On my long drive to school this morning, I spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead as I crossed Jordan Lake. My emotions were already running high, and somehow the sighting seemed so significant—I wasn't sure exactly how—that I started to cry. And then I cried for the remaining 20 minutes of the drive.
Today marked many lasts for us: the girls' last day of preschool for the year, Cricket's last day of preschool forever, and our last day at the preschool we've been attending for three years. (Nora will move to a school closer to our new house in the fall.) If the percentage of mothers sobbing while hugging their teachers goodbye is an indicator of quality of experience at a school, I'd say our school couldn't be better. We were batting 100% this afternoon.
It wasn't until hours later when I told a friend about the eagle that I understood its significance; the last bald eagle I had seen was flying over the lake as we drove across it was on the first day of school last fall. On that day, I was about 9 weeks pregnant with Piper and had no idea how I was going to manage to get the girls to school each day and walk them in without passing out or throwing up in front of everyone. (My pregnancies were all fun like that.) There were so many days when just standing up was a challenge, both from nausea and a lovely condition called pelvic girdle pain that sent shooting pain through unmentionable places every time I shifted positions for the last half of the pregnancy.
But I knew that if I could just get the girls to the doors of their classrooms, their amazing teachers would give them all the energy and attention and patience that I couldn't muster. And you know what? I got them there just about every day. And those teachers made the year incredible, magical even. The physical, emotional and intellectual growth we've watched in Cricket and Nora this year has astounded us. And even more importantly in preschool, those teachers loved our girls, and all their students, to bits.
To be honest, I just enrolled the girls at our school because it was close to our old house, one neighbor said she liked it and I had a good feeling when I visited. I had no idea that it would become our community, our people, over the next three years. Saying goodbye today was painful. But seeing that soaring eagle once again on this day of all days gave me the sense that the family we found over the years at our school was more than just luck; it feels a whole lot like fate.
In a few months, we'll move past these "lasts" to a slew of "firsts." First day of kindergarten. First day at a new preschool. And on and on. But boy have these last three years set us up for the adventures ahead. And boy have they been grand.
The girls and I were standing at the front windows yesterday morning watching Jeff try to pull the car out of our steep driveway for the first time since it snowed/iced. I bet he wouldn't make it and would spend another day working from home.
During his second attempt, Cricket held something up to me and said, "Mom, look!"
She had lost her first tooth. And I had a sudden panic. These last five years—these last arduous, sometimes slow-as-molasses five years—had somehow passed too quickly; she may as well have been holding out a college acceptance letter, packing her bags and hopping a plane to her future. It felt like a kick to the stomach.
The look on her face was proud, confused and a little overwhelmed, so I knew I better hold it together for her. After some exclaiming and some confusion over why Nora didn't also have a loose tooth (they still don't really accept that they're not actually twins), we turned back to the window to see that Jeff had made it to the top of the driveway on his third attempt.
The girls were so surprised they started to cry. "We don't want Daddy to go to the office!"
He came inside to say goodbye, but I knew they had him firmly in their grasp between the tears and the lost tooth. Of course he would work from home for one more day.
Jeff went upstairs to work, and we made it through another snow day morning: playtime in the tub, coloring, nail polish, batch #539 of cookies. Then I set them up with a movie and had a good, long cry in the shower. Maybe I wouldn't have been so sentimental if I weren't pregnant, but still. How could it be? There has been so much time I've wished away over the last five years: ear infections (probably 30-40 by now?) and allergic reactions, temper tantrums and a lot of missing my traveling consultant husband. Oh, and vomit. So much vomit. More mine than theirs, because pregnancy and I just don't get along.
But now I was regretting wishing any of it away. Sure it's unrealistic that anyone would savor those especially difficult parenting moments, but I'm finally beginning to understand why all those older ladies stop you in the grocery store to admire your children and say, "Enjoy them while they're young! It goes by too fast." They know something.
That tiny little tooth—hard earned by so many sleepless nights—had my head spinning. All I could think about was how soon the girls' mouths would be filled with adult teeth. That they would both leave home for college within a year of each other. That time had to slow down, or...or...or...
And then something caught my eye: my big, bordering on enormous, belly. And instead of feeling the usual nausea, heartburn and anxiety over how I'll handle three kids when I can't even handle two, I felt relief. We get another shot! Yes, we'll probably make most of the same mistakes this time and wish away more moments than we should, but maybe we'll savor a few more of them this time around too. We've gained a little old lady wisdom for ourselves by now.
