Month: December 2015

Mistakes I Made this Christmas

“I feel like it’s taken me my entire adult life to fully appreciate why my father dreaded Christmas.” I said this to my friend Dee who had dropped by bearing gifts late Christmas morning. She had noted the glazed look in my eye and asked me how I was. Moments earlier, Stump had pushed a box of blocks across the kitchen table, causing a bowl of oatmeal to tumble to the floor. We now had oatmeal splattered on the wall. Kellie and I had different views about to what extent the spill was intentional. She was pretty sure he meant it. I was pretty sure he just didn’t care one way or another. But it didn’t matter who was right: the situation was the same. There was oatmeal everywhere and still no one had eaten breakfast.

When I was a child, the adults in my life spoke openly about their mixed feelings about Christmas—the stress of crowds and holiday shopping, the endless lists and expectations. I didn’t get it then, nor did I want to. But I get it now. I keep thinking that with each passing year, I’ll master the art of Christmas. I’ll get all of my shopping done early. I will perfectly match each person in my life with the gifts they deserve. I’ll find a way of doing this without activating my scarcity meter—I’ll just spend what I need to spend without batting an eye. But somehow, it seems, each year I bungle it. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is a test of my ability to be an adult in the real world. Every year I think that I will finally pass and yet, every year I fail. Here is the rundown of this year’s mistakes:

  1. I started my Christmas shopping too late. This is a perennial problem. Every year I remind myself how easy Christmas would be if I started my shopping in August. I’d have time to carefully consider each person in my life. I wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money all at once. In spite of these intentions, each year around Thanksgiving I realize that it’s already the Christmas season and I think, Oh well. I still have plenty of time. But I don’t start actively thinking of Christmas until December 15 when I submit my final grades. By that time there’s no avoiding the crowds. I wait in long lines of traffic to get to the mall and then feel like a chump as I vie for a parking spot. I don’t finish my shopping so much as I give up on the process.
  1. I bought too much. Because all of my shopping was done in a frenzy, I made bad decisions. I bought gummy bears and candy canes for my kids’ stockings when I knew that extra sugar on Christmas was a bad idea. I bought board games at TJ Maxx, not because my kids had asked for them, but simply because they were there, and I wanted more boxes to wrap and put under the tree. Though I begin each Christmas season by declaring I’m only doing stockings for my kids, I always chicken out.
  1. I bought too little. When I shop for extended family members, I have a different problem: I don’t want to buy trash. I mean, I don’t want to buy something that will likely be tucked away in a drawer and ignored until it is eventually thrown out or donated to Goodwill. I worry that even a gift card is likely to be stashed and never redeemed. I suspect that I may be missing the point entirely, that if I were a sincere and generous gift-giver I’d let go of this fear and just happily shop for others. But because I’m not that evolved, I play it safe and buy everyone socks. This does not make for a very exciting gift exchange session.
  1. I thought we could skip breakfast. This was really the defining mistake of this year. I went to bed with dreams of baking blueberry muffins. I imagined my kids would wake up and we’d watch them unpack their stockings and then everyone would happily take a break from gift giving. But then the day arrived and my children were so giddy. They danced over the $2 bowls I had bought them at Target. They ate pieces of their candy canes, and slurped down the applesauce packets that Santa had tucked in their stockings. And then they wanted to keep opening boxes, so I let them. I figured: They had applesauce. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I found out.

There’s a Christmas magic that happens with stockings, which tend to be full of small everyday pleasures. But I think that something frightening sets in when the ceremony moves to the packages beneath the tree and the living room fills with all kinds of gift detritus—paper and cardboard and plastic—and we know that at some point the gifts will end. The gifts will end and we will still be ourselves in the real world, untransported, and in this case hungry. Stump in particular was so hungry that he would not agree to eat anything except gummy bears and candy canes (see mistake #2) and he spent the next two hours resisting food, pushing over bowls of oatmeal, throwing Legos across the room, demanding I assemble a puzzle, and then angrily disassembling the puzzle as I built it.

Next year I will do better. I will start my Christmas shopping in August. I will buy the perfect gift for every human in my life. I will not waste money, but I also won’t be stingy. I will lovingly assemble a healthful breakfast first thing on Christmas morning. My children will gather around the table and clean their plates. They will be wearing festive sweaters and their hair will be combed. Next year, I swear, I will win at Christmas.



