Jenny Turns Three

Jenny turned three earlier this month. Barnes & Noble sent her a coupon for a free birthday cupcake so we kicked off her celebration early with a mother-daughter trip to the bookstore. She was a little bewildered at first but warmed up to the idea after her first bite of chocolate cupcake. Reading (and her shoes) are her great loves so we gulped down stacks of books in the children’s area along with time at the train table. She basked in the undivided attention and beamed the whole time.

In our house the birthday kid picks the food for the day and wakes up to a decorated dining room. We started her actual birthday with donuts for breakfast plus squeezie packs of applesauce. Individually packaged anything is a big treat around here because Mom and Dad are cheap! After breakfast we hit a favorite park to burn off all that sugar energy.

We ordered pizza for lunch on the way home, and at the last minute called my Mom and asked if she wanted to stop by for lunch with us. Annie does not do well with crazy days or big events but we were glad Grandma could stop in for an hour to make things a little bit extra special. Jenny loves Thomas the Train so we had Thomas plates and some of our trains out on the table for decorations. Easy-peasy. Our oven’s been on the blink so the cake came from a local French bakery. It was fabulous. I hope our oven breaks again for the next birthday to give me an excuse! Unlike last year, when she couldn’t yet chew, she knew exactly what to do with her cake and ice cream this time!

Jenny loved her gifts – her new schoolbus and Daniel Tiger trolley were big hits. This is the first time we’ve done party favors. We’d hoped they would distract the siblings from the birthday kid’s toys but not surprisingly, since they’re only four, four, and one, they were hard to pull away. We eventually shooed them up to nap to give Jenny a little predator-free time with her new toys before bed.

After the kids’ naps, afternoon snack, and a little time playing in the yard we took a long family walk. The Man and I actually had a dinner to attend that night (we forgot that date was Jenny’s birthday when we penciled it into the calendar) but it’s just as well since at that point all four kids had taken in just about all the birthday excitement they could handle.

We left a screen-less window open during our walk and came back to a surprise: a chickadee in the house.

A few days after Jenny’s birthday some relatives were able to meet up at a local ice cream shop for a last-minute low-key family party. It was the simplest party – singing Happy Birthday and eating ice cream. Completely relaxing and fun. The kids ran around in the warm weather, the adults got to talk, and who doesn’t love ice cream? It’s an ideal birthday celebration for Annie to attend, too, as she (and her parents) didn’t have to deal with the stress of gifts. She has a hard time even when the gifts are for her. Skipping them at Jenny’s party let all of us relax.

We loved our time in the Army, but after so many years away it’s a treat to have so much family nearby – the Man’s dad and step-mom, his sisters, two sets of my grandparents, my parents, and one of my brother’s with his wife and son all live with an hour and a half of our home. We even get to see the Man’s mom from Canada more frequently since she’s only one flight away now instead of an extended trip with two flights and layover. The Man’s side of the family was too busy with school and work to be able to meet up during Jenny’s birthday week (his own twin sisters had their birthday that week too) but it’s still great to have them close enough for afternoon visits, holidays, or quick weekend trips.

