A Thanksgiving road trip that could have been worse

Last week we logged over 1500 miles on the road: east to DC for a wedding, up to Philadelphia for a reunion visit, down to Virginia for Thanksgiving with Caroline’s parents, and finally on Saturday, 544 miles back home to Ann Arbor.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I was ready to pass on Thanksgiving all together. Getting Jay and Wally through their days is hard enough without having to worry about keeping Jay away from other people’s electronics, or the 5am wake-up that Jay always has his first morning in a new place, or the world-cursing frustration of trying to dig a spit-up cloth out of a suitcase in the middle of the night after Wally’s lost his lunch.

But from the beginning there were signs that the trip might not be that bad. We made it to DC in less than nine hours, enjoying wide-open Midwestern highways with 70mph speed limits almost right up until Beltway gridlock, while in the backseat the boys atoned for not sleeping at all on our inaugural drive to Ann Arbor in August by conking out from Central Pennsylvania all the way to Bethesda.

And then when we arrived on Tilden Street, NW, Caroline’s sister and her parents had vacated their respective bedrooms to make way for our family brigade.  It was the first act in a week of generous giving from friends and family and it reinforced a lesson I’ve learned over and again since Jay was born: just how kind people are to parents of young children.

For Jay the best part of the week wasn’t the presents or the dessert, though he had his fill of both.  It was the chance to spend all his waking hours with people who feel as enthusiastic about him as Caroline and I do, and have the energy to show it.

When I think back on the week I picture Jay at a full gallop: running up the main walk at the National Zoo to greet my dad; dashing among our Philadelphia friends at dinner last Monday night; sprinting after his Opa, yelling, “Wait for me to go to the dumpster.”

During intensely social periods like this past week, it often seems like Jay grows and develops at three-times his normal rate.  On Wednesday night after dinner in Virginia, Jay walked across the living room towards me and asked, “Can I have a glass of milk?”  Caroline, who was nearby, started to answer but Jay cut her off. “I’m talking to Daddy,” he said with a look on his face that said: “Betcha didn’t think I knew about that.”

In other ways, too, he made progress managing social situations. Whenever he’d encounter a conversation proceeding without him, he’d sidle up and demand in perfect toddler grammar, “What you just sayed?”

But what impressed me most about Jay was how well he handled the rigors of being on the road.  On Tuesday night Jay was asleep in his carseat when Caroline and I pulled into her parents’ driveway after midnight at the end of the drive down from Philly.  Before getting out of the car we spent five minutes plotting our next moves, mindful of all the times we’ve tried unsuccessfully to transfer a sleeping Jay from the car into his crib.  But when I finally gathered him in my arms, hustled inside and laid him down in his pack-‘n-play, he turned right over and went to sleep.  The next morning when he woke up he asked me, “We are at the lake house, Daddy?”  Indeed we are, I told him.

Since Jay was born I’ve had this ideal of a frontier child who you can take anywhere and who understands the freedom and the responsibility that come with being at-large in the world.  I wouldn’t say Jay’s there yet, but this past week was without a doubt the best seven-day stretch he’s ever had of listening to directions.  One night I picked him up to bring him downstairs to bed.  He started to kick his legs in protest, but then his body relaxed in one of the clearest moments of self-control I’ve seen from him yet.  Maybe he realized that you just can’t afford foolish temper tantrums when you’re traveling in Apache country.

The trip was so encouraging in fact, that late on Saturday afternoon as we bombed west on the Ohio Turnpike, Caroline and I let ourselves imagine all manner of places we might take our newly mobile family.  I dreamed aloud about family camping trips in western Maine or the Upper Peninsula, while Caroline ventured that maybe it would be nice to live abroad while the boys were still young.

“Europe or South America?” I asked.

“Maybe both,” Caroline said.

“What you just sayed,” Jay offered from the backseat.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “Just that you’ve been a really good boy.”

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

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The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

This fall Jayne B. and her husband Mark dropped their youngest son off at college in Boston.  After twenty-five years of raising kids, they were officially empty-nesters.

In the following interview Jayne talks about what it was like to return to her newly quiet northern California home, and about the emotional ups-and-downs of adjusting to life without kids around.  She reflects on the past twenty-five years, including her decision to leave a stable career to start her own business and the things she’s loved most about being a mom.  She also answers the charge, made by her oldest daughter, that the rules around the house had gotten a little loose by the time their youngest son was in high school.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. Describe the scene and what it felt like to arrive back home after dropping Scott off at college—your first moments at home with no kids.

It’s not the first moments that catch you. It’s about two weeks later—when you realize for the first time in twenty-five years of raising children that you are pouring milk that has gone bad down the drain. It has gone bad, of course, because you no longer need to buy two  gallons a week for your 18-year old and his tribe of friends. That’s when it hit me. And standing at the kitchen sink I found it a little hard to breath for just a few minutes. I was not fully prepared for this, it came much too fast. But then I remember that this is exactly how it is supposed to be and I am so proud of Scott and CJ and Allison.

