Forever My Babies

Forever My Babies

Our baby is no longer a baby, and I’m not sure when it happened. The youngest of four, somehow time seemed to always stand still longer with her. She was three for an eternity and four for what seemed like forever, and now she’s five and in kindergarten and reading sight words and making new friends. Tonight, when I tucked her into bed – I saw her as a big girl and my heart broke just a little.

Part of accepting that she is getting older, is accepting that everyone in the family is also getting older. Her oldest sister is 20, with 21 just around the corner, and I just can’t bring myself to believe that is possible. As time is passing so quickly, are they each adequately prepared for life and the responsibilities that come with it? Am I prepared as a mom to accept that as each day passes, they need me a little less, even when I feel like each day, I need them a little more?

I recently read a quote that said, “I constantly go between wanting you to stay my little baby forever, and being excited about all of the amazing things you’ll do in this life,” and I can’t even “YES!” this thought enough. Unfortunately for our youngest, I think I had it in my mind that she was just always going to be the baby, and while she may be the baby of our four children, she’s definitely not a baby any longer.

I miss the days of staying at home, when my major task for the day was just holding my babies in my arms, singing them to sleep or tickling them awake. We have traded bedtime songs (mostly) for bedtime books and even though I tend to still tickle them awake, baby coos have been traded for frustrated morning grunts (although, I must admit that most mornings, I have two very cheerful little girls). While they continue to grow and change, my love grows for each of them; and while I miss so much the days that they were babies – I also look forward to who they’ll become.

Where will their passions lie? What will fill their hearts the most? Also, will they be able to maintain the confidence to do what they want, be who they are, truly live to their fullest potential? Will they be able to stay strong and stay true to themselves? Will they be able to love again after a broken heart? Will they be able to love themselves through the different stages of their lives?

I think part of the sadness in my children growing older, is knowing that our once simple times of playing and learning our ABCs is quickly replaced with much tougher learning experiences which, ultimately, will mold them into who they’re going to be as adults. Each new day writes a new page in their life’s story; each year a new chapter.

As they learn and grow, so do I. I’m always hoping that I’m doing this parenting thing right. Am I using the right moments to teach, and not missing anything too important? Will they look back and remember all of the love that surrounded them, or will they remember the times I yelled at them to put their shoes on? Will they remember how lucky they have been to experience so much in their little lives and pass that on to their children someday? Will they remember that they’re never, ever alone? The answers are unclear as I have no idea what the future will hold, but I can hold on to the hope that they’ll never forget that I always did my best, I always loved them with every ounce of my being, and regardless of the time that continues to fly by (at lightening speed) – they’ll ALWAYS be my babies.

Christmas with Intention

Christmas with Intention

We have four children with birthdays in January, March, April and June – ours are in August and December. Six months out of twelve, we are celebrating a birthday at our house. Generally, after the last kiddo’s birthday in June, I start shopping for Christmas. I know that sounds really ridiculous, but we have a LOT of people to buy for, not just our kiddos. We are blessed with a big family, and not just by blood, but by our extended family of friends and/or their children. In turn, we are blessed by many gifts in exchange. I assure you – one quick glance at our play room, and you’ll know our children want for little. 

This year, rather than start early – I have decided to limit the gift giving for our children. The littles will be limited to 10 gifts a piece (and Santa’s limit is undecided though it will be even less) and while that still seems extremely excessive, I have decided those ten gifts will be purchased/gifted with intention. I read an article that suggested intentional/minimal gifting could be limited to four gifts: “Something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.” Also, I have read in the past that Santa should always bring the most modest gifts in an effort to show compassion to your child’s peers. 

Our ten gifts will go as follows:

  1. Wish list item
  2. Wish list item 
  3. A fiction book
  4. A nonfiction book
  5. A STEM/STEAM toy
  6. A pair of shoes
  7. Something that encourages creativity
  8. An outfit
  9. A keepsake
  10. An experience*

*To expand on “experience,” I want to point out that could mean many things for many different people. For example, my oldest asks frequently for a mommy/daughter date so even a handmade coupon promising one-on-one time with your child would be an inexpensive addition to your Christmas gift list, yet the most rewarding present of all. 

There are many reasons for going minimal this year, as I have given this a lot of thought. 

Appreciation. I want my children to truly appreciate their gifts. I am extremely guilty of ALWAYS going overboard and buying “just one more” gift, especially when I start shopping so early in the year (which, I did not do this year). As we all know, it’s not the number of presents, it’s the “thought that counts.”

