Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Apple (and the Crinkled Nose) Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree

When the kids were babies, it was fun to pick out our characteristics in their faces. Declan has Matty's eyes and my habit of crinkling my nose when I smile. Ronan has Matty's mouth and chin, though I have no idea where he got that alabaster skin. Molly has Amy's hair, oddly enough, with my eyes and the same shape face as Matty. In short, our kids got all of our best features, making them far more beautiful than we will ever be.

But now I'm starting to see myself and Matty in the kids, and not always in such a flattering light. Ronan has developed a tic, a rapid blinking of the eyes that comes and goes. This is all Matty, whose own tic manifests itself as a guttural grunt from the back of his throat, which also comes and goes.

Declan just got his first cavity, a chiseled hole in between his teeth that I cannot believe I didn't notice before the dentist did. Here we're both to blame, both victims of bad genes coupled with bad oral habits. Declan now brushes, flosses, and rinses his teeth with a vengeance, as I hope his habits can outwit his genes.

What amazes me so much is that this is clearly a case of nature over nurture. It's not like Erika's penchant for jokes or Jonah's habit of saying, "Okay, bye," both of which are learned behaviors from years of witnessing their parents do the same. I think it's cute when Declan announces, "Look, I'm like Daddy," when he uses a piece of paper to floss his teeth (don't ask).

But what about when the behaviors aren't so cute? Who else can I blame when Molly goes through her rebel stage as I did; frankly, I fear for the 2026 equivalent of shaving one's head and piercing one's tongue. Or what about the usually laid back Matty's occasional temper, signs of which I'm already seeing in Declan as he dramatically kicks the floor when he's angry?

And I know this will only get worse. And I worry, as all parents do, about the high school versions of my kids, the ones who are taunted and teased for any reason, but possibly all the more so for their facial tics and bad teeth?

There's nothing like a child to remind you of all of your myriad flaws. I've learned to deal with my own, I'm just not sure I'm ready to deal with my kids'.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Although Aaron has started wearing underwear to school, he is still more likely to poop in said underwear than in his potty. I've tried every threat and every bribe I can think of - I even promised him that he could stay for lunch at school every day (something he asks for constantly) once he pooped in the potty three days in a row.

It's not like he doesn't understand the concept. At almost three-and-a-half, he knows that big boys poop in the potty. And it's not like he doesn't want to stay for lunch, or earn a lollipop, or get a Lamborghini on his sixteenth birthday, or any of the other insane rewards I've offered in my desperation to end my decade of diapers. It's just that his plan is to poop on the potty "tomorrow."

"I will," he vows sweetly, his big brown eyes open wide. "Tomowo." (Both twins are still struggling a bit with their Rs.)

And even as my eyes roll back in exasperation, even as I dismiss him: "Aaron, you say that EVERY DAY," I realize that tomorrow is also my excuse for everything.

I'll write tomorrow.
I'll run tomorrow.
I'll stop eating myself sick on matzo toffee/peanut butter ice cream/leftover birthday cake tomorrow.

All this time, I've considered myself in the throes of a mid-life crisis, when in actuality I'm stuck in a pre-life crisis, dealing with my problems the way my three-year-old does. Anything effortful, anything that requires discipline, and work, and sacrifice, I'll do tomorrow.

And I know that has to change, otherwise I'll have a lot of regrets when I finally run out of tomorrows.

So, I'm going to try, really try, to start doing more today, instead of letting myself off the hook by shifting everything to tomorrow.

Starting, naturally, tomorrow.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why We Do This

I love driving Declan, Ronan, Aaron and Gretchen to school. They always have such entertaining conversations.

Take yesterday, for example. The four kids started talking about how they would all be neighbors when they're grown. "I'll go to your house, then to Ronan's house," Gretchen said.

"Then mine?" Aaron said.

"Then yours," Gretchen said. "Then Declan will come to mine."

Somehow, this evolved into a discussion on defense: "I'm going to have two guns, one for me and one for Gretchen," Declan announced. This isn't Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, I thought, imagining this little band of armed relatives: This is Waco!

"What about me?" Aaron asked.

"If the monster comes to your house, we'll come and shoot him," Declan said, confidently. "And if the monster comes to Ronan's house, then we'll go there."

Of course, then the conversation shifted to something even more unsavory, namely, how they would cut up the monster into little pieces and then eat him. Then they would drink his blood. And then they would eat his poop ("Ewwwwwww!" Keri and I shrieked, in unison). So I'll just focus instead on how happy it made me to imagine all the kids grown, and so close it won't matter whether or not they're really neighbors, because they'll still talk to each other all the time, and spend their holidays and vacations together. And none of them will ever feel alone in the world, because they never will be.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

God in your Sippy Cup

We were sitting around the breakfast table yesterday, when the conversation, as it often does, drifted towards the metaphysical: is God everywhere?

All the kids knew, from their years at Jewish pre-school, followed by (for Erika and Hilary so far) Sunday School, that God is, in fact, everywhere.

Is God in the kitchen? Yes, He must be in the kitchen.
Is God at the table? Yes, He must be at the table.
Honestly, I was only half-following this conversation, so I don't know which of the kids then shrieked: "God's in your sippy cup!"

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that Jewish pre-school is kind of like a cult. The kids come in Godless heathens, and graduate true believers.

I'll never forget one day, when Erika was about three, and she and Hilary, who was one, were playing with a toy kitchen. Erika laid out quite a spread for her sister, but just as Hilary reached to pick up a plastic treat, Erika cried out, "Wait! We have to say the blessing first!"

Of course, we as parents have chosen to enroll our children in this preschool specifically for the brainwashing, I mean religious education, they are receiving there. And it is important to me that my kids understand their culture, and the history and traditions which have shaped their parents, and their grandparents, and their ancestors before that.

But then the kids come home singing about how tight they want to hug their Torahs, and I have to admit, it seems a bit extreme to me.

The God part, that's hard. I'm not really sure what I believe about God at this point in my life, but the kids are always trying to pin me down: Does God make babies? Does God make cities? Does God love mean guys?

And my personal favorite: Do you love God?

The kids are pretty easy to distract now, but I assume that won't always be the case. Still, I suppose that the older and more persistent they get, the better they'll be able to appreciate that God is complicated, and personal, and that each of the 12 people in our family will probably have a different relationship, or lack thereof, with that most abstract of abstractions. And no matter what conclusion each of them arrives at, it's all okay.

Except for dancing around with the Torahs. At some point, I'm really going to have to put a stop to that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Goodbye, Aunt Rose

I want to live, and die, like Aunt Rose.

Great Aunt Rose died last week at the age of 91, after having been married for 71 years. She was put under general anesthesia for gall bladder surgery and sadly, never woke up.

Or maybe not so sadly.

It's never happy news when someone you love dies, but considering that we all must, this seems to me like a good way to go. She didn't suffer. She didn't have dementia or linger through a debilitating illness. She lived on her own until the very end, depending on no one but herself. She went to sleep and never woke up, and I can only hope my own end is as peaceful and painless.

Aunt Rose lost her sweetheart 16 months ago, and she seemed a bit lost and lonely ever since. She spoke often of Uncle Bob, always on the verge of tears, always with a longing I wished I could satisfy. She woke up to his voice in the middle of the night and often saw him walking through the retirement home they had shared for 30 years. But this didn't make her happy, it made her sad. And I think more than anything she wanted to be with him.

And now she is. And that's nothing to be sad about.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bad Dreams

Molly has been having bad dreams.

I don't know this for certain, of course, since so far the extent of her vocabulary is, "meh," which can mean all sorts of things (cat! dog! Declan! fire hydrant!), but not, as far as I can tell, "Mommy, I just had a really bad dream."

But there are signs. The most obvious? The scream in the middle of the night. Yes, I have been blessed with a super baby, and can count on one hand the number of times she has woken up in the middle of the night since passing the three month mark. Seriously. And 95 percent of those times, she woke up because she had pooped, which, I can only imagine, makes her not so comfortable. As soon as she's changed, she's reaching for her crib and snuggles herself right back to sleep.

