Monday, April 21, 2014

The Last One

Although I’ve been asleep for hours, it only takes a minute for the subtle pitter-patter to permeate its way through my slumber.  As a parent, my sleep is only as deep as my child’s.  My tired conscious quickly catches up to my sub-conscious and processes the familiar scampering of two little feet.

“Vivian?”  I say, not yet fully alert.

“I have to go baf-room”, the sweet but determined voice answers in a cadence unique to her three years of age and vocal experience.

It’s our third time around potty training a child.  It’s our last time around, yet it is new all over again.  Since our older two children were given strict orders to never get out of bed by themselves the midnight sensation of having a child stand outside our bedroom door is an original one for us.  We didn’t intentionally change the rules for our youngest, we just forgot.

I elbow my husband who startles and then rolls out of bed to help her.  As they pass back from the bathroom to the bedroom that Vivian shares with her older sister, I say, “Vivi, do you want to come snuggle?”

“Ya!” she exclaims and crawls up into our bed nestling into my side.  Just like a missing piece of a puzzle, she still seems to fit exactly into the curve of my stomach.  Like a muscle memory, both her body and mine remember that she once spent nine months inside this cove, followed by eighteen months nourished from the breasts that settle just above her head.   The last several months were admittedly more for me, than for her.  She wiggles her little legs, and I rub my hand up and down them to warm them up.

Co-sleeping is a luxury that was never afforded to my older children, nor a gift I gave to myself.  With them I had worried that it would become a bad habit, or cause too much dependency.  With their youngest sister, I now worry that this will be the last time she’ll want to do this.  In the past, when I was newer to motherhood, the days felt endless and long.  Here at the end of this stage of motherhood I acknowledge both the threat and promise of endless days.  Now I know that the days are numbered in a way I didn’t understand before.

The passage of time is the cruelest paradox of parenthood.  In the most frustrating of moments, you can’t wait for it to pass.  These are the moments of splattered peas on the floor and toddlers throwing themselves to the ground.  Skipping ahead in the books, you can’t wait to see your baby crawl or your Kindergartner read a book.  But as soon as the stage arrives, you mourn what came before.  It’s a different kind of ache because it is for something that is not lost, rather something that has passed.

I look down at the little girl who in the dark of night is still my baby and whisper, “I love you” and kiss the top of her head, savoring the smell of her clean hair.

She looks up and gives me a sleepy smile.  Willing myself to freeze this sacred image forever, I add, “I’m so glad that you are here”. 

We don’t have children, we are given them.

We have often said that our youngest child, our last child, Vivian, is a pure gift.  Prior to having her, our hands were already full with a healthy and happy six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.  Things felt busy and full, but yet, not “done”. 

We always knew we wanted three children.  Long before we understood that you can’t plan everything, that was the plan!  Now, we knew first hand just what could go wrong.  In our combined six years and four pregnancies of parenthood, we had struggled through infertility and having our newborn rushed into surgery before recovering in the NICU.  He now lives with life-threatening food allergies, which keeps us on our toes.  We suffered an early miscarriage and a devastating unexpected and unexplained full term stillbirth before finding the courage to soldier through the pregnancy of our then two-year-old, daughter.

Making the decision to try to have another child carried tremendous weight, because we knew just high the stakes were.  Our hearts had been broken, crushed and abused and were now full of joy.  Could we really risk it all again?

We had many conversations about this topic and agreed to enjoy our daughter for two full years before we made any decisions.  But as her second birthday approached, so did the topic.  

We discussed the heavier issues surrounding this decisions and the lighter ones too.  Did we have enough bedrooms in our current house?  Would it be hard to get a hotel room as a family of five, instead of a family of four?

But our tender, yet brave hearts wouldn’t let us be done.  While the plan had been shattered, our hope for more children remained steadfast.  Fine.  We agreed that we would try and pursued two simultaneous paths.  We looked into an international adoption and tried to conceive, trusting that something would present itself.

Just a few months later an answer did present itself by way of a positive pregnancy test.  And nine months later, our youngest daughter, Vivian, was born. 