2. With Jay and Wally both very young and Caroline still in school, sometimes it feels like we’re in the crucible.  Was there a time as parents you’d describe as your most busy/intense/stressful?

Mark and I started our own business in 1988, just after CJ (now 23) was born, and by 1995 it had grown to about 50 employees. By then we had three children under 9,  and getting out of the house each morning was a serious production. About the same time, and just to keep things interesting, we bought a 100-year old fixer-upper that needed so much fixing we couldn’t actually live in it for a year.  It was certainly the most challenging time in our marriage. Our mantra (often repeated under our breath when we could hardly speak to each other) was: “Three kids, a dog, a cat, two rabbits, and 50 employees. We just cannot screw this up.”

3. You left your job to start a business when the kids were young.  What were your reasons for doing that, and what was it like to take on the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family?

Allison was 2 years old and CJ was 3 months old when we started Essex Environmental. It was 1988 and I just could not see how it was possible to have the family life I wanted while working in a corporate job. I needed all 24-hours in the day to balance my work and family, and the 8am-5pm corporate schedule just wouldn’t work for me. Back then, flexible work schedules were just becoming part of the discussion, there was a lot of management resistance, and the technology was really not developed to provide the mobility and flexibility we have now.  So, it was not that hard a decision at the time. And for many years Essex was really a part-time deal—the real gift it gave us was the ability to grow the business at our own pace.

Oh, and as to the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family—it is pretty darn scary. But we were young  and we really didn’t have much to lose (ask Allison and CJ about the “poor stories”). It seemed, at the time, like the only thing that made any sense.

4. Allison reports that you were a lot stricter with her than you were with Scott.  If she’s right about that, do you attribute the difference to birth order? Or to Allison being a girl and Scott a boy? Or to something else?

Can we claim exhaustion?

She is probably right, and I think it probably has more to do with birth order than gender. We were pretty strict with both Allison and CJ and are probably less so with Scott. I think  it’s a combination  of realizing your family values are solid and the first two came out just fine, as well as the fact that Scott has had to, as the youngest with a gap of five years, grow up a little quicker to keep up.

It also seems to me that we (including Scott) learned a few lessons along the way from the trial and error of Allison and CJ, so there were just some things that were never asked or offered (like no, you cannot have a new car of your own when you turn 16, and no, you cannot take a road trip with your friends the summer after you graduate from high school,  and no, don’t even think about staying overnight at a hotel after the junior prom). So maybe it seems like we are more lenient because we have not had those battles with Scott—he already knew the rules of engagement.

5. How would you describe your approach as parents—what values or priorities informed the decisions you made?

Wow, big question and I don’t know that I have a really clear sense of this. Here’s the simple answer: We loved our kids from before they were born. We tried to make sure they knew that every day— we were always on their side and would do anything to keep them safe and free from harm (including things they didn’t always appreciate at the time). We placed a high value on education, and on treating people well, and on taking care of each other.  We encouraged them to explore, to work hard, to believe in themselves and each other.  As parents, we also took good care of our own relationship—which reminds me of something my dad (who has been married to my mom for 64 years) is fond of saying, “ The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Not bad advice.

6. You and Mark are very enthusiastic about kids and family, so I wanted to ask—what was your favorite part of raising kids, and what do you think you’ll miss most now that all three are out of the house?

I loved all of it (ok, except potty training and driver training).

We had, for many years, a print hanging on the wall of our kitchen. It is still upstairs in the “kids” TV room and I can almost recite it by heart. I don’t think I can say it any better than this:

“There are lives I can imagine without children, but none of them have the same laughter and noise.”

7. And finally, though you’re now empty-nesters, your youngest is still just 18—do you feel like you’re still actively parenting, or do you feel like you’ve finished the job?

I hope we’ll never really be done. Our relationship with the kids has changed and grown, but I think our role to love and support and help guide them goes on for a lifetime. But here’s  the best news. Our kids, Allison, CJ, and Scott, have grown into really great people that we just enjoy. They are funny and warm and smart and caring.  They are kind to us and to each other. The bonus is our family continues to expand now—with Ryan and Anna and all the wonderful friends and family they bring to our lives (including you, Caroline, Jay, and Wally) . So while the house has gotten quieter, and I don’t really like that very much, our life is richer for all that our grown children bring back to us.

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #3:  Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

Reading fiction, raising kids

From the day Wally was born until early-October I didn’t read a single page of a book. Between the move to Ann Arbor and adjusting to life as a family of four I didn’t have much time, and even when I did have a chance to sit down and read I found I was too scatterbrained to concentrate on the page.

