Empty nests

They started falling about a month ago. Wind and rain brought them down, one by one, from their branches' formerly snug embraces.

Z exclaimed every time we saw an empty nest lying on the sidewalk. "We have to put them back! The birdies need them!"

"The baby birds are out of their nests now, Boo. They don't need them anymore."

"But where do they sleep?"

"Those nests were for eggs and babies. The baby birds are grown up now and are out on their own," I said vaguely, not confident in my avian knowledge. (I mean, where do they sleep?)

"But what if they get lonely? Do they still see their Mommy and Daddy?"

"Yes. I'm sure they do. All the time," I said, sure of the right, if not the correct, answer to this question.


About ten years ago, I was giving a massage to woman whose daughter was about to leave for college. I asked her if she was excited or sad about her empty nest, or some other equally clueless question, and she lifted her head out of the horseshoe-shaped face cradle, looked right at me and said "Your nest empties slowly, one day at a time". I was struck both by her sad directness and the use of the pronoun 'you' since I was, at the time, a childless twenty-something massage therapist, dating the third of three men who would eventually tell me "I'm gay and being with you helped me realize it" which at the time I was sure could only mean one of two things: a. I was actually a gay man or b. I was an actively repellent representative for the female sex.

Her words stuck with me though, even if I had no clue what she was talking about at the time.


Our next door neighbor came by yesterday to say goodbye to Z before leaving for college. After hugging her goodbye, Z was full of questions.

"Mama? Do I have to go to college?"

"No sweetheart. Your father and I hope you choose to go to college but we'll also support you following your dreams in other ways if that's what you decide." I said, carefully not adding please don't let that dream be stripping/drug dealing/selling your organs on the black market.

"Good. I don't want to go away to college. I would miss you guys too much."

"I would miss you too. But you might feel differently one day, darlin'. And that's okay."

"I don't think I will. I'll just live here forever, okay?"

"Okay. That's okay with me." I said, glancing at our neighbors house which suddenly seemed overly large.


E has been teething, which is a nice, simple way of saying "two giant, blunt but sharp around the edges, MF-ING molars are forcibly pushing their way through the tender expanse of her gums at an agonizing pace". She's been waking early for a few weeks now, screaming in pain. There is little we can do to calm her. Pacifiers, sippy cups, and ice chips are some of the options that are quickly, and often violently, tossed aside.

I know what would calm her. I know what would give her comfort. And this morning, for the first time, she remembered too. As I picked her up from her crib, she pulled my nightgown down and lunged for my chest. Even though it's been weeks- a month?- since she last nursed and she was the one who weaned herself due to lack of interest, she suddenly remembered and wanted to.

So I held her as if she were nursing, placed her paci back in her mouth and rocked her. I cried and really, finally, understood: Your nest empties slowly, one day at a time.


I LOVERMONT (though not so much at 5:30 am)

Z lays just a few inches away from me, taking her first nap in many weeks, maybe months. I study how her eyelashes fan out across the new freckles on her cheeks. I can't remember the last time I watched her sleep from this close up. But I easily remember what it was like to take every nap with her this way, when she was still swaddled and soft-skulled. Now, as then, her breathing is ragged, her body twitches randomly, but "peaceful" is still the word that comes readily to mind.

I cannot nap, though I am bone tired, the kind of tired that only happens here at my parents' lake house in Vermont. My vigilance is ever, ever present; 98 % of me can be desperate for sleep but that last 2 % keeps my nervous system humming, listening for E's waking noises that are sure to come just as I fall asleep.

I am not as tired as I was last summer here, when E was an infant and Z was starting to drop her naps all together. I am not as tired as that first summer as a mother when Z was an infant and I stumbled around in the kind of wide-eyed stupor that is unique to new parents. Those summers I pretty much hated everyone who was getting more than three consecutive hours of sleep. People could complain about work deadlines or plantar warts or deep existential ennui and all I could think was: But you're getting sleep. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT.

This summer is the first time that E and Z are sleeping together in the same room. We thought this might work well, since at home, both girls were reliably sleeping until about 7 am. We prepped Z extensively; she was so excited about bunking with her sister in! the! same! room! that we feared she would wake her sister up to play with her in the wee hours of the morning. What we didn't expect was E waking up shrieking at 5:30 am every morning, causing Z to cover her ears and cry at equal volume "Too loud! IT'S TOO LOUD!". We didn't expect that if that happened, we wouldn't be able to get anyone back to sleep and so our days would start out at 5:30 am with shrieking, crying and pouting. (The former two would be the girls, the latter would be me, of course).


Down at the dock, I can see the neighbor kids, the ones we thought looked young enough to play with Z from a distance but when we went over to say hi we realized they were way too old to be intrigued by our offer of a "playdate at our play structure!" "With popsicles!". Now they are playing in the water, laughing, diving, swimming without any assistance or hovering by their parents.