Looking at her now in the twilight I can’t imagine our family without her in it, or a life in which she didn’t exist.  She rounds out my motherhood and completes us, all five of us.

It is fascinating to watch the dynamic of these three siblings as it ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the girls pair up and other times it’s the older ones who stick together.  Then at another moment, it might be the oldest and the youngest in sync with one another.  They bicker and argue, but they share a bond of siblinghood that will last for the rest of their lives.

As parents, transitioning from two to three children has been for us the biggest of the challenges.  We often joke that with her arrival, we became that family that is always running late and whose car is spewing food crumbs when the doors slide open.  Three years in, I still haven’t found my footing in this arrangement yet I’m very content.  Being out numbered on the parent-to-child ratio is not only for real, but a for real force!  It rarely seems that all three of them are happy at the same time and I joke that someone is crying, always.  Things feel very, very busy.

And then there is her.   In many ways she is our easiest child, and in other ways the hardest.  She was given the most daring of our baby names, yet likely won’t have a birthday party until she is ten.  She tags along to the activities of others, and draws attention to herself in ways her siblings never did.  Her socks are never matching, and her hand-me-down clothes are always running just a tad too big.  I forget the names of the kids in her preschool class and hope I remember to sign her up for soccer.  She’s my sidekick for errands and grocery store trips more so than a participant in playgroups or music class.

She is the last of our three greatest gifts and the one who will preserve this stage of motherhood for me.  I will parent her with a confidence I didn’t have before.  With my first child, I was always reaching and desperate to take hold of what was next.  With my last child, I cling to time even as I feel it being yanked away from me.  With her every stage, I’m desperate to freeze it, knowing it’s the last.  But alas, it slips away, just as another one enters.  My mind plays catch up, while my heart is stuck for a brief moment, finding a home for the memory of what has just passed. 

So as I gaze at her sleepy smile in the stillness of the night, I snuggle her a little closer.  I know that this age, this stage and this exact moment will only be presented to me once.   She can fit right here in the nook of my belly for just as long as she wants, because I’m just so thankful that she’s here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stages, phases and this too shall pass.

4:00 in the afternoon now means multi-tasking homework with one, piano practice with the other, and potty duty with the third while unloading the dishwasher and trying to start dinner.  Three simultaneous needs with the requests/whines to accompany each.  Knowing that there is precisely 23 minutes to accomplish all of the above before rushing everyone out the door for a lesson or practice.  Its loud, disheveled and full.

4:00 in the afternoon used to mean a grouchy baby, still sleepy from a nap.  Putting him or her in the car seat and driving around with no pre determined destination, trying to calm the baby down and knock off the 2-3 hours until bedtime.   Its quiet, lonely and still.

And once upon a time 4:00 meant it was time to check in on the progress of others, make calls to clients, give reports from the day, issue apologies, accept that dinner would be from the vending machine and cancel plans for after-work happy hour with friends or spouse.   Its surrendering, frustrating and stagnant.

The start of the busy time of the day, the wrap up of the day, or the check-in point halfway through.

I miss that 4:00 a lot, then again, not at all.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Epic Winter, If You're A Kid

“Are you kidding?”  That is the exact phrase that the meteorologist put on her 7-day forecast this morning to soften the blow that snow is predicted next week, again!

Three months ago I had never heard of a Polar Vortex and if asked, would have told you it must describe something in a Star Wars movie.  Now, just like all of you, I’m familiar with those words not one time, or two times, but three times over.

I’ve lost count, but I think the snow total for the season is just shy of 70 inches.  And I know that this winter has beat all sorts of records; from the fewest days above freezing, to the amount of Lake Michigan that is frozen.  And then there’s a new one, the most consecutive weekends interrupted by a major weather event.  

Its been a tough winter and there's signs of it all around.  Our town’s holiday decorations are frozen in the ground, still displayed and prolonging a goofy tradition that my children and I have.  Every year in late November or December when those decorations first appear in the town square, we do this silly little thing where we drive by and sing holiday songs.  But three and half months later, the game is old and my preschooler doesn’t understand that Santa is not coming to town, despite the fact that his house is sitting right there next to the library.