That's right, she snuggles herself. Which brings me to the second sign that she must be having bad dreams: she wants to snuggle. With her parents.

This may not sound so odd to you, but consider Molly's bedtime/naptime routine: Change diaper (hers). Kiss on cheek. Place in crib. Leave the room.

This isn't my choice, mind you. We tried for months to sit with her on a glider and read stories, or rock her gently until she was close to sleep. But it was always a struggle. She wanted to hold the book herself. The amount of time she would allow us to hold her grew shorter and shorter. Eventually, she began to cry out if we walked to the glider rather than the crib.

"For Pete's sake," I imagined her thinking. "Can I please just go to sleep?"

So we let her. We lay her down in her crib, where she wriggled herself into the mattress (I guess she was allowed to snuggle herself), stuck her thumb in her mouth, and closed her eyes. That was it. She didn't even open them when we opened the door to leave.

So when Molly woke up crying, and actually wanted to be held, we knew something was up. We rocked her for a few minutes until she calmed down, then lay her gently back in her crib. She was asleep again instantly, the dream quickly forgotten.

Of course it makes me sad to think of my poor Molly suffering through nightmares. But I can't help but savor these brief moments, when my fiercely independent daughter is cuddled up against me, happy to be safe in my arms. And it warms me to know that even though she now shuns my assistance in any endeavor (with a resounding, "meh!"), it's still me she calls out to in the middle of the night, my heart she snuggles up against as she falls blissfully back to sleep.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We're Still Here! And Still Cute!

I wish I had a good reason for our appalling lack of posting--We were busy prepping Molly for her upcoming appearance on Toddlers and Tiaras! Ronan poured maple syrup inside my hard drive! Declan finally eloped with one of his many girlfriends!--but alas, I've no such excuse.

The start of the new year is always hectic, even though you always expect otherwise. I was literally counting down the days until school started, thinking that once the kids were back to their regular schedule, so too would I be back to a regular schedule of writing and working. As it turns out, back to school time is as hectic for the 'rents as it is for the kids.

Of course, that's always the case; as much as I often long for things to get "back to normal," the truth is that there isn't really any normal. Not for us, with our combined eight kids under the age of 11. And not for you, I'm sure, no matter what your household looks like. Besides, what fun is normal, anyway?

So, in response to our fan (Hi Gail!) and family, we are in fact, all just fine, and will soon be back to posting regularly and entertainingly about our brood. Until then, here's a photo of my breathtakingly adorable children on Rosh Hashanah.

Still here. Still cute.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Huzzah for Declan's 5th Birthday!

Declan is growing up. I hate to say he's maturing, since his behavior is by all standards often very immature ("poopy" is still one of his favorite words), but I suppose he is maturing through the typical stages of a boy.

He now insists upon using the men's room by himself when we're out, rather than go into the women's room with me. He's not nearly as clingy or affectionate as he used to be; he's sometimes aloof and distant and will grace me with just a perfunctory peck on the cheek at bedtime (clearly he's already learning how to drive women crazy). He's got an attitude and isn't afraid to use it. He's become brazen and sometimes disrespectful. He randomly started calling me "Sweet Betty" on our vacation (the fact that I couldn't stop laughing only made it worse).

Of course, this new "mature" Declan isn't all bad. He's become interested in longer chapter books and has patiently listened his way through Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson. After three years of asking for guitar lessons, he'll finally start this year and couldn't be more excited. While on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, he was held rapt by the historical reenactments and presentations while Ronan played in the dirt.

After we returned from vacation, Declan was playing with his cousins and raced by me, galloping on a "horse" and waving a sword in the air.

"Are you a brave knight?" I asked.

"No, I'm George Washington fighting the Indians!" he replied, recalling his history from our visit to Mount Vernon.

So while I may bemoan the cuddly little mama's boy I'm quickly losing, I do look forward to seeing the (mature) boy Declan will become.

As soon as he stops yelling, "Poopy!" all the time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

All American Vacation

We took our first family vacation this summer.

It's not our first trip away, of course; we often travel to Ireland to visit Matty's family and Florida to visit mine, but until now our travels have always centered on family. This time we were on our own.

(Except for a few days in the middle when we visited my cousins in Asheville, NC.)

We went on a good ol' fashioned Road Trip, making our way from Philadelphia through Colonial Williamsburg, the aformentioned Asheville, and Washington D.C., with stops for real North Carolina BBQ, a great bowl of matzo ball soup, and some caverns along the way.

We came home with an $80 souvenir from Tennessee, a very dirty car, and a lot of wonderful memories.

Our trip did not start well. I forgot my shoes and we had to go back home to get them. Molly had a huge poop while we were crawling through traffic; by the time we stopped to change her it had leaked all over her carseat (and her). Ronan had to poop so suddenly and urgently that we had to pull over and have him poop in a plastic bag. This was all before we even hit Baltimore.

But things picked up. The kids fell asleep. And we arrived in Colonial Williamsburg tired but happy. We spent two days there, during which the kids dressed in period garb, trained to be a soldier, learned to work a farm like their forefathers, and marched in a fife and drum parade. They learned how to write with a quill and how to split a log. They watched Benedict Arnold ride into town and learned of his treason. They had fun.

From there we headed to Chapel Hill, about halfway between Williamsburg and Asheville. We ate some fabulous BBQ and pie and drove through the town, stopping to wander the stands of a local farmers' market. We were in Asheville after lunch, where we spent three days with two of my cousins and their children. They mined for gems, played on the playground, and went to a children's museum. They had fun.

We stopped in Natural Bridge, Virginia on the way to D.C. to break up the trip, and toured the deepest caverns on the East coast. The kids held up well in the car all day, "reading" comic books, listening to books on tape, watching movies, and coloring. But we were all happy to finally arrive in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside D.C. and where we stayed for two nights.

In D.C., despite the heat, the kids enjoyed the Air and Space Museum and American History Museum, though they were unimpressed by seeing the real live actual ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the movie or the actual kitchen in which Julia Child cooked and whose refrigerator featured a magnet from our friend's former restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts. But they had fun.

On the final day of our trip we went to Mount Vernon to explore George Washington's estate and history. It was probably the highlight of everyone's vacation, and not just because the boys got replica guns and we got to eat a very good meal in the colonial tavern. The boys got to dress up, Molly got to crawl around the grounds released from the confines of her stroller, and Matty and I got a chance to walk through history, something we both, though avid fans, don't get to do very much.

After a short three hour jaunt back to Philadelphia, we were all happy to be home, and back to playing with cousins and sisters and brothers-in-law. And Matty, who was opposed to the trip from the start, is already planning our next road trip to Florida. Or maybe Canada. Who knows? Maybe we'll even go somewhere we don't have any family...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Behold, the Amazing Walking Baby!

At 14 months, 2 weeks, 4 days, I present to you, the amazing, the wondrous, the perambulating...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Silver Linings, Part 2

Last night, Jonah, Erika, Hilary and I went to the end-of-summer "prom" at Camp Joy, the camp for developmentally disabled children and adults that Jonah went to for the three weeks he didn't have summer school. We got there a little late, and the party was already underway, but our arrival caused the kind of stir I would previously have attributed to celebrities on the Brangelina level. For once, it wasn't about Erika's beautiful red hair, or Hilary's radiant smile - it was all about Jonah. The campers and the counselors wanted to spin with him to the Macarena, or his new, second-favorite song, the YMCA. They wanted to hug him, tickle him, and bring him cake. I almost cried, I was so touched by the affection everyone clearly had for him.

Many well-meaning friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have complimented me over the years about how well Andy and I have dealt with Jonah's autism, and I've always chafed under their praise. We adapted, as all parents do - despite the many protestations I've heard: "I could never handle it." But the real admiration should be showered on those who choose to work with these difficult children. I can't tell you how many amazing people I've met since Jonah was diagnosed - those with incredible patience, perseverance, and love, love, love for kids who - believe me - aren't always easy to love. I could name them, but I'd be afraid of leaving someone out.

