Should Schools Reopen In The Fall? Absolutely. Not.

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Back to school.

In our Pre-COVID world, this simple 3-word phrase was wrought with emotion: excitement, nervousness, last-minute FOMO to squeeze the most out of summer, relief, maybe even dread. But now, in our pandemic-stricken society, “back to school” is stirring up a whole new mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, disbelief.

What will back to school look like this year, and should our schools even reopen?

This is a hot topic that has blown up to epic proportions over the last couple of weeks. There seem to be two pretty distinct teams that have emerged from the debate: Team School and Team No Way.

Team School argues that we need in-person instruction. It is the government’s responsibility (and the tax-payer’s reward) to have full-time instruction available for all students. We need schools open, and we need them now.

Team No Way is reading CDC guidelines and WHO statistics and shaking their heads. Those curves we wanted flattened or diminished are looking more and more like the first uphill tick on a roller coaster. They’re all gripping the lap bar with white knuckles as they wait to see what terrifying turn of events will happen next.

So, where do I stand on this subject? Which team am I rooting into the World Series?

Neither.

And Both.

When looking at the dilemma of whether or not schools should open, we need to acknowledge that education is only one of the many functions of capital-s School. School as a societal function on the surface appears to be merely a place for teachers pouring knowledge into the empty vessels of students. But, as anyone who has spent more than one microsecond on the other side of a whiteboard will tell you, School is not only for education.

In fact, I would argue that education is not even the primary function of School. I am a former teacher and, in addition to “educating”, my years in the classroom included the following roles and job responsibilities: counselor, mediator, nurse, childcare provider, special learning needs intervention specialist, disability services manager, mandated reporter, lunch lady, snack monitor, bully remover, recess supervisor, parenting trainer, financial advisor, culture and race ally, safe haven. School is not just a place, and its function is not just education.

You see, we need schools. And not just because schools are school. Allow me to illustrate.

One of the hardest years of my life was teaching Spanish Kindergarten in a highly-impoverished charter school in California. Every single one of my students was poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Only two of my 28 students spoke any English at all. Not a single one of my students’ parents had attended college; most had never graduated from high school, and a handful had never even completed elementary school. Privileged white girl teacher was in culture shock…and still had to teach kindergarten. In Spanish.

During the course of that manic year I received a crash-course in the true multi-faceted function of School. Those kids arrived at school every day–usually by themselves, because Mom had already run off to her first job (she worked 2 or 3 jobs) and more often than not, Dad was not in the picture–and, as a class, we marched over to the cafeteria for breakfast. After breakfast we learned about things like how to line up and raise a hand, because none of these kindergarteners had ever attended preschool or music group or library story time. I taught them how to tie their shoes and use a tissue. We practiced paying attention for 2 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 5 minutes until, by January, we were able to get through an entire lesson in one go. Sure, those kids learned their letters and numbers and all that, but they also learned essential life skills. School was vitally important for them.

And, just as school was vitally important for my students, school was vitally important for their parents as well. Those parents knew that they could go to work during the day and support their family because their child was safe and supervised. Their child’s physical and mental needs were, to the best of our ability, met every day. They knew that, even though they had never received an education themselves, their children now had this opportunity. They knew that their child with Autism or Dyslexia or Vision Impairment would get the services they needed but could not afford. They knew that, even though they did not yet speak English, that their child would learn the Language Of The Land and be able to help communicate for them–at the store, at their job, in court. They knew that their child would come home with a full belly and a full mind, and that was everything.

I have thought of those families often during this pandemic. How on God’s green earth are those families surviving this? Do those parents have jobs, and if they do, are they dangerous “essential worker” jobs that put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus? Do those families have health insurance during this pandemic? Do those children have food to eat every day, and is it healthy and accessible and guaranteed? Do those children have supervision during the day while their parents work outside the home? Did those children have access to technology or learning tools during last spring’s school shutdown–and if they did, was anyone able to help them with their education at home?

Those children need School.  Not just “I’m tired of having my kids around all the time” need-School, but their very lives depend on it need-School.

And yet, COVID rages on. In some areas of our country positive COVID cases are at an all-time high. We can not go to school.

So what are we to do? How can we have in-person school while guaranteeing the health and the safety of the millions of students, staff, and families “back to school” involves?

We can’t. It’s an impossible situation. As much as I love cake (and I LOVE cake!), this is not the time to have your cake and eat it, too.

But there are positive steps we can take in the right direction. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution that can solve this impossible situation, but there are some guiding principles that could help make this transition more manageable:

Money
Doing anything safely at this point is going to cost a boatload of money. Extra staff, sanitization, PPE, improved technology services, upgrading buildings and ventilation systems, hazard pay for teachers (this is not a thing, but it should be). All of it will cost actual US Dollars. Lots of them. Someone (I’m looking at you, US Government with a $721 BILLION DOLLAR annual military budget…) needs to pay up. And, no, asking teachers to pay for this in any capacity is not an acceptable answer.

Schools Must Open
This is not even a question. In-person School is an essential service in our world, and many students and families will not make it to the other side of this pandemic in one piece without it. Parents need to work. Students need to learn. School in all of its capacities is absolutely essential.

We need to find a creative way to start School services…and that may or may not be in actual school buildings with our usual army of teachers. Maybe we utilize the (many) shuttered spaces in our local communities and the (many) unemployed adults to help provide daytime childcare for children so their parents can get back to work.

Maybe we send school buses full of food on their usual bus routes every day to distribute 3-squares to every man, woman, or child that needs nutrition. Maybe we send (well PPE’d) OTs and Speech Therapists to childrens’ neighborhoods to provide essential special education and therapy services. Maybe we employ college students who can’t return to their university campus this fall to facilitate remote learning with pre-recorded lessons from certified teachers. These lessons could take place in empty movie theaters with a handful of students at a time. Or in a community park. Or whatever. The point is, School does not have to happen within the four walls of an actual school.

Families Must Have The Choice To Stay Home
After months of shuttering ourselves away (“sheltering in place”) we can not expect families to willy-nilly throw their children back into the mouth of the lion. There are a million reasons why a child or a teacher should not be in a physical classroom with even a dozen other humans for multiple hours at a time right now. Just Google it.

We need real, equitable, well-planned, well-executed modes of remote education. Teachers need specialized remote-teaching training. Students need access to physical learning tools, books, and equipment. Parents and tutors need access to remote teacher training and teaching materials–we need to equip everyone involved and set them up for success.

We need parents to have the choice to unenroll from public education for however long this pandemic rolls along without any negative impacts to the local school district. Funding should not be withheld from local schools just because a family needs to make a different choice during an uncertain time. Parents must have the ability to make the right choice for their family–whatever that choice is–without negative repercussions.

Teachers Need To Have A Say
You guys, some of my best friends are teachers. Some of them are terrified right now. They’re afraid to return to the classroom because they don’t want to get themselves or their families sick. They don’t want to accidentally kill their parents or their neighbors or their grocery store clerk. Some of them are pregnant or have babies and young children at home, and they don’t want to infect or orphan their children. Some of them are cancer survivors. Teaches are already heroes, we don’t need them to be martyrs, too.

Some of them–all of them–have 8 days of paid leave for the year…which is not enough for even one 14-day quarantine if they are exposed to COVID in their classroom. Some of them will lose their health insurance during a pandemic if they don’t teach this year. Some of them are being bullied by administrators to suck it up or get out the door. Some of them have PTSD from being thrust into online teaching last spring and they don’t know how they’ll manage it for another year.

They’re all tired. They’re all waiting for an answer that values their life and their opinion and their needs and their desires. We owe them a voice in this decision and a guarantee that they have options.

Temporary Shifts
We need to acknowledge that any changes we make now are temporary. It feels like COVID has been going on forever and it will never end. But it will. And when it does, we need to have a mechanism in place for change. We will need to swiftly remove the parts of this temporary plan that are not best practices moving forward in whatever new world we find ourselves in on the other side; crisis School may not be used as precedence for the new world.

By that same token, we need to be able to continue the parts of the crisis changes that actually do work. If increased technology or the different solutions we come up with to survive crisis schooling do work in some ways, we should hold on to those ways that do work and not throw them out with the face masks and respirators at the end of this whole thing.

