Monday, December 9, 2019

A different way to view the world


Motherhood has involved way more time spent picking my kids' noses than I ever expected. I mean, when I envisioned having kids the amount of time I speculated I'd be picking their noses was zero, so it's not hard. But still.

Of all the surprises I've had, however, the biggest one by far is just how little I get to control my children's personalities. I spent so much time reading baby books in preparation for having my first kid, and then still more after we had her. I've spent much of my life around children and babies. I thought I knew what I was getting into. And then my first child was born, and she defied absolutely everything the baby books (and my experience) prepared me for. Get your child on a schedule, they said. So I dutifully tried. And I tried. And I tried. No amount of trying to force a schedule on her was going to work against her will. Even before she was born I remember telling my husband, "I think she's going to be stubborn," because she kept cramming her butt up into my ribs in utero. I'd push her away so I wasn't getting bruised ribs and after a moment she'd push her butt into my ribs again. Over and over. So the stubbornness and strong will were not exactly a surprise, but everything I'd read made it seem like I could mold my kid, direct her and move her in certain ways.

Never. I've never been able to direct my child. The schedule we're told to get babies on? She never had a consistent schedule for more than a few days at a time. I was going crazy in her first year because I could never tell if she was going to nap for 45 minutes or 3 hours. It changed from day to day. Two naps one day, none the next. Maybe she'd only wake up twice at night (which she was still doing at well over a year) or, and I'm not exaggerating, 10 times. It was exhausting, both mentally and physically. She was so fussy, and so inconsistent about everything. I was a total wreck. And worse, I constantly felt that I was Doing It Wrong, because that's what everything I'd ever read told me. What kind of shit mom can't even get their baby to hold a consistent schedule? Why can I not soothe her? It's not this hard for other people, I thought. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my baby? In the worst moments, I wondered if I just wasn't suited to motherhood. The whole idea had been a mistake, and I was going to ruin my kid's life because I was never meant to be a mom.

I would love to say that it's gotten easier as she's gotten older, and in some ways it has. We can communicate with her, and that's a big plus. She has, in so many ways, grown into a delightful child. She's smart, she's funny. She loves to be helpful.

But she's never easy, and even "easier" is only something I can say about some moments, some aspects of life with her.

A sign I saw in Alaska, and which I might need.
I really loathe all the "mom of boys" memes out there because, frankly, that's pretty much what my daughter is like. Uncontrollably wild? Check. Potty talk, burping, and farting is the height of humor? Check. (My daughter and her best friend, another girl, made a song out of the lyrics, "The butt, the butt, the butt, the butttttt...the butt the butt the butt.") Peeing and pooping inappropriately? Uh, yes. I'm still embarrassed about the fact that my child pooped on a friend's couch, and under another friend's porch. And she does a "nature pee" whenever she thinks she can get away with it, including in the back yard. Not because "it's an emergency". She just likes it.

She climbs absolutely everything, and she's really, really good at it. We've got her in gymnastics but that's really to hone natural talent, not the driving force behind why she's good at all things physical.

I won't go on, but you get the picture. If that's what it's supposed to be like only for boys, where does my wild child fit in? And why should we define and confine children by their gender? She's got boy friends who are sweet, quiet, and biddable. (Yes, there are children out there who are like that. It's amazing.) Why should these experiences of childhood be erased just because they don't conform? Do I get a shirt that says, "I might as well have had boys"? But that might make it seem like I want my children to be other than what they are, and despite everything, I don't.

My daughter is what would have in the past be termed a hellion. A hoyden. She's even been jokingly described by the family as a demon, a monster, a psycho. I've said many times that whoever came up with the term "children should be seen and not heard" had a child like mine. The noise level, oh my gawd. The noise.

Two snowy days last year and
she was literally climbing walls.
Even worse, though, are her moods. Even from infancy she would rage at us for no apparent reason. She'd scream, not because she was tired or hungry, or cold, or for any reason we could understand. I was always told that babies don't scream for no reason so this lack of any apparent reason distressed me to no end. I couldn't help my child if I couldn't figure out why she was screaming at me. Not crying, not distressed, but actually rage screaming. It was yet one more thing to just endure about motherhood. One day she'd be happy and enjoy a day of exploring, the next she'd fuss and wail pretty much all day no matter what we did. I'm not gonna lie, it was awful. Again, I felt like a complete failure.

These moods haven't really gotten better as she's gotten older. They've gotten slightly longer apart, so we'll have a couple of good weeks at a time, but then she'll have a month of almost maniacal misbehavior. She'll throw day-long tantrums and then wake up the next day to do it all again. When we ask her why she says, "I don't know." Well past the age when she should be growing out of these behaviors, they're getting worse rather than better. She's begun hitting and kicking, and the rage of a six-year-old is vastly different from that of an infant, no matter how terrible it was when she was a baby.

My husband has assured me all along, grimly, that she's just like him. I say 'grimly' because he's got ADHD. You might not know this, as I didn't, that it's highly genetic. One of his biggest fears has always been that he would pass it along to our kids. When the Munchkin was born it was obvious to his family that she was just like he was.

I brushed it off for a long time. This was not as flippant as that statement makes it seem, actually. Growing up in a small town, the fact that he was different was used to bully my spouse. One of the first things he told me about himself is that he's got ADHD. It became something that defined him, not just a part of who he is but the defining characteristic. I didn't want that for our daughter. I didn't want her to feel so different that it defined everything about her.

But I did a bit of research. I didn't want to not get her help, I just didn't want to prematurely diagnose her (since ADHD isn't generally addressed before the age of about 5) and I didn't want to make her feel Different. Worse. Unworthy. But I was willing to do some things as if she had ADHD, without seeking a diagnosis. Unspoken between us was the fact that going to an outdoor, nature preschool was one of the best things we could have done for our child. I've also made sure that we create outlets for her boundless energy, and even small things like getting her into our backyard (backed by a greenspace, surrounded by trees) as often as possible helps to calm her down. I've taken her out running with me on days when she seems ready to explode. I've found a series of children's yoga videos that she adores, to the point that she'll actually ask for them. (Little sister tries to do them too, and it's the most adorable thing to see them together on the mat.)

Having a second kid also threw her behavior into a new light. My second child is as different from the first as the sun from the moon. If my big girl is just like her dad, my little girl is just like me. It has forced me to confront the fact that the baby books are wrong--I'm never going to be able to mold my child. Maybe some kids are like espaliered trees but not mine. She's a force of nature. She's a river. I can help shore up her banks but I can't change the direction she flows in. This is true of both my children. And it's such a relief. I'm not doing it all wrong, and neither is she. Fuck the baby books for ever making me doubt the two of us.

