i'll eat you up, i love you so: the first day of pre-k

Last night you were nervous. You asked if Barack Obama got nervous before his first day of school and your eyes grew wide in disbelief that someone so magnificent could get nervous, too. I realized then that you will never understand the depth of my pride, respect or admiration for you. To me, you are that great and that magnificent.

There is something so absolutely unnatural in a mother releasing the grasp of her child to let them grow. Something unnatural in the naturalness that is the growing up process, as nonsensical as that seems. "It's just preschool," people urge me. "You'll see, you'll be loving it," they assure me. But, my sweet boy, when I chose to have you and raise you and be your mommy, I chose that forever. I chose to soak in every minute of you even the long, overtired days where neither one of us had much to contribute to the day. And I chose all of it knowing that one day the ebbs and flow of the tide would whisk you away into an independent life completely untied from my own. So, yes, it is just preschool. But it is the end of something and also the start of something new, and you sort of half one foot in the queue of school and the other in the river of childhood. Next year, I will hear a lot of people telling me that it's just Kindergarten but it will be so much more than that: it will be both feet on the conveyor belt that will take you into independence and adulthood.

You picked out your shoes this year. We got your feet fitted at Vans and the sales associate brought out "these regular ones your mom picked out or these cool glow in the dark snake skeleton ones" and I winced and laughed because, well, I knew we would be leaving with the glow in the dark snake skeleton shoes. I love them in all of their ridiculousness.

And then this morning, sleepily over breakfast, you asked me what to do if someone teases you. "I guess sometimes kids don't have mommies like you who teach them how to be kind and give them hugs," you rationalized as you bit into your peanut butter sandwich. I am stuck in this place of loving our conversations and your realizations and the beautiful, abstract, intricate view you have of the world and then seeing you as that diaper-clad toddler clapping your palms together with joy when you matched the corresponding colors together in our tot school classroom.

Baby, baby it's a wild world.

I want you to know that I find so much solace in your hugs and that for a brief moment, the wrongs of the world are righted when I get to look into your bright, oceanic eyes. I want you to know that when you are stubborn and we butt heads I am still proud of your strength. I want you to know that there is softness in your smile and that I refuse to let your anxieties deter you from a lifetime of joy because that's how I spent far, far too much of my life. Until there was you.

I want you to know that I will always be on your side and that there is nothing -- literally nothing -- you can't talk to me about because I will always be the support structure holding your messy feelings together and giving them validation. I want you to know that you are peace and love and pride and joy; that you are every abreaction I ever had as a teenager standing before me with your hard part and velcro Vans. "Tell me how much you love me," you asked as we pulled into your preschool parking lot. "Like the stars above," I told you. And then a few moments later inside your classroom you looked up at me and said "you can go now, mommy."

And this is when I realized there will never be words for the level of pride and love and joy and sadness that are balled up in my heart at this moment. I can't expect you to change the world if I don't let you step out into it. I don't have to tell you to be the good, my baby, because you already are.

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of winning and losing

Dear Ethan and Carmen,

My lovebugs, I am constantly scolded that the world is not going to cater to our everyone gets a trophy familial mindset. I understand that. Perhaps the one perk to early puberty were all of the years I got to fake menstrual cramps to avoid gym class or field day or any activity that required showcasing my athletic (in)ability against that of girls who were taught to be winners. For as long as your father and I can raise you and guide you and protect you from the ills of a society that we disagree with often, we will let everyone get a trophy for trying. Trying takes courage, which I learned the hard way.

But more than anything, babies, please believe that winning doesn't matter. You don't have to win. You don't have to be top of your class. You don't need to make your bodies weak and sick and dull from all-night study sessions. You don't have to come in first place or even tenth place. You don't need to win. You don't need to be the best. You don't need to be popular. You don't need to strive to be better, stronger, faster. None of it. Take it all up in your mind and toss it far, far away.

