Saturday, March 28, 2009

Four at the Pool (Part Three - Swimming Lessons)

The two hours at the pool were exhausting. I was constantly holding, feeding or caring for at least one, and often two babies. Plus trying to keep my eye on the other two. It got worse when the babies started walking. I still used the baby carrier strategy to get them in there - one in the baby seat and one walking holding onto my hand - or ran with the one in the baby seat while the other toddled next to his sister. I swear, I was fast. And the child left alone poolside was always the one STRAPPED into the baby carrier! God, it sounds awful now.

Once they were moving though I had to carry them both most of the time. Ryan and Andrew got relegated to carrying the bags while I carried one toddler on each hip. It’s doable. If not sightly. It was easier in the water, because I didn’t need to support their entire weight there. I tried the floating rings but they never stayed in them for long. Switched to swim fins at 18 months and haven’t looked back since.

The next milestone was the kiddie slide and learning to walk on the slick surface poolside. I was all over the place keeping up with them - and still they hit their heads way more than they would have if I could have been directly behind them both. One time I fell in the parking lot - bringing down the entire stroller and both babies with me - and I burst into tears just from the sheer frustration of it all. I tried taking a fifteen year old neighbor along to help out, but she told me it was too exhausting after two weeks.

I’ll be honest. I used to dread our swim days.

Two and a half years into it though the work has paid off. The older kids swim well enough that I don’t need to be directly next to them the entire time. The packing process takes minutes instead of hours. No more baby seats or baby cushion. In fact, we don’t even use the stroller. All four kids get out of the car, hold hands crossing the parking lot, and change themselves in the locker room. Of course the twins still need some help, but you’d be amazed. They can walk and slide without knocking their heads on the floor quite as often and they swim almost independently in their swim fins. It is actually a joy to go with them.

Is there a lesson to be learned from the whole pool thing? (Swimming lessons, if you will!) Besides the fact that I am nuts? I think so. It can be done, if you want it badly enough. Whatever “it” is. It won’t always be fun. But it will get easier. And it will be worth the work. It’s easy to say that now that I am past the worst of it. (And I realize that I am sounding just like those perfect “how to” moms I promised not to be.) Reading this through, I can’t believe I did it either.

You do it because you have to. Whatever it is. But if you’re still in the middle of those first two or three years - know that others share the pain, know that others survived just one step at a time too. IT IS SO HARD. People will keep telling you that it gets better - and you’ll be thinking, yeah but WHEN? And then someday you too will be looking back and thinking, I can’t believe I did all that. And you’ll be there.

Until puberty hits and you wish you COULD strap them back into the baby carriers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Four at the Pool (Two of Three)

First, the two older kids had to be primed. Honestly, if they didn’t listen, if they didn’t cooperate, it wasn’t going to work. If I had had to hold Andrew’s hand while we were in the parking lot because he was out of control, then we weren’t going to make it out of the parking lot. This wasn’t a threat; it was reality. I told them this. To this day, I still can’t believe that worked (remember, he was FOUR), but they really liked the swimming.

Next, I had to prepare the supplies. This took hours at first. Towels. Swimsuits. Shampoo. Flotation devices - first still for Andrew and later for BOTH twins. Pool toys. Snacks and drinks for the big kids. Bottles with water and formula, later baby food in plastic containers. Diapers. Baby swimsuits. Wipes. Cushioned changing pad - this plays into the logistics later.

Arriving in the parking lot, I would get the twin stroller out of the back, unfold and prepare it - this was a three step process that I don’t even think about anymore . First twin in. Strapped. Second twin in. Strapped. Older kids gripping the stroller to assure there was no temptation to run across the parking lot. Three bags out of the car. Baby seat out of the car and on top of the stroller. (Again, wait for the logistics.) Car doors locked. Into the pool. At first, when they were younger, I balanced TWO baby seats on top of the stroller, but gradually graduated to one and a changing pad.