Every change that is made during crisis schooling needs an asterisk *This is temporary*. Schools need to be given the autonomy to rebuild themselves in the right way when this is over. Some things will be the same, and some will be forever changed, but schools themselves need to have a voice in how the new world of School will look.

***

We are in an unprecedented time. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. My hope is that each family and each teacher will feel empowered and validated to make their own right choice in regard to school this year. Impossible as it is, we will all get through this. And even if the choice my family makes is radically different from the choice your family makes, we will all be stronger if we walk through this uncertain time together.

This, too, shall pass.

And until then, let’s be the best advocates for each other.

Stronger together, forever.

An Ode To Bota

 

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to our amazing dog of nearly 14 years, Bota. More than a pet, she was a treasured member of our family. And while we’re still grieving this loss, I want to remember her. I want to remember the friend that she was and the unquestioning love that she gave us; the shenanigans she got into and the lessons she taught us. Bota lived a life full of the best qualities: love, adventure, loyalty, and undying patience.

Jon and I got Bota in 2006 when we were still newlyweds and she was still a tiny puppy. Actually, that’s not quite right. Jon got Bota for me so I would quit pestering him for a human baby. And it worked.

On Christmas morning in 2006 I unwrapped my gift from Jon: an adorable red dog collar no bigger around than my forearm, and instructions to a location that would hold the rest of the gift. He had scouted out the perfect puppy farm for my Christmas gift–a literal Christmas tree farm (with a side hustle of Border Collie breeding) out in the countryside.

The next morning we drove out to the Christmas Tree farm where 4-month old Bota was still living with her doggy mama, Kate, her doggy daddy, Bo, and one brother from her litter. This little pack of Border Collies had free reign of the farm, and I’m certain this is where Bota’s adventurous spirit was born.

During that first year of Bota’s life she did an excellent job of training her humans (her humans, on the other hand, were pretty clueless and easily frustrated by the human-training tactics employed by their puppy). Since Jon and I were both working, we had to come up with a plan for Bota during the day while we were away.

At first we tried keeping her in a crate, but that was just sad. Then we tried letting her roam around our house, and she managed to open the pantry door and eat through all of the food and beverage containers–including a fresh 12-pack of almond milk–that were at puppy snout level. Then we tried keeping her in our garage, whereupon she decided to chew off all of the drywall at puppy snout level. Next, we tried putting her in our backyard…whereupon she chewed through all of our deck rails at puppy snout level. We even tried coming home from work in the middle of the day and walking her across the street to our little neighborhood park, whereupon she would round up all of the stray children and herd them into a squealing clump in the middle of the field. We never did find a great solution to keep our very intelligent (easily bored), very energetic (would never wear out of new ways to destroy things) puppy occupied. Thankfully for all of us, life changed course just in time.

After our first year with Bota we got news that Jon had been accepted to grad school at Stanford, so we picked up our little life and moved to California. We (me, Jon, and my parents) drove down the west coast with a little moving truck and my even-littler Jetta full of every possession we’d accumulated up to that point in our lives. It wasn’t much, but it included Bota. During The Grad School Years, Bota was an incredibly important, central part of our lives. While I was at work during the day, Bota would keep Jon company as he studied in our tiny one-bedroom apartment. We were lucky to have a little outdoor patio at our apartment.  Jon would lie on our only piece of furniture (a Futon), in the only room of our apartment, near the open front door and Bota would lie in the sun just outside the door so she could keep watch over him as he toiled away.

When I would get home from work we’d take her to the park across the street every day and throw the ball for her for hours. Literally hours. Then we’d go for a run or a hike or a walk around the block. And then we’d throw the ball some more. And then she’d chase black squirrels up the trees or across the fences. And then we’d try to make her run some more. Or we would take her to the beach and she would chase ocean waves as if they were stray sheep that needed to be herded into place. She would run up and down that beach yipping at every single wave until she would literally pass out in the sand from exhaustion. And, finally, she would calm down enough to let us sleep at night. She was our original parental sleep trainer, before we had to throw midnight nursing or diaper changes into the mix.

By the time we left Stanford I was 6 months pregnant with David, and we entered into a whole new phase of life for Bota: The Baby Guardian. When David was born Bota literally changed over night. She went from being our hyper-energetic, non-stop, go-go-go puppy to an aged sage who would lay down her life (or even just lay down for a hot minute) for this helpless human. When David was sleeping, Bota would be curled up at the foot of his crib. When David was going for a walk in the stroller, she’d be half a step ahead so she could keep an eye out on the road ahead. When David started crawling and chasing and dog-hair-pulling and in-your-ear-screeching she just took it. Like a champ. She never got defensive or retaliatory. She didn’t even run away from home (she would have been right to do so). No, she just stood by that crazy baby’s side as if he belonged to her.

Not even two years later, another baby bounced on the scene. And, again, she stood loyally by our side. Even as our time and attention shifted from the dog to the ever-demanding tiny humanoids, she never flinched. She knew she had a job and a purpose to watch over those babies, and she did it with her whole heart.

Just before Jacob’s first birthday we decided to uproot our family again–and this time, we were doing The Big Move. As we were preparing to move to Ireland we had to make some pretty big decisions in regard to Bota. Would she stay in the States or come with us? If she came with us, would it even be worth it (when we began looking into this option, dogs entering Ireland had to be quarantined for up to 6 months). In the end, the timing and the logistics worked out and we were able to bring her with us across the pond.

I am sad to report that the move to Ireland was not easy or fun for Bota…or for us. It was incredibly stressful, expensive, and not at all the sane choice to make. The cargo airline that shipped Bota across the Atlantic to us lost her in transit and Jon quite literally almost punched a helpless airline employee in the face. There was endless paperwork and vet visits and protocols that had to be followed. But Bota was part of our family, and she was worth it.

When our time in Ireland was done, we had to go through the reverse process of re-patriating Bota to American soil. This time we had the wealthiest tech company on the planet footing the dog transfer bill, though, so she got to ride in style. A courier arrived at our home in Ireland, placed her in his special dog transport truck, drove her to the Big Airport 3 hours away, settled her into her first class accommodations on the plane, and then a second courier picked her up from the American airport to drive her to my parents’ house for safe-keeping until we arrived. When the American dog transport pulled up to my parents’ house, Bota was riding in the passenger seat with a grin on her face.

During our next three years of living in California, Bota settled in to herself. She was happy to return to the California sun, and we often referred to her as our “cat-dog” for the way she would lounge in the rays. It was also during our second stint in California that Bota welcomed the third baby into our family.  By now Bota was a seasoned pro, and she resumed her spot at the foot of the bassinet–this time more to protect the squirmy pink baby from her ever-destructive big brothers than anything else.

While I was busy homeschooling and tending to the new baby around the clock, our boys discovered new ways to entertain the dog. One of our houses in California backed up to a creek full of smooth, rounded rocks. They found that Bota loved chasing the rocks into the creek when they’d throw them. What they (and we) didn’t realize, is that she also loved to catch the rocks in her mouth–mid-air–thus chipping away at her fragile old-dog teeth. 7 tooth extractions and a sizable vet bill later, we learned not to throw rocks for dogs.

Three years ago today, we moved back to Washington state. We said goodbye to the California sun and the nice, smooth creek rocks and we made our way back north. The home we bought here in Washington was, in part, for Bota. Up until this point in her long dog-life we’d never really had a yard. We’d had patches of grass and creeks to explore, but never an actual yard with room to run and roam free. We determined that all of our kids–Bota included–needed a real yard in whatever house we chose. So we got a house with the biggest yard we could find and, finally, Bota was home.

***

Yesterday was a really hard day. But I don’t want to hold on to the one really hard day. I want to remember the 5,000 wonderful days. I want to remember the days we spent walking together and dreaming together (Trust me, dogs have the best dreams!). I want to remember the days we taught each other better ways to live. I want to remember the way my heart swelled with love every time I saw her sweet face and the comfort I felt when I would pet her soft fur. I want to remember the way Jon would pick her up and cradle her in his arms like an infant (and how that sweet, old dog would allow him to even do such a thing). I want to remember the way Bota could calm down David when his Big Feelings got too big. I want to remember the way Jacob would chase Bota through the fields. I want to remember the way Hannah’s eyes would light up when she’d see Bota in the room. I want to remember the way she helped form our family, and the ways she will always be a part of our family. Because that is the most important part.

