Marko learned to talk, Laurel learned to read

In two weeks, they both blossomed, Marko looking more and more pleased each time his request was intelligble to us. Laurel prolific from the backseat, cranking out pages of cartoonish, captioned drawings. A girl crying because she lost her hamster. Aliens, no kids dressed as aliens, but in a real spaceship. A map of our neighborhood. I wonder how much of my recognition of each small milestone helps propel their development.

They spend a lot of time wrestling, though. Dumping stuff out for no reason I can figure out. They yell at each other and tattle. Which is why this moment of listening to recorded books and coloring felt so unexpectedly peaceful.



Sometimes things don't go as planned.

It is winter, though. Not totally unexpected. But the ice/snow/rain today offered up the opportunity to check out the aquarium in Chattanooga and it was awesome. When we get home, I'll write more on the jellyfish exhibit, Montgomery, AL's Venezuelan restaurant, jalapeƱo sausage Po'boys, and how two small children can utterly destroy the backseat of a car.


Snow Birds

No matter where we go,
they just play in the dirt.
I hesitate to call this a vacation, because M was working pretty much the whole time, and the rest of us were doing pretty much what we always do...playgrounds, libraries, walking in the park, etc. But it was definitely nice to walk around in the sunshine. It was close to 80 degrees the day we hiked in Balcones Canyonlands, just northwest of Austin. We did see some of the Golden Cheeked Warblers, as well as great views of Hill Country. It was the first place where it really felt like we had come west. I wanted to keep on going through Texas into New Mexico, but we had other plans.

M and I have had to really adjust our expectations when it comes to hiking. Marko can be carried, but often doesn't want to. Laurel can really move when she wants to, but Marko's slow pace seems to sap her zest for hiking. So, we look for trails that are under 2 miles long and we take our time. The kids spend a lot of time stopping and looking at the things that we don't necessarily think are interesting and if we point out something that is rare and awesome (i.e. the endangered golden cheeked warbler) they are like, "Whatever, here is a piece of wood mulch that I found on the trail and is not even part of the native landscape, but was trucked in to keep the trail from washing away and it is way cooler than the golden cheeked warbler."

This is a fact about parenting that could really drive you crazy if you forget that (1) kids are people and are going to have their own opinions, desires and interests that may not align with yours and (2) when you go someplace it doesn't have to be all about creating magical experiences for the kids. Maybe YOU want to see the golden cheeked warbler and their lack of appreciation for the rare opportunity need not ruin your experience.

Laurel: Much happier on the
OUTSIDE of the Arch.
I think the Gateway Arch is one of the prettiest monuments in the country and I've always wanted to go up to the top. The weird, little tram cars that take you up were a unique design to accommodate the curve. The kids and I watched some videos about the design contest and the construction, before we left on our trip. Laurel recognized it as we were driving in towards St. Louis. Unfortunately, she hated going up to the top. I don't know exactly what her limit is for going off the ground, but she's always climbing to the highest point possible on the playground and giving me a heart attach by dangling upside down from it. It might actually have been the sway of the structure that freaked her out. It was built to sway up to 18 inches. While I don't think it was that windy the day we were there, it was definitely moving a little bit. 

We had to arrange our travel days to accommodate M's work schedule, which was a little challenging at times. Being in the Central Time Zone helped a bit, since he got an earlier start. But it would be one thing for him and I to hit up a Starbucks for a couple of hours. (Or 8, as it were.) Quite another to figure out what to do with a two year old and a five year old for that amount of time. Luckily we had some seriously generous family and friends to stay with for much of the time. Thank you Heather & Lisa, Joe & Donna, and Kristi-Jo and Brendan! I love getting to visit with my far-away friends and family. Email and Christmas cards are one way to stay in touch, but there's nothing like sitting around with a cup of coffee in the morning and catching up. Or driving around the city of Austin and cheering on marathon runners, including M! And we loved wandering the campus of LSU and checking out Mike. Tigers are a thing in Baton Rouge. There was even one at the gas station we stopped at. Not kidding.