Nearly three years ago, when I went into active labor with my second son, I was so very tired. I hadn’t slept in 32 hours. At the birthing center, I sat in a warm bath and stared at the freshly made bed that awaited me. The quilt looked so clean and so soft. In between contractions, I just imagined lying down between the sheets and sleeping. I tried to imagine a way that someone could just pull my baby out of me without surgery or pain and hand him to me in that bed. But I knew that birthing was my work. I had to do it.

“I think I need to get out of the water,” I said. And it was true. The moment my skin hit the cooler air, some of my energy returned. For my next contraction, I positioned myself in a small corner between the dresser and the bed. I held onto the lip of the dresser, leaned into my pain, and groaned. The midwife had been waiting on a couch in the foyer this whole time as her assistant attended to me. She must have recognized something in my groan because she came and sat down on the edge of the bed. She continued with her knitting and made no comment, but I would later look back and recognize this as the work of a professional. Her presence signaled to her assistant that this baby was coming out soon.

As I continued to squat and push, some part of me hovered just above my body, listened to me howling like a woman who’d been raised in the forest by wolves, and asked myself: Is that really necessary? Do you really need to make that noise? And it’s true that I might have toned it down if I tried, but those cries felt like part of the process, like sound would deliver me to the other side of the pain.

After two of these animal groans, out came a head. “Feel it,” the midwife instructed, and I tentatively felt underneath me for the round, wet shape of my baby’s face and skull. I wasn’t moved or excited so much as I was anxious to get the rest of it out. It’s a weird thing to have just a head sticking out of your body. I wanted him squirming, animated, free.

“With your next contraction,” the midwife told me, “the shoulders will come through you, and then the rest of the body will slip out.” I wasn’t sure that I believed her, but that next animal groan was as big as the ones that had preceded it, and the pain and the push were big enough to bring my son into the world. Kellie caught him and held him and immediately the assistant guided my body to the bed. I slid awkwardly between the clean sheets, still bleeding and connected to my baby by a cord. My feet hung off the side. But we worked it out eventually; we got all of me in that bed and rested my new baby on my chest. I was reclining and situated and done with my work. StumpVader

I’ve been remembering this scene every night lately for reasons that might sound a little odd. Stump, my son who was born that day, has been having trouble pooping. The trouble stems from the fact that he doesn’t want to. He’s in that transitional phase between underwear and diapers, a phase where he will happily pee on the potty, but all of a sudden poo scares him. When he feels a bowel movement coming on he shudders in fear. He cries out “Mommy change me!” though there is nothing to change. He refuses the potty. He would prefer to fight the urge, to hold it eternally.

I try to figure out what’s going on for him. When he wore diapers he pooped without a second thought. In diapers, I guess, he could happily move through his life and elimination happened on its own. It didn’t matter if he felt the need to poo while he was halfway down a slide. He could just let it out. But potty learning demands he learn not only to control these functions, but to experience at least a little bit of shame around them. I mean, the motivation not to poo in your underwear comes from an understanding that poo is gross.

And then there’s this, which I found on the internet this week, one item on a list of reasons why children may have angst around pooping on the potty:

Your child thinks the stool is part of him and doesn’t understand why he should flush it away.

I’m not sure that this is literally true for Stump, but I do think that there’s a parallel between the ambivalence I felt around labor and the ambivalence Stump feels around pooping: something inside of him has to come out, and it requires work. Wouldn’t it be easier just to not? Would it be better to just let the things inside us stay inside?

For the time being, Stump and I have found this new routine: we go into the bathroom and close the door. We take off Stump’s underwear and put on a pull-up. He starts to cry when he feels the urge coming on. “Do you want to hold onto something?” I offer. Sometimes he holds onto the edge of the bathtub and looks me in the eye. Stump’s typical expression is somewhere between determined and mischievous, but in these moments I watch as a look of fear passes through him. His face flushes. He farts and splurts. He looks relieved for a moment, until the next round. Other times he steps behind me and leans into my back. He reaches up over my shoulders. He rests his head against me.

I realize, dear reader, that I am writing at length about my son pooping in his pull-up and yet: these moments have been a bright spot in my week. Stump, I believe, is the last child that I will see through this transition of babyhood to childhood. I have strangely mixed feelings about him leaving his diapers behind. I mean, I’m thrilled to leave the diapers behind. I’m thrilled to not have to deal with the poop-stink of the diaper pail. But I’m equally thrilled to be the person in the bathroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor, helping him through his fear, witnessing as he figures out this very important thing: how to take note of what the body needs, to give in and let go in spite of pain. To release.