Tuesday, March 19, 2019

How to Stay Organized with Kids When You Live in a Small Place


“Where can I put this, so nobody gets it?” my daughter asked, holding the half-finished art project she was working on as I pushed three kids and my husband out the door for 8 a.m. school drop-off.

“In your drawer,” I suggested, knowing my two-year-old wouldn’t venture into that off-limits territory while her older siblings were at school.

In our family, each kid has one drawer in their bedroom entirely to themselves, where they can store their most prized possessions. When you’re used to sharing a room with three siblings, getting a whole new drawer is like being gifted a mansion. Raising four kids in a two-bedroom apartment requires some ninja organizational skills plus one essential rule: everyone—and everything—needs a place to be.

Most of our apartment is communal. We share school supplies and spots at the table, bathrooms and bins of books, toys and technology. But to coexist peacefully, it’s crucial to give our kids one thing: a sliver of personal space.

Shortly after my youngest turned two, we traded our crib and toddler bed for a second set of bunkbeds. With the newly available floor space, I was determined to give my kids a storage area that was completely their own. I considered large cubed cubbies, a bookshelf, a desk, inboxes and treasure chests. 
We ultimately decided that getting a second dresser would be the most useful for storing their clothes, which just keep getting bigger each year! It also provided an extra drawer for each child to use as the kid version of a junk drawer. The great part about a drawer is that everything inside is out of sight rather than an eyesore.

This drawer is where they can store the special projects they are working on or toys they want to keep out of their siblings’ hands. Prizes from school carnivals, goody bag trinkets and old Valentines find their home in the drawers. My son parks a toy semi-truck, loaded with Pokemon cards, in the drawer under his bed. My older kids store their Bibles and chapter books in their drawers. My two-year-old tucks away some plastic cupcakes, GoldieBlox figurines and a book her sister made for her. My four-year-old uses her drawer for her piggy bank, knitting and an Else purse filled with the “special learning cards” she has completed. 

One day early on, I found an entire bunny tea party set up in my oldest daughter’s drawer, which now includes her unicorn necklace, Calico Critter puppies and latest doodles.

My kids love to incorporate items from various sets into their play simultaneously, so at the end of the day we find My Little Ponies set up in a scene using magnifying glasses from the Busytown game and eraser animals having a party in a house made of Legos and 8½” x 11” paper taped together.

When the 5 o’clock sweep comes around, we return all those gazillion pieces to their designated spots. Building sets in the shoe box, electronic toys in the TV cabinet, dress-up clothes in the wicker basket and so on.

In the past, after clean-up time, we’d still be left with random projects—special treasures that my kid wouldn’t want to get mixed up with everyone else’s stuff or scooped up with the recycling. Items that were priceless to one child at that moment, yet meaningless or even annoying to the rest of us, would end up loitering on our dining room table or kitchen windowsill indefinitely.

Now, thanks to something as simple as a catch-all drawer, my evenings in the living room and kitchen are free of kid-litter and, thus, way more peaceful.

We set a couple ground rules to make this system work:

No hiding someone else’s stuff. If another family member has any claims on an item, it belongs in our shared spaces, not your personal drawer. 
If the drawer can close, I will resist the urge to clean it out. 

No food—and certainly no half-eaten lollipops. 

No judgement. Whatever you choose to store in your drawer in fine with me. Just because I would throw out a crumpled-up paper airplane or the box a toy came in, it doesn’t mean those can’t be deemed special treasures.

If my kids want to be alone, they can climb into their beds. With the addition of the drawers, the few possessions they claim as their own have a home now too.

What space can you carve out for your kids?
This article was originally published on Red Tricycle.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Jury Duty Is So Much Harder for Stay-at-Home Moms


When my jury duty questionnaire arrived in the mail, I knew I was doomed. There’s no mistaking that official-looking envelope. Like clockwork, the summons arrived a few weeks later.

Some people see jury duty as an interesting change of pace from their daytime job. As a stay-at-home mom, however, finding my substitutes and then preparing them for the daily care for my four kids sounded like a nightmare. And, honestly, it made me bristle at the thought of someone replacing mom.

I chose not to request a simple postponement because I didn’t want to repeat this stressful process again a few months later. This mom gig is not ending anytime soon.

So, after tucking the kids into bed that evening, I got to work. I typed up my excuse letter and emailed it in along with my children’s birth certificates to the New York County Court, as directed on the summons.