Once in the changing room, the twins stayed strapped into the stroller while I helped the older two change into their bathing suits and changed myself. (I rolled the stroller right into the changing room.) I used the common locker area - the luxury of privacy has ceased to be mine. I then got out the first twin, changed him and placed him on the cushioned changing pad. (Ah hah, there’s the changing pad!) Again, at first this was a baby seat. Then came the second twin, changed, and placed into the baby seat. Strapped in.

Older child number one then had to wait with baby on changing pad or in babyseat while I walked with baby in babyseat and all our stuff and older child number two into the pool area. The first baby into the pool area was ALWAYS in a babyseat - strapped in - because child number one (usually the six year old, Ryan) then waited with the baby while I ran back for the second set. Swear to God. I can’t believe they allowed it! Although, after a few weeks, when people knew us, there was generally someone willing to help me keep an eye on two of them while I ran back for the other two.

I did the same thing in reverse at the end of two hours. Baby in carseat with older child waiting in pool area while I run with baby two in carseat or with cushion and older child number two (usually Andrew this time) into the locker room, leave baby on floor with Andrew (and a few appalled mothers) watching, while I return to the pool area for the second two. For the first year we skipped showers. The second year only Ryan and Andrew showered. We are up to three of us showering AND washing our hair.

In the pool I kept the twins strapped in unless they were awake and demanding attention and tried to play with Ryan and Andrew. Most of the time one or both of them would want to be fed, and I’d do it poolside. Then one would sleep while I held the other one in the pool - until someone came to tell me that the second had woken up too. People were really very helpful. I think they were in shock. Often someone would offer to hold one while I had the other. We made lots of friends. There was also a baby swim class taking place at the same time we were there and - although I was not allowed to join with two babies and only one parent - I did meet a lot of the mothers and still keep in touch with them regularly. Most of them were first time moms with one child so they pretty much told me how fantastic I was to be managing with four. I needed that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Four at the Pool (Part One of Three)

Before I had kids, I had a perfect plan for spacing them - never have too many kids so close together that you cannot take them to the pool. This meant I would have time to devote to them when they needed me and also would keep me from having to give up the active outdoor lifestyle I enjoyed. Nothing pissed me off more than women, or couples, who used their children as an excuse for not being able to do something - like hiking, or canoeing, or overnight camping. What the heck were we having kids for anyway, if not to show them the world?

And then the twins were born. I believe they were meant to teach me humility.

I opted out of the overnight canoeing trip our playgroup took last summer, when the twins were 18 months old. I mean, one COULD do it with four kids, including the two toddlers, but who would really WANT to? The thought of chasing the two of them around a firesite and then trying to keep them both in canoes just wasn’t a fun one. We DO go hiking though - if that’s what you call two kids in and out of a stroller and two older ones riding up ahead on their bicycles and then coming back to complain that they would have rather stayed home and played on the computer.

But that’s why I’m allowed to brag about the pool thing. I am not the perfect mom, with the clean home, dinner in the oven, a business on the side and…oh yeah, I can also get four kids to the pool for swim lessons once a week. (Doesn’t everyone?) In fact, the reason I did and still do get four kids to the pool is that I am a crazy mom, with a less-than-clean home and no dinner in the oven. That and swimming is important to me.

This is by no means a “how to” article. It’s more of an “anything is possible if you want it badly enough” article. And I wanted to be able to enjoy the brief German summers we have at the outdoor pool with my kids. So, when I was pregnant with the twins, I enrolled my 6 year old daughter, Ryan, in swim classes at the indoor pool. Andrew, aged 4, and I splashed in the kiddie pool alongside. The lifeguard, unaware that I was pregnant, let alone with twins, told me Andrew was one of the most active kids he’d ever had to keep an eye on. And I thought, you ain’t seen NOTHING yet! We continued with lessons regularly, right up ’til the birth of the twins in July. By then the pool staff was well aware that two more were on the way.