Bota girl, we love you. And even though you won’t be with us here in person, you will live on forever in our hearts. Because you loved us and we loved you, our hearts are forever changed. Chase some squirrels in Heaven today–until we meet again, sweet girl.

 

How To Homeschool On The Fly In The Age Of The Coronavirus

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Late last night our school district outside of Seattle became the first school district in the nation to close due to concerns about the Coronavirus. Effective immediately, and for an indefinite period of time, all schools are closed and shifting to a remote learning model “on the cloud”. Translation: ready or or not, we’re all about to homeschool!

While I 100% support our district’s decision to move to this model, I know from experience how daunting the task ahead will be for families. I used to be a classroom teacher, and I’ve homeschooled before. Teaching is my jam, but helping my own children learn at home was a totally different league.  Let’s just say there’s a very good reason why I’m not still homeschooling.

My kids were only 3- and 5-year olds the last time I attempted homeschooling, so I’m definitely a bit out of practice (And I’ve never done this with a 1st grader, a 3rd grader, and a preschooler, as I’m about to attempt.). While I am by no means a homeschooling (or “cloud schooling”) expert, I did pick up a few tips and tricks during our oh-so-fun year of “Mommy School” that I want to pass along. Just remember: we’re all in this (separately) together!

Set Expectations
Make sure the kids know that this isn’t just a never-ending weekend. These days at home will be a learning time that they will be expected to participate in the same as if they were away at school. Attendance will be taken, they will need to check in for certain online classes, and they will have assignments to complete within specific time frames. Bonus: They can do it all in their pajamas with their dog curled up underfoot.

Gather Supplies
For our particular scenario, students will need a computer, internet access, and a few  physical supplies in order to attend Coronavirus School.

Our school district has come up with a plan to move all learning “outside the four walls of the school and onto the cloud”, which basically means kids will be completing and/or submitting their school work online. Each physical class in the real world now has a virtual Google Classroom where students and teachers can interact with each other virtually. It’s actually really cool! And, since we had a bit of warning that this was coming, teachers spent the school day yesterday as a bridge day. They trained students how to use these new-to-them online tools and had time to practice using them under teacher guidance. In addition, our school district has made available computing devices and WiFi hotspots for any students that need them in order to complete their “cloud learning” at home. Really, I can’t believe how well-planned this whole thing is on such short notice and in such an unprecedented circumstance!

Each of my kids also came home yesterday with a backpack full of physical tools (textbooks, workbooks writing journals, books) to use at home. In addition to these supplies, it will probably be a good idea to have basic school supplies on hand. This is what I’m going to have available in our homeschool space (More on that in the next section!):
-Pencils
-Pencil Sharpener (At the beginning of the school year I bought this fancy sharpener and it’s been a great tool to have at home!)
-Crayons/markers/colored pencils
-White printer paper
-Lined notebook paper
-Headphones (so my kids can work on their computers simultaneously with minimal disruptions to each other).
-Computer microphone (we had to get one for my third grader because his PC doesn’t have a built-in microphone)
-Small dry erase boards with markers and erasers
-Ibuprofen (for Teacher-Mom)

Since we are yet to put any of this into practice, I’m sure this list will evolve over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you want to stock up you can find most of these items in the Dollar store (Or, if you don’t want to even set foot in the world of viral outbreak, just have them delivered from Amazon).

Set up Your Space
It’s important for you (Teacher-Mom or Teacher-Dad) and for the kids to have a dedicated space for school at home. This can be the kitchen table (This is a great choice because it’s central and you can spread out a lot of junk learning tools on it at once) or a home office with tables  set up for the kids. Or, really, just sitting on the floor in a hallway. For the love, do NOT set up school near a TV/XBox/Switch/Pokemon card collection that will be more enticing than the schoolwork that lies ahead!

Schedule Your Day
You need a plan some structure for your day or you will all go crazy and quite possibly end up in a mental institute (Which is probably quite clean and Coronavirus-free, actually, so that might not be a terrible back-up plan).

As you make your “School Day on The Cloud” schedule, think about what will work best for your family, and don’t be afraid to adjust as you go. Set a time in your day when schoolwork will get done–maybe this is first thing in the morning when everyone is fresh, or maybe it’s in the evening after Mom and Dad get home from work. Agree on an amount of work and/or an amount of time that you will dedicate to schoolwork during the first chunk of work time, then take a break (this is when you kick your kids outside for 30 minutes to roll around in the mud puddles). If your kid usually eats snack at school, eat a snack at the same time. Try to have lunch at the same time every day…again, consistency is key. Plan a block of time for independent or shared reading somewhere in there, then schedule a second chunk of work time later in the day (if you can muster it) and call it a day.

A typical homeschool day usually lasts only 2-4 hours, compared to 6.5 in a regular school day. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO 6 HOURS OF SCHOOL “ON THE CLOUD” (Sorry to my childrens’ teachers who are probably reading this, but I’m just telling it how it is in the real world!). Just do what you need to do, and don’t burn yourselves out.

I’m using a checklist with my kids so they know what needs to be accomplished each day and can move at their own pace. Here is the checklist I’ve made for my kids to follow:
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What About Younger Siblings?
Great question! I have a preschooler who will be joining us on this grand learning adventure, so I will also be curious to see how this aspect all plays out in practice. Some tactics I’ve tried before to help minimize the distraction of a younger sibling with marginal success:
-Having simple activities prepped and available that the younger sibling can work on independently while I assist the older sibling(s). Think: coloring pages, simple puzzles, Play-Doh, building with blocks, Duplos, or an iPad with noise cancelling headphones (#kiddingnotkidding).
-Do “school time” during the younger sibling’s nap time
-Childcare swap with a neighbor or trusted friend so you can take turns playing with younger siblings and helping your school-aged kids complete their schoolwork.
-Hire a teenage babysitter (They’re all out of school right now, too!) to come entertain one or more children while you help your school-aged child.
-(Weather permitting) move school outside–younger siblings can play outside while you sit in the grass or at a picnic table to do schoolwork with your child
-Let your school-aged child work independently while you care for the younger sibling.
-Involve the younger sibling in the learning. Have your school-aged child read to them or teach them a concept they’re learning about (Teaching is the best tool for testing comprehension!).
-Turn on Frozen 2 in another room and walk away.

Use Bribery Liberally
Please don’t judge me, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, and bribes work wonders. Maybe the kids earn screen time for finishing assignments. Or a trip to the drive-thru for ice cream after they’ve chosen to read rather than squabble with their siblings for __ minutes. We’re only trying to make it through a few weeks here, so no long-term habits are going to have time to fully grab root–I say bribe away!

Plan Enrichment
School is all well and good, but we all need a break from the rigor every now and then. Consider both academic and non-academic enrichment you can offer your children while they’re at home to help keep everyone’s minds and bodies moving. And since we’re trying to maintain social distancing, here are some ideas you can implement from the comfort of your own home.

Academic Enrichment Ideas:
-Learning games such as Uno, Cribbage, Chess, Scrabble, and Bananarams
-Do a puzzle
-Read! You can even ask Alexa to tell you a story and “she” will comply
-Play academic games on a website like Starfallor ABCMouse (subscription required)
-Write a letter to someone–they would probably love to hear how you’re doing in Ground Zero of the Coronavirus Apocalypse!
Do a science experiment 

Non-Academic Enrichment Ideas:
-Get moving with an app like Go Noodle! or Cosmic Kids Yoga
-Bake (Math, Literacy, and Science all wrapped up in one!)
-Arts and crafts (You can literally just pull stuff out of your recycling bin and tell your kids to get creative with it!)
-Make homemade Play-Doh or Slime
-Create a song in Chrome Music Lab

Give Yourself Grace and Space
School-at-home can be stressful. There is a different dynamic when the environment and the people involved in school change, and this is a process that can take a very long time to feel comfortable. Give yourself (And your kids! And the teachers!) grace–this is a big learning curve!

Also, give yourself physical space to decompress. If things in the living room-schoolroom start to get rowdy or out of control or just feel off, take a break.  Maybe this means taking your kids outside for a walk around the neighborhood or banishing everyone to their bedrooms for “silent reading” so you can take a shower and eat the chocolate you have hidden in the laundry room. After everyone catches their breath, come back together and begin again–I promise, you’ll all feel better!

And if all else fails, just remember: This, too, shall pass.

Stay healthy out there, friends!

