This Month's Topic: Focus on Finance

The True Meaning of Christmas

On Monday, Brayden found Elvis (our Elf on the Shelf) on our hallway banister. It had been a year since the two had last seen each other, a year Elvis had spent resting on a sun-drenched beach somewhere (at least that’s what I’d like to imagine he’d been doing instead of collecting dust in a box downstairs somewhere) and a year Brayden had spent doing something much more painstaking.

It was evident in the question.

At first, Brayden shouted in excitement when he spotted Elvis, but then he turned to me, confused: “Why does he look like a stuffed toy?”

I took some time to collect my thoughts. “He only looks like a toy, Brayden. Remember? He’s magic.”

Over the weekend, we watched our first Christmas movie together as a family: Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Brayden didn’t understand why the other kids were mean to the Grinch at the beginning of the movie, then he felt sorry for the young Grinch because they were meWeinkamSibs_4an to him and understood why he had chosen to go live at the top of Mt. Crumpit by himself. In fact, Brayden was following the story line so well that, at the end, when the Grinch stole everyone’s presents and the people of Whoville chose to be glad instead of sad, I felt inspired to use the opportunity as a teachable moment.

“You see, Brayden, Christmas isn’t about presents and toys. It’s about being with family and friends. It’s about love.”

When the Grinch returned the presents, Brayden looked at me: “It’s good he gave the presents back, but Christmas is about love so it was OK before.”

Today, when I read the kids a Christmas story about Dumbo before nap time, Brayden, as usual, had many questions. In the story, Timothy Mouse teaches Dumbo the true meaning of Christmas by flying toys to needy children.

I closed the book and announced it was nap time, but Brayden had one more question.

“Why couldn’t Santa bring the toys?”

I should have seen it coming, but I was caught off-guard. I stumbled for a minute before finally settling on, “Not every kid has parents to write Santa a letter about what he or she wants for Christmas.”

Brayden’s little face scrunched. “Everyone has a mom and a dad…” Then his face lit up. “Oh, it’s just in the story. Everyone in real life has a mom and a dad, Mommy.” He smiled at me, I smiled back at him without responding and shut the door. “Everyone in real life has a mom and a dad, Mommy,” he called after me again.

He wanted me to confirm it for him, and I so desperately wanted to, but, again, I didn’t respond.

My baby boy is growing up. I know that. He wants to learn and understand everything there is to learn and understand, and I want that for him. But the magic of Christmas has everything to do with the innocence of youth, and I’m just not ready to deprive him of that yet. I want him to learn the truth, but only in its beauty. I want him to learn compassion, but only through generosity.

At least for now.

My hope is that by teaching my son truth in beauty, he’ll also someday find “the strength of ten Grinches… plus two” to bear the weight of the rest.

 

 

 

 

A Lapse in Communication

I’ve been making jokes about it a lot lately because most of the time, it seems funny. However, the more I think about it, the more serious it becomes. Adam and I haven’t been talking as much as we used to and it’s starting to show.

Wedding Day - February 2009

Wedding day; February 2009

Before kids, we had nothing but time for each other. We were in sync, we were well-informed, and, most of all, we were organized. At the end of our work days, Adam would put stickers on the stacks of papers I had just graded as I recorded them into my grade book, and we’d catch up. It would only take a few minutes to get all the info about my husband’s day and I his. So, after catching up, we’d watch some great/stupid TV and then, ever-so-carefreely (is that a word?), we’d crawl into bed.

It was a lovely time because we had time. However, we knew something was missing and so, after about a year of marriage, we decided to try and get pregnant. We did after a few months and the rest is history.

Things didn’t change very drastically at first. This is not to say that one child is not hard. It is. Believe me and believe any other parent you’ve met, it’s hard. But one child still meant the two of us were always together. We were just together and focusing on Noah. But together. And in all that togetherness time that I like to call “surviving the first few months,” we would still talk. We’d talk while I was feeding Noah, we caught up at bath time, we could even talk over dinner (Noah was a great eater from the start, thank goodness).

