Play Away…

 

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Sometimes I get assignments that make me dig deeper than others; force me to face certain truths or realities in my life that perhaps I didn’t see before. At first, writing pieces that shine LED lights on issues that were at first only lit by fireflies can be emotionally daunting, but once the initial shock wears off, I can always seen the benefit in unmasking these areas of my life: It makes me certain I am not alone.

Play is an activity woven into nearly every household that holds the breath of a child, but the package in which it comes can vary greatly in shape and scope. When writing Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play, I was pushed to confront these questions: Did I really play with my kids? In what ways did they remember my role in their lives? Was it different in comparison to how they viewed their father? All became crucial pieces of a puzzle I attempt to bring together and form the picture of their childhood and my role in it.

I am so glad I was able to participate in the You Plus 2 Parenting‘s  28 Days of Play. The series allows writers like me (a different one is featured every day of the week in February) the opportunity to investigate the role of play in our lives. Please do check out the series – you will no doubt find elements of your own lives and experiences there, too.

Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play

Boys Will Be Boys, but Why Are They so Bad in Bathrooms?

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My husband and son have nightly pillow-talk sessions. My son always gets to pick the topic and, because he’s seven and his focus tends to change a lot, there’s no telling what will be discussed. I can hear bits of their talks from where I tend to sit in my bedroom and I can honestly say that eavesdropping on them is one of the highlights of my day.

On this evening’s agenda was our impending move to Maryland. More specifically the house we will be renting, which we found on our recent trip to the Bethesda area over spring break. Though I couldn’t hear all of the conversation, I could make out one piece of it. It seems my son was concerned about the cleanliness of the new house, specifically the bathrooms.

“Dad, the toilets were really gross,” I overheard my boy say with disgust. “They were so dirty, and the sinks and the showers, too. I don’t think that guy even cleans!”

He had a point. When we toured the place, it was obvious the current tenant must have had more, ahem, pressing matters than tending to household chores, but nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t handle. What I couldn’t figure out was why my son was even a tiny bit concerned about it.

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Now it might be understandable if he were a bit of a clean freak, but though my youngest has lots of qualities about him to love, keeping a sparkly bathroom isn’t one of them. I mean one shift of brushing teeth in the morning and the top of the vanity looks like a Crest-fueled Jackson Pollock painting. One time I actually found toothpaste on the underside of the toilet bowl. The idea that a finger touched a toilet and a toothbrush in such rapid succession, well, I just can’t even go there.

And speaking of toilets, please, is there some magical way for boys to get all of what is coming out of them in the bowl? At the age of three my middle son could throw a grape from across the dining table and knock over my daughter’s cup of milk. Yet he still, at age ten, seems to have trouble aiming one simple, tiny stream of liquid into a very large body of water by comparison. When exactly does this skill kick in? Because at this rate I’m ready to purchase stock in Clorox. Or yellow grout.

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Both of my boys seemed to have developed their own clever method of dealing with their poor aim issue: Just wash the floor with the water from the shower. How do they do this? Simple. Always, always forget to be sure the curtain liner is inside the tub while the shower is on . Within about three minutes after turning on the knob, the floor is completely soaked. Not long after that the dogs are marching down the hall and into the bathroom for their own special version of Slip-n-Slide.

Once the shower turns off, I hear the dreaded “whoa!” and know it’s time to grab the stack of rags reserved for just this occasion unless, of course, I happen to be out of earshot. If so I’ll usually come in to find a boy using one of the brand new bath towels to sop up water and muddy paw prints from around the base of the toilet. In which case I tell him to be sure to get the glob of toothpaste on the bottom of the bowl.

Sometimes the floor is magically dry, the vanity remains a blank canvas, and my boys each pitch a no-hitter into the toilet, but they still can’t seem to leave the bathroom without making their mark on it. So they use a time-honored tradition passed down for generations that has irritated mothers and kept otherwise perfectly clean bathrooms from ever staying that way: They leave me a “laundry love letter”.

A dirty sock, a pair of pants in a pile on the floor next to the shower (underwear still in them of course), or a used hand towel on the top of the toilet tank just for me. Just a little something to let me know they were there and not thinking of me. And I, in turn respond the way many a mother has before me: With an eye roll you, too.

So far our household has been very lucky. The boys have shared their own bathroom and my daughter has had one to herself; but in the next house, all three kids will need to use the same facilities. Unlike her brothers, my girl is known for keeping a sparkly bathroom.

