A Deadbeat Mom's Tips for Surviving Summer: Tip #3 Get a Puppy, or a Mulch Pile

For those of you who are rounding toward the home plate of summer’s end, I want to offer one more tip in this mini-series for surviving the summer with your kiddos home. I realize that my last tip was a bit more labor intensive… so for my final tip, I am offering two different options for summer fun, each requiring a very different level of effort on your part. It’s sort of like a choose-your-own regret-adventure, where you get to decide which approach best suits your family! What fun.

So, let’s cut to the chase. We did two really ambitious things this summer. While there are some fundamental differences between the two adventures, I submit that both have provided endless hours of entertainment for the children, both have taught our kids a sense of responsibility, both have taught me to release some control and live in the moment. Without further ado, I offer you your first option... 

Tip #3A: Get a Puppy

On the last day of school, we surprised our five kids with a puppy. (Nobody should ever write that sentence because it is foolish and simply reading it makes my blood pressure go up.) Still, we did it. Because how much fun is it to surprise children with a gift-wrapped box filled to the brim with baby dog? And that moment was so much fun. And now... we have a dog forever.

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I honestly have zero regrets though, because I am surprised and pleased to announce that I actually like this one particular dog. Just this one. On planet earth, there’s one fantastic pup and I found her living with an amish lady and a small amish child that likes to sit on pupppies. So, yes, I consider her a rescue dog, because how would you like to be trapped under so many apron layers?

Anyways, we rescued a dog and she is adorbsies and we love her. The children have begged for a pet since infancy, so this was nearly 14 years in the making. But, the best part is because we waited so long (and because I am the meanest mom on this side of the Mississippi) the kids are actually taking an active role in training and caring for her. It’s been really fun actually. Plus it gives me this great thing to throw out there for Mom points.

Child: Can we go to Seabreeze (our local amusement/water park)?

Me: We decided that instead of spending money on things like Seabreeze this summer, we would get you this puppy. (holds puppy in front of child and makes it “talk” in baby voice.)          

Child: (Squealing with love and delight forgets that Seabreeze exists.)

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Child: Can I have a snack?

Me: Well, we have no food in the house because I haven’t gone to the store since ‘98, BUT… I did get you a puppy! (**hunger pangs forgotten**)

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Child: I think I might be growing out of my running shoes, do you think we could get new ones before cross country starts?

Me: Your feet don’t grow, we just got you a puppy!

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t work exactly like that. But, I do talk for the puppy in a variety of adorable accents which doesn’t annoy anyone ever. And having a new puppy does also provide a lot of great opportunities for the various sibling combinations to spend time together. Two kids are particularly whiny? Guess whose turn it is to take the dog for an extra long walk together!? Overall I would say it has been a sheer delight to have a pup in the fam. Oh, and she jingles a bell when she has to go out. #winning

I do realize that not everyone will want to rescue an amish dog, even if her ears are so big and adorable. So for those of you who are not interested, fret not, I still have a great plan for you!

I offer you...

Tip #3B Get a Mulch Pile!

If you can believe it, we’ve actually had our mulch pile even longer than our dog. In mulch years, we’ve had the pile for just over one century. We rescued the mulch pile from the town, because they just throw mulch in a huge parking lot and let people take it for free. It’s basically like a backyard breeding, mulch mill up in here. So, we brought home as much mulch as we felt prepared to neglect all summer long and we put it in a heap in the driveway.

Not our actual mulch pile. This is a dramatization. 

Not our actual mulch pile. This is a dramatization. 

And, just like our puppy, we have zero regrets about bringing this lovable pile of mulch home to tarnish our reputation by taking up permanent residence in our driveway. Also like the puppy, this pile of mulch has provided hours of messy entertainment for the children. And I think it has also earned me a bonus Mom point or two this summer.

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Child: We have literally no outdoor toys.

Me: That is not true. Your brother has been pushing mulch around with a skateboard for at least two hours. Umm summer fun much??