Then Sophia came around, and that’s when things really changed. They changed big time and they changed fast. Adam and I were still a team, but we were playing a different game. Instead of zone defense, we were now man-to-man. While I would be feeding Sophia, Adam would be doing something, anything with Noah to keep him occupied and happy. While Adam would be bathing Noah, I would be getting Sophia ready for bed. And on and on it goes.

And thus, our communication has suffered for it. And that’s saying something, because Adam and I are talkers.

It’s not to say we don’t talk, but most of the time, it’s not so much talking as it is listing off all the things I need to tell him, almost like a chore as opposed to catching up. I’m beginning to find that I tell him more through text during the day than in person. I’m starting to hear his stories for the first time through someone else, be it my family members or neighbors, and I find myself shocked that I didn’t already know the story.

I feel like something has come between us...

I feel like something has come between us…

My mom and dad have told me over and over again that this time in a marriage, the time when the kids are young and the adults are working hard to “make it” in the world, when reality is not as rosy as you once dreamed it and when it’s no longer about you much anymore, that time is the hardest on your marriage.

It’s good to know. And I mean exactly that: it’s GOOD to know. Not just because I can take solace in the fact that we’re not alone in the battle that is parenthood, but because, if I know about it, I can act on it.

I realize that communication will never again be the same as that first year of marriage. Because it will never again just be the two of us, catching up over a glass of wine at the end of the night. We have two more lives and a lot more “stuff” to talk about.

That said, I realize it’s still very important to put forth the effort and try my best to catch up with my husband as often as I can. We’re going to try very hard to spend 2014 making more time for us, just us.

Let’s face it, most of the time, the kids are running the show. I’m just going to do what I can to make sure Adam and I are watching the same show, sitting next to each other while we do so, and catching up during intermission.

A Belief in Magic

Everything I love about Christmas is captured in this picture.I caught Santa

Sarah found a website that allows you to take a picture of your Christmas tree and then send it off somewhere (where? I have no idea) to have Santa with his big bag of toys superimposed into the picture. We plan on showing it to our kids Christmas morning and telling them that we caught Santa sneaking into our house Christmas Eve night and that he let us take a picture of him. Pretty cool, huh?

I think so. I think, when I show it to my kids, I’ll see their eyes light up with glee and joy and wonder, not unlike the eyes of Scrooge – one of my favorite Christmas characters – when he wakes up on Christmas morning with a changed soul and a second chance at life. I think this picture perfectly sums up the magic that is the true essence of Christmas.

At 3 and 2, it’s my belief that my kids’ ages put them right at the sweet spot of Christmas enjoyment. I’m sure we’ll have many more fun years with them to come where they still believe in Santa, but right now, watching them experience all the joys the Christmas season brings has been nothing short of wondrous. It’s like experiencing everything anew with fresh innocence and fresh hearts.

We’ve already done a lot this Christmas season. We’ve seen the holiday trains at the museum center (more than once, might I add), we’ve seen the millions of lights on display every year at the zoo, we’ve sat on Santa’s lap (OK, not really “we”; just the kids), we’ve had Christmas parties at school, work and with friends and family, and we’ve decorated our tree and home. We’ve read Christmas books and attended Christmas masses and plays, and we’ve sang Christmas songs.

Through it all, I’ve been wondering to myself what it is that I really want to teach my kids about Christmas when their minds are just starting to be able to grasp the concept. I believe Brayden is at the age where he can understand a little, at least, the concept of giving, so we bought some Christmas toys and donated them to kids at Cincinnati’s Ronald McDonald House a few weeks ago. I stressed the importance of giving gifts to friends and not just receiving them, so we’ve been waiting to open gifts until our friends open theirs. At church, we’ve talked about how Christmas is about how Jesus was born, how he came to save us and that’s why we celebrate his birth each year, so I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t be stressing the religious aspect of Christmas more, if that is the reason for the season as I’ve been taught since I was a child.

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And yet, now as an adult with children of my own, I believe it’s about more than that. It’s certainly about Jesus’ birth, but it’s about everything that birth has launched for us here on earth. We didn’t go this year, but I always love seeing “A Christmas Carol” at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. It was a family tradition growing up that I hope my kids will soon be old enough to appreciate themselves. Christmas is about doing good in the world. It’s about spending time with family and friends and those we love. It’s about thinking more about those we’ve never met before who are far away from us, and it’s also about thinking more about those we see every day who are closest to us.

