Happy Mother’s Day-May letter to my daughter

Dearest MK,

Happy Mother’s Day! Today-your first Mother’s Day-may you feel the singular affection of your smiley son and happy husband. May the love of your newly formed family be palpable all day. And although we aren’t physically together, may you revel in our shared bond of motherhood, I know I will.

Anna Jarvis, who established this day to honor her mother, was bothered that this well-intentioned day became commercialized, but its intended purpose of honoring moms is laudable. This day is meant for you, me and all moms. A day to celebrate maternal camaraderie.

Today I remember my mothering friends, and the ups and downs of life with children that we shared. These women were and still are my wise counselors. Whether it was the Tuesday night dinners with another family whose dad also traveled weekly when you were a preschooler, or the mom with older kids who alerted me to the rollercoaster of middle schoolers’ emotions before you reached that age, or the friend who listened as I shared a concern when you left for college, I was fortunate to have fellow moms to lean on. May you find a cohort of women to do the same, to share the minutiae of child-rearing. And I hope there be more tears of laughter and joy shared than tears of sadness and worry but share both with your mothering friends because life as a parent will give you highs and lows and they are easier to bear in the fellowship of friendship.

Three years ago, your dad and I stopped at Notre Dame to light a candle at the Grotto. My prayer was that you and I would both be celebrating Mother’s Day the next year. On a different timeline that prayer was answered, making today a most happy Mother’s Day.

love,

momma

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Getting Acquainted-April letter to my daughter

Dearest MK,

It’s a month since the delivery of your baby boy. You pushed your body, an effort that left any yoga, boot camp workout, and spin class in the dust. Once home from the hospital, you and your husband landed on your feet-mostly. Like other new parents there were long nights with a fussy baby, burps that refused to release ending in a mess of spit-up, and blow-out diapers moments after a new one. These days are a test of your stamina, a lesson in awareness, and a gift of gratitude.

After that intense workout called childbirth, your sore and weary body slowly recovers in the midst of the marathon that is infant care. Nursing every couple of hours contracts your uterus, helpful but occasionally painful. Your milk comes in and your breasts alter- larger than you’ve ever seen, harder than you’ve ever felt, but a taste your son thrives on. It happened to all of us who nursed, but it takes seeing to believe. Amazing and overwhelming for both you and for your nursing bras. Your body is both life-giving and life-sustaining. Sleep, while at times deep and refreshing, is not enough. Happily, the persistent reflux of your last months of pregnancy vanishes with the appearance of your son and you are again a full-fledged foodie. And your teetotalling days after nine months of abstinence are over and you welcome an occasional glass of wine.

This time of getting acquainted is a minute by minute education of your son-his signals, his preferences, and his quirks. Every day is a lesson in attention to detail, the sweet details of his life. After he feeds, he slips into a milk coma looking like a miniature gnome as you attempt to get a burp out of his limp body. While watching him sleep you stop verifying his every breath and instead enjoy the pips and squeaks that accompany his many facial expressions, his eye flutters, and his loud breathing that precedes a big sigh as he wakes up. There is no need for TV, social media, or books, he is all the entertainment you desire. Getting to know your son is getting into the weeds of baby care. You find a rhythm only to have it changed entirely the following day. You solve one issue, like the gunk in his eye (no the tear duct is not clogged), but another issue pops up (shouldn’t the umbilical cord have fallen off by now). Parenting is a bit like playing whack-a-mole, some days it is fun, others frustrating. It seems your son is a professional baby and you are an amateur parent.

The days roll by, but not one passes without gratitude for the safe delivery of your child. Mixed with your thankfulness is a healthy dose of concern as you and his dad learn this 24/7 job involves vigilance and relaxation. You both adjust to the mantle of responsibility for this new life you brought into the world. There are catch-phrases created for newly identified behaviors, pleasure that he is soothed by music and excitement at his repeated focus on a colorful picture painted by his great-grandmother.

