Hammer and Nail

Dear Moira,


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.


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!'”


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.


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.


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.




(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.


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.


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!”


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


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.



Travelin’ Through

Dear Maggie,

Well, I can’t tell you where I’m going
I’m not sure of where I’ve been
But I know I must keep travelin’
Till my road comes to an end

Nearly three months have passed since your sixth birthday, but earlier this winter your dad and I arranged for the two of us to have a long weekend away in one of your favorite places in the world: Paris. You’re a pretty lucky kid, you know? You’re only 1/3 of the way to legal voting majority, but you’ve seen Paris twice. Starting with a Madeline book and encouraged by loads of friends and family, Paris has developed into your special interest. We move next year, and your new sister (oh, hi readers, forgot to mention that–Baby 3 is Baby Girl 3) arrives in August. Our idle talk of you and I getting away for a mommy-daughter weekend turned into “Do it now, or do it never.”


Maggie, those three days in Paris with you were better than I could have ever hoped or imagined.


Questions I have many
Ansewers but a few
We’re here to learn; the spirit burns
To learn the greater truth

Since your last birthday, a lot has changed. You had no desire to learn your letters or numbers then, but this trip marked the first time you’ve had a basic grasp on reading. You read signs to me, helped me navigate maps, and volunteered to track different scooter colors on a piece of paper so we could make a pictograph of our findings when we got home. You were, and are, a curious and engaged student of the world.


We say that you have happy feet, and nowhere have they been as happy as in Paris. 90-minute to 3-hour queues to see things? No problem. Never a change in attitude, never so much as a grumble. Your whole body was vibrating, electric with joy. You were all the way up on top of your toes in a full-body happy dance all weekend long. It was worth every minute my third-trimester body spent in the sun (which is saying something!).

Five and the start of six have been fascinating. Five is still very young, but moving toward rationality and wanting to be a big kid. Six has been a bigger step forward for you. It was so special to get to spend time with you one-on-one, because so much of our daily relationship is defined by your relationship with Moira. You are typical sisters, and I’d say you get along better than most, but I still sometimes feel like I’m managing a pint-size conflict resolution summit. This trip took that pressure off of us, and we got to have some lovely conversations about everything from resolving issues with each other to goofing on absolutely nothing at all.


One thing we spent a bit of time talking about is your new sister. I would never say you were a bad big sister to Moira, because you most certainly aren’t, but more that you and Moira are too close in age not to bicker sometimes. Six can get excited about a new baby; six can buy it little gifts with her own money and help throw out name suggestions. We rejected your offer of “Molly Collie,” but had you come up with a different middle name we’d have made that a contender.

God made me for a reason
And nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes
With many kinds of pain

While we still have some more lesson plans on the docket, this Paris trip was the culmination of your kindergarten year. What a wild ride. As a family we figured out what we were doing and where we were going, ironing out bumps and lumps along the way. It was so hard, and more than once I woke up at 3a.m. after a stress dream thinking to myself “Who am I to take on this role for you? What was I thinking? Are you really getting anything out of this? How dare I?”


It was worth it. You are worth it. Every moment of uncertainty, every moment when I was sure I was failing you, every bit of that is on my head and not yours, because in spite of my worries you are thriving. You always have thrived. You are a brightly shining little person; engaged, happy, friendly, and a hell of a good time and a travel buddy. I couldn’t adore you more.

Oh sometimes the road gets rugged
And it’s hard to travel on
But holding to each other
We don’t have to walk alone
When everything is broken
We can mend it if we try
We can make the world a difference
If we want to, we can fly

For the last six years you have called me Mommy. For the last 10 months you have called me your teacher. The love and responsibility that comes with being your mom has been one of the defining forces of my life. The honor and privilege of being your teacher and guide on this wildly twisty road…indescribable.

Good-bye you little children
Good-night you handsome men


Farewell to all you ladies
And to all who knew me when…

It was worth it.

It IS worth it. Every second.

You are worth it.


And I hope I’ll see ya down the road
You meant more than I knew

As I was travelin’ travelin’ travelin’ travelin’ travelin’ through

I love you, little friend. Happy birthday.


