Tuesday, July 14, 2015


July 14, 2015

Dear McKenna,

Today you turn eleven years old, and this year more than any other I can feel the world shift with the dawn of this next year of life.  Every day holds so much opportunity and adventure, and on the first day of your eleventh year I sit and ponder all the new things that you will face and conquer in the coming 365 days.

This past year you have continued to show the world your kindness and compassion to anyone who crosses your path.  You have the biggest heart of anyone I've ever met.  You accept people for who they are and find the good in everyone you meet; you love unconditionally and ask for nothing in return.  I've said it before, and I will continue to say it to anyone who will listen:  we could fix everything that is broken in this world if people treated each other in the same way you do. 

It's no secret that you are entering a time of life that I have dreaded for years.  It's not fair to push my own anxieties and worries onto you, and I've tried really hard to prepare you for this next phase of life without clouding your innocence with my own paranoia.  Since the day I became your mom I've been reminded over and over again that parenting is a constant balancing act.  In this case, I'm hoping that I've prepared you for the complexities of friendship, the expectations that comes with increased independence, and the responsibilities that will continue to shift from your dad and I to you as you enter these middle school years without pushing you toward fear and apprehension.  Some days I think I do better than others, like most things in life, and on those days when I'm not on my game I hope I haven't scarred you too deeply.

There have been many discussions between us at home and with some of your teachers at school about girl drama.  Toward the end of last year, as predicted and right on schedule, you started navigating the waters of this exact thing.  Your heart is so pure and your spirit is so innocent that the thought of deceit, mistrust, and mind games among people you consider friends is beyond your scope of imagination.  So far you play the role that I always imagined you would given your personality - you are the middle man, the peacemaker, the negotiator.  You try to keep everyone else happy and work to fix feuding friends' fall outs.  You've already seen how quickly one friend can turn on the other and while it upset you to watch you handled it with grace, stepping back when you knew the issue was bigger than something you could fix with your "love one another" nature.

We had a conversation a couple of weeks ago that just about broke my heart. Fighting back tears, you came to me one night feeling hurt because of some unkind words your sister and her friend said to you.  They were playing a game and thought you were in on it too, and even though you were aware of their role playing, hearing them call you "ugly" and "nerd" cut you deep.  We talked about how they didn't really mean those things, that you know without doubt that your sister thinks you are one of the smartest and most beautiful girls she knows, but still the tears came.  I also tried to reassure you that even if they DID mean to hurt you with their words you are so much more than the labels people might try to pin on you.  I attempted to drive home the point that it's not what others think of you that matters, but how you see yourself that is important.  You nodded, indicating that you understood this, but still the tears.

Finally, the root of your sadness was revealed when you shared with me, "I'm scared to start middle school, and I've never been afraid to start a new school year.  I'm just so afraid that I'm going to be the first target".  I think it was probably pretty obvious how much it hurt my heart to hear you say this.  Despite my best efforts to be strong for you, tears filled my own eyes and I had to swallow hard to speak around the giant knot that had formed in my throat.  Hearing you admit these fears, the same ones that I have for you, was like a punch to the gut.  I felt breathless and heartbroken for you finally realizing that you had been harboring these feelings.  The last thing I want for you as you start this next exciting chapter of your life is to enter it with fear.  I told you that night that spending every day anticipating something unpleasant that may or may not happen is no way to live no matter how old you are.  I want you to walk into that middle school on your first day of school confident and ready to take on anything that comes your way.  I want that for you in everything you do from now to the end of time.  And more than anything, I want you to know that no matter what happens your dad and I will be right behind you, cheering you on when you soar and picking you up when you fall.  You said to me toward the end of that conversation, "I know I'll be okay as long as I always have my two best friends with me".  You're right that the support of true friends can make everything easier, but I want to drive home the point I countered with again.  You are going be okay because you are strong.  You have the strength within you to get through anything, McKenna.  I see it in you, and I hope you see it in yourself.  If you always stay true to yourself you can never go wrong.

