Friday, April 29, 2011

Survival Moments...

Most four-year-olds are obsessed with the fairy tale world, but my daughter takes it to the extreme. In her mind she is a princess running from witches and dragons, searching for her one true love and saving the world in a melodramatic flourish. She absorbs every movie she watches and, in turn, sounds like a Disney movie when she speaks.

While outside recently, she ran up to me clutching a large orange flower and squealing "I've found it! I traveled through the deep, dark forest and found the antidote at last!" There was such mix of pride and desperation in her voice that I almost rejoiced along with her. 

Unfortunately the "deep dark forest" was revealed to be the neighbor's flower bed.

Exhausted from her travels, she did what any good princess would do. She donned a ball gown and fell asleep still grasping her beloved prize.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and a Phobia

Everyone has a phobia, or at the very least a strong distaste for one thing or another. Even the mightiest and bravest among us have an Achilles’ heel, something that sends them squealing like little girls at its mere mention. For the most part, people are pretty understanding about the fears of others. When someone is upset over spiders, heights, or plane rides, we tend accept it as a human flaw and look the other way. But this communal sense of understanding does not seem to extend to those of us with slightly less common phobias.

Like me, for example. My phobia is vomit. Puke, hurl, upchuck, blowing chunks, throwing up, however you chose to say it--I want no part of it. I am confident that I am not the only person in the world with this affliction, mostly because a definition of it exists on Wikipedia ("Emetophobia" - an intense, irrational fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting )It’s not just the mess, not just the sound, or the smell, or the germs, but rather a revolting combination of it all. It produces a primitive “fight or flight” reaction in me over which I have no control, causing me to bolt from the scene knocking over any man, woman, or child who stands between me and an exit. My hair stands on end, I feel ice cold from head to toe, my heart pounds, my throat closes, I cry, I shake. In short I am utterly ridiculous. I have been this way as long as I can remember--as early as kindergarten, I recoiled in horror whenever a classmate would erupt in the lunchroom--and it has stayed with me throughout my entire life. In my early twenties I even plotted escape routes upon entering bars, convinced that every drunken frat boy around me was waiting to regurgitate their Natty Light all over my shoes.

I knew early on that I had no hopes of a future in the medical field despite my natural desire to help others, because although I can handle blood and gore with the best of them, at the first sign of a dry heave I would shove my patient’s wheelchair into the nearest elevator and go cry in the break room. Which ultimately made my chosen profession that much more heroic. People with a fear of bees don’t usually harvest honey, and people who are afraid of the water don't often work as lifeguards. But somehow, despite my vomit phobia, I ended up with five spontaneously spewing children. I did take my unique “situation” into account before I chose to start a family, but when I’d ask for advice, everyone looked at me as if I was insane. They assured me that it would be fine, promising me that “it’s completely different when it’s your own child.”

Well. They were wrong. 

Even as they wheeled me in for my first C-section, asking if I had any concerns about the procedure, I answered with “Well, actually yes, I’ve heard that some people vomit from the anesthesia. Can I go without it?” I discovered early on that I could handle baby spit up, and I thought this was a sure sign that I had grown out of my strange fear. But the first time my toddler projectiled peas and I threw him on the couch and ran out of the room, I knew I had a long way to go.

Amazingly, my kids don’t seem to take offense to me leaping away from them when they let out a particularly startling burp or being shoved off my lap when they hiccup. Each child eventually learned to call for daddy when they felt sick because they know that when upheaval strikes, I cannot console them; I cannot hold their hair and rub their backs. These jobs are left to my husband, who doesn’t exactly enjoy vomit either, but seems to realize that this is one “mommy moment” for which I am utterly useless. The best I can manage is to plug my ears and yell “it’s okay, you’ll be okay” once I’m a safe distance away… Behind a barrier of some sort… Curled up in fetal position.

