THIS is our happy place. Like every other 30-something mom I know, that sign is hanging in a prominent spot in my home. Except, I’ve come to realize “happy” is not a specific place at all (more on that in a second).
You see, I dove into 2018 thinking I needed to find someone to replace the void in my heart after divorce. Someone to tell me I'm not damaged and that I will be OK. Someone to tell me I'm doing a good job juggling life. Someone to tell me I'm a good mom. Someone to give me a big hug at the end of a really hard day and promise tomorrow will be better. Someone to stop this terrifying free fall feeling of, Who am I and what in the actual hell just happened to my life? Someone to be my happy place.
So to find Mr. Someone, I tried filling my free time with dates and meeting new people. I bravely ventured into the scary world of online dating. I also went out on a couple dates with guys I've known a long time.
As it turns out though, my Mr. Someone was not at a shitty dive bar on a Sunday afternoon (the scene of a horrific first date). He wasn't at a cute little brewery in St. Joe (the scene of a different first date that never turned into anything more because... well, yeah). He also was not at Hacienda during one horrifically hilarious lunch hour (more on that and other lovely little dating disasters in a future post).
Turns out… those “someones” were right in front of me the whole time. In my home and my heart.
Since I do have time away from my kids when they're with their dad, I've had more quiet moments than I'd like to reflect on my relationship with them. You guys, they’re so little. SO. LITTLE. And yet, they’ll probably never know how much they kept me afloat and forced me to keep going over the past 18 months. In the very best way possible, they gave me no choice but to get out of bed in the morning and plaster a smile on my face.
Especially when life got really hard.
Yes... they fight.
Lyla bites. (Yeah, for real.)
Sawyer wakes me up at 3:30 in the morning with a massive bloody nose or in a frantic search for his pillow that is inevitably hidden somewhere in his bed.
Then I find Lyla – chillin' on the couch like it’s her job – at 3:30 in the G.D. morning… watching Disney Jr. Or at 6:30 a.m. (this has been going on for a few weeks now), passed out cold with the TV blaring in the background. I thought only old men fell asleep like that?
No wonder she’s so crabby and tired all the time…
But in the middle of all that chaos and an already full plate as “Kelli the working mom,” I didn’t realize how much I really just need my kids. And they really need me.
At some point, my focus shifted from trying to find him… to rediscovering them.
I stopped to breathe this summer for what felt like the first time in forever.
We take early morning bike rides (sorry neighbors, for the fire truck and police car siren noises as we zip by at 7:15 on a Saturday morning), trips to the blueberry ranch and then use those blueberries to bake muffins. We spend 95 degree Sunday afternoons slurping down icees at Four Winds Field, have Friday night picnics in the back yard, take Saturday trips to the beach, explore the Farmer’s Market, snuggle up for popcorn and a movie at home, take in a matinee at the theatre, play games on the deck, catch fireflies, feed the fish at the zoo. We make every second count.
At night when we wind down and read books together in my bed, we often talk about the best part of our day and those parts of the day we might do a little differently if we could. Oftentimes, when I ask about the best part, one of the kids will reply, “Spending time with you.”
Holy. Melt. My. Heart.
I’ve realized my kiddos crave my attention and love our time together more than anything else. This is what carries me through the toughest, most emotional days – there have been a lot – THEY carry me. Yes, this is major progress. But I still have some work to do in the whole "working on me" department.
My close friends know I have demons, or at least one huge battle I just can’t seem to overcome right now. We’re talking about really hard stuff I'm not ready to share on my blog (not yet, anyway) or in a public forum. It’s my biggest, most painful vulnerability that – for whatever reason – has a tight grip on me and won’t go away.
It's crazy though how the more I share those dark parts of my life with people I trust, the more I learn they too have deep, haunting struggles. Marriages in trouble. Infidelities. Debt. Eating disorders. Quiet battles with addiction. Nagging bouts of depression. Someone very close to me recently disclosed she has terrible anxiety about getting in a car and driving anywhere further than the grocery store, so she often has to stay home and miss out.
We all have that something…
But we also have a choice to let the bad stuff consume us or to keep fighting through it.
A year ago, I bought one of those silver mantra bands that simply said “Choose Happy.” I wore it all the time as a constant reminder that I needed to push through the hard and the hurt to do what’s best for me.
Then earlier this month in the chaos of a typical Tuesday evening with the kids, I lost that bracelet. I got home and realized it wasn’t on my wrist when I knew I’d had it earlier in the day. At first I was really bummed. Then I thought about where we’d been – the county fair, making more memories together.
First I had to find my happy. And I’m finally learning how to choose it.
It’s been an incredible summer. Probably our best one yet. We’ve made unforgettable, fun memories with our kids and – at times – run them so ragged they’ve begged to go to bed (yes, really).
Trips to Lake Michigan beaches, a minor league baseball game, countless family bike rides, water balloon fights, fun with bubbles and sidewalk chalk, monster truck show, campfires, fireworks, the zoo, splash pads… and it goes on and on.
Then there was that day friends invited us to visit them at a lake house they had rented for the week.
On the way out the door, our 4-year-old asked, ‘Since we’re going to a lake, can we take our fishing poles?’