A few weeks later, after three emails and a half a dozen calls, I still had no response. My bewilderment with a non-responsive system aligned with the stories I heard as I chatted up my network of moms.

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A few months previously, I had agreed to babysit for my friend who still hadn’t heard back about being excused from jury duty. She was planning to bring her breastfeeding infant with her on her reporting day. But, at the last minute, she also had to bring the three-year-old I was planning to babysit because my kids caught a stomach bug the night before. She dragged her children downtown bright and early and, thankfully, got excused within a couple hours. Her excuse letter arrived in the mail the day AFTER her reporting date.

Another friend called and emailed relentlessly. Thankfully, she eventually got ahold of someone. Apparently, she had been excused, but the communication system was so flawed they never let her know.

A third friend said that, when she didn’t get a response, she went in person with her daughter a few days before her reporting date. I was afraid that if I went early, I would still end up having to go on the reporting date anyway. And I couldn’t bear the thought of trekking down twice with a toddler in tow.

Various situations flooded my daydreams. What if I had to wait several hours to present my case? What if I got denied and was forced to serve right then and there? Since I wasn’t bringing my child in person, would they assume that since I found childcare for that day, I should be able to secure childcare for the three reporting days or even the length of a trial if selected?

What if a judge disparaged me for presenting childrearing as a legitimate excuse, like Christa Pehl Evans claims happened when she was questioned during jury selection at the Fresno Superior Courthouse? She says that Judge James Petrucelli asked her what she would do for childcare if she, “got hit by a Mack truck?” According to the court transcript, Petrucelli said, “I’m amazed that people don’t have child care available to them.”

Frankly, I don’t know how I would find full-time care of indeterminate length with such short notice. I don’t have a nanny on-hand to take over for me in the event of jury service (or Mack truck collision). I could probably figure out coverage for the three reporting days, but what if I got chosen to serve on a jury and the trial went on for weeks? Spending $1,000 a week on babysitters is simply out of our budget.

Once I realized that I would need to go in person to get a clear response, I started calling in favors with my village of fellow moms to patch together childcare coverage for various scenarios that could have played out that day. Preparing for jury duty made me incredibly grateful for this support system!

After a dozen or so calls and texts, I had an empty nester friend coming at 8 a.m. to watch my toddler and then take her to a class, the teacher ready to field any in-class issues, a playgroup mom on base to pick up my daughter from class and handle lunch, my neighbor who works from home available to pick my older kids up from school with her daughter, that neighbor’s babysitter on hand in case she got called into a work meeting and a community group friend checking in just in case any of these pieces fell through. Whew!

The sheer amount of time, logistics, anxiety and emotional energy I spent removing myself from the childcare equation on my reporting day baffled me. As I packed up lunches and snacks, stocked the diaper bag and loaded the stroller, it made be realize just how many jobs I pull off each day as a mom. Judge Petrucelli’s Mack truck comment made me ponder, “Am I replaceable?” For an hour? Sure. For a day? With a whole lot of effort. For a week or more? No way.

While I’m no longer breastfeeding, my kids still depend on me in many tangible ways. I schedule the day, feed them, nap them, get them to and from school, supervise playdates and homework time, manage sickness and prepare them for bed. Whoever signed up to cover all those bases while mom served on a jury would have some big shoes to fill.

When I reported for jury duty, the woman who heard my case for excusal explained why I never reached an actual person when I called the number listed on my summons and also why, when I selected the option to leave a message, the call just ended: That number was no longer hooked up to her desk. How convenient.

As far as the emails, she said it is not the court’s policy to reply with a confirmation when you submit your documentation via email. She said they are just too busy. They process your documentation and move on to the next person. When she pulled up my information on her computer, she saw that my birth certificates had already been received and that I had been excused for two years. Go figure.

So, my trip downtown and the extensive plans I had made for the day were not, in the end, necessary. But how was I to know? Even knowing what I do now, I would still be hesitant to assume that I have been excused without anything to document that excusal. When I’m summoned two years from now, I will skip the drama around unanswered emails and phone calls.

As soon as I get my summons, I’ll bring my kids’ birth certificates straight to 60 Centre Street to show a real, live human being. There’s no messing with Mama in person.
This article was originally published on Red Tricycle.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

When Traditions Die, Make Them New


Every family has its non-negotiables—until life forces you to renegotiate.