But noone could believe it when I enrolled Andrew in classes and started showing up with the babies. To swim. I did wait until they were six months old - primarily because I couldn’t find the time to reach the phone and sign up for classes. But they were still in baby carriers the first time we showed up. To be honest, I don’t remember that first time, but I do remember the phenomenal amount of planning, coordination and sheer physical work that went into the weekly operation.

It was like a military maneuver.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Brad and Angelina

Like I was going to be able to stay away from this one. I feel really close to Brad and Angie, I really do. Angelina has the life I would have liked if I …well, if I had had another life. She gets to travel all over the world, lend her voice to causes she believes in, make movies, look great and have lots of kids. She makes millions, donates one third of it to charity, and looks genuinely happy. What’s not to envy? She was pregnant with her third child, the first two being adopted, while I was pregnant with my numbers three and four. I kept abreast of her in the magazines in my obstetrician’s office; I was having twins, I spent a lot of time there. I really felt we had a lot in common, kid-wise anyway.

Then she and Brad adopted number four and also popped out numbers five and six. Within two years of number three. How the heck was I going to compete with that?

I’m not judging. At least not Brad and Angelina. But I do have a bone to pick with the media coverage they’ve received since the arrival of the twins. (Have they adopted any more since I last looked? Maybe I ought to check again. Oops – there it is – rumors of an impending pregnancy.) The media idolizes Brad and Angelina, their ability to jet set around the world, live in four or five countries, make movies, support the U.N and help rebuild New Orleans, all while carting around and caring for six children, including infant twins. The pictures show them strolling through New York, through New Orleans, through Berlin, looking radiant. Angelina doesn’t even have circles under her eyes. (Although Brad does, God bless him!)

Okay. They have a lovely family and I’m sure they are fantastic parents. However, they are also attending international auctions and movie premieres - and oh yeah, President Obama’s inauguration. Despite the banner headlines that they did NOT have a nighttime nanny, SOMEBODY was watching those kids while they were out together on the red carpet. That’s nighttime enough for me. They also have at least three women - whether they call them nannies or teachers - helping them with the children during the day. Angelina – or Brad – is never out to a doctor’s appointment with all six of them in tow.

More power to them. It allows Angelina to spend individualized attention on each of the kids during the day. And probably also catch up on her beauty rest. Make movies. Generally save the world. You go girl!

But for the vast majority of us, caring for the children, ALL the children, is only one part of being a parent. For most of us, there is also a house to clean, laundry to wash, groceries to buy and food to cook. You can’t tell me that Angelina is mopping her own floors. She has a staff that also shops, cooks, and cleans up after the meals. At least I assume so. I know I would if I were in her position.

Like I said, I LIKE Brad and Angelina. They have my other life. I like them more because I can tell they work hard and put 150% into everything they do, family, careers, humanitarian efforts. And I don’t think they lead easy lives; they live in the fast lane and are just as busy, if not more so, than the rest of us. However, I DO think it is unfair for the media to keep pointing them out as models of parenthood. There’s just no basis for comparison between them and parents living in the real world.

I like the occasional picture of Brad carrying one kid on each arm - by the way, my husband can do that too - and looking absolutely exhausted. It reminds be that under all the hype - and even with all the help - parenting is an exhausting process.

But wouldn’t it be just a little less exhausting if someone put those dinner dishes away for you?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Don't Shoot The Dog (Third Grade Math, Part Two)

Just in case I came across as too grounded at the end of my last essay on third grade math. You know, a couple of bad months of homework stress, a life lesson learned, personal growth achieved, end of story type stuff. Like you need to read that self-congratulatory sugary nonsense.

I'm here to assure you that I really DO finally understand the metric system.

But also that 3 times 6 does NOT equal 19, nor does it equal 21, nor will it EVER equal 19 or 21 no matter how much you don't feel like doing the homework and no matter how much you are going to punish your mother for making you do it. Sigh.

I pulled out the wooden blocks to explain what TIMES actually means. Went through it from 3 times 1 to 3 times 2 all the way up to 3 times 6. I was really really really patient. Which just pissed Ryan off more because the whole point was that she knew darn well what 3 times 6 was, she was just going to make my life hell.

She ended up in her room and I ended up in on the phone with a friend, in tears.

And then I remembered what we used to tell owners when they brought their dogs to the behavioral clinic at vet school. I mean, these dogs were nuts. And the owners were desperate, desperate enough to spend hundreds of dollars and 6 to 8 hours of their time at the clinic asking for our advice. Why couldn't they get this dog to behave? What could they do better? Why could other people get their dogs to behave? What had they done wrong?

Sure - we had a couple of cases where we DID help the owners learn how to better work with their dogs. (Just like Ryan's teacher has taught me how to teach her math.) But for the most part, these dogs were nuts, and many were dangerous. And we repeatedly told the owners that this was NOT THEIR FAULT. Training, discipline - you know, nurture - works with 99 percent of dogs. They are pack animals; they WANT to follow you. Look at the idiots out there who don't know what the heck they are doing. And the kids - I mean the dogs - turn out fine.

For the most part, it is really hard to mess up. A little food. A lot of love. And the rest really takes care of itself. Good God, if it took a perfect parent to raise a child, we would be in serious trouble.

And so the vast majority of us muddle on with our imperfections - the family pets do fine. They DO learn to multiply eventually, and to read, and to behave.
But there are no easy answers for the ones that refuse to fit the mold. And it is really hard as the parent of a child who is NOT doing well, to watch the idiots around you doing just fine with theirs.

Karen Pryor is the author of a book on behavior, animal and human, called Don't Shoot The Dog. The basic premise as I recall from over fifteen years ago is that there are a number of solutions to dealing with behavioral problems, in this case a barking dog. Shooting the dog is one solution. But don't worry, there are others.

I don't know that there is a cut and dried answer to Ryan's schoolwork issues. The books all state the obvious - the stuff that would work in 90 percent of the cases. (I had a similar problem when Andrew wouldn't sleep through the night for two years. Since the stuff that worked in the overwhelming majority of the cases wasn't working, it was obviously my fault; I was doing something wrong.) The only simple answers come from mothers whose kids obviously don't have this problem; otherwise the answers wouldn't be so simple.

And so it does come down to how you deal with it from here on in after all.

The best answer came from my friend. Breathe deep. Really. Breathe deep. I know you want to kill her, she said, but just take it easy and take care of yourself. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. This dog was just not meant to run with the pack.

And so my responsibility shifts - from taking the blame for my daughter's problems with her homework - to taking credit for dealing with it in a calm and loving manner. Forgiving her and moving on.

THIS IS NOT MY FAULT. But I really do wish she would sit and stay.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No really, how do they do it? (Part Two)

(Written February 23, 2009)

Okay, so I’m still stuck on this one. I still haven’t found the magic answer.
I was really good today, having spent the better part of the weekend ignoring the kids and typing away at the computer like a maniac. (Funny enough, everyone seemed to have a really good weekend, supporting the theory that when mom is happy, everyone is happy.) Today I promised myself I wouldn’t even turn on the computer before I had picked up the house and spent some quality time with the older two. (Taking advantage of the fact that they have a one week school break but the twins are still in German kindergarten , the equivalent of daycare, for the morning.) Andrew and I spent an hour on his room, Ryan and I spent over an hour on hers, then we danced and played and sang a bit before I cleaned Aidan’s and Matthew’s room and picked up the kitchen while Ryan and Andrew played on their Nintendos. Ryan and I then did an hour of third grade math - with only half of the time being a battle of wills and the other half of it actually being the math itself. Both kids practiced their musical instruments and then got on the computer while I prepared lunch. We ate, I walked the dog, picked up the twins and dropped Andrew off at a friend’s house for the afternoon. Ryan spent the afternoon copying horse facts from the computer and making a book, the twins bathed, played, ate, generally dominated all of my attention - and in between I ran three loads of laundry.

I am not saying this to show off - okay maybe only a little - but by four oclock I was so exhausted that I had to make a pot of coffee to keep me going. It worked, and while the twins were happily coloring (and Ryan was still involved in her horse project) I decided to sneak off and do something for me. I called a friend.

The minute Aidan and Matthew figured out I was on the phone, they ran into the kitchen (where I was hiding) demanding cookies. See, they know I will do just about anything to shut them up when I am on the phone. They ate half a box of chocolate cookies until the dog, probably pissed off literally that he wasn’t getting any cookies, peed all over the floor. I ignored that too.

And then I thought, what would Hannah Keeley do in this situation? So I got off the phone, ran upstairs to change into a casual pants suit, found out I didn’t own any and decided on some racy lingerie under a sweat suit. I ran downstairs to find the twins already playing in the urine. I took off my glasses, quickly checked my hair, found the camera, got Ryan off of the computer and forced her to take photos of me mopping up the dog urine with a name brand paper towel. To Ryan’s immense relief (for some reason I cannot even begin to fathom she was finding the entire thing intensely embarrassing), the camera ran out of batteries after two photos or I would have made a video as well. I then spent five minutes looking for my glasses while the twins continued to play in the dog urine. By the time I got to actually cleaning up the mess, it was three times its initial size and both Aidan and Matthew needed another bath.

But I had the photos and a great idea for a great essay.

So tell me Hannah, is that the secret? I’m really beginning to think it might be. The place was covered in urine, the twins were covered in urine, Ryan was totally disgusted with me, my husband came out of the study to find me bathing the twins in my lingerie, and well…I had turned a five minute wipe-up job into an hour long ordeal. Except it really was kind of fun. And silly. And got us that much closer to bedtime without going crazy.

The magic answer for today? Don’t take it all too seriously, have some fun, and remember that noone is perfect - as a parent, as a housekeeper, as a spouse, and certainly not as all three.

Either that or a cup of coffee and a phone call to the right friend can help you make it through the rest of the evening. Or maybe a little of both.

Oh that and don’t start your career in the entertainment industry with dog urine and a pair of twins!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How do they do it? (Part One)

I’ve been doing a lot of surfing on the web, checking out blogs and websites from other moms turned Internet entrepreneurs. Hannah Keeley. Cheryl Lage. Elizabeth Lyons. Elizabeth not only has five young kids, two of them are twins. In between pregnancies, caring for the kids, and caring for the home, they have managed to write books, articles and blogs. Hannah now has her own TV show.

I’m partly envious and entirely curious. I mean really, how ARE they doing it? I don’t want a top ten list of ways to organize the pantry or advice on a three minute makeover that is guaranteed to make you look good enough to attend the Oscars. I know I need to find time for myself, and time for my husband. I can get out the door with twins and I am able to organize a child’s birthday party on a limited budget. I appreciate all the advice girls, I really do, but what I want to know is what is happening with the kids while you guys are writing.

I only ask because mine are either parked in front of the TV set or fighting over the cookies they’ve stolen from the kitchen while I was preoccupied at the computer.

Elizabeth writes that she did NOT have help with any of the first four, numbers two and three being the twins. Not even a housekeeper. She had a supportive network of friends, but most of them had twins as well. Can one really get enough babysitting from friends to write a book?

She also says that she was, and still is, chronically exhausted, hence not one of those people who can get by on only four hours of sleep a night and still function normally. She had twins, she DID get by on less than four hours of sleep a night, I can guarantee it, but how was she then able to write her two amazing books? (They are amazing, even if you don’t have twins, they are funny.)

My husband insists these women must have all had their kids in daycare, but I don’t think that’s the case. And even if they did attend the morning session, someone had to be doing the grocery shopping and cleaning the house, right? I mean, they’re not Brad and Angelina. (Who we will get to at a later date, I promise!)

The only thing I can think of is that they just did it, squeezed it in between the myriad other activities during the day, because they had to, because they felt compelled to, because it was a way to keep their sanity. I heard once that Erma Bombeck said she wrote her books a few sentences at a time while hiding in the laundry room from her kids.

I’d like to hear how these women do it once the kids get older and have afternoon activities. Or need help with their math. You know, when they’re not taking naps anymore and turning “Blue’s Clues” on doesn’t cut it. I’d also like to know who is watching the kids - and Hannah has seven - while they are filming their TV shows or giving a lecture.

I’m not being sarcastic. I really want to know. Because I want to be there for each of my kids and I want to write as well. I want to get the grocery shopping done, the house cleaned, the meals prepared and get everyone to their various after-school activities. I also need to sleep.

I’m going to give it my best shot and see how it goes. Maybe I’ll find the magic answer. My guess is it’s more about giving yourself a break, turning on the TV set every now and then and doing what you want to do, not what you feel you should be doing for the kids all the time. After an hour of doing whatever it is that your thing is, turn off the cartoons and get back to the Play-dough, but go ahead a take the time to do something other than be mom. It may seem like odd advice from women who have devoted themselves to helping moms be better moms, but I bet you that’s part of it.

More useful than the three minute makeover in my mind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nature versus nurture (Third grade math)

Third grade math has me rethinking the whole nature/nurture thing. Before I had kids, I was a firm believer in nurture over nature; that how we raised our children and what we taught them, the morals we instilled in them, would win out over their genetics, their ingrained natures. Or even what they later picked up from their friends or in the media. In other words, I would do everything right, the way the parents of that two year old screaming in aisle four obviously weren't, and my kids would turn out the way they should. Go ahead and laugh. If you're not laughing, you don't have any kids yet.

The honeymoon phase lasted a couple of years. I had a dream child, a daughter, and it was easy to do everything right because, in retrospect, she never did anything wrong. Ryan slept through the night at three months, never needed a pacifier, and I don't even recall switching her from breast to bottle to cup. It was that easy. Of course, I credited myself and my absolutely perfect parenting techniques and remember wondering what all the fuss was about. Or maybe I was just a born mother?

Humility came in the form of my second child, Andrew, when Ryan was two years old. He didn't sleep through the night for two and a half years, wouldn't take a pacifier and carried a bottle until well into his second year. My views on parenting were already changing: when a pediatric nurse commented on the bottle at eighteen months I remember thinking, yeah and then you fly back ten hours on the airplane with him.

I had done the same things with both of them; those things just weren't working on Andrew. I went from believing in nurture to wondering how professional criminals behaved when they were babies. I mean, something HAD to be inherently wrong with this child, right?

It's a wonder that we even tried for a third pregnancy. (Some of us are very slow learners!) But the twins, who are fraternal, are as different as two kids can be. And I KNOW I did everything the same with them.

It'd be easy to blame Ryan's problems with third grade math on genetics and leave it at that. I mean I did everything right with this child; according to my former beliefs in nurture, she should be TEACHING third grade math by now.

But then I realized that that's a cop-out, that chalking it all up to nature is just the easy way out. Sure, her nature is making it harder for her in school than for other kids. But that's when the nurturing is just beginning. The real test isn't about nurturing the kids through the easy steps; believe it or not, ALL of them would have figured out the whole toilet process on their own eventually, regardless of the technique you used. Nurturing isn't about the fact that your child can read before she enters school; good for her - and for you - if she does, but it's not about the stuff your child does easily, its about the stuff she finds hard.

It'd be so nice to have a child to whom it all came easily, believe me I know. I have one of those too - the one whose teacher calls regularly to tell me how fantastic he is. And he was the one who cried for the first two and a half years. Go figure. I'll take some credit - but then again it's the exact same stuff that isn't working so well with his sister.

I'd like it if things always went according to plan, but admit I learn more when they don't. Third grade math has taught me that the real test, the real nurturing, begins when the going gets tough. Sleepless nights at eighteen months. Math problems in grade school. The wrong crowd in highschool. And its not about what you, as a parent, did right or wrong up to that point, but how you deal with it from that point on.

Oh yeah - I also finally learned the metric system.