Living with Boys

Living with Boys

Living with Boys

I’m not going to write about stinky, sweaty sports clothes or wiping pee off the walls. I’m not going to talk about laundering baby frog carcasses or fart jokes. I could. Believe me, I could. It’s the simple fact that there’s just one of me and four of them around here that’s been on my mind lately. And that there are real differences between boys and girls (other than the obvious of course). And that these differences can make a mom of boys feel pretty left out, like there’s a party at my house but I’m not invited. As the twins have gotten older (Chase and Noah are 8, while their little brother, Jax, is 16 months), the party’s gotten more exclusive. My challenge has been to move beyond being the party planner to being part of the action.

Laying on the ultrasound table eight years ago, the possibility that the tech would announce that both babies growing inside me were boys wasn’t on my radar. Seriously. I never even considered the one in three chance that I could be carrying boy/boy twins. I thought they were girl/boy, or maybe two girls. What would I do with boys? Seven years later, I thought — for sure — that I was having a girl. My pregnancy was so different this time around. I was fantasizing about getting manicures with my daughter, baking cookies and teaching her to sew. But, 20 seconds into my 18-week ultrasound I spotted the tell-tale appendage that told me I was soon to be a mom of three boys. That was fine I told myself because, really, what would I do with a girl anyway?

Baking and Cleaning with My Team

Baking and Cleaning with My Team

Every year my boys get older I say it’s my favorite year. As a first-time mom, and with twins to boot, I was just thankful to survive year number one. I loved the toddler years. As they became more verbal I treasure the insight they gave me into their little minds as they shared their observations of the world around them. Because I am a stay-at-home mom, my young twins were almost a part of me – like two additional limbs. We did and went everywhere together.  While I thank God for mom’s day out programs because I needed (and deserved, I dare to say) those breaks, I so enjoyed my time with Chase and Noah before they entered full-time school. While I played my fair share of trains and trucks, they smiled as they baked, cleaned and even shopped with me. They loved the ballet and even requested that I make Nutcracker costumes so they could dance along with Baryshnikov and the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite, which we had on DVD. I’m a girly girl, and my boys drifted freely between our culture’s definition of females’ and males’ worlds in those very early years.

But as they’ve gotten older, the boundaries between those worlds have become more rigid. Whether it be due to culture or just their

Boys Doing What Boys Do!

Boys Doing What Boys Do!

innate male instincts, Chase and Noah are less interested in my world and all about traditional boy things. They no longer enjoy cooking and baking with me. Getting them to clean is a chore in-and-of itself. And shopping – forget it.  Now it’s baseball, wrestling, archery, climbing trees and so many boy-oriented pretend play games that I don’t dare name them all. Add to the development of these distinct male interests, the fact that I simply don’t get to see them as much now that they are in school. Taken together, this means that when I do spend time with them, we are almost always doing very boy things. The exceptions are when I’m on top of them to complete homework, household chores or hurrying them to get to here and there on time.

This change in our relationship didn’t happen all at once, but looking back, its origins were correlated with their entry into full-time school. While I enjoyed the “freedom” that afforded me and the fact that I could actually get something done around the house, I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness I would feel. I should have been. I mean, while studying stress reactions in graduate school, I learned that the anxiety moms feel when separating from their kindergarteners can be likened to a trauma reaction. But I didn’t feel traumatized, I just felt empty. And as the boys have matured into, well, boys, that emptiness is still there. But it’s no longer because I spend so many daytime hours without them, now it’s more because our internal worlds — our likes and interests — are just so different.

There are times when I so envy my husband: the annual ice-fishing trip he takes the twins on, or the week-long camping excursion to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area the three of them have been enjoying each year since the twins where five. And it’s not just those “special” outings that come around only once a year. Tonight is a case-in-point. As I was wrapping up dinner dishes, I ran upstairs to put some stray items in their place. Rounding the corner to my bedroom, I saw Chase and Kevin, my husband, laying on our bed together engaged in a conversation about the current Brewers game (our hometown MLB team). Shortly thereafter when Jax was sleeping in his crib, the twins and Kevin headed out to the back yard to play some catch. This is a pretty typical scene at our house. The three of them talking sports or hunting one minute, and playing baseball, football or just horse-playing outside the next. It’s like they are one unit, moving together in a shared space speaking a shared language. It’s not that I don’t do these things with them — I do. I play catch, I try to talk sports (the keyword is try) and I attend just about every one of their sporting events. But, in all of these cases I’m working to fit into a world that feels pretty foreign to me. And no matter how hard or long I try, the language is still not my native tongue.