Too often people talk only of the woes and difficulties of new parents, the horror stories of sleeplessness, the war stories of delivery and nursing and not of the calm and the joy in finding rhythm in this new life. It was my pleasure, and possibly my favorite week in years, to not only help out during his second week, but watch you settle into motherhood and witness the three of you become what you have longed to be . . . a family.

love,

momma

 

 

 

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The Goodie Parts

My grandson is here! Healthy and perfect. Not ‘practically perfect’ as was Mary Poppins, but straight-up perfect. Use of that word might be the first thing I learned in my promotion to grandparent. Unconditional love flows and fills freely from me like a perpetual fountain. There is no need for caveat. He is, like all babies, perfect. Does this sound like unabashed happiness? It is, and it is my hope every baby would be thought of in similar fashion. Gushy sentiment is also acceptable in grandparenting.

My g-parenting journey didn’t start off gushy. We arrived in time to wish our daughter and son-in-law good luck, and hugged her belly one last time, as they headed to the hospital to transform from a couple to a family. I knew I would be concerned for her and the baby during delivery, but it was a heavier weight than I expected. The phrase, healthy mom and healthy babytook on deeper meaning. I held her in my mind and my heart as the hours dragged along with the occasional update text. After more than twenty hours, I said to my husband, “I know he is born. They want to text us, but they can’t-they are enveloped in a fog of love where time has stood still.” He hoped the same and when fifteen minutes later photos of the trio arrived, relief washed my mind and joy flooded my heart. The happiness gates flung open.

We drove to the hospital. In the lobby with my son-in-law’s parents stood four grandparents-edgy and excited. Finally, we received the text with the room number, telling us to come up even while the hospital speaker announced visiting hours were over. The baby in his daddy’s arms, my daughter resting in the hospital bed, four beaming grandparents-it was prayer, said and answered. It was, using Van Morrison’s words, “warm love”.

We took turns-after washing our hands-holding our grandson, saying our first hello. When I held him, I felt a joy I didn’t realize existed. An unknown need filled to the brim. In the room, there was deep sense of togetherness, a bond of common purpose to love and care for this child, for the remainder of our lives.

Oh, that every baby born should be so welcomed. I went to sleep with that thought and awoke the next day musing on the many promotions this baby brought to his family: mommy, daddy, grandparent for Dan and me, aunt and uncle for the siblings and in-laws, and a newly minted cousin. We were transformed. Those first days were heady, imprinting him into heart and soul.

We stayed two days after the new family came home. Two days of laundry, cooking, and dog walking. Two days of gazing at our grandson, breathing in his freshness, and occasionally hearing his soft newborn cry. And two days of watching my husband, a baby guy, show his tenderness. Dan’s strong six-foot frame was nothing but gentleness while he held his grandson for hour after hour. His countenance was calming for all of us. Taking our leave from the newly formed family was eased because I would return a week later and Dan six weeks later, each of us getting an opportunity to help our daughter and son-in-law as well as time to be with our grandson.

Driving home past one of many upstate New York’s ice cream stands, I noted that grandparenting reminded me of when I was a kid getting a scoop of my favorite ice cream, vanilla fudge swirl. All I wanted were the goodie parts, the thick creamy fudge with a hint of the vanilla. That’s g-parenting, feasting on the bits you like, skipping what you don’t. Happiness and attachment without the intensity of parenthood, along with a renewed appreciation of the miracle of life. These are the goodie parts.

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Patience-March letter to my daughter

Dearest MK,

It is March and you are still pregnant, still on the imagining side of motherhood, and on the uncomfortable side of being past your due date. Tired from crummy sleep, hungry from eating little due to heartburn, you wait and wait for your body to go into labor and deliver your baby. Even though you are not a mother yet, these days of waiting offer an opportunity to practice two essential traits for motherhood: understanding the limits of your control and patience.