It’s about believing in magic, about believing we’re more than just one person, that we’re connected to something greater, something spiritual and something good. I want my kids to believe in Santa for as long as they can. But when they no longer do, I want them to still believe in magic.

 

On a Mission for Christmas

Saturday night, Adam and I had big Christmas plans. We didn’t know exactly what we’d do, but it would be doused in Christmas spirit.

The weather was not our friend and it was a very rainy evening, so the zoo’s Festival of Lights was out. I read about this Christmas ranch place up in Morrow, Ohio, but that, too, was outside and, therefore, out. We discussed the Great Wolf Lodge’s Christmas display but didn’t know if we felt like fighting the crowds. We were racking our brains but coming up empty.

I feel like that a lot at Christmastime. I have these big plans, big dreams on how to make the holiday season extra special and extra fun, and it never works out the way I dream it will. It happens a lot in my life because I live in a bit of a dream world. (I think I’ve said that on here before.) I imagine something magical and glorious and it turns out very, very different. I’m not saying it’s worse than what I imagined, just different. Sometimes, it’s even better.

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Sarah, Jill and Colleen (circa 1994)

Back to Saturday night. Because it was rainy and none of our plans were working out, we decided to take a drive and find our own Christmas lights. I was so excited! We used to do this every year with my family and it might have been the highlight of my holiday season. We’d all pile in the car, pop in a little Bing Crosby and drive around for what felt like hours in search of the prettiest houses. It was a blast.

So, we piled the kids in the car around 6:15 and set out to relive my dream. Maybe it was the awful weather we were having – we had a lot of snow for a few weeks and now rain – but the Christmas lights showing was quite poor. Not that we can talk. We put up half of our lights before Thanksgiving and that’s all she wrote this year. We never put up anymore. (I’m just saying: no judgment!)

Even so, we started out strong. We were pointing out lights to Noah and Sophia (whose window shade, we didn’t realize, was drawn for the first 10 minutes of our voyage so she couldn’t see much, poor thing). We had some great Christmas music blasting. And then, four songs in, we slowed down. I had a great idea to download an app that would take us to some great Christmas lights but, alas, it did not. It did, however, get us out of the house and into some new neighborhoods, so I’ll give it that. It also gave us some great buildups and then, ultimately, some letdowns, but still.

About 20 minutes in, Adam looked at me and said, “Your parents must have been much better at this than I am because I just don’t see how great this is and I know you love it.”

I paused just for a moment and then responded, “Well, the lights are pretty weak and we listened to Bing and I can’t find my Bing CD. So that could be it.”

We were quiet for a bit and I sat and thought about Adam’s words some more. It’s true what I said, but was that really what made it so great?Image

“You know what,” I started. “I think it was just being in one place with my whole family for a solid hour that made it so wonderful. There was nothing to do but talk and sing with each other. It was all I ever really wanted and I loved every minute of it.”

Adam nodded and I found myself praying. Praying that my kids would one day get excited about the exact same thing. It’s a pretty incredible feat. Parents who have kids that actually WANT to spend time with them, singing old Christmas songs and laughing with each other. I said my prayer over and over again in that car. Please God, let us be parents of kids who want to spend time with them. Let us raise kids who know the value of family.

It was a really important Christmas moment for me. Forget about all the presents and parties and food and everything else. I remembered how much family means to me and how much I want it to mean to my own. Because that’s what it’s all about, right?

Merry Christmas to all! Enjoy your family time! I sure will.

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other. – Burton Hillis

First Birthday Memories

We celebrated Austin’s first birthday this past weekend, and it was a blast! When I was planning the party, I was preparing to be a sobbing, emotional mess on his big day, but it ended up being just the opposite. I watched in awe as my little boy opened presents, ate cake and played with the other kids.