I’ll hold out hope that maybe some of my daughter’s cleanliness will rub off onto her brothers. But my guess is that I should probably be bracing myself for the day when some of her brother’s toothpaste rubs off onto one of her favorite pieces of clothing.

Oh well, as long as it stays off the toilet I’ll consider it a step in the right direction.

Boy Oh Boy

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When George and I found out we were expecting our first child, we decided to let the gender be a surprise at the delivery. To be honest, for nearly the entire 9 months we waited, I was pretty sure it would be a boy. Why? Because God would know better than to give me a daughter.

I had been destined since childhood to have sons. The aunt I resembled most in my very large family? She had four sons. All of my favorite cousins? Boys. Growing up? Total tomboy. Most of my best friends in high school and college? Guys. Most of my best girlfriends? Girls who acted like guys. I was a “guy’s girl,” what on earth did I know about raising girls?

Well, take one look at our family photo and you can see that fortune telling is not my gift. Our daughter Emily was born more than 13 years ago and after some initial tears of terror, convinced I would get it all wrong, I am pleased to say that, so far, I think we are doing okay. She has developed into an amazing young lady who is far cooler than her mother ever was at her age.

Thankfully though, God found it fitting for me to have a couple of boys to round out the picture, so now I am blessed with what I had envisioned and dreamed of for so long. I have that distinct boy energy, that boy enthusiasm, that boy zest for life around me all the time. All. The. Time. I now know I was meant to have boys in my life. I also now know God was meant to invent noise-canceling headphones.

Our boys are very different in temperament. Liam is gentle, subdued, and calm. Jackson is chatty, bouncy, and funny. But there is one thing these boys share in common: Noise. Lots and lots of noise.

I am by no means silent, but these boys are l-o-u-d. I mean, they give new meaning to the word. I never knew one child weighing in at fifty pounds could sound like 14 people, in army boots, each carrying a rucksack weighing 27 pounds, coming down the steps, backward. Every door, cupboard, or drawer closing can give me a coronary from any room in the house. We thought we had the perfect solution when we bought Jackson a dresser with drawers that magically shut, softly. Obviously we took the fun out of actually closing them because this is what we now find.

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But it isn’t just being rough that creates the volume. If our boys can’t make noise with the object itself, they will create a soundtrack with their mouths. Actually, allow me to clarify, they will create a soundtrack with any body part available, but most often it ends up being with their mouths. Gunshot blasts, explosions, machete slices, you name it. ANY activity can generate an accompaniment worthy of the Boston Pops.

One evening Jackson, five at the time, came running over to the dinner table looking like he had seen a rocket ship land in his backyard. “Guys, I have GREAT news,” he said. “I just learned how to fart with my armpit! Listen and learn.” At which point he entertained us with his armpit concerto.

And then of course, there is the yelling at one another. For some reason Jackson has decided that he who screams the loudest, wins. Unfortunately, he’s the only one in on that plan so it takes his older brother and sister approximately 2.8 seconds to needle him enough to elicit the loudest “STOOOOOOOOOP!” he can manage, usually before 7am.

Even worse than lots of noise? None. Any parent of boys can tell you this. Imagine, you are home; boys are upstairs with friends, and then…silence. Not good. The last time I experienced this I walked down the hall in time to see Jackson hurling his lithe little body from one end of our den to the other, between the sofa and the ottoman. But since all that was viewable was the door frame, I just saw Jackson — flying. It was only because these two pieces of furniture were padded and he hadn’t hit the floor (yet), that I heard nothing. Or there was the time I walked upstairs to find a collection of neighborhood kids trying REALLY hard to throw their Legos up into the ceiling fan 10ft. above them. It was their intense concentration on timing their throws just right that kept them so quiet. Luckily we managed to walk away from that one with only a few chips in the paint and not broken windows. Or broken teeth.

Whether it’s the loud or quiet variety, boys bring with them a noise and energy all their own and I wouldn’t trade it. They are unbridled, eager, and full of spice — they are alive. And nobody sleeps harder than a tired boy after a long day of play, except maybe their mother. But today I, for one, will still be picking up the trail of socks, toys, books, and paper airplanes my boys have cast aside, all in a day’s work. Because boys have one other thing in common: Messes.

Don’t even get me STARTED about the messes.

