Sunday, February 24, 2013

Surprise!

I tend to get sentimental and nostalgic on my blog, which is probably annoying at times, but sometimes I just can’t help it. My cup truly does overflow. I have so many things to be thankful for in my life.

I’m also a serious bitch sometimes.

I was not in a good mood yesterday. On Friday evening, we stayed up playing Kinect bowling and then I made the mistake of getting completely engrossed in a book. I stayed up way too late, and even when Dusty came to bed, I read under my covers just like I did when I was ten. It was after 2 when I fell asleep, and before I knew it, my alarm had gone off. I had to get up early because Jake had his districts individual speech contest, where he was performing a poetry reading. He had an early morning performance about half an hour away.

After the performance (it went great! He made it to the state competition!) I took him to the DOT to sit for his driver’s permit test. I am convinced that the DOT is some sort of homing station for the rudest, most oblivious, self-absorbed, shower-deprived people in my county. We sat scrunched up next to these charming degenerates for an hour, and then when Jake went to take the test (it’s a computerized written exam) he didn’t pass. Brie failed her test the first time she took it too. In their defense, it’s a nitpicky test that I’m not certain I could pass today, but it still made me grumpy to think that I will have to take him back there again until he passes.

We got home and Dusty handed the baby to me. I get that. When I’m home with her for long periods of time and he comes home, I like the break too. She’s going through a phase where nothing pleases her for more than ten seconds, and the constant effort of keeping her entertained is exhausting. I began to get grumpier by the second.

I was also starting to feel sorry for myself. Dusty had mentioned earlier in the week that we’d go out last night to celebrate my birthday, but he hadn’t said anything else about it. I was stewing, thinking I’d have to plan something, pick the restaurant and whatever we did after we ate, if we didn’t come straight back home. Sometimes a girl wants someone to take charge and just plan something nice for her, you know?

Eventually I threw a temper tantrum at Dusty. “What are we doing tonight?!” I hollered. He said we’d go eat somewhere – he didn’t care where. At this point, it was 6 pm and I was wearing a scrubby old Iowa State sweatshirt and jeans, I had no idea what we were going to do, because he wouldn’t plan anything, and I lost my temper. “Would it kill you to make a birthday outing ‘special?’” I yelled after complaining that I didn’t want to have to plan everything all the time and that he was waiting until the last minute to decide what we were going to do.

I sat there and tried to give myself a pep talk, telling myself that only I could reverse this bad mood. But it wasn’t working. Natalie was starting to get cranky, so I snuggled up with her on the couch and was slowly getting her to sleep when I heard music coming from the basement. Then Vali and Jake got into a screaming match downstairs and Dusty came up and asked me if I could come break it up, because ‘they wouldn’t listen to him.’

I started thinking something was up around this time, because Vali’s screams sounded a bit more energetic than normal, and if anything, my kids listen to Dusty better than me when they’re told to stop fighting. I walked downstairs and saw the door to the family room was closed, I opened it a crack, and saw this:

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(Except, they looked more animated than this. My camera appears to have stunned them.)

It was my family. My mother-in-law, my dad, brothers and their families, Brie home from college. They were all there and then it made sense. I ducked behind Dusty, flushed with embarrassment. Not because I was the center of attention, but because I was mortified about my outburst earlier. I should have given my husband the benefit of the doubt, but I let my bad mood spawn a temper tantrum. He was gracious about it, and didn’t make me feel worse than I already did

Of course the kids were in on it – the plan was that Dusty was going to take me out somewhere and on the way, Jake (who was going to be home babysitting) was going to call with an excuse to get us back home where we’d walk in on the party. No wonder he didn’t care what restaurant we went to! We weren’t ever going to go to one! Since I was sulking and not really in the mood to go out anymore, Dusty offered to go pick up something for dinner. Meanwhile, my family, who had gathered at my brother’s house a few miles away, came over and parked in the driveway of the vacant house next door. They trudged through the snow and came in the basement the back way, and I had no idea they were there.