(Italicized lyrics are from one of your favorite songs: Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Through.”)

Quiet Travel Kit for Kids

I decided a few weeks ago that since I was already overdue on Maggie’s birthday post, I should just go ahead and wait until after our mother-daughter trip to…Paris! Yes, thanks to good flight deals and Hotel.com points we were able to make Maggie’s dream trip come true: three days in the City of Light with just Mom, no sister, and as much time to run me ragged as she wanted. (At 30 weeks pregnant, it was a short run for me to get from OK to ragged, but I put on my game face and she never knew otherwise.) I will write about that trip in the context of the birthday post, but for now I wanted to share this little travel kit with you all.

quiet travel

Quiet Travel Kit!

Bringing the iPad was key, not only because I needed it to check maps and things at the hotel, but I knew there would be some occasional down time that required a little mindless tuning out with the Doc McStuffins game app. That’s fine; a little mindless zoning out now and then is healthy. For other times, like at cafes or when she wasn’t feeling the iPad, I wanted to bring a few items that encouraged creativity or conversation, that wouldn’t disrupt other people, that wouldn’t take up much space, and I didn’t feel like spending money on new and novel items.


Obviously, we had to bring paper and coloring materials. I happened to have a 5″x7″ Crayola drawing pad around the house, but if I hadn’t I would have cut regular paper into quarters and used a tiny binder clip to keep them organized. I prefer Crayola Twistables Colored Pencils for travel. They sharpen without mess, and don’t have the control problems of crayons or the ink bleed of markers.


The pink pouch contains the Made By Joel Paper City Paris set! There are two sizes, so obviously we got the Travel Size. There are numerous other free scenes and printables, so you could get one to suit any taste. I printed it on photo paper so it would be more sturdy and tucked it into a pencil case we had around.

The Rory’s Story Cubes don’t exactly meet the criteria for not being disruptive–dropping the cubes got a little loud–but if you had a cloth napkin to blunt the sound at dinner it would be OK. These stimulate some fascinating story ideas and conversations! We’ve had them for years but they aren’t very expensive.

And finally…what’s in the Lego box?


An Altoid Lego scene!! We got the idea from this Mommo Design post (so many fab ideas I want to make for future trips!), and Maggie helped me create a scene that fit our trip: the Parisian Park Picnic. I made the rule that we could only use pieces that were replaceable on Pick-A-Brick or of which we had multiples, like the two mini-figures she included. Nothing unique or set-specific that was essential to some building or couldn’t be replaced. I suggest using Krazy Glue (THE KRAGLE!!) to adhere the plates to the top. Hot glue was OK but one came off after yanking off a stubborn piece.

Best of all…everything fit into a Dollar Store pencil pouch I’ve had since God wore short pants. 30-week-pregnant belly included for scale.

Photo on 2015-06-22 at 11.12 #2

And that’s it!! It was truly all Maggie needed to stay happy on the plane, in cafes, and to decompress at the hotel. She ended up only using the iPad twice–on the train back from Versailles when *I* was too tapped for conversation, and waiting for our delayed plane leaving France (ditto). The iPad was truly more for me than for her (introverted Mom needs quiet Kindle time, dude). Hope this is useful for some of you!

The (Lack of) Love Language

The longest relationship in my life is now fraught with complications. Ease has been replaced by frustration; intuition bound by rules and social mores.

Like Louis C.K. says, “It’s the kids that do you in.” I wouldn’t say that having children ruined our relationship, but I’d be very comfortable saying that children have strained the enjoyment right out of the practice of everyday living.

I am, of course, talking about teaching Maggie to read, and not my marriage.

English and learning to read, in case you weren’t aware, has to be one of the biggest pains in the ass to teach. Much is made of the Finnish educational model, and rightly so. It seems that children are allowed to be flexible and free, and formal reading isn’t pushed until age seven. Thing is, their alphabet is totally phonetic and shorter than ours. If I understand correctly, that means no tricks, no weirdness, nothing to trip kids up.