Somehow this line of thought made it feel like I just might be able to accept that Cricket is of tooth-losing age, with Nora hot on her heels, and it's okay. Not only okay, but exciting. I just never realized as a kid how many tears were probably hiding behind my parents' smiles with every milestone my sisters and I hit along the way.
After pulling myself together and eating almost all of cookie batch #539, we went outside to take some celebratory photos before the 60-degree sunshine melted the rest of the snow. No matter how fast they grow and change, may these girls always remain thick and thieves. And may this new little one only add to the strength of their posse.
Check out my Instagram @jsoplop for more snow day photos.
I'm posting these photos today because I believe new life means hope for the future—hope for the individuals who are lucky enough to welcome that little life and learn from it, and for all of us as a whole.
The world seems to be falling apart around us lately (but isn't it always?). As we give thanks today, refugees are streaming from their homes in fear. Many families are burying loved ones taken by senseless violence. And my family is trying to recover from a significant loss of our own.
Even so, my heart is grateful. At the top of my mind right now are our incredible teachers, who are helping to shape our children into the strong, creative and giving people we want them to be; our medical providers, whose expertise and counsel have pulled us all through a tough and tearful month; and our little boy or girl, who is halfway cooked and will, if all goes well, be joining us in March or April. I am acutely aware of how lucky we are.
As I watch my friends and family, whether they have little ones crawling or solving algebra equations or who are still just a dream in their parents' hearts, I see the next generation springing up around me and boy does it look hopeful. We can all be grateful that perhaps, thanks to these little loves, the future will be more peaceful than the present. (Although my kids are beating each other up as I write, so maybe I have it all wrong. Sigh.)
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
When a loved one is born or dies, it feels as though the world should stop spinning and take notice. But there is also something comforting in the fact that it does not—that an infant immediately becomes incorporated into the world's rotation, and that those of us left behind after a loss are forced to stay in motion, too.
My grandma, Ruth Leslie Bean, passed away peacefully May 23 at 93 years old. (Surely Grandpa was waiting with open arms for his bride of 71 years.) Somehow, the world did not stop spinning as Grandma left it, but I would love for you to take notice just the same. As many people have commented, she was one of the "greatest of the Greatest Generation."
She was glamour, grace, selflessness and strength embodied. She was a mover and a shaker—a true and natural leader. She was daring. She was a devoted wife, mother of six, grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of 27. And she was my hero.
Grandma believed that "to whom much is given, much is expected," and she practiced this belief every day of her life, leaving behind a legacy of philanthropy, improved communities and the enormous family she loved so fiercely. I promise her accomplishments, described here in her obituary, will astound and inspire you. (It even turned out that 30 years ago she helped found Avow Hospice in Naples, which assisted in her end-of-life care. What goes around really does come around.)
My grandparents were avid supporters of education for their children and grandchildren, as well as for those less fortunate in the community. Their influence on my life could never be boiled down to a few sentences, but it is easy to point to their support of my education at Blake, Swiss Semester and Duke as a game-changer. I'm not sure who or where I would be without the experiences and friendships I found at such amazing schools.
Something that has helped me a great deal over the last few weeks is the idea that so many of my friends' and acquaintances' lives have been touched by my grandma, even if they never met her.
Whether you are affiliated with The Blake School or Northrop Collegiate School (she was the first female chair of the board of trustees), have sought or provided treatment at Minneapolis Children's Hospital (which she co-founded), or just lived any amount of time in Minneapolis, her life has likely touched yours in some way. Her reach was wide, and her devotion to leaving the world a better place was unending.
Perhaps she even buzzed over your head one day as she piloted one of the several planes she was licensed to fly. Or maybe, at age 85, she sped past you in her red convertible and made you smile to see someone so far along in life still enjoying every minute of it, and fashionably so.
Rest in peace, Grandma. Thank you for showing us how to change the world.
(My grandparents' lives fascinate and inspire me, and I've written about them here several times: On motherhood, Grandma knows best; Farewell, beloved Leica collection; Grandma still knows best; Saying goodbye to Grandpa and Reflections on our Florida visit. You can expect to see more essays about them in the future.)
Photo above: My grandpa, John B. Bean, took this picture in 1958 of his wife, the "most beautiful woman he had ever seen." Below: My grandparents on their wedding day. Photographer unknown.