Their parents sit on long deck chairs, some evidently dozing, others reading books and sipping dark liquids. I squat on the gravelly sand with arms outstretched to keep E from toddling right off the dock as it bumps along on the waves of passing motor boats. My book is lying beside my bed, waiting for the last 20 minutes of the day to be devoured in desperate hungry gulps. I don't hate those neighbors like I might have last summer. I know I will be them soon enough and I try not to wish the time to move faster. I love this phase. I do.


There are no bugs this year, which is the biggest gift you could possibly imagine since some years, the mosquitoes swarm you in huge clouds the moment you leave the house, and singletons attack you from all corners of the house before flying to the ceiling in slow, drunk circles to stay just out of reach until they are hungry again.

No bugs? Beautiful weather? THANK YOU, VERMONT.


My girls are enjoying themselves so much and though our time here still feels a hair or twelve short of what I used to expect from a vacation, their obvious enjoyment makes it mostly fun for us as well (early morning hours excepted).

Sometimes a tiny, self-centered voice inside me hisses that my chance to experience the world, my chance to experience joy, has been replaced by watching my girls experience joy, experience the world. The voice hisses that I would love to spend all morning following my whim and wish, the way they do; going from favorite books to exploring outside to digging in the sand and dumping shovels into the lake to be retrieved over and over and over again. I enjoy doing those things with them, being a guide as they explore the world. There is substantial, indescribable joy in watching them, playing with them, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But in the dark moments, after hours of following and guiding and listening and helping, I can't help but yearn just a bit for my vacation. The one where I get to follow my every whim and wish. (5 hours lying on the couch reading a book until I fall asleep for a drifting nap, followed by a quiet lunch on the dock with the paper, then a hike to the waterfalls, finishing with a swim in the lake and a leisurely dinner, in case you were wondering.)

I dream of finding that elusive balance: experiencing the joy of watching and being with my girls and yet also carving out moments of joy and wonder for myself that is non-kid related. My parents have been wonderfully helpful, my father full of fanciful princess stories and my mother eager to both hold and bounce E and spend hours making tiny clay beads with Z. Tonight CG and I will have a sorely needed date night. It may not be a full week of relaxation, a vacation in the old, pre-kid model, but it's still pretty darn great.


It's always easier when it's someone else's kid

"I'm so exhausted," she complained for the thousandth time. "She kept me up all night, kicking me in the head. I know I shouldn't let her sleep with me, but it's just easier, you know? We've done it for four years now and I just hope she'll sleep on her own before college. Heh. Heh."

I smiled and shrugged and thought to myself: You've made your bed here, my friend. If you keep taking the temporarily easy path, you'll never get any sleep. You've got to be tough.

I said, "That must be so hard."

......(an hour later).......

E was snacking and started bleating, pointing at her sippy cup full of water. I gave it to her and she let it drop to her lap, screeching louder. I automatically picked it up and held the sippy cup of water for her as she sucked it dry. I muttered, "She won't hold her own sippy cup. She just lets it drop."

Without looking at me, my friend said, "So don't hold it for her. She'll learn." Then she picked up E's sippy cup and molded her tiny hands around it, encouraging E to hold it up herself, clapping when she finally did.

"Oh," I said. "Right."

My friend smiled knowingly and said, "It's always easier when it's someone else's kid."


World Breastfeeding Week, brought to you by "Breastorette"

I decided to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week by weaning E.

Well, okay, E's weaning just happened to coincide with WBW, and I had very little to do with it.

E weaned just like Z. She just started to totally lose interest and I found myself forcing her to nurse at times. Finally I wised up, stopped struggling to get her to focus and just didn't offer if she didn't seem interested. Over the last few weeks, she rarely asked for it and my milk promptly dried up.

It's been predictably sad, if only because weaning my babes seems to send me into a bit of a hormonal sinkhole. As usual, it's impossible to parse out what's hormonal and what's situational. We've had enough situational sadness to go around here, random Mommy tears are met with shrugging acceptance from Z who's grown startlingly accustomed to them.

I feel like a former cigarette smoker who needs to find a way to relax without the hourly cig break. Is there some kind of step-down patch that will release ever decreasing amounts of the breastfeeding relaxation chemical oxytocin like a Nicotene patch?? I need one. I should make one! IMMA BE A MILLIONAIRE!

How about a chewing gum a la Nicorette? "Breastorette"? BAM, MY SECOND MILLION$.

Whether it was due to the release of brain chemicals or something else entirely, nursing E was often my favorite activity of my day. I simply loved nursing and will miss its quiet, focused, warm, purposeful, snuggly, connected moments. It is odd to think that I will never nurse a baby ever again in my life (cue dramatic string solo) and I know I will always count nursing as one of the best parts of mothering these girls as babies.

