Monday, October 14, 2013


Big doings! Well, minor doings worth noting! I have my own proper domain now and a WP account. I have to do some fancy computer things to optimize SEO thingymaboppers (side note: ugh, technology), but until I manage some fancy redirection, please update your bookmarks to:

Thanks muchly!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Long story for another post, but we will be heading back to DC sometime in 2014 (hopefully summer). I'm late to the bidding game and I'm trying to make it all work now, but I find myself ultimately unapologetic for ignoring the HR aspects of my job.

My husband is in Afghanistan.

My son is awash in school and therapy and sensory-seeking extracurriculars.

My daughter is a pip who, for the first time, isn't constantly being overshadowed by all that is her brother.

For once I am not taking a work call in my office with a sick kid screaming in the background. I'm not taking a work call at home while putting PJs on an exhausted toddler. I speak to my child's teacher every. single. day. I volunteer in his class once a week.

I'm not apologizing.

This LWOP undoubtedly dinged my career a bit and, given my very strong bent toward ridiculously competitive and the Foreign Service's emphasis on ridiculously competitive, that's a bit hard to swallow.

I'm not apologizing.

With any luck, this year plus in Colorado will make it less likely that I'll be scrambling for childcare for my suspended child. It will make it slightly less likely that I'll be blamed for putting his needs on the backburner for too many years. (I say slightly less likely, because I'm not naive enough to think my children won't blame me for most things.)

I am not apologizing.

I have to keep telling myself that.

On that note, before I delve into the logistical nightmare of bidding on short notice with no access to the State system and a number of timing issues, I am going to focus on Boy, and what we find to be helpful, as there may be another stressed parent of a high-needs pugilist out there.

Here's what we've tried:

Hoping it will just go away: FAIL.

Soccer: FAIL. Boy was quite good at soccer, but couldn't handle the sensory input of a gaggle of kids rushing toward him and a ball and a whistle. There were tears more often than not.

Swimming: WIN. Did you know Boy can freestyle across a small pool? He can. He could not do that a few months ago. The first time we took him to a pool this summer, he screamed and pantsed himself because he didn't like the sensation of wet swim trunks grabbing his legs. So we went to SwimLabs (for FS families: they have a location in Vienna, VA!). The pools are small, very warm, and have an adjustable current. They also have a small class size (max 4) and a camera with monitors in the waiting room for parents and in the corners in the lab. Even at Boy's young age, teachers discuss technique with their students using video footage.

Gymnastics:  WIN. For sensory seeking kids, the jumping, climbing, pushing, rolling is heaven. It helps that Boy's teacher is a middle-aged tough guy. Boy relates to that well.

Group Behavioral Therapy: WIN. Boy has been going to a school skills group for several months now, and has a vocabulary and context for discussing things that do not come naturally to him, not even in the slightest. Body space, volume, sharing, conflict resolution: it's all been invaluable.

Sensory Camp: WIN. Boy attended sensory camp this summer. He learned about body speed and control and I learned about intervention techniques. He's always used a weighted blanket, and indeed one is in his classroom for him when he flips out, but they expanded my toolkit to include a variety of deep pressure techniques.

IEP Process: We'll see? The special education coordinator needs six weeks to monitor his academic progress and his classroom behavior, and then we jump knee deep into meetings upon meetings with the nurse, psychologist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, the works. Best case scenario is he no longer qualifies for an IEP because all the rest is working. That would be great, but I'm not holding my breath.

LEGO club: WIN. Boy does LEGO Engineering after school once a week. He is exhausted when he's done, but he is so genuinely enthusiastic to have 90 minutes when he just excels, no qualifiers. He is a savant of building, and he needs that weekly success.

Kindergarten: WIN (so far). Oh, oh, oh. How thankful I am that we are back. There was no good kindergarten option for him in Estonia--he's too high needs. He's one of the youngest in his class--if not the youngest--but he's already taking off academically. He went from writing only a few of his letters to writing sentences and starting books in about four weeks. His teacher runs that classroom so tightly it's a bit intimidating, but it's what he needs. He needs rigid boundaries, constant assignments, and a challenge. I've volunteered a number of times, and I am almost always shocked at how on task he is. "On Task" isn't normal on Boy's resume. He's easier at home, he's proud of his work, and he's simply rising to the occasion.

To be clear, he's already been sent to the principal's office. But only once!

I worried at first about overloading his schedule. He wakes up so early (4:44 this morning) and is so frenetic that he's beat by 6:45 most nights. He is responding well to physical, individual activities that meet his sensory needs. He enjoys having a club where he is a star (and I enjoy outsourcing complex LEGO projects, because that's not on my resume). His iPad time chart has been changed to reward good behavior at school. I'm afraid to jinx myself, but after a year of this, we should be set.

I am not apologizing.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Turn Turn Turn

The Byrds are in my head. Or Ecclesiastes, depending on your bent. My favorite "Season" song is by The Zombies, but that doesn't capture the trudging through, the holding on, the letting go. For obvious reasons, it lacks the Biblical gravitas and comfort.

R&R number two has come and gone, and though it seems to Husband that he's been there forever and seems to me that time has both gone ludicrous speed and crept to a trickle, we are only halfway through this tour. Or maybe: hooray! we are halfway through this tour.

I feel strange claiming "we" are halfway through anything. As I looked around my kitchen this morning, surveying all the dishes that weren't magically done overnight, I sighed, acknowledging in that breath that it's all on me again. It's all on me, in Denver, with the kids, in our house. With restaurants and grocery stores and family and a friend here or there. I can't complain. I even have a personal trainer. Egads, my life is horrible.

But Husband, in his tiny room, with his kids far away...but Husband.

We've done this before, but the raw and inescapable truth is that leaving your one year old for a year is quite difficult, but leaving your two- and five-year-old for a year is a horribly cruel thing to do to yourself or have done to you. We ask this of diplomats, soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors. We've asked this of Husband and I note with no small amount of guilt that we have not yet asked this of me. The sad truth--the pitiful truth--is I don't know if I could. It's sad because it's my job, yes, but it's even sadder because Husband's been asked twice. Girl still wants Mommy above all things and...I can't. I can't tear away. Husband can barely do so, and it is only because of his commitment to so many things and above all else to our family that he did.

It was an R&R marred by epic rainfall and a long and lingering stomach virus all around. It was a vacation into the ordinary, with school pickups and swim practice. As he was gathering his things and his wherewithal to return to Afghanistan, Husband admitted that no amount of sunshine, no surfeit of good health, not even a new motorcycle or a million margaritas would have changed what had to happen. He went back, as he must, and he will trudge on.

And we will be here, waiting.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Denver for Kids

Boy, Girl, and I spent six months filling our time before school started this month. Denver usually isn't on the radar of Foreign Service families, if for no other reason than the Centennial State is not home to a thriving and influential foreign affairs community. Because, you know, it's not Washington D.C.*

I spent much of my youth in the D.C. area and Washington really is great for kids. Fantastic schools, free museums, plenty of historical sights. Traffic, humidity, cutthroat competition, ridiculous housing prices. Well, maybe those things aren't so great. (Washingtonians, don't feel defensive! I am one of you. Always will be. But let's be honest...Washington takes a couple years of your life.)

Anyway, for those who missed it: Why Denver? We picked Denver because it's in Colorado (der) and it's not Colorado Springs, Boulder, or Ft. Collins. Colorado Springs ain't my cup of tea for a number of reasons. Boulder is expensive and a little too Berkeley-esque. Ft. Collins is wonderful, but unless you run a brewery or teach at CSU, your employment options are limited and that wasn't a great strategy lest we end up staying here for the long run.

Denver is a little weird and accepting and relaxed. It's politically moderate, which cannot be said of the Springs or Boulder. People move to Colorado from all over, but I've never lived in a town with so many cheerleaders. Denverites are excited to be here. They drunkenly ride bikes through their town once a week. They support local breweries and businesses and bands. EVERYONE LOVES THE BRONCOS. Wow. Everyone.

This place is also great for kids. If you are looking for something a little different than squeezing your family of five into your parent's guest room this R&R or home leave, I recommend a swing through Colorado. While the mountains are an obvious destination, the capital city is worth a visit.

You will most likely need a car unless you stay only downtown, though cabs are plentiful and both Zipcar and Car2Go can be found around town. You can zip from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes.

Below are my recommendations:

*True fact. It's not.


The Children's Museum of Denver

One of the best children's museums we've been to, and we've been to a lot. Boy could spend hours constructing and shooting paper rockets and Girl loves the room filled with chutes and balls. Both enjoy the bubble area, the firetruck, and the forest make-believe area. There are activities for older kids--such as a recycling construction zone--and for littles as well (there is a designated 0-4 area that's large and lovely). Walk out the door to a chalkboard cow and a great playground along the Platte River. Parking is free.

It's also right next door to...

Downtown Aquarium

The aquarium isn't cheap, but it's just the right size for a 5 year old to enjoy a 90 minute visit. There are diving experience packages for older kids, but mine are happy to start with a ride on the carousel out front. They particularly enjoy the shark tank, which includes windows in the floor so you almost always have a shark underfoot. The inexplicable tiger exhibit is actually pretty neat, as the tigers can be very close to the crowd. You can feed and pet rays, walk through a rainstorm, and talk about how piranhas would just devour you if given the chance. Parking is $7 for non-members, $3 for members.

Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum

This is Boy's ceiling:

So it is a bit embarrassing that I didn't even realize there was an air and space museum until recently. Husband is home on R&R and took the kids there yesterday. Wings Over the Rockies is a lot like Udvar Hazy. No space shuttle, alas, but they did have an X-wing. Husband said it was great and definitely worth the trip. Parking is free.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The Science Museum has the advantage of being less than half a mile from our house in the southeast corner of City Park, so we've been there a lot. It's no Field Museum, but it again has something for all age groups, including a Discovery Center for kids 5 and under. There is an interesting and interactive body exhibit that again caters to the full range of kids, providing a small exploration area for little ones and virtual bike riding tests for older ones. The space exhibit is a personal favorite, and I love that it has a play area for toddlers and preschoolers in addition to interactive exhibits that target a slightly older crowd. You'll note that I use "interactive" a lot for this museum, and it certainly is. It's a snowy day favorite. Parking is free! There is also a bike share station right at the museum.

Denver Zoo

The zoo is less than one mile from our house, and a stone's throw from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The zoo is in the middle of city park (more on that later). The elephant exhibit is new and impressive, and we can always count on giraffes entertaining Girl. Boy loves the bat exhibit. The carousel near the hippos and birds is a nice little break from strolling around. The park is littered with climbing areas that will amuse kids from about 18 months on for as long as you let it. Peacocks roam the park, because I guess some private owner just let them out one day? The zoo has an abundance of programming for little kids and the occasional sleepover, so check out their website in advance of a trip to take advantage of their offerings. Girl is a big fan of the zoo. Parking is free.

Part of the Asian exhibit at the Denver Zoo
History Colorado

History Colorado was a pleasant surprise. Girl loved the puppet show. Boy enjoyed making puppets in the lobby. The time machine in the center lobby is tons of fun. As an East Coaster, it was amusing to see kitchen exhibits from the 1920s (and yes, Europeans, I realize you scoff at my East Coast kitchen exhibits from the 1700s), but as a newly minted Colorado resident, I found the museum to be both fun and very informative. Downtown, so parking is going to cost you about four to seven dollars.

It's also a couple blocks from...

Denver Art Museum

I'm ashamed to say we haven't visited the art museum yet, as until recently I didn't realize it was such a hot destination for children. I usually hear "art museum" and think "my kids will touch things" and then avoid the whole exercise. But as you can see, it's actually a terrific place for the kiddos. I'll update with our personal recommendations once we visit next weekend. I'm excited to check it out. (It's downtown, so I can only assume parking is not free).

Butterfly Pavilion

The Butterfly Pavilion is outside of town, but an easy enough trek with a car. The butterflies are of course beautiful, but a family favorite is Rosie the Tarantula, who can creep over the arms of kids three and up. Girl is disappointed she didn't get a turn, so we are going to make another pilgrimage after her birthday.

Colorado Railroad Museum

If you have a train-crazy kid (or grandpa, as my kids have), head to Golden to see a number of locomotives and cars from several eras. The only downside is my crew wanted to climb on more trains, and only some of them are open for exploration.

Denver Botanic Gardens

Another one I'm ashamed not to have visited yet. I hear good things, though.


Denver prides itself on its parks, hence the names of many neighborhoods (Washington Park, City Park, Congress Park, etc.). The city is spotted with parks, most of which have playgrounds, but here are a few of our favorites:

City Park

City Park is the largest park in the city, and is located just slightly east of the center. City Park is home to the zoo and nature museum, loads of trails, a boathouse, playgrounds, and--on any given weekend--a fair or festival or run of some sort.

The Kids wander through City Park
Washington Park

Wash Park is a neighborhood full of beautiful bungalows (the traditional Denver house) with a killer park. The playground is our favorite in the city, and it's surrounded by lovely gardens and trails, perfect for a picnic with the kids. The rental office can hook you up with paddle boats and kayaks or has those goofy group bikes.

Red Rocks

If you have a day to get out of town, I recommend exploring Red Rocks and then heading to nearby Golden for a meal. Red Rocks is beautiful and the amphitheater is open to the public unless a show is going to start within a couple hours. Boy loved to climb up and down the amphitheater rows, and the nature of the venue allowed me to see him almost everywhere, which meant I could sit down and enjoy the picnic lunch we brought. There are also trails throughout the area for the hiking sort. You can combine it with a trip to Dinosaur Ridge in the same town.

Cherry Creek Mall

The last week aside, it's unusual to be rained out of activities in Denver. Snowed out is entirely likely. When we need an indoor distraction, we take the kids to Cherry Creek Mall in the tony Cherry Creek neighborhood. The play area is filled with screaming children and their parents/nannies, and the kids manage to entertain themselves for as long as we want them too. There is a yummy smoothie/panini/wrap place around the corner for a healthy lunch or snack.



It goes without saying this is a sporty town. Everyone's really in shape too, because they all ski and run marathons and bike 40 miles on the weekend. But when you want to drink a beer and take your kids to see someone else do all the exercising, you have the following teams to enjoy: Broncos (NFL), Rockies (MLB), Avalanche (NHL), Nuggets (NBA), Rapids (MLS), Outlaws (Major League Lacrosse...who knew there was such a thing?), Dynamite (arena soccer), Crush (arena football), Mammoth (National Lacrosse League), Bulldogs (Australian football), and the Barbarians (rugby).

Amusement Parks

We haven't been to them yet, but Elitch Gardens (downtown, right next to the aquarium and kids' museum), Lakeside Amusement Park, and Heritage Square are great sources of fun. Lakeside has the advantage of being both in expensive and super-friendly to little kids.

Neighboring Cities

Denver is a great jumping off point to Colorado Springs (worth it for Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak and an excellent zoo--you can feed giraffes!) and Boulder (home to a good festival or two and great mountain views).


Want to plan by day?

Day 1:

Start at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison, then head up the hill to Red Rocks with a picnic lunch. Let the kids burn some energy and then check out the Railroad Museum in Golden followed by an early bird dinner downtown. Alternative to Railroad Museum: spend the afternoon in Heritage Square.

Day 2:

Manage to get breakfast at Snooze AM downtown. Your kids undoubtedly wake up too early, so beat the inevitable lines by getting there first thing. Trek over the Art Museum then eat lunch (pricey but good) at History Colorado followed by the museum itself. Take the kids down Broadway to 1st Avenue in very hip Baker for some delicious ice cream at Sweet Action. You can post-game dessert (kids are happier when dessert comes first) at the Punch Bowl Social across the street. The crowd can become mostly drunken hipsters after eight, but is pretty family friendly before that. Good food, bowling, games. Even have tiny bowling shoes for rent.

Day 3:

Start at the Children's Museum, eat there or at the Aquarium, then ride out the day at the Aquarium. If you have teens and younger ones, be a gem and let the teens hit Elitch while you do the Children's Museum and the Aquarium. Order room service for dinner, because it's day 3 and you're tired.

Day 4:

Got a morning to burn before your flight? After breakfast, head to Wash Park for a paddleboat ride or an hour on the playground.

Grown-ups: if you are fortunate enough to have a babysitter, chuck the kids in the evening and check out breweries, distilleries, quiz nights, Punch Bowl Social once it gets a bit rowdy, or any of the many great Denver bands. The Lumineers are one of the best known, but The Outfit is another quality local offering well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Best Day Ever

I cried only a little as we said goodbye. I planted one more kiss on his kissing hand and put it to his cheek.

Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.

I had my sunglasses on, so he didn't know I teared up. Girl was distraught.

I don't want Boy to go!

And Little Sister, for good measure

I nervously shifted my weight from foot to foot as we waited outside his classroom door (which conveniently lets out into the playground). School has burned us before. He burst out, yelling in his little kid speech.

It was the best day ever! This is the best school ever! I want to come every day until I die!

Monday, August 26, 2013

On the Occasion of Your Entry into Kindergarten

Dear Boy,

It is with both a bang and a whimper, amongst lost forms and fresh school supplies, that tomorrow you march off to Kindergarten, and embark upon a journey that leads you inexorably, inevitably to adulthood. Adulthood is a place you yearn to be and, like every parent before me, I plead with you to slow down. Adulthood is it. It is the remainder of your life, which is itself a blip on the cosmos.

Until we went shopping for school supplies, I never understood the gnashing of teeth over sending one's baby to Kindergarten. Rejoice! It's Kindergarten! No more long days at home! No more filling the space between with fights and complaining!

You sat in that cart, flipping through your very first marble notebook, and my mind flashed forward, like a flip book of a different sort. That book. It will have chicken scratch, pulled out of you by a patient and experienced teacher. Letters will become sentences will become paragraphs will become stories will become essays hastily scribbled in what we call a Blue Book will become emails will become real estate contracts will become wills. I hope in there you'll find the time and motivation for a love letter or two. You will learn to do addition. Then subtraction and multiplication and division and algebra and geometry and then algebra again (it's confusing, I know) and then trigonometry and then something horrible they call functions and then calculus and then. Adulthood. Where it all devolves back into addition and a lot of long division and more statistics than you thought you would need but almost never calculus, except for the engineers.

I've thought about holding you back. You're young for Kindergarten these days. In my time, you weren't young. Five was the norm. But now it's competitive and kids start at six. You still suck your fingers, though you declared to me on the practice walk to school this morning that you no longer sucked your fingers because you are a big boy and don't need to, right before immediately sucking your fingers. It's okay. People have asked when you are going to stop doing that. When I am going to take your lovies. You are different from other kids, Boy (though the dirty little secret is every kid is different from the other kids, and trying to make it otherwise is brutal and pointless). You need your tools for calming down, and I am not going to take this one from you. If, in your own time, you decide Big Boys really don't suck their fingers, then I will support you in that.

You will learn so much. You will learn that English is damn near impossible to spell with any consistency and that you just have to figure it out. You will learn that not every child is a friend and that not ever adult will offer a hug. You will have to save your cuddles for me and your dogs and cats. We will save ours for you as well. You will learn that a circle and a sphere are not the same but kinda they are but not really. You will learn, please God will you learn, to flush.

And with any luck after this it will be First Grade. And then Second. And Third after that. You see where I am going with this.

It is a new world for you, of packed lunches and cafeterias and cliques. The enthusiasm with which you've practiced eating a school lunch--which so far largely entails your marching off with your lunch box, opening it, and declaring "Let's see what Mom packed for me today!"--tells me this new adventure piques your interest.

Here's a secret as you start your journey: there is no magic moment of adulthood. It is a transformation over time, of learning lessons both good and regrettable, of sticking it out and throwing in the towel, of hurt feelings and crying into your pillow.  Of doing what is unfun and unrewarding. Of doing what is right even when it is unpopular. Of learning that picking on a kid just might get you socked in the mouth and that defending a kid just might make you an outsider as well. Being an outsider is okay, sometimes.

Here's another secret: I'm still figuring it out too.

Godspeed and kick ass, Little One.


Monday, August 5, 2013


Fear not, Loyal Reader (seriously, there's just one of you), I am alive, as are Husband and The Brood. I have some very good reasons for being quiet this summer. If you want to maintain the tiny bit of respect you have for me, I suggest you stop reading after reason #4. If you want to test your love and respect in the face of reality, read through.

Reason #1: Boy was accepted into a number of therapeutic programs at once. For the past month, he's had some activity or another every week day (swimming, behavioral group therapy, sensory integration camp). Yes, that last one is a thing, and it was fantastic. This week we have only group and the start of pre-school doctors appointments. First up, 5 year well-child, followed by eyes and teeth.

Reason #2: YES I SAID FIVE. Good Lord. He's five. Lots of celebrating, coming on the heels of my 32nd birthday, which involved lots of adult time and fun for me over several days. So no blogging.

Reason #3: I had a visitor. An honest-to-goodness visitor! Aunt C, blogger extraordinaire, Godmother The Most, College Roomie The First, graced Denver for a few days. It was lovely to have her and I'm sure all y'all would enjoy a visit too, so get on it.

Reason #4: My mom et al moved to Denver.

Reason #5: Candy Crush.

Reason #6: The batteries in the mouse died, and I considered waiting until Husband is home in September so he could remedy the situation. Can't blog comfortably on an iPad and even if I wanted to, please see Reason #5.

Summer is summer is summer. Lots of sweaty days. A few mad dashes to the ice cream truck while dogs escape and coins fly from my wallet, trying to appease the two children who seem not to hear me when I speak to them from two feet away, but who can detect an ice cream truck if it rings its bell in Kansas. PS--an ice cream sandwich is now $3.50; no $0.25 packs of candy cigarettes. My childhood weeps.

One trek to my cousin's wedding several hours from here, across the mountains. There were unironic cowboy hats. Everything is ironic on the East Coast, so this was very exciting for me.

One bid list. Zero ideas. For the past seven years, my mind wandered over the possibilities of Burundi or Beijing, wondering if the consular high of a post like CJ was worth the stress. Yes, over the past seven, even when it wasn't our bidding season. Now it all seems oppressive. We aren't ready. Boy isn't ready. We won't know anything until he's settled into school and an IEP is in place, so overseas is out. DC is always a possibility, but if this school year doesn't go well--or if it goes very well--we'd hate to move and both be back at work full-time, managing the many services our son needs with a Washington cost of living and a Washington work day. Hawaii is a possibility for Husband, but not me, but it's too expensive to do on one salary. Kansas could happen for Husband with a commute to Denver on the weekends, and for me--who knows? More LWOP? What I want is a magical little 03 or 02 job at Aurora. I've inquired about such things, but I haven't heard anything. It's a stretch, a potshot, a chance to stay in a career I've dreamed of since I was 16. It's a job that--so far--doesn't exist.

Possibly an 81 mile commute to NORAD for Husband. We'd take it, though, and figure out the rest later.

So: summer. There is something romantic about the long hot days of summer. Of ice cream trucks and sweat and sidewalk chalk. Of bidding and lobbying and dreaming of far-off places. Though there was a chill one day--one rare rainy day--and I immediately longed for a DC autumn, for brilliant trees and morning frost and hot cider.

Opportunity costs.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Point of View

Amber Dusick, the force behind the always brilliant PARENTING Illustrated with Crappy Pictures, challenged her readers to have their kids interview them, because kids are hilariously wackadoo and have no idea what's going on.

Here are my results:

Q: What is my favorite food?
Boy: Everything
Girl: Ice cream

Okay, maybe they know exactly what's going on.

Q: What do I do for fun?
Boy: Reading
Girl: Ice cream

Girl wins.

Q: What's my favorite TV show?
Boy: Grown up TVs [sic]
Girl: Diego

Boy wins.

Q: What do I drink?
Boy: Wine
Girl: Water

Both of these are accurate. Had they added "coffee," they would have captured 99% of my fluid intake.

Q: What do I do with my friends?
Boy: Play
Girl: [A blank stare indicating, "You have friends?"]

Q: What do I wear?
Boy: (rolls eyes) A dress, silly!
Girl: Clothes

Thank you, Girl.

Q: Who is my best friend?
Boy: Trainer
Girl: Trainer!

Okay, I love Trainer, but I like to think my best friend is someone I have known for more than three months. He is the only adult I regularly see, though, so I can see why they might come to that conclusion.

Q: What do I do after you go to bed at night?
Boy: Clean
Girl: Clean
Boy: We're both right!

"Fall asleep on the couch" would have been the most accurate answer, but I'll accept clean. Not because that is what I am doing, but because that's what I tell them I have to do after they go to bed. At least they're listening.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Metro Revisited

I sat in the handicapped seats, suitcase between my knees, trying to remain out of everyone's way and keep a continuous scan going in case someone with a legitimate need for the handicapped seats showed up. The metro was filled with metro sounds--on a June Saturday that's usually kids and their parents, the sounds of fanny packs planning outings to the Smithsonian. The first stop after I got on was National Airport, and my neighbors glanced first expectantly and then in confusion at my suitcase as I remain seated. I stayed there, headphones in, picking up the ambient noise in between songs on my playlist. I was hunched over, hand cautiously on the suitcase, arm tattooed, nose ring in. No wedding ring on. It occurred to me in that moment that people might make certain assumptions about me: probably that I was younger than I am (thanks, Muse Salon), that I was aimless. I wanted to hold a sign announcing that I am a mother, a diplomat, that this is my one chance to have headphones in, and that on another Saturday two years ago I would have brought my own roiling cacophony onto the train, also headed to the Smithsonian while wondering why my day off felt like so much work. No fanny pack, though. No tattoos yet.

I paid inordinate attention to the landscape in front and then below us when the plane took off from Denver. The front range stretched before me, snow marking the famous fourteeners. The dips and marks of the ground stayed within view for several thousands of feet. God's own country, no doubt. I felt in awe and thankful that--for now, anyway--I can call this place home.

Coming in over the Potomac pulled a different string. Washington always was and always will be my true north. I saw the neat rows of headstones in Arlington and the glittering water and placed a tick mark in the D.C.'s pro column. I stepped into an immediate soup of humidity--not bad by local standards but brutal after a few months in Colorado. One tick in the con.

Friends, acquaintances, classmates, alums wanted to know where my brood was, and I answer that they were in Denver. I'd loved to have shown them off, but I was relieved to have my headphones in, to process the whats and the what nexts on my own. We video-chatted in the middle of a reunion event, Girl blowing raspberries and Boy inserting "poop" between words. I bought a new Georgetown shirt. I lamented the removal of the my favorite tree, the one that I would climb instead of attending Western Civ. I wondered if I would ever step foot in FSI again, if I would ever write another EER, if I would ever keep up with the amazingly talented people I know and love from college. I wondered if I wanted to keep up.

And then No Diggity came on, and I danced. A lot. Class of 2003: Word.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Masochism Take Two

I was lamenting to Husband a few weeks ago that I would finally get the kids to bed only to have Dali, Pup Extraordinaire, put her face in mine and demand more attention than I had energy for. She's only 11 months and can go forever. He declared we needed a puppy and I declared he had lost his frickin' mind.

Meet Chaplin:

With Husband in town, we could check out puppies at the Rocky Mountain Puppy Rescue booth at the Boulder Creek Festival. Just check out, that's all. We'll just bring a cat crate, that's all. There were two perfect little pups for us--adorable, good mixes (Shepherd/Golden and Lab/Leonberger)--but there was also Chaplin, a 2 year old Lab mix. It was a puppy rescue, so there were no shortage of ridiculously cute puppies surrounding this guy, making it even less likely that he would find a home. Boy originally wanted a little one who showered him with affection and nibbles. I saw housebreaking, chewed kid's toys, losing the pup in the house. Chap lolled on the ground and demanded tummy rubs. He was already housebroken, was fine with cats, and had lots of energy. Husband and I liked the idea of an adult dog for our sake but also for the dog's. Boy was adamant he wanted a 2 month old puppy for 30 minutes, then suddenly he put down the ball of fur in his lap, looked up and said, "You know, I think Chaplin is the better dog. Let's get him." We passed our interview, and took this guy home.

He didn't fit in the cat crate, but turns out he's a pro at riding in cars already.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

UT: A Progress Report

This is not our first shot an unaccompanied tour. Last time Husband was in Iraq, Boy and I in India. That set-up had its own challenges, not least of which that was after, er, R&R number two, I was pregnant, working full time, parenting a toddler solo and, oh yeah, in India.

This UT is completely different, and more akin to those faced by most Foreign Service families. One spouse is employed in a warzone, the other is managing the rest of life divorced from OpenNet and any other resources that keep you connected to the Department. As an employee, I've watched my bidding season come and go, and unless someone can churn up a FS position at the closest passport agency (which I'd happily take), I'll likely watch the next come and go as well. We have no idea what resources Boy will need in school next year, so we are in no position to say whether we can go overseas again or whether we can both work full-time in Washington. There are a lot of question marks still, a theme of recent times.

So, three months in, with the first R&R halfway over, where are we? I am still on LWOP, Husband is still assigned to Afghanistan. His professional life is in flux, due to the crossroads of drawdown and tragedy, and therefore has some unanticipated stressors. I miss my work and colleagues. I miss seeing adults. I don't miss the panicked rush to find childcare or the always marriage-enhancing game of Who Is More Important  at Work Today? when the kids are suddenly sick. I don't miss the chaos of getting two kids to separate schools for their ten hour days, then taking separate cars to pick them up so we can get both of them in the narrow window between the end of the work day and the end of their school hours. I don't miss taking phone calls from Washington while trying to dress a screaming, exhausted toddler for bedtime. I don't miss the guilt when we explain that no, both of us can't be at a 6:00 a.m. event because someone has to feed our children, dress them, and get them to school.

On the flip side, at home I'm on all the time. No adult comes to rescue me (except for some awesome aunts*). No one takes duty calls. Boy wakes up by 5:30 (before 5:00 for the past week), and because Girl sleeps later and naps, she doesn't go down until 7:30 or even 8:00 some nights. I put in 14 hour days of full-on parenting more often than not, and follow them up with dishes and laundry. The extent of my adult interaction is some local family members (oh thank Jeebus*) and the great people at the gym. Coincidentally, I'm at the gym A LOT. Well, a lot for me. They have a daycare there and I lose weight. Everyone wins.

I've mastered ___________ to the extent it will ever be mastered. [Choices: Grocery shopping with two kids; Cleaning the house with two kids; Mowing the lawn with two kids; All of the above.]

I quickly learned that the only way to slow the inevitable losing of my mind was to insist that the children help with everything they can. Boy helps with laundry. Girl helps unload the dishwasher. Both dust. Boy cleans up his Legos every night. Girl helps put away toys in the playroom. Boy buckles himself into his carseat. They can both feed the pets. Boy lets the dog in and out. These are little things, but they make me feel like it is slightly less all on me.

I fill out paperwork and add Boy to waitlist after waitlist. Socialization groups, behavioral therapy, IEPs. We're waiting.

Denver was the right choice for us, and a blog post is evolving in my mind reviewing Denver for families. That said, this is the first time I've lived in America, but not in DC or New York, so my friends seem so close and far at the same time. Luckily I jet to my college reunion in a few days. Thanks to Husband for holding down the fort. I want to see my people.

Oh, and I pierced my nose. Sorry, Dad! It won't stay in forever, just for LWOP. Promise.

*When we made the decision not to go to Washington, we flirted with the idea of Portland or Austin. Thankfully flirting was all it was, because without the family that's here I would have been up a sad, frustrating creek. And all our stuff would still be in boxes.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Husband is en route for his first trip home.


Originally we were aiming for mid-June, three months after he arrived at post, but four after he left Colorado. The Timing Gods smiled on us in some ways, and it worked out that he could come home now. The theory was he could help me finish off the to-do list for the house (some things just go better with two people, like building a swing set and getting the master bedroom even slightly organized), but everybody involved just needs a break as well. He needs a break, I need a break, the kids need a break.

I had planned to surprise the kids with his arrival, but I envisioned their disappointment every time a trip to the grocery store or the zoo didn't end with a surprise appearance from Dad. That would be a long three months and while they lament their father's absence every day, without fail, I don't think I could bear the gnashing of their terrible teeth and rolling of their terrible eyes when he didn't show up in the dairy aisle. It would not only be heartbreaking, but it would also send me over the cliff of insanity. I am perilously perched on the edge these days. No need to push myself over. New plan: surprise them when he returns for good.

I've stocked up on good wine, ready to resume our late night mutual bitchfests. We preach to each other's choirs about politics, policy, and--I am certain about this--Benghazi and guns specifically. I've always been surrounded by other FSOs--colleagues, friends, and my spouse--but without them I have no safe place to pull my hair out about the former. That's about as much as I can safely type on a blog at this point, because it's not my lane and I'm not a total idiot career-wise (writes the woman sitting in pajamas in Denver on a workday--winning!). As far as guns, I'm sure our complaints will center around a) that Congress is not able to begin to pass a bill supported by 90% of Americans even with a majority of votes in the Senate because of the unholy intersection of the NRA and the filibuster and b) guns marketed to small children because what. the. hell.

It's just been me and Jon Stewart for 3 months. I need my husband back.

Friday, May 10, 2013


I sat in Girl's bed tonight, putting on her PJs, when I was caught suddenly and viscerally by the extreme frustration I feel for such large chunks of the day. I slumped, eyes misty, right hand forming a brim over my brow line to shield my face while I composed myself. Girl noticed right away. She place her hand--her two-year-old hand!--on my shoulder, rubbed it a little and asked with noticeable concern, "What's wrong, Mommy?" Her compassion is impressive, and I was too caught of guard to answer anything but truthfully. "I feel like a bad mommy," I said, probably unfairly to her. This isn't her row to hoe.

She asked me if I was angry. I said I was, sometimes, but mostly I was really really frustrated. She said, "With Boy?"

Holy smokes. Is this just who she is, or has living with me done this to her?

Our day wasn't so bad, taken as a whole. Boy started it at 5:15, but was chipper about it, until about 8:00 when I was trying to bundle them out the door so I could make it to the gym in time to humiliate myself in Zumba. Then he was too tired to move, too tired to be good at the gym, too tired to put on his shoes. I muttered through clenched teeth my usual schtick about how unfair that was and that he didn't get to take the rest of us hostage. I added that it was ridiculous to insist on waking up so early and then play the victim. There was lots of clenched-teeth muttering. I trust he ignored most of it, as he is wont to do.

He actually did well at the gym, earning 15 minutes of iPad time for the three positive checks on his behavior chart. We made it through lunch and nap (yes! a rare and pleasant occurrence). He played outside nicely with Girl while I mowed the lawn (super quiet, eco-friendly reel mower FTW). The two boys from across the street came over, and stayed with us while their dad got some yard work done. They were fine, my kids were fine, but I found that my ability to stay positive and energetic through the whole impromptu playdate waned quickly. When they went home and we started to get ready for our traditional Friday evening bike ride for burgers, it fell apart. I fell apart. Boy gleefully and repeatedly ran out of the house (once while I was in the shower, it turns out). Boy gleefully refused to let his sister in his room to retrieve her shoes. There were some fisticuffs on the way there (I wish bike trailers had a wall between the two seats). There were significant fisticuffs on the way back (Girl's face was red from blows, but I must note she was not entirely innocent in the throwdown and in fact is much more vicious than her brother when it comes to it).

What put me over the edge, of all things, was Boy continuing to shout to the boys across the street that they were poop, as I repeatedly told him to stop calling people that. It was an entirely unimportant fight to pick at that time, but it was also an entirely straightforward instruction to follow. It was nothing short of defiant, just as running out of the house had been, just as holding his door shut as I stood 6 inches away telling him to open it was. It was a Screw you, Mom. It sucked. I sucked.

When asked to describe Boy's problems, I sometimes struggle to find a good example. In the end it's not often an isolated outburst. It's wiping toothpaste on the wall and running out of the house. It's turning on the TV immediately after I said no more cartoons or bolting off in a store. When he was in school it was chucking trains across the room compulsively, not so much acknowledging the adult next to him until she picked up him, and then he would turn into a writhing screaming mess. It's a steady stream of defiance. Defiance almost as a knee-jerk reaction. Defiance for no obvious reason.

It's an endless power struggle and it is exhausting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

She's Here Too

Boy seems to be getting all the attention in this space, no? That could extend to other spaces as well, although Boy would probably point out that he gets all the negative attention. He wouldn't be wrong on our worst days. The Service gets almost no attention at all. I don't know what to say. I'm not used to thinking about the Department from the outside. Husband missed being in the wrong place and the very wrong time a month ago, but the officer in me reminds myself that we never know when the wrong place and the wrong time were a misplaced set of keys, a search for a purse, a last minute phone call away from striking us. Here in Denver. There in Kandahar. Maybe I'm a fatalist, but the other option is to obsess over all the things that could be happening to him at this very moment, and that doesn't seem like a wise choice either.

Girl, though, is here and well and is blooming in that way that nearly-two-and-a-half year old children do. Everyday she's more the child, less the baby. I don't know precisely when it happened, but she became the Great Communicator, mimicking everyone (for better or worse) and verbalizing her needs and wants (trust me: for better or worse). We are starting potty training, though we are still on that awesome stage where she tells me she needs the potty the second pee starts puddling on the floor. Nailed it! Today she made it to the bathroom three times, so we are making progress. In the meantime, she's nothing short of hilarious.

She's mastered the preteen Awww. The one that follows your announcement that no, she cannot play outside because it's bath time or no she cannot have a cookie. Awww.

She calls me by my first name.

She's mastered the preteen histrionics. I no want to take a nap. I no take a nap ever. I no do it. Not ever. (Followed almost immediately by a three hour nap.)

Our bedtime routine goes likes this:
Lights out.
Girl: Cuddle me! For one minute!
Me: Okay, but then I have to go clean.  [often not true]
(a couple of minutes later)
Me: Okay, Girl, I have to clean now [still not true]. I love you.
Girl: I love you too. I see you in the mornin'!
Me: Sweet dreams. 
Girl: Sweet dreams!
Me: Thank you, Girl.
Girl: Oh, you're welcome!

She's made a little friend across the street. Her friend speaks only Spanish; Girl only English, save for the occasional Mis on? or kampsun. They get along great, seeking refuge from the stressors of older brothers.

Only a month or two after calling every color blue, she's mastered the rainbow, showing her grandparents via Skype Candyland cards as they request a hue. Green pink blue red orange, they say. Okay, I try to, she says. Nails it. This time for real.

Girl really isn't ignored. She gets much more attention than she did when I was working. If we have to spend 15 hours a week focusing on Boy's, er, challenges, then we do that even if we only have 20 waking hours with Girl. But now I have all the time in the world. Not all the patience, not all the energy, and not all the confidence, but all the time. And I don't worry anyway, because I know when she's feeling a bit left out, she'll burst in the bathroom and when I ask for privacy, she'll shake her head.

No, I just want to watch.

Kids. If they weren't cute, they'd be total creepers.

Boy makes bubbles. Girl catches bubbles.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Blame the Biebs

I had a thoughtful post in mind. I think think I was going to talk about knowing when to pull the plug, when to walk away, when to just start fresh.

This wasn't going to be about quitting the Service or divorce or anything inherently consequential--so calm down--but only about our day at the gym yesterday, the 8th in a row. Boy has a gym-specific behavior chart. Three checks equals 15 minutes of iPad time after the gym. Twelve checks in a week equals a trip for ice cream (for them, not me). He's held it together most days, but yesterday one of the staff came to retrieve me in my final minutes of personal training. He had hurt three kids and it was time to just take him home. I agreed, upset not simply because it happened (he is often the oldest by far, so the kids he hurts tend to be quite young), but because he is nobody's fool. He'd rather be in the house than ever leave it, and the second he knows he can get me to take him home simply by engaging in some fisticuffs, it's game over. I was stewing on this, my frustration rising, when I decided to just let it go. It had been 8 days in a row. We played outside, both (!) kids took naps, and then we played outside some more. Two meals on the front porch, some up close observation of bees on the dandelions, and other kid-worthy pursuits.

In a moment, it all made sense, the need to step back, restart, recharge, let go, forgive, move on. In that moment, in a larger sense. In parenting, in life.

But then I clicked on a slideshow entitled "Justin Bieber through the Years" (thanks for nothing, HuffPost), and my brain oozed out my ear. I think I've heard one Bieber song ever and I find young celebrity too tragic to make him a punchline. I don't know why I did it. But any sense of larger meaning and human frailty and carpe-ing the diems: poof. Gone.


Sunday, April 21, 2013


Whoops. Disregard previous post.

I've been at this motherhood gig almost 5 years. You'd think I'd know better than to note publicly when things are going well, but alas. I don't. I never have.

I don't know if it's the stress of the arrival of our HHE, or a general loathing of me, or a genuine developmental issue, but it's been a rough few days for Boy and me. My Like-A-Boss-Ness has devolved into tantrums, writing/drawing/smearing inkpads on the wall, and other infractions that would so embarrass Teenage Boy that I won't mention them in a public forum. Girl, for her part, is generally well-behaved but still easily influenced by her big brother, whom she naturally worships, so when we went to Target and both of them took off in opposite directions for a game of Hide and Seek (only I wasn't playing), I thought I was damn near losing my mind.

Today my aunt, uncle, and teenage cousin came over to help with the last of the heavy schlepping. While Uncle R assembled a tool cabinet, I moved empty boxes from Garage 1 to Garage 2 (yes, 1890 sq ft of house and two entire garages...makes total sense). Girl wanted to help, so I asked her to drag a giant, fairly flat box from the garage at the side of the house to the garage at the back of our long yard. I didn't expect she'd make it more than a foot before running off to play T-ball with Boy. I was shocked when I came back in the yard to find her masterfully walking up the steps to Garage 2 backwards, hauling this large cardboard box. She continued on that way, holding one end of more cumbersome boxes while I held the other. I may have done most of the lifting, but certainly not all of it. She wouldn't finish until all the boxes had been moved, and even then, she requested "Moh boskes!"

I found myself caught between lavishly praising Girl and asking Boy to stop swinging the baseball bat at us, or to stop pouring water on the bathroom floor, or to stop sitting on the cat. I was cuddles and compliments with one, pure scolding with the other. I wouldn't want to be scolded all day, and I saw Boy descending deeper into a defiance I'm sure I too would embrace in his situation. I don't write on walls or swing a cat by his head, so that's one difference, but in a four-year-old's perspective I'm sure Mommy the Meanie looms larger than his own transgressions.

He's told me, several times, that I am a mean mommy, and I need to work on being frustrated.

I feel like a mean mommy. I want each moment to be a fresh start, but I turn around to find him engaged in an example of the World's Worst Judgment. I recently outlawed television, except for in the 5 7 a.m. hours (because come on), in hopes that that would force more creative and physical play and, in turn, a more exhausted and contented Boy. We'll see if it works. In the meantime, I find myself crawling into Boy's loft bed, smushed tailbone and all, to whisper love and forgiveness and regret in his sweet little ear. He nods quietly, his eyes too heavy to keep open, absorbing the flaws and missteps of his mother. In the end, I can only hope he remembers me not simply as Mommy the Meanie, but as Mommy the Human.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Like a Boss

Wow. Three weeks, no blogging. This isn't good, but our brand of groundhog day is unlikely to be particularly thrilling reading material, so maybe it's best. If you don't have anything interesting to say, don't say anything at all.*

This post is full of Foreign Service Top Tips. I bet you are super excited.

We've been settling in and we were doing alright--our behavior management plan is making life so much better for Boy and me--until a week ago. We had already received our license-plate-free cars and on Wednesday last we were eagerly anticipating our HHE, scheduled to arrive at our doorstep between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m. I received a call from the driver, saying they had another delivery and wouldn't be at our house until noon or so. I asked if there would be sufficient time for a full unpack and in response received the typical, "Oh? You wanted a full unpack?"

NOTE FOR FS NEWBIES: When in America, insist on your full unpack. The companies receive a lot of taxpayer dollars to do it for you, and will often try to wiggle out of it.

So I decide to continue tidying to prepare for the avalanche, hurricane, other weather-disaster-related metaphor of stuff that was about to rain down on us (see what I did there?).  And I promptly fell down the stairs and destroyed my tailbone. I took one car for emissions testing and the garage door wouldn't close and Boy had a huge meltdown at the testing station and my butt really hurt and at one point I might have sat in the driver's seat, slammed my hands repeatedly against the steering wheel and screamed, "I hate my life!" Might have.

Our stuff arrived at....drumroll 4:30 p.m. and was unpacked the next day. Once it was unpacked, it was clear that our 1890 sq. ft. house was not equipped to handle all our crap. I despaired for another day.

The village descended. My stepmom flew in from Washington and her sister and brother-in-law who live just a mile from my house became Team Awesome, sorting and tossing and organizing. There was even a margarita in there. I had to choose between Percocet and the margarita, and I chose the latter. More satisfying. In order to make my life easier, I ordered a storage container from 1-800-Packrat, which is now sitting in my driveway and holding all of the stuff that will go on Craigslist or in a yard sale. Super cheap, totally worth it. Consider this a Foreign Service Downsizing HHE Processing Top Tip.

Monday was the Like a Boss day. Emissions testing, VIN verification, registration of two cars? Driver's license? Nailed it. Taxes? Done. Paid. (If you have household staff, like we did for the first 6 months of 2012, you pay a lot come April 15.) Rental car? Returned. IN THE SNOW. LIKE A BOSS. Computer desk? Assembled.