The kids have missed school, the heating bill that just arrived is plenty hefty, our gate is frozen shut and we haven’t been able to take our recycling out for weeks.    Our car is filthy.  Our coats are filthy.  They’ve been sliding along the side of that filthy car in tight parking lots, with spaces claimed by plowed snow mountains.  We’ve lost countless gloves, leaving a mudroom scattered with singles in mismatched colors and sizes (by the way, my kids are wearing those mismatched singles to school and waving one hand mittoned in pink nylon and the other gloved in blue wool.  I refuse to buy new ones so late in the season.  After all, this winter is almost over, right?  Right?!)

Despite my belly-aching about winter, this isn’t just another post on your Facebook newsfeed complaining about the weather.  It is a post about the weather, but told from a different point-of-view.  Don't worry, I'm not going to rah-rah the winter.  I know its been brutal.   But for just a bit, I'm going to stop and try to see this season through the eyes of my children. When I do, I'll realize that this is not a winter of record lows, rather it’s a winter full of happiness and highs.  For our kids, this could be the defining winter of their childhood, and the winter by which all others will be measured.

This has been a winter full of what my will kids will perceive as grand adventures as we've seen our local landscapes transformed.  This is the winter that my kids learned to ice-skate at the playground where they spend their summers swinging.  And this is the winter when they went show-shoeing through the Lincoln Park Zoo on a snowy and muted morning with only the roar of an animal as background noise.  

Even in the intimacies of our own home, things look differently and are serving new purposes.  This is the winter that our Living Room has become a holding place for cardboard box forts, for weeks on end.  The kitchen table is a Lego-building station because the dining room table is claimed by a jigsaw puzzle and board games.  And our backyard is a maze of snow tunnels and igloos that make up what the kids call their “bunker village”. 

Somewhere in the middle of that imaginary village is a snowman that was built three days before Christmas.  Over two months later, that snowman is still standing.  As days go by his head bobs in and out of drifting snow as it settles in new places with each passing gust.   Over the last ten weeks our snowman will go away for a while as he is “drowned” in a new snow fall.  But get this:  he froze so solid that the newer, fluffy snow around him blows away and then we can see his head again.   Thumpety-thump-thump, this might be the only snowman that my children will ever build who doesn’t disappear, but reappears! 

Magic.  I'm reminded every time I drive by the school yard and see an evolving playground full of snow boulders and forts.  I’m delighted knowing that the kids have created elaborate games of crystal mining and kingdoms during recess.  The PE teachers did a unit that allowed the students to sled outside during gym class in preparation for the Olympics and the USA/Canada Men’s Semi-final hockey game was on a TV for the kids to watch during indoor recess and lunch.  This is embracing it and this is the stuff memories are made of.

Back home, the kids built a luge run between the houses in our neighborhood and they went sledding down it every night for a week, right before coming inside and watching Olympians do the same thing on TV. 

Surrounded by our own winter wonderland, we watched skiing, bobsledding and skating while looking up Sochi on the map.  The other day, we heard “Get Lucky” on the radio and my son laughed, saying it reminded him of the Russian Police Choir.  As our family of five cuddled up and watched the giant bear blow out the flame, I felt a pang of nostalgia and processed how old each of my children will be in four years during the next Winter Olympics.  I did the math in my head and had to catch my breath, after having it taken away by the digits 2018, then offered up a quiet prayer for consistency.  I am desperate to try to preserve this and to have this exact moment with them again, yet I know it will be in a different form and different time, as we watch the lighting of the flame in South Korea.

This season, we've also been taken with another part of the world:  Norway and its Kingdom of Arendelle!  The magic of Disney has been sprinkled all over us this and we've grown obsessed with all things from the wonderful movie, "Frozen".   My son does a great Olaf, while my daughter’s duet the sister roles and the soundtrack plays over and over and over during our drives around town.  I joke that the song “Fixer Upper” reminds me of their Daddy, which makes them, and me, erupt with laughter and giggles every time we hear it.  My three-year-old points to the icicles hanging outside her bedroom window and tells me they are scary.  I’m confused until I realize that, of course, she thinks Elsa put them there.