The playroom. Over the years our playroom has become a collection site for way too many things. Recently, I cleaned out five garbage bags (that we donated locally). Five garbage bags. I was then able to add a reading area to their playroom (which I have always wanted to do) and an art area, and I feel like those are both very important activities for the girls to be engaged in more fully.

Our carbon footprint. With toys that only cost $1 at Dollar Tree (or the Target bin, or even at Walmart, etc.), it’s easy to say “yes” as we shop. But honestly, those are the first toys I toss out when I purge, the first toys to break, the first toys to get lost. With already overflowing landfills, I am literally spending “only $1” to contribute to more waste (I’ve already started saying no to these impulse purchases). Side note: I don’t want to discount that these purchases are what some can more easily afford, I am speaking solely on intentional gift giving as my motivator.

The true meaning of Christmas. I want to focus more on doing for others, why we celebrate Christmas in the first place, being truly engaged with friends and family, creating and passing along tradition. I can’t believe that the true meaning of Christmas hasn’t been lost, as I go to the store to purchase toothpaste on the first day of October and see a small endcap of Halloween/fall items and pass two entire aisles of Christmas decor.

They don’t NEED it. They truly don’t need any of the things they get for Christmas. They don’t NEED this year’s Christmas fad item (and the fact that we haven’t had cable in 10 years is a bonus because they don’t watch commercials to know what this year’s fad item is anyway). They WANT for gifts and, hey, in life we don’t always get everything we want (I don’t want to raise my children to believe that they do, or feel “entitled” to anything they didn’t work hard for). Why put all of that pressure on ourselves as parents when it’s literally not a necessity. Food, they NEED food – they don’t NEED a new doll (when they already have 20).

As far as the big kids go, it is easier to gift with intention. We can make purchases directly from their lists and know that they’ll get used/worn and appreciated. Our oldest daughter is intentional on her own, and only asks for what she feels like she needs (#goals). For everyone else? Handmade items. This year, I am going to make something for each of my friends. I feel like it aligns with intention and focusing on what Christmas means to me. So, if you’re reading this and we exchange gifts – make me something instead of purchasing a present (a handmade card would be perfect). 

Balance

Balance

Repost from 2015:

I visit the cemetery frequently with my two young girls. Although they don’t completely understand, they know that we are visiting their Nana, my mom, Carol McFeeters Thompson. We share laughs and stories with mom – sometimes even tears – hoping that she is able to hear them, knowing that either way she is there in our hearts.

My oldest daughter recently started preschool, leaving some special one-on-one time for my youngest and me. Last week, Collins and I brought donuts and juice for a picnic with mom. That morning, the clouds were dark with the threat of rain. We were already committed to our plans, and headed for the cemetery anyway. We laid out a quilt (made of my old souvenir t-shirts mom had saved from our travels together) under the oak tree that extends over mom’s grave as well as the graves of our Grandpa and Grammy. We listened as acorns dropped from the tree, making a thud as they hit the ground around us. We felt the breeze as it blew lightly across our faces and through our hair.  We noticed as the dark clouds faded to white and then separated so that the sun could shine directly on us. My mom may not have been there physically, but she was all around us. She had always encouraged others to see the beauty around them, and that is exactly what we did. Inspired by her life’s lessons, we sat and really took in our surroundings.

 

We have noticed an abundant number of ground squirrels throughout the cemetery. Kendall, my oldest daughter, has named them all “Buddy.” She is thrilled when she sees them, shrieking “Hi, Buddy!”, which inevitably causes them to jump back down into their holes – every time. While I cannot immediately identify the species of ground squirrel as my mom could, I can encourage Kendall that lowering her voice and standing still will allow her to enjoy “Buddy,” rather than scare him away. In return, we can watch him pop his head out of his hole, examining us as we examine him.

 

Collins and I were surrounded by ground squirrels during our visit, as Collins is significantly more quiet than Kendall. She’s just as full of energy though, and took off running through the cemetery. We visited the graves of some of Collins’s relatives and some of my very dear friends, cleaning them off along our way – realizing the unfortunate losses so many of us share.

 

As we returned to my mom’s grave, we saw a red-tailed hawk. I have always been impressed by their grace and beauty. Watching her soar freely through the now cloudless sky immediately reminded me of my mom, of course. In an article she once wrote, she said of the red-tailed hawk, “Designed for nearly effortless flight over open country, she sailed on the wind, gliding across the sky in little more than a moment without ever flapping her massive wings.  When she rose to clear the trees, the sun highlighted her distinctive russet tail against the bright turquoise sky  She disappeared from view, but her majesty lingered.” What a beautiful and impeccably perfect description of what Collins and I saw together, sharing those memories with my daughter as my mom once shared with me – and so many others. That’s when it occurred to me, our new found friend, the red-tailed hawk, was not only graceful to watch, but intuitive. While we were busy watching “Buddy”, so was she. “She wanted only to be left in peace to use her keen vision to watch for a hint of movement in the grass below that might signal a small rodent suitable for her dinner.”

