‘Tis the Season

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Photo by Sarah Swan Photography, courtesy of my friends, Carly and Jeff Gartside, whose two little boys are more often full of smiles than this image suggests.

I love Christmas.  I love the surprises, the planning, the decorations, the food and the time spent with family and friends under the glow of twinkling lights.

But not every Christmas is a Hallmark moment, especially when kids are little. White Christmases, filled with late night television specials, trips to the mall and holiday concerts often produce sniffling noses and melt-downs in the line to see Santa.

We experienced one of those years when my children were little.  Abby was to sing in her first Christmas cantata at our church.  I had sewn a cheerful red plaid dress with a white collar and bought her black patent leather shoes for the event.  For weeks she rehearsed with the other children from our church, until she knew every word and every note.  Her father and I were excited to experience our first-born’s debut as a choral singer, and looked forward to the performance the day before Christmas.

The morning of the cantata was bitterly cold, but it was warm in our apartment as I brushed Abby’s long blond hair and helped her dress. She looked a little pale and tired.  “Perhaps she had been up a little too late the night before,” I mused. “I’ll get her to bed early tonight.” Usually she was ferociously hungry for breakfast, but today she refused the eggs I had cooked.  “You have to eat something,” I coaxed.  “How about a little yogurt?”

Abby shook her head, but I insisted.  “You cannot go to church without eating breakfast!”  Reluctantly, she spooned some yogurt into her mouth, and I turned my attention to Elizabeth, who had her own new plaid dress, and Gabriel, who needed help with his white shirt and tie.  Finally they were dressed and as I sat back to admire all three in their Christmas finery, their dad arrived from gassing up the car.

“Time to go!” he called as I buttoned Elizabeth’s coat.  I hustled the children to the front door of the apartment building, shivering in the icy wind.  Gabriel stood by his daddy as he buckled Elizabeth into her car seat, and I turned to Abby, still standing on the front stairs.

Her big eyes met mine, and she blanched a deathly white, saying, “I can’t do this!” With that she promptly vomited her breakfast, which immediately froze on the brick steps.

In that  instant, our holiday plans changed.  It was not long before Gabriel joined Abby on the couch, barf bowl by his side.  The cantata took place without us.  We bowed out of the family Christmas celebration.  Fancy dresses and ties were hung in the closet, exchanged for flannel pajamas.  And instead of the turkey dinner I had planned, we ate broth and toast.

Our experience was not unique.   Most families will have some holiday horror stories to report.  Every year I hear blurry-eyed mothers remark that they can’t wait for the holidays to be over.  Parents are so stressed from trying to fit in all the parties, plays and concerts that they spend most of their time wishing for some quiet time.  We listen to our children sing constant choruses of “I want, I want, I want!” so we stretch our budgets too far. We buy and buy, and then we are overwhelmed at all the wrapping to complete before the children rise on Christmas morning.  We chastise our little ones, warning them that Santa may not stop at our house, or the Elf on the Shelf is watching, or “If-you-do-not-stop-teasing-your-sister-this-very-minute-I-will-return-everything-I-bought-to-the-store!”

The Christmas of the stomach flu taught me a few things.  First, it taught me if your child looks pale and doesn’t want to eat, chances are she shouldn’t.  But more importantly, I learned that as much as the Jinglebells of Christmas- the lights and sparkles, noise, parties, commotion and concerts- are fun, a Silent Night is sometimes the better choice.

It’s not by accident the birth of Jesus was in the quiet of a stable.  Yes, there were angel choruses.  And no, I don’t think that all the commotion that we associate with the holidays is bad.  I just think that sometimes we need to take a step back.  Breathe.  Turn off the television specials and say no to some of the activities. Limit our rich foods and our running around and our spending.  Cuddle the ones we love and tell them that we will love them forever, even when they are sick or cranky, or tone deaf, or disobedient. birth

Because really, all this craziness-all the singing and the parties and the gifts, wrapping and decorating- all this celebration is because a small child was born in a desolate location, heralded by a single, noiseless star.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

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Sick Daze

A friend of mine who has two small children was telling me about taking care of them when they were sick.