I took this picture of Jonah and Sam, a Camp Joy counselor, last night. Sam is off to his freshman year of college this year, to study special education and psychology, but another counselor told me that Sam started volunteering at the camp when he was about ten years old. Ten years old! If I had never had a child with a disability, I would never have met Sam and all the others like him, people whose passion never fails to sustain and inspire me. It's not a hermit crab, but this silver lining is infinitely more precious.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pickle Diet

A few days ago, Hilary informed me, "I'm going on a pickle diet."

"What does that mean?" I asked. "You mean, you're going to eat only pickles?"

"No," she said. "I'm going to stop eating pickles until I'm as skinny as Erika."

Wow. So many thoughts were swirling through my head - Is Erika really that much thinner than Hilary? This is all Hannah Montana's fault - I blurted out the first coherent sentence I could put together: "Honey, pickles don't make you fat."

In retrospect, that was probably beside the point.

This isn't the first time I've had a conversation like this with one of my daughters: when Erika was about six, she rejected her wardrobe of classic, little-girl dresses with empire waists because they made her, in her words, "look fat." It doesn't matter how careful I am not to lament in front of my kids about the ten pounds I just can't seem to lose - it's not big news that our culture is weight-obsessed. When Hilary was four, she had pneumonia and didn't eat for a week. When she finally returned to pre-school, the teachers couldn't stop gushing about how fabulous she looked.

But as much as I want my kids to have healthy body-images, I also don't want them to think that weight is unimportant. I never want them to have to deal with the social and physical consequences of being fat. They're not even close, not now, but frankly, virtually everyone in both Andy's and my families has struggled with weight issues at some point. It's unlikely that any of the kids (except possibly Aaron) will ever be able to eat whatever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants, without care.

Let me just say, it's an incredible fine line between raising healthy eaters and repressed, mother-hating anorexics. The best thing I feel I can do for my kids is teach them moderation, and praise them for making healthy choices. Sometimes, when they come to me for a snack, I'll ask them if they're really hungry. Needless to say, like every mother (especially of daughters), I carefully weigh each word that comes out of my mouth on this topic.

Or maybe I should just encourage them to eat more pickles.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Silver Linings

Two weeks ago, we were driving in the car, when somehow we started talking about how tough life is for people with different disabilities. Then Erika pointed out that, although she would never want to be blind, it would be nice to be able to have a seeing-eye dog that you could take everywhere with you.

"That," Andy instructed from behind the wheel, "is what we call a 'silver lining.'" We then spent the rest of the trip explaining to Erika and Hilary about the bright spots that often accompany the most dismal situations.

That conversation seems so ironic to me, given that less than one week later, Erika knocked out her two front, permanent teeth when our boat, moving at a decent clip, hit a big swell none of us expected to encounter in the relatively placid waters of the bay.

I will never forget that moment when I picked myself and Aaron off the floor of the boat, and I yelled at Andy to stop, because I thought he was driving recklessly for the thrill of it (he wasn't), and I looked up and saw Erika in the bow of the boat, her face covered with blood. And then she was screaming, her mouth wide open, and I saw the huge gap where her teeth had been. We thought she lost three teeth, but it turns out one baby tooth was pushed back up into her gum by the force of the impact.

My friend Jodi and her three kids were on the boat with us, and the two of us hovered over Erika as Andy maneuvered back to the dock, trying to calm her down as she wailed that these teeth weren't supposed to come out, that she didn't care how much money she got from the tooth fairy. And Jodi and I both were on the verge of tears ourselves, because Erika was right, those teeth weren't supposed to come out, and they would never grow back, and how had it happened in an instant that my perfect daughter had, due to a completely preventable accident, been disfigured for life? I know that, on the scale of possible disfigurements, the loss of two front teeth barely registers - not compared to scars, burns, amputations, etc. I know that, if this is the worst thing that ever happens to Erika, she'll have lived a blessed life. But I couldn't stop thinking of her going through the painful self-consciousness of adolescence wearing a retainer with fake teeth on the front of it.

It turns out we may be able to avoid that retainer. Andy and Jodi's daughter, Jamie, found Erika's teeth, and, on the advice of my dentist, I pushed those teeth back into their gaping sockets (not easy to do when your hand is shaking like crazy and your well-meaning friend is standing right behind you yelling, "Don't touch the root! Don't touch the root!"). Erika saw three different dentists in the next four days, with many more visits to come. She may or may not need root canals in both teeth, and she'll need to have the baby tooth extracted. The most important question - whether or not the re-implanted teeth will last - is unknown. I get the feeling that it's unlikely they'll last forever, but the hope is that they last until Erika is old enough for permanent implants, 18 at the earliest. And sometimes they do last.

By the way, as if Erika wasn't miserable enough, she immediately had to stop sucking her finger - a habit she's been trying to kick for years - or risk pushing those very vulnerable teeth out of position. And she did it, with hardly any complaint. As I told her many times during the past week, I don't think I could have handled these events with nearly as much poise and patience and good cheer as she has.

And the silver lining? Andy felt so guilty he promised Erika the hermit crabs she's been wanting for the past three years. And, of course, as I heard her recount the story to a friend on the phone: "It hurt, but I'm getting a lot of attention."

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Family Ties

As I posted earlier, Amy and I spent brief periods at several camps before ending up at Blue Rill for the better part of our childhoods. What I remember most about camp wasn't the state-of-the-art facilities (not) or swimming pool, or the carefully orchestrated activities or the field trips to the roller skating rink or Color War or anything else that one might think is the marker of a great camp.

What I remember most is Herb.

Herb was the photography counselor, and though I don't quite remember how or when he became such a friend to us, what I remember is this: One summer, when my mother's back went out and she was confined to bed for a few days, Herb went out during camp to buy us milk.

That's what I want for my kids at camp.

I saw it at the camp I worked at this summer, Friends' Central, where Declan spent his second summer and Ronan his first. There were counselors who had grown up at Friends', and campers who were doing the same. All the staff knew and loved them. Camp was a family, open and inviting to everyone.

To me, that's much more important than the specialty activities or field trips or anything else. Because, let's face it, if there's one thing I learned as a camp counselor this year, kids find more happiness in each other than they do in anything else.

So that's why my kids will keep going back to the same camp year after year, to strengthen and build upon the relationships they've already begun. To extend their family far beyond the walls of their home. To have fun and be loved and love in return.

All from a camp.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Old Lady

I feel old.

Not because of my three kids or the gray hairs that have sprouted all over my head or the fact that I'm closer to 40 than I am to 30.

It's because of camp.

I remember camp (that's me at one camp, above); we attended a series of day camps before settling in at Blue Rill, where we spent the better part of our childhoods. I was a young teen there, an assistant counselor who spent her days gossiping with friends and ogling the boys.

There were two types of head counselors at camp: the young, pretty ones who were on their college breaks, and the older ones who were, well, old. They seemed a world away from us then, so unlike the hip 19- and 20-year-olds I yearned to be. They wore bras (the college girls certainly didn't--it was the 70s, after all) and sensible shorts. They were over 30.

Now, I'm the old counselor.

I worked at a day camp this summer, heading a bunk of 24 6-year-olds, 21 of whom were boys. Suffice it to say that my summer was challenging. But the worst part wasn't the boy who pooped in the pool, or the one who gashed his head open and required seven stitches, or the one who simply didn't listen.

The worst part, by far, was how old I felt.

My co-head counselor was 26. My assistants were 14 and 15. The head counselors in the other 6-year-old bunk were both more than 10 years younger than I.

The young counselors and assistants ruled the camp. They were all great friends and chatted excitedly in between activities. They hung out together after camp and texted each other during the day. They were deeply tanned and wore dozens of string bracelets up their arms. I'm nothing like them.

I was once, a long time ago, but now I'd rather spend my nights at home with my kids than at the Phillies game or the camp barbecue with the other counselors. The fact is, I am old. Older than I was, anyway. And when I snuggle with Molly as she falls asleep or watch Declan jump into the pool for the first time by himself or lay with Ronan as he drifts off to sleep, there isn't any place else (or any other age) I'd rather be.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Not To Wear, Junior Edition

I've posted before about how proud I am that Erika is following in my footsteps, and developing a love of so many of my own favorite activities, including writing, reading, tennis and running. What I should also mention is that she has adopted my style of dress - if track pants, t-shirts and hoodies can properly be called a "style."