‘Great idea!’ my husband exclaimed.
Another promise we’d made to our boys that we’d be able to cross off the list… take them fishing.
The weather was perfect and the lake – stunning. It was a smaller lake in Southwest Michigan on one of the last days in June. At first, the boys stood on the dock and the tied down pontoon, flinging the rubber “pretend” fish at the end of their lines into the water and excitedly reeling them back in to their Mickey Mouse and Spider Man poles from Wal-Mart.
Then my husband went digging with them and found worms. The friends we were visiting found hooks in the garage at their rental. We were in business! Their first fish, EVER, took the bait just a few minutes later. What an awesome moment of giggles, squeals and excitement. It was even funnier to watch my husband try to take the fish off the hook (he may or may not have needed assistance from a paper towel).
After dinner, the boys asked for a boat ride.
‘Sure!’ said our friend – a paramedic and firefighter on the same department as my husband.
When we got on board, we realized we were one life jacket short. Our 4-year-old didn’t have one. He’s had swimming lessons but isn’t a ‘swimmer’ yet. He hasn’t been on a boat since he was a baby.
‘Up to you…’ said our friend, set to start up the boat.
My husband looked at me and we both shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘We’re good!’
We took off.
We didn’t go fast – just an evening cruise on a practically empty lake. The kids had the best time. Our 3-year-old said he didn’t want to wear his life jacket so we told him fine, he could take it off. The baby got uncomfortable pretty quickly, so I took hers off too. She stood at the front end of the boat screaming 'AAAAAAAHHHHHH!' into the wind like she was Rose on the movie Titanic.
It’s fine. I thought to myself. Three adults to three kids. The adults are all strong swimmers… nothing’s going to happen.
The kids loved it and their huge smiles said everything we needed to know. We finished our trip around the lake, said our goodbyes and went home.
I posted a picture on social media that night from our magical evening at the lake, but in the back of my mind I knew I shouldn’t post any of the kids on the boat ride without life jackets. So I didn’t.
As exhausted as I was that night, I couldn’t sleep. Around 3 a.m. I realized why. I knew better. WE knew better. As a TV reporter I’d covered stories about accidental toddler drownings while boating. My husband has worked drowning scenes. What were we thinking… letting our babies get on a moving boat in a deep lake without wearing life jackets? It’s not the part about breaking the law that bothered me, but instead the fact that it’s my job to protect and keep them safe. Our job. And we failed them.
The scenarios raced through my mind. A rogue wave and the baby could have bounced out through the gate or the side. She would have sunk like a rock and we never would have found her in time. Our boys could maybe flail around for 30 seconds… IF they weren’t knocked unconscious first. What were we thinking?
The next morning, I told my husband we needed to chat.
‘We can’t ever let that happen again,’ I said. ‘Ever. In fact, I can’t believe we let it happen in the first place.’
He agreed and pointed out how, on the car ride home that evening, we’d shared our disgust about a mother arrested for leaving her baby in a locked, hot car; but what we’d done was arguably just as bad.
The guilt and what-ifs have continued to haunt me. We always buckle their seat belts, make sure their food isn’t too hot, keep the baby gate to our downstairs locked, make them wear bicycle helmets, apply sunscreen religiously. We’ve always done everything in our power to keep them safe, but that night – that 15 minutes of their lives – we knowingly did not.
Bottom line: nothing bad did happen. We bought the extra life jacket we needed and promised each other it will never happen again. My husband even took the boys back for another boat ride that same week. With life jackets.
Turns out, this parenting thing is a whole bunch of constant winging it and trying to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families. But sometimes we slip. And then learn from it.
So please learn from our mistake. Always make your littles wear life jackets (the law in Indiana says children under 13 years of age must wear a personal flotation device except when the child is below deck in an enclosed cabin or the vessel is docked or at anchor. In Michigan, children less than 6 years of age must wear a Type I or Type II personal flotation device when riding in the open deck area of a boat).
It’s a choice you don’t get back and one you’ll never regret.
It was 8 days before Christmas. I was physically and emotionally exhausted… about to work my last day at a job I loved, wrapping the last of the gifts and prepping for our annual Christmas trip to see my family in Illinois. Throw in a teething baby (who isn’t sleeping through the night yet anyway) and an early alarm clock several days a week and I was wiped.
But I also felt like I couldn’t go to my mom and dad’s house empty handed. I had to make something yummy and why not get the boys to help?
We got one pan of cookies in the oven before I even put the baby down for bed. SUCCESS! We were doing it!
Why in the hell I went for the pumpkin spice sugar glazed muffins next, I will never know. Well, I guess it’s because I’d already asked the boys if they wanted to help make that specific kind we’ve made before and they excitedly replied, ‘Yes!’ So there was no getting out of it.
Got the baby down and… shit. No pumpkin. Are you freaking kidding me? My husband was working, baby sleeping, 8:15 on a Thursday night and I needed a stupid can of pumpkin.
Thank God we have amazing neighbors who bail me out every single time I inconveniently decide to be Betty Crocker. 2 of the 3 I texted said they had it. But I didn’t want to inconvenience them any more than I already had, so I bundled up the boys, grabbed the baby monitor and headed next door.