Now, I have amazing boys (I might be biased). They are God-loving, empathic,  smart young men. They have a father who is surpassed by none; who spends quality time teaching and mentoring them. And my boys adore me and depend on me for a sense of security that assures them a stable place in this world  — I know that. It’s just that I’m finding that my attempts to be a part of their inner world are much more effortful than their dad’s. While I make sure their bodies are clean and fed, their minds and hearts are fueled, Kevin naturally jumps into their world and shares their immediate experiences. It’s like second nature to him. I feel like an onlooker; like a proud coach watching her team. I didn’t expect to feel that separation until my boys were much older.

I honestly believe that my experience is one-sided — that at this point Chase and Noah see me as an intricate, interwoven part of their every-day lives. However, it’s important to me that we have a strong relationship in which I feel truly connected to them, especially going into their tween/teen years (which will be here before I know it). Now, I’m not a parent who needs to be “friends” with her children. But I want to pursue a relationship that is stable, honest and trustworthy. I want to be connected enough to have a reasonable shot at spotting signs of trouble. I want them to feel safe coming to me with the hard stuff.

I’ve decided that, in addition to my (however feeble) attempts to be a part of their boy world, I will make more efforts to create opportunities to connect them to mine. In the past, I may have dismissed the chance to go to the theater as a family because Jax is too young. But now I see it as an opportunity to spend time with Chase and Noah while Kevin stays home with the baby. Or, while we try to attend church all together, lately Jax’s nap falls smack in the middle of the service. So, Kevin has been staying back, while I take Chase and Noah. Examples like these are affording me the chance to engage in activities with the twins that we all sincerely enjoy. While attending as a family would also be valuable, for now, me going while being accompanied by Chase and Noah is providing the three of us an important relationship-building moment. A moment that I think will build strong bridges between today and tomorrow — better equipping us for whatever sun or storms our future has in store for us.

So I will continue to leverage those special opportunities, while trying to fully appreciate the smaller day-to-day moments of connection. Chase and Noah love to read – and I am so thankful for that. Not surprisingly they balk at the authors and titles I suggest. But tonight, as I tucked them in and kissed them goodnight, I listed intently as Noah explained the war-torn environment the major character is his current novel is facing. I nodded and smiled as Chase told me how excited he was to go to the archery range tomorrow with Noah and his dad. Just lying there with them, listening is meaningful. I need to soak it in and bottle it up. Because, I’m told, these moments simply pass too quickly.

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Photo Credits: The professional photos you see scattered on my blog  (like the feature image on this post and in the “About” section) were taken by the very talented Kelly Klein of Captured Moments Photography.

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Saving Supper

Family dinner finalGrowing up, my family did old-fashioned dinners. Whether I was at my mom’s or my dad’s, our family sat down together to eat the final meal of the day. My divorced parents had joint custody of my younger brother and I since I was 4-years old, where we spent half the week at my mom’s and the other half at my dad’s. This was not old fashioned, and it came with it’s own set of crazy. But dinners added a necessary dose of normalcy.

Research shows that kids whose families’ eat dinner together are at a decreased risk for drug use and other delinquency behaviors. It’s not so much the dinner itself that matters, but it’s the sitting down together, having conversation and connecting as a family that makes the difference. In today’s gotta-stay-on-the-move culture, that’s not always easy. And, I’m told by my friends with older children that, the older they get, the harder it is to carve out time for family dinners. Even with my oldest being only 8, we don’t always manage to sit down together for all 7 meals each week, but planning ahead does enable me to make 98% of them homemade.

I’m not a natural Martha Stewart. I’m not even naturally organized. Go with the flow, keep my schedule open and flexible – this is my preferred mode of operation. However, I learned many moons ago (about 20 years ago actually), that open-ended, go with the flow doesn’t bode well for meeting deadlines. And I’ve learned to think of making dinner as a deadline of sorts. If I don’t have something in motion by 4:30ish, I’ve missed my deadline. If your household is anything like mine, with two-school aged children and a toddler, the pre-dinner hour is chaos. I’ve termed it the “witching hour” around here. If I don’t have a dinner plan in place well before hand, I am frazzled trying to come up with a healthy idea (while resisting the urge to order pizza). My stress is contagious, as my kids then become more on-edge, and the downward spiral begins.

