Thursday, September 11, 2014

A new kind of life

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Life hasn’t been the same since Little Miss started Kindergarten. At least not for me. The back-and-forth trips for pickup and dropoff and managing the schedules of two girls in two different schools have me in the car a lot, which I loathe. That’s the price we pay for finding a home tucked away at the end of civilization. Sure, we get to watch bunnies and deer (eating all my pretty flowers – agh!) in our yard, but that also means there’s no walking to anywhere for us. I know I’ve mentioned this before, and this will probably keep coming up because of all the changes we’ve made since our move here from Chicago, the inability to reach anywhere on foot may be the biggest and worst adjustment I’ve had to make. For nearly 38 years of my life, I’ve always been able to easily reach many places on foot – restaurants, cleaners, convenient stores – and now I think my body is creaking in a funny way from the lack of use. I also feel cut off from the rest of the world, and when you’re new to the area, the isolation is more acute.

Maybe that’s why I was eager to join the PTA at Little Miss’ new school. I wanted to know more families around us – perhaps people we could walk to visit! – and I needed to rebuild the community we lost when we uprooted from our last real home. And that’s how I found myself organizing the annual school picnic scheduled for the end of the month. When I saw an open slot for this I quickly volunteered because me? Plan a party? I could do that in my sleep. I am also on the Board now because I’m the committee lead for communications. Surprise, surprise. My inbox has more PTA-related emails now than work-related ones. Yes, I’ve become that parent. I just need one of my kids to get into soccer to complete the picture. But the thing is, I’m okay with it.

My Guy had to leave town for five days the week both girls started school and admittedly, I was not happy about the timing. Really? Could he have found a more inconvenient time than the first week both girls were back in school with two different sets of needs coming from different directions all at once? After the first-day-of-kindergarten fiasco, I was pretty sure I was going to stumble again somewhere. Except, you know what? I’m happy to report that I didn’t screw up once.  Lunches were made, no one was late, nothing was forgotten – it was a freakin’ miracle. I was amazed at how quickly we embraced the routine, as unfamiliar as it was to us. 

And I have to say, I’m loving this new life. Not only do I get to savor my Mondays and Fridays alone with Pickle while her sister is in all-day kindergarten, I pick Little Miss up from school at 2:45 every day while Pickle is still in preschool so we get to spend the afternoon together. We’ve established a mini routine there, too, where we get home, I check her backpack for school announcements and crafts, I unpack her lunch bag, and we sit down to read and chat together for a little bit before moving the conversation to the kitchen, where I start dinner and she’s learning to help, or she’ll just keep me company, all the while talking about her new school, new friends, new teacher – anything she likes. I absolutely treasure this part of my afternoon with my big girl because when it’s just the two of us, when she doesn’t have to compete to be heard, she’s a different girl, and this girl is an absolute delight. I love how we can now actually laugh about the same things, dream about a far-off vacation or discuss life in general: friendships, heartache, challenges. And I think to myself, you know, as a mother of daughters, that’s the stuff; this is it right here.

 

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What do you make when you have a sous chef and tomatoes in abundance from the garden?

 

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Spaghetti and meatballs from scratch of course!

 



On Friday, to celebrate the end of a successful week with my girls, I took them to a mom-and-pop bounce house near our neighborhood, we had popsicles and watched a movie at home in the evening. I made kale chips instead of popcorn, which the girls gleefully devoured. Oh yeah, we know how to party. That weekend, I took the girls to one of Austin’s best places for kids – the Thinkery, a kids’ museum but with plenty of science-based play – with another mom and her kids, and for lunch, they didn’t have to twist my arm when they suggested In-n-Out Burger. I was really digging the solo-parenting thing; I guess it’s easier when I feel like I’ve got this.