I’ve had a hard time pulling together this post. Two months ago, we spent a week in the Naples/Fort Myers area of Florida. It was a poignant trip on several accounts: we celebrated Jeff's grandmother's 85th birthday with his entire family and also got a chance to visit with and say our final farewell to my grandmother, who will be leaving us very soon.
The birthday celebration for Jeff’s grandmother in Fort Myers was a happy occasion. She is a warm presence in our lives, and to watch her take advantage of these later years and derive such joy from her ever-growing family inspires us.
I look at his grandmother and think these things: without her, my caring mother-in-law would not exist, and without my mother-in-law, my incredible husband would not exist, and without my husband, my beautiful daughters would not exist. I’ve only known this woman for seven years, and yet she has profoundly influenced my life; without her living just as she did, my little family would not exist. This idea leaves my head spinning with gratitude for her.
Below: Growing up, my family made an annual spring break pilgrimage to this Naples beach to visit my grandparents and soak up the sun. If you've lived in a Minnesota-like climate, you know how precious such a trip is in the middle of the long, long winter. It was surreal to watch my girls play here, right in front of my grandparents' home of 30 years.
The memories of my final visits to my grandma in Naples are bittersweet. They stick in my throat, and I'm having trouble finding the words to make sense of them. Here is what I have parsed out so far:
It is a strange thing—watching someone you love slowly recede into dementia until she is all but gone, though still alive. As I write this, it has been more than a week since Grandma has eaten and her breathing is changing. I am waiting for the call from my mom that she has gone. I imagine my grandpa up there waiting impatiently for her (this impatience is one of several things I inherited from him). "Come on, Ruthie," I can almost hear him say. "You're late!" After 71 years of marriage, a year apart is far too long.
I remember, as a child in school, being asked to name my hero. It was always Grandma. But it occurred to me as I sat with her that perhaps I had never told her. So I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You've always been my hero, Grandma." She smiled and whispered an enthusiastic, "Thank you!" as she fell asleep. I hope somehow, for even the briefest of moments, those words sunk in.
The girls and Jeff came with me to visit Grandma three times. We were fortunate to catch some of the last glimpses of her—a moment here, a few seconds or minutes there. She was the most lucid at our last visit as a family. How she loved to see the girls play by her bedside in their bright, retro swimsuits! Nora was talking non-stop, and Grandma laughed and said, “I’m just trying to decipher her version of the English language.” I think it was the only full sentence I heard her put together during our visits, and it was so Grandma.
Our trip overlapped with an aunt and cousin to whom I am very close. On my last visit to Grandma, I picked up my cousin and we met my aunt at Grandma's place. When Grandma fell asleep, we took a walk together. We cried and hugged and laughed. We remembered. And we talked about the future. How surreal to think that Grandma has been such a monumental part of our past but will not physically be a part of our future.
I want to share more with you about this wonderful person, Ruth Leslie Bean, but it’s too hard right now. I’m waiting by the phone. I’m praying. And I’m feeling grateful that my daughters have had the good fortune to know three of their great-grandmothers.
Below: Thanks to Bridget for taking this photo of Grandma and me. I will treasure it.
Below: Porpoise just south of Doctors Pass. I wonder how many of them we've seen at this very spot over the years.
Below: Grandma enjoyed watching the girls walk by her window on the way to this pond in search of turtles and alligators.
Below; Grandma's neighbor, who provided the girls with endless entertainment.
Below: The girls were quite taken with shell collecting.
Below: Cricket decked out for a birthday celebration.
Below: Sunset on final approach. I've been looking at this photo a lot these days.
My, my it was another busy year. I'm tired just thinking about it. But I'm also proud of Calm Cradle's growth and looking forward to all the projects and adventures to come in 2014.
2013: A year in review
Personal: I began 2013 with a newly minted 2-year-old and an 8-month-old...and I'm still alive and standing! Watching the girls grow into a preschooler and a toddler this year has been amazing, mind-boggling and exhausting. One friend who also has kids 17 months apart told me that during the early years, every day brought the "highest highs and the lowest lows." I second that. Last year was indeed filled with ups and downs, but we've come out the other end with two little girls who love to play together (before the playing turns into tackling, hair-pulling and crying), jump off anything they can find to climb, work busily on art projects and explore the outdoors. Their increased independence and fewer completely sleepless nights (thank you, ear tubes x four) left me more time to create, photograph and write than I've been able to do in the last few years. It felt good to develop ideas and then actually be able to follow through on them—with many interruptions and on a different timeline than I might have imagined several years ago. But still.
