I go overboard on birthdays. Like, way overboard. The traditions I’ve incorporated into our celebrations over the years can sometimes seem almost impossible to pull off. For example there are the chocolate chip pancakes served for the birthday breakfast, followed by the opening of gifts. This happens no matter if its a school day or not. There is always a special treat prepared for the birthday child’s classmates in addition to the Mama made birthday cake  served after dinner. If the birthday is on a school day I’ll always incorporate some sort of fun (and too often costly) activity into the afternoon. This would all be fine, but the expectations don’t stop there.

On the weekend of the birthday there may be a sleepover party or some additional celebration involving school friends. This will include a second cake or cupcakes as well as favors, entertainment and a meal for the guests. For those who have lost count that’s a minimum of four baked treats for the birthday child to enjoy.

I have done fairy parties complete with fairy costumes, crowns and wands, indoor campout sleepovers with tabletop smores, and art and craft parties on rainy days. I have hired a magician, dressed up like Elsa and spent inordinate sums of money on party room rentals at the Zoo, the local community pool, trampoline park and various gymnastics studios to name a few.

I love my kids. This should be obvious, and I guess I feel the need to prove it to them through this excess. I want them to feel as loved and treasured as they are on their special day, so I go overboard. This isn’t a justification. It’s a plea.

The negative effects of all this over indulgence are all too real. I notice it most starkly on the day of the celebration, but it lingers long after. My kids are spoiled. They have no concept of how lavish their parties have become. Their sense of gratitude is stunted even though I force distracted “thank you’s” from birthday boys and girls near crazed with excitement and high on sugar.

I long for the baby years. To witness once more their unmitigated delight as they open their little gifts. Or their wide eyed, open mouthed wonder when they are presented with their first birthday cake, candles ablaze.

I love my kids, so I am going to fix this. I am getting off this crazy train and I’m not looking back. It will be hard at first. Perhaps it will be doubly so since I am obviously not the only mother caught up in this cycle of expectation and ingratitude. Every week a new invite appears in my inbox. Another Mom is making her best effort, shelling out way too much dough. Because apparently this is what we do now.

I don’t need to go back to the drawing board. I’ve adopted some lovely rituals that I know the kids treasure dearly. I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at cake decorating because when I presented my oldest with his cake this year, in the cardboard cake box I had used to transport it, I heard the hurt in his voice when he asked “a store bought cake?” And truly, I love making those cakes. I love making the just perfect one for the person they are in this fleeting moment.  Creating it is a way to quietly consider (usually at 2am on the birthday eve) the person they are becoming and the child they are leaving behind.

My younger kids wear their birthday crown and rainbow cape at the breakfast table. Sometimes the birthday chair is lit up with twinkle lights. The big kids still allow me to decorate their birthday chair with a Balloon bouquet. There is a special, if slightly tattered banner that hangs over the table and always a jar of blooms set out next to the gifts.  I hope someday they fight over that banner and cape.

I actually love our pancake tradition, but perhaps on school days the birthday child could wait until after school to open her gifts. Or maybe she could be permitted to choose just one from the pile. Gift opening really isn’t something to be rushed anyway.

I would like their birthdays to feel like the ones I remember from my childhood. I remember warm family gatherings with grandparents, lots of photographs, and a few thoughtfully chosen presents. Since I am an August birthday I had a couple of special ones while we were on summer vacation. I remember one “cake” made of marshmallows and foreign candies, arranged in a baking dish with candles stuck in.  In the pictures I am wearing my favorite cat nightgown and my cheeks are a little sunburned. I set my hair on fire that year.

Of course I did have my special tenth birthday “disco”! It was like a dream. All my friends and cousins were invited and there was even a DJ. Mum made a Michael Jackson cake and I wore a deep blue dress with a big pink bow. I felt like a star.

As far as I could tell everyone had a blast. There were no complaints about the flavor of the cake, or the choice of music and games. Nobody commented that the knick knacks in their favor bags were lame. In fact, I’m almost certain their were no favor bags. And nobody complained about that either. We kids were genuinely grateful for our afternoon at the “disco” and I had no expectation that it would happen again ever.

Very soon Little Bear will turn four. I have not booked the party room at the Zoo even though it was my first impulse. Nor have I committed myself to hosting a backyard extravaganza for thirty or so kids and their parents. It will be a bit of a challenge, but it is time to focus on our more meaningful traditions.  Less outrageous, but just as rooted in the desire to make the birthday child feel as precious as we all deserve to feel on our birthday.