There is much you can control. You and his dad will set the tone for your son’s home environment, decide the schools he attends, and select his activities as a child. Even in those realms his personality and temperament will impact and possibly limit your decisions. Currently, it is his birthdate that is beyond your control, in a few years it may be inappropriate words he shouts, the silly faces he makes at inopportune times, or a habit that you want him to quit. Think potty talk, stink eye, and thumb sucking. Years from now, it may be a sport or activity he begs to do that you never considered, and as he grows older his ideas and dreams, although influenced by you, will be his own. Motherhood is the continual giving of oneself without being able to control all the variables and knowing often you will have to patiently wait for the hoped-for result.

If you had a word-of-the-day calendar, every day this week should read, “Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay without getting angry or upset.” Even with the heightened anticipation, you try to be patient. At home, all is ready. Last weekend you searched for chores to keep yourself occupied, but your size and lack of flexibility stopped you from doing most anything. You scrolled through the television bored. Even reading, books which gave you solace since childhood, are merely words on a page that don’t make the minutes pass fast enough. Although tired, you continue at work, thankful it fills many hours of the day. Your patience is being tried. I can’t but think this is the first of many times you will wait for your son. I imagine you standing in the kitchen when he is a toddler demanding to put his coat on ‘all by himself’ even though you are late getting out the door. Someday you may be standing outside a school wondering why he is the last kid out of the classroom but once you see his sunny smile you melt forgetting the extra ten minutes you waited. Years later you will check the street for him and his pals to walk up the sidewalk after the first time you let him trick-or-treat without an adult, waiting anxiously to hear the exploits of his evening. There will be the waiting (and worrying) the first time he drives down the driveway in the car. And probably like your dad and me, you will stand at the arrivals area of an airport searching the sea of faces, waiting for him to be home.

His lack of timeliness is an opportunity for practice, for today and the days ahead, when you will need patience. Embrace it, he in all his wonder will be here soon. And you and his daddy, along with his awaiting grandparents will rejoice and welcome his arrival.

love each and every day,

momma

 

 

 

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Anticipation-February letter to my daughter

Dearest MK,

Today starts the last month of your pregnancy, in theory. However, your little body-mate dictates the timing of his arrival. Maybe he will have a late February birthday as predicted by his due date or maybe he will arrive early to share the love of Valentine’s Day or arrive late roaring in with March like a lion. The answer to when he transitions from body-mate to house-mate is unknown. In the interim, you prepare, grow larger and await his entrance into the world (or should I say his exit from you-that’s mom humor, you may be indulging in it soon).

This is a time of anticipation. Your nesting is in full swing. The room is ready: crib assembled, clothes washed, and car seat waiting by the door. Baby showers are upcoming with friends and family ready to share in your excitement. Each day brings more discomfort, awkwardness, and a bit of hilarity as your growing body struggles with heartburn, interrupted sleep, and the seemingly inconsequential task of removing your winter boots becomes a two-person monumental chore. And there is no need for an end table and coaster when you can rest your teacup on your growing uterus. Your busy workdays at the hospital rock him to sleep and once home your quiet awakens him. He executes the precision of an English Premiership soccer player taking a PK in his ability to kick your bladder. You are hard at work, both internally and externally, preparing for the baby, for the creation of this new family of three.

I’m not going to go on about labor, you witnessed the delivery of numerous babies during your residency. My only comment is to say that labor and delivery offered the ultimate immediate gratification for work accomplished. The snuggle of my child onto my chest in the moments after delivery was joy defined. There was pain, but the memory of it diminished, surpassed by the memory of joy. What remains decades hence is the joy, and the love.