So yes, this winter has been a really long one for you and for me.  But for our kids, this will likely be the winter that settles right into that sacred spot of their hearts reserved for only the most special of times.  This is the winter that will sharpen other memories and serve as a benchmark on the timeline of their childhood.

Years from now my kids will look at the fence in our backyard and remember how the snow once piled up around it all the way to the latch. Someday they’ll be having a snowball fight with their college roommates and think about the battle they once had with the neighborhood kids.    And some morning, many years from now, school will once again be cancelled due to bad weather.  My children will be adults, yet they will feel something familiar as they chuckle watching the expressions of delight swallow up their own children.

So much change is coming for our children as they grow, and mature and become adults.  But I believe that the emotions they feel during especially memorable times are the ones that will shape them and give them something steady to hold onto when the rest of it spins, morphs and evolves.   We all need reassurance that while everything changes, some things stay the same.  Sadly, we can't freeze time, but we can etch the feelings of a time into the mold of who we are, and who we are on our way to becoming.

And with that in mind, I am able to cling onto those emotions and view this winter through the eyes, and hearts of my children.  Doing so, reminds me that we are indeed in a season of wonder and I am coerced into a moment of gratitude for what the kids will call, an epic winter.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Story I Had To Share on Valentine's Day

February can be a bleak month for me.  In our family, we roll right out of the holidays and roll right into the birthdays.  But as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passes and we enter into late January, I'm already bracing myself for the next few dreaded weeks.

It's cold, it's winter, it's Chicago.  But beyond that, it's February.  And for me, February has tragic significance because it was on Valentine's Day, that we found out that the baby I had been carrying for thirty-eight and a half weeks died inside of me unexpectedly and without reason, just a week before her scheduled delivery.

And so in this season, even years later, memories of our baby's death and delivery can be easily triggered as we continue to grieve the child who we love deeply, yet never had the chance to meet.  I often think about who our child would be at age 8, and every Valentine's decoration is a reminder of a day that each year is filled with both aching loss and abundant love.

In a conscious effort to stay afloat on what might otherwise be an emotional drift, I employ strategies to insist on not just survival, but happiness.  Fiercely struggling and fighting, I call upon a reserve of gratitude and joy that I've spent the last eleven months building in preparation for just how depleted I might feel at this time of the year.

Within that reserve are a few key lifelines working against this impossible loss.  Among them is the strange sense of empowerment that comes with the death of a child.  It is difficult to explain, but somewhere within that grief, I realized that this was bad, really bad, but I was surviving.  Albeit barely, I was making it and that was powerful, and continues to be.

Tied up in that sense of empowerment is the ability to shape my own story.  While I can't reverse this terrible thing that has happened, the one tiny bit of control I have is the vantage point from which I process it all.  While some of the major events of life are beyond my control, it is up to me to set the tone and to tell my own story in a way that best suits me.

And when I say me, I mean the entire me.  Not just the grieving me, or the me who was pregnant and then wasn't, but doesn't have a baby in her arms.  But the me in The Before and the me in The After.  The me who is filled with rage and the me who is filled with joy.  The me who laughs heartily and the me who can't find her laugh at times.  In order to be authentic, my story must be inclusive of the entire me.

A year ago I discovered that within me there was a story so powerful and so prominent that it made it difficult to identify the entire me.  I've heard writers say that there is usually a story you need to tell first, before you can find the other stories in yourself.  I was still operating in self-preservation mode, this story was guarding other aspects of me.  The story I needed to share is our family love story.

Within the first year after our baby was stillborn, my husband and I decided that it wasn't fair to our daughter for our story to be shrouded in darkness and despair because of her death. And so every year on February 14, we take a vacation or do something special together as a family.  We call it her "birthday trip" and use the time to celebrate her and to celebrate our family. We shaped our story of loss into a love story complete with tragedy and triumph.