At first, I was thrilled to see Erika reject so many of the girly items she cherished as a toddler, when she literally wore dress-up clothes whenever she was in the house - out of the house, she would wear a dress, tights, and patent-leather Mary Janes. I could never understand where she had picked up such stereotypical inclinations in the first place - certainly I, a devout feminist, had never taught her that girls like pink, and skirts, and hair ribbons. But she had absorbed those cultural cliches anyway.

And part of me is still thrilled. I love that she has never asked me for Ugg boots, or Juicy jeans, or any of the trendy items that Main Line girls notoriously bug their parents for. But sometimes, when I watch Erika go off to school in her track pants, t-shirt and hoodie, I wonder if I've done her a disservice by being such a slob. I wonder if other girls will tease or ostracize her - if not now, maybe later, in middle or high school. Surely, there's a happy medium I could have modeled for her, somewhere between track pants and Juicy jeans.

But I've decided not to worry too much about it. Soon enough, I know my influence will begin to wane, and Erika will look to her friends for guidance in all things, including fashion. My strategy at this point is to take advantage of her Mommy-worship while it lasts, and nudge her so far down the right track that her friends will have a tough time derailing her.

Besides, if my biggest flaw as a mom is raising candidates for What Not To Wear, Junior Edition, then I think I'll be quite satisfied with my performance.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My Pet Shrimp

I've had virtually every kind of pet imaginable, from a pedigree Guinea pig, to Siberian Dwarf hamsters, to run-of-the-mill gerbils, to dogs, cats, fish - you name it. I even had birds for one brief moment, when our nanny, Marina, surprised Erika one Hannukah a couple of years back with a pair of parakeets - which, we decided, would be happiest living in Marina's apartment.

But I can't remember ever being as enamored of any of those pets as I am with my three pet shrimp.

The shrimp - named, by Erika, Sunny, Bailey and Teeney, live in an eco-sphere I bought last week at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History when Erika, Hilary and I spent a few days in Washington last week. The eco-sphere is a completely sealed glass pod containing the shrimp, algae, gravel, bacteria, and a decorative branch, and it is entirely self-sustaining: the shrimp release carbon dioxide when they breathe, and the algae use the CO2 and light to make oxygen.

Here's the link, if you want to check it out.

I've been a huge animal lover my whole life - I still like animals, maybe not as much as I did when I was fourteen and spent my Saturdays cleaning dog and cat crap at the animal shelter FOR FREE, but enough to agree to add a new puppy and a new kitten to our household, both of whom will be arriving this fall (more on that craziness in another post). But I cannot get over the concept of the absolutely, totally maintenance-free pet. It's the plant I can't kill, the animal I can't neglect. It's all pleasure, no work - which, after a lifetime of hearing about how there's no such thing as a free lunch, and how I can't have my cake and eat it too, feels like as big an epiphany as Newton must have felt when the apple conked him on the head.

So, I highly recommend the shrimp to those parents whose children are constantly pestering them for pets the parents have no intention of ever procuring. They may not be as cuddly as, say, a dog, but they have many other advantages. Besides, they might have babies! Although the shrimp are specifically chosen for their slow and irregular reproduction (to avoid over-populating the pod), we can always hope. What's a good name for a baby shrimp?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, Aaron and Gretchen!

If it seems as if every other post of late has commemorated another birthday, it's not your imagination. Andy and I and all five of our kids celebrate birthdays between January and June (as do Ronan and Molly). By the time the twins' birthday rolls around on June 30, everyone is suffering so much birthday fatigue Aaron and Gretchen are lucky to get a dingdong with two candles in it.

I kid, I kid (in the immortal words of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog). What I meant to say is that not one child in our household gets even a molecule more of anything than the others, because everyone knows that would mean - in the irrefutable logic of kids since the beginning of time - we loved that child more.

This year, after two years of parties attended by family and my friends, the twins finally got a party catered to their little friends. And by friends, I mean the small individuals from their school with whom they'd been engaging in parallel play for the past year, and the 3-year-old goddess Margalit, with whom Aaron and Gretchen are both so infatuated they can barely speak in her presence.

I'm happy to report that a good time was had by all. While the kids bounced around to music provided by the twins' music teacher, the moms of the boys freaked out that their sons weren't potty trained to the moms of the girls, who all were. (Parenting boy-girl twins never ceases to fascinate me.) We then adjourned to the patio for hotdogs, hamburgers, and a cake that was, naturally, half orange and brown and half pink and purple.

As for me, I celebrated the end of an era: the baby era. I've always considered three the age of personhood, when you can start counting on kids to listen better, to talk better, to start thinking things through. Shortly (I mean it, Aaron), I'll be saying goodbye to diapers forever, just as I've said goodbye to nursing, bottles, baby food, and cribs. And I don't feel even the hint of nostalgia. Maybe when Aaron and Gretchen are learning to drive, I'll long for these days of complete physical and emotional dependence.

But I doubt it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Home Alone

I am all alone in the house right now. That might not sound so interesting, but consider this: It's the first time in 3 1/2 years that it's happened.

I guess that's par for the course when you decide to cohabitate with another family, especially one with five kids. And I can't really say that I've been longing for this day; the truth is, having a bustling house full of family, friends, and yes, chaos, has become such a part of my life that's it's only notable when it isn't there.

Like now.

Off now to enjoy it...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Happy Anniversary Amy and Andy!

"You know what the worst thing about being a single parent to two teenagers?" a friend told me recently.

"There's no one to roll my eyes at during dinner."

So to Amy and Andy, on the 12th anniversary of your marriage, the best I can wish for you is that you'll always have each other to roll your eyes at.

Happy Anniversary!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Crazy Weekend: Part 3 of 3

Hilary's graduation wasn't the only excitement of last weekend. As Keri wrote in her last post, it was a busy one for Erika as well.

On Friday night, Erika made her musical debut in Seussical, a production staged by the drama school where she has been taking classes for the last three years. Only students in third grade and older could audition for the main parts, but the director of the program always likes to give the younger children a chance to participate, so she encouraged them to audition to play "mini-Whos." I was surprised when Erika decided to audition, for two reasons: 1.) we happen to be a musically challenged family, although she obviously hasn't figured that out yet, and 2.) the part involved about eight minutes of stage time, for which she would have to go through four months of rehearsals. In fact, last year, she declined to audition to be a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, because if she couldn't be Dorothy, she didn't want to be in the play at all.

But it seems as if Erika's grown up since then. In fact, learning that you can't always be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz of life is a lesson many adults I know haven't figured out yet. Erika was happy in her role of mini-Who, and never complained about all the rehearsals, and all the waiting around she was required to do at said rehearsals. And she did great - especially in the final musical number, "Green Eggs and Ham," in which she made the best angry face of any Who on stage. Now she can't wait until the end of August, when auditions begin for the next production, Charlotte's Web. I'm just hoping for her sake that this one isn't also a musical.

I was proud of Erika's performances as a mini-Who, but not nearly as proud as I was later that weekend, when we ran together in her very first 5K race. We, along with Keri and Molly, ran as the "Cheetah Girls" team, and my friend Lauren and her daughter Abby (who was Erika's first real friend) ran with us. Three miles is very, very far for an eight year old (I didn't run one mile without stopping until I was in high school), so we took a few short walking breaks along the way, but the girls did amazing. It's so important to me that the kids grow up fit and strong, and I try to set a positive example for them (which is the only reason I play tennis three times a week, I swear), so I was proud, and Erika was proud, and I was proud that she was proud, as well as proud of her physical accomplishment - so let's just say that everyone was happy.

When it was over, as Keri already posted, Hilary, Declan, and Lauren's younger daughter Maddy ran in the track trot. Driving home afterwards, with everyone hot and sweaty and tired, I felt like a good mom. Heck, I felt like a great mom. I had spent the morning bonding with my kids, as well as exercising their bodies, bolstering their self-esteem, and laying a foundation for healthy, lifelong habits. How many days do you have a chance to do all that and still be home by lunch?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

O, Beautiful!