Child: (admits how blind she’s been to all the exciting, mulch-based opportunities and we both throw our heads back in hearty, good-natured laughter. Annnnnd end scene.) 

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But don’t be fooled, just because mulchboard makes for premium outdoor fun, doesn’t mean there won’t be some whining. Remember the three kids that aren’t walking the puppy? That’s right, they’re also a little fussy and now guess who’s on deck for sweeping the mulch back into a pile? Hint: everyone. Because a mulch pile takes a lot of care and responsibility and people think kids aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, but I disagree. I think every child should experience what it’s like to grow up with a mulch pile in their yard.

Here are 5 Ways to Tell if Your Child is Ready for a Pet and/or Pile:

  1. Your child is comfortable and respectful around animals or mulch.

  2. Your family can agree on the type of pet or mulch that is right for your family.

  3. Your child can hold a leash or broom.

  4. Your child has given pet-sitting a trial run, or played in the neighbor’s mulch or something?

  5. Your child is very sick of having zero outdoor toys.

Photo courtesy of vermontvalleyfarm.wordpress.com featuring the ever-ambitious dog-mulch combo pack. 

Photo courtesy of vermontvalleyfarm.wordpress.com featuring the ever-ambitious dog-mulch combo pack. 

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So there you have it. Two fantastic options to engage your kids all summer long by making a decision that will last so much longer than one summer, and ultimately be your problem when the kids go back to school in three weeks!

 

A Deadbeat Mom's Tips for Surviving Summer: Tip #2 Sibling Bootcamp

If there is one thing I did out of desperation in my early years as a mom (that I don’t actually regret) it is Sibling Boot Camp. I know it sounds intense, like a lot of work. And yes, I will be honest -  a lot of poster board was involved. But, this little blog series isn’t just about us “getting through summer,” it’s really about getting these kids through their childhood, and to a place where people actually like them when they are “grownies” as we say in my house. Just like Tip #1: Tattle Tax required some work up front, this tip will too. The question then, is will that work pay off? The answer my friends, in the words of every British judge on every talent competition on TV, is “a million percent yes.”

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 And while we all know that one cannot be a million percent anything (because that is not how math works, or maybe it is?) I don’t really care about math, the point is that I wish I was British. And also that the work for Sibling Boot Camp is definitely worth it.

Sibling Boot Camp came into existence when my oldest daughters (now 13 ½ and almost 12) were in Kindergarten and 1st grade. They were arguing consistently about who got to be first for things. It was this constant back and forth about “you got in the car first last time, now it’s my turn to get in the car first this time.” Then the other one would chime in saying “Well, you got out of the car first, so now it’s my turn to do something first so I get to get in first again.”

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And then my head would explode.

So one day, on the way to school, I gave them a moving sermon in the car where I exegeted the passage of scripture about "the first being last and the last being first." When we got to school, you know what happened? That’s right, they argued about whose turn it was to get out of the car first.

I maybe lost my mind a little and I told them that they had lost the privilege of school. I added that I would not allow them to go into that building and behave like perfect angels toward their teachers and friends if they could not get along with each other. I called the school office from the parking lot and said that my girls would not be back to school until they were best friends.

They missed an entire week of school. We commenced Sibling Boot Camp. And are they now best friends?

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A million percent, yes.

So, I offer you...