With our family love story always in my heart, when last February, The Huffington Post put out a call for photographs that reminded their readers of love, a personal photograph immediately came to my mind.  Without thought or deliberation, I moved as if on instinct and found the picture of my husband and I in the hours immediately following our still born daughter's delivery and taken by a bereavement photographer who was provided by the hospital.

I've always thought of this photograph as truly capturing the essence of our relationship because even in those early hours there is a connectedness and fortitude in our body language.  And while it may not have been our most romantic hour, as individuals and as a couple, it was our finest hour.  That photograph shows a resolve to grieve together and to move forward together.  To me that photograph is the definition of partnership and steadfast love.

And so I submitted the photograph along with a description of our family love story.  I can't recall much about how I wrote the story.  When I wrote it, I know I was sitting on the couch with the laptop, home alone with the kids because my husband was traveling.  But other than that I don't have a sharp memory of writing that piece because I was so in flow.  I know I didn't edit it, I maybe re-read it once.  I don't really know what I hoped would happen.  But before I could think otherwise I had sent it in an email text to The Huffington Post along with the photograph explaining why to me, this image was love.

Within twenty-four hours I was in contact with the wonderful Lisa Belkin and Farah Miller who very gently guided me through the insecurities and process of publishing this piece.  I had been writing quietly since I was a kid, but within a few days I officially jumped, two feet first, into the public blogosphere.  I grabbed a twitter handle, a blog, and a facebook page.

Within a week the piece had been shared around the world and published on iVillage Australia.  I heard from supportive friends and family as well as people I'd never met, yet who had experienced similar losses.

Something very important happened.  Not only did I share my story, but doing so opened me up to listen to other people's stories.  I heard from a gentleman whose child was stillborn over 40 years ago and I heard from a father who had lost his baby the night before.  A grandmother, a sister, a friend; there were so many people who were going through this, or who loved someone going through this.  And heartbreakingly, each story represented a child that the world will never get to know.  I read every comment and cried and celebrated each and every one of those babies.  And every time I thought of my own daughter and grieved for her all over again.  Connections were made and in those stories I felt the warmth of friendship and the bond of universal understanding that can both sustain and uplift.  I gave, just as I received.

The stories continue to be shared.  I'm proud that Our Family Love Story will be a part of the book Three Minus One being released this spring and associated with the film Return to Zero about a couple grieving after a stillbirth.

Sharing this story has allowed me to gain confidence as a writer and share other stories. There are now many pieces on The Huffington Post and blog about careers, and friendship, parenting and food allergies.  A piece on leaning in was featured on  I'm finding my footing as a writer, attending workshops, retreats and conferences.  I've met writers and bloggers who inspire and challenge me.  At home, friendships have been formed and strengthened with other mothers and writers.

Sharing this story has fostered so many relationships.  This story was mine for many years, but it was time that I give it to others so I could nurture and grow the other stories in my soul.  I needed to get back to a vantage point where I can see the whole me, so I could tend to her and develop her.  The whole me is powerful and wise, and has things to say, lessons learned and tales forged on a journey that is simultaneously treacherous and beautiful.

Most of all, sharing this story reminded me that we are not on this journey alone.  Sure we have ourselves, and we have our family and friends.  But we also have something else.  Something that bonds us to each other.  There is a big, big world out there full of people who are ready to love and ready to share, ready to listen and ready to give.

I do believe that the words to this piece didn't come from me, but through me.  My daughter didn't get the chance to live, but she is my heart and she is my voice.  And for us, she is the reason why Valentine's Day is once again a day to spread some love.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Insisting on Happiness, Even in January

"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.” 

- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Happiness is hard to come by these days, isn't it?  Here in the Midwest and across much of the United States we're facing the worst winter in a century.  Our ground has been covered in snow for well over a month now and with the Chicago area expecting even more snow this weekend, I believe it will be quite some time before we see any sort of green.  

The skies above are gray and the ground below is white.   The days are short, and dark. My lips are chapped and my skin is dry.  My emotional palette is desperately in need of some more vibrant hues to lighten my mood right now.

Adding insult to injury is a giant lack of routine.  We're now squarely four to five weeks into the new year, yet I feel like I haven't caught any sort of traction.   With a Polar Vortex two times over and resulting school cancellations, this month has felt like one big scramble to schedule and reschedule meetings, travels, appointments and activities.