Luckily, I was blessed with children who have iron-clad stomachs, and the vomiting incidents only occur once or twice a year. But I know that as soon as the first babe barfs the rest are sure to follow. Soon enough, it becomes my own personal rendition of a horror movie: retching and heaving from five different directions, hurling children chasing after me leaving a trail of revisited dinner in their wake. Avoiding the five-alarm puke scenario is impossible (believe me, I’ve tried), so I’ve adopted a fairly simple warning system derived from the U.S. government in an effort to prep for a vomit emergency as efficiently as possible.  

Threat of Vomit Levels

Blue: Conditions are prime for vomiting to occur. I raise to Alert Level Blue in early fall, mid-Christmas break, and at the onset of spring. Alert Level Blue may also be triggered at the first sign of fever or during particularly mucousy colds. Action taken: Surrounding children must be watched for signs of impending vomit, including but not limited to: lethargy, upset stomach, and consumption of any brightly colored beverage. Under a blue alert, children are banned from sleeping with me, standing over me, or approaching me without warning.

Yellow: A stomach virus has been confirmed in the area, including household members and neighborhood children, or upon hearing tales of observed puking on the school bus. Action taken: Toys are moved out from around the beds and a path to the bathroom is cleared from every possible spot in the house. Caution is exercised not to serve any particularly spicy and/or messy foods (spaghetti, pizza, etc). Under a yellow alert, children may sit near me for only short periods of time and all of my extremities must free and available for a quick exit if required.

Red: Vomiting has occurred. Action taken: Vomiter is quarantined and remaining household members are strictly guarded. Daddy is called in for active duty and Mommy is, ideally, moved to a more secure location. Buckets are placed on sheets of painter’s plastic at every bedside. Bedding is stripped and replaced with old sheets. Plastic mattress covers are checked for signs of wear and replaced as needed. Pillows are placed in garbage bags and covered in old towels. Bedrooms are cleaned and toys are placed up on shelves to reduce the risk of being vomited on and, consequently, thrown away immediately. Hallway paths are cleared of debris that could potentially trip a puker midway to the bathroom resulting in premature eruption. Reminders are issued to minors about proper bucket-use technique. A liquid diet of broths and flat ginger ale is observed. Under a red alert, maternal contact with children is strictly on an as-needed basis until 24 hours after the last upchuck.

If all of these precautions are observed, I can usually make it through a bout of the stomach flu emotionally unscathed and, more importantly, uninfected. Because if there is anything worse for a puke-o-phobe than caring for five vomiting children, it is vomiting yourself while caring for five healthy, rambunctious children. There are times that I feel guilty for letting my fears get in the way of being there for my babies when they need me most, but I remind myself that if I were perfect they would have nothing to laugh at me about once they are grown. Part of being a family is to accept each other's strengths and weaknesses, flaws and shortcomings, and love one another all the more for it.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Survival Moments...

My daughter was not blessed with a little brother... luckily our neighbor's son will go to any lengths to fill that void, proving that sibling rivalry is not bound by the restraints of DNA. More people to play with, more people to fight with, more people to love.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and Little League

It's baseball season, America's favorite pastime, which means ballpark hotdogs, ice cold beer and the roar of the crowd… unless you are the mom of Little Leaguer. Youth baseball consists more of bologna sandwiches, luke-warm juice boxes, and the roar of the kid sitting next to you. Another season of Community Little League baseball has recently begun. My 7-year-old son is returning for his third year and my daughter has decided to sign up as well, joining a t-ball team consisting of 4- to 6-year-old co-eds. I am proud of her for working up the courage to try something new and playing along side the boys instead of watching her brother from the bleachers. In light of the fact that we will have to be in two different places at once on a few occasions, it’s bound to be an interesting season. It means double the practices, double the games, and double the time spent entertaining my little non-players in the sidelines.

I often envy the parents who get to attend extracurricular activities without other children in tow. It’s hard to pay attention to your little athlete when your baby is running across the outfield, one child has folded themselves up in a lawn chair, and another is begging you for concession stand money, all while you search frantically for another that is temporarily lost in the crowd. To combat the risk of boredom I have invested heavily in every portable game and art supply on the market and come well prepared with a variety of snacks that I won’t let them eat at home. But more often than not, my sideline kids meet up with other little siblings and spend the hour playing tag, collecting rocks, and rolling down nearby hills. While it is a hardship to drag everyone to all of our endeavors, I will say my children love having the largest built-in cheering section at every game.