“I admit it.  I used the T.V. as a babysitter.”  He hung his head in embarrassment.

“Good grief,” I replied, “All good parents use T.V. as a babysitter. That’s how we survive sick kids.”

I thought about this later.  Although our conversation was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the truth of the matter is, as parents, we feel obligated to respond to our children’s needs in text book perfection, and when we don’t, we feel guilty about it.  I should know- the Queen of Guilt is also a quasi-expert on sick kids.

My children were germ magnets.  No matter how healthful their foods, how consistent their bedtimes, how sanitary their dwellings, I could not keep them from getting sick.  Whatever caused pooping, puking or rashes, my children were sure to catch the bug and share it with the entire household.  Ear infections, strep throat, asthma, croup and G.I. bugs were frequent visitors, punctuated by the less-frequent-but-more-powerful Chicken Pox, Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, Influenza, pneumonia, Scarlet Fever, Rotavirus and Mononucleosis.

Finally, realizing that my defensive actions were having little effect, I decided it was time to abandon the defense and work on the offense.  I devised the Momma G method of dealing with sick kids.

Please note- these are not doctor recommended or pediatrician approved.  I lay no claim to making your children get sick less or get better faster.  This is merely a survival toolkit designed to help mommies and daddies get through those long lonely nights when the only sound is their two-year-old retching on yet another set of sheets.

  1. If your child complains of a tummy ache, do not take her into your bed.  I made this mistake when Abby was eighteen months old and the pumpernickel bread she ate didn’t agree with her.  Use your imagination.
  2. Popsicles are the perfect food.  Pedialyte is doctor recommended, but it doesn’t help if your kid won’t drink it.  Sucking on a popsicle raises his blood sugar and allows him to replenish fluids a little at a time.  Besides, the other kids in the family can have one, so they feel a little more special and a little less neglected, since all your time is spent on the sick sibling.
  3. Make a nest.  When my kids were small and sick, I wanted them close to me so I could keep an eye on them.  I would build nests out of blankets and pillows in the living room and there they would reside until they were up and about.  Nests were only made on sick days, which made it special, and they were content to stay there while I did my household chores.  It also helped when there were more sick kids than there was space on the living room couch.
  4. How your child acts is more important than what his temperature is.  When we adults run a fever of 100, we huddle under the blankets and beg someone to put us out of our misery.  When kids run a fever of 100, they use their blankets as capes and jump off the couch, pretending to be Superman.  Conversely, when Gabe was three, he had his first bout with pneumonia.  He was fussy and clingy at breakfast, but had no fever.  By ten he was hanging onto me and crying, but still had no fever. By noon, he was having trouble breathing and wouldn’t let me put him down, but still had no fever.  At his two o’clock appointment with his pediatrician, we found that he had a severe pneumonia, but still had no fever.  I learned then that if your child acts really sick, he probably is really sick, no matter what the thermometer says.
  5. When your kid is sick, keep her home.  Because Elizabeth had underlying health issues, a simple twenty-four hour stomach bug would put her in the hospital for a few days, and on the couch for several more.  I found it infuriating to be at the church nursery and hear that the child she was playing with had been up barfing all night.
  6. The “getting better” period can be worse than the really sick time.  When kids are really sick, they lie around and rest.  When they are getting better, they whine. They whine because they want to go outside and play. They whine because there’s nothing good on T.V.  They whine because they don’t feel well enough to play and they’re bored with lying around.  The best cure for the whining is wine (not for them, for you.)
  7. Never underestimate the power of sticker books.  When I was a kid and sick, my mother stopped at Thorin’s Hardware Store and bought sticker books, Wolly Willy, and paper dolls.  They made a week in bed with the measles a lot more tolerable.  Although my kids never got measles, when they got sick, I made similar purchases- stickers, round tipped scissors and colored paper were a refreshing change from television when the children were confined to bed.  Besides, paper chains are much more entertaining than daytime dramas.
  8. Understand that hospitalizations impact the whole family.  When Elizabeth was a little girl, she was frequently hospitalized.  During those days when she was confined to bed, I was desperate to keep her entertained, so I allowed her to do things she ordinarily would not do, like paint in bed and dust herself, her teddy bear and me with baby powder.  Her siblings visited her and found their little sister languishing in a no-rules environment and decided that life was grossly unfair that she got to be sick and they did not.  When we returned home, there was always an adjustment period. Elizabeth whined when she no longer ruled the castle. The other kids accused me of favoring her and holding her to a different behavior standard than they were used to.   Let’s face it-hospitalizations create chaos.  Sleep deprived parents are torn between the kid on the ward and the kids at home.  Nobody feels special.  Sibling rivalry and jealousy abound.  Everyone’s tired of eating Cheerios for dinner.  You might as well recognize the elephant in the room, talk about it, and reassure yourself and everyone else that things will return to normal.  Eventually.