Then, school started

Kindergarten, and no longer having our beloved outdoor preschool, loomed heavy in our minds. The Munchkin was so excited to be a big girl and starting big kid school. But we, her parents, were nervous. Sitting in school all day was going to be a hard transition. I did all the pre-k stuff. She did Jump Start, a week that gets the kids in the classroom before kindergarten starts. They meet the teachers and the other students, they get to learn the school and some of the routine. I met both of the kindergarten teachers and liked them, so I didn't care which one of them taught my kid. I learned that because she goes to a Title I school there are actually some amazing advantages--a small class size, for instance, and AmeriCorps volunteers to help with reading and math in small groups. Extra behavioral interventions for kids who need them. Three recesses. They even do a tiny morning meditation during the morning announcements. The principal is wonderful. The PTA (which I've joined) is chill parents who are simply invested in making sure the all the kids at our tiny school are successful. It's a great school, and we weren't worried about that.
Apparently we have studs

We were just worried about her behavior issues. Having our second daughter helped in so many ways, but it also made it obvious that the Munchkin's behavior issues and moods were not just a normal part of childhood. Miss Sunshine is firmly in toddler territory, but even her tantrums are nothing compared to her sister's. She can be redirected or soothed in a way that our older child can't. It has become more and more obvious that there's something major going on and that it's something we all need help with. So I started doing more serious research about ADHD. I looked up the diagnostic criteria and made a surprising discovery--that I likely also have ADHD. When I was a kid it would have been called ADD, but now it's all lumped together under the same heading but with different forms. I check pretty much all the boxes for the inattentive form of ADHD.

I say it was a surprise, but in many ways it wasn't. I've heard about this since I was a kid and have many times wondered. Maybe that's why other kids could seem to remember about things like permission slips, when I never could? (I learned to forge my dad's signature early on, so I wouldn't miss out on field trips.) Or why organization has always been so difficult for me? Or why remembering to turn in homework, or even that I had homework, was so hard for me?

It's not surprising that this could have been missed in me. I was a daydreamer, so I was quietly inattentive rather than the flashy, attention-getting hyperactivity of my child. Girls, who tend more toward the inattentive form, are distressingly under-diagnosed and don't get the help they (we) need. As with many illnesses, the gold standard in diagnosis was based on symptoms more often seen in boys. Sexism in medicine is alive and well. This was all especially true when I was younger, when ADHD was a "boys' problem".

I had wondered over the years, but none of my teachers and neither of my parents ever mentioned the possibility. Since my parents tended to dismiss my complaints of hurt and illness (sometimes with reason--I did like to play up any illness to stay home from school) I also dismissed this. My mom would just roll her eyes if I suggested it, I thought, and I'd be made to feel like a hypochondriac. So I didn't mention it to anyone. It was just a problem with me and not a disorder and, like with the parenting, it was entirely my fault if I couldn't do these things that came naturally and easily to everyone else. The problem was me.

When I mentioned this suspicion that I might have inattentive ADHD to my younger brother he said, "Oh, well that's what I've got so it wouldn't be surprising if you do too." I mentioned that it's genetic, right? A shocking number of parents learn that they've got ADHD when their child is diagnosed with it. I suspect that many, like myself, won't really do much about it (I'm not going to seek a formal diagnosis or medication because obviously I've got my life fairly stable--it would be different if things were out of control) but it is nice to know. It's nice to feel like things aren't just all my fault because I'm terrible at being human.

The more I think of it, the less I want my daughter to think that it's just a problem with her. I didn't want her to grow up feeling bullied and persecuted for being different, but even less do I want her to think that she's just wrong. How can I build confidence in my daughter if everything I do tells her that she's not wonderful just as she is?

This helps us all.
Knowing that this is likely something we share is helping me to be more patient with my kid. It has been so easy at times to think that she's doing this to us, that's she's misbehaving on purpose because she's willful. Sometimes I've thought that I gave birth to her and she's hated me for that ever since. Now it's getting easier for me to separate her behavior from who she is, and who she wants to be.

It's also making me think more about the ways I've found to help me manage the world. I've had to figure out ways of organization that help me do what needs to be done. I've figured out how to manage my time (mostly), my stuff (I'm getting better), and what I need to do to pay attention when it's important. My mind still wanders a lot, but I also know how to snap myself back to attention. So I'm using these things to help her out as well. Obviously not all of them will be applicable. She's a different person, and her symptoms manifest differently. There will be a lot of trial and error over the years. But I hope I'm showing her that it can be done, and that by giving her multiple ways of doing something right she will eventually figure out what works best for her. Just because something works well for someone else doesn't mean that she's wrong if it doesn't work for her.

This thinking is also helping us to modify the house to help us all out. We have hooks at her height for easy storage of her backpack, her bath robe. We have bins so that the toys can be picked up and put away easily, without taking too much time. If we make it easy for her to be organized then she will be more able to help herself.

Before kindergarten started we began the process of getting her diagnosed with ADHD. We knew she'd need the help. I'm so glad this is something we started early, because no matter what it takes a few months. She started off the school year on her best behavior but as she's gotten more comfortable her behavior has gotten wilder and wilder. If we'd waited to seek help then we'd have been frantic for answers and help. As it is, the week before Thanksgiving she went to the office at least once every day, and she had three notes sent home. She was crawling on the floor and scattering teaching materials. She was climbing on things and stacking furniture. Whenever someone asked her why she'd say, "I don't know." She was out of her own control and, frankly, it seemed to scare her.

That same week, she officially got the diagnosis. The week after her sixth birthday. We'd had forms to fill out, and one for her teacher. We discussed her issues and what we've tried at home. She behaved beautifully at the doctor's--climbing things, crawling, interrupting, humming noisily. She's obviously a bright kid (which sounds braggy, but I have as much control over that as I do any other part of her nature and I know it) but she can't hold still or stay quiet to save her life. This diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else. Now we can truly get the help she needs, the support we all need.

We've made the really difficult decision that she does need medication. She's prescribed something that won't linger in her system but will help her out for 8-10 hours a day. The first time she took it, a trial run on a day when we'd be with her, she flew into a rage that morning. She'd misbehaved and I sent her for a timeout. The week before when this had happened I'd had to chase her down and throw her in her room, at which point she'd flung the door open and run away. I had to chase her down again, kicking and screaming and clawing at me, and then hold the door closed with her throwing herself against it and kicking and continuing to scream. It was like confining a wild animal. This went on for an hour. An hour. And it wasn't the only time that day, that week.

With the medication, though? She went to her room. She wasn't happy about it but she went. No screaming. No clawing and kicking and hitting me. She stayed in her room until I told her she could come out. She listened to me when I explained what she'd done wrong, and how she could have done better. At the end she said, "Well, I'm sorry for that," and then explained her side of things. Calmly. I could not have been more shocked. I almost cried, both because it was so wonderful to be able to have a calm discussion but also because this rational little girl has been locked inside of her for so long, struggling. She knows what she should do but she gets to a point where she's not the one in control and she has no idea how to get back. She knows what she should do but she just can't do it.

We had decided that she was only going to have her medicine on school days, to help her out when she needed it the most. But last night as I was tucking her into bed I mentioned that today would be a school day and she perked up. "So I'll get my medicine?" I said yes and then asked, "Do you want to take your medicine every day?"



She hesitated for a second and then told me, "Because I'm a nice person when I take it."

You guys. That gutted me. It's only been a few weeks but she can feel such a difference in herself. It's not that she wants to be mean, or to lose control, it's that she really can't control herself. And she hates it as much as, or more than, anyone else does. She's been the one reminding me on school mornings that she needs to take her medicine. (In a spoonful of applesauce is the easiest way for her.) We worried that this would be a hard thing, but she's seeking the changes as much as we are. She already knows she behaves differently from the other kids, and she hates it. She wants to be more in control of herself. So we're giving her control over when she takes her medication. If she wants to take it every day for a while, she can be in charge of that. She's mature enough to see the difference it's making, so she's mature enough to make the choice for herself. It's not dulling who she is or changing her, it's just giving her the control she's been lacking.