 

Collins and I spent two hours in the cemetery that day. Heartbroken with the loss of my mother, it was initially difficult for me to find a suitable balance between new and old, the future and the past. Focussing on my surroundings, I have realized that balance is prevalent and necessary: predator and prey, life and death, past and present.  What I have discovered is that we can incorporate the past into our future, mixing new memories and experiences with old.

© 2015 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

I’ve been running from my grief, and I am tired…

I’ve been running from my grief, and I am tired…

For over four years, I have ran from my grief. I ran fast and far, to revisit it briefly only a handful of times; each time leaving more quickly than the last. I can’t live in it, I refuse to, but I also probably can’t say that I’ve actually grieved properly. But then, I guess, I don’t know what grieving properly really is.

I was a stay-at-home momma when my own mom passed away. I’m lucky that I was able to spend so much time with her in the year following her cancer diagnosis. I am so thankful for that time and the remaining memories we were able to make. I accept her death, I accept the inevitability of death and my own mortality. Accepting her death is different than accepting the “why.” “Why” my mom was chosen, I’ll never understand. I can’t even think too deeply of it without wanting to vomit or completely and totally shut down.

To escape my grief, I made myself busy; so busy that I rarely slept. I finished my Master’s, endlessly volunteered for multiple organizations and causes, individually spear-headed a series of fundraisers to benefit the National Brain Tumor Society (we are over $33,000 raised), said “yes” to every favor and request, purchased a building and started a business (and then purchased another building and started another business), became the Village Clerk of Wapella, wrote a weekly newspaper column (in place of my mother’s weekly newspaper column), started a Girl Scout troop, and the list literally goes on (add in the fact that I’m a mother of four, got married during this crazy time, and I’ve remained a daughter and friend).

I. Am. Tired.

It caught up to me, it all caught up to me and I am exhausted mentally and physically; some days I cannot find even a portion of the energy that I couldn’t shut off for so long. I cannot find the energy to say “yes.” And, I’m sad. As I near my 35th birthday, I wish I could fast forward through it. I wish that every year, I didn’t have to be reminded of one more year “since” or “until.” My heart breaks with the loss of my mother. I miss her SO much, and it’s not “fair” that I don’t have her – that my children don’t have her. Although, I’ve heard it said many times that, “life isn’t fair,” I still very much wish that it was.

Here is what I have gained from slowing down, though. I have regained my ability to solely focus on my family and sometimes even on myself (that is still a work in progress). I found my dream job without even knowing it existed. I work long hours without effort, because I truly enjoy it. I have time to go on adventures and make memories with my family. I have finally focused on making my own legacy, rather than living 100% through my mom’s. I think she’d be excited, and proud. I think for a long time, I tried desperately to hang on to every ounce of my mom, rather than to live my own life. I didn’t want anyone to forget about her, but regardless of who remembers – I will never forget and I will never let my children forget. She will live through us, whether I stay up all hours of the night or sleep in.

So, if I’ve been more of a “no” person than a “yes” person lately, please don’t take offense to it. My saying “no” means I have more time to say “yes” to MY family. I can spend more time with my children so that their memories of ME will be like my memories of my mom and the home I grew up in with her, the life I lived with, and because of, her – she was always by my side, always my biggest cheerleader and she loved me endlessly. I always knew she was there for me, without any doubt. I hope my children will grow to understand that is how I feel about them. My love for them all will never falter, through life or even death.

The first day of school is here!

The first day of school is here!

I love my job. I had no idea how much I could possibly love a job, or that I would love so many children, families and fellow colleagues. I have children, too, and I know how hard it is to let them go and grow. I know that you’re worried about them, I know you’re scared for them, I know you want the best for them. I know when you drop them off at the door, you get in your car and cry. I know that some days, you do a “happy dance” because, man, you needed a break today. I know that you love your child with all your heart, trust me, it shows in how your child loves his/her friends or from how he pretend plays with a baby doll, or when he/she says “I miss my mommy/daddy/sister/grandma.” I know that you count down the minutes until you can see your baby again. I know, too, that some days 2 1/2 hours just isn’t enough time to get your house cleaned before it is time for you to pick up your kiddo. Before the end of the school year, I will know your child’s favorite color, favorite toy, favorite game. I will watch her beam with pride when she reaches her accomplishments, like writing her name or learning all of the colors, or making a new friend, or trying a new food. I will be there when he falls down, and I will help him up. I will hug her when she cries. I will chat with you on the phone and talk you through your fears. I will be there for your child, and I will be there for you. I am only with your child a fraction of the time you are, or his teacher is. Think about how well his teacher will know him. She is going to spend 6 1/2 hours (or 2 1/2 if he is in preschool) a day with him for the next 180 school days.

