Won’t Sit Still

Dear Moira,

Tomorrow is your fifth birthday, and what a year it’s been. We have moved you from the country of your birth, the only one you’ve ever known, to the country of your citizenship. Frankly, you’re probably handling it better than all of us. Open, expressive, and free—those words have always been words that come to mind when I think of your passionate and emotional heart.

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I’m never gonna be that girl
Who’s living in a Barbie world
Could wake up, in make up, and play dumb

This year has been about expectations, both meeting them and seeing them shattered. You have risen so admirably to all the challenges we’ve had to throw at you, challenges that I have seen send adults to their knees. You are our emotional barometer, our guidepost in the blizzard, and through you we can see how well or poorly we rise to our own challenges in this family.

Oh I don’t know what you’ve been told
But this gal right here’s gonna rule the world
Yeah that is where I’m gonna be, because I wanna be
No I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I expect from you and from your sisters. I don’t mean in terms of your career or whether you marry and have children. Those decisions are yours alone, and must be made or not made according to the unique demands of your own life. I thought I was the kind of mother who would be able to let those expectations ride with your judgment, and if I was simply steady and true and loving to you, you would rise with the tides.
 
You get off on your 9 to 5
Dream of picket fences and trophy wives
But no I’m never gonna be, cause I don’t wanna be
No I don’t wanna sit still look pretty

There has been a lot of talk, both at home and out in the world in which you are learning to make your way, about what it means to be a woman in our society. What does it take to be an admirable woman? To exist without shame, to claim your space at the table without apology and without hesitation? To stand with head high and shoulders back, and to roll the hurts and insults and slights off your shoulders and stand again. And again. And again. And I see now, in your winsome smile, that you have exactly the ingredients.

Passion. Conviction. Heart. Bravery. Compassion. Generosity. Intellect.

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The only thing that a boy’s gonna give a girl for free’s captivity

And I might love me some vanilla but I’m not that sugar sweet
Call me HBIC

So, accordingly, my expectations for you are adjusting. Your father and I adhere to the adage that to whom much is given, much is required and so you will have responsibilities, to yourself and to your family, that others may not be required to assume. You have been given so much, both by accident of birth and by the unique gifts of your awesome (in the truest sense) personality.

It is not enough for you to simply exist in stillness. I expect you to move.

Oh I don’t know what you’ve been told
But this gal right here’s gonna rule the world
Yeah that is where I’m gonna be, because I wanna be

No I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty

You have true fire in your heart and mind. I expect you to burn brightly for those who need to be given light. You have passion. I expect you to use it to inspire. You have intelligence and persuasion on your side. I expect you to wield them to be a force for good in the world.

Sure I’m a pretty girl up in a pretty world
But they say pretty hurts

And I don’t wanna sit still

You have a voice. I expect you to roar.

But they say pretty hurts
And I don’t wanna sit still

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You are forged from pure strength. You have real bravery, the kind that says “I am afraid” and finds a way to move forward anyway. I expect you to go forward marching in power. For the disabled, for your friends and family of color, for your LGBTQIA friends and family, for your friends who are Muslim and Jewish and atheist and every other faith under the sun, I expect you to stand.

I’m a pretty girl up in a pretty world
But no I won’t sit still, look pretty

You won’t be alone. We will be there with you, and for you. But there will be days, punishing awful days, when you are so broken by the work, the work of speaking for those who cannot and for standing for those who have been denied and marginalized and beaten down, that work that will last long after you and I die, that you want to lie down. You can…and I expect you to dig deep within, to find that passion and that heart, and rise again.

You are the future. You are our future. And I expect you to stand tall and claim your place.

Oh I don’t know what you’ve been told
But this gal right here’s gonna rule the world

Yeah that is where I’m gonna be, because I wanna be
No I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty

This is so much to lay down at the feet of a five-year-old girl, one who still sleeps with a bed full of stuffed animals. But before I go to bed at night, I kiss you and your sisters, and I wrap the blanket you gave me around myself. The blanket was one of yours as a baby, and you brought it to my room one night to make sure that I wouldn’t be cold. I think about your generosity of spirit every night, your compassion for others that comes to you so naturally and easily, and I wake in the morning renewed in purpose to you and your sisters.

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And I don’t wanna sit still

Fear can motivate, but panic will decimate. We all live with a certain amount of fear in our hearts, and it can be crushing. Panic is suffocating darkness. The worst decisions, the ones that can snuff out our basic shared humanity, are made in the dark scummy recesses where light never touches. You are selfless, and in your selflessness and compassion I see your light.

I see that the way forward exists in you. You are my light in the dark.

And I don’t wanna sit still

And as for me, I will spend every day of the rest of my life trying to be the woman that I expect you to become.

No I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty

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No more sitting still. Let’s get to work.

Love,
Mom

ABC

Dear Minna,

I’ve had a bit of trouble getting this letter started. It feels like a lifetime ago that you joined our family, even though it was just one short year. Maybe it feels that way because your first year was one of the busiest, most jam-packed of our entire lives. I don’t think we stopped moving at all between March and September of 2016, and before that we were trying to adjust to the new normal: being outnumbered by our children forever. Luckily, you were one of the sweetest, most placid babies I’ve ever met.

ABC / Easy as 1, 2, 3…

It’s hard to pin down why parenting you feels so easy right now. Is it because you’re the third and we know that whatever difficulty you’re going through, it will pass? Certainly we were less hasty to attribute our skills to your achievements and challenges this time around, knowing that as long as we feed you and shower you with affection you’ll clear the bars in your own good time.