It was done very well, and I was humbled and ashamed of my bitchiness. But my bad mood vanished because we did my favorite thing in the world, which is to hang out together and eat and drink and talk and watch the kids run around. It was a nice, low key party with the family I am so very thankful for.

Kissing cousins, who will hate this picture someday, but oh gosh, isn't it cute?

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Some cool bowling moves:

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Blurry picture alert. The person operating the camera may have had too much wine to drink to properly focus the lens, but it's too cute not to share:

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

February Writing Challenge: Tidy

Prompt: Next to godliness, or just keeping yourself off of Hoarders? Where do you fall on the cleanliness/organization spectrum?

I don't like having a messy house, but let's be real: I have four kids and I work full time. My house usually starts out looking like this in the morning:

Commence Operation Living Room Blitz. Her mission: to pull out every single toy before Mama finishes her first cup of coffee.

But then it quickly turns into this:

8:38 AM on a #snowday and the living room is already trashed. Is it spring yet?

I am not picky about things like baseboards and ceiling fan blades and I am woefully bad about scrubbing my tub. Just tonight I cleaned off the top of the exhaust fan that hangs above the stove and wondered when the last time I'd done that was. I do my deep cleaning like the Pig of If You Give a Pig a Pancake fame on crack. Which is to say that I bounce from project to project, get distracted by something else to do when I leave the room for a moment, go back to what I started only to see yet another thing that needs to be cleaned. By the time I'm finished, I've spent a whole day and have seventeen cleaning projects halfway done.

So deep cleaning isn't my forte, but I do like the clutter picked up. My GOD, the clutter. My children bring home paper after paper from school and those papers hook up with the bleeping junk mail and have one great big paper reproduction orgy and by the middle of the week there are piles of credit card offers, forms, permission slips, magazine renewal cards, PTA announcements, worksheets that the kids did in class (for the love of Pete, why do they have to send those home with the kids?!) and so on covering every square inch of counter space in my kitchen. It makes me homicidal and I usually glance through what I can while holding a baby who is covered in slimy banana at arm's length so she can't get it in my hair. As you can imagine, the kid distracts me and I typically end up throwing it all away anyway. Which means I lose stuff, but whatever.

Along with the paper comes the homework paraphernalia. Pencils, erasers, sharpeners, pencil bags, notebooks, half-eaten candy bars, etc. My dining room table is full of this stuff when I get home from work. As I slave away over a hot stove making dinner, the mess on the table seems to grow. We usually shove it over to the sideboard when it's time to eat. The whole time I can see the mess out of the corner of my eye and it stresses me out.

If I've had the kind of day where I can feel my blood boiling and know that I'm not fit to be around any human, let alone my children, I will sometimes call ahead and warn them: "Bad mood. Hour commute. Clean for your lives!!!" They are pretty good about doing it these days, and a clean house does lift a weight off me on a day like that.

Jake has to do the dishes now that Brie is away at college. He's not as thorough as his big sister was, but he's learning. Every so often, I clean the kitchen myself so that it looks like this:

Got up at 6 am and cleaned. It's ridiculous how happy a clean kitchen makes me.

The best time to clean is on Saturday and Sunday mornings around 6 am. I'm an early riser, and I am less prone to ADD in the morning, so it's an effective time to clean for me.

Tonight my house is quiet, the baby is asleep, and my house is reasonably clean. All is well with the world.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Then and Now

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I'm deviating from my writer's challenge group today, because a coworker of mine suggested a writing prompt for me. She asked me to write about how I was a mother to Brie so long ago, compared to how I am with Natalie today.

It's an interesting thought. As I sit here writing this, Nati is doing a repeat loop of the following: climb on the ottoman, gauge the distance between the ottoman and the sofa, determine that it is close enough to jump onto the sofa, attempt the jump. She is successful at making it onto the couch about 75% of the time. When she comes up short, she flops to the ground with a dramatic whimper and looks at me to see if I've noticed her injury. "Dude," I say, "If you don't want to fall, quit jumping on the couch!" Poor kid gets no sympathy from me, and so she gets up and starts all over again.