Be true to your heart. Take classes that you enjoy because you enjoy them. Enroll in enrichment activities that make your body and mind fulfilled, even if you're the only one in the class who can't master that yoga move or grasp that artistic skill. Enjoy it all. Enjoy everything you do. Soak up the pleasures of being young, of being children, of being teenagers, of being young adults put into this world to learn and grow and be and do. Listen to music you enjoy, even if everyone thinks it's weird. Let the sunlight warm your skin and the fresh air flow through your lungs because you, children, are allowed to not be burdened by expectations to perform on tests or assessments.

You are just children and I am surrounded so often by mothers craving more for their children: more homework. More testing. More assessments. More grades. More structure. More. More. More. And slowly I shirk away with whispers of less, less, less. Less of the things that don't matter. More living. More loving. More being the incredible people that you are. If an assessment test decides you are average, know two things: there is no shame in being average and also you are the farthest thing from average. You cannot be defined by a performance on a test or by your ability to memorize mathematical equations that you will never see in your adult life. You are defined by your kindness, by your warmth, by your gentleness, by the way you exist in the world around you. You will hear from many that those things don't matter, but listen closely, lovebugs: nothing matters more.

It is a cutthroat world. You will often be picked up and placed on a hypothetical race track and expected to run, sprint, leap; expected to out perform your peers and be the best. Be the fastest. Be the strongest. Be the smartest. Be the one who pole vaults their way onto an accelerated education and takes the fast track to Ivy League colleges.

But listen to me, babies: when you stay true to yourself, you've already won.

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I am listening to my husband and Ethan bake cookies in the kitchen. After an entire day of boycotting naps, Carmen fell asleep at 7:30 and I'm trying (but not too hard) to not be lulled to sleep myself listening to her white noise machine over the video monitor. It's been a long day. We are in the throws of a new and exciting (I'll keep telling myself that) season of life and I am handling the change poorly (that's code for eating lots of chocolate) and it's all just very overwhelming. Four out of five days of summer camp as a prequel to school down and it's apparent I'm really bad at getting my kid dropped off someplace on time. I guess this is the thing that Experienced Moms joke about, car lines and drop offs and school events that I've never been able to join in any conversations about because my kids were little and school was so far in the future. Well, here I am. This is my stop. (Please pass the chocolate.)

Tonight the cloth diaper laundry will wait and I'll leave the LaCroix cans littered all over the tables because it must be at least midnight, only it's not even nine. I'm listening to my husband and Ethan bake cookies in the kitchen and Ethan is so hopped up on sugar and adrenaline and whatever-it-is that makes five year olds run at the speed of light constantly, and my husband is so obviously exhausted but acting so engaged in measuring organic cane sugar. It's hard not to smile through the exhaustion as Ethan is chattering about wanting a spot of tea and my husband has no idea what he's talking about and in nine minutes the cookies will be done and everyone is just so overdue for bedtime. I'm equal parts exhausted and also pumped and ready to take on the future that is staring me in the face. It's where exhaustion meets happiness and even though your eyes are burning, with the last bits of energy you're able to muster, your mouth forms a smile.

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finn + emma wooden rattle teethers

Ethan was an easy teether. We didn't even know he was getting teeth until they simply popped up one day. He never had an ounce of discomfort or desire to gnaw -- which is a good thing, I suppose, despite the fact I was prepared with an entire drawer full of wooden teethers and "chew toys" (we can call baby toys that, right?). Carmen, on the flip side, is a miserable teether. The buckets of drool and snot and swollen gums -- she's got it all. We were absolutely delighted to find these wood teething rattles by Finn + Emma just in the knick of time. I say "we" because I'm totally captivated by how adorable they are but then there is Carmen who is grateful for the ability to gnaw on something to help her sore, tired gums.

Not only are the teethers a safe wooden alternative to harmful plastics (they're made from untreated Indian hardwood), but they're also rattles. This means they're still fun for Carmen to play with even when her desire to gnaw has briefly subsided.