Your daughter cried on the way to school today, but so did mine. I had to drop mine off with her teacher and try not to cry myself. But here’s what I know about my daughter’s teacher AND your daughter’s teacher. She will take care of our daughters as if they were her own. She will love on them, and hug them, and make sure they eat, and get potty breaks and play. She will make sure our daughters play together and play nicely. She will help them through the hard and the bad and the sad times. She will smile with them and high five them through the good times. She will come to work early, she will stay late, she will work for free and spend her own money to make sure our kiddos have what they need to be the best versions of themselves. She will encourage them and teach them and guide them. She will love them, and they will love her. She will read to them, and maybe even teach them how to read. She will spark their imagination and encourage their creativity.

I think it was hard for me from an outside mom’s perspective to understand this. It was hard for me to believe for a second that anyone could take care of my child better than I could (or even the same). I promise you though, your child’s teacher will do the very best she can. Your child’s teacher loves children and she will love your child. I’m so proud to know so many amazing teachers, who literally give blood, sweat and tears to make sure that your child (and mine) is taken care of. I can say with certainty that your child’s teacher will lay awake at night thinking of new ways to teach, and she will lose sleep thinking of how she can help a student’s family that may be going through a tough time, she’ll lose sleep hoping that her students all went to bed with full tummies or with a kiss goodnight. She wants the best for him, just like you.

Traveling Internationally with Children: Tips and Tricks, Part I

Traveling Internationally with Children: Tips and Tricks, Part I

We are soon headed for our second trip “across the pond” with our two youngest in tow. Now 7 and 5, the girls’ last international travel adventure was a little over two years ago. We will travel from Chicago to London, from London to Paris, from Paris to Nice, back to Paris, back to London (with a small layover in Ireland) and then return home. Our itinerary is similar to the last, replacing time in Germany with the pebble beaches of Nice (and a little extra time to explore both Paris and London).

I remember our first time traveling abroad, my husband was living in Germany temporarily for work. I couldn’t find a direct flight from the United States to Germany for the girls and I through Expedia (my preferred method of booking travel – I’ve yet to have a bad experience). All available flights were routed with a layover in Turkey. Traveling alone with small children, I wanted to be able to speak the language and, at the time, international travel to Turkey was not encouraged. I played around with the flights and found that the girls and I could travel to London first and then fly to Germany for cheaper than the flights to Germany that were routing through Turkey (and because a pit stop in London, duh).

I have traveled domestically throughout the United States many times (my 7-year-old has already been to 27 of the 50 states and stuck her toes in the Pacific, Atlantic and the Gulf), I’ve taken the all-inclusive trips to Mexico, and I’ve crossed over to Canada a handful of times, so international travel is appealing to be able to see some “new” sights while crossing “new” countries off of our collective bucket list.

I have always been a “bargain hunter” for our trips, and have never compromised quality for price. International travel is no different. I’m our family’s personal travel agent (as most moms and dads probably are – especially if you’re currently reading this), dedicating lots of time to researching areas, the hotels, the food, the locals and then I book our trip at a fraction of the cost (so get ready to research)!

If you’re looking to travel overseas (more specifically with children), I have lots of tips and tricks to share with you. Most of my advice will apply to domestic travel as well, you can just ignore the suggestions that obviously don’t apply. To clarify, I will be advising based on the assumption that you’ll be using Expedia (which I am NOT receiving compensation from), but if you have your own preferred travel app use that instead.

*First and Foremost – have/get/find your passport. It is recommended that you allow six weeks turnaround time (to be safe) when ordering a new one. Make sure it’s not expired (ten years for adults, five years for children) and also make sure you have applied for a new one if you have changed your name since your last trip*

The first step I take to traveling is to know where I want to go and what we would like to see. What is the main goal for your trip?

Relaxing? Sight seeing? Both? You’ll want to book hotels based on your ultimate take-away goal. You can buy flight and hotel packages which can save you some money, but the hotel may not be anywhere near the beach (for example), which means you’ll have to pay to travel to and from the beach (or rent a car) and that extra cost could have been better spent on a hotel closer to your preferred destination or landmark.

