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When I was a little girl one of my most favorite possessions was my copy of The Secret Garden. It was a rectangular book, more tall than wide, and a weird shade of green. The cover was hard and shiny, and the pages were thick and slick, sporadically decorated with beautiful illustrations. And, most importantly, it came with a gold heart-shaped lock that actually worked. It was my book, and the mystery of the title paired with the lock only augmented the feeling that the book was special, and because I owned it, by extension so was I.

I read the book at least a hundred times. I kept it beneath my pillow at night, and carried it with me during the day. I would get lost in the story, smoothing my hand over the pages as I studied every illustration. As I let my mind wander and transport me into the story. In every home I lived in as a kid, we had veggie, fruit, and flower gardens. Nothing as spectacular as what I saw illustrated on the pages of my beloved book; nothing as spectacular as I’d imagined as I read the same story over and over. 

But as a little girl, our gardens seemed perfect to me. They seemed just as spectacular as what I saw on the pages of my book. They seemed huge. Sprawling. Never-ending. And if I let them, they even seemed magical. 

 

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It’s still a bit taboo to be the mother of a daughter who doesn’t live with you. Especially when you have other kids that do live with you. But this is our situation — has been for a long time — and we’ve learned to make it work for us. It’s taken a while, and it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve learned to adapt.

There was a long time when I was very bitter about not having Briseis live with me. A time when I had convinced myself that her not living with me defined me. That it more or less made me a horrible parent and person. I was full of anger and resentment and animosity and rage. But as the years have passed, I’ve let a lot of that anger and frustration go.

Even still, there are times when those feelings come rushing back. Forcefully. Intensely. Unexpectedly. They’ll swell up inside of me so swiftly, so uncontrollably. And I’ll momentarily feel those self-critical, self-doubting, self-hating feelings again. I’ll silently berate myself for having fucked up. For letting her down. For not being good enough.  

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We butt heads sometimes. Too often, probably. And I know that butting heads is normal for parents and their children. But I think it’s different in our case. I think it means more. I think the consequences from it can be more pronounced. Life at her dad’s house is different than it is here. Different rules, different parenting styles, different ways of interacting. I think sometimes we both struggle with finding a middle, common ground. 

And sometimes I have trouble connecting with her. Sometimes I have trouble relating. Sometimes I have trouble being understanding. Sometimes I struggle with wanting to adapt or bend rules because she isn’t here all the time, and with wanting to stick to my guns and enforce the rules consistently and resolutely.  

Because I know it’s what’s best, I more often than not go the ‘consistent and resolute’ route. And when I do, to her this makes me mean. It makes me ruthless and heartless and unforgiving.

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I know that I’m doing the right thing, and that I’m doing the best that I can. But that doesn’t make it any less hard. It doesn’t make the consequences of decisions I made in my past disappear. It doesn’t make her questions of why she doesn’t live with her mommy like all the other little girls do go away. 

But dwelling on the past isn’t going to change it; I learned that a long time ago. All I can do is continue doing the right thing, and continue doing the best that I can. And one of the things I can do is actively try to nurture and nourish our relationship.

I’m not an especially empathetic, warm, cuddly person by nature so this isn’t always an easy task. Especially when I’m alone with my daughter who doesn’t live with me and who, at times, can almost feel like a stranger. Conversation can be awkward, if it even exists at all, and relating can be difficult. But I’m determined to make sure she knows that her not living with me is not a reflection on her. It is not representative of my love for her. It is not her fault.

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A little over a year ago I bought Briseis a special copy of The Secret Garden. I figured that I could share with her my story of how much the book meant to me when I was her age, and that we could read it together. That it could be something for just the two of us.

It may not be the be-all, end-all answer, but it’s a start. And so far, so good. We read two chapters at time. Some weekends we’ll get through four chapter — two on Saturday and two on Sunday — and some weekends we won’t get through any. And that’s okay. It’s not about racing to finish the book. It’s about spending quality time together and sharing something meaningful. 

So on that same note of spending quality and meaningful time together, Briseis and I spent the last day of her Spring Break together in DC. We metroed in after dropping the kids off at daycare and spent the entire day there.

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Our primary purpose for going was to visit the US Botanic Gardens. To extend our Secret Garden reading adventure into real life. Visiting the Gardens together has been on our To-Do list for a while now, so it was really rewarding to finally be able to cross it off.

We spent just about two hours wandering through the indoor portion of the Gardens. We decided to forego the outside part, as a good chunk of it was blocked off while they install new exhibits. 