I didn't expect to become a mother at age 20. Dusty and I were so, so young. Our relationship, in its infancy back then, was bound together by a thread no thicker than a spiderweb. Before Brie was born, I was a mix of emotions. Uncertainty ruled my thoughts, calling in reinforcements from fear, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. But I slowly began to get used to the idea of becoming a mother, and I started to feel better about what my future held. This was still part of my life plan, it just happened sooner than I thought it would. I was on scholarship and although it wouldn't be easy, I could still finish college. I could do this. I had a feeling that even though I was young (just LOOK at the picture - I was a BABY!) I would be a good mother.

A week before Thanksgiving break of my junior year in college, Brie was born. She was a beautiful, bright-eyed baby who screamed her ever loving head off for the first six months of her life. She was a difficult, colicky baby, and there were times I had to lay her in the crib, walk away and shut the door to collect myself. I cried along with her many nights. I can say that dealing with the pressures of first time motherhood along with going to college and working 25 hours a week wasn't easy. But once the colicky period passed, it became easy for me. No, that's not right. Parenting is never easy, and Brie gave us a run for our money. Lordy, did that child throw us some curveballs. So "easy" isn't the right word. But enjoyable and rewarding will do.

When Brie was Natalie's age, we read books, played with blocks and babies, went on walks, sang songs, watched videos, and I rocked her to sleep. I do the same things with Natalie. Some of the books are different, and I am thankful to say that we're no longer prisoners of Barney in our home. I'm probably more creative with our playtime these days. But some things are so much the same. I sat and snuggled with Nati last night and was singing the "Hush little baby, don't say a word, Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird" song. I almost substituted 'Briana' for 'Baby' because that's what I did when she was little. Nineteen years later, and I still sing the same soothing songs. I don't suppose that's all that surprising, since those songs were sung to me by my own mother.

It is easier with Natalie in many ways. I know that the runny nose will most likely pass, and if not, we have a great pediatrician. Dusty and I have good jobs, and so our financial situation is much better than it was when Brie was a baby. But most significantly, Dusty and I are in a stable marriage. Each year that thread that binds us together (the one that was so thin when we learned Brie was on the way) has been reinforced by our shared experiences and our commitment to one another. It is now a rope of galvanized steel, forged by a history of twenty years that have gifted us with more peaks than valleys.

It's natural to assume that parents become more relaxed with subsequent children. Perhaps the years of experience and learning from mistakes erode the fear and vigilance that keeps a first time parent up at night. In many ways, I am more relaxed. I know that I am less strict with my children now than I was at first. I don't think I would have let Brie play the "jump from the ottoman to the couch" game. But the experience of having a stillborn baby has made me more protective, almost neurotically so in other ways. Even now that Natalie is well past infancy, I sometimes place my hand on her chest to make sure she is breathing. But the older she gets, the looser fear's grip on my heart becomes.

I look at the pictures above and think hard about how I am different. The physical differences are easy to spot: I've got wrinkles and I'm heavier in the recent photo. I like to write those differences off as laugh lines and a softer lap for snuggling. I'm so young, so inexperienced, so green in the first photo. There is so much ahead of me. After this photo is taken, I will get married, have three more children, build a happy life with their father, and enjoy a fulfilling career. I will kiss dozens of boo-boos, read thousands of story books, and become the woman in the photo on the right. The woman who cares a lot less about what others think of her, the one who knows that things don't always turn out the way you expect them to, but that they usually turn out better than you ever dared to hope. But at the end of the day, they're both still me, and they're both still "Mama."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February Writing Challenge: My First Kiss

I’ve slacked off on the writing challenge, and I didn’t want to even think about doing today’s prompt because, well, it’s a memory that makes me squirm, and not in a good way. However, I looked at my calendar and see that I have a free half an hour here at work, right now, and I realized that if I’m going to do this writing challenge thing, I need to do it when I can. Which is now. So here it is, in its unedited glory.

My First Kiss

I was that girl in high school who seemed to sit on the sidelines watching everyone else have fantastic experiences while my life just ticked on by. My best friends all had boyfriends before me. At the time, I thought it was because they were prettier than I, but no. We were all pretty. My friends were simply in possession of a self-confidence that bloomed much later in me.