I love your sense of adventure.  I love your laid back attitude.  I love that you are easy going and agree to almost anything.  I love that you offer me comfort when I am supposed to be comforting you.  I love that you aren't afraid to lean in for hugs and kisses in any place, in front of everyone.  I love that you give so much love to others.  I love that others see you for who you are because you are so open to them. 

My wishes for you this year are simple.  Be true to yourself.  Take risks.  Don't be afraid to put yourself first.  Be your own advocate.  Work hard and, most of all, have fun.  Life is too short to worry about the "what ifs".  Live for today!

You make me proud to be your mom every single day.  I love who you are, who you are becoming, and who you someday will be.  Your laughter makes my heart swell with happiness, and the love you give to me confirms that even on my bad days I'm still doing an okay job as your mom.  Thank you for always reassuring me in so many little ways that I'm not screwing up too spectacularly and for reminding me daily that the joy and blessing of being your mom is the most precious gift I have ever been given. I love you more than you will ever know, my sweet girl.

All my love always and forever,

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Travel Blog: Day 2

We left the hotel before 8 am and made our first stop at the Lewis and Clark Overlook rest stop at the Missouri River.  Very picturesque and informative, and a great place to stretch our legs.

Immediately after leaving the rest area the scenery started to change.  Next stop was Badlands National Park and could be best described as unique, beautiful, and hot.  Fittingly the Badlands was the site of Elaina's first mini panic attack over what she deemed to be larger than life wasps that were surely put on this Earth for no other reason than to attack her personally.  A little social thinking size-of-the-problem talk brought her down off the ledge.  She claimed the Badlands were as hot as the desert, and she sat in the far back of the van reading her Dork Diary book through most of the journey.  McKenna was intrigued from start to finish, always the eager adventurer.

Following the Badlands it was on to our cabin.  We arrived, unpacked, and saw our first South Dakota thunderstorm, and then headed out to dinner and more site seeing.  Mount Rushmore!!!

We walked the Presidential Trial, realized we were at a significantly higher altitude rather quickly, and settled in for the night lighting of the monument.  In a majestic fashion, the approaching rain clouds finally reached our location and opened up just as the monument was illuminated.  Bucket list item complete!

I realized last night that updating daily might be an issue.  I guess it's not really a bad thing when your days are so jam packed with adventure that there's not enough time or energy left in the day to talk about it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Travel Log: Day 1

Departure went as planned.  Two stops for fuel (one for us, one for the van) and two bathroom stops only delayed us by an hour.  We've named the Town & Country's onboard navigation system (his name is Moses as he will surely lead us to the promised land, never mind Dad's biblical lesson that Moses never actually made it to his intended destination), and he's been both entertaining and informative.

We started the trip today with reciting of the Complaint Jar Pledge and so far my mom is the only one to have to contribute a dollar for an infraction.  The gastrointestinal unpleasantries of others really brings out the worst in her.

The girls have added three new states to their lists of places visited, and they were unbelievable travelers.  They unwind at rest stops with short walks and gymnastics on the lawn, and the hotel water park was a big hit for letting off nine hours of pent up energy.  As of the end of today, I'd take them anywhere.  They were amazing.

So far here's what I've gathered about South Dakota:  the speed limit is 80 which is awesome, and the smell of cattle is strong.  Tomorrow we watch for some serious change in landscapes as we drive to our cabin in the Black Hills.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Black Hills Or Bust

Tomorrow we head west toward the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The girls, my parents, and me.  I will spend roughly 30 combined hours in a vehicle over the course of six days with these people, straddling the roles of daughter and mother, trying desperately to keep everyone happy and entertained.  I am super pumped.  McKenna is excited.  My mom is optimistic.  Elaina and my dad are entering this trip with guarded realism that it will likely not be all sunshine and roses.  Variety is the spice of life, I guess.

Our first destination is Brandon, South Dakota for an overnight stay to recharge, unwind, and release the pent up energy and frustration that will surely accompany our over eight hour car ride.  We will spend the next day touring the Badlands before settling in to our accommodations in Custer, South Dakota.  The tentative itinerary for our trip has a little something for everyone:  sightseeing at national parks, horseback riding, cave exploration, experiences with nature, and eating pie & burgers at the local award winning establishments.  Will this be a vacation of leisure and relaxation?  Probably not, but I can not wait.  It's time to dust off that old Bucket List and make some things happen!