Motherhood is a bit like snow, it covers everything as it falls, but like a snowflake it is unique to each woman. I won’t speak for others or to what your experience will be, but for me, the moment of motherhood was love, and love is a pivot point. Sometimes in life something happens that changes us forever. A baby, you, my darling first born, was that for me. I felt part of the universality of carrying on the species, of woman becoming mother, yet felt something reserved for me alone, becoming your mother. I saw and felt the big picture of life and the universe in your little face. Those first moments and the following days were full of awe and wonder of the little person your dad and I created, as well as my recovery from the delivery, and our adjustment to the needs of an infant. A transcendent and impactful time.

You are still on the imagining side of motherhood, even amongst his very real kicks, hiccups, and broad movements from one side of your body to the other. You anticipate the actuality of him. This time of imagining motherhood will be over soon, and it may be hard to recall it after your son’s arrival. Enjoy it if you can and know that I am happily awaiting to see you as ‘mommy’. And of course, to meet my grandson.

love each and every day,

momma

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Sibling Conflict-August letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Hot, humid and draining are the August dog days of summer. Hot days lead to hot tempers, whether from too many hours in the heat or too many days cooped up in air conditioning. Sibling relationships get testy. A squabble over a toy or rules of a game can escalate into name-calling, slammed doors or an exchange of pushes and shoves. Conflict between siblings is part and parcel with having more than one child, but how parents respond impacts not only the clash of the moment, but the long-term relationships within the family.

I was amazed when your Uncle Dan wondered why the kids squabbled over toys. As an only child who wanted a sibling, he couldn’t understand why they would ever fight. He wondered aloud, “why aren’t they just happy to have each other”.  I explained that fighting and disagreements were common occurrences amongst siblings and didn’t mean they weren’t happy with each other. Kids must share the attention of their parents, the space in their homes, and their belongings (occasionally, if not all the time). Teaching sharing, tolerance of each other’s personalities and idiosyncrasies, and resolving conflict was continual work in our family.

While ‘only child’ Dan had to learn about sibling struggles, I had much to learn as well. Growing up the youngest of seven, I fought with my siblings. I was a seasoned combatant and thought this made me an expert on sibling conflict, but I quickly realized that my shift in perspective from child to parent, made it otherwise. As a kid, my priority was to win, to get my way, but as a parent my considerations were how best to achieve the short-term goals of respect and household harmony in combination with an end-goal of healthy sibling relationships.  I set some rules for myself and a few for our home, then did my best to live by them.

Don’t choose favorites. Don’t choose sides. Kids keep score and rarely was one party at fault. Generally, there was more to the situation than met the eye. Before I jumped into the murky waters of who started it, I did a quick analysis of situation. Observed the power dynamitic and body language. The older kids often used their physical strength to get their way and younger kids occasionally used crying and telling to get theirs. Sometimes when voices were raised there was real conflict that needed addressing and direction, but other times it was a matter of learning to get along, taking turns and understanding each other particularities. If tempers were flaring, I tried not to be sucked into their disagreement but rather stayed objective to help them determine cause, effect and potential compromises with questions like: Why are you upset with each other? How are you going to solve it? It was a tricky balance, determining when to intervene and when to walk away.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Aretha sang it and I encouraged it. When there were disagreements I tried to listen to the kids, pushing them to use their words to identify their complaint about their sibling. My approach was to listen, validate their feelings, but not necessarily concur with them. Validating frustration or anger was a great way to diffuse it; we all want to be heard and understood. But I squashed any meanness, physical cruelty and had a ‘no put downs’ rule. Name-calling and belittling were unacceptable. Occasionally I offered an explanation to understand the behavior or asked if they could think of an explanation. Maybe the ‘offending’ sibling doesn’t want you to touch her American Girl dolls because she finally got the hair combed just the way she likes it and you aren’t always gentle when you play with the dolls. Or maybe your brother doesn’t want to play pirates on the swing set because he is tired from a long day at school. Understanding that everyone had moments when they were irritable or impatient, was useful to learn. Respect for each other’s moods, personal space and feelings is important for healthy relationships.