In the end, I did survive all the childhood illnesses my kids experienced.  Now that they are grown, they take care of themselves if they are sick.  My days of feverish babies and puking toddlers are behind me.  I have earned my retirement from the bedpan brigade.  And now I can rest in the realization that when I’m really old and feeble, payback’s going to be a … Well, let’s just say that sticker books aren’t going to do the trick.

Sending the Horsies

“I’m sending the horsies!”

This was in a text from my daughter Elizabeth. She is in Florida where it is hot and sunny. I am in New Hampshire where it is not. We cherish the time we have when we are together, but it is never enough. In the evening, when I am home from work, I send her a text, knowing that she will be busy with school and friends. It is just a nudge. A touch, to say I love you.

The horsies began when Elizabeth was in first grade. She painfully thin and ill with an endocrine disorder that would take years to diagnose. I wanted so badly to keep her near to me. I wanted to home school her- to keep her safe from classmates who sneezed and coughed and spread their germs over her books and pencils. I wanted to protect my sickly little girl with the huge eyes from the older boys in the bus line who laughed at her skinny arms and legs and called her a “bug eyed creep.” I wanted to let her snuggle under the covers until it was late in the morning, and spend golden afternoons in the sun where the fresh air and warmth would help her to grow strong and healthy.

But what we want as parents is not always what is best for our children. Children become strong by doing, by overcoming, by daring. I knew that I needed to go to work and Elizabeth needed to go to school. I knew she needed to take courage in hand, leave my protective arms and enter the battle ground with the brick walls and hopscotch playground. She needed to prove to herself that she did not need her mother with her every moment. But she needed a reminder that her mother was not far away.

When Abby entered kindergarten, I made her a friendship bracelet out of cotton embroidery floss. I told her that if she became lonely, she need only touch her bracelet to remember that her mother is her best friend. The bracelet was all she needed.

When Gabriel started school, he charged forward with the bravado that only a five-year old boy possesses. He announced he was too old for a kiss goodbye, but devised a secret handshake. When I dropped him off, he would lightly punch my fist with his, meaning, “I love you. I’ll see you in a few hours.” It served him well.

I stumbled upon a solution for Elizabeth in the children’s jewelry section at a local department store- a tiny pair of gold earrings in the shape of horses. As I put the earrings into her ears that night, I told her that these were magic horsies that would gently nibble her ear lobes when I was thinking about her. I told her if she became lonely for me, she should send the horsies to let me know. I would send them back right away, and when she felt a nibble, she would know that I was not far.

Elizabeth is grown now. She wears large silver hoops in her ears. She is tall and willowy, and exotically beautiful. Her eyes are still huge but instead of teasing her about them, boys get lost in them. She has traveled to places I only read about in books and she is not afraid. She is brilliant and beautiful and has a heart that spreads golden warmth to everyone she touches.

But every now and then, as all of us do, she needs to be reminded that her mother loves her. She needs a text, an email, a phone call, a letter. So excuse me. It’s time to send the horsies.

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