Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spoiled American

Never before have I felt as spoiled as I do now, sitting in my father-in-law's house on Sherkin Island off the coast of West Cork. This small island (population: 100) is a short ferry ride from Baltimore (the original Baltimore, in Ireland) but is a completely different galaxy to Villanova, Pennsylvania.

To be fair, island living is simply different than mainland living. There are no garbage trucks to collect waste. There's no gas station, no Home Depot, no store at all as a matter of fact, unless you count the few necessitites like milk and bread sold out of the pub. So of course certain allowances must be made. But Matty's father takes it to a whole other level.

Take the trash (please!). There's a plate for the birds and a plate for the compost. Paper goes into one bin to be recycled; plastic is washed out carefully and placed in another bin. I've been coming here for 10 years and it's only this visit that I can actually remember what to do with everything; in the past I would simply hand my plate and/or trash to Matty to dispose of.

Matty's father is a recycler, through and through, and not just in the commercial sense. Last night he literally took Declan's Hanukkah present out of his hands so her could carefully remove the wrapping paper to save for another gift. Declan was too flabbergasted to protest. (Granda knew better than to try this with Ronan. He might have lost a finger.)

Everything in the house is turned off and unplugged when not in use. Matt Sr. doesn't even use the dryer, though it's been plugged in for our benefit (his clothes are laid out to freeze, er, dry on the bushes). Hot water doesn't actually come out of any of the faucets; there's a special box heating system for the shower. The oven is tiny and the fridge resembles the one from my dorm room in college.

Don't even get me started on the heat (or lack thereof). I can't tell you how many times we've been visiting some family member for a few hours, shivering in our flimsy American clothes, when our host will suddenly catch herself and say, "Oh, should I turn on the heat?" Turn it on? It's the end of December! Of course you should turn it on!

Worst of all, there's no such thing as Tivo here. Every time I turn on the TV Declan asks me to start the show at the beginning, and whenever there are commercials the boys point and stare as if the box is about to explode.

Okay, that's not really the worst of it. But it does make me realize how spoiled the boys, and I, have become.

Don't get me wrong. I don't actually have a lot of techie toys at home--our DVD player cost about $30, our television is shockingly thick-screened, and I have an Ipod shuffle only because Amy bought me one on the occasion of Molly's birth. But our lives do revolve around the technology we use: we're on and off the computer at home all day, keeping up on news both pressing and frivolous, trying to work, etc. Here the Internet connection is shockinly slow, so surfing the Web becomes more like a rough dog paddle. And at night, there's nothing I like at home more than collapsing into bed and watching the previous night's The Daily Show. Without commercials.

I'd like to say that being here will make me a more careful consumer, will make me appreciate all the luxuries I take for granted in my day to day life. But I'm sure I'll be blithely dumping unsorted trash before I've been home a week. And though Matty swears he'll never complain again about Andy keeping the heat so low in the house, I'm sure we'll start inching it up once Andy heads to NYC for the week.

The truth is, I am a spoiled American. At least for most of the year. For two weeks, I can be a careful-living islander.

But just for two weeks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Independence Day

I always thought the reasons I enjoy communal living so much were due to the more positive aspects of my character: namely, my flexibility, calmness and generosity.

Now, having spent last week with Keri, Matty and crew in Ireland and Andy in New York City (where he now lives during the week), I'm beginning to suspect my affinity for our living arrangement has much more to do with what I've recently accepted as a staggering degree of helplessness.

Case in point: the heat stopped working. I thought the heat was only working poorly, which isn't that uncommon with a furnace that for all I know may be as old as our house, which was built in 1924. But when Andy came home from NYC on Thursday night, he confirmed that, although the pilot light was on, the water was at room temperature.


Me (huddled in front of the fireplace, from which I had refused to move all day): Should I call Oliver [our heating/cooling company] to come out for an emergency call?

Andy: Nah, I'll figure it out.

It took Andy two expeditions to the basement to discover that a circuit had blown, and with one flick of the finger we were back in business.

It never would have occurred to me to check the circuits. If, say, the Apocalypse had come before Andy came home and suddenly there was no Andy and no Oliver and it was up to me to fix the heating - well, all of us would have spent the winter huddled in front of the fireplace. Which - given the incredibly minor degree of difficulty involved in this particular repair - is pretty depressing.

Second case in point: our neighbor left us a voice mail a couple of days ago, informing us that he and his family were heading out of town for the holidays, but he had connected the snowplow attachment to his pickup truck and left the keys inside, since snow was in the forecast (we live at the top of a big hill, with a quarter-mile driveway that actually belongs to the neighbors, and they typically maintain it). I believe Andy and Matty both know how to work the snowplow, but I've only driven our little tractor snowplow, and feel supremely anxious at the prospect that our ability to leave our house next week might depend on my ability to figure it out on my own.

Our friend Polk said, "There's probably just a lever to move it up and down. You can do it."

Which I've come to understand is a very male attitude. My thoughts were, "What if I damage it? What if I scrape up the driveway? What if I wait until there's too much snow and crash the truck? And so on and so forth.

I've always considered myself an independent person. I've lived alone, and I enjoyed living alone, but that was when I was in graduate school and only had to maintain a little one-bedroom apartment. Now, I look around my house - at the wireless network, the entertainment system, the heating system, the hot water heater, the plumbing, all of it - and all I think is, I couldn't fix that.

Which brings me back to why I like living communally - chances are, the more people around, the more likely it is that one of them will know how to fix whatever happens to break.

But, since it's unlikely the kids will set up such enormous households for themselves when they get older, I feel I should be more proactive - especially with the girls. Whenever Andy or Matty sets to tinker with some failing system, I should just follow them. Maybe then all the females in our household might end up more like my friend Lauren, who knows how to fix lots of things, especially technological things. And I know it will be more of an effort for me to learn, because I have no natural interest in technology, whereas she always has, but I suspect it will be worth it in the end. Because I can't stand the image of myself as Scarlett O'Hara, fluttering my hands and waiting for some man to save me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old...

Our houseguests are gone. Mostly. We had to kick them out of their room when Jonah came home and a few dozen relatives descended for Thanksgiving. Now they just come here to eat and do laundry, since their house has habitable bedrooms but no working kitchen or laundry. It was great having Patrick, Rhea, Jazzy, and Sophia here, and not just because Patrick did the dishes and Rhea made kimchee fried rice for us.

As expected, Jazzy and Erika spent all their time together, in the room they shared at home and in the class they shared at school. What I wasn't expecting was that Declan and Sophia would become such fast friends. The two of them were thick as thieves, disappearing for hours on end to play elaborate games of make-believe or stare at picture books in Declan's room.

Unfortunately, Declan spent so much time with Sophia, he never had time for Hilary. Though Hilary didn't seem to mind--she seems to most enjoy playing or reading by herself in her room--I was sad that the two cousins weren't spending more time together. Now that Sophia is ensconced in her own room a few blocks away (where, I should add, she woke up the first night wailing that she was, "so lonely!"), Declan and Hilary are back to being best buds. This past weekend Matty took Declan and Hilary to the Please Touch Museum, and last week we took Hilary with us to the zoo.

It's been interesting to see the path of Declan and Hilary's relationship, and I'm happy to see we've just about come full circle. When we first moved here almost 3 years ago (gulp!), 18-month-old Declan and almost-3-year-old Hilary were inseparable. But after a while, they fought more than they laughed, and soon they rarely played together at all. Now that they're 4 and 5, they seem to have found their rhythm. Of course they still fight, like any brother and sister. But now it's the exception rather than the rule.

Next year, Hilary will go on to elementary school and Declan will stay at preschool, and I wonder how their relationship will continue to change. Will the two grades that will separate them drive them further apart? Or will they see so little of each other during the school day they'll seek each others company at home at night?

I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holding Down The Fort

In case I needed another reason to be happy Keri and Matty live with us, Andy resigned last week from the job he held for the past 17 years to join the wildly successful venture his two best friends are running . . . in New York City.

Which means that, from Monday to Thursday, he'll be staying in New York.

You might think this means I'll cherish the adult company Keri and Matty provide even more, as well as their cooking, driving, cleaning, and conflict resolution skills - all of which means I'm not captaining this chaotic vessel on my own. And that's true. But what I'm really so very glad about, more than anything else, is that they're here at night.

People generally perceive me as a pretty laid back person. And I really don't worry much about things like, where I'll sleep the 10 extra people coming in for Thanksgiving, or whether my house is spotless when guests arrive, or whether the pressure in my tires is low. But I have been known to worry about completely improbable scenarios, such as how I would get all my kids out in the event of a fire. Or what I would do if a homicidal maniac broke into the house.

A historically-minded person once told me that the layout of my house - in which many of the bedrooms are connected by interior doors - became popular after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, so parents could lock the hallway doors to their children's rooms and still be able to move between rooms to check on them.

Thanks a lot, whoever that was. Now there's something else to lie awake at night thinking about.