Easy, just like counting up to three

That said, I do think you were a special baby. Everywhere we went this past year, people commented on how quiet and even-tempered you were, how content you were to stay in the carrier and observe everyone and everything around you. You literally exuded calm, actually. You would go to anyone, with a giant gummy smile, and cuddle up on anyone’s shoulder. You still had that singular newborn smell well into your sixth month, and a pregnant friend who was overdue swore up and down that a good cuddle with you and the smell of your head helped rush those happy oxytocin chemicals right into high gear (she delivered not long after).

You just have the sweetest little face. It has been magical watching you transform your sisters. They are the best versions of themselves when they are with you, and you adore them right back. It’s hard not to give you anything you want. People don’t always realize your placid exterior covers a stubborn temper. 95% of the time you’re calm and benign…and that other 5% you’re wiling to scream and holler and bite and slap to get where you want to be. One time you actually pushed up on to my shoulder to babble/holler at your aunt, who had the temerity to dress you after your bath and hold you until I was done with the other kids. Everyone stopped to look. “Did…did the baby just cuss you out?” “I think she did!”

Sing a simple melody / That’s how easy love can be

In your first short year, you’ve been to six countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, the US, and the UK–hey, everyone gets one!) and spent countless hours in the car. Sometimes I feel guilty that you see so much of the ceiling of our van as I shuttle your sisters to and fro to their various things, but I know you benefit from being surrounded by so many big kids and grown-ups who love you. The best part is that you are usually so happy and sweet that I really can take you anywhere. I had the three of you by myself for two weeks this summer while we visited friends and family, and it was just a spectacular time. You were so good and sweet, and just a pleasure to be around.

We really didn’t know what having three was going to be like. Someone told us that three was when you “go from man-to-man coverage to zone defense.” I must say that I love having three, and that you’re just the perfect fifth to complete us. You’ve taken a few steps, but prefer crawling. You love to cuddle until you’re all done, and then you love to go and entertain yourself. You hate bananas, but love strawberries. You love broccoli and you think your sisters hung the moon. You’re our BEANS, so named because you were string-bean skinny at first, and then Minna Beans, and then sometime around February your sisters stopped calling you Minna at all, and now you’re just BEANS to everyone.

Simple as do-re-mi / A B C / 1 2 3 You and me…

Minna Beans, you are our delight and our sweetest little baby. I can see flashes of older toddler you in there, and I know the day is coming when you’re more independent, when you won’t always put your head on my shoulder and nuzzle when I ask “Hugs and snugs?” But until then, thank you for staying my sweet little one for just a bit longer.

That’s how easy love can be.

Happy (slightly late) birthday, baby.

Love,

Mama

How Far Love Goes

Dear Maggie,

Time it was I had a dream


And you’re that dream come true


And if I had the world to give
I’d give it all to you

Seven years old. It is a constant source of amazement to me, the passage of your growth. Looking at baby Minna and then to you, I can sometimes try to put a finger on a memory of your babyhood. Something in her look or her babble as she sits next to you will trigger the tiniest glimpse of that baby you used to be, and I think I can touch that moment again.

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I can’t, of course. These days, I more often see the woman within the girl—long, striving legs holding up an ever-taller body, lengthening and slimming into a big girl and then into a young woman. You’ve lost six teeth in the last year and a half, including your two top teeth. Sometimes you hold your book directly up to your nose. These things have me thinking less about the days of baby car seats and strollers and more about glasses and braces, and then buying clothes with a size 7/8 label, and I sigh a bit for the baby you were while glorying in all that you are becoming.

All the things you treasure most


Will be the hardest won


I will watch you struggle long


Before the answers come

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You have worked so hard this year. You’re about to complete first grade. For reasons escaping my memory—my own sleep deprivation has been our highest hurdle this year—we decided to start school the week Minna was due. She was born on our third day of school. Despite that, you’ve completed two levels of our reading curriculum and rocketed ahead right to a second grade-level status. You read beginner chapter books confidently and for pleasure, enjoying how the Magic Tree House transports you to different lands. For the first time, you turn right at the library to walk to the “Big Kid Room” instead of straight on to the picture books.

But I won’t make it harder


I’ll be there to cheer you on


I’ll shine the light that guides you down


The road you’re walking on

I wish I could say that I have been the teacher you deserve; often I wish that helping you over your own hurdles came more naturally to me. I wish I had the answer in hand before the event instead of two or three days later. But we’re getting there as a family, watching you take your gentle, cautious way down the road. You’re a bit risk-averse and nothing will persuade you to deviate from your assessment of your own ability except time and patience.

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Before the mountains call to you


Before you leave this home


Wanna teach your heart to trust


As I will teach my own

This has been the year that we signed up for swimming lessons. You hate them, and often me for making you try it. However, I push on, encouraging you to trust me and to trust the teacher, and usually the lesson ends with you bursting with pride at what you’ve achieved. Getting you to trust yourself, and trusting myself to help you get there, is my greatest hope for you in your life. Learning to let you go and let you fly is my own life’s greatest lesson.

But sometimes I will ask the moon


Where it shined upon you last


And shake my head and laugh and say


“It all went by so fast”

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Time is flying. I see it when I look at Minna, at Moira, and then at you and marvel at the passage of time. The baby issues that so consumed us with you are a mere blip with Minna, faced with the new challenges of an emerging big kid. We’re well out of dealing with baby concerns like gassy tummy or trying new foods, years away from toilet training and zipping your own coat.

Now we have conversations about managing fear and anxiety, and I found myself saying what I know in my heart to be the greatest truth of your specific journey: “Finding a way through the fear, the panic, to get to the goal you’ve set for yourself is one of the hardest things you’ll have to do, and we all have to do it over and over again. But you can. I know you can. I believe in you with my whole heart, and you can do this.” I see the way you are with Minna, and I see everything you could be and will be if you let yourself be guided by love and ease and compassion. I see your heart, and how different your bravery is from Moira’s sheer persistence: I see how your bravery means that you are sometimes terrified, but that you are trying to find a way through. I see you.