The 12 Days of Christmas a Mom Really Wants

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The Christmas season is fully upon us, which means I’m streaming my Pandora Christmas stations during all waking hours. My Christmas music streaming is done much to the joy of my husband and children, who especially love that I treat the Christmas music station as my own personal sing-along karaoke.

One of the more amusing Christmas songs that always pops up on my playlist is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Everyone knows the song: “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.” As the song progresses we learn about all of the glorious gifts bestowed upon the recipient: Two turtle doves, three french hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a swimming (So many birds!!)…and all the way up to twelve drummers drumming.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if my true love gave me a boatload of birds to take care of for Christmas, I’d chalk that right up there with receiving a toilet scrub brush and some rubber gloves. No thank you, sir. No, if my true love gave to me what I really wanted, it would look something like this:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me one whole day off to do whatever I wanted.
I don’t even know where I would start, but it would for sure involve a lot of not-cleaning and not-responding to the needs/wants/whims of , well, anyone not named Me. We could just stop right here with this one and be set for life, but this is the 12 days of Christmas, so we’ll keep going.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two solid days of your time checking off items from your “Honey Do” list (that I so kindly wrote out for you).
Let’s turn that “Honey Do” list into a “Honey Done” list. I know that a lot of the things on that list don’t bother you because you’re away in an office for 10 hours a day…but my office happens to be our house, and they drive me bonkers! That little patch of the wall that still needs to be painted, the rattling pipe, the drawers that still need pulls (that we already bought) installed. Please and thank you.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three (proper) massages.
No funny business, just a good ‘ol back rub. And if you’re not up to the task, you’re welcome to send me off to the spa.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four weekends per month to sleep in.
Sleep is the one thing I dream about when I am awake. You, my friend, could make my wildest dreams come true.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five opportunities to work out every week.
How amazing would it be to just go to the gym or hit the pavement any time I wanted? No need to shlep along unruly children or push a whiny toddler in the stroller. I would actually have a legitimate purpose for wearing yoga pants and running shoes every day. Yes, this would be bliss.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six hours of time washing and detailing my minivan.
I’m not sure that 6 hours would be enough time to remove the slop and grime and pulverized goldfish crackers from my kid-mobile, but you have to start somewhere. I would absolutely love to sit down in that car some day and be reminded of the carpet’s natural color and look through windows that are not smeared with sticky handprints.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven days off of bedtime duty every week.
Bedtime is perhaps my least favorite part of any given day. The cajoling, the whining, the arguing, the pushing of buttons when my buttons are already worn out from the day. How amazing would it be to just give my kids a hug and a kiss goodnight, then sit down with a book and a cup of tea while the nighttime chaos unfolded out of earshot? SUPER-amazing, that’s how amazing it would be.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight hours of quality time with our family doing whatever I plan for us.
My true love does not (under normal circumstances) enjoy “adventuring” as I call it. Neither do two out of my three children. They’re much happier staying home working on a project or playing video games with their friends. I, on the other hand, am like a caged bird that needs to spread her wings.

For one solid day I’d like to take the whole family and go to all the places, do all the things, eat at all the restaurants, and enjoy all the time together. Everyone would be happy and well-rested and cooperative and excited to see all of the wonderful things I had planned for us. They would marvel at the beautiful places in nature we would visit and they would appreciate the new culinary journeys I would take them on. At the end of the day they would thank me for opening their eyes to new experiences.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine months of carpooling service for our children.
I spend approximately 27 hours a day driving my children to and fro. If someone could just help me drive kids to school and sports and clubs and playdates I would have enough time to do, well, everything. And I’m not even asking for a whole year of driving services. Nine months, from September-May, should do just fine for now. I’m so magnanimous.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten loads of laundry completed by someone other than myself.
In a family with three young children I do laundry every. Single. Day. Of all my domestic chores, laundry is the most consistent time-suck. I would love to have help every now and then with completing full loads of laundry. And by completing, I mean sorting, washing, drying, ironing/folding, and putting away everything. Not just one step in the process as is occasionally offered, but the whole shebang.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven fresh, healthy dinners prepped, served, and cleaned up for our family.
Even though I’ve been an “adult” for quite some time now, the fact that I have to make dinner every day is still surprising to me. Growing up I rarely gave dinner a thought because it always just appeared on our dinner table at 6PM. Now that I’m in charge of the whole dinner rigamarole, however, dinner carries quite a different connotation in my mind. Dinner requires planning, time to prep, time to cook, time to clean, and will power to not lose your cool when nobody eats the meal that you’ve spent all day obsessing over. For a few days I’d love to just revert to my childhood and show up to dinner on the table at 6PM–is that too much to ask?

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve months of a housecleaning service.
Can I get an amen?! Admittedly, I am a terrible housekeeper. I love clean, but I despise cleaning. I mean, I’ll do the basic bed-making and vacuuming and putting things away, but I need someone to get into all the nooks and crannies. Someone to come in and mop up the dust bunnies and scrub the baseboards, and rub the fingerprints off our front windows. Someone to make my home presentable, even if it’s just for the 2 hours between elementary school drop-off and preschool pick-up.

So, there’s my twelve days of Christmas list. No partridge in a pear tree or calling birds (They’d just mess up my house and add more noise to the usual cacophony, anyway)–although I really wouldn’t mind the five golden rings.

Now it’s your turn–what’s on your twelve days of Christmas wish list?

Great Wolf Lodge For First-Timers

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting, people standing and indoorThere are certain rights of passage that you go through as a parent: Your first holiday with kids, your first vacation with kids, your first bout of sickness with kids. Each is momentous in it’s own way, and each has its own challenges.

As a mom living in the Pacific Northwest, I am going to add to my list of parenting rights of passage an overnight trip to the mecca of family getaways: Great Wolf Lodge (Hereto referred to as GWL for the sake of blogging brevity). I have been aware of this milestone for quite some time–for several years we would drive right past the gargantuan Hotel/Resort/Water-Themepark just off the shoulder of I-5 every time we drove from California up to visit our family in Washington—but we had never taken the plunge. I knew it would be exciting (for the kids) and expensive (for the parents) but I really didn’t know quite what to expect.

Last week we finally had a good enough excuse to book ourselves a stay GWL. Jacob had broken his arm on the second day of school and his cast (that couldn’t get wet for 8 weeks) finally came off. That paired with no-school and no-work days for Thanksgiving (and a great deal on our stay for going mid-week) combined to make it the perfect getaway timing for our family.

This was our first stay at GWL and, while I know that there are still a lot of intricacies to maximizing your time/money I could still learn, I did come away with a few tips for those of you who are considering your own maiden voyage.

  1. Timing, timing, timing!
    GWL, like all resorts, bases their pricing on peak travel times and filling their hotel to capacity. Basic supply and demand. For GWL, this means you can pay anywhere from about $150 per night all the way up to over $1000 for ONE STINKING NIGHT. That’s a pretty big range! If you’re like me and you see the $899 per night price tag pop up and you feel like you’re going to faint, maybe consider going at a different time. Like a Tuesday in the middle of January. Sure, it may not be ideal timing, but think of how many extra goodies at GWL you could spend your additional $600 on (and, trust me, there are a LOT of extra goodies to spend your money on) if you go off-peak!

    There are also several ways to score a “deal” on a stay at GWL. You can check the “Deals” tab on their website, sign up for their mailing list and get deals emailed to you, look for vouchers on Groupon (they come up a few times a year), or use your PTA membership for a discount. Any way you cut it, this won’t be a cheap stay, but at least you can take some of the sting out of your final bill.

  2. Choosing a Room
    There are several types of rooms to choose from. We opted for a middle-of-the-road suite that had 1 set of bunk beds, a twin bed, a Queen bed, and a pull-out couch. The kids’ area of the room (bunk bed + twin bed) was separated by a half-wall from the “adult” portion of the room (queen bed + pull-out couch)–in theory this is nice, but everyone can still see and hear everyone else. My kids are weird sleepers and I don’t like being anywhere near them at night time, so maybe next time I’ll just book them a room down the hall with a grandparent so I can sleep in peace 🙂

    When you book your GWL stay online you have the option of (generally) choosing your room location. The main things to consider for a room location are mobility and noise. By mobility I’m referring to how mobile you are and how easy it is to access the things you want to do. GWL is HUGE and if you get a room at the far end of a corridor (as we did) you could spend 10 minutes just walking to the lobby (and that’s if your kids are actually cooperating and walking at a normal human pace, not the sloth-like crawl that they get into when they’re tired/hungry/unwilling participants in the labor of movement).  By noise I’m referring to the fact that you’re literally in a hotel run over by packs of exuberant children. That being said, if you can, I would opt for a room on the 1st floor (lobby, Starbucks, restaurants, and gift shop are on this floor) or the 2nd floor (arcade, spa, ice cream shop, and pool entrance are on this floor). I would also request a room that is at least 5 doors down from any stairway or elevator…I honestly don’t know how the people sleeping right next to a constant slamming door full of screaming children survived the night. 