It's easy to see that this is not only helping her concentrate, but also giving her a morale boost. Every day when she gets to tell me she had another great day at school her eyes are glowing. She's happy with herself, and that is priceless. ADHD is so much more than just not being able to focus, or having lots of energy. And it's been crushing her to feel like she can't do well at school, when she's been so excited about it.

I've seen the attitude that medicating kids with ADHD is somehow...a copout? The easy way? Something for pansy helicoptering Millennial libtards, or whatever word salad someone wants to put together to be insulting. I've even had someone tell me that ADHD in my child was caused by her traumatic birth, which feels awesome to be blamed for by the way. Those are all fundamental misunderstandings of this...I can't really say illness, or impediment, or learning disorder. It's a different way of experiencing the world. If medicine will help make the world a little more meaningful, a little easier to understand, then so be it.

I'm certain our stance on medication will continue to evolve as she gets older. This will be an ongoing discussion, especially as she matures. Medication is also not where this will end--there's behavioral therapy that we're going to start after the New Year. There are changes that the whole family will need to make in addition to the things we're already doing (playing at the playground every day after school, biking to and from school) to help her. We're looking into getting weighted blankets, possibly even for everyone except the little one (until she's older). We're working on calming strategies such as yoga and deep breathing. We'll continue modifying things and figuring out what works best for us.

Kids with ADHD also frequently have sensory issues. I've begun to wonder if that has played a role in some of her fussiness. When she's getting sick is often when she's been at her worst. When she was potty training I noticed that she would get angry and upset, then go to the bathroom and be calmer again. She takes off her shoes at school because she "hates shoes" (I get it, kid, I really do) and she would be naked 100% of the time if she could. She seeks stimulation in so many aspects (light, noise) that it can be startling to realize that other sensations are overwhelming for her. So we're going to explore that aspect more, and try to see in what ways we can help her out there.

The biggest thing this diagnosis has given us all is peace of mind. It's not that she's a bad kid, or we're bad parents. It's not something we're doing or not doing that's causing her behavior issues. If anyone is to blame it's the world we live in--big and noisy and overstimulating in the extreme. We can't change that but we can change our attitude. There are amazing aspects to ADHD. People with the hyperactive form tend to be incredibly perceptive, noticing everything. HusbandX has used that aspect to be really, really good at his job. I use the daydreaming to work on my writing, figuring out just how to word something. So we're going to focus on the positive aspects of who she is, and how she can use her natural talents to succeed. This diagnosis doesn't have to be something that marks her out as strange, or drags her down. It can be something that sets her apart in a good way, because she has skills that the average person doesn't. It's up to us to help her recognize what those are and how to use them.

Book Recommendation

I finally found one. A book about child rearing that I love. It was the first book I've ever read that actually described my child. This book is not ADHD specific. It's for parents of any kids who are high energy, high difficulty. It's called Raising Your Spirited Child. I nearly cried when I read it because it confirmed so many of my observations, things that went against normal parenting advice. Like, a bath before bed is a terrible idea for my kid. She's not soothed and calmed, she gets hyped up.

It really, really helped me to understand my kid better because the author goes through nine different personality traits that anyone can have, but which can be more intense in a spirited kid. It ends up like a mix-and-match book, because not all parts will be relevant to your kid. But when it is? It's life changing. Getting the confirmation that yes, your kid is just more challenging than average. No, you're not a terrible parent if you find your kid to be way too much sometimes. And she talks about ways to reframe things for yourself. Why these traits can be so difficult, but also why they can be incredibly positive. Ways you can help your kids to bring out the positive more than the negative.

If anyone else out there has a kid that's just more, even if it's just in one or two areas, I really do recommend this book. It made me wonder why I would ever want a kid who's not intense and passionate and fiery. Why would I want some insipid milksop who follows directions the first time when I could have my wild and wonderful kid who doesn't stop questioning and doesn't slow down because she feels everything all the time?

It's so nice not to feel like a failure, like you or your child is doing something wrong. If any of this resonated with you, please read the book. And feel free to pass along to me any that you've found helpful.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Why I clean with baking soda and vinegar

A few weeks ago we had a mess in our house. Unsurprisingly. Messes happen basically every 3.2 seconds around here. We have a giant stack of rags with which to clean them up (instead of paper towels) and the kids both know where the rags are kept. Even the little one has been caught cleaning up a water spill on occasion. (Not enough that I'm not constantly cleaning up after her still, don't worry.)

But this was a Mess. The kind that requires a parent and something stronger than water. So I pulled out the handy spray bottle we keep under the sink, sprayed it down, and got to work. This Mess required that I run downstairs with some laundry and start it right away, so I did that. Thinking nothing of the fact that I was leaving my kids by themselves upstairs for the two minutes it would take to start that load of laundry. Why should I? I was not exactly leaving for the wilds and abandoning my children.

However, I didn't think about the fact that I left the spray bottle out. I went back upstairs, finished cleaning up the mess, then went into the kitchen. The toddler (now a toddler, not a baby!!) came running into the kitchen and I was horrified. "Why is she wet?" I demanded of my older child. "Hey, why is your sister wet?" My older child walked into the kitchen holding the spray bottle, a big smile on her face. "She wanted to get wet!" I was told.

Now, this was not a small amount of spray. My poor younger child was dripping because her sister had squirted her so much, all over her head and body.

The spray bottle was taken away and I took the toddler to change and rinse off while HusbandX took care of The Talk. Because this is a very serious problem, and she needed to know about all the bad things that could have happened from spraying an unknown substance at her sister. "You could have blinded her, or made her very sick. She could have had to go to the hospital." By the end of this talk, our Munchkin was crying. Hurting her sister was clearly not at all something she'd thought about. Just, here's a fun thing to spray I'll get you!

Thankfully, in that spray bottle was nothing more harmful than diluted white vinegar. Mind you, it can still be a powerful substance and I'm glad that it's diluted. But considering the myriad other substances we could have had in a spray bottle, vinegar is by far the best.

This is not just a problem in our house. Kids are curious by nature, and we want them to be so! But that often means that they will find ways to get into the very things we don't want them to. According to the CDC: "Every day, over 300 children in the United States age 0 to 19 are treated in an emergency department, and two children die, as a result of being poisoned." As a parent, that statistic is distressing and makes me hurt for those families. Approximately 730 kids die each year due to poisoning, just in the U.S. Personal care products (cosmetics and household cleaners) are the biggest cause of all these poisonings. I'm sure fads like eating Tide pods doesn't help the numbers, but poisonings are a serious issue for all children and it can happen to any of them. These are also just the numbers of kids whose poisoning is severe enough to go to the hospital. What about all the ones in urgent care, or whose parents called the Poison Control hotline and were told that monitoring at home is enough?

The average household is filled with toxic substances. The typical advice is to lock these substances up, or keep them out of reach of children. If you have a kid like mine, however, those won't work. Our older child has been able to open "child-proof" items and open baby locked doors for a long time now. She's also a climber. Last year we thought a bottle of gummy vitamins was safe in the highest shelf in the kitchen, over the stove where it's hard to reach, until she climbed up and opened it to eat all the gummies. The safety cap was nothing to her. She was four. (We no longer keep gummy vitamins around.)

As if the risk of poisoning wasn't enough, there's also the indoor air pollution that's directly tied to cleaning products. The American Lung Association has warnings about cleaning chemicals because they can "worsen asthma and other lung diseases and risk heart attacks and stroke". That doesn't really sound like something I want my family or myself exposed to. I'm trying to clean my house, and increasing the pollution in it really doesn't do that.