You’ll fly away, but take my hand until that day


(Until that day)


So when they ask how far love goes


When my job’s done you’ll be the one who knows

Our jobs aren’t done yet, you and I. We’re still learning and growing together. But watching who you’re becoming is one of the greatest dreams of my life fully realized, and I am so proud of the girl you are becoming. I could not love you more.

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So when they ask how far love goes


When my job’s done you’ll be the one who knows

Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Love,
Mom

(Italicized lyrics are “The One Who Knows” by Dar Williams)

An American Were-Family in (Disneyland) Paris, Part 1

Once upon a time this was a blog about our travels. That…sort of fell by the wayside. I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing, so I thought I’d recap our very last trip while we’re living abroad. The girls have been excellent sports about being dragged all over, up and down mountains and to wineries and other boring places of no interest to small people; thus, we decided our last trip would be all about them: five days in Disneyland Paris.

Our adventure began several months ago when we realized that for but a fraction of the cost of taking our brood to Orlando (and at a fraction of the temperature), we could go to a smaller park and see if the Disney experience was really right for us. We had some concerns about how Maggie would handle the Florida parks, Disney not known for being gentle to those who experience sensory sensitivity, and we’d have a small baby and no grandparents in tow.

By the way, I saw numerous groups at Disney where there were two or three adult relatives to every child in the party, and those people are living right. Two adults to three children is a constant game of zone defense, and never more so than when you’re all traveling and out of your element. But I digress. Disneyland Paris is far more compact–two parks, not six, plus a tiny Disney Village strip and all three share an entrance plaza–and traveling out of term-time meant low people volume. We could handle ourselves. We were in.

After booking and then actually taking the trip, we figured we got about 80% of the Disney Experience for about 50% of the price. No Epcot or water parks, to be sure, and no pool at our on-site hotel (which I could charitably describe as “ramshackle” but that would be an insult to ramshackle buildings; it was clean and breakfast was free, I’ll leave it at that). Smoking is also allowed in Disneyland Paris, which I never quite got over.

But the shuttle rides were never more than 5 minutes to our budget hotel, as opposed to the long rides in Orlando, and we could cover a lot more ground in less time. The package we bought was a reasonable price, and included extended park hours, an unlimited Photo Pass for all those goofy mid-ride shots, a meal plan for one meal a day and a tea-time treat (a “pause gourmande”) prepaid, a character breakfast, a Wild West dinner, and a Princess Pavilion Meet-and-Greet lunch. It only left 2-3 meals for us to pay out of pocket (plus souvenirs and other treats, of course). I don’t know if, monetarily, we maximized the value of everything we prepaid, but it was REALLY nice knowing that nearly every time we sat down to a meal, it had been paid for months ago. Since we just put a down payment on a thirty-year albatross house, we could just relax and not wonder if getting an appetizer with dinner meant that we would have to pay for a snow shovel for our house in weekly installments later. Unfortunately, we had to fly at 6am. Getting three children out the door to be at the airport by 4am is exactly as easy as you’d think, although the promise of Disney put the big girls in exceptional moods.

And was that 6am flight and Mouse House package worth it?

Well…

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…I do believe so!

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The weather was temperamental, often misty and sometimes veering into outright rain. The nice part was that the mercury stayed in the mid-low 60s, and with a refreshing mist it was so much easier to enjoy the physical exertion of actually being in the park. The other nice part of that was that outside of term-time and with threatening-looking weather overhead, rides that would normally require Fast Passes to go on once were so empty that we could exit and re-enter on a continuous loop. My Buzz Lightyear space blaster skills were REFINED, y’all. Sadly, that also meant going on the girls’ favorite, “It’s A Small World,” somewhere around one dozen times.

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The things we do for our babies.

One of the things we booked in advance was a princess lunch, figuring we could bypass all the wait times at the Princess Pavilion. Little girls wanting a glimpse of their favorite princess are apparently undaunted by such trivialities as weather or school term schedules. It was lovely. Minna was utterly astonished by Cinderella’s mice.

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Because we stayed at a Disney hotel, we got extended park hours. I was waiting at the exit to Small World, which was alongside the Princess Pavilion, for Tom and the big girls to exit while I tried to get Minna to take a brief nap (we were trying to power through for the 10:30pm final show). The Pavilion was closed for the evening, but guarded by a cast member who periodically turned away inquisitive guests. During a quiet moment, Tom and the girls exited the ride and the five of us began our shuffling transfer of people, snacks, bags, and assorted stuff. We then heard a “Psst.”

“Psst.”

It was coming from the Pavilion cast member.

She was holding the door open and beckoning us in.

Now, I have no idea what her criteria was. I don’t know why she chose us, or just how drunk with power she was. I only know that she chose to bestow Father Disney’s most richest abundant blessings upon us and we walked directly to the front of the line, no waiting whatsoever (average wait times during the day hovered around 90 minutes). The cast member at the top asked who our favorite Princess was. Moira had gotten to meet Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella, and Tiana earlier so she was pretty satisfied. Maggie had not gotten to meet Merida, the only one she really cared about. There were two princesses in the Pavilion at the time, and you got surprised by whoever the cast member chose for you.

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How lucky are we? PRETTY DAMN LUCKY. (Please enjoy our Parent Dork couture and Minna’s “HEY I’M NOT NAPPING. NO NAP HERE, GUYS!” expression.)

I have more thoughts for later, but this post is long enough already. Next: the dragon, the Crush Coaster, rats of a most excellent nature, and the 3D ride I missed entirely.

Moving Fragments

Sort the things, rip tape off the strip. Packers come tomorrow. We will have temporary furniture loaned from base for a month, then into a hotel for a week, then camping gear on the floor of our new home. Must leave out the sleeping bags and our second-best sheets.