Uniforms may be the greatest part about the Little League experience. Even the smallest sizes often don't fit the tiniest of rookies, who end up with large clunky cleats and baseball socks pulled all the way up to their thighs. The knee-length pants often hit nearly at the ankle, resulting in them being shoved up haphazardly like polyester bloomers. The over sized t-shirts, proudly displaying their number, are tucked deeply into their pants billowing out over the top and sliding off of their bony shoulders. A glove is worn, often on the wrong hand, but it seldom gets much use anyway, other than to block the sun or to store dandelions--carefully collected throughout the game to present to mom in a grand bouquet on the way home. A few times a season, you get the pleasure of seeing your child don the heavy catcher’s uniform, the weight of which causes him or her to topple over whenever the wind blows or they bend over to retrieve the ball. But even that is nothing in comparison to when they put the large plastic batting helmets atop of their pencil-thin little bodies and stumble around the bases like bobble heads trying desperately to look as cool as the pros.

The group of parents you are surrounded by can make or break the game. Some sit on the sidelines keeping to themselves, reading a book and scarcely looking up to see who is at bat. A few dads seem to expect a major league performance and pace along the fence, running their fingers through their thinning hair and yelling at the ref who gets paid $10 per game to supplement their school bus-driver salary. But the vast majority of us sit huddled together with cameras ready, cheering ridiculously whenever our own precious baby gets up to bat. We stifle our giggles at the adorable mistakes that are made and shout out encouragement and praise when either team gets a hit. After all, they are all just children.

We choose to adopt this philosophy because watching a game is downright painful if you take it too seriously. The reality is, you’re watching a dozen attention-impaired boys milling around a field for an hour waiting for their opponents to finally make contact with the ball in hopes that it might come their direction. The extensive downtime often results in grass picking, nose picking, wedgie picking, cloud gazing and repeated body-parts adjusting. Once the ball does make it into play, it's usually met by a cluster of unprepared children eagerly chasing it but too scared to actually pick it up. Without fail, one child every inning waves wildly to the coach before running off to the porta-potty, leaving an empty position in the outfield that is neither noticed or missed. (This occurrence grows exponentially when the potties aren't available and the boys get to pee in the woods.) And if an aircraft flies overhead at any point during the game, be it airplane, helicopter, or the almighty blimp, all the boys on the field (coach included) will stop mid-play to stand and stare until it flies out of sight, at which point they snap back to reality and the game resumes.

With three outs, it’s time to switch sides, and the dugout becomes filled with antsy players, digging in the dirt with their shoe, quarreling over Gatorade bottles, and knocking one another’s hats off. Upon arriving at the plate, each new batter waves to their mom, ensuring they have her attention, before striking some semblance of a knob-kneed batting stance. The coach, often someone’s dad who played a year or two of baseball in high school but is now an accountant, adjusts their strike zone to the size of a walnut and lobs the ball over the plate, often seven or eight times before the tee must be put in place. A few swings later contact is usually made and the ball bounces clumsily back to the infield. Without fail, even after endless fielding practice and strategy lectures, the child who grabs the ball always throws it to first base, even at the expense of letting someone into home. In the world of Little League, much like senior prom, you’re sure to score if you can just make it to first base.

The game ends, with no one really sure who won or lost except for Mr. Major League who is scolding his kindergartener on her sloppy out-fielding. Even the children themselves are focused on far bigger things than the final score, like what is being served for team snack. I learned early on that what their parent brings for snack can make or break a kid for the entire season. No matter how many articles you've read about the importance of children eating nutritiously after a strenuous workout, never, and I mean NEVER, bring flax seed granola bars and spring water for a team snack. They will not accept it, will never forget it, and WILL groan loudly the next time your turn comes up in rotation. This is one of the few times in your life when you should succumb to peer pressure and provide something heavily processed and covered in orange-powdered cheese.