Travel: We took 10 family trips this year, which I documented in Adventures. (Most of them were working trips for Jeff, and I don't even want to tally up all his additional business travel or I might cry). Our family trips included: Blue Ridge Mountains (here and here), Orlando (here, here and here), Charlottesville, DC, Denver, Boulder/Summit County, Naples, Outer Banks (here, here and here), Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Asheville. We've flown so much with the girls I decided to offer up some tips on flying with young kids, too. Travel with kids is tiring, but we can't help ourselves. Exploring the world around us is a major part of who we are, and we want to instill that value in our kids. Plus we get bored if we stay home too long.
Photography: After years in the making, I officially launched Calm Cradle's children's photography division this fall. I also began migrating my nature photography shop to Society6. And, of course, I took an overwhelming number of photos of our family.
Writing: I wrote a novel! No biggie. I also wrote nearly 70 blog posts. (I bill myself more as a photographer on this website, but really I've always considered myself a writer first and photographer second.)
Design: This year was busy on the design front. I rebranded, redesigned my website (and just updated "Popular posts" on the right-hand sidebar), learned how to design fabric patterns (here, here and here) and created my sister's wedding invitation package, which I'll share with you soon.
2014: A look ahead
Personal: Perhaps my most important goal for the new year is to continually re-balance—and give myself a break when things don't go the way I planned. More than three years as a parent has taught me that "finding balance" is a constant process. Kids, routines and the rest of life change on a dime, so finding balance means constant readjustment. I'm a creature of habit, so this realization has been a difficult one. Instead of setting my expectations for tomorrow based on today, I need to accept that flexibility and shifting expectations is not only okay but necessary to survive and enjoy the next few decades of family life.
As part of that flexibility, another goal is to focus more on my girls when I am with them. I remember seeing moms at the park spend more time playing on their phones than engaging with their kids. I vowed I would never be that kind of mom. And now I'm glued to my phone, for no good reason other than being addicted to it. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge believer in free play and letting the kids entertain themselves, but I fear that I'm too distracted these days.
I haven't come up with any brilliant strategies to accomplish these goals and am looking for suggestions. How do you re-balance and manage your distractions to live in the moment?
Travel: We have a two big trips coming up early in the year and then will probably make our usual family visits, plus one or two extras. Our family travel felt a bit excessive last year, so this year we plan to be more deliberate about trip planning. For example, we used to plan back-to-back trips. Over the last few years, we've learned that travel disrupts family life quite a bit (time changes, plane-contracted illness and getting out of the routine are all rough on kids). So we'll try to build in more down time between trips to re-charge.
Photography: I'm in no rush to grow my children's photography aspect of my business too quickly, since I'm still a full-time mom. I plan to offer mini sessions in the spring (April/May) and fall (October/November) and take full sessions as I can fit them in. As always, I'll continue to build my nature photography portfolio and migrate that work to my Society6 shop, as well as document our daily adventures as a family. I'd also like to build a larger following on Instagram. Any suggestions on how to do that?
Writing: At some point, I'll pick the novel back up, do a serious read-through and define a strategy to tackle the next draft. But I'm not sure when that will happen. Working at the NanoWriMo pace was not sustainable given our other commitments, so I need to figure out how to move forward in a more manageable way. I'd also like to write a few more informal essays this year.
Design: I plan to continue to learn new design skills, software and sewing techniques. (My sewing goals are embarrassingly basic: learn how to choose the right stitch for a project and sew a straight line). I'm also considering adding a dedicated design category to the blog.
Business: When I have a good week—defined by these things: the girls are healthy, happy and independent; Jeff is in town and available to help with wake-up and bedtime routines and I feel a sense of accomplishment with Calm Cradle—I become overly ambitious. I plan to take huge steps forward with my blog and business. I think I can squeeze more and more projects into my day. And then, inevitably, the next day or the next week, the kids get sick and swear off sleep, my husband hops a plane for a business trip and I get crabby and stressed and fall behind on everything I had planned. I lose confidence and momentum. So my most significant business goal for the year is to go with the flow. If advertisers approach me, I'll consider them for the blog. If the children's photography aspect continues to pick up, I'll consider stepping back a bit from blogging to focus on portraits. And if things get too crazy with family life to make much progress on either front this year, then there's always next year, right?