I don’t want to move. I love it here. Our lives are here.

What do we need for three months without the bulk of our household? School is going to be fully unschooling for the next while; art supplies, surely. But not in the organized caddies they’re currently housed in. All the markers, crayons, pencils go in gallon baggies labeled “Do Not Pack.”

I miss my family. I miss America…I think. Do I know America anymore? Hawaii is America, legally…culturally, not really. Eight years away from mainland America is a long time in the field. I miss my nephews. I miss my nieces. I don’t really know them well. It’s been three years since I’ve seen Owen, Avery, Lillian. A year since I’ve seen Philip. I’m ready to see them more often. 

“Mom, I’m scared of the moving truck. It’s too big.”

“Mom, when are our friends here going to visit us in Maryland?”

Why are we doing this to them? Wait, doing what? Providing them with a lifetime’s worth of travel and cultural richness in just five short years? Giving them the bedrock of financial stability gleaned from getting overseas housing allowances and banking our savings?

Uprooting their lives, that’s what. Uprooting all our lives.

We’ve done this before. It’s ok. You KNOW it’s ok. Think of all the beautiful, well-adjusted, happy field and military kids you know. They are amazing. Your kids will be, too. They already are. It will be hard. Hard things happen. They can be dealt with.

I don’t want to go home. I am home. I want to go home. I don’t know what home is.

I’m going to be really tired of these few outfits I’ve left out for myself by July. It will be fun to shop at my favorite stores in person again. It will be fun to get Starbucks drive-through. It will be fun to buy a new car. Okay, maybe not fun, but it will be nice to drive on wide roads and smooth, beautifully laid out highways again.

I wonder what our house looks like when you really walk through it. I wonder what kind of a person buys their first home sight unseen with only her husband’s word and a few photographs to say it’s good. I trust him. I still wonder.

“Mom, will my Legos go to America?”

“Mom, can I take my costumes to America?”

“Mom, will we get to visit Florida when we go to America? Will we get to go to Assateague to see the wild ponies? Mom, will I get to have a pet fish in America?”

So many promises, bartering away anxiety with assurances and gleeful descriptions of time with cousins and future trips and betta fish tanks. Bright, chipper smiles layered over tight throats and watering eyes. We all have pinkeye from the dust.

“Mom, are we going to see our old friends who moved already?”

Yes. We’ll all see old friends, and we’ll need to talk to the ones who have been home. The ones who understand you’re not trying to be pretentious when you talk about what you’ve seen and done while you were abroad. The ones who understand how hard it is to go home. The ones who understand how much the country, and you, have changed. The ones who don’t say and think “But you’re home now!” I was home. I will be home again. But there is a time in between, and in that time, we won’t be anywhere until we get our feet under us. 

“It’s okay to be sad. Mom and Dad are happy, but we’re also sad too. You can talk to us and cuddle with us any time. It’s hard. We know it’s hard.”

Understatement. “A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.” – Willow, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

It’s hard. It’s sad. We’re going home. We are home. I’m sorry. I’m excited. I’m scared. We’re fragmented.

I rip off some more tape, and I move on.

Closing Time

Where were we? Ah, yes, moving.

But first, a bonus photo of my three girls. Aren’t they lovely? I like them very much, which is good because I checked and you can’t rehome occasionally obnoxious children. (I kid.)

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When we last checked in, Tom was scheduled to go off on a 10-day trip to Maryland where he would do various worky things (ostensibly the purpose of the trip) and the rest of the time he would hop and run to sort out various administrative items related to our move. Specifically, test-driving cars and touring houses and neighborhoods.

For my part, I held up the home front while he was gone and I am pleased to report only ONE child threw up, and only once, while I was managing all three girls solo for the first time.

The night before he flew, we noticed a listing for a compact-but-stylish little townhouse in an area we had considered both for its affordability and its proximity to very nice schools. We were careful to eliminate neighborhoods where the Really Amazing Schools were, because we can’t afford them and also we couldn’t afford–financially, mentally, and emotionally–to Keep Up with potential neighbors. Ours is not a keeping-up family. Example: Tom bought me new leather slippers for Mother’s Day last year because “It pains me to see you pregnant and walking around with giant holes around your toes.” “They were comfy, though!” We made plans for Tom to see it.

At the end of those ten days, we put in an offer on the compact-but-stylish townhouse.

Since then:

  • I lost the van in a wreck (nobody hurt; girls weren’t with me). I can’t talk much about it because it’s still in insurance processing, but there went our plan to drive the van to the very last day and turn it over to the junkyard. I mean, we DID turn it over to the junkyard, but now we have to deal with car rentals when we return to MD and buy all new car seats (none of which is covered by insurance when you have a liability-only policy on a van that old)
  • While cleaning out said van at the junkyard with three little girls crammed into my Honda Fit, I was at the height of my experience with this year’s flu (I even had a flu shot, dammit!) and had a fever of 101, AND it began to rain and hail
  • We hosted Maggie’s seventh (!!) birthday party (letter to come)
  • We hosted my dear friend Catherin for a brief visit, which was a delightful high point
  • We did a 10-day trip across central Europe, which was another high point (and one I really ought to post about)
  • Tom’s wallet went missing, believed stolen
  • The trunk of the Fit randomly filled with water. We think it was a leaky bottle, since it hasn’t refilled

So…that, plus the normal headaches involved with buying a property when you are in one country and the property is in another country AND it’s in a part of the country where you do not have any family you can impose upon to go to closing to act as your power of attorney…

It’s been a month. Two, actually. I don’t mean to list all those things as a complaint, since there are some fantastic things that have happened alongside some of the petty and not-so-petty irritants. It’s just that there have been a LOT of balls in the air, and I feel like we’re only slowly starting to remove some of the balls from our juggling act.

Balls is a funny word.