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My Guy would be home on Sunday, but on Saturday, after many evenings at home, I hired a sitter so I could go out with six other moms to see an 80’s cover band in an outdoor venue. I only knew one of them and met the rest for the first time. Four out of seven of us met for dinner and drinks first, and during introductions, a mom with a demanding career said, as she pointed to each person at the table “so you’re an entrepreneur, and so are you, and…” then she pointed to me, “what about you?” It took me by surprise that I didn’t really know what to say. “I write,” I feebly attempted, then added, “I also stay at home with my girls,” which steered the conversation towards the direction of oh how nice to be able to stay at home, which always makes me a little uncomfortable because I don’t know if people say that to be nice or if they really mean it, and it somehow makes me second-guess my own choices.

In a group of ambitious, career-driven women, I felt self-conscious about my own lack of ambition. I work part time from home, I don’t aim to be an executive at some corporation, and I don’t care to run my own company. I’m exactly where I wanted to be, yet, in this setting, I felt suddenly unsure about my own choices. I am that PTA parent in stark contrast to their leaning in in a way that would make Sheryl Sandberg proud, and I forgot how I was once closer to their end of the spectrum and had been unhappy. I forgot how rewarding it is to spend unhurried time with my girls in the middle of the day. I forgot, as a latchkey kid with full-time working parents, how I’d wanted to do things differently for my girls so they would have someone to be here when they come home, to be available for school functions and activities, to be involved in a way that my parents weren’t or couldn’t be.

 

 

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But as the night progressed, and as we whooped and hollered at songs that took us back to our childhood (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! YEAH!”), I was starting to forget my own insecurities as well, because in the end, despite our different backgrounds, as moms, we had more in common than not. For one thing, we all shared the gratitude for an evening away from home, untethered to little creatures demanding our constant attention. At one point during the show, I think we all looked up and around us, observing the downtown buildings towering above, the low moving clouds reflecting the city lights, the (somewhat inebriated) people having fun around us, and we exhaled in relief that there we were, feeling like real people again, having real conversations without the mommy this and mommy that interruptions, and at the same time, trying to recall the last time we saw the city after dark.

When we left, we knew it was back to the usual – the routine of juggling needs that are mostly not ours, the working guilt, the parenting guilt, and now, the PTA emails. All of us isolated in our own way, all of us grasping for some sense of balance to keep going. Always hoping and wondering, but never sure, that what we’re doing is enough. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Oh, Pickle

New clothes arrived by mail, and I’d asked Pickle to try them on for me in the living room, since that’s where we were at the moment. But she insisted on running back to her room to change into her new outfit, and as usual, my inability to tolerate inefficiencies refused to acquiesce: “Why can’t you just change here? Why go all the way back to your room for something you can do here? What’s the difference?”

To which she countered with animated hand gestures for emphasis, “Yes, mommy, what’s the difference? What. Is. The. Difference?” and turned my own argument against me. Good point. She won. At three, Pickle is already quite a force in the house. She has always been the “No, I want to do this!” kid, exerting her independence and refusing help every chance she gets, which I both admire and get frustrated with because I am an impatient person. I like things done quickly and efficiently, and that’s not the mode in which she operates. But as strong-willed as she is, she’s also extremely sensitive to emotional changes. “Are you mad at me mommy?” she’d tremulously ask upon detecting my frustration and would react strongly if she knew I was upset with her, not so much remorseful about her actions, but unhappy that she’s not in my good graces.

It’s this same sensitivity that made her stop mid-activity at the playground when she heard a boy crying, and just like her daddy, who is compelled to find a solution to fix a problem, she took her own balloon – the one she was fighting her sister for just minutes ago – and offered it to him, probably hoping to stop him from crying, to make him happy. It was an unprompted gesture, but My Guy and I weren’t surprised. In fact, we were watching from afar and when he spotted her looking around after staring at the boy with visible concern, he said, “I bet she’s going to give him her balloon.” She just likes to make people happy.


Beetle

This girl is all surprises, and yet not surprising at the same time. She’s afraid of ants, but would think nothing of picking up a beetle the size of her thumb to bring it along on our evening walk with us. She’s been potty trained since she was 2.5 but she’d wake in the middle of the night, walk all the way to our room, holding her crotch and doing what I call the pee-pee dance, just to tell me, “Mommy, I need to go potty” and wait until I mumble something like “okay, sure,” in my sleep before dashing back to the bathroom she passed to get to me to complete her business and eventually climbing back to bed by herself.

