Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our boy is one

One-year-olds are the best, man. Give me one-year-olds forever.

I can put him on the floor and he will play with his toys for 30 or 40 minutes. I can put him in a high chair at a restaurant and he'll happily snack on finger food while I eat in peace. He sleeps for nice long stretches at night. He does sign language to tell me when he wants to "nurse" and when he wants "more" food. Most of all, he has so much personality! He tells jokes, plays games, waves enthusiastically at strangers, and loves to make new friends.

If you had told me a year ago how much easier parenting would get, I never would have believed you.

Our boy lucked out this year with THREE birthday parties. I know. Who even am I? What happened to minimalism?!

First we celebrated with an "open house" party at our apartment on Saturday afternoon. We invited all of Frankie's little baby friends (I think 9 babies ended up coming) and of course their parents. Frank made BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, Italian sausage, black beans and rice, and his Grandma's famous macaroni salad (which is completely addictive).

I made teddy bear cupcakes because our (very informal) theme was "Little Bear."

Thank you, Pinterest.

My dear friend Giedre took these beautiful pictures of his party for us. My heart completely melted when I saw the collage she made of photos from the past year. Has it really been a year? The longest and the shortest, the best and the hardest year of my life.

For a long time, I could not understand why parents made such a big deal out of first birthdays. In fact, I joked that I was going to send out invitations that said, "Come celebrate Frank and Tess surviving their first year as parents!!" But then a few weeks before his birthday I realized this: parenting may be hard, but when you celebrate your child's birthday, you choose to forget all of the hard things you may have gone through and simply be grateful for the gift of their life. Our boy is the light of our lives. I will never stop being grateful that I get to be his mother. His first birthday was a chance for us to celebrate that.

Frankie loves LOVES when people sing "Happy birthday" to him, so we must have sang it at least 20 times over the course of the weekend. I don't want to forget his face when we dimmed the lights and lit the candle on his cupcake. Everyone in the room looked at him and started singing, and his little face just lit up. You could see that he was thinking, "All of these people are singing to me??" Even now, thinking about it makes me start to tear up. He was so happy.

Then we blew out the candle (I tried to teach him how to do it in advance, but he just laughed and tried to grab the candle) and I put the cupcake on his tray. He looked at it for a moment, then picked it right up and bit in! It was like he knew exactly how to eat a cupcake. That brought down the house. He spent the next 20 minutes happily eating all the frosting, and then crumbling the cake part into tiny crumbs which he generously scattered all over his high chair and the floor. He had such a good time.

Later on, Frank let him eat a chocolate-covered pretzel, and he was SO HAPPY and covered in chocolate and slightly wired from all that sugar. Not to mention what a great time he had crawling around the floor with all his little baby friends. This boy is so friendly and energetic—I wonder where he gets that from? ;) When I put him to bed that night, he lay on his back, closed his eyes, and softly whispered, "Wow. Wow." He had a great day.

The next day, Sunday, was his actual birthday. After church in the morning, we went over to my parents' house for Party #2 (my parents were out of town on Saturday which is why we opted to have a friend party and a family party). We did the cupcake-candle-singing again, and he was just as excited the second time around. My little sister took this video:

Then Monday morning, I got up at 3:50 am to catch a flight to Philly to spend the week with my in-laws and my twin sister. So Frankie got to have Party #3 at my in-laws' house on Monday. I have a bunch of pictures from the trip that I'll be sharing soon! You can see a few of them over on Instagram (which is my favorite social medium these days—I'm kind of addicted).

There are so many things I love about my boy at this age. His soft blonde curls that give him crazy bedhead. His ability to really focus and concentrate when he's introduced to something new. His impressive powers of imitation as he mimics my sounds and actions. His energy. His enthusiasm. His undeniable extroversion. He is just our darling boy, and we love him to pieces.

Happy birthday, little bear. Being your mother is such a privilege.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Two years since Virginia

This past week has been full of emotions as it marks both two years since I moved away from Virginia and one year since Frankie was born (more about that in another post).

It's hard to believe I've now lived in Chicago (as an adult) for longer than I lived in Virginia.

My years in Virginia were a crucial part of my growing-up. I arrived in DC fresh out of college. I was professionally inexperienced, single, and had only one friend in the city (love you, Ruth).