^ That’s about where my brain is right now.

In the interim to try to keep our spirits up during appraisal discrepancies and reconfiguring financial estimates and dealing with five-hour time zone differences when contacting all the players in this game of real estate whack-a-mole, we’ve been looking at the Sherwin-Williams site. This part is known as “I just want to get to the end and pick out some paint chips already!!”

We allowed Maggie and Moira to pick out colors for their bedrooms. It’s a three-bed house with an option to put a fourth downstairs in the finished basement someday, but for now Moira and Minna will share. This was decided in an argument between Maggie and Moira wherein Maggie yelled “I don’t WANT to share with you anymore!” and Moira responded with “BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE!!”

That was always going to be the roommate configuration, actually. Maggie, for reasons largely related to her needs as an autistic person and slightly related to being the oldest and the only introverted child in a family of three (loud) girls, HAS to have her own room. She chose a tasteful and trendy minty green color; it’s soothing and matches an accent color on her lovely Paris-print (of course) sheets. She hopes to keep a small fish and wants to hang a print of Audrey Hepburn above a decal of Audrey’s quote “Paris is always a good idea.” AS YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE SEVEN, I SUPPOSE. It sounds like a nice, soothing little sanctuary.

Moira…well. I hope you like pink, Minna. Moira chose Sherwin-Williams “Exuberant Pink,” a paint name that I cannot improve upon as a measure of both Moira’s personality and the retina-scorching properties of this pink pink! PINK! IT’S PAAAAAANK, Y’ALL paint color. I have talked her down to using it on only two walls as an accent so as not to blister the one eye I have left, and we will not be repainting until she is old enough to wield a brush and primer herself. As a concession, the theme of her room will be “ice cream” and I am ordering (removable) wall decals in the shape of sprinkles.

Ultimately, our closing went fine. The funds have moved hither and yon, and we are beyond grateful for the five years we spent in the field that made putting a down payment away (while preparing three children for college and ourselves for retirement–as my friend Calli says, “There are no loans for getting old”) possible. We have a place to hang our coats and a spot to lay our heads, a home near the gorgeous Chesapeake Bay and halfway between Annapolis and Baltimore, a home that’s ours and no one else’s.

After eight years in the field…we’re coming back to call the Chesapeake home.

Hammer and Nail

Dear Moira,

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Clearing webs from the hovel

a blistered hand on the handle of a shovel

I’ve been digging too deep, I always do.

This year at your school’s birthday walk, your teachers said that your favorite thing was to be outside. I could have guessed that, given that you come home plated with mud so often that we seriously discussed buying you two winter coats just to get through the week. There is something about you that is so hearty and earthy, so full of elemental vibrance. Your explosive exuberance touches and shapes every day we spend together. In all the parts of your life you get in there, and you act. You are movement, charming and hypnotic movement.

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Gotta get out of bed

Get a hammer and a nail

Learn how to use my hands, not just my head

Now I know a refuge never grows

From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose

Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.

Three was an age of action and movement. It wasn’t as tough as some people say three can be, but it was certainly a time of decisive swiftness. It’s good for me, and you are too, to be reminded that too much lingering and navel-gazing isn’t helpful. You are a vital, vivacious spirit. One of my favorite parts of this year was watching you learn to ride a balance bike downhill. You fell–oh, how you fell, again and again–and laughed it off. You laughed every time, even when it hurt, and you pulled yourself back up to the top of the hill. And by God, if you didn’t figure it out. “It’s best when you yell ‘Whee!'”

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I had a lot of good intentions

Sit around for fifty years and then collect a pension,

Started seeing the road to hell and just where it starts.

You are a Scorpio, a water sign, and when I think of you I do think not of roads but of water. Not a vast ocean or a calm little lake, but a quick, lively little stream in a sunny and colorful forest. You are funny and whimsical, full of turns. Your imagination transports us to new worlds and stories every day. Moira, you have so many beautiful stories. I’ve started writing them down as you transcribe them, and I record your many hilarious sayings for our friends and family. After our trip to Florida in April your Nana said that she wouldn’t believe half of the things I post were it not for the fact that she had just spent nearly three weeks with you. You’re sharp and quick and all charm, and you miss absolutely nothing.

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But my life is more than a vision

The sweetest part is acting after making a decision

I started seeing the whole as a sum of its parts.

At your school’s parent-teacher night, we learned that you’ve been working on your sounds and numbers (when you aren’t slinging mud pies in the mud kitchen), and that’s pretty cool. You don’t have a whole lot of extended interest in it yet, and it’s hard for me to pin down what you know since you’re always zipping about so fast, my speedy little liquid current. It was there that we got the best news of all about you. Your teacher told us that kids of three and four, simply by nature of their age and developmental stage, just aren’t really all that empathetic. Your teachers told us that you were genuinely empathetic toward others, and a truly kind child.

I really believe that part of that empathy and kindness is a direct result of action. You are seeking out others; they seek you out in turn to be part of your energy. You’re the child who sits next to someone who’s upset and feeling shy at a birthday party until they’re ready to participate. You stick your chest out and yell at boys twice your age who are pestering birds. You can see who needs a little more help, and you’re there. You are sensitive and thoughtful, but you don’t spend a lot of time getting trapped in your own head. You act as you see fit, and when it comes to others it’s generally for the good.

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My life is part of the global life

I’d found myself becoming more immobile

When I’d think a little girl in the world can’t do anything.

Moira, I’ve thought this for a long time, but I truly believe you have what it takes to be a successful person in this world. I don’t mean that you’ll have wealth, though you may, or that you’ll be a person of power and influence, though I’m sure you’ll come to that in time. What I see in you is the ability to perceive others’ needs, the decisiveness to act (and act swiftly), and the heart to get up again even when you fail. I believe that your life will be rich in acts of service and compassion, and that you will be a true helper to others, leaving it a little kinder than you found it. That is the best kind of success, and the one I know you are destined to have.