Dinner planning not only makes our late afternoons more pleasant, but it keeps our family budget on track and helps ensure we are eating healthy. Eating out and running to the grocery every day for last minute items is hard on our budget. And the larger our family gets, the more expensive it is to dine out. And I’m big on healthy eating. As much as I can, I feed my guys organic, non-processed foods and provide a balanced diet over the course of the week. Planning and cooking my own meals gives me more control over these variables.

So this is how I do it. My method isn’t all that original and lots of blogger mommas have shared equally great ways to get dinner on the table. But this is what works for me, for now. I’ve modified my method as my kids have gotten older and as our family has grown. Maybe my system will inspire you to create or tweak a method that works for your brood.

I plan dinners two weeks at a time, every other Sunday. Lots of moms dinner plan at the start of each week, but I don’t like dinner planning. I don’t like grocery shopping. And I don’t like cooking. I’ve found that every Sunday simply comes around too quickly, and sitting down only once every two weeks to plan makes it less dreadful. So, every other Sunday, I gather the following supplies and plan 14 days-worth of suppers: My dinner planning notebook (nothing fancy, just a 3-ring binder with loose-leaf paper), our Family Calendar (ala Google), my go-to cook books, and my Pinterest “Good Eats” and “Kid-Friendly Meals” boards.

My dinner planning tools.

My dinner planning tools.

Step 1: Consult the Family Calendar. My husband and I use shared Google calendars. This means, while we maintain separate ones, we can each see what is on the other’s calendar from our own calendar view. This has saved our marriage! For years, my husband would inevitably forget to inform me of evening commitments and we’d double-book our evenings. Now, with shared Google calendars, we rarely make this mistake – brilliant.

I consult our calendar to answer the following questions: When does Dad have evening meetings? Do I have any evening volunteer/social commitments in the next two weeks? What are the twins’ after school activities? Are we scheduled to host any guests? The answers to these questions tell me 1) On what days I need quick-prep meals (great nights for crock pot dinners), 2) On what days I need portable meals (during sports seasons we sometimes can’t sit down together and need to eat on-the-go), and 3) On what days I might want to plan a special meal (birthdays, when we are hosting guests, etc.) For each day there is an event that will impact my dinner plan, I make a note on the top of a blank piece of paper in my notebook. This will be the page on which I plan the dinners for the next two weeks.

Step 2: Size Up the Pantry, Fridge and Freezer. Next, I make a note of any food I want to use up in my refrigerator and pantry, and what meat I have available in the freezer. This enables me to save on my grocery bill because I’m not allowing food to go to waste and will plan meals that make good use of what I have.

My notebook is low maintenance - nothing fancy here!

My notebook is low maintenance – nothing fancy here!

Step 3: Choose Dinners for Each Night. With my family calendar and available food items in mind, I start to figure out what I’m going to cook my gang for the next 14 suppers. Within my dinner planning notebook, I have a dynamic list of “family favorite” dinners. These are winner dinners from everyone’s perspective. As I try new recipes, I add to this list if everyone agrees it was a hit. I plan to make at least one of the family favorites each week. I also allow my 8-year olds to choose one dinner every week. I am free to veto their idea, but work with them until they come up with one that fits with our diet, budget, etc. Otherwise, we’d have crepes twice every week because it is, hands-down, their all-time favorite meal. To fill the other four nights each week, I consult my Pinterest boards, my go-to cookbooks, and my past dinner planning lists. Every time I make a new dish, I make a note on my list to remind me if the family liked it or how I would cook it differently next time. So, I use those notes and “grades” to decide when and how I will work these dinner ideas into upcoming meals. I also try to balance the main protein source for each meal, ensuring we have a balance of meatless, pork, chicken, fish and beef over the course of the 14 days.