But I don't lie awake at night. Because with Keri and Matty here, I feel safe. If there were a fire, I wouldn't have to get all the kids out myself. And if there were an intruder, he'd have to fight off all three of us (with all our mad skillz).

So, Andy, if you're concerned about how I'll get on while you're gone, don't worry. I'll miss you, but we'll be fine.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Two weeks later, I can finally write about Thanksgiving weekend without feeling exhausted. Our first visitors arrived the Tuesday prior and left the Monday following. In between, eight of our cousins passed through the house, and one night 13 kids sat down to dinner (pizza, of course; I'm not crazy enough to actually cook dinner for 13 children). It was a wonderfully hectic weekend filled with family and friends, ending on Sunday with a bris hosted for our friend Lauren, who welcomed Henry Eliot to her family.

I was a bit worried about how Declan would fare over the weekend. All the visiting cousins were older--between 8 and 11 years of age--and, save one, female. As I've written before, Declan keeps one foot with the younger kids and one foot with the older ones. I had no doubt that with all the big cousins around, Declan would prefer to hang with the older crowd; but would they want to hang out with him?

I needn't have worried. Though 8-year-old Justin, the lone male cousin over the age of 4, didn't always get on well with all the girls, Declan proved to be a popular kid. I guess I underestimated the cute factor. Girls love cute little kids. Both Declan and Ronan fell in love with their cousins, especially Megan and Brooke, who live in Ohio. We're hoping we can make a trip out there in the spring so the kids can see each other again.

The whole weekend made me realize how lucky we are to have all the kids living together. I wish Megan and Brooke lived closer, so Declan and Ronan could spend more time with them, and so I could get to know them as well as I have gotten to know Jonah, Erika, Hilary, Aaron, and Gretchen. The thought of Ronan and Aaron only seeing each other a few times a year, instead of being the constant companions they are now, makes me sad.

As warm and fuzzy as I felt about seeing all the kids together, I'm sure it was nothing compared to how my great aunt Rose felt. Aunt Rose lost Uncle Bob, her husband of more than 70 years, last June, and this was her first visit up North since then. She couldn't stop telling us how happy she was, how she would remember this weekend forever.

I'll remember it too, because I'm sure it won't be long until Declan tires of being an adorable playmate and decides it would be more fun to tie Brooke's bra to the balcony railing or steal Megan's diary and post excerpts on the Internet.

Hopefully, the adorable playmate thing will work for a few more years.

Thanksgiving: The Menu

So what do you feed 30 people for Thanksgiving dinner? Here's what we served:

Smoked Turkey (above, perched in Patrick's Big Green Egg)
Roast Turkey
Grilled Leg of Lamb
Chestnut Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Brussels Sprouts with Turkey Bacon
Glazed Carrots

And for dessert...
Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Maple Walnut Baklava
Pumpkin Pie
Aunt Rose's Mandel Bread
Barbara's Brownies and Peanut Butter Cookies
Andy's Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Jonah's Home!!!!

After ten months and fourteen days, we finally brought Jonah back from Kennedy Krieger yesterday.

We admitted a child who was plagued by constant chemical surges in his brain that made him agitated, aggressive and sad. When he was discharged, Jonah's disruptive behaviors in academic settings had decreased by 99.7%. His rates had dropped so low that his psychiatrist determined there was no need to try adding a new medication, as was the plan the last time I posted an update.

As you can imagine, it was a very emotional day. Not quite as emotional as the day we dropped him off, but pretty close. I cried, Jonah's aides cried. We videotaped fond messages from everyone on his team and snapped pictures of him being hugged by his speech pathologist, his behavior therapists, his psychologist, and his aides.

It's hard sometimes to figure out what Jonah's thinking, but I'd say he was pretty happy. He wasn't thrilled that we had moved his room while he was gone, but once we showed him all the markers in his cabinet, he adjusted fairly quickly. Today, he started his new school, and we started re-adjusting to life with Jonah. And it will take some adjusting, even though we're all, down to the two-year-olds, absolutely thrilled to have him back. This morning, for example, was pretty frenetic. You wouldn't think getting eight kids up and ready for the day would be that much more work than seven, but it is. Especially when you have to make sure that eighth kid eats his medicine-infused peanut butter sandwich and doesn't take advantage of his new freedom to fall back into old habits, like writing on the walls.

But, if there's one thing I've learned as the parents of a child with a disability, you can adjust to anything. I adjusted when my beautiful baby grew into a toddler, then a boy, who would come after me every day in a blind, unreachable rage: biting, punching, scratching, grabbing, then five minutes later crawl into my lap for a hug as if nothing had ever happened. I adjusted when he stopped eating anything but pretzels and peanut butter and had to spend a month as an outpatient at CHOP's feeding clinic, where I watched therapists force feed him, after which I was taught to force feed him myself. I adjusted when my nine-year-old son went to live in a hospital two hours away, and now I get to adjust to having him back. I think, now, there is nothing that could happen to me that would simply stop me in my tracks.

And I don't mean to suggest there's anything special about me. I think, for the most part, people cope. Period. That's why it always bugs me when some well-meaning acquaintance says something like, "I don't know how you do it. I could never handle it." I think most parents in my position feel similarly: none of us thought we could do it, but we did it. We do it. And if you had to do it, you would too. I'll never forget something Andy said once, about seven years ago. Jonah hadn't been diagnosed yet, but the writing was on the wall, and one day while we were riding in the car, Andy said, "It would be okay if we had a special needs child." This was Andy talking, super over-achieving Andy, who had already decided that all our kids (3 out of 5 of which hadn't even been born yet) were going to go to Penn and become investment bankers. But what he was really saying was, "I love Jonah. Nothing can change that."

But, hopefully, all that bad adjusting is behind us, and we can look forward to more good adjusting: adjusting to a child who's finally thriving in school, who can carry on a conversation, who plays with his siblings. Jonah's teachers had always said that once his behaviors were resolved, there was no ceiling on what he can accomplish. Now, after a seven-year-struggle, we're so excited to find out how high he can go.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marathon Day

The Philadelphia Marathon is today. And I woke up at 5:00 in the morning, just like many marathoners, whose anticipation, excitement and anxiety kept them from sleeping.

Which would make sense if I were running today. But I'm not.

I trained for the Marathon. I logged training runs of 15 and 17 miles. But I kept putting off registering - I was pretty sure I was going to run, fairly certain I would be ready, but what was the harm in waiting? After all, I had run the Broad Street Run (10 miles) and the Philadelphia Distance Run (a half-marathon) this year, and both times I had signed up at the Expo the day before. That way, I could check out the conditions - after all, I wasn't one of those running nuts who would slush through 13 miles in a downpour.

Then, about three weeks ago, Keri told me that she had heard from a friend that the Philly Marathon was closed. They weren't accepting any new registrants.

I couldn't believe it, but it was true. Apparently, there are a lot more people in town who can run 26.2 miles than I had ever assumed. So, no marathon for me.

It serves me right. I've noticed this tendency in myself before - to have an idea, a plan, but not to commit to it fully. I always like to leave myself a back door. I could very easily have had a tubal ligation when the twins were delivered by C-section, for example, but I chose not to. I mean, five kids is more than enough by anyone's standards, and I honestly have no desire to have any more (and would probably have a heart attack if I somehow found myself pregnant, like what happened to Keri) - but I guess what it comes down to is that I don't trust myself not to change my mind.

Which is a shame, because I can't help but feel my life would improve enormously if I could throw myself into projects with reckless abandon. Instead of working in dribs and drabs on the novel revision that my agent has been waiting on for the better part of the last two years, what if I had stayed up all hours of the night, or gotten up at 4:30 in the morning on the days Andy went to work early? What if I hadn't spent so much time surfing the net or playing games on the computer or even blogging for Strollerderby (which I just recently gave up, recognizing it as the time-sucker it was, instead of the paying, identity-affirming, writing gig I liked to think of it as)? What if I had been able to eat healthily on a consistent basis, instead of constantly undermining myself by eating four bowls of Andy's homemade oreo ice cream? What if I had set aside the time every night to help Erika with her math and help Hilary practice her reading? Maybe by now, Hilary would be able to read to herself instead of just being able to read out loud - a mysterious gap in her skills I can't really explain.

On the one hand, I understand that kind of intensity is not really part of my personality, and in fact runs counter to the laid-back, flexible attitude that keeps me sane amidst all the chaos of my life right now.

But on the other hand, there's no reason I can't turn up the heat a little bit. So, there's my New Year's resolution, a month early: sustained commitment. My buzz words for 2009.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I'll always wonder what Declan would be like if he had grown up as the oldest child of three, rather than the middle child of eight, as he is here. Older children are generally higher achievers than their younger siblings and, from my experience, tend to have much stronger personalities. Younger kids tend to be pleasers, as I can attest.

But every time I lament the Declan I'll never know, something happens that makes me realize the benefit of having older siblings around to look up to. (No, Erika and Hilary teaching Declan to dress up in princess dresses was not such a benefit.) And right now, it's homework.