She’s certainly confounding at times, but nonetheless utterly delightful. And perhaps that’s why, during Little Miss’ first week of Kindergarten, we were happy to wait another week before sending Pickle back to preschool so we could have her all to ourselves and vice versa. As a second child, her one-on-one moments with us are rare as she had to compete for attention from the moment she was born. That week, while her sister was figuring out kindergarten, we took time away from work to explore Austin with our little one just to spend time with her.


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More than savoring the sights of our new city, more than learning about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s considerable contributions to American history, more than the cake they were serving at the magnificent LBJ Library in honor of what would have been his 106th birthday, we were relishing our little sprite, who giggled and danced and squirmed and snuggled and ran as fast as her legs could take her.

Ever since we moved to Austin, the girls have shared the same preschool schedule, so they often coexisted together at home. They were either both away or both in the house. Now that Little Miss is in kindergarten, Pickle will once again have her parents all to herself on Mondays and Fridays – the days she stays home from school. I remember luxuriating in that time we had together back when she was a wee baby up until this spring. She, who would continue to pepper me with random kisses as we walked, who would regale me with stories of her “new mommy and daddy,” an alternate universe that she had conjured, who would use every excuse in the book to fight naptime obstinately: “I heard (pronounced hear’d and not herd) sumping making a noise in my woom…did you heah that?”, who would still speak with a lisp and mispronounce words, like lellow and wunning, and misuse them and hers, as in: “Them are not mean; them are nice” in reference to beetles, and “I was holding hers hand.” 

The same girl who would let out a banshee wail from the injustice of not having her way would also, when she actually naps, sweetly and wordlessly climb onto my lap and just hold me and hold me and hold me. With a constant devilish glint in her eyes and yet the most tender of hearts, she is an enigmatic creature of extremes, both exhausting and exhilarating, infuriating and inspiring. 

Back in preschool now, she’s a little sad that her sister is no longer with her, but she went into her classroom and into the familiar routine without a moment’s hesitation all the same. Ready to start a new year. Ready for anything. And as always, I watch her in awe.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

First day of Kindergarten, FAIL!

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Just as we were getting used to our summer routine at home after vacation, it’s time to disrupt it for yet another major life event – Little Miss started Kindergarten! I don’t know who was more excited, her or me. I admit, I don’t seem to be plagued by the worries and pangs of first-day-of-school parents; many years of preschool took care of that for us. She’s a pro in making friends, finding her way around, and impressing her teachers, after all. She’s got this.

One thing that did get me worried is how the rigid schedule will affect our family. We’ve never really attended a preschool with a strict time policy, so on most days, we’d saunter into class when we’re good and ready. Which could be anywhere between 8AM and nearly 10AM. Now, with a 7:45 start time for girls who often wake at 7:30, it’s going to be interesting.

But what’s more interesting is that, for someone born and raised in Malaysia, the American school system is completely new to me. I have no idea what it’s like for the kid or what to expect as a parent. My Guy provides the occasional insight from his experience in a suburban school, but mostly, I’m winging it, like I do with much of this parenting gig. As a half work-at-home, half stay-at-home parent, I knew I could afford to be more involved in my girls’ school, but it wasn’t until Kindergarten orientation that I realized just how much more I needed to do to step up my game.

School pickup and dropoff. After-school activities. School lunches. After-school snacks. Homework. Packing the bag for the next day. Not to mention PTA meetings, volunteering in school, and the occasional playgroups.

Holy cow, that alone feels like a full-time job. And that’s just one kid.

But I can do this, I tell myself. In fact, I’m excited to get involved and find my place in Little Miss’ new world. I’ve complained about my girls orbiting around me every time we’re together. They like staying close, playing near me, seeing my shadow in their periphery. Now that Little Miss is in school, that centrifugal force that tethers us will soon lose its power. My influence as a parent will soon be usurped by that of her friends and teachers. I know, I’m being dramatic, but it happens, and while I want to see her find her place in the world, I also want to be close enough so she knows she has the space to grow but she can still always count on me when the need arises.