Our sweet Jenny had a great birthday week. What a joy this kid is! We’ve loved watching her growth and emerging personality this year. She is the easiest, sweetest, most happy-go-lucky kid and completely skipped the terrible twos. We often joke that it’s a good thing she wasn’t our first child; we’d have thought we were wonderful parents, not realizing that if you’ve had one child you’ve…had one child. I think the results of parenting are about 25% parenting effort and 75% whatever personality your kid popped out of the womb with! This year Jenny has progressed from a very quiet laid-back baby into a more boisterously cheerful toddler with a zany personality. She likes to crack jokes and run in circles around the house singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” at the top of her lungs. I could count her tantrums on one hand. While she’s a sinner like the rest of us and sometimes tries to snatch a sibling’s toy she’s also incredibly kind and tender-hearted. When she sees a sibling crying she’ll often take off like a shot and return with their favorite toy. She’ll hug and pat her baby sister when she’s upset (a gesture the baby sister does not always appreciate!) and is quick to share. She’s very sensitive to other’s emotional distress – even a sad page in a picture book will make her cry or bury her face. She’s also very sensitive to correction from us and will sometimes burst into tears when we tell her “no” – not because she’s mad, but because she’s sad to have displeased us. Her favorite things on earth are her shoes and reading books, closely followed by cars, bikes and strollers, slides and swings, puzzles, baby dolls, and Daniel Tiger. She graduated from feeding therapy two months ago. After almost three years of therapy she can finally eat normal foods and drink from a cup like the rest of the family. That was her last therapy, and she’s otherwise very healthy and completely typical for her adjusted age – pretty amazing for a kid born 3.5 months early! She’s started hiking on her own legs a lot this year and is incredibly wiry and strong. She’ll do pullups on the park equipment for fun, and is constantly climbing up the fridge or onto the counter to get at the (forbidden sink) or swinging from the underside of the table. We call her the tree frog. She’s a snuggler and especially loves cuddling in on my lap with Josie for the little girls’ end of day story time. She loves playing with her big brother and sister, especially riding bikes around the house with Jack and reading books or singing with Annie. She’s highly social after an initial burst of shyness and often makes friends at the playground and charms guests. What a gift this sweet girl is to all who know her!

 

Back at the Mound

My Mom watched the kids last week so we could get out for a hiking date. We love to take our kids hiking but sometimes it’s nice to go at an adult pace without stops for every pebble, leaf, and mud puddle! The woods are a spring fairyland right now. We stopped for coffee in the quiet little farm town near our home on the way back. It reminded us of our early married days in San Antonio, TX when we’d often leave first thing in the morning, drive into the Texas Hill Country, eat a picnic lunch somewhere on the trail, then meander back home in time for dinner and evening reading or a movie. 

A Hike at the Old Farm

The Man spent large chunks of Holy Week and the Easter Octave on call in the hospital but we still squeezed in lots of outdoor time in the sunshine. This week we tried a couple forest preserves we’d never visited before along with low-key walks and playground visits. These pictures were all taken on a walk at a local farm that the local conservancy bought for public use. It felt like we should be filming a BBC Jane Austen production in this scenery.

By some miracle not a single child fell in the creek (though someone did throw themselves down in the mud during a tantrum). Jenny completed the entire hike on her own two legs, a first for her. Thanks to her start as a micro-preemie she’s tended to meet physical milestones a bit later than normal but we’re seeing huge progress as she approaches her third birthday. She graduated from feeding therapy last week, too! At one point she balked in the trail, terrified of a dead tree trunk up ahead. Before I could help her Jack (4) stepped in, took her hand, and walked her safely past reassuring her that it was just a tree as they went. It’s a sweet moment to remember in the midst of the raucous sibling battles that sometimes break out around here.

 

Nature Notes, April 6th – 14th

This is the first of many blurry and shadowy photos ahead as I usually just snap quick photos for later identification, usually while juggling a child or two (or three, or four). We spent this afternoon at the park. I found a robin’s nest in the highest tower of the playground. What beautiful eggs! We lifted each of the kids up for a peek, then shooed them away to protect the nest. I hope the parents don’t abandon it. They picked a busy place to raise their babies.

A week ago only small bushes and the crabapple trees were leafing out. Why do they sprout leaves before the larger trees? The willows came to life again at the same time. For several days the treetop landscape from our hill was all grays and browns, interspersed with fresh yellow-green patches in all the damp valleys and pondsides where the willows grow. We have one in our backyard, too, which makes me happy. I love willows. A week later and many of the larger trees are putting out leaves as well. I found out an interesting tidbit while reading. We often worry about a mid-winter thaw confusing the trees and triggering too-early buds. However, it turns out that trees rely not on the temporary temperature but on receiving a set total number of cold days to start budding. That’s why you want to plant trees grown in your own area. Among other problems, a southern tree planted in the north could be programmed to leaf out too early for this area and get killed off by frost.