I'm kind of torn about the whole idea of "kindergarten graduation."

We celebrated Hilary's "commencement" last week, and it's true that she's now leaving behind the sheltered, nurturing pre-school/kindergarten she has attended since she was two years old (for the sheltered, nurturing environment of the wealthy Main Line elementary school she'll go to next year, but that's a topic for a different post). In that light, she is making a legitimate break. On the other hand, I would hardly call this the kind of achievement typically honored at graduations. No finals, no papers, no panic. Although she struggled with the subjects of swing sharing and glitter management, her "diploma" was never in jeopardy.

A few years ago, I read a study suggesting that all the effusive praise heaped on children today causes them to grow up with a poor work ethic and a huge sense of entitlement, so since then I've been wary about celebrating anything that required little effort from my kids. With Hilary, I've discovered, that can be said about most of her accomplishments - even her precocious reading ability, which has impressed both her father and her teachers. Although she was reading chapter books at an age at which Erika could barely read at all, I know deep down it wasn't because she worked hard to develop the skill. It happened very easily for Hilary, like it did for Jonah, because of the hard-wiring in their brains.

Of course, I'm still proud of Hilary, and I love her to pieces, but I think when your six-year-old decides to become an artist instead of a doctor because the latter requires "too much school," it's prudent to begin counseling her against always choosing the path of least resistance. I was, however, encouraged by the diligence with which Hilary applied herself to learning "O, Beautiful," one of the showpieces of the graduation ceremony. She walked around the house singing it (in a curious falsetto) so often that now, nine days later, none of us can shake it from our heads.

The pictures from the graduation all came out dark and blurry (serves us right for letting Erika take them), but you'll have to take my word for it that Hilary, as always, was beautiful.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Digging a Hole, Part 3

What can I say? We're a hole-y family. (Ba dump bump.)

But seriously, what is it about kids and holes? It's like spinning in circles; an activity kids are almost compelled to do, though adults are seemingly immune to its charms.

Last month at the beach, the kids spent an entire weekend digging holes. Here's Aaron and Erika in mid-dig:

And here they are, showing off their work:

Of course, once your hole is dug, there's only one thing to do:

Fill it! Many times over:

Happy digging!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sappy Days

This past weekend was tough for me. Between Hilary's graduation, Erika's first theater production, and her first 5k, I was spent. Emotionally drained. Why?

I'm a sap.

This may come as a surprise, but I'm about as sappy as it gets. From the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance," I'm sunk. Tearing away. Last week, I caught a glimpse of Hilary's class rehearsing their graduation ceremonies, and just watching all those little 6-year-olds file into the chapel was enough to make me start bawling.

Thursday night was Hilary's official graduation from preschool, and though I'm sure Amy will write about it imminently, I'll just share how unbelievably proud I felt sitting in the audience.

But frankly, I'm not sure why. I certainly had nothing to do with it; I wasn't in any way responsible for her being up on that stage. She did it herself (with some financial assistance and guidance from her parents). But something about seeing her walk down the aisle and sit beaming on the stage just made my heart swell.

On Saturday we saw Erika's first on-stage performance in Seussical, and I couldn't stop the tears every time I saw her on stage (thankfully, it was only twice). But it was more than just Erika. As the cast gathered on stage for their final curtain call, the tears kept coming. And not just for Erika, but for all the kids up there.

Then on Sunday, we ran in our school district's 5k. Afterword, Declan and Hilary ran in the "track trot," a short run around the high school's bus circle. They got "medals" (actually, they were buttons). They were thrilled. I was weepy.

I think it's similar to the feelings I get whenever I see one of my kids slighted in any way (like on the playground...). I feel their sadness, embarrassment, dejection. And when I see my kids, or my nieces, or any kid, for that matter, up on stage, accomplishing something, anything, I feel their pride.

Nothing makes me happier than when Declan comes running to me with a drawing from school, pride oozing from every pore. Or when Ronan shows me a page in a coloring book, his preschool scribbles (almost) contained within the lines. And if that's all it takes to inspire them now, I can't imagine the joy they'll feel when it's them up on that stage, getting their preschool "diplomas" or acting in their first play or scoring their first goal in a soccer game (or maybe not).

The truth is, I don't mind being a sap. I love every minute of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Strawberry Fields For... Yesterday

Thus begins our first week of "camplessness," those weeks between school and camp and then between camp and school when the kids have nothing scheduled. This year they have just one week off before camp starts, but a full month off after camp ends. (Wish us luck with that.)

In the past, I've dreaded this week, trying to keep a house full of kids occupied all day long. But this year is different. This year I'm enjoying this week a bit more because next week, when the kids head off to camp...

...I'm going with them.

That's right, yours truly is going to brave the world of day camp as a head counselor for a bunk full of 6-year-olds. Heck, we practically have a full bunk of kids here at home, how different can it be at camp? (Famous last words...)

So this week began with a trip to one of our favorite places, Linvilla Orchards. They have pick-your-own-fruit from May through October, and this week raspberries and strawberries were ripe and ready for picking. And eating. I finally realized why pick-your-own fruit is so damn expensive. For every one that went into the basket... went into each kid's mouth. So with six kids (Jonah and Erika were still in school), we definitely got our money's worth.

Tomorrow we're off to the Crayola Factory, with seven kids in tow (Jonah's the only one left in school!)... If the kids can each pocket one crayon for every one we buy, we only need to buy 10 to get a full set!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is This the Little Girl I Carried?

While in Boston this past weekend, we stayed with an old friend, mother of two teenagers. I watched enviously as she slept late and discussed the family's plans as if her kids were roommates rather than children. "She won't be home tonight... He's going out... You might see him tomorrow." As I hovered over Molly as she desperately tried to tackle the racks of papers and stacks of books that seemed to be put right within her reach, as I wrestled pill bottles and fragile glass tchatchkes from the boys' sticky fingers, I thought to myself, this is what I'm moving toward. To a day when there are no diapers to change, no childproofing to worry about, to a day when I no longer have to literally hover over my eagerly exploring children.

But, as my friend wearily explained, when the literal hovering ends, the metaphorical hovering begins. She told me of dinners eaten in silence, her teens shooting her withering looks of condescension. She told me of rude comments and sarcastic asides.

But my friend also encouraged me to visit her daughter in her room, where I found a young woman, a person, not just someone's child. I saw her artwork, smelled her incense, admired her jewelry, and talked to her about colleges and photography.

This is what I've been thinking about this week as Molly turned one. Not her year of amazing milestones--sitting up, crawling, climbing, cruising--but her milestones to come--elementary school, braces, Bat Mitzvah, driver's license. Because if it seems that in the blink of an eye, she went from this:

To this:

Then how long will it feel like before she's taller than I am? How long until I worry about whether or not she's drinking alcohol rather than whether she's drinking enough milk? How long until the adorable baby who loves me best of all slams the door in my face and utters the most dismissive of teenage insults: "Whatever."

I know, I know, this is all a bit melodramatic for a simple birthday post. (The end of the school year always does this to me.) So I'll close with a simple, "Happy Birthday Molly!" and a note to her future self:

"Molly, I love you. And I'm much cooler than you think I am."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Complicated Conversation in the Car

This morning, I was driving Hilary, Declan, Ronan, Aaron and Gretchen to the pre-school/kindergarten they attend, when Hilary asked, "Can I marry Ronan?"

Ronan, really? I thought. Because of all the cousins, Hilary and Ronan have historically fought the most, although their relationship seems to have improved as both have gotten a little older and better able to articulate their frustration. Plus, he is half her age.

But I was afraid that probing her particular choice of cousin/spouse would take us too far off point, so I cut right to the chase: "No. You can't marry your cousins, or your brothers."

"Why not?" Hilary wanted to know.

I thought for a minute as I drove. How could I explain, in words a six-year-old would understand, about genetic diversity, and the increased risk of birth defects in restricted gene pools?

I gave up. "Because you can't marry relatives," I said firmly, hoping that if I spoke confidently enough she would accept my answer as the explanation it really wasn't instead of the re-phrasing that it was.