Declan is obsessed with homework. He sees Erika, Hilary, and Jazzy doing it each day after school and so desperately wants to be a big kid like them. So I printed out some worksheets and have him practice his letters in a spiral bound notebook. He does his homework each day like the older girls and beams with pride when he learns a new letter. He's getting better and better at writing his name, though yesterday he wrote "Decalin" at the top of his worksheet. That actually impressed me, because that's how some of his friends say his name and it means Declan might actually be sounding out the letters in his name rather than just copying.

Would Declan be so driven to learn if he didn't have his older cousins to mimic? I don't know. Perhaps he'll tire of the homework when he's actually required to complete it, as Erika has. But until then, I'll enjoy the huge smile on his face when I congratulate him on the proper execution of a "C" (it's harder than you think) or a careful printing of his name, all the letters in the right order ("I ran out of room," he says, when I question why he sometimes puts the "N" in front of the "D").

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One Big Happy Family

Being part of a huge blended family means that people tend to only see you that way: one big family of 12. Sometimes it feels like we've lost our identity as a nuclear family of five (or seven, in Amy's case). And while it's wonderful to be part of such a warm and loving group, its not ultimately what defines us.

Because of our branding as "that crazy Lutz/Fisher/Murphy family," no one ever invites us anywhere. I think many people assume that inviting one of us means inviting all of us, though of course we don't feel that way. There have been times that Amy and her brood have gone to parties or dinners at friends' homes that we haven't been invited to, and this coming Friday, in fact, Matty and I and the kids are having dinner at the home of one of Ronan's friends. But these outings are few and far between. We're much more likely to host our friends at our house.

It makes sense; there are a lot of us and we have a big house, so inviting another family over doesn't really put us out. And I realize that most people would feel slightly claustrophobic inviting four more adults and eight kids into their home.

But I hope our friends know that though we live as one big happy family, we're really two separate families that try to maintain our single family relationships. We try to schedule individual family outings on Sundays, and sometimes even leave all the kids with a sitter so two separate couples can go out with two separate sets of friends.

We've tried hard to instill in our kids the distinction between sibling and cousin, parent and aunt/uncle, and it seems to be working, as we've written about here . Now if only we could get everyone else to see the same distinction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We Want to Live in Your House: A Guest Post from Rhea

Everyone thought we were crazy. You really want to live with two other families???

Well, yeah. We have nowhere else to go! It was just perfect. Close to our new house, same teacher, class and bus for Jazzy and Erika, two chefs. Why not? Patrick and I are good sports. We can do this. It should only be for a few weeks.

Well, it has now been over two months and it looks as though it will be just a few weeks more. All in all, things have been good. Here are some of my deep thoughts, reflections and comments about communal living.

“Who the f--- is crying now??? It’s f’in’ 7am on a Saturday!!!”

Everyone (even Marina) is a little bit scared of Gretchen. (And you thought Imelda had a temper and a shoe fetish.)

We only get to watch TV on a 3” screen and only political shit since Matty has a coronary if we change the channel. The BIG TV is reserved for Eagles games and they won’t show us how to use it.

What the…? Where’s RoNo??? He is just the sweetest thing….

“Is Amy dressed to go out in public?”

“Molly spit up on me again.”

Hilary is a very WHYs child.

Iwanbeer actually means “I want my bear.” So should I not have given Aaron a beer? I put it in a sippy cup…

Thai hairdo’s are no-do’s. But the food is delish.

Andy can buy ANYTHING in bulk.

Erika totally gets her money’s worth from drama class.

Naked boy! is always followed by another Naked boy! and then another Naked Boy! and then a Naked Girl!

“Must we eat steak, again?”

Depo makes babies who have very sweet demeanors.

ALL men have the same sense of humor and only ONE topic of humor.

It takes a village to buy a boat.

“Someone’s crying.”

And those a just a few thoughts off the top o’ me head.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Two Angels, a Mouse, a Pirate, a Ladybug, Rapunzel, Tinkerbell, a Grey Furry Baby, and Robin Hood Walk Into a Bar...

Update on the Uber-Commune

I got an email from my friend Sarah last week, expressing mild shock that after more than two months, our mutual friends Patrick and Rhea and their daughters were still living with us, and everyone was still happy with the arrangement. Which reminded me that I hadn't posted any updates on that situation since Patrick and Rhea moved in.

In case you haven't been paying attention, here's our current head count: 3 moms, 3 dads, 9 kids, 2 kid helpers. When Jonah comes home at the end of the month, that will make an even 10 kids.

And I have to say, I love it. I think I was just meant to live on a commune. I love that my children are always occupied - Erika and Jazzy (Patrick and Rhea's older daughter) are in the same class at school, share a room, and are rarely apart; Sophia (their younger daughter) has formed a sweet bond with Gretchen. I love having even more smart, interesting adults around with totally different skill sets than mine - Patrick, who's an architect, has helped us immensely with the townhouse we're in the process of buying down in Atlantic City, and Rhea makes a completely addictive kimchee fried rice.

And of course, it's no small benefit to have more people around to share the chores: packing lunches, doing dishes, driving to school. I can honestly say that it's less work for me personally having Patrick and Rhea here.

What they think about the whole thing, I'm not sure. They haven't fled screaming to their shell of a house, choosing to live without a kitchen or working bathroom rather than stay here, so I guess it's not too terrible! Look for a guest post from them soon.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Politically Incorrect

We're all fairly political. Not that we all agree—Matty is just left of center, while Andy is just Libertarian—but we always have the news on in the kitchen, where we tend to hang out in the early evening as Matty or I prepare dinner. So it's not surprising that most of the kids in the house know that there is an election going on, and those above the age of 4 can even identify the candidates. (Declan, however, misidentified the gentlemen on a recent Newsweek cover as Barack Obama and John McCain (it was actually Joe Biden), but who can blame him? Old white-haired guys all look the same to a 4-year-old.)

Erika, recently asked Andy a question about Obama, and Andy replied, "Barack Obama wants to steal our money."

Matty was appalled. "Andy, you can't say that," he urged.

"Okay," Andy replied. "John McCain also wants to steal our money."

Needless to say, this did little to calm Matty, who, rather than say something he might regret, scooped up the boys and retreated to our bedroom. Where, I should point out, Declan asked plaintively, "Why does Barack Obama want to steal our money?" I lied, "Uncle Andy was just joking."

Matty wasn't mad about the affront on Obama, but rather the overly simplistic and completely inaccurate characterization of both candidates. Kids are literal. They know what stealing is. People who steal go to jail. Collecting taxes isn't stealing.

Later, I heard him telling Erika that Obama and McCain were two different candidates with different positions on many issues and that some people liked Obama and some people liked McCain, just like some people like McDonald's and some people like Burger King.

Clearly, we want our kids to share our values and beliefs. And I sympathize with Andy, the lone Republican-leaning Libertarian in our liberal-leaning household. But painting our politicians as criminals is not the way to do it. Painting them as fast food franchises is a much better option.

I'm not being glib; a 7-year-old child has no concept of real politics. But she does know that Chicken McNuggets are better than Chicken Tenders, but that Wendy's burgers are far superior to McDonald's. In other words, she knows that there are some great things about each fast food outlet, but none of them is perfect.

As parents, all we can do is present our kids with the facts as they can understand them, and know that as they get older, they will make their own decisions and form their own opinions. Maybe they'll agree with us. Maybe they won't.

A few days later, Erika told me at breakfast that she didn't support Obama because he wanted to take her money. I started to correct her but she interrupted me, "I know what it is, it's called taxes." But what does a 7-year-old know of taxes? All she knows is that if she can't keep her money, that's one less Webkinz she can have.

Amy thought we should keep the TV news off in the kitchen when the kids were around, at least until the election is over, but I think that misses the point. Now is the perfect time to start exposing our kids to politics, in any way they can understand. And if that means a few more visits to Wendy's, that's fine with me. (It's much better than McDonald's, anyway.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Ghosts of Halloweens Past

Sid and Nancy, 2005

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bee-ing There

I like to think that I would do anything to protect my children, that I would sacrifice myself and my well-being to prevent any harm from befalling Declan, Ronan, and now Molly. I like to think that.

But I'm wrong.

Since Declan was born, there have been two instances where I feel that I have completely and utterly failed him as a parent. The first was more than three years ago, in Ireland. I was carrying him down some stone steps, lost my footing, and fell the last three steps to the concrete floor. I landed hard, with bruised knees and ego.

And I dropped Declan.

He was fine, a bit scared, and cried for a few minutes. But I was horrified. Here, when my son needed me most, I failed. My instinct should not have been to put out my hands to break my fall, it should have been to wrap my hands around my baby and hold him tight.

Then, last year, I was in the kitchen with Declan, Matty, and Andy, when there was a small explosion on the stovetop.

Did I throw myself on top of Declan to protect him from what turned out to be an exploding gas lighter, or dive to push him out of the way? No.

I ducked behind the sink.

I think that is in these moments, when pure instinct takes over and we cannot obsess or analyze how exactly to react, it is then when we see our true nature. And my true nature is clearly trying to tell me something.