The Five Phases of Your Very Own DIY Sibling Boot Camp:

  1. Buy so much posterboard. Draw a line down the middle of the poster. At the top, write “Entitled” on one side and “Responsible” on the other.
  2. Run so many drills. Take some time to explain to your kids the difference between entitled behavior and responsible behavior. Once they know the difference, test them by throwing out some everyday scenarios and have them file the behaviors under the headings, either the behavior is entitled or it’s responsible.                                                                                                                             Sample 1: “Okay my fallen cherubs, it’s time to get in the car to go to school, you both want to get in first. What is an example of an entitled response?”
    Sample 2: “You would both like to get in the car first, Child A offers to let Child B get in and out first, with the agreement that Child A can get in and out first on the return trip. Is this a responsible agreement, or entitlement?”
    Sample 3: “Mommy gives her precious baby sinners a really lovely sermon in the car. Now, is it responsible or entitled to immediately disregard her brilliant life lessons?”                                                                                                                                                                             
  3. Sibling fun is now a privilege. Reward every correct answer with 5 minutes of fun time together. Catch and reward any responsible interaction with 5 minutes of sibling fun. Try to catch them doing anything right, and give them 5 minutes. This part is key though - END the sibling time as soon as their minutes run out! They will be doing great, and will just be getting into some kind of game… but when the time’s up, it’s up. They can’t play together until they earn more minutes. This ensures that they don’t have time to get into a conflict, and because kids will often strive toward what we pull just out of their reach… they will try to earn more time together. VOILA! They are trying to earn time to play with their sibling!
  4. Introduce quiet sister/brother talk. When our girls started consistently showing more responsible (and less entitled) interaction we would celebrate by letting them stay up late for “quiet sister talk.” This works best if you are generally bedtime nazis, which fortunately, we were. But, no matter how lax you are about summer bedtimes, add time for quiet sibling talk. Little kids love to stay up late because they are small and foolish and they don’t yet realize how wonderful sleep is. Take advantage of their folly by reserving late bed times for siblings who love each other and get along.

  5. Sleepover City. If you have successfully made it out of DefCon 5 of sibling bickering and into Phase 5 of Sibling Boot Camp, then… congratulations. You may celebrate by manipulating the children into becoming best friends. This can be achieved by letting them have a sleepover on any non-school nights. To this day my older daughters will jam all their gangly limbs into the same top bunk bed and stay up late talking. They do it all summer long and every weekend. They tell each other everything. They whisper and giggle and make up ridiculous stories and inside jokes that turn their whispered giggles into full on belly laughs. It is magical.

They both still remember Sibling Boot Camp and I have never had to do it again. The younger three sort of followed suit and they all get along pretty well considering. We have some special circumstances which prevents them all from having the sleepovers, etc. but the overall mission remains the same. Engaging with other people is a privilege. Can that privilege be taken away if you are behaving like a child criminal? You betcha. But can it be earned back with consistency and three dollars worth of poster board?

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A DeadBeat Mom's Tips for Surviving Summer: Tip #1 Tattle Tax

In New York, our summer weather lasts for five whole entire minutes. And not, like, five minutes in a row or anything. What I mean is that from May until September there will be five perfect minutes dispersed willy nilly throughout the months. Half of those precious, sunshiny minutes will take place while you are in the waiting room at the orthodontist. The other half of the minutes will appear, without warning, sandwiched in between hail and an inexplicable windpocalypse. And this half of the minutes are magical. Like a unicorn.

Because of the severe lack of awesome weather here, it feels like a crime against humanity that our kids go to school until nearly the end of June. This year, they missed ⅓ of the nice weather minutes because they were still in school. And it wasn't like they were even being educated at this point… they were just barely contained because everyone under the age of 100 goes absolutely bananas when there is finally nice weather. So, the kids are learning nothing but Flag Day songs, while the NWM (nice weather minutes) are just evaporating into the atmosphere - to be immediately replaced by 99.75% humidity.

By early June, I start seeing pictures on Facebook of kids’ last day of school. By mid-June, people are camping and hosting neighbors for bonfires. By the end of June, everyone else is enjoying the “staycation” portion of summer. But oh no, not here in New York. Here, at the end of June, we still got field day so…

But here I am now, four weeks (and 4.5 NWM) into the shortest summer vacation in America, and I am wondering how on earth I will make it to September. I don’t know about everyone else, but summer days are longggggg when you’re home with five kids (and it won’t stop raining.) Now, don’t get me wrong here. I love my precious angel babies, and by the time school ends I am equal parts excited, relieved, and terrified. It’s “a different kind of busy!” than the school year, I cheerfully tell people at the grocery store as a gaggle of children follow behind me, just wanting gum so bad.