The crocuses are dying off. Daffodils are at peak bloom. Many yards have large patches of pretty blue squill. I took the kids on a hike earlier this week where we saw mayapples popping up, trillium, bloodroot, one lonely first bluebell, and this hard-to-identify flower. The closest match I could find in my wildflowers guide was cutleaf toothwort (a Harry Potter-esque name if I ever heard one). It’s a perfect match in leaf, bud, color, and design except that every description of cutleaf toothwort I read said it has four petals and this has five. Any naturalists want to help me out?


At home that afternoon I realized we have large patches of violets in the yard. We also have a redbud tree I hadn’t spotted before. You can’t see the flowers in the pine-shaded woods unless the sun hits it just right so it snuck under our radar. My Mom identified the last plant below as phlox, but wasn’t sure of the variety.

On another hike on Palm Sunday we heard spring frogs by the hundreds in a pond. We also saw lots of deer tracks, and found a large patch of fur where a deer was rubbing off its heavy winter coat.

I usually think of herons as solitary birds but the other day five white herons flew low over the road in front of my car. I’ve seen many others, mostly blue, flying in pairs lately. It turns out that herons nest in heronries of up to 150 birds in the spring. Given the numbers I’m seeing there must be one nearby. They usually pick isolated places to nest like islands or more remote patches of woods so I suppose we won’t get a look. From what I’ve read, what we think of as a white herons is often just a white stage of the blue heron. Either way, they always look eerily prehistoric to me.

Much earlier this spring I saw a huge flock of unfamiliar big birds flying high overhead. Another flew over as I picked the kids up from school the next day. They had unfamiliar and beautiful calls I’d never heard before. Annie’s aide wondered if they were herons, but a heron’s call is a hoarse croak. I finally pinned them down as sandhill cranes. Quite a rare thing to spot (and hear!) around here as they’re not local and just fly through during their migration to northern breeding grounds after a winter in the warm South.

Many other birds are back to stay. I’ve seen lots of cardinals and robins, of course. Pigeons, gulls, and swallows have returned. Jack has a great memory. After hearing a mourning dove for the first time a couple of weeks back he heard another on a walk this week and recognized it right away. The marshland is full of red-winged blackbirds. I see several hawks a day, including a couple of small hawks or falcons I don’t recognize. Are they juveniles or another variety? A pretty little house finch hung out by the dining room window as we ate this weekend and sent me off on a long rabbit trail to identify it.

Bees and wasps are back, and we came out to find box elder bugs in tight little clusters covering the front of the house by the hundreds. Annie had a grand time gently poking them off. Then Josie staggered up the front steps, toddled over to inspect a giant clump, turned around, and slowly, placidly…sat on them. Good thing we’re used to laundry.

We’ve had lots of beautiful open windows weather lately. Long walks, hikes, park afternoons, picnics on the deck. Spring!

 

A Weekend in New York

I’ve attended an annual weekend of meetings and family reunion activities in New York since elementary school. Earlier this month we left the two little ones at home with the Man’s father and stepmother and took the twins along on a whirlwind trip to NYC. Warning: numerous blurry cellphone photos ahead.

As you can see, they were thrilled when we finally loaded up the car and headed out. Annie wore that face-splitting grin all the way to the airport.

Jack and Annie behaved beautifully at the airport. That is, until we each took a child to the restroom before boarding and Annie encountered the automatic-flush toilet. Automatic toilets and potty training are not a match made in heaven. It flushed every time she moved which resulted in her repeatedly leaping off and trying to claw her way up my body to escape the diabolical toilet.