This week Calm Cradle Photo & Design turns 2 years old. It continues to amaze me that people out there are interested in hearing what I have to say, seeing how I view the world through photography and even hiring me to document a part of their own lives. Thank you for playing a role in this grand adventure. I look forward to spending 2014 with you!
I wrote a novel this month—or a rushed, fragmented, type-every-thought-that-comes-to-mind first draft of a novel. It's not in good enough shape to share with anyone yet (if something happens to me before I get to write the second draft, please burn it STAT). But I did it. Here are a few reflections on participating in NaNoWriMo.
The month went something like this:
I kid you not, everyone in my family fell ill on November 1, and we alternated or overlapped viruses until the day I finished on November 26. And then miraculously that night, everyone became healthy and began to sleep again.
Once I let go of my tendencies as a planner and perfectionist, the writing itself came easily. It was freeing not to be constantly trying to make a thousand decisions about tense and voice and style and pacing. The goal for this month was to write. Furiously. So I made a few choices right off that bat and stuck with them until the end.
The toughest aspect turned out to be finding the time to write. I was cranky and stressed until I got at least four or five hundred words down each day, then I felt a little less cranky. (I knew that if I got behind on my word count I'd lose motivation to finish.) By the time I completed a decent word count of around 2,000 words each day, I was exhausted—and even crankier.
I broke the goal of 50,000 words on November 21, but the story was nowhere near finished. I thought I would spend the next week frantically trying to tie up the story, but boy did my enthusiasm wane. That week, we hosted Cricket's birthday party and Thanksgiving and I sent my sister's wedding invitation package to the printers. All I wanted to think about was buying Christmas gifts and mailing holiday cards! I officially called it on November 26, having written 60,107 words during the month for a total of nearly 90,000 over the last few years.
The finale was a bit anticlimactic since we jumped into Thanksgiving preparations the next day. But I'll admit: I'm proud of myself. Sure I took shortcuts on keeping the family going, consumed too much sugar and caffeine and let Cricket watch too much TV, but we'll recover from all that. The important thing is I've more or less got a draft of a novel in hand. A novel!
I am grateful to my husband for taking the girls out for little adventures on the weekends, so I could steal a few extra hours to write. He also encouraged me to keep going every time I told him that maybe this was a silly, worthless project. He has faith that I have a story worth turning into a book, even when I'm wavering. I am grateful to my girls for loving me through all my many creative distractions, this month and all the others. And I am grateful to all the rest of my friends and family for cheering me on. (My mom would send me emails that ended with: "P.S. Why are you reading this email? You should be writing!")
Would I participate in NaNoWriMo again?
Yes and no. With my commitment to my young kids and Calm Cradle, November was grueling. I felt continuous guilt over sneaking in writing time at the expense of spending time with to the girls, and with so little sleep on top of so little sleep, adding an intensive writing project to our life was challenging. That said, this intensive exercise fit my personality well. I've also been brewing this story for four years, so I had a lot of pent-up ideas ready to hit the page when it was go time.
Although I don't envision participating again in the next couple years, if I finish this project and have another story idea in the future, when sleep is more predictable and the girls are in school, I would absolutely consider participating again.
Advice on joining NaNoWriMo
Announce to your family and friends that you are participating in NaNoWriMo for three reasons: you need their support, they need to know why you're ignoring them and it will keep you accountable. I wrote a post here announcing my goal, then posted word count updates on Facebook along the way. I didn't want to have to slink away after telling everyone I'd write 50,000 by the end of November, so I had to keep writing.
Write as much as you can the first weekend, then try to write something each day. My sister gave me the great advice to jam the first few days to get ahead and boost my confidence. It worked. Even if you can't make your word count goal each day, don't get out of the habit of writing or you'll quickly lose momentum.
Develop a game plan, then adjust to reality: My schedule is unpredictable, because it revolves around when my girls are napping, entertaining themselves and sleeping at night. Some days, none of those things happen. Other days, some of those things happen. (They never all happen in one day, right?) So it was difficult to have a strict writing regime. Throughout the month, I realized that if I could find a few minutes here and there throughout the morning and get four- to six-hundred words down before nap time, I'd be in the writing mindset and have my daily word count goal in sight when Nora went down for a short nap. You can write a lot in 45 minutes if you know it's the only time the house will be quiet all day. I also wrote in the evenings if I needed to finish up, but ideally I'd have my word count done by then so I could spend some time catching up on the more menial tasks I had on my plate that day.