He was a senior and I was a sophomore when we started dating. I must have been attracted to him back then, but the thought of him makes me shudder today. It’s likely that my memory of our first kiss is tainted because he turned out to be Emperor of Psycholand. But even if he would have turned out to be a normal, non-crazy person, I have to believe that the memory of kissing him would still make me cringe.

It was that bad.

He was a sloppy, slobbery kisser, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that my entire face was wet and faintly sticky after a make-out session. My sixteen-month-old baby who comes at me with an open mouth and her tongue sticking out has a more refined kissing technique. Hell, my DOG is a better kisser.

I can’t go into more detail without losing my lunch. It was just that gross. I never liked kissing him, and it certainly didn’t make me want to do other things with him, much to his dismay. And there it is, the silver lining in that frothy, dripping cloud: he was such a bad kisser that I was never tempted to go "all the way" with him. Thank God for that, because I don't believe I could handle THAT kind of memory.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

February Writing Challenge: Day 2 - My Name

My parents named me Monica Melanie. I used to hate the alliterative mouthful, and would complain about how long it was. Then I grew up, had children, and gave my own girls long names (Briana Camille, Valerie Katherine, Natalie Caroline) and figured I couldn’t use that as a reason to dislike my name any longer.  

I was born 8 weeks early and weighed 3 pounds. Baby pictures show me as a scrawny, scrap of a thing with translucent, wrinkly skin and an oversized, oblong noggin. Mom tells me that I was too little to be called Monica, so she decided to call me Niki. It seems to baffle everyone. “Niki? From Monica?”  Sure, it isn’t traditional, but is it really all that hard to figure out where it came from? It’s mo-NIC-a, after all…

She has called me Niki ever since. The only time Mom called me Monica was when I was in trouble, and she generally used my middle name along with it. As in, “Monica Melanie, quit pinching your brother!”

We lived in Des Moines when I went to Kindergarten, and Mom told the teacher that I went by Niki. So I was Niki in school that year, but there were apparently two other Nikis in the class. I’m not sure if that bothered me, as I can’t remember a single thing about Kindergarten, but when we moved to a new town in first grade, I went by Monica.

And so it began, my life with two names. My name was Monica at school and Niki at home. Dad began to call me Monica, and as a result, my paternal grandparents started calling me Monica as well. (I remember feeling a little sad about this because my Grandma Viv used to call me “Nicodemus” and I thought that was an awesome name.)

When I went to college, I decided to go by Niki. I wanted college to be different from high school. In high school I was smart, obedient, church-going, which translated to my eighteen-year-old self as boring. College was to be my big adventure, and I fancied myself a completely changed woman. I colored my hair blonde, I lost some weight, and reinvented myself. Niki was fun, confident, and carefree. (Niki also made some choices that weren’t in her best interests, but that’s another story entirely.) Monica was in the past.

When I graduated, I thought I’d keep the name Niki in my professional life. My first job after college was a clerical position in the underwriting department of a large insurance company. I was a clerk to a group of nurses who underwrote health insurance policies. The job itself was terrible. I did filing, stapling, and copying. But the women I worked with were warm motherly types and it didn’t seem strange for me to have the nickname of Niki. I left that job after I had Jakob and took some time off to stay home with the kids. When I was gaining re-entry into the workforce, I was determined not to have a clerical job. In an effort to define my image, I decided that I would no longer be Niki, but I’d go back to dependable, smart, and successful Monica. I landed a professional job as Monica, and she has taken me on a respectable career journey ever since.

Because I met my husband in college, he has always called me Niki (or, Nik, rather) and so has his family.Occasionally he refers to me as Monica, if we are interacting with work friends or parents from our kids' school. It sounds weird coming out of his mouth. Almost as if he is talking about someone else. I have two sisters-in-law on Dusty’s side of the family. Their names are Nicole and Nakia. We make the three musketeers: Niki, Nicole, Nakia. Dusty's cousin also is named Nikki. She shares a last name with me, so there's often confusion there as well, especially when we were both new on Facebook. Since I use Monica as my Facebook name, some of my in-laws call me Monica now.