A distant nation my community

A street person my responsibility

If I have a care in the world I have a gift to bring.

My darling little river-child, you have so many gifts to bring to the world. Thank you, thank you, for bringing them to our family first. I promise you that I will do my best to help you down the path to bring those gifts to fruition, and that I’ll go along laughing and falling down and getting back up again by your side.

Gotta get out of bed

Get a hammer and a nail

Let’s go, baby. We’ve got a lot of building to do together. I love you.

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Love,

Mummy

(Italicized lyrics are “Hammer and Nail” by Indigo Girls)

Random Thoughts

A few notes on things I want to remember later:

This is the period of our lives I’m going to christen “the Hogwarts Express.” We read the first two Harry Potter books to Maggie and Tom is now helping her plow through number three. It’s been Maggie’s first foray into the delightful world of daily cosplay, as she’s taken to wearing her Gryffindor Quidditch jersey and glasses from the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford along with her Halloween costume robe and handmade scarf pretty much on the daily. I had to hide my lip liner since it was showing up in random spaces and on random toys. Sophie the Giraffe probably doesn’t care about being touched by The Boy Who Lived, but I think Minna will one day object to the scar and glasses drawn on her rubber teether in makeup. OveralI enjoy the books and the first two movies are fine, but I think I’m going to enjoy them less and less if Ron keeps making that ridiculous constipated “I’m in trouble!” face.

It did lead to a delightful themed Halloween, however. Moira, inspired by a photograph I showed her from Facebook, decided she wanted to be both a princess AND Darth Vader for Halloween. I’ll go into it further during her birthday letter–my darling will be four, FOUR! next week!!–but Moira has been in rare form these past few months. Princess Vader was absolutely the right choice for her, and it segued into a nice theme for the family. Tom went as a movie screen, I wore a bow tie and Minna’s carrier was bedecked to look like a box of popcorn (complete with popped corn glued to her hat), and we were collectively “A Night At The Movies.” Frankly, this is far more creativity than I ever expected to show at ten weeks postpartum.

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Tell me that is not absolutely awesome. Go ahead. You can’t, can you? Tom ditched the movie screen after the party attendance swelled to more than five guests and no one could see my bow tie, but for a brief shining moment captured on camera and posted with an explanatory caption, we were the ensemble lords of all Halloween.

Minna. Oh, my darling Minna. I don’t know what I did to deserve a baby like her, but I’m so grateful for her. She rarely cries, unless I’m trying to clear her nose or if she’s in her car seat and the car is not moving. Minna favors a little bleat-yelp that sounds like “Bap!” She bap-baps like a little lost lamb until I pick her up or put food in her mouth, and that usually rights the wrong. Her head still has that soft-but-penetrating indescribable baby smell, and the rest of her smells like coconut and lavender from us trying to help her dry skin. She likes to be held like a little football in the crooks of our arms so she can see what’s going on, and she coos softly to anyone who listens. She sleeps at night, waking only once or twice. She naps well. Her eyelashes are filling in and her cheeks are plumping up, distracting from the long leanness of the rest of her body. Minna smiles when she sees her sisters and they both adore her.

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We like her, too.

Homeschooling…deserves its own post. Nine days out of ten, I’m convinced it’s the best thing to have ever happened to Maggie. On the tenth day, I bring up the local tuition school website and lovingly hover over the phone number for admissions. I expect that’s true of every homeschooling family everywhere, and my desire to punch myself in the face rather than do a math lesson on the tenth day is totally normal.

And finally, we are in the midst of our final year in England. After three years in Hawaii and what will be just over five years in England (!!!), we’ll almost certainly be returning to Maryland. Instead of the DC area, we think we’ll be exploring the northeast suburbs of Annapolis. Someone pass me a crab hammer. It feels like the end of something, something more than the end of living abroad. We’re talking about buying a house and a minivan; we’re setting up Minna’s college savings plan under the Maryland pre-paid lock-in. After a decade of “Where next?” we’re starting to make something new.

I think we’re going to make a home.

Minna: A Birth Story

I don’t intend to do this a fourth time, but if I do the first thing I will have to tell my care provider is “You can’t talk to me about induction before 41 weeks.” Three times I have done this, and Minna was the only one not born at 41 weeks on the nose. On September 1, at 41w1d, I left the big girls with a friend and went to the chiropractor with but one humble request: get my hips open and get this baby going.

“I can’t believe how low she is. She’s going to fly out when you go into labor. I can’t believe you haven’t gone already,” my doctor said. We completed the appointment and I thanked her for her work, then collected the girls and went home. No more than five minutes after walking through the front door, Moira summoned me to get her some tape to hang a drawing she had made earlier…and halfway through the kitchen on my way to the tape, my water broke. It was a tiny break, and not the cinematic rush of a Hollywood rupture. It was about quarter to 5.

Tom’s hearing is perhaps not quite as good as it was when we were first wed. All he heard was “Water…broken” and then went to check the sink faucet in the downstairs toilet. “Working fine!”

Sigh.

Once he was corrected, we sprang into action. I hadn’t felt a single contraction all day, but my past two labors (each between 5-6 hours) and Minna’s placement (low! so low!) led us to believe that the countdown clock was running fast. The girls went off for a sleepover with some lovely friends who live around the corner, I called my mom and the midwives, and we settled in.

And…we waited.

I sat in the tub and gushed. I climbed stairs and gushed. I lay down on my side to nap a little. Contractions were here and there, and definitely nothing to get excited about. I leaked like a Snowden file drive. We ordered pizza. I had a few slices, and continued to gush. I wore Depends for most of these early hours in an effort to keep moving and to get things moving along. The baby was low, after all! So low!