At age 5, Ethan also likes to use them as maracas to sing his sister lullabies (can we talk about how he pronounces the word as "wollabyes" and how that makes my heart just melt into a pile of goo?) at bedtime. The rattle teethers are filled with Indian cooking beans for a soft, oceanic sound that are every bit as soothing to listen to as they are to chew on. Finished with a non-toxic vegetable seed wax finish, parents can rest assured that these are every bit safe for little hands and mouths.

I love the modern yet classic design of Finn + Emma's toy selection, which far exceeds these rattle teethers. Among their inventory are play gyms, stroller toys, pacifier clips and more, each one fair trade and safe for your little lovebug.

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both sides now

When Carmen joined our family, I swear I felt our entire circle of friends and family let out some collective sigh of relief. There. Life was good now, again. Life was safe and warm and happy. I would again get to know the feeling of two a.m. feedings and painful exhaustion and what it's like consoling a screaming infant as your older child runs rampant through the Target aisles. There. Life was good again, regrowing where the grass was seared at the dead end.

And it was good again. Life, I mean. It was good again for the first time in a while, like the hollow wound throbbing and bleeding in my side had been properly tended to and healed and stitched to perfection with ointment to stop the ache. There is always that reflexive wince when someone calls me a mom of two, or asks if we plan on another child, or points out how fortunate I am to have "one of each" sex, or things that seem so commonplace to regular moms. It stings just subtly enough for me to always remember that I'm never going to be a regular mom again, even though I was one once.

That's sort of what grief leaves you with as some shitty consolation prize for the ringer you've survived: pieces of normalcy, but not an entire picture. There will always be one child that my body carried who will be missing from our family photographs or holiday traditions, one child not seen when well-meaning strangers inquire about the age gap between Ethan and Carmen. You don't even know the half of it, I will think as a fast-paced montage of heartbreak and diagnosis and tragedy and death and infertility and uncertainty flash before my eyes before ending with a photograph of Carmen. Oh, sweet Carmen, with her gigantic, sparkling eyes. She is the sweetness at the end, yes. She has duct taped the normalcy back into our lives so that we function like a normal family. But there are always those reminders that normalcy is a thing of the past.

Sometimes I look back at old photographs of my husband and I when we were teenagers and just making our love known. Our engagement, our wedding. The smiles and selfies-with-film-cameras and blissful naivety that comes from thinking everything would be normal because we were normal and our lives were normal and there was nothing exciting or different about us at all. There's that little feeling of invasion that happens, too. That uneasy feeling you get when your home has been robbed while you weren't home, knowing someone has been touching your stuff and invading your privacy. That feeling sort of tags along with grief, too. Something just sort of takes a piece of you and rearranges things without your permission. The security doesn't regenerate even when life becomes better again, brighter again. It's just sort of dead, too.

I always had this vision that I wanted all of the things for my children that I didn't have. I want siblings and loud, magical Christmases and birthday parties with cousins. I wanted to be a grandmother who welcomed all of my children and my many grandchildren into my home on Sundays for big, boisterous dinners. There was no guarantee of that, of course. My children could all decide to not want children, to travel the world, to settle down in a yurt in Mongolia somewhere. But there's still that piece of you that goes what if and feels the quietness of your own life and wants more, louder, bigger things. The what if is hard to lose, too. It clings to you and trumps any rational thought or logic because it is fueled by grief.

In the immortal words of Tupac Shakur, it's got you staring at the world through your rearview.

There are the nights where I cry silently in bed because the happiness tickles my bones and makes my stomach flop with eagerness and joy and a general feeling of life that I can still remember thinking was gone forever. I can still feel the sorrow so deep that breathing physically aches and you're not sure that you can trudge through another day, hour, minute because your bones shake, your joints are stiff and the exhaustion is suffocating. I've come out the other side. I've climbed out of the ravine and my muscles no longer tremble and I feel refreshed, yes. I feel happiness again. Joy in it's purest form. But there are the aches that still get you when you least expect them and I know that I'll never fully recover from the injuries but I can succeed at wearing my gameface while walking it off. It's an awkward dance, an uncomfortable balancing act that accompanies life after tragedy. The ability to see life from both sides, or something.

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