And so i figuratively fold my sleeves up and get down to this elementary school business. It starts with the school lunch, which, out of my own excitement, took me an hour to prepare as I had to be creative with what tools and materials we had in the kitchen to make it fun for her. It still wasn’t Pinterest worthy, but hey, I had to work with what I had. My Guy made fun of me when he saw me making her a card so I could slip in a note for her first lunch at school. Hey, she’s my first baby! Shut up.

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After the painstaking planning of her lunch, I went to bed, eager for the next morning. We set our timer for the coffee, ready to conquer Kindergarten as a family. Except we forgot one thing: we forgot to set our alarm. And that’s how the girls found us the next day, still sound asleep. Probably drooling. The moment I heard them and saw the morning light in my room, however, I leapt to my feet. I knew something was wrong. I checked the time: 6:55. Arrgh! How the hell did that happen?

Parenting FAIL.

However, something magical happened. Even though we’d planned on waking at least 30 minutes earlier, having only 20 minutes to do everything kept us all, especially the girls, laser focused. We neither needed to plead with them to finish their food nor coax them to get dressed. They were amused by our panic. Perhaps seeing us in a comical state inspired them to cooperate, like implicitly agreeing together, all right, let’s help these clowns out.

In the end, we still somehow made it with 10 minutes to spare. They both had breakfast, they brushed their teeth, and Little Miss even had her picture taken. Booyah! I felt really bad for screwing up, and I apologized repeatedly to Little Miss, who was just thrilled that she got to “save the day” by unexpectedly and miraculously waking earlier than usual. Luckily, we get to redeem ourselves as we get a do over – again and again, for everyday for the next 15 years. Surely we’ll get some of those days right.

But just in case…I’ve already set my alarm for the next morning. 
 

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Welcome home

PoachedSalmon

The anchovies sizzled in the pan and eventually dissolved in the olive oil before I tossed in a generous heap of chopped garlic and crushed red pepper. This formed the base of one of my favorite comfort foods, pasta with broccoli, garlic and anchovies – a dish that quickly found its way to our dinner table the week we returned from vacation. After many days of indulging in fried seafood by the coast, a simply prepared poached salmon with grated fresh ginger, sesame and ponzu sauce, though not much to look at, was also an enormously satisfying meal. The house had the strong, pungent odor of my cooking as I went about dusting the cat hair that collected in the two weeks we were away from the furniture and in various nooks of the house, unpacking two suitcases with two cats who, after our absence, would not leave my side, so happy they were that we were home.

But they’re not alone. As much as I enjoyed our time on the road, celebrating my birthday in the Big Easy and watching my girls flourish with their grandparents, I couldn’t be more gratified working on the most mundane tasks – carefully laundering the clothes covered in sand from our spontaneous visit to the beach on the surprisingly beautiful Gulf coast, weeding my crispy, brown yard that got fried while we were away, cooking comfort foods we rarely find on restaurant menus – in my own home as we spent our last week of summer vacation together before school starts. It’s lovely to be able to escape routine sometimes, but even lovelier to come back to it as the time away resurrected my appreciation for the little things that made home, home. Like my bed. Sinking into sleep that first night back was and is always a pleasure beyond words. Like the silence around the house as we immersed ourselves in our own task at hand, with the occasional humming in the background as the girls bring to life a scene from some Disney movie in their coloring book with crayons, color pencils, and markers.

Like the little craft corner that we have carved out for our girls, where they spend many minutes, sometimes hours, just coloring or drawing or cutting or pasting or whatever creative task du jour, affording me time to putter about in the kitchen or the yard. They still don’t play outside like I hoped they would, but now that it’s finally getting into the triple-digit temps, I don’t blame them. While I sought the comfort of routine in my kitchen, they found theirs in this dedicated spot. It’s often the first place we find them in the mornings; while the grownups are still trying to shake sleep from our eyes, they’re already busy making art.