After the game ends some players run back to their families grinning ear to ear and rehashing every moment while others take turns sliding into the empty bases covering their previously pristine uniforms in grass and soft dirt. The mothers wander around saying goodbyes and searching for missing gloves and hats while the Dads gather up chairs and coolers and walk back to their SUV’s with a child or two on their shoulders. Everyone is sweaty and slightly pink from the sun but in good spirits and ready to come back again in a few days to do it all over again. Most of the children playing on these fields will never make it to the major league, or even play sports at all past high school. But the time and effort put in to each season is worth it, if only for the memories that they create.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and Turning 30

I have a birthday tomorrow, and it is not one of the fun ones that render you able to do something previously forbidden, like drive a car, rent an apartment, or drink a beer. Instead, I sit here watching the clock tick away the last moments of my twenties. Rarely do you hear "I can’t wait to turn thirty," and I, too, have spent years preparing for this event with mixed emotions, scared to move forward, yet excited to see what the future holds. Thirty is by no means “old.” Some even say that it's when life begins. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm a little apprehensive to embark on this new decade.

It's a bit early to have an authentic mid-life crisis—I still have too many kids for a sports car and we can't yet afford a pool boy. But when approaching a milestone birthday, I think it's only natural to stop and take stock of life. To compare your list of dreams with your list of realities and assess where you are in the journey. To ask yourself whether you have achieved what you had hoped to by now, and if not, is it too late to do so? To accept that your body will never ever again look like it did when you were 16, and finally realize that maybe you don't want it to.

My children are oblivious to the battle raging within. To them, a “birthday” is always a joyous occasion—after all, any day with cake is a good day. They have years before they will begin feel the race against time, and to them 30 sounds just as ancient as 50. Every morning I awake to the kids joyfully informing me of how many squares on the calendar I have left until the big day. They can’t imagine that I might not be as excited for my upcoming birthday as they are for theirs. From their perspective I am just "mom" with no need to feel young, successful, or anything other than available and eager to tend to their every whim.

For as long as I can remember, my primary goal in life was to be a mother. It's not the most glamorous path a young adult could aspire to, but there was nothing I could imagine wanting more. My maternal instincts were beckoning to me louder than my drive for a career and I felt compelled to follow. With eight pregnancies under my belt, most of my twenties were spent sacrificing my body to various little tenants who toiled away for months, kicking the walls and banging on the pipes until they finally evicted themselves to scream at me face to face. While others my age were hosting keggers and interning at jobs, my years were spent celebrating births and mourning losses, nursing newborns, taming toddlers, and potty training preschoolers, often all at once. But I emerged through it all with something I hold more precious than a high-paying job: my five beautiful babies, with ten hands to hold and ten feet to chase. Many can argue that forgoing a career was unwise, but I’m content with the course of my life so far and I can’t imagine it being any other way. Now many of my friends are settling into marriage and thinking about children, just beginning on a chapter of my life that I’ve already left behind. My family is finally whole and complete, and we can now focus on moving forward and learning to live together with minimal bloodshed.

With the majority of my young adult years spent proliferating, it is easy to feel like I have missed out on “youth.” As a modern woman, society expects you to graduate high school, spend your college years being wild and carefree, and then settle down just in time to earn a degree with honors, meet the man of your dreams, and get married. You should round off the decade by developing your career to its peak potential before you give it all up to stay home with your 2.3 children and your impeccably well-trained Labrador. By the time you reach your mid-thirties it seems you are expected to level out and be uneventful until you become elderly and senile, at which point you can start to liven things up again. The typical progression of life is not without merit; I realize a college education is nothing short of a necessity and obtaining that will be far more difficult for me now as a “nontraditional student.” I also recognize that age has made me a more patient and capable parent, and perhaps my older children would have benefited from me waiting a few more years. However, all things considered I am proud of my choices—the good and the bad—because they have taught me to value what I have, where I am, and what it took to get here. I knew what I wanted and went after it against all criticism, and for that, no one should ever have regrets.