Remind yourself every 20 seconds that if you stick to your guns, you'll write the draft of a novel in just one month. Squeezing in time to write a few thousand extra words each day on top of your regular life is tough. But it's concentrated. You'll be flipping the calendar in just 30 days, so let the laundry pile up, don't even consider vacuuming the house and make the kids entertain themselves.
We have a celebratory dinner date planned for this week, and you better believe there will be champagne. Buckets full. Maybe next year you'll be celebrating, too?
Above: A ranch nestled between the Gore Range and the Blue River in Summit County, Colorado. As of now, the story ends right around here.
I am grateful. In fact, I am grateful for so many things this year I don't even know where to begin. So I started out by reading my Thanksgiving post from last year and realized that, despite all the changes this year has brought, the things for which I am grateful are pretty much the same.
I am grateful for my family. The girls continue to grow and change at lightning speed, and I am continually in awe of them. Watching my husband love them and share in their care brings even more joy. (And his patience with my endless projects, many of which require his help in some form, is unparalleled.) Each time I see my nieces and nephews, they blow me away with their new skills and the energy they have to take the world by storm. I see in each of them the brightest of futures. Unlike the last several years, this year didn't bring any new babies into the family. But I am grateful to know that in just a few months, our family will grow with the addition of my new brother-in-law! (Marriage is apparently the only way boys join my side of the family.)
Our year was not without losses. My grandpa passed away in May, which still takes the wind out of me when I realize all over again that he is gone. I will forever be grateful for his influence on my life. Over the last few years, we have watched my parents and their siblings give so much of themselves to care for their aging parents. I am grateful for the example they have set for us that, truly, family is everything.
We also lost our beloved companion, Austin, early this year. He stood by us, tail wagging, through more than a decade of life. Amazingly, Cricket still talks about him all the time—how he was a good boy, how we miss him. I hear her telling Nora about him. I am grateful that even though she was just over 2 years old when he died, she got a chance to love him and experience his love.
I am grateful for my friends. As usual, many of them have had a blockbuster year filled with weddings, babies, exciting new jobs and adventures. For some, this year has been, to put it lightly, a challenge. I am grateful that they find the strength to keep going—to repair, to heal, to move forward. And I am particularly grateful that one of my wonderful friends finished more than a year of chemo last week.
I am grateful to the online community I joined almost two years ago with this blog and shop. You validate the need I have always had to create, and you inspire me with new ideas every single day.
Also, I am grateful that so much of the time, my girls are doing something like this:
Okay this is what they actually look like most of the time, but I am grateful that they will be tough cookies if they manage to survive each other:
As November looms, I'm starting to hyperventilate. Why? Because November is National Novel Writing Month, and I'm finally planning to finish a draft of the novel I've been sketching and researching and outlining and beginning to draft for a few years now.
Though I'm a life-long writer, my work has almost exclusively rested within the realm of nonfiction. I'm not sure I'm cut out for fiction, but I've always wanted the experience of writing a novel. And I have the idea and groundwork laid out to make it happen.
The obstacles to finding large blocks of time to devote to fiction writing over the last three years have been considerable: two tough pregnancies, two babies, a new blog and business and lots of travel. Oh, and procrastination and fear. Lots of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. What if the book is terrible? What if the book is actually good and then I have to find a publisher and do a book tour and interviews? Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself...
There are always excuses, especially in this phase of life. November is about throwing those excuses out the window—letting the laundry pile up, losing more sleep than usual, imbibing too much coffee and wine—and writing intensely for a concentrated period of time.
To prepare, I've spent the month of October frantically working on all the projects I would normally take on in November, including writing blogs, designing holiday cards, planning Cricket's birthday party, editing client photos and on and on. I'm also sifting through research, re-reading relevant books and learning new software to help me better organize the entire process of creating a novel.
This Friday, November 1, I will embark on the small task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days—that’s an average of 1,700 words a day. Maybe 1,700 words doesn't sound too tough for a day's work—I’m a writer after all. But we'll all get sick about 10 times in those 30 days, Jeff will travel, we'll host birthday parties and Thanksgiving, and I'll get maybe an hour out of 24 to myself...Life will keep moving at a crazy pace.