When my cousin, Krissy, and I traveled with our grandparents up the coast of California and Oregon for two weeks, our mothers sent us with notebooks and instructed us to journal each night so we'd always remember what we did that day.  We thought the idea was pretty lame initially but I'm so glad I have that to look back on - and laugh at - now.  So, naturally, what I am requiring of my own daughters on their longest vacation to date?  Oh, yes, that's right.  Neon pink and neon green journals are packed and ready to be filled.  It's going to be really neat to read their perspectives on our adventure.

In keeping with tradition, I will also attempt to use this space to document our experiences along the way. I've had many people ask if I was going to blog about the trip while we're out there.  Apparently I'm not the only one that predicts this trip will have no shortage of blog worthy moments.

The General will be holding down the fort here while we're gone, working by day and doing home repairs by night while also trying to figure out how to operate McKenna's ChromeBook for a few video chat sessions while we're gone.  We are going to miss him while we are gone, but hopefully our "Dad in a Bag" will help alleviate some of the ache.  Pray for us all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Remembering Miss Mitchell

This morning I woke up to the unexpected news that my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mitchell, had passed away.  It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Miss Mitchell, and I’ll admit that she hasn’t consciously been in my thoughts recently until today.  Have you ever experienced the realization that you didn’t understand how much a person meant to you until they were gone?  I’m going through that today, and the magnitude of her loss is clouding my every thought and action on this otherwise beautiful spring day.

Miss Mitchell was my first teacher, and my mind has been flooded with memories of the time I spent in her classroom.  Miss Mitchell let us have show and tell every Friday.  We could bring in cookies - as long as there was enough to share with everyone, of course - to have with our chocolate milk (except for Ann Weller who always chose white milk, a decision I still question to this very day).  I was puked on during one of those milk and cookie sessions; it’s a very vivid memory.  We stood on mini-risers while singing Christmas carols to our parents during our winter program.  A trip to Brookfield Zoo marked the end of the school year as we took our class field trip.  Miss Mitchell took a first day of school and last day of school picture to mark how much we had changed physically in the span of a school year.  I unintentionally wore the same dress in both pictures, the second picture showing significantly more leg and an altogether more disheveled appearance than the first.  One of the back corners of the room was filled with a play kitchen, the other corner occupied by bookshelves where we pretended to be Inspector Gadget or his niece Penny.  I was kissed by a boy for the first time behind those bookshelves, a memory almost as traumatic as the puke incident.  The front of the room was the station for the piano and toys on one side, Miss Mitchell’s desk facing the door to the classroom on the other side.  We completed our worksheets with fat Crayola crayons, and we let our wet paintings dry on the south wall counter next to the sink.  That classroom felt huge then and in my memory still seems larger than life.  

It’s been almost 31 years since I entered through the door to her classroom at Dwight Grade School for the first time, but it feels like yesterday.  I can remember her reassuring hand on my shoulder when I was uncomfortable or uncertain.  I can remember sitting at her feet, looking up at this woman that I trusted wholly and fully as she read to my classmates and me.  I can remember going on bear hunts.  I can remember the sound of her playing the piano, and I can remember the soothing sound of her voice.  I can remember her handwriting written in perfect teacher penmanship on the chalkboard.  I can remember the sound of her wonderful laugh.  And I can remember the feelings of safety, protection, and love that she transferred to me as she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  

Being a student in Miss Mitchell’s class is something we carry with us like a badge of honor.  More than any other teacher, when a group of people that attended Dwight schools get talking about “the old days,” at some point the question is always asked:  “Who did you have for a kindergarten teacher?”.  Looking back now, I realize that being able to say that Miss Mitchell was my teacher is a privilege.  She personified everything that a kindergarten teacher should be.  She loved children, that much is obvious.  She was tough when she needed to be but always disciplined with love and compassion, turning every opportunity into a teachable moment.  Miss Mitchell was level headed, calm and fair, and she treated all of her students equally.  She had a passion for learning and she worked hard every day to pass that passion on to the children she was responsible for. She made learning fun - Mr. M has a munching mouth, anyone? - and knew how to keep a room of 20 squirrelly five and six year olds engaged.  Miss Mitchell knew that play was as important as academics and gave us the space to explore in our own environment.  Miss Mitchell’s love of music carried over into the classroom, and she was the first to show me that songs could be important vessels for not only entertainment but also for teaching lessons.  Miss Mitchell valued the importance of friendship and taught us all kindness.  Some of my most important and longest standing friendships formed their roots within her classroom.  The buy in from her students and personal growth they showed year after year was a direct result of her talent and skill as a teacher.