"Gretchen marry me?" Aaron asked, at this point.

"No, honey," I said again. "You can't marry your sister."

"Gretchen hug me?" Aaron asked.

"Sure, Gretchen can hug you."

"I dance with Gretchen," Declan piped up.

"You can hug Gretchen, and you can dance with her, you can play with her, but no one in this car is going to marry her."

"I going to marry my brother," Ronan said.

"You can't," I informed him.

"Boys can't marry boys," Declan explained.

This quieted the kids for the time being, and I wondered if I had missed a teaching moment, a chance to share my hope that, by the time they're grown, people will be able to marry whomever they want, without restriction, without stigma.

Except their cousins. And brothers. And sisters. But I'm glad they love each other enough to want to.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Jonah's Inner Life

An essay I wrote on misperceptions of autism was published today on Babble. Here's the link:

Working on that piece, I spent a lot of time thinking about why it's so difficult to parent a child with autism. There are many obvious reasons in my case - the tantrums, the aggression, the self-injurious behaviors, the constant elopement. But I think an even greater barrier is my total exclusion from Jonah's inner life. That is, I don't really know whether or not I know Jonah that well. Maybe I do - maybe he really only thinks about water parks, and ketchup-and-french-fries, and Sesame Street videos. But maybe there's more to him than that. There are several documented cases of severely autistic individuals who - although completely non-verbal - wrote essays or poetry once they were given communication devices. Which has made me wonder: is there any poetry in Jonah?

I don't think so - not poetry, at any rate. Jonah can write, and spends a great deal of time with markers and chalk, and has never felt inclined to write much more than titles or characters from his favorite videos. Still, there have been moments. One afternoon he wrote in chalk on the driveway: EACH DAY I LIKE IT BETTER. I still don't know where that came from. Could that possibly be a quote from a Sesame Street video? I really thought I knew each and every DVD backwards and forwards, and that phrase didn't sound at all familiar. Was it an original thought? If so, what did it mean? Each day he likes what better? I was so moved by the potential implications of that one phrase I took a picture:

I'm sure it's because I'm a writer, but I can't help seeing symbolism in everything. Jonah loves to tell me, and his teachers, and his aides, exactly what to draw, and he goes through spells in which he asks for the same pictures over and over again. Usually, they're Sesame Street characters, or images or animals from Sesame Street videos, but several times he's asked me to draw a series of purple doors with hands on them. In each picture, someone different wants to open the door: Ernie and Elmo, an umbrella with ten drops of rain, Hilary, Kaitlin (one of his favorite therapists from Kennedy Krieger). And whenever I draw these pictures I think, is there anything more saturated with symbolism than a door? Is the door a metaphor for the separation between Jonah and the rest of the world? What's on the other side of the door? Why does Ernie want to open it so badly?

And then I decide that I am probably imposing all this meaning on the picture myself. Probably.

There are other clues to what Jonah's thought process must be like. When I let him, he'll play his favorite song, "The Macarena," on my I-phone while also running a movie on his DVD player and playing another song on the CD player. And while all three going at once sounds like a mess to me, I suspect it doesn't to him. Is it possible Jonah's mind is crowded with thoughts, twisted together into something too complex for his limited conversational skills to articulate?

I know Jonah's teacher is working hard to develop Jonah's use of language, and I'm anxiously awaiting to see what might come of it. My dreams for Jonah have diminished in scope so much since his birth: from Nobel laureate, to college graduate, to Wawa stocker, to our present dream that we can just keep him from hurting himself or someone else. It would give me a lot of hope, maybe even invigorate some of those old dreams, to be able to ask Jonah, What are you thinking? and have him be able to answer me.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hilary's Retro Party

When Hilary's birthday, May 13, was still a couple of months away, I asked her what kind of party she wanted. Did she want pony rides and farm animals, like Erika had when she turned 6 (and 7 . . . and 3)? No. Did she want a dance party? No. Did she want a magician, a musician, a puppet show? No, no, no.

Apparently, what Hilary wanted was for her friends to come over and play games. Crazy, huh?

Keri thought so. She brought home the card of a dance instructor who had facilitated a party Declan attended, as a not-so-subtle suggestion that I hire someone to run the activities. But, I kept repeating, how hard can it be?

And you know what? For once, I was right.

After all the money I've spent hiring entertainers for birthday parties, I have to say this was an enlightening experience. It turns out that kids are just as happy clambering over our playset, jumping on our trampoline, playing with balloons, and playing the exact same games we played as kids (sack races, egg relays, Simon Says) as they are with entertainers that cost two hundred dollars for a 45 minute show.

I do have some suggestions, if you're considering a party like this:

1. Six is really the perfect age. You want the kids to be old enough to dependably follow directions, and young enough to still think keeping a balloon up in the air with their elbows is really thrilling.

2. Avoid relay games. Although the sack races were hilarious, it was just too difficult to break the kids into fair teams given the age ranges we had. Also, as soon as you mention the need for teams, you risk having your party derail into a cacophany of, "I want to be on X's team!!" as every kid demands to be with his or her best buddy. Better to stick with individual games. One game we didn't get around to playing but that I think would be great is the one where you have the kids try to pass a frozen orange or tennis ball around a circle using only their chins.

3. Make a list of more games than you could possibly have time to play, just in case an activity or two falls flat. Other games I'd like to try include Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Red Rover and Freeze Dance.

4. Have enough back-up so when one of the adorable boys at the party pushes another boy into the noxious, overgrown fish pond, there's someone to take the soggy guest back to the house and, fortunately, find some only slightly large replacement clothes in the closet of the birthday girl's older brother.

We ended the party with, what else? Retro loot bags, with yo-yo's, balls and all kinds of cherished candy from my childhood: candy bracelets, candy buttons and Lik-Em Sticks.

Now, time to plan the twins' party!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mr. Sensible

I don't know how it happened, but Declan has become the most sensible person in our family. He reminds me that he needs to brush his teeth in the morning and that he needs to do his homework in the afternoon. He is the only child in the household who hangs up his backpack and jacket in the coat closet every day, empties his lunchbox and restores it to its proper place in the kitchen, and brings me all of his drawings, painstakingly smoothing out any wrinkles that may have occurred in transport.

He attempts to make his bed each morning, and carefully places his pajamas at the end of the bed if they're clean enough to be worn again. He then combs his hair with water to tame any flyaways.

He even takes pains to ensure that his t-shirt and socks match his pajama pants.

He's no angel--he still fights with his cousins and doesn't always listen and needs to be encouraged to eat his dinner and asks to watch TV incessantly--but he has definitely earned his new nickname: Mr. Sensible.

Actually, Matty and I just call him that behind his back. We don't want to give him a complex (not that there's anything wrong with being sensible).

The funny thing is, if you asked us when we were kids whether Amy or I would be more likely to have a child nicknamed Mr. Sensible, I think we both would have answered, "Amy." Somehow, over the past 30 years, Amy has gone from being an over-achieving do-gooder to being a completely disorganized procrastinator. (Erika's teachers, while praising her bright mind and likability, often point out her amazing lack of organizational skills.)

But if it's true that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, then where on earth did Declan fall from? I was hardly a sensible child, unless you call terrorizing your older sister and lying for attention sensible. Nor was I sensible during the, er, excitement of my 20s (I'll leave it at that).

I guess with kids you just never know how they'll turn out. Who would have expected that sweats-loving Amy would beget girly-girls with passions for pink? Hilary, an imaginative child and voracious reader, is clearly Amy's child, but how did Andy, a self-proclaimed former bully, produce Aaron, the most sensitive little boy you'll ever meet? Ronan's wild ways are clearly reminiscent of Matty's own unorthodox upbringing, but Declan... he's just not like us.

Which is good, I think. Without the Aarons and the Declans of the world, everyone would be remarkably similar from one generation to the next. And we, as parents, would remain steadfastly static.