  3. The Magical Bracelet
    When you check in to GWL you get a pair of wolf ears for each of your “pups”, a map of the resort, an activity schedule, an ID wristband for each guest…and no room key. You see, the magical (adult) wristbands that they give you at check-in are actually your key to everything. They are your room key. They are your credit card. They are your admission ticket to the water park. Everything. You just scan your wrist and you’re good to go–no keys or wallets to schlep around. I loved this concept.  My dear husband, however, was paranoid as anything that somebody was going to chop off his hand when we weren’t looking and start charging massive amounts of ice cream to our room without our consent. I guess just don’t lose your wrist, and you’ll  be fine.
  4. So Many Extra Goodies To Spend Your Money On
    From the arcade to the mini golf to the high ropes course to the on-site Build-a-Bear to gem mining to a kiddie-spa there is an abundance of “extras” you can add to your (already pricey) GWL stay.  They do sell combo packages (starting at about $35) that give you access to some of the extra activities, so that could be a good option if you plan on doing several activities during your stay. Do your research ahead of time and decide the types of activities or a price limit you’re willing to spend on extras. Then–and this is important–try to set your kids’ expectations for what you will/not be doing once you arrive. Meltdowns over alluring arcade games and adorable stuffies are still sure to arise, but at least you gave everyone fair warning.
  5. Speaking of Extras…MagiQuest
    I had done my due diligence in researching the many extra activities of GWL and I determined that we would allow our children to play the much-lauded MagiQuest game (along with $10 of spending money per kid that they could waste however they wanted). The only thing I knew about the MagiQuest game was that my kids would 100% beg me to play it, and that there were wands involved. I also found out that I could borrow the wands from friends before we left so I wouldn’t have to buy them.

    So, feeling quite proud of my forward-thinking, I borrowed three wands assuming our MagiQuest adventure would now be a bonus freebie. I talked it up like crazy because I had thought ahead and borrowed the wands. Big mistake. Turns out, even after you buy the wands (for the bargain price of about $40 PER WAND) you still have to pay $15 per wand to play the game. And, since I’d already talked up the dang wands so much I pretty much had to cough up the money to activate them. Two out of my 3 kids played with their now-activated wands for a few microseconds before they decided the game was too boring/confusing, and the third kid would only play with my direct supervision and participation (which basically defeats the purpose of a kids’ game, in my opinion). Some kids love the game, and maybe yours will, too…but next time I’m saving my money and using it to buy an extra Mai Tai at story time.

  6. They Have MaiTais at Story Time
    Just thought I’d throw that little tidbit out there. They also have poolside margaritas. And they’ll bring you wine and a cheese board to your room. Nothing says good ol’ fashioned family fun like a bunch of parents cutting loose among a sea of children and animatronic wild animals.
  7. Dining Options
    As far as I know, every room at GWL is equipped with a microwave and mini fridge. This means you can bring basically all of the kid food groups (salty snacks, sugary treats, unhealthily-quick breakfasts, processed junk) along with you. Bringing some of your own food along could save you a bundle (the buffet breakfast was $18 per adult).

    There are several on-site dining options that allow you to eat “out” while still in your bathing suit and/or pajamas: a buffet restaurant, a sit-down bar and grill, a pizzeria (takeaway only), a poolside burger shack, and even a Starbucks. There is also a Dippin’ dots and a “bakery” (you can buy stale donuts and cupcakes, but I can guarantee nothing is actually baked there). The food is so-so quality and a bit on the spendy side, but nothing outrageous. And, while nobody’s giving our Michelin Stars to The Wolf any time soon, I thought the food was fine (and my kids loved that we got pizza for dinner AND burgers for lunch, all in the same weekend!).
    If you want to put on real clothes and shoes, you can even venture off-site. Within a 5-minute drive there are several fast food restaurants, a Mexican restaurant, and a couple of coffee shops.

  8. The Waterpark
    The main draw of GWL is its massive indoor waterpark. We’re talking: kiddie splash pool, wave pool, family play pool, hot tubs, and waterslides galore. All indoors and heated to a balmy 85 degrees year-round. They’re also quite generous with size requirements. I was worried that my kids wouldn’t be big enough to go on most of the water features and I’d have to quell in-water meltdowns, but that wasn’t the case. Hannah (age 3) was able to do the kiddie pool, the huge climbing structure/medium-sized water slides, the wave pool, the family pool, and the hot tubs. Jacob (age 7) was able to do literally everything (including the massive hurricane slide that I wouldn’t even go on).

    You may want to bring your own flip-flops and towels and/or robes to wear while you walk from your room to the pool–the hallways and lobby are definitely not as warm as the waterpark. Pool towels are provided at the pool, but you have to check them out and there is a fee if you don’t return them.

    The water is quite chlorinated (For obvious reasons–just imagine what happens in a pool full of over 1,000 children…). Wear swimsuits that you don’t mind getting ruined by chemicals, and definitely bring goggles if you have sensitive eyes. You may also want to bring water bottles and a few snacks to get you through the long swim sessions (Just sneak them in under your towels, because the official rule is “No outside food or beverage” poolside).

  9. Included Activities
    GWL offers a number of free (!) activities for their guests including crafts, evening story time, the “clock tower show” (creepy animatronic animals singing weird songs), a nighttime pajama dance party, and early morning (9:00 AM) family yoga. My kids were so-so interested in the activities, but it’s nice to have options.
  10. How Long To Stay
    Now, this is open to interpretation…or your idea of how much insanity you’re willing to suffer through for your childrens’ joy. We stayed for one night, which was plenty for us. You are able to start using the waterpark and activities at 1:00 on your day of arrival until 8:00PM the day you check out. That means in our “1 day” we got two very full days of activity and one sleepless night. Some people like to go for a few days so they can experience all that The Wolf has to offer, so it’s your call.

The final verdict: I’m glad we went! It’s a long drive, and it’s expensive, and it’s utterly exhausting…but it was absolutely worth it all. Our kids were in paradise and the smiles on their faces and the memories we made together were priceless. We’ll definitely be back again some day…after we recover from our first trip.

Someone I Love

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I have wanted to write this post for over a year now, but the timing hasn’t been right. It has taken me this much time to start to wrap my mind around this subject and come to terms with what it means for me and my family. Time is a wonderful gift, though, and I do feel ready to share–the time is right, right now.

You see, October is ADHD Awareness month, and someone I love has ADHD.

That person is my 8-year old son David and, with his permission, I’d like to share a bit of his story.

For years now David has struggled in certain areas but we were never sure if the behaviors we noticed were a result of his immaturity (he was young!) or his lack of foundation (the poor kid was only 7 years old and had already lived in 6 different houses and been to 5 different schools!)…or something else. After years of suspecting and noticing and wondering, however, we finally decided to get some answers.

In the spring of David’s 1st grade year we went to our pediatrician and ran a number of tests. And, although the result was exactly what I had suspected all along, I was still caught off guard: my son has ADD.

As soon as the doctor gave me the official diagnosis I felt all of the emotions that I’d been holding on to for so long, and I felt them all at once. I felt relieved to finally have an explanation and an answer and a way to plan for the future. I felt nervous for how I would explain this to my son and how others would see him now that he had a “label”. I felt loss for the old normal and worried about what the new normal would look like for us. I felt overwhelmed by the choices Jon and I would now have to make on our son’s behalf. I felt guilty because I’m his mom and I can’t help but feel guilty any time everything isn’t perfect or going the way I’ve decided it’s supposed to go.