I have my moments. When Declan was a newborn, some horrid creepy crawly thing darted into his carseat (with him in it), and I didn't run screaming in the opposite direction or call Matty and insist he come home from work straightaway. I calmly scooped out the bug and then washed my hands 17 times.

This past weekend, we took the kids to a birthday party at Linvilla Orchards, a favorite spot for pick-your-own fruit. Last year we picked apples on a particularly hot September day, and Declan got stung repeatedly on his wrist by a very angry wasp. Since then, we have picked peaches and blueberries, and even tiny plums, but each time Declan announced that he would not go apple picking.

The day of the party was very sunny and brisk, a bit cold for bees, I would think, but once the pizza and cake were served, so were the bees. They were everywhere, crawling into cups of lemonade, hovering over pizza crusts and resting hungrily on cake crumbs. Declan was literally shrieking with terror.

Now I must confess, I am terrified of bees and wasps. Not allergic, just really, really scared. Years ago, when I lived in Florida, I had to call a friend to let me into my house because there was a beehive over the door and I simply couldn't walk under it (she let me in the back door). So I know where Declan's coming from. And I can't say I was too happy at this party either.

But I didn't let Declan know any of that. I stood with him among the bees and stayed calm. And though my instinct was to scoop him up and hide in the car, I stayed strong.

If I can handle bees, I can handle anything. I hope.

Monday, October 27, 2008

No Riluzole Miracle For Jonah

It's official: Jonah's Riluzole trial is over. The new, $13/pill drug that so drastically transformed two other patients on the unit had virtually no affect on Jonah's lingering irritability and SIB (self-injurious behavior; Jonah often bites his hand when he's agitated).

It's pretty disappointing news. It took half a bag of chocolate chips and an afternoon of mindlessly trolling the internet before I felt like talking to anyone again.

To be fair, Jonah was not in the same kind of desperate predicament those other children were in when they were prescribed Riluzole. Jonah's behavior, since he was placed on lithium shortly after his admission, has been pretty good - much, much improved over how he was before he left home.

But Jonah's doctor feels she can do better.

Which means another new drug, another trial - another few weeks, at the very least, until Jonah can come home. And it's hard to get excited about the new drug. Instead of something cutting edge, something experimental, Jonah's doctor is going old school, prescribing a tricyclic, which is a family of anti-depressants developed in the 1950s whose popularity with doctors has been eclipsed by the development of SSRIs.

On a more positive note, Andy and I had an amazing visit with Jonah this weekend. It was just us and him, no other kids, and he loved having our undivided attention. We went to Target, as he's been asking to do the last few weeks, and stocked up on markers. We had dinner at Chili's, where he was perfectly well behaved. (I can say with absolute certainty I would much rather take Jonah to a sit-down restaurant than I would Aaron or (especially) Gretchen.) We even got his hair cut, without a single protest - although, historically, haircuts have often required martial-type headlocks from Andy in order to get through.

So, our weekly treks down to Baltimore will continue. I have to say, I am so weary of making the trip. It didn't bother me that much for the first, oh, say, eight months of Jonah's admission. But all of a sudden, I started hating it. I can't wait to be done spending four hours in the car every Saturday, splitting up the family for the day (or listening to the twins scream in the car, which we do about a third of the time), feeling more exhausted on Monday morning than I did on Friday night.

But I guess I'd rather Jonah spend a few more weeks in the hospital, if it enables his doctor to find the perfect pharmaceutical cocktail. Because this is something I never want to go through again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I honestly feel that I could once again inhabit the mind of a child, and truly experience the wonder and mystery of childhood that I have long since forgotten, if only I could appreciate the joy of running in circles, the thrill of jumping down stairs, and the precarious pleasure of balancing on . . . anything.

We have a carpet in our foyer that I believe is about 10' by 14'. When Jonah was two, he loved running around the border of this carpet, and when he was diagnosed with autism, I figured this was just another stimmy behavior, like lining up his magnetic letters or flapping his hands. But every one of the kids has spent hours running around that carpet. Most nights, after dinner, someone turns on the CD player, and Aaron, Gretchen, Ronan and Declan (and sometimes Sophia) chase each other around and around until no one's really sure who's trying to catch whom.

Stair jumping is also very popular, even with the older kids. I've caught Erika leaping from the first landing to the floor below - eight steps down. The little guys test their bravery by escalating from the first, to the second, to the third step - we don't let them jump from any higher. And I have to say, the practice makes them better jumpers. I wish I had video of Gretchen when she first started trying to jump off the first step - it was about as graceful as falling face-forward. But Aaron could do it, and she was determined, and now she has perfect form, like a skier about to launch down the ramp: knees bent, arms back, chest out.

Sometimes, I feel as if I haven't aged at all, that I'm the same person I was when I was much younger. But then I realize how much I have changed. Hilary asked me just a couple of days ago, "Why don't you have any toys?" I thought about my iphone, and my ipod, but realized she wouldn't consider those toys. So I said, "Grown-ups don't play with toys the way kids do." And she said, "So what do you do for fun?" I thought, poker is fun. Tennis is fun. Running around in circles is definitely not fun. At that moment it seemed there was no greater divide between my young self and myself right now - or between myself and my children - than my definition of fun. And it was a little sad, because I can't even remember a time when running around in circles was fun. I wish I did.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Metaphysical Conversations With Hilary

Hilary: I don't want to be a vet, because then you have to take care of dinosaurs.

Me: Actually, dinosaurs are extinct. That means there aren't any alive anymore, and there haven't been since before there were people on the planet.

Hilary: What happened? A giant rock hit the earth? [We had discussed the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction with Erika on a previous occasion.]

Me: Some people think so. Maybe a giant rock hit the planet, causing it to become really cold, and the dinosaurs died because they couldn't find any plants to eat. [This is me bullshitting my way through the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction. I'm actually not sure whether a colossal impact like that would cause severe climate change, or clog the atmosphere with dust, or maybe some other fatal consequence altogether.]

Hilary: What happened? [Repeating questions is definitely her m.o.]

Me: Well, we don't really know. But we do know there are no more dinosaurs.

Hilary: Is Uncle Bob extinct?

Me: Well, we don't really use the word 'extinct' to talk about individual members of a species, more like the species as a whole. So, Uncle Bob is dead, but the human race is not extinct.

Hilary: And that's why 'Tom and Jerry' is so funny!!!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Yet Another Reason It's Great to Live in a Communal Household

You always have back-up for removing stubborn splinters...

Monday, September 29, 2008

What's Brown and Sticky?

From what I can gather from Erika, my source for the current state of school affairs, the popular kids at school these days are the funny ones.

When Erika was in kindergarten, all the girls wanted to eat lunch with Kyle, who made the girls giggle so hard they snorted their milk. Now that she's in elementary school, Erika has no interest in Kyle—he plays with the mean boys, she says—and has moved on to David, who seems to be the apple in many 2nd grade girls' eyes. At the back-to-school picnic, Amy spotted David easily by the half-dozen girls surrounding him like a pack of hungry lions. I couldn't help but be surprised at how smug Amy was that Erika got the first play date of the new school year with David last week.

If David is any indication, my boys are off to a good start on the road to popularity. Even though they're just toddlers, they've already mastered…

Dry humor:
Me: Goodnight, Ronan!
Ronan: I not Ronan, I Declan! (rolls around bed laughing)

Slapstick humor:
Ronan: Getchen, look at me! (Smacks self in head and falls on floor. Gretchen laughs. Repeat.)

Me: You can play for 5 minutes before bed.
Declan: 5 minutes? Wow.

And, of course, political humor:
Me: Who do you think should be the next president, Obama or McCain?
Declan: Blabii da da goo goo! (drops to floor in fit of hysterics)

Humor plays a huge part in our household. The one joke Matty knows is a family favorite (What's brown and sticky? A stick!), and Andy begins teaching each of the kids jokes as soon as they can talk.

A three-year-old trying to tell a joke is always funny. Even if she can't quite tell it right. Actually, especially if she can't quite tell it right. Which is what happened at Thanksgiving four years ago, when Andy whispered a joke into Erika's ear, and she stood up at the head of the table to repeat it:

Erika: Two penises were walking down the street…

Stunned silence.

Andy: No! Two PEANUTS were walking down the street!

I'm not sure which was funnier, that Erika yelled "penises" in front of two dozen family members, or that each and every one of those family members believed Andy would actually teach her a joke that involved said penises.

Either way, with role models like these, I think Declan and Ronan are well on their way to popularity… or the principal's office.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours

Erika wants a sleepover. With a boy.

So far, I've done a good job of deflecting the issue. When I picked her up the last time she had a playdate with this particular boy, and she asked, "Can David and I have a sleepover?" I responded, oh-so-smoothly, "David has an electric scooter? That is so cool!"

What I really want to know is, why can't she? Erika and David are seven years old. Their friendship is completely innocent, and based - as far as I can tell - on the kind of shrieking, chasing and general roughousing Erika's girlfriends are not typically interested in. Our houseguest, Rhea, asked Erika what she liked about David recently, and she said that he was funny, and "a weirdo, just like me."