So maybe Gretchen will help Amy get in touch with her girly-girl side, and Aaron will bring out the sensitivity in Andy. I can say with certainty that Declan has already made me a more sensible person. Now I remember to brush my teeth every morning.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Advanced Studies In Twin Development, part XXIV

Aaron and Gretchen, as members-in-good-standing of the Terrible Twos Club, are both prone to irrational, persistent tantrums. However, I've noticed that they never actually pitch fits at the same time. To steal "Law & Order" jargon, their fits are consecutive, rather than concurrent.

Could it be they've figured out that if they both unleashed their impressive arsenal of shrieks, sobs, and dramatic collapses at once, I would be forced to retreat to my bathroom with a bottle of Bacardi Dark and a handful of Jonah's Xanax, and I wouldn't come out for three days?


My current theory is that the twins' tantrums are polarizing - the farther one retreats into the dark depths of hysteria, the sweeter and sunnier the other becomes. And I didn't arrive at this conclusion from any serious application in child psychology. Both Aaron and Gretchen take great pains to point it out to me, i.e.:

Gretchen (flailing on the floor): No, Mommy! I don't WANT big-girl cup! SIPPY CUP! No, Mommy!! SIPPY CUP! SIPPY CUP SIPPY CUP SIPPY CUP SIPPY - "

Me: Gretchen, we don't scream at dinner. If you're going to pitch a fit, I'm going to take you out of the kitchen.

Aaron (proudly): I not pitching a fit, Mommy.

I'm always unsure how to respond in these situations. I know you're not supposed to compare siblings to one another, because it makes them self-conscious, paranoid and anorexic. But Gretchen's tantrums are particularly shrill. So I usually respond something along the lines of: "That's right, my good, sweet boy. You're not pitching a fit! See that, Gretchen? See what good, compliant, quiet children get - candy! hugs! toys! Good boy, Aaron!" (I'm paraphrasing here.)

I'm interested to see how this dynamic evolves as the twins get older. I'm hoping they'll up the ante, and instead of trying to impress me with an absence of problem behavior, their friendly competition will spur them on to greater and greater achievements: straight As, scholarships, lucrative patents, presidential commendations, those sorts of things.

Hey, whatever works.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Will You Play with Me?

Yesterday Declan came into my office after school, looked up at me with his big brown eyes, and plaintively asked:

"Will you play with me?"

I think it might have been the first time he ever asked me that.

Between school, activities, and assorted cousins, caregivers, and friends, Declan always seems to be heavily occupied. He's never needed me to play with him before.

Of course, I do try to make it clear to him and Ronan that when I'm in my office I'm working, and that I stop around 4:30, though then I usually make dinner and perform other random household tasks (the other day I cleaned out and reorganized the pantry, which held, I kid you not, a can of Creamora that had expired in 2001).

It's not that I don't want to play with Declan, it's just... okay, it's just that I don't want to play with Declan.

Don't get me wrong; I love spending time with Declan, and would actually choose to bring him along on a day of errands or to go out for coffee and chitchat. I love taking him to the movies and on our weekly weekend outings to the zoo or aquarium or such.

But I'm just not good at the "playing with kids" part.

Declan likes to play games like "Pirates Kidnap a Princess and a Group of Sled Dogs" or "Robin Hood Fights the Mean Guys and Performs Magic Tricks." He's the poster child for imaginative play. Me? I'd rather write about it than act it out. I guess as an adult I've lost the freeing inhibition of childhood, the one that allows you to jump around pretending to be a sled dog without feeling stupid. I'm so glad Declan still has it. But I can't say I'm too sad to have lost it.

So of course, I caved to those big brown eyes and said yes, of course I'll play with you, and braced myself for the complicated world in which I was about to enter.

"What do you want to do?"

"A puzzle?" A puzzle! I can do puzzles! I guess Declan knows as well as I do that I would make a terrible sled dog.

So we sat at the kitchen table, I helping him with his puzzle, he helping me make dinner. And we were happy.

And the second Erika got home, he raced off to play with her, to an elaborate world of royalty and animal husbandry.

And we were happy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Aaron (excitedly): Look, Gretchen, I did it! I did it! (points to puzzle he finished).

Gretchen (practically yawning in boredom): Yes, you did it, honey (one of my pet names for the kids, the other being 'monkeys').

Me: Did you just call him 'honey'?

Gretchen: laughs hysterically

Wow. And I thought the kids couldn't tell when I was dialing it in. Guess I need to work on my enthusiasm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(How's that for a start?? 33 exclamation points, that's enthusiastic, right????????

Friday, May 1, 2009

Our Multicultural Easter

I know what you're thinking: You guys are raising your kids Jewish! Why the heck are you celebrating Easter???

(Actually, what you're probably thinking is: It's freakin' May already! Why the heck are you posting about Easter now??? But I'm going to pretend that you're thinking the first thing.)

Well, we started out the morning as many Jewish families do when Easter happens to fall in the middle of Passover: we ate matzo for breakfast. Again. Maybe we wouldn't have been so sick of it if Keri hadn't started buying it three months before Passover, because back then it seemed like a treat. By the time Passover actually rolled around, the seasonal excitement of eating matzo with cream cheese had definitely peaked.

Later that morning, we loaded up the big green van and headed out to Northeast Philadelphia to celebrate Thai New Year with Oat and her friends at a Thai temple complex. The kids got to see gold Buddhas, and monks in orange robes, and sample the incredible free buffet of donated Thai food (and, inexplicably, a tray of spaghetti and meat sauce). Unfortunately, the festivities mostly took place outdoors, and it was only about 50 degrees outside, so the kids especially were pretty chilly.

That failed to diminish their enthusiasm, however, when we headed over to our friends (and former housemates) Patrick and Rhea's home for an Easter egg hunt. This was the first egg hunt for my kids, but they caught on quickly. I thought Rhea had a clever strategy to deal with the broad age range (and scavenging ability) of the hunters: she hid eggs in different parts of her yard for the different age groups. The eggs for Aaron, Gretchen and Ronan were prominently placed in conspicuous locations. The ones for the intermediate group were slightly more obscured, and the ones for the older girls were shoved way back under a pricker bush, submerged in a drainage ditch and tucked into an abandoned bird's nest fifteen feet off the ground. But the kids found every last egg.

I suspect that, between the matzo, the monks and the eggs, we succeeded in covering the bases, religiously speaking.

But more than that, I love how many different cultural influences are kids are exposed to in our house alone. Matty is Irish. Oat is Thai. Marina and Iza (our housekeeper) are Georgian. Aaron is learning to eat with chopsticks, Erika sings Georgian lullabies, and Declan can let us know exactly who, or what, is giving him "the pip." From a very young age, our kids understand what a big world we live in. Unfortunately, Gretchen still believes it revolves around her, but we're working on that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Weekend Apart

On Friday night, the Lutzes loaded up the big green passenger van and headed for the shore (or "down the shore" as they say in these parts) for their first full family overnight. (Ronan tried to stowaway but was quickly recovered.) Everyone was excited: the Lutzes were looking forward to being alone in their new shore house (Erika and Hilary cheered that 'just the Lutzes!' were going), and we were looking forward to being alone in this house. We were so excited, we bought real bacon to have for breakfast on Saturday (the Lutzes don't eat pork).

Saturday morning we were up and out so fast we forgot to cook the bacon. We headed to Washington's Crossing, a state park where, well, you can probably figure it out. The sheep shearing festival was on, and the kids watched an old-timey man shear a sheep with sheep-shearing scissors (as opposed to mechanically); the sheep sat quite still and the pelt came off in one large blanket. Then we saw how the wool was washed and combed, dyed, spun, and woven. There were colonial hearth cooking demonstrations, and the kids played with colonial toys.

Then we drove a few miles to Yardley, where I wanted to check out a water ice place for an article I'm writing. We had lunch in a local diner, then we ate the best water ice in Philadelphia. (Seriously. Go there.)

While walking back to the car, we all talked about what a nice day we had, capped off with some very tasty water ice. Declan informed us, out of the blue, that he wanted to move to our own house, one right next door to the Lutzes. Matty and I eyed each other nervously but neither of us knew what to say. Declan didn't seem to have anything else to add, so we let the matter drop.