Tigers. Everywhere in LA.
I had to keep the kids occupied. We brought their bikes and they rode those a lot. We hit up every playground we could. I also prepared a series of geography lessons for Laurel. Driving the route we did gave us a perfect opportunity to look at the features that give the states their borders. Particularly along the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, the land is a constantly changing thing. We read books that we brought as well as the pamphlets from the places we stopped at. We also looked at coins, restaurant menus and maps. Laurel is really driving her reading and writing development right now and has grown in leaps and bounds this month. She spends a lot of time sketching and writing sentences. I don't interfere unless she asks me a question.  One thing I am doing is helping her with penmanship practice. I also brought some recorded books, including a pretty long chapter book. Marko had Duplos and matchbox cars to play with, and he often joined in for coloring.

The best part for me has been the days - and it's been most of the them - when the kids got plenty of running around time. They are so much easier to handle when they play enough and get plenty of exercise and fresh air. 


Winter Reprieve

Sometimes you want a little sunshine on your face and are willing to drive a thousand miles to get it.


Daily Life Here

They experiment with many
techniques. Sponges and craft
sticks are among their favorites.
Marko is using his newfound verbal ability to protest. "Stop it, mama!" and "I don't want it" are his favorite phrases. Yesterday I asked him to put these plastic letters away so that we could get out the art supplies - he and Laurel had just asked to paint. He looked right at me and dumped them on the floor. I wanted to tell him that he was being a jerk, but he's two. That would make me even more of a jerk. Instead I told him it was probably going to take longer to clean up now. He responded by kicking them all over the kitchen. We sing a little song now, "Everybody cleans up, what they dumped out, everybody cleans, cleans up."

Laurel made up a second verse about little brothers dumping everything out but not picking it up. I heard her quietly singing to herself while she was cleaning up one of his messes. I have a newfound appreciation for the maturity of five year olds. She has great economic sense, by which I mean she knows what it will take to get what she wants.

We have a yelling problem here. I think part of it is we are just a very loud family. We like loud music. We shout at each other from upstairs when we need something. We talk very loudly at dinner, especially when we are excited. When we argue, we yell at each other. We yell swear words. And sometimes the kids just shout really, really loudly for no apparent reason. Rule #2 in our house is "no yelling" and we spend lots and lots of time talking about this one, brainstorming ways we can be quieter with our responses. But we never change our ways. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. We live on a loud street, we're hardly bothering the neighbors. Perhaps it's just in our nature and we should revise that rule.

Marko builds letters.
Laurel is learning to read. To clarify, she's teaching herself to read. Rereading the same books over and over again. Using recorded books to memorize text and then repeat it back to herself. Reading board books to Marko. Carefully sounding out words. Copying words from books. She stays up very late in her bed with a flashlight and practices. We could be firmer about making her go to sleep, but school doesn't start until after 9 and I'm not inclined to yell at anyone for reading. Marko copies everything she does, so often I'll find him in a corner with a book, "reading" it to himself. He stops and starts with his babbling in a way that sounds just like Laurel blending sounds together. 

Watching my children develop language and literacy is one of the most fascinating things I get to do these days. It's also very interesting to see how having an older child influences the sort of books you keep around and the complexity of the texts the younger one ends up hearing. I have always been a big fan of mixed aged classes in schools, which is how Laurel's school works. The first school I taught at also had mixed grades, which also helped in keeping kids from getting held back. Marko doesn't have many friends his own age, but I actually kind of hate playdates with a couple of 2 year olds. They are horrible at playing with each other. If you get a couple of older kids around, the dynamic changes. An alpha emerges and the group knows what to do.

When I found out I was pregnant with Laurel, I spent way too much time on the internet researching how I was going to handle the first year of her life. Breastfeeding, diapers, vaccines, co-sleeping, etc. It was all terrifying, because every person writing about these things is basically telling you if you pick wrong, your kid will not love you or will get autism. In reality, this is not how attachment or developmental disorders work. Also, in reality, they are a baby for like a minute, and then you have an actual person to deal with for many decades to come.