Just a year ago, I was headed to the hospital, anxious to meet the little boy who had been kicking me for nine months. (He still kicks me, actually.) I can’t believe it has been a year. His birthday party was a success. He ate his smash cake like a champ and was naturally more interested in the wrapping paper than the actual presents, but that’s all to be expected from a 1 year old, of course.

Austin also started to take his first steps a few days ago, and I can’t even contain my excitement. I cheer him on so loudly that he falls, but I know he’ll get used to me yelling. I guess I have been a little emotional – crying when I rock him to sleep at night only happened twice, I swear – but I think that’s normal. My little baby boy is no longer a baby, but a walking, talking, little man. This year has been the fastest and best year of our lives and I can’t wait for more adventures with my family.

This post is truly just a reflection on an amazing year and a prayer for another amazing year. I think that is probably what everyone wishes for this time of year, but with a birthday and Christmas, I feel truly blessed, and I cannot wait to see what 2014 will bring!

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A Visit from Santa! (The Before and After)

I write this post today in two parts: before and after. The main event? A visit from Santa.

Part One (Sunday, 10:34 a.m.):

Today, we’re heading out to a big ol’ family Christmas party. It’s been a family tradition since I was a kid. My dad’s side of the family – at least, whoever’s in town – gets together in a church basement (recently upgraded to a clubhouse; swanky, right?) and we eat, drink and the kids go nuts. (That’s the way I remember it, anyways.)

This party was always a HUGE highlight in our Christmas season. We were extremely lucky growing up because my family lived close to a lot of our extended family. That meant we got to see them often, which meant our cousins were some of our closest friends. Hence, the kids go nuts. We had a huge room to run around in and play in together. It. Was. Awesome.

But, the other reason we used to go extra crazy was because every year, without fail, Santa Claus would come and visit our family Christmas party. I know, right? How special were we? The one and only Santa Claus visited OUR family party? Amazing!!

Some of my earliest memories are of hearing those jingle bells outside the door as Santa approached. They were some of the most exciting moments of my young life. Because it wasn’t just Santa coming. Oh, no. It was even better than that! It was Santa and a bag full of presents he’d brought all the way from the North Pole! And I knew every year, without fail, that one of those presents had my name on it.

However excited I was, it never showed in the pictures. Apparently, when I would finally get my chance to sit on Santa’s lap, I’d clam up immediately. Or I’d cry. Or I’d just be stunned into silence. My mom says that most of the time, the kids just looked like we were going to throw up. Huh. Interesting.

Anyways, as I write this first part of my post, I can’t wait to see how things unfold for my kiddos. Will Noah jump onto Santa’s lap, or will he become this very shy little boy who forgets how to talk? Will Sophia be stunned into silence, or will she cry like a banshee when we set her atop my Uncle Tom’s, I mean, Santa’s lap? Only time will tell.

I’ll get back to you in a few, short hours.

Part Two (Sunday, 8:22 p.m. – in pictures):

Santa arrives… who's more excited? Noah or I?

Santa arrives… who’s more excited? Noah or me?

Noah quickly joined the other kids to great Santa, and pulled up his shirt. Now just where did he learn that greeting???

Noah quickly joined the other kids to greet Santa… and pulled up his shirt. Now just where or who did he learn that from?!

Noah turned to tell me that Santa was here. Pure Joy.

Noah turned to tell me that Santa was here. Pure. Joy.

Sophia, however, was not amused. (She looooved her celery though.)

Sophia, however, was not amused. (She looooved her celery, though.)

 

Noah happily sat on Santa's lap… and proceeded to pick his nose. Nervous tick? Proud mom.

Noah happily sat on Santa’s lap… and proceeded to pick his nose. Awesome.

 

But he was beaming when he gave Santa the coloring page he made him.

But he was beaming when he gave Santa the coloring page he made him.

 

Sophia? Well, there's always next year.

Sophia? Well, there’s always next year.

 

 

 

A Million-and-One Questions for the Abominable Snow Monster

One of the things I’ve learned since having kids is that watching a show with them does not actually mean you’re watching a show with them. What it actually means, at least when it comes to watching a show with my son, is you’re sitting next to them on the couch while a show is on the TV and you’re being barraged with a million-and-one questions about the show but are unable to answer them because you’re not watching the show, you’re being barraged with a million-and-one questions.