As for any sort of New Years plan for self-improvement, just forget about it.  While I didn't formally commit to a New Year resolution, I had a few things I had hoped to up my game on this year, physically, emotionally and organizationally.

So as this first month of 2014 comes to a close, I'm feeling a bit blah.  Actually a lot blah!  But before I get too carried away in my blah and one negative thought leads to another, I need to stop myself and adhere to one of my favorite quotes and listed at the top of this post.  I need to insist on happiness.

Knowing that one of the things that's bugging me the most is the feeling that I didn't accomplish anything in January, I'm making myself stop and take note of the past thirty-one days so I can celebrate a bit of productivity in each.  While I spent many of those days feeling sloppy in a big black, puffy parka, I need to prove to myself that I didn't waste those days.

Highlights of the month include renewing my driver's license (with a 6-year-old and 3-year-old in tow while I took the written exam), celebrating my son's 10th birthday with grandparents and adventures around the city including taking he and a friend to see Blue Man Group and a family outing to the Field Museum.  At the same time I celebrated my own birthday and a decade of motherhood.  

Although not as much as I hoped, I did write a bit, submitted a bit and logged a few miles on a treadmill this month.  I've helped a friend or two, or three, as they are going through tough times and celebrated with others as they either announced their pregnancies or were showered for a baby about to arrive.  A closet has been cleaned and a donation to Goodwill made.  Our church installed a new pastor, our school committed to a day to raise food allergy awareness, and our neighbors gathered to work in a food pantry.  We participated in a program to acknowledge the program at our hospital that helps bereaved families after a stillbirth or death of an infant.  

I signed each child up for a new round of activities and projects at school.  Each and every one of those events were interrupted and upset the choreography of our calendar when various winter weather hit.  When stuck inside with the kids during cold days we did some creative science experiments and games involving a straw, a cotton ball and painters tape.  And while stuck inside with the kids on cold days, I yelled at them more than I should have and let them watch TV more than they should have.  Either way, we all survived and came out mostly laughing (ok, true confession:  I cried just a little bit when that fourth snow day call came in).

Our house is 94 years old and held up pretty well in the coldest temperatures its ever known.  Our pipes froze, but didn't burst.  Most importantly, we had shelter and heat. Our car didn't start one morning, and then it did.  And as long as I'm celebrating achievements, I should take note of the inches upon inches of snow that my husband and I removed from our walks over the past few weeks.

Many of my accomplishments of the past month may seem relatively small.  And some were a bit more involved.  I had a medical scare requiring a biopsy and for those few days while awaiting the results my mind spun as anyone's would.  When the results came back as benign I steadied myself against the wave of emotion and relief which overtook me while knowing that others were receiving a different phone call.  I was again reminded of this perspective when just a week or so later in the month we spent the day being humbled and grateful at Lurie Children's Hospital as our daughter had a relatively minor outpatient procedure. 

So what if at the end of this very long and very cold month I didn't get to that daily plank challenge or completely cleanse myself of caffeine?  My book club finally had a holiday dinner and I saw some of the Oscar-nominated films.  My husband and I binge watched Orange is the New Black, and then peacefully settled into the start of Downton Abbey....oh, and I am hooked on The Bachelor again after a five year hiatus (thanks in part to the Polar Vortex, and thanks in part to Juan Pablo).

Certainly those thirty-one days of January lacked any sort of color or natural hue from the great outdoors, but each and every one of those days was vibrant and rich in its own way.  And whether I spent them wearing lip stick or chap stick, in a pair of snow shoes or slippers, every day of the first month of 2014 was well lived because each of those days was a gift.  Making this list made me appreciate and see light in these gray days.  I needed to know that I used those gifts in ways I didn't realize.

If you're feeling down at this time of the year, make a quick mental list of how you spent your January.  Go ahead and let yourself acknowledge the little and mundane right along with the big and fantastic.  Whether you've made a major life-changing resolution, or made it through the coldest day in a decade.  You stopped eating sugar, you fed your baby squash for the first time or you simply got those holiday returns back to Old Navy.  Either way, high-five to you!  High-five to us!  We're doing it!  We're surviving this winter.