By Sunday, however, the Lutzes were back and I don't think Declan ever wanted to leave. After he got home from an early birthday party and Erika returned from Hebrew school, the two were inseparable, playing in Erika's room for most of the day.

As much as our arrangement works for us, I think this weekend reminded all of us how important it is to take some family alone time as well. Not only do we all appreciate the time alone, but we appreciate each other all the more when we return.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Digging a Hole, Part 2

I regretfully report a recent death in our family: Grover, one of our three cats, was hit by a car and died earlier this month.

Honestly, I was surprised he had ventured down to the road. We live on a hill, with a driveway 1/4 mile long separating us from the street. We're surrounded by woods and fields with all the mice, voles, birds, rabbits, and chipmunks a superlative hunter like Grover could ask for. I never thought we would lose a pet this way.

The kids, as you might imagine, had varying responses to this tragedy. Erika was devastated. The others thought it was a blast decorating the simple coffin Andy made out of wood from Home Depot. I couldn't help but find a morbid sort of amusement in the way Gretchen danced around all evening exclaiming, "I want to put Grover in the box! I want to put Grover in the box NOW!"

It's not that surprising, really. Not only are most of the kids in the house way too young to have any understanding of death, but death has become completely run-of-the mill to them. We're all used to stepping over the decapitated rodents our cats routinely leave on the doormat. Even the preschoolers understand that one animal's gruesome end is another animal's gift to his beloved owners. I often wonder whether this comfort with death will make them less fearful of it as they grow older. I have vivid memories of lying awake in the dark when I was about 12 years old, feeling the crushing silence of the night and trying to imagine what it was like to be dead. Frankly, I'm still terrified.

Still, our wildly ranging attitudes toward death didn't prevent us from orchestrating a very moving funeral for Grover. Andy and Matty took turns digging a large hole, and once the coffin was placed inside we all threw in handfuls of dirt, which is Jewish tradition. Then we took turns telling our favorite stories about Grover. I reminded the kids that Andy and I got Grover before any of them were born. Our friends' son found him as a kitten mangled in their fence ten years ago, and I, pregnant with my first baby and raging with maternal hormones, couldn't say no when they asked us to take him in. I used to joke that Grover was the most expensive free cat in history, since it cost us about a thousand dollars in vet bills to fix his injuries. Although the vet offered to amputate Grover's broken leg, and promised us the cat would adjust, we couldn't do it, and so we ponied up the money for the surgery, and the pins in his leg, and the cast. He was so pathetic, this tiny kitten with this enormous white cast on his leg. When it came off, he was completely healed, and grew into one big, tough tomcat - but not so tough he didn't enjoy a good snuggle.

Grover, we will miss you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Digging a Hole, Part 1

You'd think in a household with two chefs and more than a dozen eaters, a garden would be a no-brainer. So why did it take us so long to start one?

There were attempts in the past; a plan by Andy's friend Ed many years ago that never quite took root (pun intended), a donation of heirloom tomatoes from our friend Lauren that simply never grew, a row of raspberry bushes that produce occasional fruit, and an on-again, off-again plot of tomato plants that once bore fruitfully but then, suddenly, did not.

Last year, beaten down by failure, nothing at all was planted and only a handful of raspberries were harvested.

But this year is going to be different. It has to be, if the amount of time Matty has been spending researching different types of gooseberry trees is any indication. Matty has grand plans for the land, from a row of cherry trees alongside the new patio to hundreds of strawberry plants growing through the ancient stone wall.

It was all my idea, actually.

"Let's plant a garden," I said, innocently enough. I envisioned a few rows of tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe a small selection of herbs. It made sense from a practical standpoint, and it seemed like the kids were old enough to get involved and help out and learn about where food actually comes from. (We're holding off on slaughtering a cow, for now. Maybe next year.)

Well, that's all Matty needed apparently. He's been busy every night on the computer since, finding the best variety of blueberry and ordering obscure currant trees. At our first seder last week, he spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the benefits of mushroom soil with our friend Michael.

We'll see what actually comes of all this planning. As of now we have a half-dozen blueberry and blackberry bushes planted, a few herbs, and even two grape vines. The first truckload of that magical soil arrived this weekend. Let's hope we have something to harvest this summer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Joy of Dumpsters

There's a dumpster parked behind our house right now, and I LOVE it.

Because of all the renovations Matty's done for our house over the past three years, he's had occasion to rent dumpsters before, so I already knew how liberating it is. Now, whenever I see the pile of rotting planks, chunks of plaster, and rusty pipes that signal the imminent arrival of that huge green receptacle, I look around my home with a different sort of eye. I gaze critically at every knick-knack, every chatchke, every accessory - pretty much everything that isn't nailed down - and ask, Do I really need you?

If you've never had a dumpster before, it might surprise you how many things might provoke the answer, No, I really don't need you.

Here are some of the things I tossed this time around: a broken floor lamp; a stained, shredded mattress circa the Reagan administration; a rusty bicycle; a set of 20-year-old encyclopedias; several board games missing half their pieces; about a quarter mile of plastic track that went with a ride-on train that stopped working before Hilary was born.

Don't think I don't realize that we're committing some kind of environmental terrorism every time we fill up a dumpster with a ton of trash and let the dumpster company take it away. Maybe the dumpster company sorts it all out, and recycles anything recyclable, and refurbishes everything refurbishable before donating the items to needy tsunami victims in Malaysia - I sure hope they do that. But even if they don't, even if they just empty the entire dumpster straight into a New Jersey landfill, that still wouldn't stop my occasional purges. Because once in a while, it really helps to lose all that extra baggage, to get rid of all the detritus, to shake yourself free from all the crap that's weighing you down.

Now, it's time to tackle the basement, before I miss my chance . . .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Great Potty Race of 2009

We're deep in the throes of potty training, and though we haven't implicitly discussed it, I think we're currently engaged in a race to see who--Ronan, Aaron, or Gretchen--will be trained first.

Since Ronan is 4 1/2 months older than the twins, he certainly has an edge. But since Gretchen is a girl, she's got an edge too. And Aaron? Well, he looks really cute in the mouse costume he's taken to wearing all the time.

The twins definitely started far in the lead. We offer the kids a small piece of candy for peeing on the potty and a lollipop for pooping. Gretchen seemed to learn a remarkable amount of bladder and bowel control, pooping and peeing just enough to earn her prize, always holding back just a little bit of excrement so she could go a few times each hour. Bravo, Gretchen!

Aaron, the dutiful twin, followed suit with a strong start.

Ronan was tougher. I didn't start trying until he turned 3, which was early last month. I thought having an older brother would mean Ronan would train quickly, since he sees Declan using the potty all the time. Ronan did look up to Declan, but in a way that made it even harder for him to potty train.

Since Declan pees standing up, Ronan insists on doing this as well. When you're 37 inches tall, with a penis that's, er, proportionate to that, it's rather difficult to pee standing in front of a toilet. Until you get the hang of it, the pee tends to go wherever the penis is pointing; in this case, right up in the air, into the sink next to the toilet, or right onto the magazine rack. Ronan got frustrated very quickly, and abandoned the pursuit altogether, refusing to even try to use the potty.

Amy gloated. "Can you believe my little prodigy! She's not even 3! She's the bestest potty-trainer in the world! Ronan can eat her dust!" (I'm paraphrasing.)

But then, Ronan suddenly got the hang of it (maybe it was the goldfish crackers I put in the toilet to help his aim). He's got at least 2-inches on the twins--a clear height advantage--and soon started going to the bathroom by himself, even able to hoist himself up onto the potty if he needed to poop. His fierce independence kicked in and he no longer allowed us to take him to the bathroom. "I do it myself!" he yelled at us when we tried to help.

Gretchen seems to have plateaued, but is likely only one weekend in underwear away from being fully trained (you former potty trainers know what I mean). Aaron seems to have lost interest entirely, the candy rewards no longer enticing. And Ronan? He wears underwear after school, but did have an accident yesterday. His teacher said I could send him into school wearing underwear next week, so we'll wait until then...

...unless Amy decides to put Gretchen in underwear first.