That night when Jon got home from work we sat down with David after we’d put his younger siblings to bed and took a moment to try and explain what had happened at the doctor’s office that day. We explained to David that he had something called ADD. We went on to explain that ADD is something he was born with, and that it makes some things more challenging for him. His brain is like a race car–it loves to go fast, but it has a hard time putting on the brakes.  How exciting, and also how difficult! We told him that there are some things that he can not control, and that it isn’t his fault. And then we told him the most important part: his ADD is not bad or wrong, it’s simply something that makes him unique in this big ‘ol world. It was not an accident that his brain was wired in this way.

God knew from the beginning of time that David would have ADD. For God, this was not a detour, but part of the original plan. And because He knew this, he already put the pieces into place to keep us steady on the (new) road that we now find ourselves on.

God knew that while some areas would be difficult for David, he gifted David immeasurably in other areas. God knew that David would have a mom who was a teacher, someone who knew all of the ropes when it came to setting up educational supports and accommodations in the classroom. God knew that David would have a dedicated dad who would spend his free time working on special projects with him that piqued his unique interests. God knew that David would have  patient and generous siblings to share life with. God knew that David would need smaller classes and more one-on-one help, so He always put David in these exact classes every year and at every school he’s ever been at (and that’s a lot of schools!).

In addition to preparing our family, God prepared David for this journey by giving him unique talents and abilities that are fueled by his “race car brain”. He is passionate and able to develop a depth of knowledge for his passions unlike anyone else I’ve ever met (Just quiz him about Pokémon stats, and you’ll know what I mean!). He is resilient and able to brush off what others might think in favor of simply doing what he feels is right. He is willing to take risks and test boundaries when others would simply give up. He provides a different perspective to every situation and helps others to see the world in new and fascinating ways. He is fiercely loyal has an incredible sense of justice–he will fight for those he loves with every ounce of his soul. He is amazing, he is special, he is exactly who he is supposed to be.

The road on our new adventure with ADD has not always been smooth, but we take comfort in knowing that it is the road we are supposed to be on.  We can go forward in confidence knowing that the same God who has carried us this far will continue to be with us wherever we go. And, so, forward we will go–not alone, but together.

Breaking Point

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Today concludes our first full week of school. While usually this is a time of returning to routines and settling in, this year has been anything but that. Instead of getting “back in the swing of things”, an actual swing has thrown our family off course in ways that I never knew a piece of playground equipment could.

As many of you already know, we had a little incident after the second day of school. It turns out that even when your mom repeatedly tells you “Quit jumping off _____(the top stair, the 2-story deck, the swing that is 12 feet in the air)”, sometimes you just have to test those limits yourself. Especially when you’re a 7-year old boy whose favorite sports include Parkour and Ninja Warriors.

On this particular night, the kids were playing in our backyard while I finished cooking dinner. Right as I was pulling food out of the oven David came running into the house crying because he had jumped off the swing and hurt his hand.

Put down the food.

Turn off the oven.

Comfort the crying child.

Get ice on the hurting hand.

Not 2 minutes later I hear another (this time, blood-curdling) scream coming from outside. This time it’s Jacob. He came running in the house saying that, you guessed it, he hurt his hand jumping off the swing.

Comfort the crying child.

Get ice on the hurting hand.

Realize immediately that this is more than a bump-and-bruise situation.

Now, I’m no medical expert, but I could tell this was bad. Really bad. Jacob was screaming any time I so much as touched his hand or arm, and he said it was hard to move his fingers. Uh-oh.

I called Jon at work and he advised me to forget about dinner (Yet another reason why I should just stop cooking dinner every night) and get Jacob right in to the hospital. So, I made Jacob a state-of-the-art splint out of an Amazon box and an Ace bandage, loaded three hungry children into the car (two of whom are still crying about their hurt hands), and drove the route I had memorized on the first day we moved into our house to the Emergency Room (Because with three active children I knew it would be a matter of when I would need to drive there, not if I would ever have to go).

Jon drove from work straight to the hospital and met us at the ER drop-off door, so it was simply a matter of rolling up in the minivan, sliding open the passenger door, and shuffling Jacob (along with his car seat and a backpack full of electronic devices and snacks) out the door to his waiting dad. Uber couldn’t have done it better.

After I dropped off Jacob at the hospital I headed home with the other kids, and that’s when it hit me: Mom Guilt. Rationally I know that there’s nothing I could have done to keep him from getting hurt, but what if there was? And now he’s hurt and there’s nothing I can do to help him feel better. And this is going to be a long haul, and how will we make it through? And what if the x-ray gives him radiation poisoning? And what if he gets cold in the ER because he’s only wearing shorts? And what if…

So that was a fun night.

As I went through the motions of feeding the other kids dinner, putting them to bed, going through school bags, and pacing the floor, I kept getting text updates from Jon. Finally, at about 2 hours past bedtime, we got the news that I was hoping and praying we wouldn’t get: Jacob had a non-displaced fracture of his radius or, as normal people like to say, he broke his arm.

The ER patched him up in a temporary arm cast and sent him home with a prescription for Children’s Tylenol (Seriously, that’s the best pain meds we can give to kids with a broken appendage?!) and advice to rest. I think Jacob got some sleep that night, but I’m pretty sure neither Jon nor I got a wink.

The next morning (a Friday, exactly a week ago today), Jacob woke up chipper and excited to go to school. I tried to convince him to stay home and rest, but he was insistent that he wanted to go because he didn’t want to miss anything (Oh, the enthusiasm of the first week of school!). So, he went to school and I hovered in the school parking lot most of the day.

Since then we’ve gone back to get Jacob’s official cast: a full-arm, up-to-his-shoulder, bright-red, no-nonsense, super cast. Jacob has an awesome Orthopedic doctor at Children’s Hospital–not only does he work with my sister (she’s a pediatric Physical Therapist there), but he also  has a child in kindergarten at the boys’ elementary school AND is a former collegiate wrestler (Jacob was getting tips for taking down his brother…for after he has use of both upper extremities, of course).

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Now we’re looking at 4-6 weeks in the super-cast, and then another 6-8 weeks in a below-elbow cast after that. During this time he has to avoid all: balls, wheels, swings (ha!), slides, trampolines, water, climbing, jumping, and running…so basically everything he enjoys. And for the kicker, the broken arm is his dominant hand so he gets to learn how to do everything with a hand that he’s rarely used before.

Everything from putting on shoes to writing his name takes a ton of extra effort and energy, so it’s been an interesting learning curve. He’s tired and frustrated. He feels left out because he can’t play with his friends how he used to. He gets pain in the middle of the day and I have to drop everything and run to the school to give him Tylenol. He’s sad because he missed his first soccer game (And, at this point, will likely miss every other game this season). He can’t wear his coat because it won’t fit over his cast. His arm itches and he just has to deal with it. He, whose favorite past time is taking a long, hot shower until the hot water runs out, is not even allowed to take a shower. It’s a big bummer, no way around it.

And of course I, the mother, feel utterly helpless. I want to make it all better. I want my son to feel successful, not stuck. I want to take away his pain. I want to rewind to last Thursday and call him in to dinner five minutes earlier so this whole thing never happened.

But I can’t.

And maybe I should’t.

Suffering–terrible and unwanted as it is–is an assured part of life. Nobody, not one of us, is immune to suffering. Whether it be an all-consuming aspect of our lives or a relatively temporary inconvenience (Hello, broken arm!), suffering is a guaranteed part of the human story.

Suffering is so much a part of the human story that Jesus himself, God as human, suffered. Obediently, willingly, perfectly suffering:

“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Hebrews 2:9-10

God redeemed all of humankind through suffering.

When we are at our breaking point, we are made perfect through our sufferings.

I don’t know how Jacob or our family will be made perfect through this ordeal, but I do know that we will be forever changed. How we view this change is up to us.

We will be made stronger because of the support we offer to one another.

We will be more attentive because we are made aware of the attention that needs to be given.

We will be more knowledgable because we are learning together.

We will be more resilient because, as always, we will make it through this. Together. Stronger. More perfectly like Him.

Imperfectly perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What To See and Do With Kids: San Francisco

Moving on to part 2 of this little travel series (If you missed part one’s adventure to Portland, check it out here!).  Today’s location is one that is near and dear to my heart: San Francisco, California. I’ve spent a total of 5 out of the last 10 years living in the San Francisco Bay area–2 years while Jon was in grad school (when our only child had fur and four legs), and then a few years later when we returned for another 3-year stint with our kids.