And it’s true, it’s definitely a different kind of busy. It’s the kind of busy that makes me hide in the basement for three minutes and forty eight seconds, so I can just watch one America’s Got Talent audition video on youtube. Because, those auditions are life. Those auditions make me weep, and then believe in myself. And I am inspired to go on.

And in the spirit of going on, I will be doing a mini-series of blogs about how to survive the remainder of the summer. If you only read one tip, this is the one to read, because it will not only change your summer with your children… but it will change your whole life.

You will want to make out with my husband after you read this, because he is responsible for the brilliance that IS... Tip #1. You may not make out with him - you homewrecker - but I can understand why you’d be tempted, because this tip for summer survival is the single reason that my children are still allowed to live in my house. Without further ado, I offer you…

TIP #1:  Immediately institute the TATTLE TAX.

As citizens of our home, the children have certain inalienable rights. Not many, but, whatevs… everyone’s eating, alright? Our citizens also have certain responsibilities. These vary depending on the child’s age, ability, special skill set and whether or not I am spazzing about company coming. And then there are the privileges. These can be earned or lost depending solely on my mood and how many times that day I have been asked for gum. Beyond the rights, responsibilities and privileges, we also offer our citizens certain services.

Enter: taxes.

As benevolent dictators, one service that we will provide the citizens of our home is that of conflict mediation. If our citizens cannot or will not independently resolve a conflict, and we receive an “incident report” (formerly known as tattling), we happily provide the service of mediation… as long as both parties have paid their taxes. For the reasonable tariff (one completed chore) we will provide our citizens with the invaluable service of conflict management. The plaintiffs must complete the chore TOGETHER and to my satisfaction and once the tax has been collected, conflict resolution will be promptly executed.

Guess what my kids don’t do anymore?

That’s right. Tattle.

You know what they do now? They talk it through like the angelic creatures I taught them to be. Or they stuff their feelings and move on. I honestly don’t care which it is. Because all I know is that I have gotten hours of my life back, and my kids are learning the valuable lesson of letting go of an offense instead of always getting their mother involved. Do you know how much better they will be at life because they are learning to solve and/or avoid their problems? So much better.

I will say that I have, on occasion, allowed tax exemptions for extenuating circumstances. If someone comes for help because they or another child is in danger? Tax break. If an older (trusted) child is appropriately coaching a younger citizen, and the younger party is still, I don’t know, let’s say… licking the window like a feral cat, backup will be provided and read my lips, no. new. taxes.

But apart from these unusual scenarios, tattling is virtually a thing of the past. In it’s place is the very lucrative business of tax collecting. And - all kidding aside - my kids really are learning the valuable lessons essential for the success of all human relationships: Which offenses are worth sorting out? Which issues must be accepted vs. hashed out? Is it more important to win an argument or to come to a compromise? How do we deal with irrational people? How do we speak up for ourselves and/or negotiate? How to listen and forgive and repair relationships.

And, most importantly, how to make vacuuming a two man job. 

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The Fear of Being Found Out

Living inside me for as long as I can remember, is a book. I have always known it was there, or, perhaps, I came to believe it was there because I was never told any different. During all the hours spent telling stories around my mother’s dining room table, in every exaggerated tale I recounted for my friends, in every blog post I write… there has always been this sense that the rest of the story was tucked somewhere inside me - too young, too fragile - to make its way out. I can’t count how many times someone has said to me, through laughter or tears (and oftentimes both), that I need to write a book.

And they’re right. I need to write this book.

Because it’s always been there, and I can’t carry it around any more.

