I have a sister who is six years younger than me. We are besties, which makes family functions and visits back to Rhode Island extra fun, however it has not always been that way. When she was born, my excitement over having a little sister quickly gave way to jealousy and resentment. Basically, I was a turd for many years. I wrote an essay about how that changed and what my sister’s friendship means to me, called “How My Sister Became My Best Friend“. It’s up on Club Mid at Scary Mommy, and I would love for you to click on over there to read it.
Each year, Dan and I take turns planning our anniversary. Last year it was his turn to plan, which was good, considering I was four days postpartum and in no position to plan… anything. We did it lower than low key, at home, while my mom took Sweet Pea out to dinner. We were “alone” with days-old Lady Bug, doing our best to make our kitchen feel like a very special place. I wore my best pajamas, and I might have even traded my glasses for contacts. Dan picked up a box of miniature artisanal cupcakes in flavors like lavender-basil and macchiato. They were only partly smushed on his bike ride home. We drank Prosecco. We toasted to four years of marriage. We had no idea what this year would be. I think it’s better that we didn’t know.
After the fancy cupcakes, there was upheaval.
There were long days, as I recovered from the birth in my bed, while Dan took Sweet Pea all the places I wanted to be instead; the park, the library, the farmer’s market. When I was ready to put on a real outfit, the first place I went was the doctor, then immediately to the hospital for an MRI. I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. The right half of my face was paralyzed. I was scared and sad. There was no way to know whether it would get better, whether it would fully resolve, and how long all of this would take. A year later, it’s a lot better, but not back to normal, and I’m starting to accept that I might never see my old face in the mirror again. Obsessive Google searching confirmed the best thing to do was to rest. Except I had a fussy baby who was an awful sleeper, and a toddler to take care of. My face looked like a creepy Halloween mask. I felt ugly, anxious, and self-conscious.
Sweet Pea was thrilled to have a real live baby doll in her new sister. I felt like I was supposed to be thrilled, which I sometimes was, but mostly I was overwhelmed. Lady Bug always had something going on; thrush, reflux, eczema, congestion that made me leap out of bed in the middle of the night when I heard what sounded like her drowning in her own secretions. It felt like everyone needed me, all the time. I was giving kisses, hugs, snuggles, breastmilk, sippy cups, potty treats, breastmilk, warnings not to touch the baby’s head, special creams, probiotic powders, homeopathic drops, prescription lotions, final drinks of water, final-final drinks of water, and more breastmilk, all day long.
Much of my free time was given to acupuncture and physical therapy, in my dogged, if not entirely fruitful pursuit to get my face back to normal. Trips to the park were pushed off till tomorrow while I shushed the kids or hid in my room on the phone with doctors offices, pharmacies, and the insurance company for Lady Bug. Entire mornings and afternoons were taken up by trips to the doctor, the naturopath, the dermatologist, the allergist, the craniosacral therapist, and the anthroposophic physician (yes that’s really a thing). She was diagnosed with allergies; severe, potentially life-threatening allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, and tree nuts. Another chunk of my time was devoted to searching Pinterest for dinner ideas that would accommodate our new diet.
Many days, after the kids were down, I have had to fight the urge to collapse, myself.
I thought I had done the whole “Who am I now that I’m a mom?” thing after having our first child, so this year has felt like a sneak-attack. This must be how my three year-old feels when the baby destroys the tower she so carefully constructed. Her whole body convulses in great, heaving sobs, as she cries, “She ruined my tower, Mama. I have to start over. “ I know, honey. I know. It’s exhausting to have to start over from the very beginning and create something new.
It was my turn to plan our anniversary this time. I leaned on Dan a lot this year. I’ve complained, I’ve cried, I’ve yelled, I’ve vented, and he has listened. I have been mean, sarcastic, and critical. I’ve been apologetic and he’s been forgiving. He read an earlier draft of this post and felt I was being overly hard on myself and that it is only fair to mention that I, not he, was the one to wake up with the baby two to three times a night, every night, until about two months ago. See, he’s really nice like that.
I started scheming months in advance and surprised him with an overnight getaway for our anniversary. When I asked him if he had any idea what I had up my sleeve, he told me he wasn’t even thinking about it. “I’m just trying to get through the week, ” he said. Our favorite babysitter was available and willing. Our dear friends had a beautiful, empty home with an impossibly gorgeous mountain view and a hot tub, which they were happy to let us use. A fabulous local restaurant delivered a delicious meal that accommodated all of my many restrictions, along with a wine pairing.