Now I must build a new habit around taking breaks and taking deep breaths without the excuse of a baby who needs to nurse. I need to create ways to snuggle with her even though most of the time she's ready to launch herself out of my arms from the moment her eyes open in the morning.

At least I have a better mindset today than when Z weaned. I know I am losing something with the end of nursing E. But having two kids has given me the tiniest sliver of perspective: there are more doors opening that are just as wonderful in whole new ways. E's starting to sign and talk and become this true little independent person. Her dependence on me falls away in bits and pieces and though I am sad to see her baby-ness go, I relish what is to come.

Even though it comes with a set of bras for me marked "Nearly A".


Wish me luck at the gym this weekend

We are in August. Finally. July can officially bite me.

I keep feeling like this past month, with all its Death with a capital D, should make me feel inspired and grateful and unicorn-flowery and instead I'm feeling unsettled and apathetic and why-should-I-bother-y. This would be useful if I was heavy metal lyricist or an angsty teenage poet but as a mother who needs to make sure there's food to put on the table three times a day and clean underwear to put on clean bottoms, it's been a bit debilitating.

Last weekend, I ran off to the gym for my first workout in weeks and I tried to do the normal thing, to push myself on the elliptical while flipping through the latest US magazine. I tried SO HARD to care about Snooki et al and my ellipses per minute stats but it took all my strength not to run around the gym grabbing people by their shoulders and yelling into their sweaty faces: WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! AEROBIC FITNESS AND SHAPELY PECTORALS WILL NOT EXEMPT US!

(Oh, but E is almost totally weaned so actually shapely pectorals would be most helpful to me at the moment as muscles are the ONLY things that will fill my bra now, even if they won't prevent my eventual demise.)

We're back to "normal" life now. The memorials are over, "life goes on". But having touched mortality, being ripped open by its unforgiving teeth, I find myself searching for more meaning in everything. What if this was my last day? Or this? Have I done anything that matters? Would anyone have anything to say at my memorial?

"She always separated her lights and darks."

I feel a renewed internal pressure to make something of myself, whatever that means. But the fact is that there is still laundry to be done and board books to be read and tantrums to unravel and none of these things feel like they are getting me closer to the mythical self-actualized version of myself who Makes A Difference. It's hard to feel like laundry MATTERS, with all caps. It's hard to feel like I'm getting anywhere but Frustratedville when dealing day in and day out with young children who cannot manage to get through a day without throwing themselves into a screaming tangled heap on the floor, at least once. (Memo to 14 month old: you're too young for this crap!) (Memo to 4 year old: you're too old for this crap!)

Except this one: I'm raising my girls the best way I know how. It is just one thing on my Life Master To Do list and yet it is the biggest, most important, and definitely the most time consuming thing I hope to accomplish in my life.

And it is the one that is right in front of me at the moment.

So I hold our recent losses in my heart at the same time that I hold my girls in my lap. The hardest part of handling this past month is that the mama bear part of me is just crushed by all the pain and suffering in the world. I want to stop it from ever touching my babies and I know I can't. This sadness and the reality of death are so hard to share with my children. And impossible to hide from them. Neither sharing nor hiding it from them feels right, so I do a little of both. I tell vague, glossy truths and a few white lies. I let them see me cry from time to time but I try to shield them from what I can, from what they'll learn about on their own soon enough.

And when I get good news, like I did when my mom called to say that my dad's latest PET scan shows NO signs of cancer, I rejoice in what is good, in who is still here, and I let my girls see me do a little jig. Then I tell them that Grampa is cancer-free and this is something to celebrate.


Things my four year old has taught me about death and grief

1. Tell everyone. Right away.

When Z sees someone she hasn't seen since her Papa died, she immediately announces it: "Hi! My Papa died and we're all really sad.... Wanna play?"

2. Follow all declarations of sadness with fun activities.

(see above.)

3. Draw and paint and tell stories, every day, as long as you need to.

Z spent much of the week after her Papa died drawing pictures of him. Papa when he was alive. Papa and Z together. Papa after he died. She used different colors each time and kept up a running commentary about what she was remembering about Papa as she was drawing.
Papa (on the left, with rouge apparently) and Z.

I sat beside her as she drew and listened to her describe why she chose certain colors and just how long his hair should be.

A few times, I drew too.

4. Print out favorite photos and put them in frames next to your bed to keep you company.

5. We all live with the knowledge of death. It's okay to have questions, to wonder and worry just a bit.

I keep thinking that she needs us to have complete and perfect answers for her. We reassure her that he wasn't, and isn't, in any pain. We tell her he lives on in our memories. But when we admit that we just don't know exactly what it feels like when you die or where you actually go, I always feel a pang of inadequacy. But she doesn't seem surprised that we don't have all the answers. She seems fine to sit with uncertainty.

And so should we, I think.

6. It's okay to laugh and play and dance again. It doesn't mean you don't miss your loved one.

We're working on this one.

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