By the time I left, I had built a strong professional track record and I was weeks away from getting married. Most of all I had made so many friends in the city, wonderful friends who I miss every day.

It helps somewhat that a lot of my dear DC friends have moved away as well—to places like Princeton, Boston, Texas, San Diego, and even Scotland. But Virginia will always have my heart, and there will always be a part of me that wishes we still lived in that beautiful place.

Recently a dear friend came to visit me from Philadelphia. As we sat on the couch talking and catching up on a year's worth of conversation (it was her first time meeting my baby!), we both voiced the longing for all our friends to live near each other.

"Wouldn't it be amazing if we could somehow all live in one place?" I sighed. "All our friends from high school, from college... all my mom friends... Imagine all of us living in the same city, raising our kids together and getting through hard things with each others' help and celebrating the good times together too. Wouldn't that be the best thing ever?"

It absolutely would be the best thing ever, but we both laughed knowing that it's never going to happen. As much as I might joke about starting a "Catholic commune", we know that all those people are never going to be in the same place at the same time, much less live in the same city.

I thought about it some more, though, and this realization came to me: wishing for all of my friends to be in one place together gives me a certain longing for Heaven, because that is the one place where we will finally all be gathered, able to enjoy each other's company for eternity. (If that sounds crazy to you, just ignore it... I said that to Frank earlier this week and he looked at me like I had three heads!)

Just for fun, here's a trip down memory lane...

My "Things we'll miss about DC series":

Our two favorite restaurants (We still haven't found restaurants here in Chicago that take the place of these two!)

My favorite bookstore

Gorgeous Virginia

Our amazing parish (luckily we've found an equally awesome one here in Chicago)

My old job working as a book editor

And one more just for fun...

The day that Ruth and I went to see the cherry blossoms

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Living Room Re-do: Before & After

A few weeks ago, Frank said, "I've been thinking it might be nice to update the apartment. You know, do some spring cleaning and baby-proofing, and redecorate a little bit."

I was all "Sure, honey, sounds great."

Then later that day he sent me a Google doc titled "Spring Cleaning & Remodel" with a bullet-pointed list of exactly what changes he wanted to make to every room, and a detailed shopping list.

I wonder, do you think it's possible he might be Type A?


Now that our big remodel is done, I thought you guys might enjoy seeing the before and after pictures!

Here's the BEFORE:

Our board games, movies, and some books were haphazardly crowded onto some old black bookshelves:

The main bookshelves in our living room were overcrowded with many more books than they could handle:

Meanwhile the black rug sucked out all the light from the room, and was impossible to keep clean. We also had this enormous bulky coffee table that was right in the middle when our baby tried to play, and I lived in constant terror of him hitting his head on one of the sharp corners. Not to mention that we were keeping all his toys in a white fruit bowl on the table. It looked messy and cluttered!

So off we went to IKEA (I'm pretty sure the tagline for my life right now could be "It's from IKEA") for some cubbies to replace the cluttered shelves.

We went through our bookshelves looking for superfluous books to donate (mostly duplicates... we ended up getting rid of 40!).

We got a storage ottoman/coffee table from Target (some kind blog reader recommended it over a year ago ... we move real fast around here) plus some baskets for our cubbies.

And lo and behold!

Now, does that look better or what?

That Frank. He has some good ideas.

Here's the cubby situation:

Those cubbies are the absolute best. They hold SO MUCH STUFF. The bottom cubbies have more than enough room for all of Frankie's toys, while the top cubbies totally took care of our overflow of kitchen supplies that didn't have a home. (We moved the board games to our bedroom closet.)

Here's one of my favorite little spots in the house:

That's Frank's record player—so cool how it looks like a suitcase—with a globe that he gave me back when we were engaged. It symbolizes our desire to travel the world together, or really our shared love for adventure. I love it.

We had a really hard time figuring out what to do for a rug. We wanted something really simple that almost looked like a carpet. I looked all over the internet (Joss & Main, Overstock.com, etc.) and even consulted with my friend Mary Kate, who's amazing at interior design, but nothing seemed quite simple enough (and cheap enough)... Until two weeks ago I was at Aldi and found these 5x7 area rugs for $20! I quickly texted Frank some pictures, and as soon as I got his OK, I snapped one of those babies right up! It's probably not going to be a long-term solution for future homes, but it's working perfectly for what we need right now.