And…we waited. A few contractions, getting stronger, but no real rhythm.

I had another slice of pizza.

And…we waited. A few more, somewhat closer together.

“Every labor is different,” you hear. And it’s true; I needed a little humility and perspective now, after all the expectations that I would have a zippy-fast labor. The sun set. I grabbed a flannel shirt from Tom’s closet (one of his newer good ones, I learned later). Finally, the contractions started getting intense enough that I had to focus to deal with them.

Our bathroom has a heating element/towel rack with a bar about 6′ off the ground. I tied my baby-wearing woven Storchenwiege wrap around the bar and sat on our peanut-shaped exercise ball. Every time I had a contraction, I would begin to hum in a low, focused way. Tom began the timer, I would lean forward and sort of squat, and hold on to the wrap and hang. It helped loosen up my lower body, and was a comfortable way to deal. When that got tiring, I’d move to crouching in the bathtub or sitting upright by the toilet.

(Still gushing, by the way. Birth is nothing if not saturated with emotions and emissions. You’re welcome for that image, those who’ve not gone through this process.)

We lit candles in the bathroom, so by flickering candlelight I moved through these stations. The clock crept toward midnight, and I finally had about an hour of contractions that were 6-7 minutes apart. My midwife agreed it was time to come over, and C arrived around midnight.

By this point that low, focused humming had become a bit higher and sharper. All that brilliant hypnobirthing I’d done with Moira was not as useful this time. The contractions were longer and further apart; it was harder to get a good rhythm down. I was more tired, too. I’d gotten up for the day around 5am the previous morning, and had a full day with my girls. Plus, this baby was low! So low! and yet I had a lot of back labor. Tom was a much more active participant this time, as he and my midwife applied counter-pressure to my back with every contraction. I tried kneeling to open my hips more and started to get a wretched case of the shakes, which I hopefully speculated was transition and this would be over soon.

“I’m shaking, but I’m not cold,” I said. In fact, despite the cool house, I was beginning to get a little toasty.

“That’s because your body is doing bloody hard work,” my midwife responded.

Yeah! I AM doing bloody hard work. It’s nice to be validated.

I felt like moving to the bed, as my knees had had it with all the crouching and kneeling. Tom took exception to my observation that “I hate this mattress. I should just take the plastic off and let the birth destroy it now.”

“Hey! We still need to sleep somewhere after this.”

At some point the other midwife D and the student midwife A had been called, and they arrived around then. A had seen births but never a home birth before, so I hope the view that greeted her–flannel shirt, bed wrapped in plastic, me resting against the peanut ball that had been propped on the bed (bless you, peanut ball) with my altogether out in the wind–was a welcome change from sterile hospital environments. I didn’t have much time for the pleasantries, because that higher-pitched focused moaning and my attempts to engage hypnobirthing finally quit, and I launched into full-on crying out. I asked to be moved back into the bathroom to sit upright to get some pressure off my poor, poor back, and they helped me in.

This was the point when Rational Me lost the ability to verbalize entirely, and the only part of me capable of speaking was the Id. I still had a rational running narrative in my mind, but somewhere along the path to speech the words got hijacked:

“Would you like some water?”

What I thought: “Yes, I should hydrate.” What I said, snarling: “NO!” It’s impossible to convey the utter brattiness, the total two-year-old inflection of my delivery, but I was told later that the four others looked at each other and all had to stifle a laugh.

The crying-out became full-on screaming, and in between every contraction I was getting ready to give up and give in. “I can’t, I can’t do this anymore.”

D replied helpfully, “Yep. This part sucks.”

Yeah! Yeah, it DOES suck! It’s nice to be validated.

I realized I was running with sweat, and Rational Me thought “I should unbutton this.” It came out as an ineffective flapping of hands in the general direction of the buttons, which I’d forgotten how to operate, and me grunting “Flannel.” The midwives, British, looked for a washcloth (a flannel) to hand me while Tom, American, started undoing my buttons.

These are the sorts of cross-cultural communication incidents I never really covered in my lofty-minded undergraduate Communications major.

I begged for gas and air, something to help me, anything. The hour was ticking toward 3am. I got about one suck, and they suggested I move toward the bed. With every contraction–and they were coming fast now, oh yes, quite fast indeed–I could feel her ever…so…slowly…ratcheting downward. I threw in the towel, and begged for a hospital transfer. Problem was, if I really wanted that, they needed to do an internal exam to give the information to the intake so I wouldn’t be further prodded at the hospital.

“No! NO! I want an epidural, I don’t want this anymore!”

Tom repeated the necessity for the midwives’ to do an internal, and then suggested that if we really did this, I was so close that the baby was likely to be born en route. I thought this was utter bullshit. “Tom. Help me. Why won’t you help me?!”

“Remember, with Moira, when you felt like you couldn’t do it anymore, you were almost done? You’re so close, you’re about to meet your daughter!”

Now, at this point, I’m on all fours, certain that I was going to evaporate from the pain, screaming intermittently, and I’ve totally, utterly lost the plot. I never did get a handle on the rhythm of this labor, and at no point was that more apparent to me than right at that second. So it’s a really, really good thing I did not see what Tom did next after offering me that bit of encouragement: he turned to D and mouthed the words “I’m telling the truth, right?”

“Oh yeah,” she mouthed back. They could tell by the change in pitch and volume of my voice that we were near the end, but there were really no physical signs they could hang their hats on.

Finally, after all that, I felt the contraction that got her within hailing distance of the end. I gave in to it. I gave in.

I’ve done this three times now. The first birth was a medicalized machine that left me feeling floundering and alone; the second a roller-coaster ride of emotions and sensations but still manageable; and now a slow, difficult endurance marathon twice as long as the other labors I’d had.