Oh, it's just all so confusing. People will ask me what I prefer to be called. Although it would feel very strange if a work associate were to call me Niki, I like when my family and friends do. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. I answer to both. My Grandpa Bob saw humor in everything and he liked to call me "Monniki." He passed away in December, so it makes me smile to think that he’s the one who coined the online moniker I use so much these days. (A moniker of ‘Monnik’ – how great is that?)

Friday, February 1, 2013

February Writing Challenge: Day 1 – Memory

I’m doing a writing challenge in February with some online friends. My goal is simply to write more often. It should be a fairly easy goal to attain, since I have been blogging so rarely. Some days, like today, I’ll be using prompts from my writer’s group as inspiration for the posts. Other days I might do something different.

Memory

I’ve always had a terrible memory. It isn’t something I fully realize until I’m faced with evidence of how poor my memory really is. Dusty will bring up something like this in conversation: “Remember that house in Maxwell that we almost rented? It was a white story and a half with a red door, a detached garage and a mudroom off the side entrance.” I stare blankly at my husband and shrug my shoulders or throw him a “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” look. That was almost twenty years ago. How could I possibly be expected to remember it? I’m outwardly nonchalant about my inability to recall such details, but this is something that worries me very much. I don’t even recall looking for rentals in that town, but Dusty remembers the house with annoying specificity.

I remember very little about my childhood. There are bits and pieces filed away in my mind - fragments so incomplete they would need embellishment to form a true memory. If I have to add substance to make them complete, then are they really memories at all? Why don’t I recall the same things my brothers do? I experienced those events too, but have no working memory of them. Could it be that I have a traumatic secret about my childhood hidden in the folds of my brain somewhere, repressed from my memory retrieval functions in order to protect me? I don’t think so. My childhood was neither tragic nor idyllic. It was more good than bad.

I find it difficult to recall specifics. Bits and pieces are there: My mother stands heavily pregnant in the kitchen sweeping the floor, as her water breaks. I think I know which brother was born a few hours later, but I cannot be certain. A different memory: Dad comes upstairs from the basement, holding his hand as it is dripping with blood. “I think I cut myself.” He states, in a daze. (The understatement struck me as funny: he had nearly severed his finger with a band saw.) Mom was efficient, calm under pressure and had someone (was it me?) go next door to ask the neighbor to drive Dad to the hospital. I must remember these because they were both big events. But perhaps I only remember them because they are stories that have been told around tables before.

Memories about my own children are hazy too. It’s one of the reasons I have taken so many pictures of them throughout the years. They show me information that my brain does not retain. Reviewing old journal entries and blog posts is both entertaining and appalling to me. I love to read about something that one of my children did, but I am appalled that I have no memory of the incident, even when I wrote a blog post about it! Not long ago, I was reading some of the journal entries I wrote after our son Joseph was stillborn. I had the strangest sensation while reading it. It felt like reading about someone else’s experience. It made me sad that I had forgotten so much of that experience, but at the same time, I am glad not to be living with that fresh grief any longer.

Memory is funny, though. Experiences we would like to forget can’t be shoved aside to make room for those we want to remember. I have a seventeen-year-old memory that I would like to permanently evict from its comfortable home in my brain. It likes to pop up and torment me now and then, and when it does, my body reacts physically with a tensing of the muscles and my psyche follows with an emotional vulnerability that can last for days. Why couldn’t the memory of that experience shrivel up and die in the recesses of my brain? Some niggling thought process must be watering it occasionally, keeping it alive back there.

I wonder why some people (like my husband) naturally have superior memories. I suppose it’s a skill that you’re either gifted with or not. My brain puts memory (along with geography, directional sense, and cleanliness) on the back burner and focuses its energy on other skills: multi-tasking, communication,militant spelling. I guess my general awesomeness just takes up too much space in my brain to have a fully functioning memory. I can live with that.