But I'm putting those excuses aside, accepting that this draft will be rushed and awful and confused. That's what first drafts are all about. It's officially time to write a novel. Anyone want to join me?
(P.S. My sister, Erin, successfully wrote a 50,000-word novel draft last November and inspired me to give this strategy a try. Thanks, Er!)
Above: One portion of the novel—I think—is set on a ranch here in the Blue River Valley, at the foot of the Gore Range in Colorado. This image is available here as a print, framed art, stretched canvas, stationery, pillow, tote bag or iPhone/iPod/iPad/laptop case or skin.
Click here to visit my nature photography shop.
Ten minutes after clearing security on our recent trip home from Minneapolis, we were milling around the airport when a young woman stopped us.
"Excuse me," she said. “I just have to tell you that you are the most efficient parents I have ever seen go through security. You’re such a great team! And the kids were so cooperative."
We laughed, thanked her and casually continued on our way. But for a family who travels somewhere between fairly often and way too much, this compliment felt like winning a gold medal!
I had been thinking of writing a post about flying with young kids for a while, and my newly minted gold medal (whether deserved or not) gave me the confidence to do it. When friends ask for advice on the matter, I feel like I could actually give 35,000 pieces of advice—one for each foot of altitude. The truth is that flying with young kids is difficult and stressful and makes me want to vomit with anticipation, but I always find it worth the hassle when we touchdown with an adventure awaiting us.
Our list of preparations and carry-on items changes constantly as the girls leave one stage and enter another, but here is a boiled down list of general things to remember.
Book wisely: You don't typically have to buy a seat for a child under 2. That said, you need to decide whether you're comfortable holding a child instead of belting her in or whether that child is too squirmy to sit on your lap for five hours. We started booking an extra seat around 18 to 21 months depending on the length of the flight.
Some aircrafts only have an extra air mask for a lap child on one side of the plane. You must have an extra air mask, but you may not be able to determine when booking where that mask is located. The only person who will definitely know is the lead flight attendant. Several times we were seated without an air mask and had to move, but only because we knew to ask. (If you have one adult on each side of the aisle and plan to pass the child back and forth, be sure to ask if there is a mask on each side.)
We’ve been flying Southwest Airlines a lot lately. Southwest allows families to board between the A and B groups, so you don't have to worry about checking in exactly 24 hours in advance. Plus you can check some luggage for free.
If you have the option, sit near the front of the plane, so you can make a quick escape after landing when the kids are falling apart.
Make a list and check it twice: The moment you try to leave for the airport, everyone begins to fuss and squirm and needs to go potty and is nervous you’re going to leave without them. In our phase of life, we would never make it out the door with the things we need if we didn't make a list. Enough said.
Prove it: Bring your kids’ birth certificates. Some airlines require birth certificates for lap children to prove they’re under 2 years. For infants, you may also need to show they’re older than 5-6 weeks. Southwest always asks us for a birth certificate for a lap child; sometimes agents from other airlines just look to make sure the child isn’t obviously over 2. Either way, I’ve learned to bring birth certificates for both kids in case any questions arise.
Assume the worst: Okay, okay, you can't plan for every scenario, but you should carry on the supplies you need for several hours of delay (and possibly essentials for a night in a random place if you're connecting). Someone once told me to bring six times as many diapers as I thought we would need, and that's what I've always done. Diapers are nearly impossible to find in an airport. Bring several changes of clothes for puking and diaper blow-outs.
Bring drugs. I always carry these supplies for the kids: Tylenol, ibuprofen, thermometer, (and for my daughter with a peanut allergy: EpiPens and Benadryl). I kid you not, there is something about flying that makes viruses flourish into horrendous fevers and ears to become instantaneously infected. It’s like clockwork. On our last flight, Nora seemed healthy on take-off and was lethargic with fever by the time we landed an hour and a half later. So bring what you need to avoid an emergency landing.
Don't sedate: In our experience, young toddlers are the toughest age to travel with because they're all over the place, may not nap on the plane like an infant and don't yet have the attention span to watch movies or play games. On our last flight, one mom told me the flight attendant suggested she drug her toddler with Benadryl next time. Are you kidding me? DON'T. DO. IT. Benadryl works differently on young kids than it does on adults and can actually make them hyper, or exhausted and cranky but unable to sleep. I've seen it firsthand—not while flying, thankfully—and it's not pretty. It would be more disastrous to have a drug-hyper child on a plane than a regular-hyper one.