As much as I have always wanted children, if you had told me ten years ago that I would be a mother of five before I turned 30, I would have laughed and then locked myself in the closet to avoid my fate. There are times even now when I look at my children and am amazed that I am old enough to be a mother at all. The surprising curveballs life can pitch makes me wonder what will shock me before I turn 40. What will I be like as a person in ten years? Will I find the balance between motherhood and womanhood? Will I have a career? Will I travel? Will I embrace middle age and start to wear mom jeans and complain about the garbage on the radio? I will have five teenagers living under my roof all at once, so I'm resigned to the fact that my sanity will be gone, leaving gray hair and a facial tic in its place. And it’s likely that my husband and I will spend the next decade clinging to each other for dear life waiting for the five Great Lakes of raging hormones and teenage angst to move away before we can even remember who we are, much less what we are doing with our lives. But eventually the house will empty and we will be left looking at one another and whatever is left to focus on without the pleasant distraction of children. And it is when I think of those moments lying ahead that I am grateful that my dear husband is nine years older than me.

In my final weeks as a "kid," I have decided to continue to defy expectations. I went against the grain as a young adult and in so doing created a life that worked well for me. But I often found myself needing to justify my unorthodox choices like a child trying to get out of a punishment. At 30, I am now old enough to have the confidence to stop apologizing, the wisdom to stop trying to fit in, and the ability to enjoy the fact that I never will. I have privately celebrated my thirtieth birthday in several ways. First, I streaked my hair with pink—not because I'm young enough to, not because I'm old enough to, but because I've always wanted to. Second, I have given myself permission to pursue a career in writing, with no fear of failure, no expectations in place, and no one to answer to but myself. And finally, I have forgiven myself for the indiscretions and weaknesses that I succumbed to during my twenties. The past is the past, and a new chapter is opening before me. I’m now ready to stop trying to get society to take me seriously—and start trying to get it not to. I am concentrating on being a person I would want my children to emulate. And I will no longer try to squeeze into the mold of a perfect daughter, wife, and mother and instead start to carve a new mold: the perfect me.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and The Easter Bunny

Easter just might be my favorite holiday. From the standpoint of a frugal mom it's by far the most bang for your buck. You get the excessive candy of Halloween and the pointless plastic knick-knacks of a Christmas stocking, not to mention the tacky decorations, a basket full of eggs, and a giant magical rabbit with a passion for flamboyant neck wear--all for a fraction of the cost of other holidays.  

However, nothing is without its price. In the days leading up to Easter, I try to convince myself that no child has ever landed in therapy for not dyeing eggs. I would certainly not be the first to forego this messy task, but mommy-guilt wins every year, and I find myself in the dairy aisle picking through the remains of sticky egg cartons with the other last-minute shoppers. Dyeing Easter eggs is not fun. People may try to say it's fun, but they're lying. It's not. It's not fun to boil eight dozen eggs, only to have two dozen crack before they make it out of the pan. It's not fun to have five small children fishing around bare-handed in plastic cups brimming with dye while the stench of vinegar and warm eggs violates your nostrils. And it's certainly not fun to hassle with each year's newest fad in egg dyeing because your child just had to make the tie-dyed, 3-D, glow-in-the-dark, mutant eggs they saw on TV.

Of course, by the time the once-beloved egg is placed in a flimsy cardboard cutout to dry, it lacks any and all appeal to the average preschooler. Even the most dedicated parent can only dine on so many meals of egg-salad sandwiches and dye-stained deviled eggs before their digestive system threatens mutiny. The following week is always spent trying to find creative ways to rid yourself of roughly 60 unwanted masterpieces. (Note: The mailman would not like an egg. Neither would your neighbor or the newspaper kid. Look for old people, the older the better).    