Even if it doesn't cause any of those issues, even with normal use cleaners can cause eye and skin irritation. If you've ever gotten an accidental faceful of fumes that made your eyes water, or gotten something on your skin that burned or itched, you know how unpleasant that can be.
If you're concerned about the air quality inside your
home, might I suggest house plants?

So instead of risking all of that, I use baking soda and vinegar as my cleaners. Frankly, I'm sold in part because it's easy. I don't have to store 80 different products for different things. I have a few jugs of vinegar around the house and one Costco bag of baking soda down in the laundry room. One or the other is good for most things that need to get cleaned around the house, and the acidity or baseness does help to kill germs and bacteria. We don't need to go red alert and kill all the bacteria in our houses with antibacterial cleaning products. It doesn't decrease the likelihood of getting sick, for one thing, and for another it may very well harm our immune systems.

One warning: many recipes for "all natural" or homemade cleaning solutions call for essential oils to mask the smell of vinegar, or just to make things smell prettier. This is fine, but be very careful about how much you use, and how you use them. The people who push them never mention that they can also be poisonous (per the Poison Control website). Which is part of why toxic exposure to essential oils has increased in the last decade. Even if it's not toxic, there are still plenty of health problems caused by essential oils (such as allergies, respiratory problems, and chemical burns). Essential oils, even ones that are harmless to humans, can also be toxic to pets. The goal is to reduce the risk of poisoning your family, not increase it. I do use essential oils (sparingly, lightly) in a few applications, but most of the time I just don't find it worthwhile. If it's meant to cover up the smell of vinegar, the smell dissipates on its own very quickly.

Of course, we do still have a few other cleaning products. We bought bleach a while ago (I can't remember why anymore) and have used it (diluted) a few times. We obviously have dish soap and hand soap and laundry detergent. But my floors are cleaned with vinegar and water, as are my windows, counters, bathtub, and toilets. Things that need scrubbing get a bit of baking soda, a scrubber, and some elbow grease. I have even been known to add one or the other chemical to laundry on occasion. Mostly to diapers, since the baking soda helps remove any lingering smell while the vinegar helps to soften them.

As I said earlier, not having a variety of different cleaning products around is more convenient. I know exactly what I need to reach for, and it keeps the under sink areas quite tidy. Plus, both baking soda and vinegar are cheap, far cheaper than cleaners I can buy at the store. There are "eco-friendly" products if you're looking to reduce the pollution in your home but it can be difficult to tell what's real and what's greenwashing. They also do not reduce the risk of poisoning, which is my biggest concern in a house with small children and pets, since many of them still contain chemicals that can irritate skin, eyes, and are harmful if swallowed.

Making a clean home shouldn't involve a risk of poisoning, or increase the amount of pollution we're exposed to. Powerful cleaning chemicals have become so ubiquitous, however, that we rarely think about just how dangerous they can be. No one thinks that cleaning the bathroom with multiple cleaning solutions can cause chemicals to mix in dangerous ways. Who among us checks all the ingredients (if they're even listed) to make sure the glass cleaner doesn't contain ammonia because the sink and counter cleaner contains bleach? It's easy enough to think "I'd never mix those chemicals together" when you're thinking about the raw ingredients. It's less easy to remember which cleaner contains which, and to never use them on the same day or in the same area of the house. I find it much easier and safer just to keep a few of the raw ingredients around, since that's where the cleaning power comes from anyway.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The garden reno

We're loosely keeping our house projects in two categories: outside projects are for summer, and inside projects are for cold weather. The delineation is pretty easy to see, since we have a visual cue. As soon as the hammock goes up on our porch it's time to switch to outdoor projects.
The hammock. I highly recommend a porch hammock.
It's a toy, it's a nap/sleep place (on hot days/nights),
and a general relaxation tool. The whole family loves it.

And we set a doozy for ourselves this year. I wanted to re-do the garden area for several reasons. The first is that six boxes doesn't actually provide a ton of growing space. I know, I know! I'm so greedy! But so much of the garden was wasted in paths between the boxes (filled in with rocks) and it was pretty far away from the house. The area between the boxes was constantly overgrown and just a nuisance. The second reason is that the weeds were taking over in a serious way. I spent so much of my time digging mint and bindweed out of the garden boxes that I knew I'd never be able to get rid of it unless we also took out the garden boxes themselves.

We came up with an ambitious plan. The garden would be one large raised bed, about a third of our backyard. When we measured it out it came to 30x18 ft, or 540 sq ft. That's...a lot of growing space.

However, I didn't stop with the veggie garden. Since we were already going to be doing a large garden project I decided that we should do other landscaping as well. Under and around the fruit trees we planted over the last two years I decided to add a flower and herb garden. In the front yard, we've had these massive juniper bushes that, frankly, we hate. They took up so much space, they're prickly so the kids and dog never really went near them (well, the dog liked to pee on one of them from a distance), and they created a ridiculous amount of debris during each wind storm. Ugh. I'm sure they provide some ecological benefits around here, habitat for something, but not only are they ubiquitous, we also have a few giant ones on the other side of the house. I don't feel in the least bad about removing some of them.
After the rocks and half the tilling.

So! The work started before I quit work. I began by digging out the rocks from between the garden beds. And by digging, I really mean that the soil underneath was so pocked that I mostly just had to get down on my hands and knees to gather them up by hand since the shovel just ran into dirt every time I tried to use it. Or, the shovel tore the rotting ground cloth that was under the rocks as well. Hooray. I spent days, weeks, doing this whenever I had a spare moment. I'd dump them in a bucket and then carry the bucket over to a tarp on our patio (we had no idea what we wanted to do with them yet) to dump into a pile. I moved so many rocks, you guys. So many. At least I got a really good workout, eh?
My giant pile of rocks, as seen from the porch

In April, after I was done with work, my in-laws came. What a help! They both spent time with the kids, allowing us to get uninterrupted time to work, which is perhaps the thing I miss the most from when we were kid-free. My father-in-law helped us figure out what we wanted to use as the walls of our new garden bed, and gave so much help and advice, in addition to actual physical work. He also built us--as a belated housewarming gift--a set of stairs coming down off the back porch. Having no access to the backyard from our porch was the #1 thing keeping us from utilizing and enjoying our yard more. It's not that far, but having to go out the front and all the way around the house really did feel onerous. Now we feel like we can pop out back any time, and we're (I'm) more comfortable having the kids play back there with minimal supervision because if something happens I won't need to run all the way around the house to get to them. (It's fenced in.)

We decided on concrete pavers for the border wall of the garden because, even though it's far from the cheapest material, we wanted to do this once and then be done. Wood rots over time, obviously, even cedar. Which is also crazy expensive, comparable to the pavers we used for the amount we would have needed. For the back side, against the fence, we went with wood framed corrugated steel. The wood will need replacing at some point, but that shouldn't be for a good long while since it also has the support of the fence between our yard and the neighbors.
I found several holes and connecting tunnels
like this through the former raised beds. What
was made them? A mystery!

Why do a raised bed at all? For one thing, it's easier to build up the soil that way. For another, being in the city can sometimes mean that ground soil is terribly polluted. We have no idea what's gone on here before we moved in and I didn't feel like sending a sample of the soil away to be tested. Especially since, having something walled off makes it far easier to keep kids and pets out of the garden. Well, mildly easier. At least, I can tell them to get out and they know the area I'm telling them to get out of. That counts for something, right? (Our dog is great. We've had a couple of visiting dogs tear through the garden, however.)

HusbandX and my brother-in-law tilled up the ground which was going to become garden, then we built the barrier. The work went much faster than one would expect, though I wouldn't say it was easy. Two long afternoons of work. HusbandX carefully leveled out each of the bricks on the bottom row. I had the easy part, merely supplying him with the bricks and then building up the next two rows once the bottom was settled. (My in-laws also helped with this.)

I decided to go with sheet mulching to build up the garden, in part because it's a great way to build long-term fertility (as things break down), to hold and maintain moisture (because the wood and wood chips will soak up water to slowly be released), and because that would be by far the cheapest way to fill such a huge area. The first step in sheet mulching, however, is cardboard. I've known since last summer that this was an upcoming project so I've been hoarding as many large pieces of cardboard as I could. We unexpectedly had to replace the bathtub in the downstairs apartment after it cracked, so I kept the boxes from the replacement tub out in our shed. They were massive! I also got a nice windfall one night when taking the dog for a walk on trash night. The neighbors must have bought some furniture because they had quite a few really big cardboard boxes by their recycling bin. I helped them out a bit by taking that home with me. Last, when I still needed more cardboard, I went to the nearby big box hardware store and asked if I could snag some cardboard. I was told that they have their own compactor for such things but that I was welcome to any waste cardboard I could find in the store. I got lucky and found an entire flatbed with boxes that had been broken down but not yet taken out.
One giant pile of mulch. It was as big as our car.

The next step was to get mulch, preferably free but for a small fee if necessary. I called a couple of local arborists and, as it turned out, they both dumped mulch on my driveway. So instead of too little mulch I suddenly had an overabundance of it. I was originally told that I would need to pay a small fee to one of the companies, but the guy who owns the company waved me away when I tried to pay him. He said he was going right by our house anyway, so it worked out perfectly for him. He usually only wanted a fee to compensate for going out of his way. That works for me!

Some of the mulch was quite acidic, from pine trees, so I used that on my blueberry beds first thing. Top dressing with mulch does all the things listed above just as well as it does under soil. And since blueberries need acidity to thrive, I was doing at least three jobs with one layer of mulch. I can already tell that it's paying off, because the bushes are looking great. So many berries on them!
New garden area with the mulch laid down,
plus some of the soil saved from the old beds.

In the main garden I had the cardboard laid down, I had some logs (mostly firewood from the previous owners that was rotting) laid down to help hold more moisture and to add longer-term fertility, I had brush and branches we'd cleared from around our property laid down, I had some kitchen scraps and partially finished compost (ours) laid down, and then it was time for the mulch. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, I carted mulch from my driveway back to the garden and spread it out in a nice, thick layer.

The diminished mulch pile next to the giant compost pile.
The final step was to get finished compost as the soil layer. I waited until the mulch was about half used, mostly because otherwise we couldn't have fit both on the driveway. The compost I ordered was the single most expensive part of this whole thing--a bit over $700 for 15 cubic yards. It was actually cheaper to get 15 yards than it would have been to get 14, due to their price structure. That would have been almost $1000!

The compost, when it arrived, was hot. And I mean this quite literally. On a warm spring day it was steaming. When I spread it out in the garden I couldn't stand on it with bare feet. And even though I waited a day and a half after spreading it before planting, I still ended up burning many of the first seeds I planted and needing to re-seed. Whoops!
Starting to dump in the compost.

Since the compost was so hot, this also means that it's still breaking down. The fertility of the garden will actually be much better next year, and should begin to lightly drop off after that without further inputs. I do mean lightly. As long as I move the crops around it should be good for about another decade, since the mulch and everything underneath will be breaking down and adding fertility as well. However, we also have our own compost pile(s) and we still have a ton of mulch that we couldn't use (yet), so we'll be able to add amendments every year. We shouldn't need to purchase more compost or do anything major to the garden for a good long while.
The morning after the compost was
put in I was asked, "Mommy,
why is there a giant handprint in the garden?"

Since it's one big garden bed, I decided to plant everything in rows. I read from several different sources--and by different, I mean differing on The Right and Only Way to Garden--that rows are the most water-efficient way to plant crops. When people who are philosophically opposed to one another agree on something I tend to sit up and take notice. In this case, I was skeptical but willing to give it a try. The water (supposedly) collects between the rows and ends up soaking down to collect underneath the mounds. The roots of the plants grow down and are able to tap into that water source. Additionally, with the mulch down there soaking up, collecting, and slowly releasing water, the idea was to go many days between watering plants, even at the height of summer. The only time when the plants need a ton of water is right at the beginning, before their roots could tap the deeper water. Even then, you're not supposed to water too much, otherwise the root systems will stay shallow with no incentive to dig deep. At least, that's my understanding. Since this project took so long I didn't get things planted until mid or even late May. I was irrigating a lot in the beginning, but if I'd planted earlier in the spring when it's naturally rainy I theoretically wouldn't have needed to irrigate for a long, long time.
With the rows all raked into place, anxiously waiting for
something, anything, to start growing.

So, does it work? Yes it does! My plants are well enough established that, even with a very hot week reaching 90F, I watered only once and that was pretty light. Only the very smallest plants, with poorly established roots, were wilting. Everything else looked remarkably happy, and is growing quite nicely. Since this method focuses on getting healthy root systems going, the plants are much better able to withstand more adversity than plants which are constantly irrigated. They are overall healthier and more robust. The visual difference is astounding.

Every gardener I know has noted that plants react very differently to irrigation/tap water than they do to rain water. Rain water is far preferable. Water from the hose certainly keeps the plants alive, but it doesn't seem to do much more than that. Rain water, on the other hand, has superpowers. The day after even a light rain my plants will be noticeably bigger. I don't know why this is. Nutrients from the atmosphere brought down by the rain? Lack of chemicals we put in drinking water? The particular gentleness with which the rain hits the ground? Whatever the reason, I'd much rather get as much water as possible from rain rather than the tap.

Since watering the plants has been our largest ongoing expense with gardening, anything that cuts down on that is a huge benefit. Seattle can be very wet and rainy, but we also have long stretches in the summer where there is no rain. It's not uncommon to go two or more months without rain. Being water wise is pretty crucial here. To be even more so, I've considered mulching between some of the plants. I thought about doing it between the rows but my husband protested that "then it wouldn't be fun to walk around barefoot". He's got a point. But having some mulch (in this case, a bale of hay left by the previous homeowners) spread on top of the mounds would also help collect rain, in addition to providing shade so that moisture doesn't evaporate as quickly. I haven't done it yet simply because I've been waiting for my plants to get just a bit bigger and more established. If we were truly in a dire water situation, one in which I couldn't irrigate at all such as a severe drought, I would mulch over the top and between the rows in a heartbeat. Since this also helps to keep weeds down it's a great strategy to go with, especially for people who want to garden but don't have much time, or with mobility issues that make bending over difficult. For people in more desert-y climates this is absolutely the way to go, since managing water is even more important.
About a month ago, when things were finally starting.

The only part of this scheme that doesn't please me is how much space is taken up with the furrows between the rows, but that's because I'm an idiot. Next spring before I plant I'm going to re-work the mounds into keyholes and other shapes that utilize space more efficiently so that I can maximize my planting area. I feel silly for not thinking of that until after everything was planted.

And now! Er, two weeks ago. Some of the areas that look thin have
carrots and onions, which are not as visible in pictures. Others
are waiting for the plants in them to get much,
much bigger. Such as the tomatoes.

So what did I plant this year?

-Several different varieties each of lettuce and spinach
-Swiss and rainbow chard
-Beets (Early Wonder variety--they only take 55 days to maturity!)
-Tomatoes (fewer than I wanted because my younger child KO'd my starts several times--and I have no idea which varieties survived because I found them in a jumble on the floor!)
-Tomatillos that a friend gave me
-Five different types of carrots
-Glass gem corn
-Butternut squash, zucchini, 2 types of pumpkins
-Five different types of beans, both bush and pole
-Sunflowers (to draw in pollinators and for the seeds--they're planted with some of the peas instead of a trellis)
-Peas (garden, sugar snap, and snow)
-Onions (3 varieties, two of them from starts)
-A rosemary plant that I fully understand will take over that corner of the garden. I'm willing to let it, because the strong smell helps deter some insect pests.

In the flower-and-herb garden I planted:
The flower and herb garden from the porch. On the
left, you can see where all the flower seeds I gave
my kiddo ended up.

-Alpine strawberries
-A peony
-A bunch of strawberries I transplanted from a too-shady area
-I gave my older child 5 packets of flower seeds (mostly wildflowers) and let her go to town
-An attempt at watermelons that does not seem to be working out
-Lavender (2 varieties)

Almost all of those plants serve more than one purpose. Nasturtiums are edible but they also help deter pests from the fruit trees. Chamomile planted under the cherry tree provides tea but also helps the cherry tree by deterring certain fungi and diseases, plus making the fruit taste better. The strawberries will spread and help keep out grass. The peony will attract pollinators, in addition to being among my favorite flowers. And so on. Making the most of what growing space you can is crucial. It's not strictly about how many plants you can cram into a certain space, but also about the relationship between the plants. Having multi-functional plants as often as possible can really make a small space seem much larger.

I got lucky because, ridiculous gardener that I am, I didn't take into consideration the water needs of my plants until after I planted them. As it turns out, I accidentally did well. The peony, lavender, and catmint, with lower water needs, are in an area that gets less rainfall due to being not only between (and, when they get bigger, under) our apple trees, they're also under the neighbor's sprawling apple tree. They get plenty of sun, but not as much rain as other parts of the garden. They're planted in mounds, with plenty of mulch underneath, so even over the winter they shouldn't be inundated and drowned. It turns out that managing water well for drought also manages water well for when there's too much rain, so planting in mounds or rows with lots of mulch is just always the way to go.

As for the front yard, where we removed the shrubs we replaced them with some of the garden boxes we had taken out of the back. In two of them we planted raspberries, and another is being used for potatoes. We still have one more shrub to remove and replace with a box, into which we'll plant more potatoes. I'm not expecting us to be self-sufficient in potatoes or really anything else, but I'd much rather have them than those stupid juniper shrubs.

Getting rid of the junipers also opened up space for the roses which someone planted a long time ago, but which were being crowded out by the junipers. The roses are much happier and bloomed much more this year than last year. I discovered that peonies and roses apparently grow really well together, so I planted two peonies next to and under a couple of rose bushes. They're thriving in that spot, which in a few summers will be both lush and fragrant. And gorgeous.

Becoming a worm farmer

In my garden, I have deliberately set out to do things in a way that not only maximizes the use of space for the people who live here but also to try to build up the ecology of my area. In particular, insects. I know I'm doing well as a gardener and steward of this land when I look out in the evening to see swarms of insects buzzing around. I love seeing so many bees (at least four different types that I've counted) flying in and out. And because there's so much bug activity, on any sunny afternoon I can easily discern at least five different types of birds singing and chirping around our house. We, societally, tend to think of insects as omnipresent nuisances but they are actually in decline.  Which means that birds, possums, bats, and any other creature or plant that depends on insects is in trouble. Which means that we, humans, are in trouble because we depend on insects too.

As I was digging out rocks and turning soil and doing any number of the tasks involved in this renovation, I found hundreds of worms. Many were small but one of them was about as long as my hand and, when scrunched up, a good 1/4 inch thick. I dubbed it Fatty McWormchunks. The Munchkin and I had a grand time watching Fatty squirm on my hand for a few minutes as we talked about worms. We discussed how important they are, and what they do to the soil. It was heartening to know that I had so many worms around, happily getting fat. I later found a few more approximately the same size as Fatty.
One bin, with a 55 lb. dog and kids' toys for scale.

I moved many of these worms to a new home. Some were relocated to a different area of the garden, where they wouldn't be disturbed again, but others I collected in a worm bin. Making a worm bin has been a long-held ambition of mine, but we never really had a good place to keep one before. You can buy some that fit under the sink, but I was worried about how small they are. So I'd have enough to add a couple tablespoons of scraps every few weeks, big deal.

Well, I finally made a worm bin. I bought two dark totes with nicely fitting (locking) lids. I drilled some drainage holes in the bottom of each, and breathing holes around the tops. Then I laid down shredded paper (the newspapery fliers we receive in the mail worked nicely) and some cut up toilet paper tubes (to ensure there's not too much compaction), dampened it all, and began collecting my worms. We added some food scraps--cut up into small pieces to help the worms eat it faster--and then I laid a damp piece of cardboard over the top. Ta-da! A little worm farm. Vermicompost is an incredibly potent form of compost, with all kinds of benefits. Being able to add the worm castings (poop) to the garden as an amendment will help to keep the fertility of my soil up. When the first one gets full, or when I want to use the vermicompost, I can place the second one on top with fresh bedding (the newspaper and toilet paper), a new piece of cardboard, and food. In about a month most of the worms will migrate and then I can use the compost.

You don't need a large garden, or any garden, to use vermicompost. A few houseplants will do nicely as well, and if you happen to make too much for yourself you could always give it away to a grateful friend or neighbor. Or even sell it for a few bucks to someone who gardens.

It's hard to tell how well the worm bin is working, since I've added even more shredded newspaper. (My raspberry canes came wrapped in it.) But it doesn't smell and there aren't clouds of fruit flies, or any other insects, hovering over it so it seems to be healthy. I have no idea how long it will take before I'm able to harvest any of the compost but for now I'm just excited to have this project going at all.

So we're done now, right?

Haha, this is far from the last landscaping/yard project we'll be doing. I have ideas for adding more fruit bushes and maybe even some grape vines. We've been talking about re-doing the roof of our shed--putting a metal roof on so that we can collect rainwater to use in the garden. Additionally, the front of the shed is bright and sunny, maybe a good site for solar panels?

I'm sad that I didn't get pictures of all the
varieties of fungi and mushrooms that grew
in the compost--a good sign of healthy soil.
They've been so beautiful!
We want to add our own honeybees at some point, when my brother-in-law's bee box(es) can be brought down from Alaska. We'll build a shelf on the side of the shed that gets morning light to keep the bees off the ground and help them get and stay warm. (Crucial for bees.)

We'd like to do a small greenhouse somewhere as well. It would make starting plants easier in the spring, in addition to adding to our ability to grow things over the winter. Additionally, it would give us a safe place to keep our lemon tree. It was a bit of a PITA to keep in the house last winter.

Last, we've also talked about putting in some sort of jungle gym or climbing structure in the grassy part of the yard for the kids. We put in a pull-up bar under the porch, with gymastics rings hanging down at a good height for the Munchkin to play on. But something even more kid-friendly would be nice too, especially for Little Miss who's not quite ready for the rings yet.
Another gorgeous fungi. There have been at
least six types that I've noticed.

Blueberries! We should get at least a pint of berries
from this bush alone.
I'm happy with what we've done so far, though. This is a massive change and one that will accrue many benefits in the future.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On motherhood, the second time

It took a long, long time for us to decide to have a second kid. Our first one is a hellraiser. A piece of work. A demon. A monster. Bigger than life. Spirited and perceptive and tenacious and extroverted and energetic to the nth degree. She's kind, except not always to us. She saves that for others. Just the other day she made me lean down so that she could whisper in my ear, "Mommy, your tummy looks too big."

This kid...she is so much her father's daughter. Every once in a while a bit of me peeks out, but she is very much a daddy's girl. When I told her I wouldn't have to work anymore she just looked at me and said, "When does daddy not have to work anymore too?" She looks like him. She copies his mannerisms, his way of speaking. From one daddy's girl to another, I can appreciate this. I love that they share this bond, both of being the oldest child and of being so similar.
The Munchkin as a very tiny girl.

She is hard. Moody, so we never really know which kid she's going to be in any particular hour. And so, so extroverted, which is difficult for two introverted parents to handle sometimes. I wake up with her literally in my face, breathing on me, and I jerk back. When I tell her I need space she often clings harder, gets closer. I once had a really, really hard morning and told her that I needed to take a shower, all by myself, for just a few minutes. She declared that she was going in the shower with me. I said no, and a big fight ensued that ended with me shoving her out of the bathroom and locking the door. Well, not actually ending. She sat leaning against the door for my entire shower and sang only one line from "On Top of Spaghetti", very badly, for the duration of my shower. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry more so I ended up doing both at the same time. Refreshing, eh?

She climbs everything. At this point, unless it's actually dangerous (as in, broken glass or rusty nails along whatever she's climbing) or rude to others, I just let her do it. I got so sick of telling her to stop climbing things approximately every 2.4 minutes. During the epic snowstorm we had a few months ago she came into our room one morning to announce, "Look what I can do!" before climbing the doorjamb. She actually figured out how to climb the walls.
Climbing the walls.
In slippers.

My brother made the observation, not in a bad way (he made clear), that she's like a Border Collie. She's so smart that if we don't keep her entertained for absolutely every second of the approximately 842 hours she's awake every day (in normal people time) then she will find ways to entertain herself and we will not like them. I laughed and told my brother that I've had the same thought so many times. Keeping up with her while trying to do anything else--like eating and sleeping normally--is perhaps the hardest thing I will ever do. I always say, because it's always true, that my goal in parenting her is nothing major. She's going to rule the world one day and there's nothing anyone can do to stop her. I merely want to ensure she's a benevolent dictator and not a supervillain.

I love her to pieces. All of her worst qualities are also her best. She's strong from all the climbing, and does things no five-year-old should be able to. She's so sociable and kind because she's so extroverted, the kid that all her classmates turn to when they need a friend. She's smart and perceptive, and I'm constantly amazed by the things she says and notices. Last week she told me that lunch was "delightful! Thank you, Mommy!" I will never stop loving her, or being proud of her. But I am also not going to say that she's not a lot of work.

So I was nervous to have our second. In what ways would she be similar, and what ways would she be different? Would we basically have a second kid just like our first? I reasoned that that wouldn't be so bad because at least they'd keep each other entertained--but would we have a house left or just a mound of smoking rubble at some point? The possibilities were endless and endlessly terrifying. We had many sleepless nights each imagining never getting a good night's sleep again because of what we'd spawned. How will we ever survive this? ran through my head in endless loops.

The second birth was not quite as dramatic as the first, but still hard. After 14 hours of labor and 1 epidural, the sheets were pulled back to reveal that I was bleeding, not leaking more amniotic fluid as I'd thought. (I could feel it.) I ended up being wheeled in for my second c-section at a fast clip rather than a run. At least I was awake this time, but so loopy from the drugs and throwing up all the water they'd let me have over the previous night that I couldn't appreciate any of it. My spouse actually asked why I wasn't really looking at her and I couldn't even answer. My eyes weren't focusing on anything. It was not the fun sort of loopy.

This picture makes me so sad and so happy
all at once.

With my older daughter I had that instant bond that we hear so much about. Maybe it was just because we'd both come so close to death, but as soon as I woke up and saw her I would have done anything for her. With my second, it took a few days to really feel like she was mine. I was wary. Who are you? What will you be like? Will you demand as much of me as your sister does? The dog bonded with her faster than I did. It's taken me a while to realize that this is okay. It has not, at all, affected our relationship. She's such a breath of fresh air, so similar and yet so different from her sister. She's easier in many ways while also being super demanding and challenging.

She is very much my girl. I did not expect such a clear delineation in personality, but it's there. In looks, too! Sometimes I've teared up at how much she looks like my dad. He would have loved her sunny, happy disposition--so much like his. She already has so many words for her age and among them is "tickle". She tickles herself and other people (not that it actually tickles) all the time. "Tickle tickle tickle!" she says, giggling.

In the past few weeks she's gone full toddler on us. She throws face down on the floor tantrums, but not for long, and knocks things over like the Grinch in a snit. Her first real tantrum was on my birthday and culminated in her lunging across the table to try to knock the cake over. She shakes her head 'no' at pretty much everything. She's given up her second nap, but still could use one. And my personal favorite, she squirms to have me put her down and then cries because I'm not holding her anymore. I mean, how hard is it for me to get it right?! She wants to simultaneously be over there doing things independently and also be held by me! Sob!
In the car together.

She really is a tiny little girl, with Very Firm Opinions. You're going to carry me there. You're going to read me this book. You're going to put me down. No, pick me up! Now read this book to me. I'm going to eat that, and you should read this book to me. Read it! She is just as strong willed as her sister, in a very different way. She's learning both spoken language and basic signs at an almost alarming rate. She's said a dozen words and counting, and has three four signs she regularly uses in addition to pointing. She's said several two-word sentences, mostly along the lines of, "Hi, kitty!" Since her sister seemed to hardly speak until she was three this abundance of language at an early age is startling. I suspect it's because she's trying to keep up with her sister, who may not have talked early but now won't stop talking.

She loves music, both appreciating it and to dance to. If either of my kids ends up musical, she will be the one. Not that I think it's missed her sister at all, but I can already see the dedication in Little Miss's eyes, the will. Her flighty older sister loves to sing but I'm not certain she'll ever have the dedication for an instrument. Littles, however, already seems to be trying to pick it all apart. She recognizes songs. She has favorites among the ones her musical toys play and pushes buttons until the favorite one comes on, then stops to dance. When certain songs come on our music app, I can tell that she recognizes them. Especially if it's one I've danced with her to. She'll sit on my lap to watch music being played online (symphonies, bands) and takes it all in. As I said, she's my girl.

And she's exactly who we needed as a family. I won't say that life is necessarily easier with two kids, but I think that we are having much more fun as a family. It would be hard not to have more fun with this sunny, remarkable little girl. She smiled and giggled early, and has used both of those things prodigiously since. She's quieter, but in a stealthy way. My spouse has said that while our oldest will light a match and look us in the eyes while she throws it, we'll just never know with our younger one when something has burned down until it's too late. While our older daughter cries and screams and throws a fit when she doesn't get her way, then makes a point of then doing it again, the younger just quietly ignores us and goes back to whatever she wasn't supposed to be doing. I can't hear you telling me not to play in the dog's water, la la la.