While we never lived in San Francisco proper, we did spend enough time in The City to discover some special kid-friendly spots (which is really saying something considering I don’t think any actual children live in San Francisco any more). Read on for a few of our favorites!

DISCLAIMER: All tips and tricks are based on my limited and biased perspective. I am the self-proclaimed expert here because I have actually been to these places with actual children and have survived to tell the tale. I always love hearing from other experts, though, so if you have your own tips, tricks, or favorite insights to share please leave a comment at the end of the post!

San Francisco, California
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Where To Stay:
Since we were day-trippers into the city I  don’t have much solid advice for you on this subject. I will note a few tips, however, if you’re trying to find lodging in San Francisco:

  • Parking in The City is scarce and very expensive, so try to stay near a public transportation line such as Muni (the city’s bus and metro system), the cable car lines or, if you plan on exploring areas outside of the city, the BART (commuter train).
  • Try to find lodging in the city center.
  • San Francisco real estate is *ahem* quite pricey which drives up the hotel rates–consider renting through a vacation rental company such as Airbnb or VRBO.

What To Do:
Before I get into this I need to say one very important thing about visiting San Francisco: it’s cold. You may think that it’s warm because it’s in that land of eternal sunshine called California, but San Francisco is a land unto itself. A cold land. Do yourself (and your kids…and your sanity…) a favor and pack along some warm layers and a rain coat. You’re welcome.

Moving along to more exciting matters now…

My very-favorite kid spot in San Francisco, and one that I made a point of visiting frequently when we lived in the area, is Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM). BADM is located across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in the seaside town of Sausalito–which means the first part of your adventure to BADM involves a trip across one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world.

Take some extra time to explore the bridge before or after you visit the museum–you can either pull over on the San Francisco side right before you get to the bridge (there’s a fun little gift shop and visitor center here), or cross over the bridge and drive up to the Marin Headlands for a birds-eye view of The Golden Gate.

Once you get to BADM park in the large fields out front and enjoy your day exploring the indoor exhibits (they’re all set up inside former army barracks) or take a trek outside to hike on the nature trails and play on the giant pirate ship play structure.

Once you get back into San Francisco, spend some time exploring Golden Gate Park. This giant park in the middle of the city is full of trails to explore, ponds to paddle on, and museums that pique every interest.

My favorite kid-friendly museum in Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences. The museum itself is breathtaking with a grass-covered roof and an indoor 4-story rainforest where you can climb through every layer of the rainforest. The museum also has natural history exhibits (DINOSAURS!!) and an aquarium. There are plenty of hands-on activities to keep little hands and minds occupied.

Another must-do when you’re in San Francisco is a trolley ride. I like to hop on the Powell-Hyde trolley at the Powell stop downtown. Get off the trolley at the top of Lombard Street where you get a great view of the “twistiest street in the world” (It’s not actually THE twistiest street in the world, but it’s definitely in the running for that honor and a visit there makes for some great photo-ops and entertaining tourist-watching).

After you’ve gotten your fill of watching cars try to navigate the zig-zags on Lombard Street, hop back on your trolley and continue down to the other end of the line at Hyde. You’ll get off near Ghiradelli Square, so take a brief detour to get some chocolate or ice cream sundaes at the Ghiradelli Chocolate cafe (Or, if you need an afternoon pick-me-up, an Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista next door).

While you’re in the area, visit Fisherman’s Wharf to watch the sea lions on the docks or take a boat ride through The Bay. And speaking of boats, this is also where you can catch a boat out to one of the most infamous (former) prisons in the world: Alcatraz. If you plan on visiting Alcatraz, definitely try to buy your tickets in advance–this is a popular destination and tickets sell out quickly during tourist season (Which, as far as I can tell, lasts from approximately January 1 – December 31 each year.).

If your kids enjoy animals (What kids don’t like animals?!) head over to the San Francisco Zoo. The zoo is a good sized with all of the expected animals (the giraffes even have a view of the ocean from their enclosure). There’s also an indoor rain forest exhibit, a train you can ride through the park, and an epic playground where your kids can let out their inner monkey. After you’ve seen all of the animals, head down the road for a little play time at Ocean Beach so your baby can eat sand and you can dip your toes in the Pacific.

What To Eat:
San Francisco is a melting pot of people and cultures, so I would recommend treating your dining experience as a trip around the world. You can visit Chinatown for dim sum (Do yourself a favor and head straight for the oldest–and best–restaurant in Chinatown: Sam Wo); Little Italy for pasta or 40-clove Garlic Chicken at The Stinking Rose; the Mission District for authentic Mexican food at La Taqueria; or Ethiopian food at Tadu in SOMA.

The Farmer’s Markets are also amazing and most of them operate year-round–check the current offerings by day or neighborhood here. While you’re at the market, grab some goodies that you can pack along for a picnic by the beach–maybe you can nibble your organic veggies and vegan cheese while you watch your children frolic in the waves.

Pure. Bliss.

I know that this just scratches the surface, so now it’s your turn! What are your favorite things to see and do with kids in San Francisco?

 

What To See And Do With Kids: Portland

Hello, friends! It’s been awhile. Between months of terrible weather (Hello, winter in Seattle.) and me endlessly trying to escape it, I haven’t made much time for writing lately. Spring is finally here, though–and with no more snow to shovel, I have a renewed desire to get back to writing. So let’s get this party started, shall we?!

I just mentioned that I spent most of the past few months trying to escape the winter weather, and I wasn’t kidding. In the last 5 months I’ve been to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Portland…and those are just the destinations that took more than 1 tank of gas to reach. Now that I’m settling down from my winter wanderings I’ve had some time to reflect–about what I enjoyed about each destination and how I might travel differently next time.

So an idea was born: a blog series about what to see and do in some of my favorite family-friendly travel destinations. Over the next few weeks I’m going to write posts about different locations that I’ve visited with my kids and a few insider tips in case you decide to escape reality with your own brood. First on the docket: Portland, Oregon.

DISCLAIMER: All tips and tricks are based on my limited and biased perspective. I am the self-proclaimed expert here because I have actually been to these places with actual children and have survived to tell the tale. I always love hearing from other experts, though, so if you have your own tips, tricks, or favorite insights to share please leave a comment at the end of the post!

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PORTLAND, OREGON
Over my kids’ spring break last week I took them on a little road trip. We visited my grandma in southern Washington and then went on to Portland, Oregon. I’d been to Portland several times before, but this was my first visit brining my kids. We had a great time and we’ll definitely be back again!

WHERE TO STAY:
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Portland. My priorities for finding this hotel were: 1) Close to all the action downtown 2) Indoor swimming pool and jacuzzi (Because why would you ever stay at a hotel with kids and NOT have a pool???) 3) Not a totally terrible place (remember, I was by myself with 3 kids).
This place checked off everything on my wish list and then some.

Pros: Reasonably priced, free parking (most of the hotels downtown charge around $30/night for parking), free breakfast (Including fresh Cinnabon cinnamon rolls–double bonus!), clean rooms, friendly staff, property is adjacent to two coffee shops and a Jack-in-the-box (I just feel like this is important to mention.), and it has an indoor pool and jacuzzi. The pool was heated to tropical ocean temperatures, which meant we could spend 2 hours swimming off our drive and nobody ever complained about being too cold.

Cons: Not within walking distance of most downtown attractions (I’m looking at you, donuts.), very confusing freeway situation getting to the hotel…but I think that’s Portland’s fault and not the hotel’s.

WHAT TO DO:
OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry): This is a must-do if you travel to Portland with kids. It’s part science museum, part IMAX movie theater mecca (I think they had a dozen different movies showing the day we were there!), part submarine experience (You can go on a real submarine that is submerged in a real river and go on a tour led by a real Navy captain. True story.), and part foodie destination (Seriously–OMSI has the best museum cafe I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a LOT of museum cafes!). Plan on spending a whole day here.

Powell’s City of Books: I don’t even know where to start with Powell’s. When they say that they are a “city of books” that’s not just them trying to be cute. It is literally a city of books. Well, an entire city block, anyway. Powell’s book store fills an entire city block and is something like 25 million stories tall (At least it feels that way when you are in the lowest level–where the children’s books are located–and nature calls so you have to drag 3 children up multiple flights of stairs to find the only public restrooms.). Powell’s carries both new and used books that intermingle harmoniously on the bookshelves: You may find a brand-new copy of Disney’s Peter Pan right next to a vintage original from the turn of the century. And speaking of old, there is a rare books room on the top floor that more mature children with gentler hands and quieter voices than my children may enjoy–some books in the rare books room are nearly 1,000 years old which just makes every book nerd bone in my body tingle.