Back in November, a friend of mine decided to submit some of my writing (without my knowledge) to an acquisitions editor at a reputable publishing company. I was terrified and unprepared for the feeling of vulnerability that came with her telling me that she did this, but I could hardly be mad at a girl for believing in me. Especially since, after reading the pieces she submitted, they asked to come to see me speak at a small event in Michigan and then that led to the longest lunch meeting known to man. Our three hour lunch led to a notoriously heavy and daunting door, which opened to me, ever so slightly. The door was cracked just enough for a little light and hope to come through, along with the whisper of an invitation. That glimmer of an invitation was for me to submit a book proposal. 

Do you want to know what happens to the book that has always been inside of you when someone invites you to finally attempt to write it?  

You know what else happens?

It disappears. 

Yes, the book that has always been there, vanishes. But it doesn't just disappear. Oh no... it disappears and then you also have an existential crisis. And you begin to wonder if it was ever really there to begin with. And you question your own truth and your ability to share it, and you question everything you thought you were so sure about. And you panic, and maybe you start to write a fiction manuscript, because you have completely lost your head at this point. And then you stop letting yourself be afraid to learn from the people who have gone before you - even if you think they got it wrong - and you stop feeling so alone, and so afraid. And you start to find your book again.

 At least… that’s what I hear happens to people.

This process has taught me how much fear - thick and pernicious - runs through my bones. Fear that what I have to say won’t matter. Fear that I have no right to say anything at all. Fear that all this fear will hinder the quality, and reach, of my message. Fear that I don’t even have a message, at least not one that is unique or meaningful. Fear that I will get it wrong. Fear that I will get it right (and then people will think I actually know things!) Fear that this will take more away from my family than it gives. Fear that the door will close as quickly as it has barely cracked. Fear that I will be embarrassed when my book proposal is rejected (they almost always are - many, many, many times.) Fear that I will quit before I even get a chance to be rejected. Fear that I won’t ever quit and I will just keep forcing something that isn’t supposed to be. Fear that I will actually care about publishing and writing won’t feel pure anymore, that the pursuit will ruin my honesty, my integrity as a writer. Fear that I won’t care enough about getting published and so it will never happen. Fear that everyone will finally know that I am a phony, and will confirm to me that I am, in fact, the worst possible perception I have of myself.

So. Much. Fear.

 And gosh, so much ego it’s sickening.

So, I am all done processing this privately. It’s just not in my DNA to be scared all by myself. What makes me audacious is that I can’t keep my big mouth shut for more than a minute. What makes me relatable is that I will tell the beautiful, harsh and sometimes ugly truth about my life. What makes you come back is that I can sometimes be brave. Telling you all about what I fear most makes me feel really vulnerable, but that is also where I feel most brave.

So as much as I would like to curl up inside my fear, and hunker down for good... I won’t, because that would keep me small. That would keep my truth, my GOD, so small. And so, as much as I fear you all discovering that I am a total fraud, I will risk rejection and I will walk into this thing exposed and vulnerable and maybe sometimes even a little bit brave. I will let my stories, my truth, my God, be bigger than my fear. I will invite Him to show up in ways that are so much bigger than my fragile ego, and my concern for how the world will perceive who I am or what I do.

And I will invite you all into the process too. Because when you have a book inside you for 35 stinkin' years, it simply must get written eventually, even if it’s no good. And you, my beloved readers, are the ones I want with me as I go. Writing for you has made me feel brave. Finally brave enough to let that - too young, too fragile - story inside me, grow big enough and sturdy enough to come out.

 

Are Kids "Lucky" to be Adopted?

I have never been so thoroughly pursued by a man in all my life as I have been by my four year old son. I am telling you, this child proposes marriage - not daily - but hourly. And those are on his weaker days! Sometimes the professions of love and desperate proposals come incessantly. When he kisses me goodnight, it is with both of his sweet, almost-always-sticky brown hands pressed on each side of my face (a romantic proclamation of my beauty is usually involved at this point) and then he kisses me in a frenzy of uncontrolled emotion. With these bodacious lips.