The eggs may be a pain, but it's the Easter baskets that are the potential money pit. Children of the new generation expect every holiday to compete with Christmas and it is tempting to try to meet their expectations. I have seen stores advertising things like iPods and video game systems as "the perfect Easter gift". Um, no. My perfect Easter gifts are found at the Dollar Store and are labeled "for outdoor use only". Things like bubbles, sidewalk chalk, sunglasses and water pistols. I also stock up on Easter grass while I'm there. It's cheap, it's colorful and it disguises the fact that I ate most of the candy before it ever got to the kids' baskets.

Easter grass is also a key element in one of our most popular family traditions: the annual after-Easter grass fight. This ritual began back when we had a much more manageable number of kids. It started with me sprinkling a little Easter grass on their heads to make them giggle. They then threw a strand or two back at me, we all laughed, and that was the end. But with each passing year my husband and I swiftly became outnumbered  and our little grass fights turned into full-blown wars complete with strategy, preparation and eventual surrender. Preschoolers hide behind doors armed with fistfuls of shredded green plastic while the older kids dive-bomb the unsuspecting baby, burying her in a pile of fluffy Easter shrapnel. The kids love it so much that we don't dare back out of it now, but suffice it to say I am still cleaning up grass long after the Easter Bunny is back in his den with Mrs. Bunny doing what bunnies do best.

Each year my kids find a bunny-shaped cake along with their Easter baskets, a tradition passed down from my own childhood. I'm not nearly the baker that my mother was but, lucky for me, everyone is so impressed the over-sized rabbit can cook that they don't dare critique his skill. One year, after a particularly bad job, my kids actually did notice the notch that had crumbled off of one edge. Their first reaction upon seeing it was to shriek with delight that the Easter Bunny must have gotten hungry and taken a big "bite" out of their cake. (Funny. They weren't quite so amused two years ago when "Santa" ate all of the M&M eyes off their gingerbread men.)

It saddens me to think that this will likely be the last year in which all five of my children still believe in the Easter Bunny. My school-aged children already have been told "the truth" by the older kids on the bus, but I somehow managed to get them to believe in the unbelievable a little longer. I want just one more year before the magic is lost. Last year, Easter left our home particularly wrought with fairytale creatures. My son had lost his very first tooth the night before and reverently placed it under his pillow. He awoke Easter morning to find money in its place, as well as a note from the Tooth Fairy informing him that she and the Easter Bunny were in such a hurry that they had collided in the hallway. The kids were tickled by this stroke of creativity on my part, but I have come to regret it now that my daughters are fervently trying to yank their own teeth out in hopes of a repeat performance.  

The only Easter activity that my family skips is the community Egg Hunt. What overly competitive, Type-A parent invented this? Whose bright idea was it to herd hundreds of kids into a muddy church yard and turn them loose to duke it out over a finite number of plastic eggs filled with spiced jellybeans? The only event worth watching is the two-and-under division. Nothing says entertainment like a bunch of easily distracted, bunny-eared toddlers meandering around like drunkards, putting dandelions and rocks in their basket. 

Instead we drive to my mother’s house on Saturday for an early Easter dinner so that we can spend Sunday lounging around together in our jammies relaxing as a family. We play in the yard, nibble on leftover ham, and cram onto the couch together to watch movies until everyone falls asleep. Not until the fun and magic of Easter fade does the harsh reality set in: the kids, now strung out on high-fructose corn syrup and B-grade chocolate, will be home from school all week for Spring Break. 

Happy Easter!

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Survival Moments...

Tony came home from school today with a couple of Easter eggs. Apparently the teacher prepared them and brought them to class for the kids to decorate. Imagine my surprise when I attempted to peel one and...

To make matters worse, minutes after I cleaned up the first mess Tony decided to "try" the other egg. Hopefully the Easter Bunny brings the teacher an egg timer.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and Their Friends

I live in the greatest neighborhood in the world. We're considered a suburb, consisting mostly of hard-working, lower-middle class families.  It's far from the ritziest block in the city but it's safe and the community feel is far preferable to a McMansion with a quarter acre and a pool. The houses are small but well-kept, and close enough together to eavesdrop without obvious intent. The yards are hardly lush and manicured but they are perfect for a game of pick-up football or a slip-n-slide.