There was nothing low-key about our fifth anniversary. We were really alone this time. There was a delicious meal on a tranquil patio with a stunning view on a warm, clear summer night. We took an after dinner walk. We stargazed and danced in the street to the faint sound of “Come On Eileen” that wafted through the otherwise silent neighborhood streets, coming from a party on someone’s lawn.
We took our time getting up in the morning. Meaning, at 6:40 I rubbed sleep from my eyes while Dan was in the kitchen, doing last night’s dishes. We took a meandering walk in the morning sunshine on nearby trails. We took a dip in the hot tub. We took only 45 minutes to get from the hot tub to the shower to the car… I thought that I had a severe life malfunction that prevented me from getting out the door in an efficient manner but I realized it’s not a malfunction, it’s just a baby and a toddler. We had a leisurely brunch at one of our favorite places. There was abundant coffee and I drank it while it was still hot. There was conversation about important things and not much at all. There were humorous remarks and references to old jokes we’ve shared.
And, there was us. Beneath the chaos and the rubble and all the harsh words born out of frustration, sleep deprivation, and as Dan likes to say, resource contention, there is still us. I think we’re going to be ok, assymetrical faces, life threatening allergies, and sleepless nights notwithstanding. What a happy anniversary it is.
I overheard the only dad in Sweet Pea’s swim lesson mention something about a baby at home in between blowing bubbles and practicing reaching and pulling.
“We have a baby at home too.” I offered.
“How old?” he asked.
“Four months. What about you?”
I smiled and offered congratulations.
“Does it get easier?” I could sense desperation in the way he asked. I would have embraced him in a hug if we weren’t in the pool with our toddlers. And maybe if I knew his name.
“Um… eventually. A little. No. Sort of, yes. Yes, it definitely does. Gradually. I’d recommend keeping a flask full of whiskey in your swim trunks pocket.” I didn’t really say the part about the whiskey.
Everyone tells you to sleep while you can, have sex while you can, go out to dinner while you can, enjoy wearing something other than spit up stained yoga pants before you have your first baby.
As far as advice on having a toddler and a new baby… I only remember my mom quietly telling me “It’s going to be a hard year.” I don’t remember if that was before or after I collapsed in a pile of tears just before she and my dad left for the airport when the baby was two weeks old.
Now that Lady Bug is four months old, life is becoming marginally easier. Maybe it’s only because after an entire summer and part of the fall, we are that many more days away from the time when we were a family of three. With every day that passes, being a family of four is gradually becoming our new normal. It doesn’t hurt that my face is 95% healed. If you’ve been hanging out here regularly, then you know I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy when Lady Bug was ten days old. Talk about a shitty post-partum.
I hate to sound like an ungrateful little shit. I really try -even when both kids are crowded onto my lap, Lady Bug screaming for a boob, and Sweet Pea crying because she’s two and a half and it could be anything- how lucky I am to have two healthy kids, a roof over our heads, and a husband who is truly a partner. At least once a day, usually around 5pm when everyone is cranky and hungry and I’m trying to make dinner, I take a deep breath and remember that everything I have is everything I ever wanted.
But still. It really sucked to discover that half of my face was drooping like I’d had a stroke. And I’m not trying to minimize the experience of having a stroke. I’m just saying I looked that bad. Worse, there was no way to know how long it would take my face to get better, or if it would ever get back to normal. For weeks, it was an effort to talk, to chew, to drink. Forget about smiling. One half of my face smiled and the other half didn’t. It was 100% creepy looking. On the upside, being so self-conscious about my smile made me acutely aware of who in my life really makes me smile.
I had just given birth, my belly was like an overflowing bowl of Jello, Sweet Pea was running, jumping, screaming, and stomping in the house (all new behaviors), my limited free time was suddenly slashed in half, breastfeeding was a disaster (that experience deserves its own blog post), I went from the exhaustion of pregnancy to the exhaustion of waking up multiple times a night with a newborn, and then my face decided not to work. Every time I felt sad, I remembered how grateful I was supposed to feel and then I hated myself even more for still being sad and became sadder still.
Things got noticeably better around the six week mark. That was when I was allowed to exercise. Obviously exercise gives you endorphins (ie the good mood hormones). Exercise is also a special time when I get to be alone, either breathing fresh air outside, or zoning out on the treadmill while indulging in something useless on Netflix.
Since then, there have been flashes of better that come at random…
When Sweet Pea gave Lady Bug her doll.
When both kids were supposed to be napping, but instead they were crying, and Dan told me to take an hour and go to go to the nearest coffee shop with my my laptop.