If you’re traveling with children, you’ll also want to make sure that the hotel is child-friendly. I once booked a flight/hotel combo package to Florida and ended up at a hotel that was essentially in spring break mode year round (I’m talking vomit on the balcony – it was bad), despite that the pictures online showed a colorfully painted pool and several playgrounds. We took all four of our kiddos on that trip and ended up booking a second (and quiet) hotel down the strip for the remainder of our stay. Double booking certainly didn’t save any money.

The second important question to answer is how many days you would like to be gone on this adventure. All of these questions are better answered with a budget in mind, of course. We would love to travel to Europe for a month at a time, but our budget worked best for about two weeks (and my husband’s vacation time wouldn’t allow a paid monthlong vacation, either). The biggest cost of your trip is the flight and hotels, but don’t forget about the somewhat hidden extra cost of bag check fees and an Uber or taxi(s). Four checked bags can add about $200 (or more) both ways (plus you have to lug that mess around). Plan to pack light and with only a {generally free} carry-on per traveler if possible (hey, no worries about lost luggage and no waiting at the baggage claim). If you’re staying somewhere with laundry service (or in an apartment or Airbnb), consider that you can also wash clothes or have them washed on your trip.

In Paris, there is a regulated taxi fee of €50 to and from the airport to your hotel. We were able to budget that into our travel cost but many places are based on a combination of mileage and time and are not as easily budgeted (be sure to look into these specifics while researching your destination, you may find helpful information regarding regulated costs or preferred modes of transportation in the area – your hotel may offer a free airport shuttle and that is definitely worth considering when it’s time to book a hotel if you’re trying to save money).

Speaking of transportation when traveling with children, car seats and area car seat laws should be researched. We purchased two BubbleBum Inflatable Backless Booster Car Seats off of Amazon. They pack easily without taking up much space (and then you also avoid the sometimes extra cost of requesting a car seat through your Uber or taxi service), AND, most importantly, your children are safe while traveling.

Are your dates modifiable? If so, the extra wiggle room can save you hundreds of dollars. Final round trip costs from Chicago to London were $515 per adult and $415 per child because we are leaving on a Thursday and returning on a Wednesday. I have read that there are certain days that are cheaper to fly on, however, I personally have never found this to be consistent. I always play with the dates (and different months if you can) to make sure that extending it (or shortening it) one more day would save money (leaving on a Wednesday and returning on a Wednesday would have cost us $203 more, per traveler so it was definitely worth shortening our trip by a day). Just make sure that you check general weather habits for the time you are traveling. Snow and rain at home could mean sun and heat somewhere else (and vice versa). Avoiding high travel times and holidays will always save you money. Don’t forget to research low travel times for your intended destination (you don’t really want to share the beach with 10,000 spring breakers and your three-year-old).

Hotels are typically more expensive on weekends versus weeknights so if there’s a fancy hotel you have your eye on, you can actually save more money by staying there through the week. Sometimes, staying only one weekend night can also save some cash. We stayed at a hotel in Paris in a duplex suite with a near €1000 nightly price tag for only $289USD per night (I’ve easily spent double that on hotels in Chicago that weren’t nearly as nice).

The best part of using your Expedia app for booking flight and hotels, is that once you book your flight, you save an additional percentage off of a hotel(s) in that area (and gain Expedia points for future travel). For example, the first time we went to London, I booked our flights and saved almost 70% off of a Hilton Hotel. I ended up with a total cost of $63 for the night, and it even offered a breakfast buffet (it wasn’t included in the price but the availability is convenient).

Breakfast buffets can be really great for efficiency, convenience and even budgets. Sometimes children are free, but almost always their meals are at a reduced-cost. It’s an easy way to find something you like in a county that offers a variety of “new” and maybe different foods. If you’re staying at a tropical resort, foods are usually catered towards the majority of travelers to that area but it’s not always like that when staying in a different country. In London, for example, we had baked beans and chocolate croissants for breakfast; in Oelde, Germany, melon, prosciutto and fresh baked bread. This is something to keep in mind for picky eaters (our youngest being extremely guilty of this), buffets generally offer something familiar.

Fun fact: Most other countries have much stricter government regulations and guidelines on their food than here in the United States. In many other countries (most, in fact), you won’t find an overabundant number of preservatives (if any at all) in your food, and definitely not corn syrup. I loved that in Germany, the condiments were made daily from fresh ingredients (but be prepared picky eaters, even something as innocent as fresh ketchup definitely tastes different).