Miss Mitchell was the same age I am now when I was her student.  A year younger, actually.  This is mind boggling to me.  Miss Mitchell never aged.  She looked the same in 1983 as she did the last time that I saw her and all the times in between.  There’s a phenomenon that exists with teachers, especially those that teach at the early elementary levels.  One day we were driving down Mazon Avenue and my mom pointed to a home on the south side of the street and said, “That’s where Miss Mitchell lives”.  I was thoroughly mesmerized by the home and continue to glance at it even now as an adult when I’m driving past.  The thought that my teacher existed in a world anywhere besides school was something I couldn’t begin to imagine.  Why is that?  Why is it so hard for children to imagine their teachers having a life outside of school?  I think in the case of Miss Mitchell it was impossible to believe because she was such a presence in that classroom.  Her existence within the pale yellow cinderblock walls of that kindergarten classroom was larger than life, and to imagine that energy spilling out into the world was probably more than I could comprehend at five years old. She played such a huge role in my life as my teacher.  How could she have the time or energy to be anything else to anyone other than her students?

But I know that she was so much more than a teacher.  She was a friend to many and created lifelong bonds that were formed with her co-workers at DGS.  She was a daughter and sister.  She loved her family, and my heart aches at the void her family are experiencing with her passing.  She influenced not only the lives of her students but also of the parents of those children.  Miss Mitchell no doubt touched the lives of every person lucky enough to cross her path.  She leaves behind a beautiful and powerful legacy that will be remembered for years to come.

I found Miss Mitchell’s Facebook page late today, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting image for her to post as her final message to her friends and family.


My hope is that she realizes that she was exactly this person to hundreds of children.  She made a difference in the life of so many.  I wish that I had taken the opportunity to tell her all of this before she passed, and her loss has prompted me to make sure all of the teachers that played a pivotal role in my life know how much they meant to me.  I pray that Miss Mitchell ended each day knowing that what she did, the words she chose to share, how she treated others, and who she was as a genuine, loving, compassionate person made a difference far beyond anything she could probably ever imagine.  Anita Mitchell made the world a better place by teaching, molding, and loving children into being the best people they could be.  

It’s true what they say:  all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten.  Thank you, Miss Mitchell, for being the one to show me the way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

She’s Going To Need To Improve Significantly If She Plans On Getting Anything Past Me During Her High School Years

Over spring break the girls and I had a little day of pampering before we left for our weekend trip to St. Louis.  Nothing screams “vacation preparation” like a fresh pedicure.  Elaina has a long standing habit of biting her fingernails and picking at her toenails, a habit I will admit she in all likelihood inherited from me.  There’s no way at this point her in life I would spend money to get her a manicure (I might as well just flush that money right down the toilet), but with a little threatening I figured she’d get at least a couple of weeks out of freshly painted toenails.

A couple of days ago I was in the bathroom while the girls were getting ready for school, and I noticed that Elaina’s toenails were suddenly void of any polish.  I didn’t have to ask - I knew she had picked all of the polish off - but I thought I’d see what she had to say as an excuse anyway.

Me:  Hey, what happened to the nail polish on your toes?

Her:  (slight hesitation, mild look of panic) Oh, you know.  I kick really hard at night when I’m sleeping.

Me:  So you’re telling me you kicked off your nail polish?

Her:  Yeah.

Me:  Do you seriously think I’m going to believe that?  That you could kick so hard that all your nail polish would just magically disappear from your nails?

Her:  (silence)

Me:  Did you pick it off?

Her:  (red faced, clearly feeling guilty as all hell) Yeah.