Like Scout Finch, I have no conscious memory of learning to read. I have no memory of the time when letters took on meaning and became decipherable as words, sentences, paragraphs, and structures. My parents tell me it happened so early for me that I couldn’t possibly remember, a condition I’ve stumbled across in my education research called “hyperlexia.” Decoding words was as natural to me as breathing, and I had nothing but disdain for readers sharing classroom space with me who stumbled over what I perceived to be simplicity itself.

I am officially going on the record: I am SO sorry, elementary school classmates. English is a total fucking pain and I was a smug jerk.

Maggie’s reading is coming along reasonably well, I think. I have nothing else to compare it to, and nobody posts darling little Facebook pictures of their child’s lack of reading progress. Precocity carries the day on social media, so I try not to play the comparison game. Most of her letters usually face the right way, and she can read a few simple primers without a lot of help. By God, that’s good enough for me.

But oh, holy Christ on a cracker, did it take FOREVER to come even that far. Homonyms are horrible. Sight words are so confusing, and so many fall under the pronunciation guide of “It’s just that way, sweetie. Sorry. That’s why we learn them by sight and not by sounding.” Two seconds later: “Oh, you can sound that one out.” Maggie looks at me like she wants to say “You have got to be kidding me.” I don’t blame her.

WHAT? English, you twit. We had it so good, you and I. I love you; I love working with you and partnering with you to create works that please me (if no one else). But you are a jerk to my kid and I don’t want her to hate you, so I’ve had to tear down our whole relationship and rebuild it to make it palatable to her. The very last thing I want is for her to find reading a chore.


For the sake of the children, we will tough this out. I will mask my contempt at the ridiculous rules you impose and grit my teeth and make this as enjoyable as I can. We will go slowly.

Even so, I can’t help but think we are forever changed. The kids have done us in.

Go Round and Round

I owe Maggie (if not the rest of you) a birthday letter. She’s six! Six years old! One-third of the way to legal adulthood, I tell you what. We followed the algorithmic instructions in the decree from the Lego Marketing Gods for her birthday present:

Six year old girl plus year 2015 plus interest in Legos = LEGO FROZEN CASTLE!

Maggie had other ideas.

Years ago, we bought her a balance bike. The idea was that she’d learn to balance so well that she’d just take off on two wheels when the time came. We had really no idea at the time that the process of using a bicycle would require gross motor planning skills that we’d need to call in specialists to work on. Wheeled toys fell by the wayside. The balance bike has been used sporadically, but as all items in a multi-child home Maggie didn’t really take a huge interest in it (or in our 3-wheeled scooter that I grabbed at the local charity shop figuring “Why not?”) until Moira decided she wanted to use it.

Then it was ON.

I brought them out front to the sidewalk, gave them perimeter boundaries, and set up a chair. Using the handlebars to turn…eh. Not so much. But she does have the basic idea of sitting on a bicycle and lifting her feet, and what happens if you wobble when you should wibble. (You fall, or ride into a tree. Good life lessons for the kindergarten set.)

As it happened, my niece’s third birthday was two weeks after Maggie’s sixth. As dictated by other marketing algorithms of the day, she got a Frozen-themed big girl bike with a purple basket. I showed it to Maggie and hinted that perhaps, with the birthday money she received from generous grandparents, she might like a big-girl bike of her own.

And wouldn’t you know it? She was game. “Yes! I would like one, with stabilizers.” (The UK term for training wheels.) Next we had to find one on Amazon that would ship to APO, and we found ‘er. She’s a beaut.


Yep. Flowers, purple tires, a basket AND doll seat attachment, AND streamers?! Boss.

It hasn’t arrived yet, but she’s been telling everyone how excited she is. “I’m going to practice my skills! I have balancing skills.”

Indeed you do, sweet pea. You’re a big kid now, for sure.

Better Ask A Breeder: Stomach Virus Edition

Time to revive my “Better Ask A Breeder” feature, as I realized that stomach viruses cannot be weathered alone. You want, nay, NEED the wisdom of those who have come before to see you through the storm. My first bit of advice relates to hair. Moira has a lot of hair. Thick, wavy, red-gold hair streaked through with platinum white and dark auburn. It is as glorious as a fall sunset, and trying to get any substance out of it is like trying to give Satan himself a pompadour. At the first indication that your long-haired darling spawn may be under the weather, soak his or her head and work the hair in two snug French braids. Get that hair out of the little spewer’s face ASAP. This may save you much heartache later.