We finished up the afternoon by wandering around the city. We ran into Shannon while we were photographing The Old Post Office and she was on her way to a meeting, and after a few minutes of chit-chatting with her we headed to the White House and the Mall. All in all, a pretty successful day. 

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I absolutely LOVE living so close to a city with such rich history. And I’m so grateful that Briseis enjoys the city just as much as I do. That she enjoys learning about the past. That she enjoys asking questions. That she enjoys appreciating the smallest things. We don’t take these day-trips into the city very often, but whenever we do they’re always a good time.

Oh, and PS, visiting the botanic gardens when one of your arms is sleeved in a huge tattoo of flowers can get a little awkward at times. Lots of strange looks from people whom I’m sure thought I have some weird obsession with flowers. I don’t. It was a tattoo of opportunity, okay? 

 

April 23, 2014 briseis, in photos, parenting, real talk

Holidays typically involve two things that I’m not crazy about: forced family-time and Jesus. So it’s only natural that I’m all,

Holidays? …ugh. 

Religious holidays? …UGHHHHHHHHHH.”

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Every time a holiday rolls around, RJ and I fight. Like most people, he thinks celebrating all the “normal” holidays is a quintessential, imperative rite of childhood. I think holidays, and all the crap that goes into them, are bullshit. Especially when they’re religious holidays. 

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I was raised Christian. I went to private school, I spent a lot of time at church, I participated in all the kids/youth groups and activities, I attended sleep-away bible camps during spring, winter, and summer breaks from school, I sang in the choir, and I worked in the church nursery. I was all “yaaaayyyy, Jesus!” and blah blah blah. Up until I was about 11, I went along with it all with a smile on my face. No questions asked. 

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And then I started asking questions and it stopped making sense, so I stopped believing. It seemed like the natural reaction, to stop believing; to stop buying into something that couldn’t be definitively explained with evidence, with proof. Nothing horrible happened to me. There was no Great Injustice that made me “hate” God. I just found that science settles my soul with more ease and regularity than “the Spirit” does.

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I don’t actively hate religion or preach against it. In fact, I think that many of the foundational tenets of religion serve as great conduits for establishing morality and virtue and an ethical conscious in the secular world. We have notable texts from many of the world’s “main” religions in the house that the kids have easy access to and are allowed to read whenever they want. If they have a question about religion or about God, we answer it but daily devotions, family prayer time, and weekly church services aren’t the norm in our house.

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So when religious-y holidays roll around, I’m not exactly excited for them. I just don’t see the point of celebrating something that represents a concept I don’t believe in. I have a lot of trouble reconciling wasting money and time and effort in the name of something that I just can’t get the hang of. And I’m not particularly keen on buying into the commercialized version, either. Unless it’s Christmas. We still go all-out for Christmas, because I’m not a total asshole.

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RJ, though, is a little less Bah Humbug-y about this stuff, and pretty much insists we let the kids celebrate these holidays to some degree. And it’s probably a good thing, because it allows them to have a little more fun than usual, and to eat candy for breakfast just because.

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Like usual, RJ wanted the kids to have a legit Easter morning this year. And like usual, I wanted nothing to do with it. But he woke up late and didn’t get all the eggs and baskets together before the kids woke up, so while he barricaded them upstairs he asked me to help him out. 

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And this is where we compromised. I let him keep his candy-stuffed baskets for the kids, but I took the little chocolates out of all the eggs and stuffed them with craisins instead. But my kids actually like craisins so this wasn’t exactly cruel. Besides, I let them eat the candy from their baskets for breakfast. In the living room. Or, as Briseis so eloquently put it as RJ was explaining the miracle of Christ’s resurrection to them, “It’s a miracle we’re allowed to eat in here!” WRONG. Well, right. But also wrong. Because what will be a miracle is when my new NON-red couch is delivered on Wednesday. Halle-fucking-lujah. 

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At the end of the hunt all the kids gathered on the couch I spent 10 minutes yelling and exaggeratedly sighing and bribing the kids to sit still on the couch while fucking around with my camera in manual mode to get one decent photo where they were all smiling and at least looking up, with their faces in the frame. Here it is. Enjoy.

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ANYWAYZ. The fun only lasted for so long before candy started staining shit and I forced everyone into the dining room/kitchen where the three of them proceeded to ingest roughly A BILLION times their bodyweight in sugar (accurate estimate). And then they ransacked the house.

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By the time the morning was over I had zero patience, and Madden experienced his first full-name “MADDEN JAMES CUNNINGHAM” scolding. My house was covered in those paper strips of shit that filled up the kids’ baskets, there were new stains all over the carpet, broken glass on the floor, and Emma’s school papers ripped into shreds. Yay.