Of course when we got back home 10 minutes later, the 4 year old ran ahead and rang our damn doorbell… because that’s what 4-year-olds do. He thinks it’s funny. It’s not funny when his baby sister is fast asleep and the stupid dog barks like burglars are ransacking the house.
OK, calm down, mom. Take off the boys’ coats, rock the baby 5 more minutes. Now to the muffins.
Again… WHAT. WAS. I. THINKING?
My 2 and 4 year old melted right in the middle of it. The younger one sobbed when I wouldn’t let him stick his finger in the batter just one more time. The older one whined and cried when I wouldn’t let him do EVERYTHING. (Last time I let him measure a teaspoon of vanilla by himself, we threw out an entire batch of Very Vanilla Banana Bread and he bawled because we didn’t have more bananas to start over).
So I put the muffin mix aside, calmed two overtired boys, brushed teeth, put on pajamas, read books and got them to bed. But 30 minutes later, I still had to finish the damn muffins. That wasn’t even the hardest part. The CLEAN UP is what got me.
11-freaking-30 at night and I still had to load the dishwasher, hand wash the 3 mixing bowls and pan that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher, clean up “sugar mountain” the boys so delicately designed and get the kitchen sparkling clean before I could go to bed.
HAD to, you ask?
Yes. Had to.
It’s this weird thing that happened after I got married. It intensified with each tiny human we brought home from the hospital. I have a thing for keeping my house clean. Like can’t stand to see a mess and have to clean it up right away, clean.
The sand tracked in from the sand box? I sweep the floors every day, sometimes more than once a day in the summer.
The toys my kids played with that day? Put away at bed time. All of them. Their bedrooms are spotless. We even have “toy drawers” in our kitchen and master bathroom so it can easily be out of sight, out of mind.
The fort using 2 kitchen chairs, 6 blankets, all the couch cushions and 8 other toys in the middle of the living room? Has to come down when we’re done playing with it.
Painting? All supplies washed and put away immediately after we’re done.
The inside of our microwave is clean, counters wiped down and the house is usually presentable enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone randomly stopped by.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE doing art, building towers, baking, building forts and making all sorts of memories with my kids while we’re doing it. But I also really, really love a clean house. My husband is the same way. We’ve talked about it. Our need for over-the-top cleanliness and how it makes us feel more focused and better prepared to deal with life.
We almost never go to bed with dishes in the sink or a mess to be cleaned up the next day. We even recently created a ‘command center’ to get stacks of mail and paper off our counter tops. He built little cubbies for our computer and the kids’ Leap Pads so they aren’t just lying around.
I also know there are different tolerance levels for messy. Some can handle a lot and others – like me – feel like we have to be in constant clean up mode even when we have friends bring their kids over to play. It sounds ridiculous as I type it… yet I still do it.
Just to clarify… our house is not SPOTLESS. You’ll find dog hair on the couch and the floors (that stuff refuses to go away, regardless of how often we sweep). There are almost always crumbs of some sort on our floors too – we have kids! The kid’s bath tub could probably use a good scrub, there might be a dribble or two of toddler pee on the toilet and our beds only get made once a week, if that. I also tend to neglect my closet from time to time because that’s in a part of the house very few people see. I do get right on it though, when I have a few free hours.
And in the middle of cleaning up my baking-frenzied mess or picking up toys when I’m beyond the point of exhaustion, I’ve recently started to wonder if it’s worth it. Is it worth the hour of sleep I’m trading to wake up to a clean kitchen? Or stopping precious time with my kids to clean up another mess? Am I missing out on important time with them? We are already pretty cognizant about not being glued to our phones or the computer when they’re awake, but am I replacing that busyness with a new type of busyness just so I can, well…. stay busy?
“When are you going to play with me?” my 4-year-old asked last week.
“Just after I unload and re-load the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen a little bit, buddy,” I replied.
I immediately felt the guilt. He happily went on to his next activity, accepting my answer, knowing I’d play with him later.
But what kind of message was I sending? A clean kitchen is more important than 1-on-1 time with him? Or his brother? And what about when the baby cried 5 minutes later and I immediately went to her, once again putting him on the back burner?
Maybe it’s OK to do that sometimes. To teach our kids patience and how to play by themselves or – gasp! – with each other. But I feel like I’ve been doing too much of it lately because of this stupid compulsion to have a clean house. And for what?
My mom and other mom friends who are a few years older tell me I’ll relax at some point. I won’t care about the messes that drive me crazy right now. Maybe that’s true.
Now that I’m aware of my inner ‘cleaning monster,’ I’m also trying to tame it. Be more willing to stop in the middle of folding laundry or picking up the house to really zone in on my kids and their needs. More flexible when my plan to pick up doesn’t jive with what they want to do in that same moment.
I don’t want to someday have a spotless house filled with regret because I was simply too busy cleaning up messes to live in the moment with the people I love most. Those messes will always be here. But babies grow up. And it’s our job as parents to make that experience the absolute best it can be for them. Pumpkin spice sugar glazed muffins and all.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...