The best attribute our little neighborhood has to offer is the throngs of children running through every yard, driveway and sidewalk as if they owned them all equally. Big kids, little kids, bully kids, wimpy kids, teens, toddlers and everything in between. From the moment your car turns onto the street and you see them scattering like rabbits you know that you've stumbled upon the place where large families go to multiply. Something draws us here around the third child, fleeing the disapproving scrutiny of the outside world to seek the company of other mothers too busy to care whose kids are wearing matching shoes.

My house proudly holds the neighborhood record with five kids, but my two closest friends live a few houses away with four children apiece. Across the street we have several three-children families and a speckling of duos here and there. Very few houses have no minor occupants but even those who do seem to accept the playground atmosphere with either gracious approval or reluctant resignation.

When we first moved here I was taken aback a little by the freedom that even the youngest children had to roam. Having not grown up in a neighborhood atmosphere, I kept mine under close supervision until they reached school age, envisioning white vans offering candy and puppies at the end of every property line. The first summer that I allowed my oldest two to venture into the yard alone I was amazed at how many children surfaced that I had never seen before, as well as the community of protective eyes watching from every window. I wholeheartedly embraced their new friends hanging around and felt lucky that they chose MY yard to play in.

For the first few weeks, whenever I called my kids in for lunch, I'd offer a sandwich and juice box to whoever happened to be playing in my yard at the time. After all, good manners are good manners. Eventually word spread and each day around noon I noticed more and more kids showing up that hadn't been there before. I reveled in my children's newfound popularity , until one afternoon when I answered the door to a little boy who announced that he was ready for lunch. It was when I told him "Tony and Brileigh are sick today" and he replied with "Who?" that I knew things had gotten out of control.

Even once I closed the doors of my soup kitchen I still encouraged the neighborhood kids to feel welcome in my home. I took the time to get to know them and in return they gobbled up the attention in ways that only children can do. The "look at me!" and "watch this!" requests grew exponentially and long-winded stories about things that their parents surely never intended to be shared became a daily occurrence. The sweetness of it all wore off quickly and I found myself hiding and dodging them in a way that I had only previously done with my own children. But friendships formed fast and my little ones were disappointed when the weather turned cold and they couldn't go out to play anymore. "Well, invite them to come inside!" I remember telling them. Why not?

Things started out well enough, every day a parade of children would enter through my front door, some without knocking. They would shed their dripping wet coats and snowy boots onto my carpet and pound up the steps to join whatever game was already in full swing upstairs. I tried to greet the kids as they came in, often times just to find out who they were and which house they were from, but many slipped past unnoticed until the next time I'd go up to settle an argument and find myself in a sea of unfamiliar faces.

Each mid-day I would herd them all home while my babies took a nap and each afternoon they would file back in until dinner time. The effects were starting to become evident: more toys were found broken or missing, the bedrooms were trashed, kids were showing up earlier and earlier each morning. Eventually it became apparent that I either needed to acquire daycare funding or the free-for-all play dates had to stop. I spent the majority of the next day turning away each knock until I finally hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door, which drove away at least the ones old enough to read. It was that day that I learned the unwritten rules of the child-laden neighborhood, the survival code that all of the other more experienced parents had learned years before me: lock your front door, keep your food to yourself and don't look them straight in the eye. It goes against all of the manners your parents instilled in you over the years but Emily Post never lived on Clifton Dr.

The years that followed each got smoother. I learned to move all of the strange bikes out of the way before I back out of my driveway. I remembered to draw my curtains closed unless I want to attempt Wii Yoga before a snickering crowd. I know that for the next 10 years I will probably never be able to cookout in my backyard without mini strangers lingering around with a hopeful look in their eyes. But through every petty annoyance I endure, I remember that my children are forming friendships that will last a lifetime. Someday the last nest on our street will be empty, the screams and laughter will be silent, and we will ask after one another's children, hoping for updates on the little lives we watched grow up around us. It's a gift that not many neighborhoods have to offer these days and I feel fortunate to have planted roots on the street that I did.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Surviving 5 Kids and a Puppy

*Featured in the May 2011 issue of The Kids Directory of Long Island*

After giving birth to five children in less than six years I had to think pretty hard to come up with a way to sabotage myself on a whole new level. My tubes are tied so a sixth child was out of the question. A second husband would certainly have done the trick, but that’s generally frowned upon. So imagine my elation when a stranded 8 week-old puppy wound up on my doorstep! Accepting little Ozzy into our home was exactly what I needed to amp up our chaos and disorder to paramount proportions.