When Lady Bug slept four hours in a row.
When I ran a seven miler with some hill repeats mixed in.
When I hit “send” on my first home birth book newsletter.
When I discovered Sweet Pea “reading” to Lady Bug…
Yeah, it does get easier.
I think I’ve recovered from our cross country road trip. By “recovered” I mean I’ve unpacked, I’ve done the laundry, and Sweet Pea (2.5) and Lady Bug (4 mo.) have stopped thinking that 4:30am is a reasonable time to begin the day. In processing our great adventure, I will share what I’ve learned from the experience:
1) It’s actually really easy to parent when the kids are restrained in five point harnesses. Imagine all the things your kids get into on a normal day… sending random texts from your phone, “organizing” things (this is how a pair of shoes once ended up in our cooler), coloring on themselves, etc. None of this can happen when they are stuck in their seats. I almost can’t believe it’s legal to restrain a kid like that. It seems too good to be true.
2) Those cute songs your toddler sings, the made-up ones whose lyrics you can hardly make out, the ones that sound so sweet in her falsetto voice from behind her door when she’s supposed to be napping? They are not as cute when they are sung repeatedly from the backseat over miles and miles of Nebraska farmland.
3) You can’t drown out the incessant comments and questions of a toddler with a podcast. Terry Gross’s voice sounds nice when it’s at a volume appropriate for interviewing her guests, not interrogating or threatening them. Repeat after me: Podcasts are for naptime. The Beastie Boys at full volume is for waking hours.
4) Snacks are your friend. And by the fifth of seven days of such a trip, it won’t matter if it’s snack time, lunch time, dinner time, or Hammer time. You will pass the snacks with reckless abandon, failing to even mention “the magic word.” I’m no doctor, but if boredom is the diagnosis, snacks are the cure.
5) The grosser the public restroom, the more insistent your toddler will be that she join you in there, that you let her sit on the potty, and hand her a piece of toilet paper, despite the fact that she never actually urinates in the toilet. She will then touch everything with her pudgy little fingers and finally, with the kind of tenderness that would normally warm your heart, press those same tiny fingers to your lips. You will be glad you’re already in the bathroom because you’ll really want to puke.
6) You really do need to talk to your sister daily, despite what your husband might think. He will come to understand that there is no point in trying to prevent this because skipping a day means there will just be more to discuss the next day. He will learn that the only thing worse than listening to your end of the daily chat is listening to both ends via Bluetooth.
7) When you stop in a small, depressed town in Western Pennsylvania for a picnic in a desolate park and you get the distinct feeling that this godforsaken place is overrun by meth heads, and a couple of strangers approach you, they are not trying to sell you drugs. In fact, they just want to offer you the blessings of Jesus Christ on your journey. You will gladly take them because you can use any blessings you can get. (There is no way to know whether you have enough snacks to solve all the problems.)
8) It is possible to drive cross country with a three foot high chicken made of up-cycled oil cans, covered in a tapestry in your mini-van without ever letting your husband (aka The One Who Packs the Van) see said chicken. It is not possible, however, to hold the surprise in until Christmas. Your will is battered and broken by the time you unpack the car at the other end of the journey and you will have no choice but to give him his gift a tad bit early.
9) People might think you and your husband are crazy for taking a cross country road trip with an infant and a toddler. But you know that your husband deserves this dubious honor. He drove out with the toddler, just the two of them, to test the waters of the Epic Family Road Trip while you flew out with the baby at the beginning of the trip.
Have you heard of The Fresh 20? It’s a meal planning resource that we’ve been using for the past few months. Here’s how it works: For a fee ($18 for three months or $54 for the year), The Fresh 20 allows you access to healthy weekly meal plans. You choose your meal plan when you begin your subscription. The options are: Classic, Gluten-Free, Dairy-free, Vegetarian, Kosher, or For One. (We use Classic. I’ve discovered when I am pregnant and/or nursing I am not sensitive to gluten, like I usually am). You log into their website to download your weekly menu and they give you:
-A shopping list
-Instructions for the prep you can do in advance to save time each weeknight.
– Nutrition facts for each meal
– The recipe for each night
The Fresh 20 has not paid me anything for this post, but because I am such a nice person, I thought I would share my experience with this product with you.