The only thing all three had in common was this: at some point, whatever may come, you just have to give in and ride the lightning all the way to the end.

“Okay. Okay. I can do this.” They got me on all fours to go, and Tom peeled off the drenched heap of his flannel. I finally felt her start to crown. Rational Me understood perfectly the following directives from the midwives to stop screaming and breathe, but every time I tried to say “I just feel like I need to push now, thank you” I just screamed more. It’s a wonder the police weren’t summoned.

And sure enough, not five minutes after Tom told me that I was almost done and I didn’t believe him and begged him to get me to a hospital and a spinal block, Minna’s head–and the arm up around her face that had been keeping her from whooshing out, the arm that had made this into a marathon–emerged.

She was fully born at 3:23am, 8lbs, 8oz, bathed in soft lamplight and the cool of a September morning, placed just in front of me, head full of hair and eyes huge from surprise.

My Minna, with whom I immediately fell into tearful, humbled, joyful, and grateful love.

My last little girl, who taught me so much on her way to this side. We are complete, thanks to you.

Welcome, Minna.

2 September 2015

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Between Quiet and White

Dear Minna,

I’m writing this a week before your due date. Let’s call “39 weeks” the eve of your birth, just for rounding purposes. Like your sisters, I don’t expect to see you until about a week after your due date, though I remain hopeful you could surprise me. There have been many surprises this pregnancy: a mix of straightforward and “…Really?” smaller inconveniences and mild small issues. Now that I’m at the end, I feel surprised by the two strongest emotions I have: the feeling I could go on for weeks if you needed me to, and the intractable sense of relief that this really is it and I never have to do it again. I thought Moira would be my last, but there was none of the accompanying sureness, that knowing that “Yes, this really is it. We’re done, now. Our family is complete.” Now, though, there is. You’ve made us complete.

Three little girls. What a lovely, lovely gift.

**********

These last weeks pass slowly, but I know well enough now that for all that these days drag on, I’ll blink and you’ll be as old as your sisters, walking and talking and the years will have flown. That will be the end of babies and small people, and we’ll move on to the next stage. As anxious as I am to meet you and begin our new lives with you in it, I’m just as anxious to slow down and feel each kick, relish each round of fetal hiccups because before I realize what’s happened it will be done. I’m sure I’ll feel differently once I’m in the throes of newborn boot camp, but I hope I remember how much it hurts my heart right now to hear people vent and complain about the perfectly baby-ish baby things that their babies do. Your needs and rhythms are set by clocks millennia older than I am, and it’s my job to respect the fact that the primal instincts in your body know nothing of minivans and preschool schedules and gymnastics class. I don’t know if I’m any more mature or wise than when I had your biggest sister, but I hope I can at least remember that: you’re new here, and perhaps the only other gift I can give you besides my love is the grace to understand just how new you really are.

Of course, I haven’t totally refrained from a little whinging. Last time I did this, I was 27 and now I’m nearly 32. You wouldn’t think that four years in the prime of your life would matter so much, but it did. The pelvic pain, the back pain, the exhaustion were all more significant this time around. Luckily, I stumbled on this piece on Mothering and it soothed every ache, at least for a moment: The Last Days of Pregnancy.

Germans have a word, zwischen, which means between. I’ve co-opted that word for my own obstetrical uses. When I sense the discomfort and tension of late pregnancy in my clients, I suggest that they are now in The Time of Zwischen. The time of in between, where the opening begins. Giving it a name gives it dimension, an experience closer to wonder than endurance.

I tell these beautiful, round, swollen, weepy women to go with it and be okay there. Feel it, think it, don’t push it away.

It’s a serious place. It’s a place of preparation and nervous anticipation. It’s also a time of joy, and anticipation of joy yet to come as we wait for you to take your place as our third and last little girl. Or to quote from Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, speaking of that place where your mind disconnects but you’re not asleep: “Drifting somewhere between quiet and white.” That’s where we’re floating right now, you and I.

Somewhere between quiet and white.

**********

I won’t publish this until you’re actually born, so let’s talk about your name. For a while in the middle I wasn’t sure if Minna was the right name; I tried using it and it didn’t click at first. As time went on, it did, and the meanings took on more and more substance for me. Depending on the language, it’s “love” in America, “the resolute protector” when it’s the diminutive form of Wilhelmina, and my favorite, the Hebrew meaning: “child of Earth.”

Because you’re the third and the last one, you got saddled with both your parents’ indecision and “Ah, hell with it” attitude: sorry but not sorry that you’re the only one with two middle names. “Heather” was for North Yorkshire, and the heather that blooms purple in the moors. The Latin name of several hundred types of heather begins with “Erica,” which is off by a letter if we’re honoring your aunt but it’s close enough for kissing. “Rowan” is for the tree and the mythology. The rowan is planted at the entrance of a property to protect those coming and going–travelers, if you will–and the home from evil spirits. In Norse mythology, the first woman was created from the rowan tree.

Child of earth, a purple flower born of North Yorkshire, and a celebration of womankind. We thought you would forgive us the indulgence, as in a transplanted family of travelers with three little girls, it seemed that these were the only names that would do.

**********

As you may have noticed, I tend to ramble. You’ll get used to me; your sisters have, and right now I needed to vent a lot of thoughts on your arrival. I can’t wait to meet you, and yet, I can, just a little bit longer. I can’t wait to share your name with you…but I can, for as long as you’re not ready to come out. Let me know, Minna, when you’re ready, and we’ll prepare to walk down the road to our first meeting together.

To give birth, whether at home in a birth tub with candles and family or in a surgical suite with machines and a neonatal team, a woman must go to the place between this world and the next, to that thin membrane between here and there. – The Last Days of Pregnancy

Until then, here we’ll stay in that place, in that membrane.

Somewhere between quiet and white.

Love,

Mama