Portland Aerial Tram: This quick tram ride gives you a great view of the city and, if you catch it on a clear day, the surrounding mountains (I could see all the way from Mt. St. Helens in Washington down to Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood in Oregon on the day we were there). The tram itself is actually a functional way for people to get from downtown (by the river) to the hospital (at the tippy top of a hill). Bring a few bucks for your fare or, if you’re strapped for cash, just schedule a quick procedure at the hospital at the top of the hill and your ride will be free of charge.

Oregon Zoo: I’ve never actually been to the Oregon Zoo, but everyone says that it’s wonderful. I’m adding this to our must-visit list for a future trip.
Bonus: The Oregon Zoo participates in the reciprocal zoo program. If you have a membership to the Woodland Park Zoo (or most other zoos around the country), you can get half-price admission to the Oregon Zoo with your membership. And, as an added bonus, the Oregon Zoo is now a sensory inclusive location–they have backpacks you can check out for free that include items like noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, and fidget tools so that all kids can enjoy their zoo experience.

Multnomah Falls: Located just 30 minutes outside of Portland, this 600-foot waterfall is a breathtaking side trip. There are kid-friendly walking trails around the waterfall and a beautiful viewing bridge. If it’s a hot day you may even get to cool off in the waterfall’s spray–nature’s water park!

And speaking of waterparks…

Wings and Waves Waterpark: Technically this is not in Portland, but it’s just shy of an hour away in McMinnville, OR. And, again, I have not been here before…but I’ve had friends go and was adequately jealous of their Facebook posts about this place so I thought it would be worth including. Wings and Waves is a giant indoor waterpark complete with twisty waterslides, splash pads, and swimming pools (they even have a huge screen above one pool where they show movies). There is also an air museum next door for all of your aviation buffs.

WHAT TO EAT:
I was trying to decide if I should make a separate dining category for Portland or just put all of this under “what to do” because, honestly, most people just go to Portland to eat. Any way you put it, though, food will be a central part of your Portland vacation!

Brunch:
The weekend brunch scene in Portland has a strong game. If you can get your kids to sleep in (ha!) or if you’re ready for second breakfast by 10:30 then I highly recommend a family brunch adventure. There are dozens of restaurants that vie for the top spot in the brunch game: HunnyMilk, Mother’s Bistro, Tasty n Alder, Pine State Biscuits. I could tell you about the melt-in-your-mouth biscuit sandwiches or luxe eggs benny but you might just be better off tasting them for yourself.

Food trucks:
Every few blocks in downtown Portland you will find a brilliant phenomenon known as the food truck pod. In empty parking lots and abandoned spaces you will find clusters of food trucks waiting to offer you fare from every corner of the globe. From curry to crêpes, pierogi to pizza there is something sure to please every palate (even the bland, picky ones typical of the under-four-feet-tall set). Just start walking down any street in the Pearl District downtown and you’re sure to bump into a food truck pod (or twenty) so you can discover your own delicacies.

Dessert (or just whenever):
Portland is known the world over for their donuts, but the locals have a bit of a debate about which donut shop is king. For the cult followers, a trip to Voodoo Doughnut is a requirement (Because who doesn’t want a donut that looks like a zombie with a jelly “blood” center?). The purists, though, prefer Blue Star Donuts. Why not try them both and decide for yourself?

If donuts aren’t your thing, maybe ice cream will hit the spot. In keeping with the city’s motto of “Keep Portland Weird”, even their ice cream shops have to mix it up a bit. Have you ever wanted to taste pear and blue cheese ice cream or have edible flowers mixed in to your sorbet? Then look no further than the ultra-creative flavors of Salt and Straw. You won’t find any plain Jane vanilla here, but that’s not why you came to Portland.

 

Now it’s your turn! What are your favorite go-to spots for families in Portland?

 

I’m Not Cut Out For Marriage

wedding photoNext week Jon and I will be celebrating a milestone anniversary: 13 years of wedded bliss! Thirteen. Thirteen YEARS! I hear that number–THIRTEEN–and a lot of thoughts go through my mind: Where did the time go? Why does that number sound so big? Does this mean that I’m getting old? How did we get here, and where do we go from here?

And the truth is, thirteen years is both a long time and not very long at all. Thirteen years is a teenager, which seems kind of old. Yet at the same time I joke with Jon all the time that he’s still got another 50 years or so left with me if we’re anything like my grandparents, so he’d better get comfy and enjoy the ride. And whether 13 is a long time or a short time, it is a time…and with time, you tend to come out on the other side knowing a bit more than you did going into it.

If I have learned one thing in 13 years of marriage it is this: I’m not cut out for marriage.

You see, marriage is tough. No, tough is too soft of a word…marriage can be grueling. Marriage will challenge you and push you and test you in ways that nothing else on this earth can. I am not cut out for the grueling nature of marriage.

Marriage requires supreme sacrifice. You must sacrifice your time, your energy, your finances, even your very body to the mate you choose in marriage. I am not cut out for the sacrifice that is required of me.

Marriage requires vulnerability. You have to be willing and able to share your strongest hopes, your deepest fears, and your most desperate longings with your spouse. You have to share the thoughts and desires that you thought would be safe harbored in your own mind forever. You have to be willing to hear and support your spouses hopes, and fears and desires–and they may not always be the same as your own. I am not cut out for the raw, honest vulnerability that is required of me.

Marriage requires repentance–gut-wrenching, true-to-the-bones repentance. Sometimes I screw up. Sometimes he screws up. Sometimes we screw up together. And we have to admit that: to ourselves, to each other, to our friends, to our family, to those affected by our actions. Confessing your own wrongs, and supporting your spouse through theirs, is painstaking work. I am not cut out for the repentance that is required of me.

Marriage requires forgiveness. Sometimes I screw up. Sometimes he screws up. Sometimes we screw up together. And yet we have to forgive each other and move forward in that forgiveness. In marriage, grudges and vendettas are outlawed. I am not cut out for the forgiveness that is required of me.

Alone I am fully unequipped to enter a successful marriage, let alone continue in one for over a decade. I 100% can not do this on my own.

But here’s the good news! Even though I’m not cut out for the challenges or the sacrifice, the vulnerability or the repentance, the forgiveness or anything else that comes up in marriage–I don’t have to be. I don’t have to be because I can’t. But together with Jesus? Ahhh…that’s where it all comes together. Jesus has already faced every challenge and lived a life of perfect vulnerability. He made the supreme sacrifice in order to offer forgiveness. And through Him, the One who is perfect, even my own marriage can get a little closer to perfection.

Alone–even together–we are not enough to make a marriage succeed. It turns out that two people who make mistakes on their own don’t suddenly quit making mistakes once they’re together. But with Jesus even two imperfect people can get a little closer to perfection.

I’m not going to sugar-coat this and say that once you have Jesus and make it to your 13th anniversary everything is all sunshine and roses. In fact, this year has probably been the most challenging year we’ve ever had in our marriage. Amidst the triumphs and the joys, there have also been struggles and unforeseen circumstances. This year we have been blindsided by the unexpected so many times that I’ve actually come to expect the unexpected. There have been tears and questions and worries and now-named fears. Yet through it all, there has been hope.

Just as iron is refined in fire, this year “within the fire” has sharpened and strengthened our relationship. Without a doubt, this year has made us stronger than ever before. Stronger because we have each other and, more importantly, because Jesus has carried us through when we were simply to exhausted to carry ourselves any longer. We have learned to support each other better because He has supported us. Even though I am not cut out for marriage, He is. And with Him, our marriage is stronger today than it ever has been.

So, like an awkward 13-year old 7th grader who is finally discovering who they are as an individual, I feel like this year we are finally discovering who we really are as Mr. and Mrs.. It hasn’t come without some bumps and bruises and missteps along the way, but that’s just part of normal development. And with the growth comes maturity, and with the maturity comes more freedom. Freedom to love and to nurture and continue growing together.

I may not be cut out for marriage, but I sure am grateful to be stuck with another person who isn’t cut out for marriage either. Together we make a pretty awesome couple. For 13 years already, and forever more!