Next up: towels. So I had Moira at home, and they recommended having loads of towels on hand. More than whatever you’re thinking. No, MORE than THAT. You will use them to make up your child’s bed, cover the couch, cover the carpet *surrounding* the bed and the couch…you just want them.

If you like making chicken stock, use a few 8oz containers to freeze some. Then you have single-serving rehydrating sick food. I like to cook rice in mine and give them the starchy broth (a little at a time in a medicine dropper, if you have to).

Why yes, Tom IS gone this week. He’s in Spain with a friend. Now, I can’t drink at the moment, but I can and did tell him to spend a little bit more per bottle at duty-free on the way home than he might have normally, because I sure as hell can stockpile for next winter.

Wish us luck.

I Feel Pretty

Winter is a difficult time for so many. The dark mornings, the darker afternoons, the English drizzle all seem to be actively plotting against us. For me, there are compounding factors in my lethargy. There is absolutely nothing that drains my creative energy, that so efficiently saps my sense of humor and spirit, than the first trimester of pregnancy. And like clockwork, now that I am approaching fourteen weeks I feel that I can string a few words together to make a coherent sentence!

Yeah, I kind of buried the lede there. We are preparing to launch number three, our third and final I REALLY MEAN IT, GUYS baby, in late August. Between the mental drain of winter, the demands of homeschooling Maggie, and keeping an eye (and occasionally a loving thumb) on dear Moira, I have had nothing to give creatively. It’s a problem for me, because when I don’t write I have terrible nagging dreams about wasted potential. Apparently it’s enough to know that I occasionally make my mom laugh and that sometimes I make people think when I write here.

That said, I don’t have enough stamina for any hot, emotionally laden topics. My torpor has not lifted enough to court controversy or stimulate flowing tear ducts. No, right now I’m pretty much just looking at makeup, and considering the varied ways I could paint my face.

The last time I bothered to buy anything for my face was in 2011, when I was pregnant with Moira. One senses a theme: in order to keep strangers from rubbing my belly like a good-luck troll (why? why do people do that?!), I try to get people to look elsewhere. Sadly, between the insomnia and familial tendencies toward sensitive, rashy red skin, eye baggage, and errant hairs, some maintenance needs to be done. Chinny is easy–one pluck and that little hair is gone. Chinny is probably my longest-lasting relationship, and I have no doubt we will grow old together as one.

Anyway, I walked into L’Occitane and said “I’m seven months pregnant and I have a toddler and I look it. HALP.” She fixed me right up with some overpriced placebo that made me feel better but had no discernible effect, and then I bought some lipliner and pronounced myself Peachy The Overly-Big-Eyed Clown.

Right now, I’ve got Sephora open in another window and I’m trying to figure out the wild world of contouring. Like most other complicated vanity-painting, I’m pretty sure we can thank a Kardashian for this, and also pretty sure that if I tried to contour my face I would look like a molting pigeon. That doesn’t mean I won’t try, and then we can have Peachy The Clown Part Deux: The Peachening.

In the meantime, I have a nice smattering of broken blood vessels and rashy bumps on my face. This could either be the onset of rosacea (bane of the Swedish side of the family) or a combination of hormones and breaking blood vessels as the result of forceful vomiting. (Future mothers-to-be: you can’t say you weren’t warned.) I’ve been branching out into the new world of redness-reducing primer, coating myself in what looks like green swamp slime and which turns into a “universal color” (uh. I guess? If you’re white? not so “universal,” there, L’Oreal) as it sets.

At a playdate, a concerned friend said “You look like you’re feeling better! Your color is back!” So, I guess turning me from looking ultra-pale/polka dotted red into a neutral universal bland is the same as returning color, and the same as faked health. In reality it was one of the worst days of my first trimester, but darned if I didn’t have even pores.

So that’s what’s going on here. Gestating and face-painting. When I update again in two months I’ll let you know which face-moltening contour equipment I went with.