Me:  Don’t ever lie to me about something that ridiculous ever again.

Her:  Okay.

The downside to this exchange is that she lied to me.  The upside?  She’s obviously terrible at deceit which is promising for those teen years I’ve been stressing about.  That’s one skill I don’t mind if she doesn’t fine tune between now and then.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

And People Say Newborns Are Difficult . . .

I don’t know how to raise teenagers, and this realization is scaring the hell out of me.

The day we brought McKenna home from the hospital, I remember laying down in bed that night and suddenly being almost paralyzed with fear at the thought of the monumental task before The General and me.  Being pregnant?  No problem.  I could handle that.  Childbirth?  Perhaps there’d be some discomfort, but between nine months of research, stories from those who’d gone through it before me, and the comfort level I had with the medical team surrounding me I wasn’t that worried.  Caring for an infant?  It couldn’t be that difficult - feed, change, love, repeat.  But in one small instant, I suddenly realized that this newborn was going to grow up, and it was our job to make sure she would become a productive, contributing member of society.  We were the ones responsible for making sure she entered the world as a good person with solid morals and ethics, a person who would make good decisions when faced with all the opportunity to do just the opposite.  

I can vividly remember the panic wash over me.  Turning away from the bassinet where McKenna peacefully slept on her first night at home, I looked at The General and said, “I am thinking about all of the things that we did growing up that we probably shouldn’t have.  We were good kids but we did some dumb things, and the thought of this baby doing any of those same things makes me want to throw up”.  He downplayed my anxiety and when I announced to him that I could take care of a baby, could teach a toddler right from wrong, could influence and encourage a child toward what is right, but I had no idea how to raise someone to be a good person he casually mentioned, “Well, we turned out to be good people so I think we’ll be alright”.  At that moment, coupled with the crippling exhaustion that accompanies becoming parents, he helped calm my fears enough to allow me to fall into a deep sleep.

Fast forward almost eleven years and now I find myself on the doorstep of the part of parenting that I have been dreading since that warm July night.  I think we’ve done okay raising our girls so far whether that be because of our parenting skills or in spite of them.  They use good manners (usually), are kind to others (with the exception of an occasional sibling spat), are helpful (sometimes independently but mostly when demanded), and understand right versus wrong (except for the arguments they sometimes try to engage in when they are so clearly wrong especially when it comes to spelling).  I know they are good kids.  People tell me that often, but I can see it for myself every single day and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

But, life is about to get a lot more complicated.  Girl drama, hormones, peer pressure . . . it’s all kicking up already and just like when I went through it myself 25 year ago I don’t know how to deal.  My initial reaction immediately reminds me of my mom’s response when I told her I was pregnant.  I apologize if you’ve heard this story already, but it’s a classic and only now I am really starting to get where she was coming from that November night in our kitchen.  As I pictured making the announcement to my mom and dad that they were going to be grandparents for the first time, I pictured screams of joy, tears, maybe a little jumping up and down.  Big reaction is what I always envisioned.  Instead they both stood in stunned silence, eyes wide with mouths slightly agape.  I said it again, “I’m pregnant,” and I think maybe my dad finally spoke a quiet “Oh”.  My mom, severely disappointing me with her lack of hysterics, broke her silence by clasping her hands to her chest and stating, “I think I feel urpy”.  Urpy.  Like, as in “I think I might throw up”.  This was nothing like what I had pictured.  They were obviously very excited once the shock wore off, and once she regained the power of speech my mom tried to explain her initial response.  She said that of course she was excited to be a grandma but her brain immediately went to all those moments of motherhood that are less than glamourous, all the moments when you feel beaten and alone and frustrated and hurt and protective to the point of insanity at your child’s pain.  She said that reliving those moments as a mom with me and then imagining her child living through those tough moments made her feel a little sick.  I didn’t understand it then, but I think I’m starting to get it now.