Take last night, for example.

We decided it would be fun to watch “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” as a family. Sounds pretty harmless, right? And it should have been… but wasn’t… because someone, apparently, decided what that nice, kid-friendly Christmas movie needed was an abominable snow monster, a giant yeti living in the North Pole who wants to eat Rudolph and his friends. Yes, snow monstervery kid friendly and festive.

I’ll give my son credit that he was more curious about the abominable snow monster than scared, so most of the movie went something like this:

“Where is the abominable snow monster now?”

“He’s in a cave somewhere. Don’t worry about him.”

“Why is he in a cave?”

“I don’t know. He’s tired.”

“Why is he tired?”

“From… growling so much.”

“Why does he growl?”

“I don’t know, Brayden. Let’s just watch the movie, please.”

Silence for a minute.

snow monster 2“Where is the cave the abominable snow monster is in?”

“Somewhere far away.”

“What’s he doing in the cave?”

“Resting.”

“Why does the abominable snow monster need to rest?”

“Brayden!” I started, right as the abominable snow monster actually made an appearance.

“What’s he doing?!”

“He’s just… scaring them a little, but don’t worry, he turns into a good abominable snow monster at the end of the movie.”

“Why?”

“Because. He’s good. He’s just having a bad day.”

“I have bad days sometimes.”

“I know you do, buddy.”

“What’s he doing now? Why can’t he swim?”

“Because abominable snow monsters can’t swim.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Silence. After another 20 minutes or so of this, it was blessedly the end of the movie and I could finally prove to Brayden that the abominable snow monster had turned into a good snow monster and was helpingIMG_4587 decorate Santa’s Christmas tree. Then, though, we no longer saw the abominable snow monster but Santa and his sleigh leaving to deliver presents.

“Where is the abominable snow monster now?”

“He’s back at Santa’s workshop, helping the elves.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s nice now.”

“Why is he nice now?”

“Because he is. Aren’t you watching Santa and the reindeer fly? Isn’t it neat how they fly around the world in one night delivering presents to good boys and girls?”

Brayden was quiet for a minute. I, naively, imagined him to be contemplating this impressive feat and reminding himself that he had to be a good boy if he wanted Santa to visit his house in a few, short weeks.

“But where is the abominable snow monster now?”

And end scene, roll credits, time for bed.

 

 

The Second Annual Christmas Cookie Day Bake-Off

The women in my immediate family would never claim to be bakers. In fact, if someone asked what we enjoyed baking, we’d probably laugh. “Baking?” We’d ask. “That’s making something out of a box, right?”

Truly, bakers we are not. We grew up with birthdays consisting of yellow cake box mix, chocolate frosting and store-bought sugar candies on top… and that was just fine with us.

Then, Pinterest came along. Pinterest and I have a love/hate relationship. I LOVE looking through Pinterest, browsing through amazing, albeit ridiculously impossible, projects for the home or to do with the kids. I’m a dreamer by trade, and Pinterest is a perfect place to do just that.

I hate how much I love you, Pinterest.

I hate how much I love you, Pinterest.

However, I HATE Pinterest because any time I attempt to do projects from the site, they always turn out… poorly. OK. I’ve had a handful of success stories, but out of the 50 projects I’ve tried to complete, that percentage ain’t great.

So, last December, Pinterest came along and my lovely sister Colleen, who was also bit by the Pinterest bug, came up with the idea for a Christmas cookie day bake-off: “Other people do it. Why not us? It will be fun!”

This was the crew that we had accompanying us on our first Cookie Bake.

This was the crew we had accompanying us on our first cookie bake.

I think the phrase, “Other people do it,” should have been our first sign of a problem. Other people do A LOT of things that WE cannot do. Base jumping, hand fishing, professional baseball, just to name a few. That should NEVER be a reason to do something. Other people do it? Great for them.

The other sign should have been: WE DON’T BAKE. But, buffered by the holiday spirit and the Pinterest motto of “You can do it, too!”, my mom, sisters and I decided, what the heck? Let’s try it!