Several years ago, I realized I needed to decompartmentalize my approach to parenting and I wrote the following....philosophy? Manifesto? Now I read it on occasion when my toddler is glaring at me and my five year old doesn't want to go to school anymore and we are spending a lot of time breaking Rule #2. 

All members of the family deserve equal respect.
Behavior is motivated by needs.
Practicing to identify our needs so that we can ask for things directly from our loved ones is a great thing.
Everyone's needs matter. When someone is asking for something that they need, and it interferes with something someone else needs, compromise is required.
Everybody messes up, gets mad, says things they don't mean, acts out in inappropriate ways and can be otherwise unpleasant to others from time to time. The role of the family is to love unconditionally, speak up when someone's actions interfere or are hurtful, and to guide by example.
One of the greatest lessons we can learn from each other is how to recover, repair and heal from mistakes.
As parents, we have a responsibility to teach kindness, social norms and manners, self-care, tolerance and knowledge about the world.
We do this through modeling these behaviors ourselves. Like all the things that we as adults learn, some lessons take longer than others to learn. There's also a lot of gray areas that need to be explored.

The daily work of caring for children can be rather monotonous at times. Virtually everything I do in a day has to be repeated the next day. While I actually do enjoy the work of taking care of the house and kids, it's a tough blow to my ego to no longer earn a paycheck for my efforts. And while this parenting philosophy is not specific to me being a stay-at-home mom (I was always a full-time mom - it's not something you leave behind for eight hours a day), I do have significantly more time with them each day for all of this life stuff to play out.



It was very exciting to prepare for Marko's birthday. We lost about five cupcakes because I found little nibble bites in them...just one on each. I think it was a joint venture. 


Sick! (And Now Better)

Playing chess. Sort of.
Marko got some kind of wretched illness this last week. He was really sick for about 5 days. Laurel fled the scene and went to my parents' house. (School is closed for half of this week.) "I need to get away from all these sick people," she said. But really, I think she just wanted to go and be spoiled by grandparents. (Which I completely understand. I used to run down to my grandparents to escape my big sister responsibilities. My grandma would make me some Salada tea and give me a Nilla Wafer.)

Knock on wood, but M and I are still feeling ok. However, the other night I woke up at 2:00am craving oranges. I went downstairs, ate two of them and then crawled back into bed. I think my subconscious mind was trying to rally my immune system.

Our old-school pediatrician has sort of trained us to wait out all but the most serious illnesses, which I think is a pretty good thing, generally. But you may recall that Marko actually had a rather serious case of food poisoning last year, which causes me to go into somewhat of a panic whenever he gets more than a cold. He had to be hospitalized after many, many days of flu-like symptoms and trips to the doctor and emergency room. I would really prefer to never have to see that child get stuck with an IV ever again. Therefore, I have been laying awake listening to him breathe and then waking M up. "Was that a wheeze? Is he wheezing? Do you hear a rattle when he breathes??"

He's feeling much better now, though. The biggest challenge is keeping him occupied. There are only so many block towers you can build, so many wooden railroad tracks you can lay. Yesterday I let him go nuts in the kitchen. I gave him some old jars of spices that we don't really use and some measuring cups, and he spent a good long while sprinkling and stirring and shaking things up. It made a gigantic mess. Then he moved on to peeling garlic.

 We got him some play food you can "chop" - it's held together by velcro and comes with a little wooden knife and cutting board. He was delighted to use this toy for a few weeks, but now desperately wants to use a real knife and chop real things. Like garlic. I'm going to set up a little Montessori work like this banana chopping one for him.


Marko at Nearly Two (and me after two babies!)

Every couple of months I do a phone interview for a research study and they ask me various things about what we eat and living situation and health and Marko's development. I never know how tall he is or how many teeth he has and the interviewer gets annoyed because they have to type a number into a screen so then I just guess. We are pretty terrible at that baby book type stuff. We don't have any pencil marks on a door frame, marking their height. I did not save a clipping of their first hair cuts. (Actually, come to think of it, I don't believe Marko has ever had a haircut.)