I’m feeling a little urpy myself at the thought of what is soon to come.  In the last few weeks I will glance up and see McKenna turn the corner and I find myself sort of shocked at how grown up she looks.  Emotional and physical changes are happening fast, and it’s moved me to tears more than once in the last week.  We had a long talk just a few days ago about something that happened between her and two friends that left her feeling hurt and confused, and her raw emotions over the incident was enough to break my heart.  There have been other conversations that have taken place between the two of us that had me crawling in my skin and stifling nervous giggles over the content, conversations I have been rehearsing for months (maybe even years) but still felt SUPER awkward actually delivering.  Talking with parents of kids around the same age, I am literally ill at some of what I’ve heard her peers discussing and participating in.  I think The General and I have sort of unofficially without actually discussing this have started to open up the floodgates a little bit and have become a bit more “free” with our topics of conversation (e.g., we took a quiz as a family about poop and pee that led to the discussion of some very technical terms and processes); after years of carefully monitoring what we say around them, open up the topics to a wider variety feels very odd.  The General even said it’s time to start breaking out the R rated movies on family movie night.  I’m not sure I’m ready for the conversations THAT may spark.

Fully realizing how irrational this is, I started making claims that homeschooling and putting them in a bubble or locking them in the crawlspace for the next 18 years were options we should seriously look into.  It’s really the only methods I know for shielding them from the world they are about to be exposed to.  The General wisely talked me down off this ledge explaining to me that we can’t let our kids remain naive forever, that doing so will only hurt them more in the long run.  He even went so far as to use country music against me explaining that the only way the girls will ever grow up to like that kind of music is if we allow them the space and freedom to go down some back country roads on a summer night to get drunk with a bunch of their friends.  It’s how they’ll relate to the music that I’m trying to force them to love.  I mean, seriously!  How do I argue with that kind of logic when I have lived it myself? I admit he’s right (sort of) and that part of raising kids is to let them make their own mistakes so that they can learn from them.  But still, the thought of my sweet, innocent, trusting McKenna being faced with issues like boyfriend/girlfriend swapping at the roller rink on Friday nights and other more, shall we say, “experimental” behaviors in more private settings?  Ugh, it makes me feel physically sick to my stomach.  Fifth grade appears to be the age when everyone starts “dating,” and the rumors of what goes down in sixth grade is APPALLING.  Even though right now she shows absolutely NO interest in boys outside of innocent friendships (which is, of course, a totally different story with her sister, by the way), I know it’s coming sooner rather than later and as the kids say I just can’t even.  This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of things that are causing me daily stress and anxiety.  Drugs, drinking, driving, peer relationships, letting them out in their surroundings on their own without parental supervision . . . it’s all about to move into a realm that feels like I’m losing control.  Maybe that’s the root of the fear?

How do I teach her independence?  How do I teach her to respect herself enough to not let someone take advantage of her?  How do I teach her that saying “no” when everyone else is saying “yes” makes you stronger?  How do I teach her about being safe?  How do I teach her that it’s okay to remove yourself from a situation when everything in her body is screaming “RUN”?  How do I teach her to let people in while simultaneously guarding her heart from being hurt?  How do I teach her self-worth so that she doesn’t try to find it from someone else?  How do I get her to understand and appreciate her body for what it is and what it can do without getting caught up in society’s ideals and expectations?  How do I teach her that sometimes people aren’t always what they seem?  How do I teach her to trust herself more than anyone else?  How do I teach her that no matter how uncool I seem, I’ve lived a lot of what she’s about to experience first hand and might just have some decent insight on how to make it out alive and relatively unscathed?  How do I get her to understand that no matter what choices she makes I will always have her back and be there for her to either celebrate the victories or help her pick up the pieces after the losses?   

How do I learn to let go so that she can figure all of this out on her own?

It can be a big, bad world out there, and for as hard as we’ve worked to expose her to (mostly) only the good in life it feels like a giant leap to let her explore everything that’s waiting for her.  I know she can’t stay isolated and protected forever, but man is it hard to think about as the time to shift control from us to her draws closer and closer.  I guess for now I’ll just stick to what I know and what has worked so far and make adjustments along the way.  What I do know for sure is that I’ll try my hardest to keep the lines of communication open and never, EVER let her walk to or from Fedderson’s with a group of friends after a school dance because nothing good ever comes from that.  I guess I’ll just follow my parents’ lead.

Because after all . . . I think I turned out okay.


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