So This is Me



It’s been a good week. A lot of work is complete, check boxes ticked. Four kids are happy and healthy. I’m spending the weekend with my Mom helping her “slow move” into her new lake house.
But not every week is this good.

I have a good idea of where I want this blog to go, of the adventures I am excited to share. I hope most of my posts will be positive, uplifting. Perhaps I will inspire others to try new recipes or DIY projects. Maybe I can offer my experience to a younger mother on her trying day. I would love to make meaningful, lasting connections in this space. I hope, soon, to inspire with photographs. But today is different. You see, it would be dishonest of me if I did not share this part of myself with you.

Yesterday I had an encouraging visit with a new therapist, and on the tail end of my good week this post truly comes to you from a place of hope. I live, and I choose my words deliberately here, with anxiety and panic disorder. I say “live” because I work very hard to make sure that this disorder does not stop me from truly living. I felt my first flash of this demon mere days after my first son was born. Okay, no big deal, I decided. What new mother doesn’t check the bassinet a few too many times before bed? What new mother doesn’t suddenly feel, too acutely, her own mortality? It seemed pretty normal and I accepted it. Over the years it waned, but it would return after each pregnancy stronger than before. Now, fourteen years after my first experience walking into the doctor’s office, wobbly kneed, tiny baby in arms, begging for reassurance, for the guarantee of safety he couldn’t provide, it has morphed into panic disorder with a touch of OCD.

I write this post today partly in the hope that someone out there will read it and feel less alone. The statistics tell us that one in ten people struggle with some form of anxiety disorder. On my bad days I find this impossible to believe. Are there other moms in the school pickup line fighting back panic, smiling despite desperate fear? Could the pretty and confident Whole Foods cashier, or the nurse attending to my sick child also be living with this?

There you have it. My life is beautiful and I experience so much joy. People tell me that I am “laid back”. You wouldn’t know it to meet me on the street, but I have raging, debilitating bouts of panic that can sometimes block out that joy.

I used to hide it. For years I excused myself from get togethers and I would often feign illness. I even turned down a free trip to Singapore. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I felt weak and I squelched it down, shut it up until finally I couldn’t anymore. When I eventually opened up and shared my story, asked for help, read, learned, and began the work of recovery I realized something important. Something I want to share with you especially if you are a fellow panic sufferer. If you have anxiety or panic disorder you are far from weak. You are brave. You may, in fact, be one of the bravest people you’ve ever met. You get up every day knowing you are likely to experience intense fear. It’s the kind of fear most people will only experience a handful of times. Perhaps in the moments before a car accident or in the midst of a heart attack. People liken the sensations to those you might experience were you being chased down by a bear. The fear may be sustained or repeated throughout your day. You do it anyway. You face it down and you push through. Maybe you can only make it as far as your own front yard, but still, you do it every day. Even the impossible ones.

Not everyone has been understanding. I have had doctors treat me with disdain when I have gone to them with my fears. As if I wished to waste their time. As if I haven’t  yearned every day to stop the the obsessive thoughts. As if it was within my power to slow my heart, dry my palms, still my mind. I know now that I looked to them for tools and knowledge that they didn’t possess. Anxiety is often misunderstood even by those we go to for help.

People though are mostly good. I believe this completely. They won’t always know how, but they want to help. When you are direct about what you need people will show up.

My family seem mostly bewildered, but they are compassionate. On good days (and there are many) we laugh about it all. My sister jokes about “The Great Panic Attack of 2012”. The kids were dressed beautifully. The girls wore sparkly tutus and fall sweaters with little fox hats and tights to match. The boys were smartly dressed, and I was dashing around preparing  the pies and cranberry sauce we would contribute to the Thanksgiving feast. Expectations were set, plans made. In my world this means a panic attack is all but inevitable.

This particular panic started with some pain in my left arm. Most people I imagine would barely have noticed it, but in a flash my mind latched on to a sliver of a thought, a tiny what if? And BOOM we were off. With adrenaline released my heart rate exploded to around 170 beats per minute, my entire body was soaked with sweat and with my pupils dilated the world seemed harsh and unreal. The air felt thick and breathing seemed difficult. I just couldn’t get a deep breath. I shook violently, my poor mind racing, trying in vain to identify the threat. Outside of me the world looked far away, dreamlike. The terrifying sensation of derealization was setting in. My stomach lurched as I endured waves of nausea. I fought to maintain balance, afraid I might pass out.