Monitor sibling rivalry. Siblings compete, but I hoped that recognizing the competition would limit it and stop it turning from innocuous rivalry to contention, or worse, to enmity. If I saw a behavior repeatedly, such as asking about someone’s grades or number of goals scored, I gently pointed out he or she was competing with a brother or sister. Your siblings were not your opponent. Then I would remind the competing child that there were and always will be people better and worse than them at some things. Compete with the person in the mirror, be better than you were yesterday.

Don’t expect a conflict-free life. From sit-coms that resolve family conflict in 22 minutes to social media feeds that reflect conflict-free families, there was(and is) great pressure to project our kids as continually happy siblings. I didn’t want conflict to dominate our household but, my dear niece, just like you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t raise a family without some conflict. I avoided dictates like ‘say you’re sorry’, or ‘don’t fight with your sister’ or using guilt to smooth over rough patches. Underlying conflict won’t be resolved by command, manipulation or guilt. Rather the kids learned our family occasionally experienced conflict. There were peaks and valleys in the relationships. When conflict arose, they needed to deal with it, not get bogged down in it, and move on after the disagreement was resolved. Sometimes the results of a quarrel  improved communication or understanding of the other’s perspective; a needed clearing of the air. And learning to agree to disagree; to move on and let go of hard feelings when they can’t readily find a compromise was vital.

Make them a team. I tried to make my kids a team, forging their own relationships without me at the center. Our moves helped because you don’t take your friends with you when you move, only your siblings. Together they faced new schools and neighborhoods. But there were lots of little things that helped the team mentality. We had a family number that each wore when they played soccer. It started one August when MK and Patrick picked up jerseys with the same number, and continued through their playing days. We had kid clean up nights where they had the kitchen to themselves to do the dishes. They put on music, selected their tasks and spent more than enough time romping about while ‘cleaning’. And sometimes I pushed them into an alliance against Dan and me. It was harmless fun, dividing into parents versus children teams, for games and such. I vividly recall the cheer they let out when they realized they had arrived first atop a maze we were navigating. They had beat us. They were champions. They were team Mannix.

Finally, and most importantly, teach them to forgive. We all disappoint each other, no matter how much we wish we didn’t or wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love one another. Fights and arguments gave them an opportunity to learn how to forgive, both the sibling or themselves. When they were small they were quick to forgive because they enjoyed each other’s company and wanted to resume their play. As they grew older, when the squabble was over differing behavior or ideas and forgiveness appeared complicated, the underlying desire and joy of each other’s company continued to help them look for compromise and forgive each other.

Don’t avoid or hide from conflict, rather teach the kids to use their words, to argue their point respectfully and to learn to forgive.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Discipline-July letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

July kicks off with my favorite holiday-the Fourth of July-a day that celebrates independence. But less we forget, it was also a day of defiance and open rebellion against authority. Independence, defiance, open rebellion. To a parent those words might describe a four-year old girl demanding to buckle her car seat, a thirteen-year old boy challenging curfew or a nineteen-year old home from college questioning house rules. And like the young colonies who fought the larger, stronger and more able British Empire, children sporadically struggle against their faster, taller and more capable parents. Hopefully, unlike the British who got worn down by years of fighting and wanted to rid themselves of the colonies, you will not grow frustrated and angry with your growing children but rather bring patience and reason to dealing with their occasional insubordination.

Turning patience and reason into action and implementing them into every day family life is the tricky bit. Our family was not a democracy, Dan and I were in charge, but we didn’t want a dictatorship. I wanted independent, capable and loving kids with a no-drama, no-trauma daily home life. I am more than put off by yelling, fighting and meanness; I’m disheartened, demoralized, and discouraged. To quell defiance and cheekiness, I concentrated on natural consequences as a way of disciplining rather than punishment. And to gain cooperation, I focused on good communication rather than edicts.