1) No thinking required
The Fresh 20 takes the headache out of meal planning. (And if you just can’t stand me whining about the headache of meal planning which I fully realize is problem I am very lucky to have, then probably you should leave here and never come back because I’m sure we could never be friends). Are you still reading? Since we had Sweet Pea, simply “grabbing a couple of things at the store” is not so simple and not worth the hassle. Also, randomly going out to eat on a Thursday night never happens anymore. I now totally understand why my mom had a few things in her repertoire that you would see at least once every couple of weeks. I also understand why we either went out or ordered Chinese on Sunday nights.
2) Shopping is efficient
The Fresh 20 derives its clever name from the the fact that it never asks you to purchase more than 20 fresh ingredients each week. There are a few pantry items you should have around, like herbes de Provence. (I’ve eaten more herbes de Provence in the last three months than I have in my whole life. Same thing with grapeseed oil). Your shopping list is divided up conveniently so that items in the same area of the store are grouped together. Also, it tells you in the margin which meals you will be using each item for. Rarely are you using an ingredient for less than two meals. The ingredients are also seasonally appropriate. This winter’s meals have featured a lot of root vegetables, and no cantaloupe, for example. The Fresh 20 has really thought this through.
3) Much of the preparation can be easily completed in advance to make your evenings less hectic.
The plan tells you what to prepare in advance. I like to sharpen my knives, get out a few cutting boards, turn on Pandora and chop, slice, and dice for an hour or so early in the week and knock out the onions, carrots, marinades and sauces all at once. I usually do this on Sunday or Monday and organize my tupperware and plastic baggies of pre-chopped food in the fridge so the food I will need first is at the front. I might use a sticky note to label the tupperware if it’s unclear what’s inside or if Dan will be in charge of that particular meal.
4) The food is good, healthy, and different
We chose the “Classic” plan and the food is tasty. It is also different than what I would normally cook, which makes it fun. For example, we recently had spaghetti squash (which I had already prepped earlier in the week, as I used half for a different recipe) with mushroom walnut meatballs and red pepper pesto. Last week, we also had fish steamed with vegetables in a foil packet with a heap of veggies, dill and lemon, with the aforementioned spaghetti squash on the side. Other treats have included stuffed peppers, curry sausage cous cous, and dry brine chicken with red pepper rice and butternut squash.
1) It’s time consuming
If I prep food on Sundays for 60-90 minutes, I still spend 20-30 minutes each night doing more prep and another 20-60 minutes waiting for the food to be cooked.
2) Instructions can be unclear or misleading
My main beef with The Fresh 20 is they leave you in the dark about how long each meal will take to prep and cook. You know how most recipes will say in small print, for example, “Prep: 15 minutes. Cook: 30 minutes” ? The Fresh 20 doesn’t do that. Certainly, you can guestimate the time by reading the recipe, but even then, it can be hard to judge. They will often say things like “saute onions till soft and translucent, 3-5 minutes, then add the vegetables,” except after 3-5 minutes, my onions are still practically raw. They also grossly underestimate baking times. I have actually had to nearly double the baking time to get my chicken to be cooked through. There have been many nights when I planned for dinner to be on the table at 6 and it wasn’t ready until 6:45. And for that entire 45 minutes I was trying to hurry dinner along while simultaneously attempting to extricate my leg/the iPad/a black pen/a sharp object/a rogue vitamin from Sweet Pea’s little hands.
3) It can feel exhausting (see #2).
We started using The Fresh 20 because our friends with a two year old and a newborn said that it was a lifesaver. We thought this would be the perfect solution for us now, and especially once the baby comes. Except I already know this is going to be too much work for me once I’m about 30 weeks pregnant and I don’t think I will be able devote all this time to meals once the baby is actually here, at least not for the first few months. Before The Fresh 20, my typical meal took no more than 20-30 minutes to prepare each night, without any additional pre-chopping or mixing earlier in the week. Despite taking most of the thinking out of meal planning, there is something mentally draining about looking at a new recipe five nights a week. There’s no meal in The Fresh 20 rotation that’s as easy as, say, an omelette and toast or beans, rice, salsa, Greek yogurt, and cheese (two of the fall-back meals I can make practically with my eyes closed).
The Quick and Dirty Summary
It’s a fair amount of extra work compared to what I’m used to but the food is much better, more varied, and very healthy, with lots of creative methods for incorporating vegetables. Overall, it is worth the extra effort. That said, I am taking a week off this week due to The Fresh 20 fatigue. We can download the current week’s plan to use anytime in the future.
A Quick Note About Quantity
We are a family of two adults and one toddler. It’s plenty of food for us, including leftovers for lunches. If you had a family of four people eating normally, I think you would have to supplement the meal with a loaf of bread, a salad, or rice and you wouldn’t have leftovers.