On the evenings when I will be gone, or on days where I have little prep time, I’ll plan for crock pot meals. I love America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution for these ideas. I also try to have several crock pot freezer meals in my freezer that I can pull out and throw in the slow cooker for a super-easy (but healthy) dinner. (I make these several at a time – I’ll blog about that process in the future I’m sure!) I don’t always plan ahead for sides, but when I have veggies I need to use up, I’ll make a note of that in the form of a side dish. As I choose a meal, I note it next to the day of the week along with where I found the recipe (what cookbook, on Pinterest, etc.).

Lots of moms plan breakfasts and lunches too. I don’t. Remember, I’m not a natural planner, and adding breakfast and lunch planning overwhelmes me. I fly by the seat of my pants for those meals. I do, however, plan a weekly snack. My twins bring a snack to school each day because they have a late lunch. I rarely buy snacks from the store (granola bars, fruit sticks, etc.) because they are expensive (and often unhealthy). So, I make a huge batch of one snack (sometimes two) so the boys can grab it for school. I always allow them to choose from a list I provide them (granola bars, homemade Z-Bars, energy balls, different muffins, etc.). So I make a note of the snack choice and the ingredients I’ll need at the grocery.

Step 4: Make a Grocery List. My grocery list is driven by my meal plan. As I’m choosing meals, I create my shopping list of the items I need to buy. I make a “big” trip to the grocery every two weeks. I do have to make a grocery run every now and then between big trips – but they are relatively infrequent. One of those in-between trips involves buying fresh produce for the second week of meals.

Posting the week's menu on the fridge keeps everyone in the know.

Posting the week’s menu on the fridge keeps everyone in the know.

Step 5: Note This Week’s Meals on Our Family Menu Board. So I don’t have to pull out my notebook everyday and so I don’t have to answer the question “What’s for dinner?” a hundred times, I write 7 days worth of meals on a small white board that I “command-striped” to the fridge. It’s just an inexpensive board from Target, but it does the trick. For each day of the week, I note the meal, the side if that’s pre-planned, and where the recipe is located. If I need to take meat out of the freezer for a meal, I note that in parentheses the day before.

So that’s it. This planning requires about 40 minutes of my time every two weeks. Those 40 minutes probably save me several hours of rushing around, trips to the store and sheer panicking about what’s for dinner. Those 40 minutes allow us to sit down most days of the week for a healthy, usually tasty (no guarantees there, however) dinner where we pray as a family, talk about our day and connect as individuals. While I don’t enjoy it, and could think of a thousand other things I’d rather be doing, those are 40 minutes well spent.

Mixin’ It Up in the Playroom: Handmade Toys for Tots

Handmade Toys for TotsI love toys. I especially love smart toys – ones that prompt little brain neurons to fire and make new connections. I’m partial to toys that don’t have tons of bells and whistles (all those sounds make me feel like my mind is going to blow), and that kids can use in different ways as they develop.

I also like to mix things up a bit in our playroom. I’ve shared recently how I trade out our toys via our toy rotation (see Kid Spaces in Adult Places). But sometimes that’s not enough – for me. It’s probably enough for Jax, but I get SO bored with the same ol’ playthings. While I’d love to go out and buy new toys for Jax every time I need a change, our family budget couldn’t handle the hit. And as tempted as I am to raid our Jax in the Box toy inventory to satisfy my need for new stimulation, that’s probably not a wise business practice. My solution has been to come up with creative ways to make toys out of things I have around the house or materials I can purchase very inexpensively. These are the ones that are Jax approved.

Sensory Tray

Sensory Tray

1. Sensory Tray. I put this together when Jax was around 6-months old and sitting up. He was constantly touching new things and exploring their textures, so I thought this modified egg carton might do the trick. We play with this together and basically explore the objects as I name the texture, “That feels squishy … Ooo that’s soft.” Because I liked the idea of being able to see though it, I chose a clear plastic egg carton. I used objects of different textures that I had around the house and hot glued them inside each egg-holder space (what’s that called anyway?). While you can choose just about anything, these are the items that made the cut for our tray: puff ball, elbow noodles (glue them well so they don’t fall out when touched), sand paper, cotton balls, white duct tape (sticky side up), golf ball, Easter grass, aplix swatch (the scratchy side), bristle head of a bottle brush, squishy ball, soft yarn and a smooth rock.