At the hospital I could barely tell them what was wrong. “I’m afraid I’m having a heart attack” I explained. They wanted specifics. As always, I was upfront about my panic disorder. They wanted to know how this felt different. I had no answers. This is the nature of panic. Nothing is wrong, but everything feels wrong.

Hours later, discharge papers in hand, I felt embarrassed, guilty until I learned that my kids enjoyed their hodge podge Thanksgiving immensely, and were cuddled together on my sister’s couch watching a movie. A plate of food was warmed for me and, while I knew it wasn’t over, with the adrenaline spent I found relief for a few hours.

It doesn’t always play out like this. The sensations vary enough to add more confusion, more doubt to the experience. A handful of times I have sought out medical help. Mostly though I am able to ride it out at home.

It’s been a long journey, and I have learned a great deal along the way. I have made steady progress on my own, but after a difficult experience last month I have decided to enlist the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety and panic disorders. I had my first visit with her on Friday and I am excited! She employs the cognitive behavioral therapy method which is proven to significantly reduce or cure anxiety in the great majority of cases. Apparently my mind and body are going to duke this thing out once and for all. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.

I highly recommend anything by Dr. Claire Weekes. If you are struggling her words will bring immediate clarity.

The DARE Method taught by Barry McDonough has also been immensely helpful.

Little Bear


When you’re pregnant, to say you dream about your baby is an understatement. You practically live in your imagination. Who will he be? Who will he grow to be? You try to imagine what he will look like, wondering at the possibilities. I have looked upon the faces of my newborns with curiosity and surprise, wonder and delight, complete adoration. But with Little Bear there was recognition, a deep sense of belonging, like we had met before. I looked down into his little swollen face and I thought of course, of course this is what he looks like. There is one picture of this moment. The rest were taken hours later, when the visitors arrived and the mess was cleaned up. Unprepared, we had only one camera phone and we’d left the charger in the car. I treasure this photo, our introduction, Little Bear and me.

We toyed with the idea of putting him into preschool this time last year. He would be three. His siblings had all started preschool at this age, we reasoned, but we knew. “He’s not ready,” I said. They had all marched confidently into their new classrooms, eager, excited. I worried he’d be anxious, that we’d have issues with separation, that he may actually be the kid who wouldn’t stop crying. Anyways, he wasn’t potty trained. And then there was his speech. Maybe it was time to look into that. It wouldn’t do him any harm to stay home for another year.

I was right. We dealt with the separation anxiety gradually, pushing gently. We enrolled him in a preschool prep program for kids with developmental delays. We discovered he was a little behind with his gross motor skills as well as his speech and began taking him to therapy once a week. At first it was hard. I’d sit for hours in the waiting room when I could have left. He would never have known. But I’d said I would wait. And this kid knows, on the deepest level, that I won’t let him down. Every single day that responsibility terrifies me. I tell my husband ‘if anything ever happens to me, you tell him, you make sure he knows how much…’ and I can’t quite say it. He laughs, but promises he will.

We spent the year playing and working. There were hours upon hours of open gym time and art classes, park time and gymnastics. I set up our house to be more Montessori friendly and encouraged birthday and Christmas gifts that would help him catch up to his peers. I filled our house with physical therapy props, I stooped over behind him, physically placing his feet on the correct stairs in the grocery store, at Granny’s house. ‘Step here first buddy, then the other foot here”. I waited, I rephrased, I engaged, and soon the words came, and then the confidence. We don’t have it all quite right yet of course, but he is ready.

Granny bought him a little lunchbox with a hedgehog and a water bottle to match. I chose his new school clothes online and we tried them all on when the package arrived. Star pants and rocket ship t shirts. and pumpkin pajamas. Because its just never too early for fall guys, it’s just not. We packed his little shoe box, a few extra outfits in case of accidents, a hand towel, a napkin, and a little turtle napkin ring. He attended orientation with his big sister by his side, and he hugged his new teachers. Yes, he is ready.

I don’t know if he is my last, but he might be. I have had a child in diapers for the better part of fourteen years. I had my first child when I was still trying to figure out my own identity, and I became the best mother I could be when I fully embraced motherhood as that identity. The thing is, I love this. Like, really. I can’t imagine that there is anything that comes after this that can even touch it. People talk to me about this being my “time for me.” I buy books encouraging me to set goals for myself, but hold on a minute. Maybe I just want to sit here in this space, to feel it all slipping away, acknowledge the loss. I will hand him over to his new teachers tomorrow with a smile, a kiss and some encouraging words knowing I will get into my car and sob uncontrollably. And yes, I know it’s only preschool, but I’m not ready.