Let me paint you a little picture of our very first Christmas cookie day bake-off. I have to use words to tell you about it because there are no pictures of that ill-fated day. It went, like all my other Pinterest experiences, poorly.

To start off, Jill and I were both pregnant. Jill, nine months, and me, seven. Great idea. Put some swollen, crabby women together to make cookies. Well done.

Secondly, we had the three kids there with us. Yep, as we were attempting to make five different Pinterest cookie projects, we were also wrangling one 2 year old and two 1 year olds. We were complete fools.

Thirdly, and this is the biggest one, we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing. It’s not to say we didn’t go shopping, didn’t have recipes, didn’t have the equipment. We didn’t have much of a plan. AND we thought it wasn’t going to be that difficult.

Focused, Determined and Having Fun.

Focused, determined and having fun

Boy, were we wrong. It was HARD. Really hard. And not that much fun. Mostly, it was a whirlwind of scrambling and bumping into each other and things, and keeping the kids out of trouble and out of the way.

That’s why I was so surprised and impressed by my mom and sisters (mostly Colleen – she was the cheerleader for this event; I guess her memory really stinks), when we decided to try it again this year.

The Merry Crew :)

The merry crew :)

I am happy to report that it went much, much better. We had a bigger kitchen, no one was nine months pregnant, there were no kids invited, and we had a plan of attack. We came in ready to work, and we got results. We also had a really nice time with one another.

To all those who have done this Christmas cookie day bake-off for years and years, kudos! It sure isn’t easy.

So, we finished the afternoon with six different cookies and smiling faces. We had a variety, we were efficient, and we worked together.

The one thing we didn’t do was check to make sure the cookies were, in fact, edible.

The jury’s still out on that one.

Therefore, if you get cookies from any of us, eat with caution. But know they were made with love.

Holiday Breaks are for Parents, Too!

Like almost everyone I know, I have always loved when November arrives and the holiday season whips into full swing.

I love the Christmas lights, I love the good food, I love the family get-togethers, I love the movies, and I love doing special things with my kids.

Holiday time is absolutely wonderful. It’s wonderful, but, boy, does it do a number on your parenting successes and your children’s behavior.IMG_9981

I don’t know if it’s because of the large get-togethers with a bunch of other kids, if it’s the food and (especially) the desserts, if it’s the lack of sleep, or if it’s the overall excitement in the air.

I do know, however, that from the month of November (well, the end of October to be honest) to the beginning of January, all bets are off.

Let’s put it this way: If someone were to ask me how well I know my kids and if I could predict their behavior, I’d respond with “Which months are we talking here?”

It’s not that everything goes to you-know-what. It’s more like everything’s just a little off.

My kids can go from as happy as can be to completely miserable in the blink of an eye. They are often overtired, which never ends well. They can also sometimes be overexcited, which usually ends in injury. The large groups of people can be a little intimidating, which can lead to tears or just impoliteness. We’re in new houses with new toys and new friendships, and with that comes new fights and difficulty sharing. Our good eating (if you can call it that…) goes out the window and why shouldn’t it? I certainly don’t need to eat five Christmas cookies in one night, but I do because they’re delicious. And don’t even get me started on potty training. I’m actually really glad Noah’s still in a diaper… it’s one less thing to worry about.

IMG_9892I guess the point is, if all bets are off over the holidays it’s better to just enjoy it and let go of all those parenting guidelines until January. Now, my kids are only 2 years old and 9 months old, so you can’t hold me to this parenting strategy. I’m not sure about any long-term effects.

I do know, however, that my holidays will be a whole lot more enjoyable if I loosen the reigns (pun intended… think Santa and reindeer) a bit and let a few things slide. The kids will have fewer fits and tears this way and, if I’m not trying to sit on them all day long and just go with the flow, I’ll have a better time, too.

So, as it is a holiday, I will take a little break. I will try to hold off on the time-outs unless really necessary, I will let my kids have a few more treats than usual, I will be flexible with their schedules so we can fit in more fun things, and I will definitely NOT push potty training. That’s what January is for, right? It will be my New Year’s resolution.

I just hope that it won’t take me the whole year to resolve it…