Clothespin Drop

Clothespin Drop

2. Clothespin Drop. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this one. When Jax was around 10 months, he started to get a kick out of putting smaller things into bigger things. He also loved the sound things made as they fell to the floor – a trick he performed over and over when sitting in his highchair. So, I recycled a large-mouthed plastic cashew container, bought some old-fashioned clothespins at the dollar store, and introduced Jax to the Clothespin Drop. At around 12-months old, I introduced other plastic containers with mouths of varied sizes. This became progressively more challenging for Jax as he threaded the clothespins through the container’s opening. At 16-months old, this is still one of his favorite activities.

Ball Throw

Ball Throw

3. Ball Throw. Like lots of little boys around 10-months old, Jax discovered the  joy of balls. Any ball of any size and any color, Jax loves them all. He especially loved to roll them on the floor and soon learned to toss them. As I was unpacking my van-load of groceries from Costco one day, the thought occurred to me that the plastic container the organic apples came in would perfectly house several plastic balls (that we use in an indoor plastic pool for our “ball pit”). So, I replaced the apples with balls of assorted colors. Jax gets a kick out of dumping the balls out and tossing them in. What I love about this “toy” is that the balls almost always roll into one of the grooves – the result of which gives Jax a pretty satisfying feeling of accomplishment evidenced by the grin that appears on his face.

Muffin Tin Sorter

Muffin Tin Sorter

4. Muffin Tin Sorter. I borrowed this concept from my twins’ pre-primary Montessori classroom (wow – that seems like many moons ago now that they are eight!) Leveraging Jax’s desire to put things in things, I dug out my seldom used mini-muffin tin and grabbed a handful of colored poof balls (one of which I also used in the sensory tray). I offered Jax the puff balls in a small plastic bowl which I set along side the muffin tin. Almost as if by instinct,  he used his pincer grasp to place each puff one-by-one into a muffin hole. He does this until all the holes are filled, then returns the puffs to the bowl. In a few months, I’ll introduce a large spoon into the picture, and he can scoop the balls up with the spoon and place them in the holes. At around 20 months or so, I’ll give him a set of tongs with which he can pinch the balls and set into the tin. This progression requires progressively more fine-motor control and develops his hand and finger muscles for pencil-holding.

4-Pack o' Bottles

4-Pack o’ Bottles

5. 4-Pack o’ Bottles. Okay, I may be from Wisconsin, but I don’t recommend introducing your child to wine during their toddler years. The evolution of this toy has a story. Jax loves to play in the refrigerator – really he does. He loves to take condiments off the door shelves, line them up on the floor and replace them in random fashion. One day, a six-pack of beer bottles sat on the shelf and Jax had a ball putting the bottles in and out of the cardboard carton. Later that afternoon, I was in Target (one of my favorite Mom hangouts) and thought I’d look for something non-alcoholic with which he could perform the same action. Well, the the only options I could find involved beer or wine. I opted for this Sutter Home 4-pack because the bottles were perfectly sized for Jax’s little hands. I wrapped the carton in white duct tape, emptied three of the bottles, and refilled them with different colored water (which I colored with food coloring). I’ve been out of red food coloring for a while, so opted to leave one bottle filled with wine. Or perhaps I’m unconsciously throwing myself a life-preserver. You know, for those nights after the kids go to bed and you really need to wind down (and you’d actually drink Sutter Home because you’re feeling that desperate). In all seriousness, this is currently one of his favorite toys. He totes the carton all around the house, rolls the bottles down his slide, lines the bottles along the counter of his play kitchen … I could go on and on.

Color Bins6. Color Bins. I literally stole this concept from a high-end toy company. I loved the color-themed bins they were selling. Each bin contained several small objects of the same color. When spotting this smart toy online, I quickly pictured Jax sorting the objects by color, then sorting them by object type (balls, squares, etc.). Then I looked at the price-tag and decided I could re-create this idea myself. I purchased hard, clear plastic bins with easy-to-remove lids from Target. Then I raided the “1 Spot” for small toys that would fit into the bins. Although Jax won’t be ready to identify colors for a while, he loves lining up the bins, taking the lids off and exploring the objects as he empties them and fills them back up.

None of these ideas involve rocket science, but they’ve kept things fresh for us during playtime. I keep all of these homemade toys in drawers or bins that Jax doesn’t have ready access to, and I pull them out when there is a lull in the day. This helps preserve the fun involved in each one.