Lollipops kept the kids’ ears popping during takeoff and landing. I always rolled my eyes at what I thought was a bit of a hippie artifial dye phobia but it turns out one of our kids reacts very poorly to artificial dyes with through-the-roof hyperactivity and meltdowns. I’m now a big fan of the YumEarth Organics brand of candies. They’re more expensive but use plant-derived colors and the flavors are rich and fruity.

As somewhat jaded adult passengers it was fun to see the thrill of flying through our preschoolers’ eyes.

The Man’s seat bookended an otherwise empty row so we spread out. Jack talked Daddy’s ear off for the entire flight and Annie stretched out on my lap and fell fast asleep soon after takeoff.

We’d been in New York City all of thirty minutes before Jack picked up a new and colorful expletive from several construction workers in the cab line then loudly interrogated us about it in front of the crowded queue: “Why are they saying ****? WHY DO THEY KEEP SAYING ****?” Thanks, Empire State.

At the fancy-schmancy hotel the twins had the priciest mac n’ Cheese dinner of their lives which hopefully wiped Jack’s shiny new cuss word from his memory. It was spectacularly good mac n’ cheese. We know because we were ravenous ourselves and provided significant, um, “assistance” to our children. We’re used to 5:00 PM dinners with toddlers, not fashionable 8:00 PM gatherings!

After the kids’ dinner we all changed and headed up to a cocktail reception. At this point the twins were hyper and it was impossible to catch a still picture. Perhaps we should’ve understood that as a warning, but no… *cue JAWS music for the evening’s progression*. We said hello to lots of extended family and acquaintances while the twins hid their faces, begged to be held, or thrashed. We tided them over with juice and snacks, then quickly ushered them back to our room.

We’d arranged a babysitter for them while we attended a dinner for the adults. Unfortunately that’s where things really fell apart. One kid was stretched to the breaking point from the lack of routine and anxiety. The other was off the rails with excitement from the novelty. Then they started feeding off one another’s wild emotions. A little after 9:00 we got an emergency text from the babysitter asking us to return because the kids were throwing things, hitting, and pulling hair. No pictures, so you’ll just have to imagine our horrified faces staring at our phones in disbelief. The Man hurried back to find the sitter in tears and two small berserkers on the rampage. They had, among other things, thrown and shattered a glass. They’ve never behaved that way before or since. We were appalled, but also learned to reset our expectations for future trips. Our kids clearly need a parent’s hand on the first night after traveling! Children were dealt with, riot acts were read, the babysitter was thoroughly compensated, and the preschool crowd did much better for the rest of the trip.

The next morning we joined extended family for breakfast and the twins ate their weight in pastries from the buffet. Bonus, we got to meet a new niece who was even cuter than her pictures. As a kid I dreaded these gatherings. I always got sick on the planes, had migraines throughout the weekend (a sort of air travel hangover), felt claustrophobic in Manhattan, desperately craved and couldn’t find introverted alone time, and dreaded making conversation with so many people through my painful teenage shyness. This year I realized how much I’ve come to love meals with all these lovely relatives from around the world. It’s a privilege to get to see them each year and I appreciate the tremendous amounts of work put into planning it all. I still get claustroph obic in Manhattan and feel utterly drained by the end but time with so many interesting and kind family members is a real treat. Any given meal might hold conversations with an academic, a homemaker, an editor, an attorney, an engineer, a ranger, a rock climbing guide, an illustrator, or any one of dozens of other careers and lifestyles. My extended family members are warm, funny, smart, and creative, and I’m so lucky to know each of them.

While I sat in business meetings for the morning the Man took the kids to his much-beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used to visit often as a college student and then later as a young man working in New York. He loved fulfilling a long-held goal of taking his own kids there. We may have spoiled them for life. It’s hard to beat the Met for your first art museum experience! Or at any rate your first conscious art museum experience. They slept through some perfectly nice exposure to art as babies.

