if he wanted to send any to his friends or, asked in a very nonchalant manner, any girls. He barely looked up from his third plate of pasta and said, nah, he would stick with Valentines. Frankly he seemed uninterested in the whole thing. So of course I assumed he must be lying.

When Danny first started kindergarten I worried for him. I offered him tips on how to make friends, what to do. Finally he said to me, “Mommy, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m not shy like you.”

He was right of course. He isn’t shy. He is a worrier like me, but he has different worries. He probably honestly could care less if he gets a Pencilgram or not.  Sometimes the hardest thing about being a parent is not letting your own shit cloud your perception of your kids. You want so bad to keep your children safe, to make their lives more perfect than yours ever was, that you throw caution to the wind and set roadblocks up wherever there might be potential danger. The problem, of course, is that your children have their own roads to follow, and they aren’t yours.

I guess the best you can do is hope that these follies prove to them someday how much they are loved.  And, if that doesn’t work, hope they have a therapist that will let you in to plead your case.Image,