After all, I'm just enormously satisfied that I was able to spend a morning at the DMV, with kids in tow.  And if that's what it takes to insist on my happiness, so be it.

**Please note that if you are feeling something more severe, you should seek help from a professional.  I don't want to imply that it is as simple as making a list.**

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Playscaping/Escaping on Such a Winter's Day

I'd never done it before.  In fact, I had no intentions of ever doing it.  And before I tell the story, let me disclaim it all with this photo,

Chicago.  January.  It feels like such a long, long time since this,

...or this,

And at age 6 and 3, my kids desperately need this.  They need to run and play and get fresh air.  And in the Midwest in the winter, that is hard to come by.

And so the story goes.  After a busy morning I decided to treat the kids to Chic-fil-A for lunch.  We have one now.  I've never been inside.  I've heard nice things from my friends who live in states like Virginia and Kentucky.  So we drove up and the girls spotted an indoor play-area in the restaurant.

"Please Mommy, can we go in there, please?" they begged.

Call it crazy, and I know it is.  But I've never let them go to one of those play areas at a restaurant.  It just never became a part of the rhythm of my days with young kids.  They go to the gym childcare playscape and other places, but I'm always sanitizing and triple sanitizing after.  (I know, I'm annoying even myself while typing this.)

In a bit of my defense, my oldest child has food allergies so we haven't spent a ton of time in restaurants at all.  But especially ones involving young kids and food and play areas because they would have been so dangerous and so off limits that we never even tried.

The closest thing we ever did was to attend a stressful birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.  At the time I was appalled to see a woman with her head down on the table sleeping, while her kids popped coins into an arcade game.

I admit, I totally judged.  I judged and then vowed to never return.  And to this day have never returned, to Chuck E. Cheese, or any other play area in a restaurant.

So today, sitting in the Chic-fil-A parking lot I made a snap decision and turned around and said "yes!" to the delighted girls in the back seat.  Without their brother's allergies to worry about and no upcoming vacations to be spoiled by a stomach bug, I took one look at the gray outdoors and surrendered to their plea.

They squealed with delight, hopped out of their carseats and zipped their coats in record time.  "Thank you, thank you, Mommy!" they gushed and I felt good throwing judgement and caution to the wind.  Really good.   After all, this was the right thing to do.  I don't want my kids growing up overly sheltered or in a bubble.  Yes!  We'd go into the Chic-fil-A, have a nice fried lunch and then play.  It was all so very "everyman" of us.

As we arrived in the sparkling clean restaurant, my mind was eased.  This wasn't Chuck E. Cheese, this was fresh and nice and bright.

I chatted with the cashier about how the whole process worked and she laughed at my naivety.  I said, "I'm sorry, we've never done this."

"Done what?" she asked.

"This," I replied, "eaten inside and.....played!"  I mouthed the word as if describing a mythical occurrence....a flying pig, or a rainbow-tailed unicorn.  "plaaaayed"  I repeated.

"Oh", she said and laughed.

I noticed that they had caffeinated Diet Coke and joked with the cashier about caffeine-free Diet Coke.  I quipped, "What is the point of drinking all those chemicals if you aren't going to at least get the benefit of the caffeine?"

Ha - ha, ho- ho.  She politely smiled at me.  Oh my sweet Lord above, I saw the expression flash across her face.  The cashier at Chic-fil-A pitied me.

So as the girls shed their coats and hats into my arms and when the tray was too much for me to carry along with their gear, the cashier beckoned her co-worker to help me.  A friendly person emerged from behind the counter to carry the tray.  As the girls raced off towards a seat by the play area, I kind of breathlessly muttered to this kind person carrying my tray "Gosh, this is sooo nice!".

I literally said a Chic-fil-A.  Holy moly, desperado!!  Perhaps it was the funny polka-dotted cows on the walls, the promise of a Diet Coke or the Southern hospitality, but I had truly and literally fallen under the spell of Chic-fil-A and was downright giddy.