After a group lunch with relatives we showered the kids with dire warnings and left them with the babysitter again. Thankfully, they behaved perfectly. The Man and I sat in more meetings for the afternoon. Keeping in mind the kids’ disastrous evening the night before we opted for calm and quiet family time after the meetings. We took the kids for a walk, grabbed dinner for them at a little pizzeria, and enjoyed low-key time together. They were pretty psyched to have an entire bottle of apple juice each since juice is a treat reserved for illnesses in our home.

We left them with sitters again (still with significant trepidation on our part!) and headed out for that evening’s scheduled cocktail party and dinner. Once again, the kids behaved perfectly and went right to bed. Phew! We both enjoyed our dinner with family. I’m so lucky to be married to my calm, confident, kind husband and enjoyed watching him across the table. Every so often I stop and quietly marvel over the fact that, out of all the people in the world, I get to be married to him.

Another family breakfast, another morning of meetings (the twins joined us for some and did well) and we were off. Annie felt desperately tired and kept leaning over on me in the cab and in the airport while trying to fall asleep. To keep her awake until the flight we walked long rounds through the terminal. Our hallway had a wide window overlooking the runway and the twins could’ve stayed for hours watching the planes take off and land. When we boarded our plane the flight attendants asked if the kids wanted to see the cockpit. The attendants and the pilots were very kind and welcoming and Jack has since announced he wants to be a pilot when he grows up. I think he’s inspired by the glowing prospect of pushing All! Those! Buttons!

We all felt wiped out from activity and engagements by this point. Annie crashed promptly after takeoff again and slept until landing. Jack found his second wind and talked with at his exhausted parents for the entire flight. That said, he behaved very well and worked his way through books, coloring, snacks, and my last resort, a barf bag puppet:

We returned home to two happy and well-cared for toddlers. My in-laws were so kind to look after a couple of rambunctious babies for the weekend – they even made dinner so we wouldn’t have to worry about it that night! Jenny asked us for apple juice several times an hour for the next two days so we suspect some grandparent spoiling occurred – which is just as it should be! My own grandparents frequently snuck us cookies or gummie bears, and, paradoxically, bribed us to brush our teeth with M&Ms.

We love the open prairie and peaceful woods around our home but it was fun to take a quick special big-city trip with our big kids!

Neighborhood Walk

Yesterday I bundled the still-sick babies into the stroller and took all four sniffling kids out for a long walk in the fresh air. We found this beauty down the back lane to the forest preserve ponds. Forsythia is my favorite spring bloom. I love how it bursts into jubilant sunny sprays when most scenery is still gray and dreary.

We live in a semi-rural area surrounded by woods and farms. Our neighborhood has larger lots with patches of forest preserve land, marshes, creeks, and ponds intermixed. Deer, coyotes, foxes, possums, raccoons, and smaller wildlife hide out in the timber and prairies. Yesterday, though, the wildlife was less dramatic but very plentiful. After five months of no worms the earthworm hordes suddenly emerged by the hundreds. Slugs, too. In other words, little kid heaven. Everyone except the baby got to hold earthworms but I denied the request to keep them as pets. When I pulled out the phone to catch a picture of the first worm Jenny helpfully leaned in and told the worm “Cheeeeeeese!” All this led to an afternoon rabbit trail on Google learning about earthworm habits and slug identification. We also heard the first mourning dove of the year. We couldn’t spot it so I showed the kids pictures of one at lunch.