We also made some updates to the bathroom and bedroom. When all was said and done, Frank turned to me and said, "I'm so glad we made these changes because I kind of felt like our apartment looked like a college dorm for the past couple years." To which I was like, "Well, why didn't you say so, for Pete's sake?!" But I'm glad we finally made these changes too.

And just for fun, here's an extra picture of our kitchen area—we had two other families over for brunch on Sunday and I couldn't resist the opportunity to set the table all nicely.

Good times. Hurray for spring cleaning!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Ministry of Presence

I felt a little bit guilty as I went to visit a newly postpartum friend the other day. You would think, given my love for discussing baby gear and the fact that (according to Frank) I've read and practically memorized every baby book in our library system, that I would have the perfect new-mom gift picked out and ready to go for these occasions—but I hadn't known what to get, so instead I was going to meet her baby empty-handed.

I arrived to hold her precious two-week-old and she admitted it felt frustrating to be cooped up constantly inside because of the cold weather. We began talking—starting, as I always ask a new mom, with "Would you be willing to share your birth story?" Like every other new mom I know, she was eager to spill all the details to someone who was interested and genuinely cared. I love to hear birth stories—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've heard enough of them by now to know that most likely I will respond to at least one part of the story with "That's incredible. You are so brave. I'm so impressed with you" and to another part with "That must have been so hard."

I noticed that her baby's nails were kind of long and she admitted she had yet to cut them.

"It's so scary to cut their nails for the first time, isn't it?" I said.

She nodded vigorously.

"I made Frank do it the first time." I laughed. "Here, get the nail clippers. I'll help you."

So she got the itty-bitty nail clippers and I showed her how to hold each tiny finger in turn and pull down the fingertip to trim the nail, so that together we cut all of the baby's nails while he slept.

Next on the agenda was babywearing. I had recommended that she get a k'tan (my favorite of all the babywearing devices) but she had yet to try it out. We took it out of the packaging and I helped her secure her baby in a nice newborn hold. Once he was safely in place and sleeping contentedly on her chest, she was elated.

"Wow—I have both hands! This is amazing! I can see why you love this so much!" She glowed with excitement and wore her baby for the rest of my visit.

Next she was curious how to get more sleep (very curious!) so I told her about the principles of safe co-sleeping (recommending this book) and shared how co-sleeping mothers get more sleep and how co-sleeping has worked well for our family. She asked about using NFP postpartum and I explained that while she would want to see a professional practitioner for her personal case, I have had perfect success using ecological breastfeeding (also called lactational amenorrhea) to delay fertility, and explained the standards she should follow to have the best chance of success with that (mostly, no pacifiers). Recently I mentioned to a single friend that I haven't had a cycle since before Frankie was born, and she was shocked and very concerned for me! I had to laugh as I explained that this is perfectly normal and, in my case, intentional. It's crazy how little many women know about the normal functioning of their bodies. Our bodies as women are incredibly powerful—it's amazing what they are capable of!

My friend asked when the baby would start sleeping a consistently long time at night and I thought about the previous week, when an excited-to-be-crawling Frankie had woken up every few hours trying to crawl.

"I'll be honest with you—I could give you an answer, but it would be B.S.," I told her. "I have no idea!" She laughed.

At that point she began to worry about how she would get to an event that evening, because her mom had borrowed the car with the only car seat base in it. I taught her the Number One thing I wish I had known as a new mom—that you can actually use your newborn car seat in any car, without a base, with just a regular seat belt (for most car seats). Seriously—check the side of the car seat for a sticker with an instructional picture. Is your mind blown? Well, mine was, when I found this out TWO MONTHS into Frankie's life, after torturing myself, Frank, my mom, and everyone else with convoluted car pick-ups and drop-offs because we thought we always had to use the base that was only installed in one car. Let's not discuss. Just, please, if you know a woman who is about to or just had a baby, show her the sticker on the side of the newborn car seat that tells how to use the seat in any car, without a base. I bet you she didn't notice it (none of my mom friends had) and it will be the best thing you ever say to her, pretty much. Life-altering. ANYWAY.