So romantic.

Still, I can't shake this feeling that it's somehow wrong for a boy and girl to have a sleepover. Am I really afraid of what they'll do when the lights go out? Not really, despite the fact that Rhea also told me about another friend who found her young daughter in bed, under the covers, with her clothes off, with a boy who was visiting. Frankly, if that's what Erika and David really wanted to do, they'd have plenty of opportunities during the course of a regular, non-sleepover playdate.

Is it the where-do-you-draw-the-line issue? That is, if I let her have sleepovers with boys when she's seven, will I have trouble telling her no when she's nine, or eleven, or thirteen? I don't think that's it, either. I mean, there are a seemingly infinite number of activities that are appropriate at different ages, and kids understand that. Just because it's okay to shower with Daddy when you're four, doesn't mean it's okay to do it when you're fourteen. Just because it's okay to run naked on the beach when you're two - etc., etc.

So, although I'm probably not going to let Erika have her sleepover, I can't help but think that by doing so I'm sexualizing her to a far greater degree than exposure to Bratz dolls or "High School Musical" could ever do. And teaching her, from the beginning, that friendships between boys and girls are different, and more restricted, than friendships between girls. As if she won't learn that lesson soon enough.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Question of (Preschool) Ethics

Declan's recent birthday party presented me with two moral dilemmas. The first centered around the gift of a picture book. We already had a copy, but it was well-loved and well-worn, so we were all happy for the second copy. But when Amy opened it to read to Declan after the party, she found a very moving inscription... to the child who gave Declan the book: To "Pat," with love, Grandma and Grandpa.

Amy thought I should call the offending parent and innocently mention her "mistake," in the guise of wanting to return the treasured book. But I felt that any mention of her misstep would be extremely embarrassing. Matty agreed, and we kept the book.

The second dilemma was over the insane amount of toys Declan received. As you can imagine, in a house with 8 (10 for now) children, there are a lot of friggin' toys. So really, the last thing we need is another toy. Of course, Declan loves toys, and what else are you going to give a 4-year-old? Theater tickets?

After he opened them, I packed up Declan's presents and doled them out one at a time, so he wouldn't lose them all instantly to the general chaos of the house. Some of the presents, however, were remarkably similar to one another... and some of those same said presents had convenient gift receipts attached. Would it really be so horrible to return some of the presents and get Declan some shoes?

I hope I don't sound ungrateful. Declan truly loved all his presents, since almost all of them featured a pirate in some form or another. But even as we opened them, I couldn't help but take mental note of the tiny swords or gold doubloons or pirate hats, knowing that as soon as they came out of the box, they would most likely be lost in the void.

With preschoolers, moral dilemmas are made all the more difficult (or perhaps easier) by the fact that A) they have short memory spans, and B) they don't have a truly developed sense of morality yet.

I have the same quandaries about lying to the kids, even over ridiculous things (no, Declan, I'm certain you can't bring toy swords into the Renaissance Faire). I remember when Declan was just a baby and we were having brunch with another family. The father went out to the car to retrieve a few things and forgot to bring back his son's treasured bunny (or bear, or some other cuddly animal). When his son called him on it, Dad told him that Bunny was tired and just wanted to rest in the car. His son was momentarily placated.

I, however, was horrified. Why not just tell the kid you forgot? Tell him he can have it when they get back in the car? Why on earth lie to him?

But now I do it all the time, and I'm not really sure why. Sure, I could have just told Declan that I didn't want him to bring his toy swords (all 87 of them) to the Faire, since he'd likely lose a few and end up fighting with his brother and cousins over the ones they managed to hold on to.

Declan went through a phase recently where he would run up to tell me about every little transgression; this after I praised him for telling me the truth about a fight with Ronan.

"Ronan took my sword so I pinched him like this," and he would hold up his hand like a claw.

"Hilary wouldn't share the horse so I took it and threw it in the family room."

"Gretchen hit me so I took her baby away and gave it to Aaron."

The only problem was, Declan expected exoneration in exchange for his confessions. Once I explained that he would be punished for his crimes, regardless of whether I heard about it from him or the offending party, the admissions of guilt ceased.

Which I suppose is a lesson to be learned myself: Just because I am aware that what I am doing is wrong, doesn't make it any less wrong... matter how badly I want him to leave the damn swords at home.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

There's Something About Molly

I knew this would happen. Even as I wrote about my ambivalence toward my pregnancy, even as I moaned about the failure of my superdrug, I knew that once I saw her sweet, sweet smile, once I watched her fall asleep in my arms, I would be hooked. And I am.

But there's something different.

I am in awe of Molly. I can't look at her enough. Every smile is mentally recorded, every move fussed upon. I don't recall things being quite this way with my boys. Of course I loved them, but their babyhoods were more of something to be endured to get to the good stuff--the toddlerhood, the point where they became their own people. I was never much of a fan of infancy; I find babies to be boring to the extreme. Especially my own. But Molly is remarkable.

Is it because she's a girl? Because she's my last? Or perhaps because her being is so improbable?

I won't deny that she's an incredibly good baby: she sleeps 12+ hours each night and rarely cries unless she's hungry or very tired. She's happy and laid back, and doesn't mind being carted around on my schedule and catnapping when given the opportunity. She'll swing happily for hours while I develop recipes in the afternoon, and can fall asleep with The Colbert Report blaring while I nurse.

But it's not just those things...

I can't believe how close I was to not knowing Molly, to not having her in my life. I can't believe I thought my life was complete without her. I can't believe that Ronan almost missed out on being such a loving big brother, or that Declan might not have gotten the chance to "help" me with his baby sister.

There's something about Molly. Something that makes me feel wonderfully lucky.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jonah's Miracle?

The very first book we read about autism - back before we got the official diagnosis, but knew it was coming - was Karyn Seroussi's account of how her son was cured of his autism through the implementation of a gluten-and-casein-free diet. So, for the next four years, we put Jonah on the same regimen: no milk or wheat products at all, which meant we had to buy special breads, pastas and pretzels made with rice or soy.

But it didn't cure him. It didn't help much at all.

There are many miracles in the autistic community. Kids have lost their diagnoses after being treated with vitamins, or chelation (a controversial procedure that removes toxins, such as mercury, from the body), or hyperbaric oxygen therapy. And we've tried a lot of those things. But none of them did for Jonah what they had supposedly done for other people's children.

I used to feel this incredible pressure to try every alternative treatment I heard about. Because what if Jonah's miracle was out there, but we never found it because I stopped trying? One thing Kennedy Krieger has done for us is relieve that pressure. Knowing that Jonah's tantrums were caused primarily by his mood disorder means that no diet, no B12 injections, no amount of oxygen could have "cured" him. Bipolar disorder is a medical condition, and requires medical treatment.

But now I'm thinking about miracles again. Because, although Jonah's aggression has virtually disappeared since he was prescribed lithium and abilify, his doctor at Kennedy has just started him on a new medicine that she hopes will help with the lingering irritability, crying and SIBs (self-injurious behavior, such as the hand-biting Jonah does when he's agitated) she is still seeing. This new drug, riluzole, is only FDA-approved to treat patients with Lou Gehrig's disease. But doctors have also seen amazing results treating psychiatric patients who haven't responded to traditional mood stabilizers - like Jonah, who has been on so many different medicines over the years, I lost track long ago. Clinical trials are going on at Johns Hopkins (across the street from Kennedy), and the psychiatrists at Kennedy have just begun prescribing it to their patients. The two who are now taking it, according to Jonah's doctor, have made enormous gains.

New drugs are exciting - so full of hope and potential. It's thrilling to think we may be part of the beginning of a great advancement in the treatment of kids like Jonah. Although I've stopped believing that Jonah will ever be cured of his autism, we sent him to Kennedy to solve the puzzle of his mood disorder. Giving him the gift of a tranquil mind would be miracle enough for us.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Happy Birthday Declan!

Where have the last 4 years gone? How did my baby go from this:

To this, big brother to two little ones?

We took Declan to the Renaissance Faire for his birthday, and he got to wear his new pirate costume, complete with hat and boots. He was by far the most dashing young pirate there. He loved the magic and the shows and the 3-foot-tall slushies, though was devastated that he couldn't buy (or touch, for that matter) the numerous (real) swords on display.

As soon as we got home, I rushed to bake cupcakes and prepare his favorite foods for his birthday dinner: steak, homemade mac-n-cheese, and edamame.

So did he enjoy his celebratory meal? Not exactly. He fell asleep in the car on the way home from the Faire and we couldn't wake him for dinner, even with the promise of cupcakes. He slept right through the night.