We've been holed up this week with winter colds, which has given us the opportunity to look at some old photos and videos. Marko will be 2 next week and is starting to talk a lot more.

"Meer, Mom!" - Come here, mom.
"Quiet!" - mostly shouted at Laurel when she is yelling
"Stop it." - when I wash his face
"Sit down here!" - when he wants us to play with him

The more time they spend together, the better they seem to get along. Laurel has been home from school a lot lately due to snow, winter breaks and being sick. It could also be a result of them both getting a little older. Marko wants to imitate Laurel, as little brothers do. If she's writing something, he is write there next to her, scribbling on his own piece of paper. They like to play with Legos together. Fights break out, but are quickly resolved.

Marko was the best sleeper ever until he turned about 18 months. Now he goes to sleep in his own bed, but only if one of us is in there, either rocking him or sitting in the chair next to his bed. He'll stay there until we go to sleep and then will wander into our room and climb in with us. He's the total opposite of Laurel in the morning. Laurel takes a good long while to wake up and is often grumpy and doesn't want to eat right away. Marko wakes up with a smile every morning around 6 or 6:30. "Good morning, mommy! Good morning, daddy!" He's super excited for coffee, to play with trains, to look out the window. Every single day is like this. My mood in the morning tends to be more like Laurel, but with Marko around, I'm a lot more cheerful and excited to start the day.

Marko loves taking bubble baths and reading books. He's really good at throwing a ball overhand. He loves dogs and is very good at approaching a dog in a calm way. We spend a lot of time walking around the city these days and he's very friendly. When we get on the city bus to take Laurel to school, he says hello and waves to everyone on it.

I think we are conscious of the differences of raising a boy and a girl. And while our boy is just as likely as the girl to dress up in a tutu or ask to have his toenails painted and we don't really have "boy" or "girl" toys, I do think that our own biases have an impact on how we react and discipline them. I find that I am way more vigilant in correcting Marko's behavior with other children, like if he hits or snatches a toy away. With Laurel, I prefer to see her retain her scrappiness. I don't want to extinguish all tendencies towards assertion, although I do think society still expects little girls (and grown women) to be quiet, polite and not ask for much.

Having a second child has been a wonderful experience for me. So many of the things I worried about with Laurel were just not even on my radar with Marko. One thing that helped was staying away from parenting websites and books for advice. I still love reading essays about parenting, especially from other women, but I'm no longer looking for validation for my choices or a way to "fix" things that are just normal parts of babies being babies, or the growing pains of me becoming a mom.

I had one c-section and one vaginal birth and found the recovery to be about the same. Also, birth was not an empowering experience for me. I just felt grateful to make it through alive and with a healthy baby. (And a good OB.)

I breastfed both of my kids for a little over a year, more or less on demand, although I was also working for a lot of that time. I pumped what I could and gave them formula when I didn't have enough. I worried a great deal about all things related to breastfeeding with Laurel and not so much with Marko. Weaning them was not hard and they had a bunch of teeth and were pretty much eating table food all the time by then.

I tried various cry it out and no-cry sleep training methods with both kids. Some were very effective at the time, others caused a great deal of anguish for all parties involved. Both kids ended up in our bed a lot. Laurel sleeps pretty well now and mostly stays in her bed all night. Marko not so much, but I see sleep as something that changes a lot with age and I'm sure before I know it, M and I will have that king bed to ourselves again.

I have been a graduate student mom, a part-time working mom, a stay-at-home mom and a full-time working mom. We have used a babysitter in our house and three different day care centers. I have had a schedule that I managed myself and  also worked at a high school where I had to be there precisely at 7:00am and had no flexibility but had summers off and got out every day by 3. All were good and bad in their own ways. The kids were fine in pretty much all situations. What I figured out is that when I'm happy and healthy, the kids do better. You know how they say that with the oxygen masks on the airplane.

I cherish the bonds I formed with other first-time moms who were going through the same stuff, but I've got a lot more friends with older kids now and appreciate the wisdom and perspective they give me. But mainly, I've learned that you don't raise kids so much as you raise each other up. I'm growing because they challenge me to.



A year split in half, punctuated by a month-long nap. It was more pruning than growth. Necessary, though. Eleven years of marriage is symbolized by steel and it felt fitting enough that M bought us new wedding bands made of stainless steel. Laurel turned 5 and I became a five year veteran of motherhood. I did some of the best work of my life and then walked away from it. I'm sorry for not telling more stories here lately. Everything feels too complicated to share with a broad audience. That's not to say 2014 was a bad year. Quite the opposite. I have before never felt so consistently satiated in my marriage, my kids, my body, and in the day-to-day activities of life. Last year I did a journaling exercise from Susannah Conway. I did it again recently. (You can check out her workbook here, it's free to download.) I wrote "prioritize" as a guiding word at the beginning of 2014. When I looked back at the last 12 months or so, these words emerged to describe it: "Human. Savor. Slash & Burn." Prioritize feels very orderly compared to how the year actually went. But it feels like I landed in exactly the right spot.

It was a lot of walking in on this....oh my God, those toes!

And watching them become siblings.

So glad to be in the Lego phase now. Even when I step on them.

Laurel can read! And she has a very willing audience most of the time. 

Laurel really wants a dog and every time we visit someone who has one, she tries to make her case by being super helpful. I have not seen her pick up dog poo in a plastic bag, though, which is kind of the sticking point for me.

We're figuring out how to plan activities that are fun for everyone (including the adults). I felt really amazing after we did the 300 mile bike trip to Cumberland and back and it is giving me confidence to plan more adventures.
I wore out my library card. Literally. 

Looking back at the 2014 photos was kind of hard, because they were filled with candid shots of Reading Warriors doing all sorts of awesome things. I genuinely enjoyed getting to know those teens and kids. I really wish I could share more of those stories and photos with you, but everyone was a minor and privacy issues and all that. But beyond that, I think those stories are theirs to tell, and I'm sure they are telling them in their own ways. I miss them, though.

Anniversary selfie in the steel town.

I have a feeling I'm going to be spending a lot of time cheering these two on in races. Laurel ran her first official races this year. Mark also ran in several races, although when I think of Mark running it is not usually about the race or his time, although he certainly trains for races and keeps meticulous records of his pace and mileage. Running for him seems to be more about the meditation of a long run, or the act of becoming more aware of his body and how it moves. And he always looks like he's having a really good time. 

I finally made it to San Diego for a much needed sister visit!

My grandpa died in December, but we had some good times with him this year. He always enjoyed the kids.



When I was waiting for the bus today, somebody lit up a clove cigarette and suddenly I was 20 again and in my first apartment. You know those smells that evoke memories you have no reason to ever summon up purposefully? They aren't bad, they aren't good. Just inconsequential things you forget over time.

But when I smelled that cigarette, I could remember the exact shade and texture of the carpet (gray-blue, threadbare near the door). How many paces it was from the front door to the light switch on the other side of the living room and how unnerving it could be to walk in alone at night. The picture book that roommate gave me for Christmas. Drinking cheap beer out of red plastic cups and the sound the dial-up connection made when I logged on at night. It was always easier to get on after midnight.

We had friends over the other day. "Your house is very hygge," they said when they came in. They just went to Denmark, where it's even darker in the winter. I had never heard that word, but I fell in love with it immediately. My house is old and proud but sort of shabby. We try to keep it clean and uncluttered, but like my middle-aged self, it looks a lot better in soft light. It is cozy inside, though, especially welcoming in the winter with our boiler heat. Furniture is arranged to allow for intimate conversation, although not exactly by design. More like the kids push the couches together when they play. And always the smell of something cooking.

Hope you have some hygge in your life as we approach the darkest day.