 

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I loved how each of us slid comfortably back into our respective roles with renewed vigor. We’re energized by our travels, but exploring and discovering different parts of the country also affirmed our appreciation for our part of the world. This was my first trip away from Austin since we moved here five months ago, and it would be the first time in a long, long, long time that I wouldn’t have Chicago’s magnificent skyline to welcome me home. I didn’t know how I’d react upon returning to our new city, but when I spotted the now familiar sight of Austin’s skyline in the last 20 minutes of our very long journey, I was overcome with joy. The cityscape here pales in comparison to Chicago’s – it doesn’t have quite the architectural gems like the Sears, I mean, Willis Tower, the intricate Chicago Tribune Building, the diamond-shaped roofline of the Stone Container (now Crain Communications) Building, or even the imposing sight of the Hancock Building, but one thing Austin does have that Chicago doesn’t: our house.

And, really, that’s all the welcome home I needed. That, and my bed, of course.   

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nine years and counting

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Today marks nine years since my first electric kiss with My Guy one lovely August evening in Chicago. Here’s a story that I think captures our nine years together quite well.

 

Jumping In

He said, “look, we’re not too far away from the Gulf,” and showed me the map. He was right. A detour to Pensecola would be nice. We weren’t really in a hurry to get home anyway. After five long, unexciting hours in the car since we said goodbye to My Guy’s parents in St. Augustine, Florida, it was time for something different.

”You sure?” He double-checked, right before the exit off the Interstate that would’ve taken us all the way back to Texas.

”Yes, let’s do it.” We’ve never seen the Gulf of Mexico – why not?

And that’s how we ended up here.


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Before we left the car, we said to the girls, “Okay, listen. We can play in the sand and even walk in the water a little, but we’re not going in.”

They both agreed. Of course, that’s before we actually saw what was in store for us. We were foolish enough to think that we would just feel the waves wash over our feet, kick around in the sand a little and continue on our merry way after a few minutes at the beach. HAH! What were we (not) thinking?!

 

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When we saw the pristine white sand against the two-toned blue of the gulf, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The postcard-perfect beach took us by surprise. We did attempt – albeit feebly – to resist the temptation, but when the waves found our feet, it also washed away all signs of resolve. The water was warm and inviting, the waves, gentle yet fun. Both Pickle and Little Miss begged, can we please go in the water? At that point, resistance was futile.

”But what about our clothes?” My Guy asked.

”Just go in.” I said, although he didn’t need too much persuasion. His heart was already there. Much to the delight of the girls, he took them in with him. There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation on their part; they were ready to dive in the moment we mentioned the word “beach”.

 

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Pickle had lived next to one all her life before we moved to Austin, after all. It’s practically in her DNA. We had our suitcases in our car, so I decided to actually change out of my maxi dress and into my swimsuit in the car so it doesn’t billow around me and make me look like some striped grey blob in the water.

Since our version of the beach in Chicago meant tentatively wading in chilly Lake Michigan most of the time, the lovely bath-water temperature of the Gulf felt incredible. Little Miss was brave enough to swim on her own, and Pickle, in her swim vest, would ride the wave to me after letting go of her daddy. It was such a thrill to be in there with them. We didn’t stay too long though. Maybe an hour at the most, since we had the rest of the journey ahead, but for something so surprising and so unexpected, the hour felt extremely satisfying. It was such a tremendous gift.

This may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but honestly, this is what it’s like to live with My Guy. Spontaneous. Fun. Delightful. Full of passion for exploring and discovering something new. And once in awhile, I’m even inspired to take a little risk. We don’t scale mountains or tame lions, so it’s not like we lead the most exciting lives, but a little relocation to Austin here and a little unplanned detour to the beach there make it seem like what we have is enough.

Actually, what we have is plenty, and I am extraordinarily grateful for this life, for this man, for every day we’ve been together these nine, wonderful years.

 

 

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Happy anniversary, my love. You’re pretty cool, you know that?

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