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Because family isn’t really my thing, and because my closest family lives a couple thousand miles away, we spent the day doing our own thing and took the kids to “the rainbow park”. 

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We’ve actually spent the last couple of Easters here, so I guess you could say it’s kind of like tradition.

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I’ve been coming here with my kids since Briseis was younger than Madden. It’s not super close to where we live, so we don’t come out here often, but when we do, the kids LOVE it.

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And this year, they’re finally all old enough to enjoy 97% of the playground on their own, without assistance from the grown-ups. Can I get an Amen.

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They can climb all the stairs and slide down all the slides and find their way to the top of everything…all on their own. Clearly, this is an amazing thing.

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Soooo RJ talked me into doing the Easter egg hunt/basket/candy thing, but there were no frilly dresses or tiny dude suits, no Sunday morning Mass or church service, no make-believe bunny. Just some chocolate, some jellybeans, a few handfuls of craisins, a bunch of never-ending messes, a few tantrums (mostly from the kids…), a decent amount of outside play time, and a whooooole lot of family time.

It was a long, stressful, frustrating day (so much sugar in such little bodies made for some pretty volatile mood swings) but all in all, it was a success. The kids got their Easter egg hunt/baskets/candy, and we didn’t have to go all out, or out of our way, to get ‘er done. #BOOM

 

April 21, 2014 holidays, in photos, parenting, rant

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Word on the street these days has it that a Sunday well spent brings a week of content. It makes sense, that little buzz phrase. Whatever your definition of “well spent”, the idea that being productive in mind and/or body over the weekend sets you up for Monday-morning success makes some sense. I can dig it. 
 
Ideally, “well spent” should have mean staying in bed until noon and hanging out on the couch in my underwear. In reality, there was a lot on the agenda this last weekend: soccer games and birthday parties and massive amounts of homework; a thousand chores and a billion errands; a birthday to prepare for, workouts to fit in, and a garden to plant, so “well spent” meant running around between three different counties in order to *try* to cross off a thousand to-dos without losing a kid or my cool. And it was a success. Mostly. If you count success only by the fact that I didn’t lose a kid or my cool and completely ignore the fact that I didn’t get as much done as I’d hoped. 
 
At times the weekend was frustrating, and it sucked. Like the part where Briseis and I showed up to her soccer game at 7:30 am on Saturday morning two towns over just to figure out we were nearly three hours early because I had been emailed the wrong team’s schedule. Or the part where I got rammed by a cart full of boxed produce at the commissary because the employee wasn’t paying attention and ran into me at full speed. Or the part where Emma peed on the floor and Madden mashed strawberries into the carpet. Or the part where I took a chunk out of my thumb when a plate broke while I was doing the dishes. Or the part where Madden mistook a football shaped bowl for an actual football and threw it right on top of Shannon’s foot while she was doing the dishes, shattering it into pieces. Or the part where the one thing I reaaaally wanted to do this weekend — plant the garden — didn’t get done. 
 
But there were also plenty of parts this weekend that didn’t suck. Like the part where I completely caught up on Project Life. Or the part where I knocked out 11 of the 13 homework assignments I wanted to get done. Or the part where the littles and I took an impromptu trip to the pet store and then to one of our favorite playgrounds. Or the part where Shannon surprised me with fresh flowers Saturday afternoon. Or the part where I got an email letting me know my credit score jumped 23 points since last month. Or the part where I got to run errands on Sunday ALONE. Or the part where the TV didn’t get turned on once before the sun set because the kids spent the entire weekend playing outside. Especially that part.
 
Briseis spent every waking, day-lit moment outside with Mya, the only other girl in the neighborhood and one that happens to be in the same grade as her, which made me happy because 1) it was one less kid in the house, but also because 2) friends that aren’t a brother or sister or a soccer teammate is something that she needs. I often worry that Briseis’s childhood isn’t ‘enough’. That she spends too much time inside, plugged into one screened device or another, and not enough time outside getting dirt under her nails and scrapes on her knees. That she is left to rely on siblings and family members for social interaction instead of having a group of friends outside of school and soccer practice that she gets to regularly play with. I’m so thankful that we have another little girl her age that lives four doors down, and a handful of other kids that live on our street, for her to socialize with.
 
All in all, I’d call the weekend a success. I got a lot done, the kids had fun (and stayed out of my way while doing it), and I went to bed early enough last night to wake up this morning before my alarm went off, which means I started this week before on time. Setting myself up for success. I like it. Now let’s see how long I can keep this trend going. 
 
Happy Monday, bitches. Be rad. 
 

April 7, 2014 in photos, life lately