Summer Fasting

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How are we already into July? I would say it wasn’t possible, but my youngest son’s hair is green from chlorine, we’ve gone through about 27 rash guards, and I don’t recognize half of the pool towels in our collection so it must be true.

For so many years it felt like the summer dragged more than my dogs’ feet on their way into the vet. The weather was so hot, and there were only so many things to do around town, so most often we ended up at the pool where every day was exhausting. I had to be constantly on alert, one minute saving my child from drowning, the next playing referee over toys, goggles, a blade of grass, whatever.

I chased my kids across cement pool decks, convinced they would rearrange their teeth with a single misstep. And just when one child was finally old enough to understand the rules, the next was ripe and ready to give me a workout.

I have taught swimming for 25 years and the pool has always been my happy place, at least when dealing with a child under the age of four who isn’t my own. I adore the laughter, freedom, and sense of accomplishment that comes along with learning to swim. But mix the struggle and unpredictability of a toddler with the dangers of water and I think any country club could make a mint in Xanax prescriptions alone.

As a seasoned swim instructor I assumed I’d have otters for children who’d swirl around in the water without a care and be my shining-star pupils. Not a chance. My oldest and youngest were pretty straightforward, but my middle child, Liam, decided to keep things spicy.

I swear I can still see the dents in my shoulders from his fingers, gripping and digging into me with sheer terror at the mere suggestion that he put his face in the water. And this was no toddler; he was six.

For years I held him, patiently coaxing, reciting all of the phrases that had been successful with the hundreds of other children I had taught to swim. “It’s just like Nemo under there! Now you can see everyone’s toes! You can do it!” All the while Liam howled at the top of his lungs “Don’t make me DO it, Mommy! PLEASE!!”

Other mothers looked on in horror assuming I was stealthily pinching him under the surface. I’m thankful for all of my early successes since my own kid did little to promote my reputation.

I kept my cool, calmly reassuring him until at last Liam let go of me and made his first, brave, independent swim to the wall. I’m still not sure if the tears I cried that day were more out of relief for me or pride for him, but now at age 10, the same little guy who refused to let go of my neck glides effortlessly through the water earning ribbons in summer swim meets.

After 13 straight years of panic, vigilance, and threats of going home if they jumped off the side of the pool backward one more time, all three of my kids are officially water safe and my life has changed. I can sit and read if I feel like it, or even finish an entire sentence without having to stop and explain how impolite it is to interrupt mommy when she is trying to talk. My biggest responsibilities now are reapplying sunscreen and making sure my kids don’t spend their inheritance on Airheads and cheeseburgers at the snack bar.

I am finally beyond considering it a major accomplishment to make it to the end of a day without: A) Visiting an ER, B) Football-carrying a screaming child out of the pool who is simply not ready to call it a day, or C) Someone football-carrying a screaming ME out of the pool, because I was ready to call it a day approximately 17 minutes after we arrived. At last I get to enjoy some days with my kids, feel secure in their safety, minus the need to cart them to umpteen soccer practices and battle over math homework. Heaven.

Another bonus is now that my children are older our entire family can linger later into the evening at the pool. My husband and I can sit swapping jokes and stories with our friends, while kids of every age hang out together within earshot of their parents.

I remember feeling like my sister and I were getting away with something big the first few times we stayed late at the pool. We kept out of sight of our parents in hopes they would forget about us and lose track of time so that we could stay even later. As the sun went down and lights under the water came on, the whole look and feel of the place changed.

Sometimes the nighttime air got cold and a haze would form just above the surface. We kept our whole bodies submerged to stay warm, coming up just long enough to grab quick breaths of air with our noses like hippos, casting shimmering shadows on the bottom of the pool from the lights. For some reason even jumping off the same diving board at 2pm felt different than it did at 9, like an amusement park after dark: Same rides, totally different experience.

So many of my wonderful memories of childhood were made during the summers at our neighborhood pool: First sport, first kiss, and first love. All to the soundtrack of lifeguard whistles, FM radio, and cannonball splashes. My challenge now is to find a way to taffy out these months and make them last a little longer for my own kids. I want them to look back on their summers and have that same experience.

Now that I am no longer so anxious and am finally able to relax, I want to enjoy this time as much as I want to create an enjoyable time for them. That is, of course, until 2 years and 10 months from now when my daughter gets her license.