So we ate in his honor. Happy birthday Declan!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Maybe He Needs A Map

The other night at dinner, Andy was asking Hilary about her reading - a topic he talks about a lot these days, because he's so impressed with the fact that Hilary is reading chapter books and she hasn't even started kindergarten yet. (Me, I'm a big believer in the theory that reading is genetically pre-programmed, and that it's not necessarily a predictor of anything. Take Jonah - he was reading at four, before he could talk, and he was completely self-taught. We didn't even know he could do it until he started writing in chalk on the driveway. I mean, of course I'm proud of Hilary, but I'm not sure her skill reflects any particular initiative or effort on her part.)

Anyway, I digress.

So, Andy asks Hilary, "Where is your Wizard of Oz book?"

Hilary says, "In my room."

Andy asks, "Where in your room?"

And Hilary, mishearing him, tells him exactly where her room is: "Next to the twins' room."

Matty, Keri and I laughed so hard I don't think we actually made any noise. I mean, are there so many kids in the house, and is the house so much of a labyrinth, that Hilary could possibly think her father would forget where her room is?

I guess so!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

They Do! They Do!

After 2 years of positing the question, "Who else wants to live in my house?", someone finally accepted. No, Amy's not pregnant again. Family friends just bought a house close by and are staying here while the house is renovated.

For those keeping track at home, that's three moms, three dads, six girls, four boys, and the usual three cats and one dog. Though we briefly considered having some of the parents double up (anyone else watching Swingtown?), in the end we decided to donate Molly's room to Patrick and Rhea and have their daughters, Jazzy (8) and Sophia (4 1/2), bunk with Erika and Hilary.

It's only temporary (or so we keep telling ourselves). Hey, that sounds familiar...

Yes, we've reached maximum capacity. Yes, we're crazy. And yes, it will be fun. Look out for a special guest post in the coming weeks.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Back From Family Vacation

Last week, Andy and I took Erika, Hilary, Aaron, Gretchen and Oat down to the New Jersey shore for five days of family bonding. We had an ideal set-up: a friend of Andy’s from work has a house in Margate that he let us use for free – plus, we miraculously found in the back of our minivan about two hundred dollars worth of two-year-old tickets to one of the amusement piers in Ocean City. All we really had to shell out money for was pizza and salt water taffy, which pretty much comprised the kids’ daily diet for the five days we were down there.

(And breakfast bars. Boy, did the kids enjoy breakfast bars every morning! Sometimes they even had two!)

This was Aaron and Gretchen’s first time at the beach – I didn’t take them last summer because I couldn’t deal with the prospect of spending the entire time scraping sand off their tongues (i.e., “Aaron, stop eating sand! Gretchen, stop eating sand! Aaron, don’t you know by now how gross that sand is!). But now that we’re successfully past that important sand-eating stage of development, I was excited to see how much the twins would love the beach.

Well . . . let’s just say they didn’t get it, not at first. Every time any part of Gretchen touched the beach, she would shriek, “Ahhh! I dirty!!!!!!!” It wasn’t until our second or third day that they were truly able to embrace the scratchy, itchy, gritty existence that is a day at the beach. After that, though, they had a great time – all the kids did. They loved the ocean, even if the water was freezing. They loved eating junk food on the Boardwalk and going on rides – boy, did they love rides. I think Aaron went on the carousel 25 or 30 times. No matter what you asked him all week – “Aaron, do you want to go to the playground?”; “Aaron, did you brush your teeth?”; “Aaron, can I have a kiss?” – the answer was always, “I want to ride the big horse!”

The kids had such a great time, in fact, that I can’t imagine taking a vacation any other place than the Jersey shore for the foreseeable future. I mean, sure, Andy and I have plans for grand family vacations – including a safari in Kenya, exploring the national parks, touring through Israel – but I can’t imagine actually embarking on an expedition like that until the twins are way less annoying – I mean, labor intensive. Until then, it seems like we can have a lot of fun while avoiding troublesome situations like long car or airplane trips and inconvenient accommodations (not too many hotel rooms sleep 7) if we just keep going down to the shore. And Jonah loves the beach and the rides even more than his brother and sisters, if that’s possible – so it really is the one vacation that’s equally appealing to all five kids.

Does this make us boring and predictable? I guess. It might even make us intolerably lowbrow – at least to our friend, Hylton, who hates the Jersey shore and all the sticky, sweaty crowds it draws. But at this point in my life – with two-year-old twins, an autistic son who is quite firm about what he likes and doesn’t like, and two other girls who are determined to claim their fair share of our attention – keeping it simple seems like the right strategy. At least for now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old... or Just Look Them Up on Facebook in 30 Years

I'm addicted to Facebook.

I know I'm not the only one. I can see all my friends constantly update their status with ever more clever and witty comments. I get bombarded with emails to install the latest gizmo that my friends have installed.

I found groups for my elementary school (Bluefield) and summer day camp (Blue Rill). I found people on Facebook that I went to kindergarten with. Kindergarten! That was 30 years ago! These people look old. Some of them are bald. Some are chiropractors. Some both. I have vague memories of playing with these people, running wild through our apartment complex, playing hopscotch until dusk.

I'm excited when I find these people, or they me, and I pore over the few remaining class pictures I have, trying to match the face to the name, the face then to the face now. And we exchange pleasantries, one sentence updates--I'm a food writer in Philadelphia with three kids. You?--and then... that's it.

There's a reason it's been 30 years since we all spoke; we've all grown and changed and moved on. We're not the same people we were at 5. Now most of us have kids who are 5.

Last week in the car, I told Declan that his friend Josh wasn't going to be in his class this year. Declan didn't respond, and when I turned around I saw him sucking his thumb and silently crying. Declan and Josh have been in school together for all of their short school careers--more than 2 years. I'm sure Josh's mom and I will do our best to schedule playdates and possibly joint after-school activities, but soon both Declan and Josh will move on and find new friends. And Declan will struggle to remember exactly who Josh is...

...until 2038, when they find each other on Facebook: "I'm a pirate in Ireland with 5 kids. You?"

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Son, the Model

It's weird enough having a not-quite-4-year-old son who's more into fashion than I am. It's even weirder to have said son work the camera like nobody's business.

While at the Baltimore Zoo last week, Declan lagged behind the others so he could climb up on some rocks. Great, I thought; a nice boyish activity. But he wasn't looking to climb and jump and possibly scrape his knee. He was looking to pose:

Back at home, when Daddy wanted to take some pictures of Declan to forever immortalize his first (of many, I'm sure) black eye, Declan took it as an invitation to work it:

I've been reading a lot lately about gender confusion; I've even contributed some of the reading myself (see the Little Boy Pink essay I wrote about Declan's princess phase last year). But I think the so-called gender confusion is displaced; our kids aren't confused, but maybe we are.

I remember when Erika was 2, the height of her girly-girl stage. She insisted on wearing dresses all the time, preferably garish and pouffy dress-up dresses. She would no sooner play with a truck than she would an electric fence. She was a girl to the extreme. The exact opposite of Amy.

I, of course, found this hysterical: here was Amy, who basically lived in track pants and oversized t-shirts (she's a little better now), with a daughter that longed to teach Amy a thing or two about fashion. Erika was the last thing Amy expected.

Then there's my cousin Darlene, who's pretty girly herself. Her first daughter, Nancy, however, preferred football to fancy dresses. Nancy, I'm sure, was the last thing Darlene expected.

I think it's only natural for us to have certain expectations of our children. From the moment we find out the gender of our child, we start to fantasize about his or her future, try to picture what he or she will be like as a toddler, a teen, an adult. And even though I consider myself fairly evolved, when I pictured Declan's future it wasn't as a fashion designer or male model. But why not?

Now, Erika has shunned dresses for jeans and is happy to play pirates with the boys or pick up frogs outside (something her macho father refuses to do). Nancy (willingly) got her hair and make-up done for her aunt's wedding, though she still spends Sundays at Giants games with her dad. And Declan loves to pose for the camera. And bake cookies. And he can't wait for gymnastics class to start in a few weeks. But he also loves swords and jumping and wrestling with his brother.

I know I harbor misguided expectations of my boys, and I'm trying really hard to let them go. I'm trying hard not to see Ronan, my rough-and-tumble tough guy, as a footballer. I'm trying not to be so surprised when I find out that little tough guy loves to draw, and at 2 1/2 can already draw representatively.

When I look at Molly, I try to see a blank slate. And it's working. I can't quite see her future yet, or even know what I want for her. Just happiness, of course. And that's gender neutral.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Just the Two of Them

Amy and her brood are enjoying a little R&R "down the shore," leaving us with our own mini vacation here. Without their usual plethora of playmates to choose from, Declan and Ronan are resorting to playing with each other. Sometimes that's fun...

And sometimes it's not...

Yes, Ronan gave Declan his first black eye, but not quite in the way you think. They were jumping on the trampoline and discovered the hard way that Ronan's head is harder than Declan's cheek. Is it wrong that I'm a little bit proud of Declan's bruise? Probably. Especially since he got it so innocuously.

We've managed to keep busy over this first week of "vacation," one of three before school starts up again. We baked cookies and cupcakes, saw a few of Declan's girlfriends, and managed trips to the Academy of Natural Sciences (aka the Dinosaur Museum) and the zoo (where the "Beavis and Butthead" photo, above, was taken).