But then one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, came out with a new novel called 1Q84 and I asked my editor at The Christian Science Monitor if I could review it for her. My mammoth review copy arrived in the mail a week later, and each night for the next four weeks after the boys were asleep I settled down on the couch to read.

It was a little disorienting switching between life taking care of Jay and Wally and the richly atmospheric world of 1Q84.   As I read the book I became interested in how the emotions and ideas that the book prompted affected the way I thought about Caroline, Jay, Wally, and our lives together.  I wrote an essay about the exchange between my real life and the life of the novel which was published on The Millions today:

I started 1Q84 at 9pm at the end of a long day that had featured a 103 degree fever (my youngest son Wally, age 4 months) and several bathroom accidents (his older brother Jay, age 2 years). As I slumped on the couch with a cup of peppermint tea and my large yellow review copy of 1Q84, I found myself grasping to justify why, outside of the assignment I’d been given, it made sense to spend my only free time of the day reading fiction.

But I did read the book, that night and every night after for a month, and I found that as I read 1Q84and got deeper into Tengo’s and Aomame’s stories, I stopped questioning the purpose of fiction and instead began to see reading 1Q84 as one of the few necessary things I did all day. The reasons for the change of heart had to do with wonder, with love, and with the way literature provides for the best parts of who we are.

1Q84 is long (nearly 1,000 pages) and wildly imaginative, but at heart it’s a simple love story. Tengo and Aomame, both 30 years old, shared a singular, intense moment as children, disappeared from each other’s lives, and have been trying to recapture that kind of intimacy ever since. As 1Q84 opens they fall into an alternate world which is sinister and illogical, but which gives them the chance to find each other again.

You can read the rest of the essay here

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Building a family culture

Yesterday I wrote about how Jay is beginning to recognize the meaning behind events that take place at home: He hears the sound of water falling into a metal pot and he knows that signifies Mom standing at the kitchen sink preparing to make tea.

After the post I emailed a friend who reminded me that what I was really writing about was culture—and in this case, family culture.  Within our small domestic space we have our rituals and routines and if you spend enough time amidst them you begin to understand what they mean, just as it is with all families, in their own unique ways.

My friend is a graduate student in philosophy and he sent me an essay that provides an academic context for thinking about culture. (I’ve posted the essay here if you want to take a look.)  Specifically, the essay defines culture as the “webs of significance” in which we live, and it defines the study of culture as an effort to untangle those webs so that we arrive at the root significance of an event—so that we understand what it really means to the people participating in it.

In a moment I’m going to get back to Jay and our family’s culture, but first I wanted to share an example from the essay which I thought was pretty illuminating, and which I thought about several times last night as I was pacing Wally back to sleep.

The essay talks about what it takes to tell the difference between someone whose eye is twitching and someone who is deliberately winking.  On the surface the two events look identical, but of course, “The difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows.”

So how to tell the difference between a twitch and a wink?  You have to understand the context—the culture—in which the event is taking place. (And I should add that the author doesn’t stop at two possible meanings for the event.  He talks about the challenge of distinguishing between a twitch, a wink, a parody of a wink, and someone at home in front of a mirror practicing a parody of a wink.)

One of the most exciting things about having kids, for me, is the chance it provides to build a family culture.  Growing up, I remember the dining table jokes, and the sounds of my mom making herself lunch in the kitchen, and how I could tell my dad’s mood just by the way the plates clattered as he put clean dishes back in the cupboard.  By the time I was 18 I was exhilarated to get out and see more of the world, but eventually I started to miss the intimacy, the familiarity, of living as a family. And regaining that has been one of the most fulfilling things for me about the small orbit Jay, Wally, Caroline, and I make together each day.

Anyway, when I sat down to write this morning what I actually meant to do was give a quick list of the ways, in addition to the ones I talked about yesterday, that Jay has become attuned to our family culture:

  • He came into our bedroom one morning a few weeks ago and saw a towel spread out on the bed.  “Wally threw up?” he asked.  Indeed, he had.
  • During the morning hours, Jay knows that when I come downstairs around noon it means I’m going to have lunch. “Make the sandwich,” he yells up to me from the family room.  When I walk downstairs a couple hours later, he knows what that means, too.  “I don’t wanna take a nap,” he whines before I’ve made it even three steps.
  • The other day Caroline and Jay were in the supermarket, looking at all the different kinds of oatmeal. Caroline couldn’t remember which kind we buy so she asked Jay if he did.  He surveyed for a second and then pointed (correctly): Country Choice Steel Cut Irish Oats
  • And lastly, yesterday morning Jay was playing in his room when he heard me open a dresser drawer. “Are you getting dressed Daddy?” he asked.  I told him I was, and he replied, “Wear the blue shirt with the sailboats,” which both impressed me and made me worry that I’d been wearing my Cape Cod t-shirt a little too often recently.

Wally last night, feeling *really* excited he gets to play with a placemat.