It is the most adorable and unnecessary display of passion I've ever been the recipient of. And it happens all. day. long. Quite simply, the boy is in love. But, there is something peculiar about the urgency and intensity of his affections for me. It has taken me some time to put my finger on why exactly that is. He seems almost desperate in his expressions of love, to the point that he seems almost exasperated by it.

"I'm gonna marry you so much!" and "I'm just lovin' you, UGH I'm just lovin' you so MUCH." He picks flowers for me every time we step foot outside - one bunch of dandelions "for now" and the other handful "for our wedding tomorrow, or yesterday." I have never met a four year old boy so preoccupied with getting married. So, I decided to get to the bottom of his romantic shenanigans.

After several long discussions, I think I have come to a place of understanding. He is afraid.

Jay was about 24 hours old when I first met him in the hospital. His first mom, the lovely Miss N., and I had been in contact over the phone during the weeks leading up to his birth. Tom and I developed a fast connection with her, and because we had already had a previous adoption fall through, we knew that the child she was carrying may not end up being part of our family. And while common sense, previous experience, and all of our loved ones told us to be cautious, we loved her. We weren't thinking about "protecting ourselves" or "not getting too attached." Our relationship with her was developing not because we hoped to parent her child, but because she is adorable and not loving her would be impossible. We made a promise to her that we would be there to help and support her in any way she needed, regardless of the decision she ended up making. She invited us to come to the birth and seemed firm in her decision to place Jay with us when he was born. Still, we reminded her that giving birth is an unimaginable game-changer, and we wanted her to have plenty of room to feel free to change her mind if she felt at any point that she wanted to pursue parenting opposed to placing him with us. We tried to be supportive and encouraging throughout the emotion. To be completely honest, as much as we loved Jay from the first moment we laid eyes on him, we were pulling for her to parent. We really believed she could do it. 

For her own personal reasons - reasons that are hers to tell, not mine - she allowed us to be his parents. It was a gift, a great responsibility and an honor, of course. But it was also a tragedy. 

For a baby and his mother to be separated from one another is always an utter tragedy. The grief that Tom and I experienced on their behalf was minuscule in comparison to what they endured. This is true for both of our children who came to us through adoption. And while it looks so different for them both, every single day I see the primal wound that this separation has inflicted upon my babies. And their first mamas.

Since realizing this, Jay's romantic advances, while precious, have become just like every other aspect of adoption. There is a bitter-sweetness underlying every kiss, a complex fear of being apart from me that drives every impassioned sentiment, a child's desperate attempt to guarantee that he will never lose another mama drives every marriage proposal.

Both of my boys are perfect, but they are both hurting in their own way. They both long for the security that comes from a mother's love. People often downplay the pain that adoptees endure, assuming that a child who was adopted in infancy "never knows the difference." These same people will watch nature documentaries and marvel that a sea turtle can travel all over the ocean and make its way back to it's home. (I don't actually know if sea turtles do that, but you get my drift.) If an animal has a primal instinct to find it's way home, how much more does a human child have that same pull?

And I may not know much about sea turtles, but I do know this... my boys, in some sense, will always be longing for home. And people say that they are "lucky to have us." But, when my nine year old son wakes up with his heart pounding in his chest because he dreamed of meeting his beautiful birthmom for the very first time, lucky isn't how I'd describe him.

Whether they can understand all the nuances at this point or not, they will always know that in our home, they have the right to feel sad about their adoption. And they have the right to feel happy about it too, and angry, and confused, and relieved and all the things. Even... unlucky. 

My prayer is that as they grow and mature, and really begin to feel the weight and implications of their adoption stories, that they will forgive us for all the ways that we could not meet their needs, for every shortcoming and every imperfection. My prayer is that our flaws will only make them long for another home, and eternal home, where our perfect Father waits to hold them and love them and meet every need they ever had.