Today we'll bake banana bread with all the rotting bananas, and hopefully find something to do with 5 gallons of milk (we still got the usual 7 gallon delivery on Monday even though two-thirds of us are away).

Only two more weeks until school starts!

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Last Day of Camp... So Sad

Today is the last day of camp for Hilary, Declan, and Ronan. Amy's got lots of fun stuff planned for Hilary--farm camp, a trip to the Jersey shore next week--but I've got nothing. Three kids and nothing to do for almost a month, until preschool starts up again.

Most women do this on a daily basis. Matty could do it in his sleep. But I am not most women (not as patient and coordinated) and I am certainly not Matty (I'm prettier).

The problem is that I don't really like to hang out with the kids at home by myself. Frankly, I get bored. I don't know how to play with 2- and 4-year-olds. I like planned activities, trips to the museum or library. But that's also hard--how do I nurse Molly and still keep a tight reign on the boys? A friend of mine uses a leash for just this purpose, but I just can't do the leash. But I also can't be sure that Ronan will stay with me when I tell him to. We're close, but not quite there yet.

So what's a mom of 3-under-4-years-old to do? How do I make being at home more tolerable for all of us? I'd love to hear some ideas.

Monday, August 4, 2008

VIPs in Manhattan

Last week, I took Erika and Hilary to New York City to see the premiere of "Fly Me to the Moon," the new 3D kids' movie I kept referring to as "Bugs in Space," because I could never remember the real name. I got the tickets when the manager of Strollerderby - the Babble blog I write for - sent an email to the listserve asking if anyone was interested in attending the event and reviewing the movie. Even though I will be paid the impressive sum of $10 for this post (assuming it doesn't get a thousand hits, which seems unlikely, given that it won't possibly include any dead babies or aggressive breastfeeding propaganda) I jumped at the opportunity. I thought it would be really fun for Erika and Hilary to go to a movie premiere, and to see the stars on the red carpet (we only saw Buzz Aldrin, since Kelly Ripa made a quick, early appearance minutes before we arrived). But more importantly, I wanted them to go to a movie premiere with Mommy knowing it was for her work.

The kids see me in my capacity as Mom - getting them up and ready each morning, chauffering them around, snuggling with them at night, etc. They see me dashing off to tennis or to the gym. But I really want them to see me as a professional person as well, especially the girls. I want them to grow up expecting not just to be mothers, but to have careers as well.

Maybe all girls today have that expectation. But I can't help remembering, when Erika was about three years old, and she said she wanted to be just like me when she grew up. I asked her what that meant, and God help me, I can't remember exactly what she said, but it was something like, "I want to play tennis and have nice jewelery."

But I think I accomplished my mission. I took the girls to the nail salon the morning of the premiere, so we could all get mani-pedis for the big event, and while Erika was drying her nails the nice lady next to her asked if she was getting primped for a special occasion. Erika said yes, that her mother "wrote for the computer" and had been invited to see the very first showing of "Fly Me to the Moon." Which, I have to say, is a lot nicer to hear your daughter say about you than that you play tennis and have nice jewelry.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Molly, My Irish Molly

Our First Video Attempt

Amy and I both just bought nifty new devices for easy video taking on the go, so expect lots more where this came from... Enjoy!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Declan in the Middle

Whether middle child syndrome is real or something cooked up by The Brady Bunch writers to give Jan a plausible storyline remains to be seen. All I know is my experience with Declan, whose birth order puts him right in the middle of the 8 kids in the house, but whose personality makes him youngest of the big kids or oldest of the little kids, depending on the day.

Declan is truly the best candidate for middle sibling in our household, because he's so adaptable. He's equally at home in an elaborate pretend world with Erika and/or Hilary as he is pushing a stroller with Gretchen or striking a sword with Aaron and Ronan.

Instead of being neglected, as is the stereotypical case with middle siblings, Declan seems to have the most options. At almost 4 years old, he's still young enough to play with the little ones, but mature enough to play with the big kids.

I can't help but wonder how his position in the family will change as all the kids get older. Will he spend more time roughhousing with boys Aaron and Ronan as they mature? Or will he gravitate toward the more creative play favored by Erika?

I've been thinking about this more as I grapple with the decision of whether to send Declan to kindergarten when he turns 5 (which is the last day before the cut-off) or to wait and hold him back a year and send him right when he turns 6. If he starts kindergarten when he turns 5, he will be the absolute youngest kid in his class. He will also be just one grade behind Hilary. But if I wait until he turns 6, he will be two grades behind Hilary, but just one grade above Ronan and the twins.

Does it matter? I'm not sure. As the kids get older and spend more time at school and in their various after-school activities, it seems their playmates at home will take more and more of a backseat. When Declan is in first grade, and Hilary in third, and Erika in fifth, their worlds will be so completely different, I can't help but think this separation will transfer to the home as well.

But until then, I'm enjoying watching Declan in all his many roles: big brother to Ronan (who adores Declan, even when clobbering him over the head), doting cousin to Gretchen, prince to Erika's princess, puppy pal to Hilary's puppy.

I'll enjoy it while it lasts, because all too soon I won't be worrying about whether the kids are playing together, but whether Declan is dating Hilary's friends or Gretchen's friends. And I'm certainly not ready for that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Rude Awakening

Yesterday, Keri took Declan, Hilary and Molly to a playdate. Andy and I had a tennis match scheduled at our club, so we just piled everyone left into the minivan and took them with us, so Ronan, Aaron, Gretchen and Erika could enjoy a little swimming under the capable supervision of Marina and Oat.

Andy and I didn't play our best tennis, but we still had a great match against our friends Ricki and Andy Eisenstein. When it was over, we went down to the baby pool to hang with the kids.

In case you're counting, that now makes four adults watching four kids (one of which is a very capable swimmer) play in about ten inches of water. Plus, a friend of Andy's from work was there watching her two-year-old and chatting with us. Not that she was in any way responsible for our kids, but she does represent another set of eyes that you would think might notice if something went wrong.

Which it did.

Erika had helped Ronan climb into a little floatie meant for a baby to sit in, and somehow, he managed to tip himself over so he was upside down in the water, and couldn't right himself.

And the first person to notice? Andy Eisenstein, one of our tennis opponents, who was sitting at a table near the baby pool with his family and dashed into the water in full tennis attire (including his shoes and socks) to grab Ronan and haul him on to the deck.

Ronan was fine - he was crying, and scared of course, but he didn't cough up any water, so I don't think he was under more than a few seconds. But it is scary, that so many of us were there and nobody noticed what was going on. I feel like we had just started to react when Andy jumped in the pool, but maybe what we were reacting to was the drama of Andy jumping into the pool - it's hard to know for sure, given how fast everything happened.

I've written before about how nice it is to have as much support as I have from Keri and Matty, and how they remind me of things I need reminding about and keep me from screwing up too badly. But, as I learned yesterday, there's a flip side to having so many responsible adults around - it can breed a false sense of security, the assumption that someone else is paying attention. I see it all the time at the house - Ronan or Aaron or Gretchen finishes breakfast or lunch and wanders out of the kitchen, and Keri and I don't scramble to retrieve them, because surely if they start to do something too destructive or dangerous, Marina or Oat or Iza or even Erika or Hilary or Declan will notice and call us.

And we've paid the price a few times, nothing too bad - mostly unwanted marker scribbles on the carpet, the dining room chairs, even on Erika's crocs.

But the pool is a different story altogether. And maybe we were less vigilant because the water is so shallow, and the kids navigate the pool so confidently, and we didn't appreciate how dangerous it still was. But now we know. I'm still not sure what specific strategy we should employ: assign specific children to specific adults? Just constantly remind the adults present to be more vigilant? Don't let the two-year-olds play in floaties meant for infants?

I am sure of one thing, though: we owe Andy Eisenstein a new pair of tennis shoes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Modern Brady Bunch?

That's what NPR host Bill Radke called us on Weekend America... Listen to the full story here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

But It's A Great Opportunity, Dammit!

Last summer, Andy and I joined a . . . I hate to say a "country club," because that sounds so snooty, and this club will basically take anybody, but that's pretty much what it is. We signed up for the tennis, but I really fell in love with the swim team program they offer for the kids. The coaching staff runs practice six times a week (I think they hope the kids will come two or three times a week, but of course they can come as often as the parents want to take them), where they teach swimmers as young as five or six the correct form of freestyle, backstroke, breast stroke and butterfly. There are meets every week, in which even the beginners get to participate, so all the kids get to feel like they're part of the team.

And did I mention that all this instruction and experience costs a grand total of $50 per kid, for the entire summer?

Amazing, right? Fantastic value, right?

So you can imagine how frustrated I am now that Erika has decided SHE DOESN'T WANT TO BE ON SWIM TEAM.

This was Erika's second summer on the team. And she is only seven. So of course, it's hard work. She doesn't have the technique or the endurance of the older swimmers - not yet. And I think even I would be exhausted by the number of laps of the Olympic-sized pool the kids complete every practice.

But it's just so good for her.

This is how I look at it: swimming is great exercise, one that strengthens virtually all the major muscle groups. Even if Erika chooses to spend her summers exploring more sedentary activities, such as drama, or zoo camp, or playing with farm animals, at least I know if she goes to swim practice several times a week she's staying active (which is a huge priority for all my kids, as so many relatives on both sides of their family have struggled with their weight, including both their parents). Plus, consider the fact that swimming is one of the few sports people can do their entire lives (how many outlets are there for adults to play field hockey, lacrosse or even soccer?) and that there's no substitute for early instruction when it comes to learning any skill. Factor in the discipline, sportsmanship, and yes, the price and convenience, and it seems like a no brainer that I should MAKE Erika be on the swim team.

I know, I know - I sound so autocratic. And I always thought I'd be the kind of parent that encourages my children in their unique abilities, and helps them pursue even their most idiosyncratic dreams. (As far as Keri claiming in an earlier post that I'm forcing Hilary to take the exact same activities as Erika, when she really wants to be a ballerina, I will just say that Hilary is somewhat of a dilettante at this point in her life, and decides from day to day that she wants to take ballet, to take soccer, to become a fairy, to live on an island with Barney, etc., but that I can say for certain that ballet is definitely not one of her unique abilities) But you know what? That unconditional enthusiasm has to be tempered with the fact that Andy and I are adults, and we do know what's better for Erika than she does right now.

But I'm all for compromise, and Erika and I already have a tentative deal on the table: she'll do swim team next summer, and I'll let her go to horseback riding camp (a sport I've always resisted, because it's relatively dangerous and, from what I can see, builds no skills that can be applied to anything other than horseback riding - furthermore, and most damning, should she excel at this sport it would eventually require us buying A HORSE). Hopefully, we can continue this kind of negotiation with all the kids, this balance between passion and practicality, so that we will all be happy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Thanks, Dr. Doom and Gloom

At the pediatrician practice we go to there are two doctors. One is laid back and amenable, quick to dismiss the occasional rash or runny nose, happy to go along with our own delayed vaccination schedules. The other one? Well, we call her Dr. Doom and Gloom. She's a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic about tests and hospitals (this isn't always a bad thing; when Matty and I thought something was wrong with Declan since he was so small, she's the one I went to see, knowing she would order the full battery of tests I needed to assuage my fears; he was fine). She has sent Amy's kids to the hospital on more than one occasion, once to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia since our local hospital apparently isn't good enough. She has literally begged me to get my kids vaccinated on the right schedule. Oh, and she told me at Molly's one month checkup that she might have Down Syndrome.

With the benefit of hindsight and negative test results, I can almost laugh about the whole thing now. But when Dr. D&G told me of her concerns, I began crying and barely stopped for 4 days. Matty and I examined Molly from every angle looking for the markers the doctor had seen: wide-set eyes, epicanthal folds, low muscle tone. That's it. Those were the only markers. Sometimes we saw them. Sometimes we laughed dismissively. We pored over websites and message boards looking for clues. We imagined our future with a child with Down Syndrome and suddenly began seeing kids everywhere with Down's: a tween skater dude at the movie theater, an adorable child on the pages of the Nordstrom catalog.

After 4 days, Molly began to be more alert and awake for longer periods. Her eyes, epicanthal folds and all, no longer looked even remotely Down's-esque. The wide spacing of her eyes looked like her brothers', nothing more. By the one week mark we were already fairly convinced that Molly did not have Down's; that night, the other doctor in the practice called and told me he very much doubted that she did.

By the time the tests came back on Friday, confirming that Molly did not have Down Syndrome, I was relieved, but not surprised. Though (I hope) it goes without saying that we would love Molly no matter what, life is hard enough without starting out with the deck so heavily stacked against you. Down's kids have a myriad of health problems to contend with, not to mention the social inequity from being so different. I'm sure Molly will have to endure many social hardships in her life, whether she's a purple-haired tattooed Goth chick or nerdy straight-A student. Or both. I'm just happy that this is one hardship she won't have to endure.

Pictures of Molly

There are 568 photos of Declan during his first 3 months of life. In the months that followed, there are whole folders of pictures on my computer with titles like, "Declan's First Meal," "Declan Goes to the Children's Museum," "Declan Goes Apple Picking."

There are far fewer pics of Ronan, of course, though we managed to snap him meeting his big brother the first time, watching his first marathon (we were living outside of Boston at the time), petting a goat at the zoo, traveling to Florida to visit the family.

And Molly? Well, here's Molly at the hospital:

Here she is her first day home... Oops, never mind. Here she is with all her siblings and cousins... Um, scratch that. Here she is during her baby naming, an important ritual in a baby's... Ok, forget that, here she is on her first trip to... No, don't have those either. Oh, wait, here's one, Molly at 1 month old:

Cute, isn't she?

I know I'm not the only parent to photographically neglect subsequent children, but since I've always given Amy so much grief about it (C'mon, she's got 5 kids! How many pictures do you think there are of Aaron?) I thought I'd be a bit more conscientious.

But here's Molly, 6 weeks old, and I'm already neglecting her. Does she really need her diaper changed in the middle of the night? I'll change it twice in the morning. Tummy time? Eventually. Music class? Ha!

I hope this early recognition of my neglect means I won't repeat it as Molly gets older. I hope that I can still mock Amy as her younger children suffer from tag-a-long neglect. (Yes, Amy, I'm sure Hilary really wants to play tennis and take drama, just like Erika (even though she told me she wants to take ballet); and yes, I know Hilary told you she wanted Erika to come along on her first ever trip to the American Girl store (which I'm told is a big deal to little girls), but was it really such a surprise when she decided at the last minute that she wanted to go with just you?) But I digress...

Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? So here's my pledge: I will take lots of pictures of Molly. Though I have no problem with hand-me-downs, I will buy her a new dress to wear for her first birthday. I will not force her to play soccer and take drama, just because her older brothers do it. I will not...

Well, let's just start with the pictures for now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

And in This Corner, Weighing in at 28 Pounds...

My boys won't stop fighting. Actually, only one of them won't stop fighting, the other one won't start. And I'm pretty upset about it. Though probably not for the reason you think.

Ronan likes to hit Declan. So does Declan hit Ronan back, sucker-punch him in the jaw, kick him in the kneecap? No. Declan cries. Not cry in pain, but cry out, as in, "Ronan hit me!"

Needless to say, Ronan finds this hysterical.

I know I should be happy that Declan is such a good kid--he's the least likely of all the kids in the house under 6 to hit or kick or punch or pinch--but frankly, I think he needs to toughen up a bit. I heard the following exchange from their room one morning:

Ronan hits Declan. Declan cries.

Declan: "You are mean!"

Ronan: "I not mean!"

"Yes you are!"

"No I not!"

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum... Not once did Declan raise his hand in defense. Or offense.

I was at my wit's end the other day, after a long car ride to Baltimore with the boys sitting far too close together. We've tried every sort of reproach with Ronan and nothing seems to work. But there's not much you can do in a moving car when the boys are strapped in right next to each other. This resulted in the following exchange:

"Ronan hit me!"

"So hit him back." Swat.

"Ronan hit me in the face!"

"So hit him in the face." Swat.

Unfortunately, Declan didn't really have the heart to continue, and Ronan found Declan's feeble attempts at revenge even funnier than his whining.

I don't really want to encourage the boys to hit each other, so now I've come up with a new approach. When Declan whines that Ronan hit him, I tell him, "You and Ronan need to work it out."

Declan's the smart kid. Hopefully he can figure it out. Because I certainly can't. Anyone have any better ideas?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For The First Time, All 8 Kids Together

Jonah finally met Molly this Independence Day, as we took the whole crew down to Baltimore for the first time since she was born.

He was underwhelmed, to say the least. If I had to guess what he was thinking, it was probably something along the lines of, "Another baby in the house? Great. Can I have a lock on my door?"

Jonah did enjoy the pirate adventure we took on the Fearless, a ship that sails several times daily from Fell's Point. We all thought it was great, in fact - costumes, treasure, water cannons, singing and dancing (Jonah kept asking for "more dancing," which, I have to admit, was something of a surprise. I think this is a taste he acquired on the NBU, where they have dance parties all the time, and where, to my chagrin, he's developed a passion for the Macarena). We were very lucky in that no one else signed up for our time slot, so we had our own private excursion.

We all also decided that Fell's Point was by far the coolest neighborhood we'd seen in Baltimore - much nicer even than the Inner Harbor, which is more slick and commercial, flush with chain stores. We didn't have a lot of time to walk around, but it looked like there were plenty of quaint shops and restaurants, along with an open square where you could relax and enjoy soft pretzels, if you're Jonah, or shockingly blue ice cream, if you're every other kid in the family. I just can't believe no one suggested we check out Fell's Point before this. I mean, it's literally down the exact same street Kennedy Krieger is on. Oh, well. Better late than never.