If you should find yourself considering a furry addition to a houseful of small children my first bit of advice to you is this--don’t. But if you are the type to ignore that little responsible voice in your head (as I am) then here are a few things to keep in mind to make the transition a little smoother…

1)      Abandon all notions of your children frolicking happily with their new best friend. Puppies bite. A lot. Small children don’t really seem to like it very much despite your assurance that he’s “just playing”. I anticipated having to battle with my kids to feed and groom the dog. I did not, however, anticipate having to fight with them to play with the puppy. Approximately 20 minutes after bringing Ozzy inside each child found themselves perched across the back of the couch with their knees up around their ears and they have scarcely moved from that spot since. If they can’t get somewhere by following the path along the back of loveseat, over the coffee table and up the side of baby gate, they don’t go. They like the dog, don’t get me wrong. They shout out a chorus of “aww isn’t he cute?” and frequently tell me how much they love having a pet. They even occasionally work up the nerve to lean over the edge of the couch and poke him as he runs by. But they still want me to carry them from room to room.

2)      Puppy training is NOT the same as potty training.  I was pretty secure in my notion that, having successfully potty trained four (soon to be five) kids, I’d be a whiz at housebreaking the dog. Well, I was wrong… to put it mildly. Potty training children doesn’t typically require one to stand outside in the rain at 3am wearing pajamas and your husbands sneakers singing “go poopoos!”. Nor do you need to deal with the after-effects of deworming medication (I will refrain from expounding on that experience. You’re welcome. Trust me.). I’ve spent seven years up to my elbows in dirty diapers offering M&M’s for tinkles, yet training one little 10-pound puppy has brought me to my knees.

3)      All toys are fair game. I wasn’t too worried about the chewing thing. I was warned, but having watched three dog training clips on YouTube, I felt fairly prepared. Surprisingly, The Dog Whisperer I am not. The kids’ toys end up in the dogs mouth, the dog's toys end up in the kids mouths, my toys (cellphone, iPod, sunglasses) end up in everyone’s mouths. My left flip-flop has puppy teeth marks, my right has a perfect impression of my 2 year-old's underbite. The kids’ socks, so carelessly discarded throughout the house, are being obliterated one by one. However, the $50 invested in doggie toys have not gone to waste. The kids will inevitably grab a squeaky toy, each of a different pitch and squeeze it relentlessly. Next Christmas, I’ll buy Barbies for the dog to chew and rubber mallard ducks for the kids.

4)       Remember all that free time you had before? Yeah neither do I, but however little time you had before, forget about it. Every spare moment I once enjoyed is now filled with walks, potty breaks (for the dog, not you, never for you, but if you have kids you already know that), games of fetch (which consist of you throwing a ball and the baby bringing it back to you while the dog pees in your shoe), trips to the dog park (dog equivalent to an afternoon at Chuck-E-Cheese's, *shudder*), and baths (note: a vanilla scented wet dog still smells like a wet dog).

Lest I discourage anyone from adopting a man's best friend of their own, not everything has been terrible. Little Ozzy has stolen my heart. The kids love him (when he’s asleep) and he has added something to our lives that was missing before (a furry couch). I look forward to all of our days ahead with him and companionship he will lend to all of us. I look forward to the protection his massive paws will one day offer and the relentless love and loyalty he has already begun to show us. I was never much of a dog person, not in the sense that many of my friends are, but raising Ozzy has opened my eyes to what pets have to offer a family of any size.

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