Plan for the awkward: One of the first hurdles at the airport is actually getting inside. Have you ever tried to carry multiple awkward car seats and a family’s-worth of luggage through miles of parking garage? It’s not fun. But have you noticed there are always guys standing around the curb and the baggage carousel with carts just waiting to help you check in or haul your luggage to the car when you land? (If they aren't there, you can go to the information desk and have them paged.) Our recent routine is for Jeff to drop me off with the girls, luggage and car seats. Either someone checks us in at curbside or a guy with a cart brings all our stuff in and helps me get checked in while Jeff parks the car. When we land, we find a guy at baggage claim to help us out to the car. Just keep some cash on you for tips.
Unless your kids are old enough to walk 50 miles and carry their own luggage, consider bringing a stroller. You can check it at the gate (even a double stroller) and it will be returned to you on the jet way when you deplane.
All (or most) airlines check car seats at no charge, so don’t feel like you need to lug them through the airport. Whether Pack ‘n Plays are free can be up to the discretion of the person checking you in. We’ve never had to pay to check one, but some agents aren’t so kind.
Organize for security: We all know the security line is a drag, but it’s not so bad if you’re organized. The rules are always changing, though one beautiful innovation occurred after Nora was born: you can go walk through security with an infant in a carrier (like an Ergo, not a car seat) without having to remove the baby and put the carrier through the x-ray machine. They’ll probably run the wand over you, but who cares? The baby stays asleep.
The stroller is another situation. Don’t pack the stroller full of essentials and expect to wheel it through, kids and all. You’ll need to remove everything from the stroller and either fold it up or, if it’s too large to fit through the x-ray machine, send it through the wheelchair gate to be poked and prodded. (You’ll have to take the kids out either way.) So clean out your stroller before you get to the airport.
You can bring bottles or cups of milk, formula or other liquids for your kids, which will be tested for explosives. It will take some extra time to get through security, but I’ve been amazed how helpful most security personnel and fellow travelers are when you’re struggling through with a baby or two, especially if you’re traveling without another adult. (And don’t forget to have your own liquids handy to pull out of your bag.)
Bribe shamelessly: No normal rules apply on the plane. Treats, books, games, toys and movies should be endless. Endless, people! We often buy a few new books and movies for the plane but read or watch them once or twice before the flight so the girls are excited about them. (Sometimes a brand new book isn’t popular until they’re familiar with it.) Don’t forget there will be at least around 15 minutes during take-off and landing when you’ll have to turn off electronic devices, so don’t just count on movies and games.
Protect the ears: Kids can have trouble equalizing their ears during take-off and landing, which leads to screaming and more screaming. Try to have them drink something on the way up and down; swallowing can help relieve the pressure.
Food allergies: If your children have severe food allergies, consider bringing all the food they'll need in case you can't find safe food at the airport. The last thing you want to do is feed them something questionable before you hop on the plane. We have a peanut allergy in our family, and airports are packed with snacks processed with nuts. I try to make a special treat I know will distract them for a few minutes. I also bring enough regular, nut-free food to get us through a long delay if need be. (And I have the EpiPens and Benadryl handy, as always.)
Southwest normally serves peanuts, but if you tell them at check-in they will serve something else and make an announcement to notify the passengers. You can also request they wipe down the seats and tray tables in case the previous passengers were eating nuts. (You should do this yourself if you they don’t offer.) Some airlines are less accommodating, but it’s always worth asking.
If you’re breastfeeding: You may not be used to breastfeeding in public, but too bad for the middle-aged businessman sitting next to you. It’s way easier to breastfeed on the plane than to carry bottles or mix formula. If you're breastfeeding, bring plenty of water since the flight attendants may not be able to provide it for you if the flight is turbulent. You'll be more thirsty than usual (did you think it was possible?), because the air is dry at altitude.
Run for it: Most flights we’ve taken with the girls have gone much better than anticipated. But if things start to go downhill, keep this in mind: You are not going to see your fellow passengers ever again. When you land, collect your kids and belongings and run for it. You made it, so don’t look back!
(iPhone photos. Top: Nevada fly-over. Bottom: Airport layover.)
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I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.