Becoming a mom for the first time is a transition unlike any other. Those first few weeks after the baby is born are the most vulnerable a woman can be, both physically and emotionally. While new moms do need people to cook meals and clean and hold the baby while they shower, I think most new moms—especially those becoming a mom for the first time—need someone to sit with them for a little while and say, "It sure is hard, isn't it? It's normal to cry a lot the first few weeks," and "You look beautiful, dear friend," and most of all, "I know how you feel. You're not alone"—and that, I think, is what God put me on this earth to do.

Becoming a mom is so hard, but it's also amazing—and one of my favorite things about it is the loyal bonds of sisterhood that are forged between us as we figure it out together.

Recently a friend asked me, "Tess, how do you know so many young moms?!" and I had to confess my secret: every time I meet a pregnant woman or new mom around my age, I go on a "search-and-befriend" mission where I pretty much barrage them with texts until we become real friends. You guys know that Frank and I do some public speaking, and that's his element—he loves to stand in front of a huge, crowded audience and give great advice that will hopefully change some lives. Meanwhile, I'm not a natural public speaker, and I feel sick to my stomach every time I have to speak, but this? Sitting on the couch holding a tiny newborn and talking a friend through one of the biggest transitions of her life? You guys, this is my element.

At last I got up to go, wrangling a cranky Frankie who was ready for his car-seat nap. I helped my friend take off the k'tan so she could nurse her baby, and said goodbye while she fed him on the couch.

Out in the car, after I buckled Frankie in, I was sitting in the front seat looking up directions home when I got a text from my friend saying that she felt like herself again after our few hours together.

I thought of the friends who rallied around me during my early months of motherhood. I remembered one friend who I called in tears when Frankie was a week old, begging her for breastfeeding advice. I remembered dear friends who brought meals and broke bread with us when I was still too weak to leave my house. I thought of all the pictures I have from last summer, of my girl friends and I laughing as we nursed our babies under giant nursing covers—back when we were raw and scared and inexperienced as mothers, but generously sharing with each other our time and advice, our patient listening, our encouragement and support—these gifts that are valuable beyond measure.

I thought of all these things and realized that in going to visit my friend the other day, I was passing on the compassion and solidarity that other mothers had extended to me. I am part of a chain of women, extending back as far as humanity, who choose to use our powerful gifts to strengthen the bonds between us. I've been blessed with the most incredible community of mom friends and I felt honored to share with her what they have shared with me.

As I drove away, I smiled as I realized that in fact, I had not gone to visit her empty-handed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The hardest thing about parenting

Back in September, when one of my best friends was expecting her first baby, she asked me and another dear mom friend, "What's the hardest thing about becoming a parent?"

The other mom said, "Definitely the sleep deprivation! I joke that babies are like terrorists—they try to break you through lack of sleep."

I said, "I think it's just the fact that they're around literally ALL. THE. TIME. You never really get a break from being a mom, and that gets exhausting."

Then we told her that we would ask her the same question in a few months when her baby was born!

Since then, that's become my favorite question to ask other parents. It's fascinating how everyone gives a different answer!

When I asked Frank, he said, "The hardest thing is having to have so much patience. I struggle to be patient, and now I need to be patient all the time."

I asked another guy friend and he said, "I think the hardest thing is not having as much time with my wife as I used to." I thought that was sweet, and then I offered to babysit for them some time so they can go on a date!

My friend who first asked me that question had her baby a few months ago—the sweetest little boy ever. We were out to dinner with her and her husband a few weeks ago when I found my chance to ask her that question myself.

"Now that you've been a mom for a few months, it's your turn to answer!" I said. "What do you think is the hardest thing about parenting?"

She works out of the home full-time, so she said, "Honestly, the hardest thing for me is pumping. I get so tired of it!"

Then I asked her husband the same question. His answer was profound.

Shortly after their baby was born, he found himself in a scary, threatening situation while he had the baby with him.

"Before the baby was born, I was never afraid to go anywhere or do anything," he explained. "I knew I could always run away if I had to. But now, with the baby, I realize I can't do that anymore. I would have to stay and fight if something threatened him."

I think his point was not that he feels tied down but rather that there is something more valuable to him than his own life—something so vulnerable and in need of his protection. Isn't that beautiful?

So now I'm curious—what's the hardest thing about parenting for you?

(And here's a happy picture to remind us all that parenting is awesome too, even when it's hard!)