Growing up, Christmas traditions held a weight like no other. In particular, visiting the Dayton’s department store Christmas display in downtown Minneapolis was a given. Nothing—not even living across the county in California—could stand in the way of this childhood staple.

From infancy into adulthood, I looked forward to Dec. 26, when we would meander our way through a life-size version of our favorite fairytales, from Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan to Puss in Boots and Pinocchio. Most people enjoyed the show on their way to see Santa. We came for the display itself—and of course couldn’t resist the after-Christmas sales. Our reward for waiting patiently in line was a gigantic sugar cookie (caked with frosting!) and an ornament to match that year’s theme.

When I became a mom a few years ago, I was eager to share the magic of these living storybooks with my own kids. I could picture their little faces lighting up in awe and wonder at all the colorful characters and dazzling sets. I eagerly anticipated sharing a sugar cookie as I helped my kids pick out an ornament each to hang on our tree.

As I had done for 30 years on the day after Christmas, we dashed through the chilly parking garage, over the sky bridge, up a gazillion escalators, and around the bend to discover…wait a minute. The doors were closed! Apparently, when Santa returned to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, they shut the display down as well instead of staying open through New Year’s as before. In 2016 the store closed for good.
When traditions like this threaten to die off, it’s a shock to the system. Thankfully, as parents, we knew all too well how to think on our feet and used those closed doors as a lesson in resilience and adaptability. We had to reimagine our non-negotiable. That meant we shopped for our annual ornaments at the Mall of America instead. Admittedly less charming, but still pretty awesome.

This year brought another major shock wave when my husband, kids, mom and I opted for a warm-weather trip to Florida instead of our traditional gathering with extended family. The Midwest had been my Christmas home for 32 years, so this decision meant the bittersweet end of an era.

I was tired of being tied to traditions (even though I loved them!) just because that’s how things had always been done.

It was always Minnesota and Wisconsin. Always Dad’s side and then Mom’s side. Always fighting off sub-zero temperatures to play in the snow. Always card games and board games late into the night. Always elaborate dinners served on china and elegant platters of peanut butter blossoms for dessert. Always plenty of summer sausage and wild rice to nosh on while cheering on the Packers or Vikings. Always me making excuses not to eat the herring.

And always nice, long chats with the aunts about life, love and the Lord. Our lives would collide for a few days together after months and miles apart. We would catch up on what life was currently throwing our way and mourn the losses of the year. We would marvel at what God has accomplished in us and through us over the last 12 months. We would share our hopes and dreams for the year ahead and anticipate whatever new phase of life the New Year would bring.

And each new year has, indeed, thrown some major life changes our way. In the last decade, my family has seen college graduations, new jobs, cross-country moves, engagements, weddings, new houses, pregnancies, new babies, cancer diagnoses, divorce, memory loss and death.

My immediate family’s commitments and priorities used to center around Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now, my brother has in-laws to visit and my dad gained a whole new extended family (grandkids and all!) when he married my stepmom. Both my grandmothers passed away recently, reshaping all our connections to the motherland. Matriarchs hold us together even in their frailer moments when cancer and strokes intrude. Without the draw of Grandma, my cousins, parents and I are sticking to the coasts.

To be honest, I’m mourning a little bit this Christmas. “Home” seems so distant. Will it feel like Christmas away from the coziness of my favorite armchair by the fire? I can’t believe I packed swim goggles, sunscreen and sand toys rather than snowsuits, scarves and slippers.

As parents, growing kids make us experts at flexibility. They force us to keep learning, strategizing and making the most of whatever circumstance comes next, including this current flavor of Christmastime travel. We will figure it out—one day and one year at a time—just like we do with every facet of parenting.

This year we’re trying out new traditions with a Florida spin. We’re making our own ornaments and hanging them on a homemade tree. And while it may not be a Dayton’s display, the palm trees lining the streets look quite festive with their twinkle lights.

When we search for 2019 flights, I’ll know that, armed with Christmas traditions galore, I can embrace the spirit of the season and be at peace in sand or snow.
This article was originally published on Red Tricycle.

How to Stay Organized with Kids When You Live in a Small Place

“Where can I put this, so nobody gets it?” my daughter asked, holding the half-finished art project she was working on as I pushed three...