My experience with disciplining by natural consequences began with some wise and timely words from our first pediatrician. When I complained about three-year-old Patrick’s intense stubbornness regarding wearing his winter coat, our doctor told me that true discipline is the natural consequences of our actions. No coat on a cold day-he will get cold. The uncomfortableness of getting cold is the discipline, not my badgering or threatening him with punishment. In addition, our doctor reminded me that (for now) I was stronger, bigger and smarter than my kids and to use those traits to my advantage. To pick my battles and most importantly, Win! I didn’t have to be loud or physical to be firm. I didn’t have to argue with them after I explained the rule or behavioral expectation. And finally, the pediatrician reminded me that you get a cold from germs not by being in the cold.

When four-year-old Mary Kate, who loved the grocery, continued to grab things off the shelves or take things out of the cart based on her likes and dislikes, I warned her to stop or we would leave the store with nothing. A moment later, she was whining and reaching for candy in the check-out line. I told MK we were leaving, pushed the full to the brim cart up to the manager’s kiosk, and explained that my daughter misbehaved and that we had to leave the store. I apologized that all the food would need to be returned to the shelves, then picked her up and walked out. MK’s face showed surprise and regret. She was sad and cried on the drive home.  The message to behave and to listen was sent and received. She never misbehaved in the grocery again.

Exuberant, energetic Meg, in grammar school often got the unwanted consequence of our ‘Do Not Ask in Front of Others’ rule. When inviting kids over or asking to go to a friend’s house, if you asked me in front of the friend the only answer you received was a resounding, “No”.  I understood the excitement of hatching a plan, but I was not going to be caught off guard or forced to decide without thought to our schedule, the activity and the kids involved. This rule eliminated the nagging and badgering that children often do to their parents to get their way. We had only a few of these family rules with direct and easily understood repercussions, they were a good compliment to disciplining with natural consequences.

Kids want rules. They like to know the boundaries and will push until they find them. Punishment, if we gave it, fit the misbehavior. I never thought sending little kids to their room made sense. I didn’t want them to play in their room which seemed like a reward nor did I want them to associate their bedroom and sleeping with getting in trouble. Rather I would sit the offender on the bottom stair for a minute or two with nothing to do but hear the activity in the house which they were missing because of their transgression. When they got older, I might assign a household chore such as straightening up the basement playroom or sweeping the garage. And once they were tall enough to look me in the eye, I believed it best to use my words to express my displeasure with their actions and if punishment was needed limit access to something they valued such as taking away a cell phone every evening for a week.

We focused on good communication and adapted as the kids grew. By the time Mary Kate was in pre-school my catchphrase was, “use your words”. The hope was the kids would articulate their needs, wants, and frustrations with words rather than screams, tantrums or fists. I wanted to give my children, or any child who came to our house, the power of words. I rarely acknowledged or reacted to whining or tantrums. Even with they struggled to express themselves I tried not to be a mind-reader, one who guessed at their thoughts or answered for them in conversation.

Being well-understood is fundamental to success and happiness, whether in a family, a classroom or in society. As they grew older, when I heard mumbling and monosyllabic grunts, I demanded that they ‘articulate and enunciate’. I would not abide the monosyllabic middle schooler morphing into an eye-rolling, moody teenager. Not on my watch. Not in my house. I was careful not to pester or cajole-the nagging or sycophant mother is annoying. Rather I worked to create a convivial home with an open-door policy for their friends and lots of their favorite foods served in a cheerful atmosphere. And we used humor, especially your uncle’s sense of humor to push the grumpy, sullen, or non-communicative out of the kids.

We role-played the communication manners we expected including telephone manners(Hello, state your name), declining an invitation(politely and succinctly) or introducing yourself to adults(a handshake while looking them in the eye and stating your name). These were a few battles we were determined to win.

Finally, I kept the excellent advice I received at when my kids were little from a mom in her late 60s. She said “Don’t let anyone scare you about the teenage years. If you loved them when they were little, you are going to adore them when they are older.” So True!!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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