I'm thankful to say that all the ways I dreaded having a second child did not come true. This one actually lets us sleep! Without her! In fact, she doesn't want to be held while sleeping any more than I want to hold her while sleeping. She asks to be put in her crib. My jaw dropped the first time she did that. Our older daughter still wouldn't sleep alone if she had the option. (As it is, she crawls into bed with us pretty often.)
Reading to her baby sister.

It helps our family situation that our older daughter not only really, really, really wanted a sister, she also excels at the job of big sister. As we knew she would. She's been so kind and loving, right from the start. Even when her sister was a protohuman, a boring lump of screaming and pooping that took Mom and Dad's attention away, the Munchkin was still kind and loving toward her sister. She threw a four-month tantrum at us, but she came around in the end. It helped that, around that time, younger sister became more engaging and interactive. The Munchkin learned to show off for her interested sister, who loved to watch her as much as she loved being watched. Over the months since then I've seen them blossom into a true sibling relationship--both the fascination with each other and the frustration. The two of them play together so much. There are mornings when the Munchkin gets her baby sister out of bed all by herself. I've heard the two of them laughing together as my wake up call, and "Come on, let's go play in the living room!" They'll play together until one of them decides that it's time to wake me up for breakfast. Sometimes on weekends we have easy things for the Munchkin to get for them, and I can doze while listening to them play for an extra half hour. Bliss!

With both of my kids, I had a touch of postpartum anxiety. This is very different from postpartum depression. I was not sad, I was anxious about everything. Am I doing it right? Am I hurting my baby? I would have visions of doing something, like dropping the baby on her head, and it would be so real that I'd have to put her down for a few minutes until I could calm down. It's not something I really talked about with anyone other than my spouse in part because once I recognized it I knew it was on its way out. It was tough to deal with until that point, however. It never seemed like a legit clinical issue, I just wasn't able to cope as well. There's nothing wrong, it's just motherhood. Right? I thought and hoped that with my first child it had merely been the rather extreme circumstances of her birth and then the ridiculous amount of sleep deprivation she put us through. But even with my Little, who started sleeping through the night regularly at about 8 weeks, I was getting anxious almost to the point of panic attacks. The state of the world is awful, what have I brought my kids into? I had nightmares about active shooter situations (thanks, America) and about hiding the kids from actual monsters. I'd agonize over every negative piece of news, obsess over it all, and was convinced that everything I couldn't control was going to make life miserable, hellish. But I couldn't control any of it! I'd hyper-control what I could, and get frustrated when I inevitably couldn't control everything. Then one day I'd realize that my thought patterns were Not Normal and I could begin to get better. I recognize in myself that, some days, my need to try to control things around me is because I'm so anxious that it's the only thing helping me cope. But I am getting better, and those days are very few and far between now. I've learned to recognize what's going on do what I need to do to feel better.

I didn't really think that anything could top the bittersweet feeling of watching my firstborn grow into first a toddler, then a preschooler, and soon a kindergartener. But seeing my second, and last, baby make the transition to toddlerhood brings so many more of those feelings to the fore. I have to search for any lingering baby smell. I hold her tiny clothes up and know that those tiny clothes will no longer grace anyone in our household soon enough. I do not want a third child but sometimes.... It's agony to both want her to stay as she is, right at this moment, and to want the changes that will come as she matures. Could she maybe stay this tiny but also just potty train herself in the next twenty minutes so we can skip that step entirely?

I'm so thankful that, this time, I knew all the things I couldn't have known before I had my first. We knew what we needed to do to keep our household running even when everything was going to shit. We knew where and how we would divide and conquer. And, despite all my fears, I was so much more at ease. My expectations were lower for how much control I would have for any of it--from labor to my child's personality.
"I'm totally going to put some of
this in my mouth."

And we got lucky. I could not have asked for two better children. Even when two sets of tiny hands are reaching under the bathroom door, refusing to let me even pee by myself. Even when it takes over an hour to try to get to the playground, including two dirty diapers, four water spills, missing shoes, and a couple of tantrums. Even when it's midnight and I've already been woken up four times. Even when someone has wiped their snotty nose on my shoulder. Even when they're both screaming and crying my name at the end of a long, long day and I'm exhausted and would give almost anything for two minutes of silence. They're the best, and I wouldn't trade a second of it.

I have listed attributes of my children, so here is my list. I lose my temper too easily. I try to control things too much, and am too anxious. I'm not as carefree and fun-loving a mom as I always assumed I'd be, and I will never be the Cool Mom. I hate gardening with my kids and most of the time I can't stand baking with them either. Both of those activities end up too messy, so all I can think about is how much time I'm going to spend cleaning up. Guaranteed, at least twice as long as the actual activity, which will only be 1/8 done with actual "help" before they both get bored and I try to finish up the project on my own while also keeping them out of trouble. In other words, it takes approximately 12 times as long to do the actual thing as I could without them, and at least 24 times as long to clean up from it. Do you know what it looks like to have your floors covered in flaxseed meal because your toddler got ahold of it and chased her sister around, holding the bag upside down? I sure do! And I'm still cleaning it up, weeks later.

I'm too busy too much of the time, and feel like I don't focus enough on the kids. Then again, with my older one, how could I not focus on the kids? If I spend even a minute not focused on her, she finds a way to grab my attention. Infuriating, frustrating ways. Then, spending my attention on the older one, I will discover that the younger has quietly been creating her own disaster.

I don't know what I'm doing and, at this point, I assume I never will. I never have it together. If it ever seems like I do, it's a lie. 

I make them laugh as often as possible, because that is the best sound in the world. I might not be cool, but I do try to be fun.

And I do my best for them, always. I have found wells of patience I never knew existed within me. I've got reserves of strength, both physical and mental, solely because I have to be strong for them. They push me to be better. I end every day grateful for my kids, and still as in love with each of them as I have been and ever will be. I have loved them since they were just specks inside of me and that will never change. Having two has just made that love more abundant, for both of them.

One small note:

I am the luckiest woman in the world. I had two healthy babies from two healthy pregnancies at times when I wanted them. I know many women for whom things have not gone so easily or so well and my heart hurts for them. Having babies is never easy, and to have it go imperfectly (infertility, miscarriage and stillbirths, abortions, and the loss of a child) is the worst thing ever. Seriously. Nothing else gets to your emotions, your soul, the way problems surrounding pregnancy and parenthood does. Yet so much of it goes unnoticed because people don't talk about their worst moments. Because there is stigma attached. Because sometimes it's too painful. Because the process is filled with self-doubt and what-ifs and blame. You could have done better, should have known better, have you tried this? She got what she deserved!

This Mother's Day, please remember that almost every woman you meet will have had something in her past--even if she never had kids and never wanted to. Please remember that for most women the path to motherhood is fraught and dangerous and tricky to navigate. Appreciate the mothers in your life not just for who they are and what they've done for you, but also for all the personal tragedies that you may never know about. Appreciate the strength it takes to go on sometimes, and the dedication. The love. Take a moment to think about women who want to be mothers and can't, or won't ever be able to. The line between "mother" and "not-mother" is not as clear as we generally make it out to be.