I know it’s a standard gripe now – “O tempora! O mores! O technology!” – and I spend my fair share of hours in front of a screen. However, we’re also watching the effects of excessive technology in our new neighborhood and they’re dramatic. Earlier this week I read another doom-and-gloom article stating that the average child aged 8-18 now spends 1/3 of their hours sleeping, 1/3 of their hours in school, and 1/3 of their time in front of a screen. I’d have rolled my eyes except that, sadly, it’s true here. You would never guess that half the houses in our neighborhood have children in them. We try to get our kids outside daily, often a couple times a day. We’re still limited by the fact that they’re not old yet enough to go outside without our supervision. Whenever the weather allows we’re out with bikes and scooters on the driveway, taking walks, playing baseball in the yard, hitting a park, or hiking nearby trails. In our nine months in this home I have literally never seen any children other than ours out on a walk with their parents. I didn’t even realize any small children lived in several of the houses near us until other neighbors told me. Most have large yards and woods. Many have trampolines, long driveways perfect for bikes, and elaborate swing sets. A few even have pools. And yet, it’s a ghost town out there.

The Man and I recently slipped out for an evening hour at a coffee shop together. Three teen girls sat at a table near us sharing a delicious-looking chocolate fondue in the cozy shop. It looked like it would have been so much fun as a teen…except that two spent the entire time staring at their phones. The third tried to strike up a conversation but all they talked about were various friends being bullied on social media (that, and the need to diet, despite all being Size 0 or 2 from the look of them). They barely cracked a smile and almost never looked at one another. After an hour they shuffled out. We left feeling so sorry for those poor glum girls and the pressures they face, and a bit depressed ourselves. So, on that cheery note, get outside with your kids! Teach them to interact with the world without an electronic device always in hand. Look at some slugs! (On second thought, perhaps that’s not the best motiviation…).

Spring and the Infectious Diseases Ward

We’ve been sick a lot this winter thanks to a combination of preschool germs, four kids who still put things in their mouths, lots of indoor time due to nasty weather, and finally coming out of our preemie-with-immature-lungs cocoon and spending time in public places now that Jenny is over two. Among multiple other illnesses the entire family caught RSV (Josie developed croup to boot). We’ve had three rounds of the stomach flu in the last month. The poor Man, bless his heart, had to spend the night on call in the ICU in a nauseous haze. Just as half the family got over the stomach flu we traded with the other half and caught a nasty cold that involves four days of high fevers and general misery before mellowing out to a week of hacking, runny noses, and sneezing. The baby cried for a good four hours today, and the kids spent half of yesterday slumped on the couch watching Daniel Tiger as their brains leaked out their ears. Basically, you would not want us as party guests right now. In fact, you don’t want us out on your driveway, and it’s probably best if we don’t even glance your direction while passing by.

Outside, though, things are looking up. There’s a new spring “first” every way we turn:

That first short-lived crocus was quickly followed by six more. Two days ago I spotted the first daffodil blooming up on the wooded ridge between our house and the neighbors. That afternoon, driving Annie home from an appointment, I glanced at the prairie to my right; overnight every scrub bush had produced a delicate haze of newborn green leaves. Just before dinner yesterday we loaded our sick kids in the car for a drive and passed new rain-dotted snowdrops. The yards around us are starting to green up. On a damp drizzly walk this afternoon we heard the first woodpecker of the year drumming away in the woods, and the first frogs calling in the marsh as deer ran away from us through the chest-high grass.


(I turned around after photographing flowers and spotted an audience)

Two days ago we enjoyed a random temperature spike into the 70s. Nobody felt great but the twins joined me for a bit as we cleared out dead leaves and old tomato vines from the kitchen garden. Eventually they ran off to climb their favorite backyard tree and told me they were Winnie the Pooh trying to reach some honey. In the afternoon I loaded sick babies in the stroller and we headed off on a gloriously sunny walk.

It’s not all grim inside. The twins are pulling out of their colds, Jenny is close behind, and hopefully Josie will follow soon. I found this set of magnetic wooden people for $2 at a consignment sale and it’s bought us some sick days breathing room. I was excited that it’s a racially diverse set. Annie loves them and keeps begging to play with “the Maggot People.” 

Hair day needs to happen, sick or well.. My skills need work but I liked this part line pattern.

Jenny has joined Josie in her ditch-the-pants obsession. We turned around from folding laundry this afternoon to proud little girl giggles and this sight: