The Parenting Fog


I call it The Parenting Fog.

It's easy to slip into, especially in the summer. We get home from a camping trip, we finish up a week of VBS, the relatives leave after a fun visit - and everyone collapses. Fun plus exhaustion plus emotional hyperactivity minus sleep minus vegetables equals a deflated balloon of a person. So everyone retreats to their own corners.

In my house, that means the big kids ingest hefty doses of screens. Connor plays Minecraft eight hours a day, Natalie watches equal amounts of "Good Luck Charlie." The little kids split their time between Netflix and playing "school" which involves getting out every type of toy we own and putting one of each kind into a backpack to shlep around their bedrooms. And me? I stare at Facebook and various news websites for hours on end.

In the back of our little brains, the whole engine is going "chug, chug, chug, put this memory over there, chug, chug, file this big thought, chug, chug, do that better next time, chug, chug."

I maintain it's a necessary and even healthy stage of summer survival.

The only problem is: like a bad houseguest, it tends to overstay its visit.

I know this, because last Wednesday - after two weeks of family visiting us plus Fourth of July celebrations plus a week of VBS plus Corey leaving for North Korea the same day the last family members flew home - I entered that stage. I descended blissfully, I'll have you know. "Have at the screens, kids," I mumbled before sitting at my desk with Facebook open. The fog enveloped me like a blanket, and I sighed with pleasure at the nothingness.

But by Saturday, the sun was breaking through. The fog started to dissolve a little. I could make out shapes. What is that - a child? He's hungry? Bizarre. Do I have children? What day is it?

And slowly, ever so slowly, I felt strength and determination return.

That is the moment I decided - hey, this mothering gig. I'm not doing a great job at it - unless you count throwing cheese sticks and granola bars at the fog shapes and calling it a day. Maybe I could get off my arse, put limits on screen time and actually BE with my children.

Novel, no?

So Monday, I started over. I parented with intentionality again. I made breakfast for my kids and listened to their stories, instead of retreating with my coffee to my desk. ("I wonder if anyone on Facebook has posted something in the last five minutes?") I made plans to get out of the house. We spent an afternoon at the park on the beach. We dug holes in the sand and ate chips under the trees and marveled at the fall-like temperatures. We took Teyla to gymnastics lessons and instead of pulling out the phone, Kieran and I played tag and catch and let's see who can hit the wall harder. We went to the final baseball games of the season and cheered Connor and his team and basked in the just-warm-enough sunshine and gaped at the best summer sunsets.

It only took a few days for me to remember - oh yeah, I actually like this parenting gig. It's hard and at times it's tedious and at times it's maddening. But it's summer and I don't want to waste one glorious golden moment with the people I love.

Bring on the second half of the best season, I say. Here comes the sun. And it always brings grace with it.

On Being Creative


It was one of those gorgeous summer evenings, when the concept of time relaxes into a hammock with a lemonade. The sun slanted through the leaves, the tree frogs started singing, the breeze blew just strong enough to dry the sweat on my neck and keep the mosquitos at bay. It made weeding the planting beds almost a joy.

But my four children weren't as lulled. When I finally walked inside the house at 7:30, they were famished. "What's for dinner, Mom?" they asked with varying degrees of desperation.

I opened the fridge and surveyed the leftovers. Half a cup of mac-and-cheese. Some chicken fajita slices. The pasta and ham dish I had made the night before to a lack of fanfare. Not enough for a meal.

Then it's breakfast for diner, I thought to myself, and I reached for my recipe box to sniff out some ideas. Initially I was drawn to the waffles. Peanut butter waffles are good with bananas and offer some protein. Oatmeal cinnamon waffles with yogurt and strawberries are always a hit.

But then I saw Ina Garten's Omelet for Two, and I instantly knew: this is it. I pulled out the thick-cut, applewood bacon and set it to sizzling on the stovetop. I chopped potatoes, onions and jalapeño and heard the Barefoot Contessa music in my head. It felt good to cook, even after a long day bent in half, even though my fingernails still bore the tell-tale signs of tiny black crescent moons. I tasted a bacon crackling as I spooned them out of the pan, and I heard Ina say, "How good is that?" The potatoes sizzled in the bacon grease and I whipped together a batch of biscuits to satisfy the kids.

By the time we sat down to eat, I was renewed. The act of cooking - the weight of the knife, the crisp of the vegetables, the smells of the jalapeño and the onion cooking in the pan - it had reinvigorated me.

Creativity is life-giving.

Recharge


Yesterday was a gloriously odd Monday - I had nothing to do. Two of my children were at school, but the one who requires me driving her back and forth had the day off. Bible study was cancelled because of Easter. It was a perfectly beautiful, completely empty-of-duties type of day.

My first thought was - I should write. Words are stirring again in my soul. Lately, it's the lack of time more than a lack of desire that keeps me absent from the page. But when I sat down in front of the computer, the muse hid her face. Nothing grabbed me. I spent two hours halfheartedly rearranging paragraphs and tinkering with words (and checking Facebook and reading blogs and my favorite news sites) before I gave up.

I decided to give my brain a break and work with my hands.

This is a lesson I've learned slowly, but it has become solid truth for me. Those of us who play with words, who talk, write and read for a living, sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away from the letters and create with a different medium.

Gretchen Rubin, in her inspiring and fascinating book, The Happiness Project, writes:
Long ago, I read the writer Dorothea Brande’s warning that writers are too inclined to spend their time on wordy occupations like reading, talking and watching TV, movies and plays. Instead, she suggested, writers should recharge themselves with language-free occupations like listening to music, visiting museums, playing solitaire or taking long walks alone.
So yesterday, I did just that. I turned off my computer, which is more serious than simply walking way, and I stepped outside into the gorgeous sunshine. I grabbed my garden shears and my green gloves with the hole in the finger and I set to work cutting back the dead plants in the garden. I snapped off tall hydrangea limbs, brown and brittle, topped with delicate chestnut mop heads. I cut down spires of autumn joy sedum and discovered tightly coiled green shoots right below them, ready to burst forth. I clipped the grasses that stand as tall as a sentry mid-summer, but which now bend crooked and worn after a winter of too much snow. I stopped to rub my back now and again, because I'm 42, and when Kieran said, "Mom, there's a worm!" I walked over to find a baby garter snake on the cover of our pool, desperately trying to make the climb to the surface but unable to scale the near-vertical wall. (We got him out and deposited all five inches of him down near the creek. I only shuddered once.) (Hashtag Minnesota mom.)

At lunch, I came in and decided - nope, still too many words. So I did some laundry and I washed and stored the kids' winter gear - which means, yes, I've cursed the entire Midwest to a freak late-season blizzard. I'm sorry. It was me. I laid Kieran down for a nap and I slept a bit myself. I went back outside and just sat in the sun and listened to the birds sing, carefree in the care of God. I flipped through a magazine and admired the pretty pictures, sort of a nondigital Pinterest.

By day's end, my body was spent - but my soul was oddly filled.

It was a good day for a writer, even though I hadn't written a word.

Mourning on Easter


These are dark days for those of us walking the milestones of Jesus. The final week, the last supper, those torturous hours in the garden. It is darkness and dread and fear and suspicion. The air is thick with shrieking evil, and though our eyes perceive it not, our soul knows full and well: this is the end.

Have you grieved through Easter? I have. And Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, they were cool balms on my raging wounds. They reminded me that it is not all celebration and happy endings and easy answers in the kingdom. No, there is plenty of despair and desperation here. Even the Man-God cried out for relief from it.

We are not alone.

We are not alone when we sob into the carpet, we are not alone when we think, "I can't do this! I can't stand one more minute of this pain!" We are not alone when we are numb and lonely and the fog hides us from life, from love. We are not alone when the easy answers make us spit with rage, when we shake our fist at heaven and should, "How dare you? HOW DARE YOU allow this?"

This is why Jesus came. He came as Emmanuel, God with us, and he entered our torment because he couldn't stand to see us being crushed by it. He took the burden on his own shoulders, and even now, he stands with us - with you - right under it.

Yes, Sunday is coming, and Easter's glory outshines our pain.

But the celebration is flat without the agony of the shadow weekend. It is the darkness dissipating that makes us fall to our knees in wonder and relief and worship. The deeper the wound, the more deeply we are filled with joy, and we learn firsthand what Jesus' first disciples knew: that sorrow is the depth that adds dimension to our rejoicing.

Blessed are those who mourn.

San Diego Spring Break, Part 2

Part two of the memories, stories and lessons from our spring break trip to San Diego; part one - including how travel is getting easier for us these days and the simple joys of being outside in March - can be found here

Not everything on vacation has to be about us.

I love taking our kids on vacation. I love anticipating the fun and making plans. I love being in a different setting - especially when that involves escaping winter - and I love the memories and connections that happen when we have time to be fully together.

But I do worry that vacations will becomes just one more extravaganza for my kids. We have so much already, and I will fight to my dying days the entitlement that privileges seem to breed.

So when Corey told me his organization, Feed the Children, happened to be hosting on a charity event when we were in San Diego, I jumped at the chance to take a day off from focusing on us and focus on others instead.

Thus, our second full day in San Diego, we found ourselves standing outside in the bright sunshine in a parking lot just a few miles from Mexico, loading boxes from Feed the Children into the cars of 800 military families who had been preselected by the Armed Services YMCA.

Two Feed the Children semi-trucks were the backdrop - along with a battalion of Navy and Marines servicemen and women. We worked alongside them to hand out a trio of boxes that contained food, household supplies and a special box from Avon for the women of the house.

Truth: our kids were a little intimidated to be surrounded by so many "soldiers," and yes, there were a few moments of "I'm hot, I'm hungry, how much longer?" But for the most part, spending a morning serving others was a great adventure for our little tribe, and hopefully, by taking their focus off themselves for a few hours, it made the fun to come even more meaningful.

My ideal trip is a mix of familiar and foreign.

I discovered something on our trip to San Diego. The perfect vacation, for me, combines familiarity and discovery. Traveling to a city that's completely unknown is too much chaos at this stage of life to enable relaxation. I like going to a place where I already how to get around town, where I already have a few destinations in mind, where I don't have to scramble just to find a place to grab lunch.

San Diego is that sweet spot for us. We know the traffic patterns, we know the cities, we know the locale of our favorite restaurants. We have friends to visit and favorite haunts to swing by. But since we stayed with my brother in northern San Diego County, about 45 minutes north of where we used to live, there was also plenty to explore.

My brother's neighborhood, in particular, delighted me to no end. I took a walk every day; one morning, I even walked to Trader Joe's, which sits at the business end of the mixed-use development, and bought cream for my coffee. I mean, really. I walked to Trader Joe's. I constantly poured over the variety of housing styles in his neighborhood. On Facebook, I showed off four of my favorites. We visited new beaches, new parks, new restaurants. We made memories and discoveries without the stress that sometimes accompanies exploration.

Maybe best of all:

Staying with family on vacation is the frosting on the perfect vacation cake.

This isn't always possible, but for the record: I highly advise having family live in popular tourist destinations. My brother, Michael, and his lovely wife, Kristen, were impeccable hosts - letting us use their house, their kitchen, even their laundry. Our kids adored having cousins to play with, not to mention all the new toys to play with - including this dream playhouse in Michael's backyard.

Because we stayed with family, we were able to pack healthy lunches for our adventures, instead of eating out every meal. Because we stayed with family, we were able to swim in the neighborhood pool and have floaties for everyone. We used their toys when we went to the park, their towels when we went to the beach, their fridge to store our leftovers.

And the crowning glory: because we stayed with family, our kids had extended time to play with their cousins and get to know them. That was the real joy of this trip - building new connections with family.

Up next: a few of our favorite things to do in San Diego.

San Diego Spring Break

We spent spring break in San Diego this year, something you surely know if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook. Ever since we got back, almost two weeks ago, I've worn the silliest grin, even as we re-entered daily life and Corey left on a work trip and Minnesota had the audacity to (gasp) snow. I didn't care, not much anyway. It was a great trip, and I'm still basking in the glow.

I intended to do a photo-heavy post to sum up our trip in one fell swoop. But then I downloaded my pictures and looked through them all and I realized: I have more than one post here. This is the good stuff. I don't want to skimp on this in a rush to get to the next thing. So permit me a few days of snapshots and stories, like we used to do in the dinosaur age of blogging. This is the story of my family and our experiences, and the beautiful thing about sharing these memories here is that my story is often your story too.

Travel is getting easier.

We flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, even though our eventual destination was my brother's place in northern San Diego, because LAX has more flights and it's easier to redeem frequent flyer points at the busy airports. Our kids are pretty used to flying at this point; Connor has stopped packing weapons in his carry-on (there was that one time we forgot to tell him he couldn't take a pocketknife on the plane; thank you, Lord, for giving us TSA agents with a sense of humor), and since Corey is TSA-Pre, he can take the kids through the expedited security line, which makes everything easier.

Still, California is a good 3.5 hour flight away from home. It used to be, I packed snacks and new toys and a coloring books and a variety of clothes, diapers and blankets just to get us through.

Not anymore. At some point, on our way out, I looked across at our family row, three deep on either side. Natalie was reading a book, Teyla was playing on her Leap Pad, Connor was playing Minecraft on the iPad. Corey was working on his laptop, I was reading a magazine and Kieran was asleep on my leg.

No one was fidgeting, no one was fighting, no one had just dropped their marker for the 30th time and wanted me to bend myself into a pretzel to retrieve it from under the seat. They were all taking care of themselves. They were happy and peaceful and able to sit still without reminders.

"Oh my word. We've made it," I whispered to Corey, nodding at the relative peace around us. "I never thought we'd get to this stage, but here we are."

And then my heart burst into a million tiny pieces of confetti, because it's true. Don't give up hope, parents of toddlers and preschoolers. You'll make it too.

California is still my home.

I said on Facebook: Every time I walk out of LAX, I inhale deeply and smile. I know that distinctive smell is 95% smog, but it is so familiar and distinctively Southern California, I can't help it. Happy to be "home."

And this is true. My heart skips a beat when I spy the Pacific Ocean, racing alongside us as we head south on the 5 toward San Diego. The familiar hills, the bright flowers, the traffic on six lanes of freeway, the Tejano music on half the radio stations. It all reminds me of the decade we spent living and rooting ourselves in California. A spring break trip to San Diego would be awesome for anyone, but for Corey and I, it was also a sweet reunion.

When you've been surrounded by snow for 3.5 months, all it takes for a morning of fun is green grass.

Our first day in Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County, we decided to take it easy. We investigated the many playgrounds in my brother's adorable neighborhood. The kids were thrilled just to be running on green grass. Teyla performed a full dance recital for Corey and me, as we sat on a bench in the sunshine and drank our morning coffee.

Connor launched foam rockets, one of the many outdoor doors we were encouraged to borrow from my brother's garage. Natalie led her siblings in a game of pirates versus ninjas. It was glorious just to be outside and not be cold.

That afternoon, at yet another park, the kids took turns rolling down the hills.

It wasn't until they stopped and said, "Our arms itch!" that I remembered Southern California grass is coarsely cut. Each of our downhill rollers had tiny scraps and scratches all over their arms, like a thin road rash.

Note to my SoCal friends: in Minnesota, the worst a downhill roll will do is stain your jeans.

Up next: Familiarity vs discovery, we make our kids work on vacation and staying with family. 

How to Make Vacation Re-Entry Pleasant Instead of Painful


We arrived home from spring break a few days ago, suntanned and satisfied after a week away from snow and schedules. Re-entry isn't fun - who wants to go back to school when, the day before, you were playing at a park next to the beach, eating In-N-Out burgers and fries? - but thankfully, our last few days have gone about as smoothly as one can expect.

And that, my friends, isn't something I used to be able to say. A few years ago, I got serious about setting myself up for success when it comes to vacations. Being on the backside of an anticipated fun event is hard enough; adding a rough return home to the mix was like a double whammy. Instead of winding up rested and refreshed, I squandered my good vacation vibes trying to get up to speed with my normal life.

Here's my recipe for a pleasant versus painful re-entry.

Before I Leave
Bottom line: I have to do more work before I leave on vacation to set myself up to be able to relish it on the back end.

Clean out the fridge (1-2 days before departure)
There is nothing more disheartening that coming home from vacation to find rotting bananas on your counter and sour milk in your fridge. So now, a couple of days before I leave, I go through my fresh food supplies and decide what can stay and what needs to go. Sometimes, that means my family eats a dinner of leftovers a couple of nights in a row so we don't waste food. (I hate wasting food.) Sometimes, I have so much fresh food, I decide to give some of it away to local friends rather than have it languish in my empty house. And always, it means I allot myself 30-45 minutes the day of departure to put freezable food in the freezer - this includes all bread, cheeses and leftovers. And if I have time, I deal with the remaining produce in my fridge that won't keep. Last week, I put all our berries in the freezer; at least that way, I can use them in the future for smoothies or muffins. I froze a bag of pre-cut broccoli; that will go in broccoli cheese soup. I even froze the rest of the container of spinach for smoothies. I also put a bowl of pears on my counter into the fridge. The only thing I forgot was the bananas in my pantry, but banana bread to the rescue, yes? Nothing wasted.

Make sure I have at least one meal ready to go (1-2 days before departure)
You know what's disheartening? Stepping into your house after a long vacation at dinner time only to realize: there's nothing to eat for dinner. Sure, we could hit up a restaurant, but if we're coming home after vacation, we've just eaten out ad nauseum. And no one has the energy to control the kids at a restaurant after a long day of travel. In the past, a dinner of eggs and toast came to my rescue. But these days, I try to make sure there's something in my freezer that I can reheat the night we come home. Last week, it was a frozen Pioneer Woman lasagna. I put it in the oven right after we walked in the door, and it cooked while the kids ran crazy and the adults unpacked. Ninety minutes later, we sat down to a real meal that didn't include fries or chicken fingers.

Bonus tip: Make sure you at least have milk and cereal in your house before you leave, so you don't have to run out for breakfast the next morning either.

Clean the house (1 day before departure)
A clean house calms me. A chaotic house makes me crazy. Ergo, I now make the day before we leave on vacation a cleaning day. I don't go crazy, but I do clean the bathrooms, dust the major surfaces, vacuum and Swiffer and make sure my kitchen counters aren't sticky and the sink is wiped down. Walking into a house free from clutter and dog hair makes me think: Ahhh, it's good to be home. I can linger here in this vacation mode for just a few more days.

Launder sheets and towels (day of departure, if you have time)
If I can, I like to do it the morning we leave. As soon as I get up, I strip my bed and wash the sheets. (I don't worry about the kids' beds. They don't appreciate clean sheets like I do.) I also grab all the towels after morning showers and cycle them through. I figure, even if they aren't hung up (read: I threw that last load in the dryer as I was walking out the door), it's still nicer to come home to fresh.

Take out the garbage (day of departure)
One time, I forgot to take out the kitchen garbage. In the summer. Before we left on a two-week trip. It took me bottles of Febreeze to remove the smell of rotted chicken that seemed to pervade every surface in my home. Never again.

Start the dishwasher (day of departure)
Dishwashers get stinky too, yes? Especially if they are loaded with cereal bowls coated with milk. So even if the dishwasher is only 1/4 full, I start it right before we leave. Because I don't like stinky.

Once I Get Home
Bottom Line: Cash out the pre-vacation work.

Have the Hold Mail delivered
I always have my mail held for the time I'm gone and then have everything delivered the day I get home. That way, I can get through the stack of junk right away. It's usually waiting for me, wrapped in a big rubber band, in my mailbox.

Unpack
I used to wait to unpack. "I just don't feel like it yet," I said to myself. You know what happened? Five days after the trip, I was still living out of a suitcase. Ain't nobody got time for that. So now, I unpack within an hour of getting home. And I ruthlessly unpack everything. Laundry goes into the laundry room, clean clothes get folded or hung on hangers, toys get put away, DVDs reunite with their cases (they live in an old-fashioned CD carrier while we are away; less bulk). Yes, it's a pain, but once it's done, you can relax and enjoy being home and bask in all the good memories.

Do laundry
If I don't start the vacation laundry right away, I will put it off forever. So I gather and sort it as soon as possible and throw in a load before I go to bed that first night. It means I have to fold and put away the next day, but if my house is clean and I have food for meals, it's the only real chore I have to do that day. I can manage that.

Clean your schedule for a day or two
Obviously, this one isn't always possible. But when we arrived back this week, I discovered - to my utter delight - that because many districts around us are on break this week, almost all of my regularly scheduled activities have been cancelled. So I had no Wednesday night church events, no Thursday morning workout classes, no Friday morning mommy and me class. I didn't plan this, but now that I've experienced this slow-and-easy re-entry? I would plan it this way in the future, even if it meant bowing out of normal life for a few days. It's been so much nicer than trying to hit the ground running. The whole family has been able to rest from the time change and enjoy being home without being rushed somewhere. Instead of being stretched and depressed, we are savoring a spring break well spent.

And isn't that the whole point of a vacation?