The light seemed to glow brighter and warmer inside that restaurant.  Just like a welcome oasis from the gray, snowy skies outside.  My girls were mannered and eager to please.  Bribed with not being able to play until they finished their meal, my daughters ate their nuggets without complaint and their fruit squeeze too!  I could almost hear the birds chirping in the background.

When it was time to play they raced into the romper room and I sat back, refilled my caffeine source and pulled out my phone.  I thought to myself, "this isn't so bad.  Maybe I should have been doing this all along.  It turns out that I am the fool!"

My oldest daughter scampered out to tell me that she had made a new friend.  "Great!" I thought justifying the experience, "that's exactly why this is so wonderful.  We're expanding our horizons and getting out of our bubble and our community".  Ok, so it wasn't exactly a see-the-world experience, but thanks to Chic-fil-A our world wasn't feeling so small suddenly.  

This was just swell.  In fact, any memory I had of any sort of disagreement with the social political beliefs of the restaurant's president was all starting to slip far, far away.  Now I understood why friends of mine in other states hosted fundraisers here, and posted photos of the Chic-fil-A Daddy/Daughter Nights and other community events on their Facebook pages.

I scanned that Facebook newsfeed and thought about how those friends of mine in Southern states would laugh at how novel I thought this trip to Chic-fil-A was.  How they'd been doing this for years with their young kids.

I opened email and was even feeling rejuvenated enough to respond to a friend with a witty (...and frankly I thought pretty funny and smart) comparison of the movie Gravity to the TV show The Bachelor when the romper room door opened just long enough for me to recognize a child's wail.

"Sounds like its getting crazy in there.  Poor kid," I thought to myself, before the acknowledgement set in, "oh sh*t, that's my kid!"

I hurried in and heard her before I saw her.  Less than five minutes in and she was lost in the primary colored tubes above my head and screaming.  I had to talk her down.  Before I could see her, my six year old was dramatically telling me, "I didn't do it!  I don't know what happened."

I snapped at her, "Lucy, you were supposed to be watching her!".  Isn't it always the wrong thing that comes out of our mouths first?  Both as a kid and as a parent.  I felt the eyes of every other parent and babysitter in the restaurant on me.

She replied, "I know, but I made a friend instead!"

I sighed and started trying to coax my sobbing 3-year-old down the tubes all while thinking to myself, "I am not going to climb up in this thing!  Oh come on.  The germs!  I don't have time to be sick,"

Eventually I found my little Vivi red faced, hair going in every direction and her shirt half off her body, with one arm hanging out.  I grabbed her, hugged her and took her back to the restaurant.  Half-naked.  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  Whatever.  Her shirt was half on.

The other parents asked me if everything was ok and I scolded myself mentally for getting ourselves into this predicament.  One minute everything was going so nicely, the next it was all ab-so-f*ck-ing-lute-ly falling the apart.  Crud!

As Vivi calmed down she explained that her older sister stepped on her shirt and pulled it off then went back in to play.  It wasn't any other child who had derobed my child, it was my own!

I gathered my things and told the girls we had five more minutes.  Then they collapsed to the ground as I pulled on their snowpants and boots and sweated and cursed inside my head.  And with that, my brief escape was abruptly ended as we sloshed our way back through the gray parking lot and to our car.

As I scolded them to stay close and hold hands, I saw the girls sneak a peak back over their shoulders at the bright restaurant with its colorful tubes and play area.

We may go back to a restaurant playscape....and we may not.  (And it's quite likely that in those five minutes of escape we caught a germ or two that will wreak havoc on our household for an entire week.  But I'm trying, really trying, not to go there.)

Instead I'm acknowledging that in those five minutes I realized that it doesn't matter if it's a Chuck E Cheese or a Chic-fil-A.  I stand corrected. I'm no different than the mom resting her head on the table.  I scanned my phone while my children climbed in and out of tunnels and clobbered each other because they needed to burn off some energy...and I needed to refuel.  This job is exhausting anytime, but especially on cold winter days, and we're all just doing whatever we can to keep on moving.