Only Foreign Service Officers and their families might appreciate the atrociousness of international relocation, but its awfulness cannot be overstated.

Tuesday was also successful, though not as much in the conquering of Bureaucratic Forces Designed to Make Citizens Cry. I made it to the gym and did a good lower body/upper body workout. (No sitting though, so in order do bench presses from the balance ball, I had to flop somewhat fishlike on it. Trainer was amused.) Then I showered (! I know!) and took Girl to an affordable, well-reviewed preschool to secure the remaining spot for September enrollment. It's only for three half-days a week, and she pouted the whole way home because she wanted to go to preschool right then (there were bunnies, so can't blame her), but it's a win. It's two blocks from Boy's future school, which we will tour this morning if I can successfully cover up the fact that he's been up coughing all night long.

I'll cover the impossibility of securing an appointment with a behavioral psychologist in our network (at least a three month wait unless I go to the pediatric psych ER and get him admitted), the near miss for our family in Kandahar, Boston, and all things glum some other time. For now, our life is mundane, but each task conquered is a task conquered, so I'll take it.

Oh, also got a haircut for the first time in six months and a dye job to deal with this gray hair. LIKE A BOSS.

*Never stopped me before.

Monday, March 25, 2013

He's a Joiner

Boy's school in Estonia wanted us to pull him out at the half-day, hire a new nanny, and sign him up for sports. Well, they clarified, not really sports because he doesn't do well in a group and it would stress him out. Just hire a phys ed major to, I don't know, run him around in circles? He doesn't stop moving and that's a problem in school. We didn't do that, because Holy Childcare Management Nightmare. It would have been too much and not as effective as they thought it would have been. By most mid-afternoons, he's nothing if not overtired. That's not the time I would run him around.

I did get their point about the group dynamic. Boy misses kids, though. He is an introvert and can only take groups in small doses, but between the five or so hours they spend at the gym each week and the occasional playdate with their cousin, they don't see a lot of other kids. He's on the waitlist for swim lessons. He said no to art classes (still working on that one) and no to gymnastics. I'm secretly searching for a chess teacher. When I cautiously mentioned soccer or t-ball, he eagerly yelped, "Yes! Soccer!"

And so soccer it is.

He starts next week. He slept with his new soccer ball last night.

Can I Jedi Mindtrick you into seeing a clean house?

P.S.--In the chapters of Geographic Single Mom, you will find one labeled "The Chapter in which I Buy Him A Cup Because I Don't Know and Then Am Told He Doesn't Need One for Soccer but He Loves His Cup and Has Incorporated It into His Make-believe Play about Soccer."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Scene: A somewhat smelly unshowered post-gym mom drives her oft-complaining children to Whole Foods to spend too much on a bottle of water and some dinner following their errand. In the backseat, two children: one in a fleece polka dot hoodie, face filled with elephant limbs; the other pensive, fingers in mouth.

Boy (extra politely): Excuse me, Mom. Do zombies have skeletons?

Mom: Yeah, because they are people that were bitten by zombies, died, and then became zombies themselves. People have skeletons, so zombies have skeletons.

Boy (somewhat exasperated): Yeah, I know that. I mean, the first zombie. Did he have a skeleton? The first zombie wasn't bitten by another zombie.

Mom: Well, I think the first zombie got a virus, died, and then became a zombie and ate brains. So, that person would have a skeleton too. (As a panicked afterthought) But don't worry, that's just a make-believe virus, not like ones you and I get.

Boy: Okay, so the first zombie had a skeleton. Thanks.

I hope he won't be disappointed if they don't cover Zombie Anatomy in school. And I hope his school won't be disappointed if he wants them to.


SUMMARY This post contains the nitty gritty on our behavior management plan, as developed by our behavioral psychologist at Kennedy Krieger. It also contains a read out on some of my biggest challenges as a mother. Feel free to skip if the nitty gritty is not useful. Several of you are facing similar challenges, or have toddlers who may present similar challenges, and might find all this helpful. END SUMMARY

(That was for all you cable-writers out there.)

The first part of Sunday was shaping up to be horrendous. I don't even remember what was happening, but I remember it was all wrong and all I could think is: how can I get through this day, let alone a year? Then the normal/maybe not so normal self-loathing thoughts of how I'm a terrible mother with no patience and my kids deserve better and so on and so forth. I think Boy was punching cats. Or something. It was rough.

I had attempted to bring the kids to the gym for the first time, so they could see the kids' club and I could get a brief workout in. Girl was dressed and rarin' to go--she always loves to get out--but Boy would. not. move. Every single attempt to get him dressed wasn't working, and all he would do is scream how much he wanted to die and was never going to leave the house and was certainly not going to go to the gym. Then the cat punching. Or something. Again, details are fuzzy.

I started to despair, and at that moment I felt a kinship with every teacher he's ever had. Boy is smart and affectionate, but he's unpredictable and at times a bit of a terrorist, in that he will hold everyone in the room hostage to his whims. I knew I couldn't let him win, but I also knew I couldn't take him to the gym and a) have it go horribly and have them kick him out or b) have it go horribly and he'd never want to return. I started to panic, had a rushed call with my mom in which I lamented my lot in life, and then it hit me:

Let's get this behavior management program on the road.

This was the whole reason I'm home, right? Right. We couldn't fully implement his program in Estonia, because it was just not possible to cross the cultural barriers to manage it while working full time. We couldn't implement it the first few weeks we were in Colorado because we were moving and there was a lot of iPad time in order to accomplish anything. But now we were by ourselves, our house was livable, and we weren't setting our schedule around vendors anymore. Time to get cracking.

I tossed the angry child and his sister in the car and drove to the teacher store, where I loaded up on behavior charts of all types and sizes, a lesson plan book for me, bulletin board paper and border for our very own word wall, and a few other teaching items. He has to be ready for kindergarten in August, and I had some work to do.

The thrust of his plan is anathema to some: I address the behavior, not the emotion. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you have a violent child who doesn't express himself verbally (he does now, incessantly, but remember we started dealing with this when he was still a toddler), you get used to verbalizing emotions for him. So for years we have been super attuned to his needs and frustrations, which is normally great, but as he developed a huge vocabulary and reached an age where his behavior expectations were such that in no way could we write off, say, biting as just a phase, he needed an adult to interpret everything for him. This is how every school he's ever been in (to be fair, two) both said he essentially needed one teacher assigned to him all the time. He could express himself however he wanted, because the adult was going to say "I see you feel...., let's...." Well, okay, that's great with a two year old, but he's almost five. He needs to learn to self-regulate.

This is not to say we aren't supposed to care about his emotions. We certainly are. It's just that, except for emergencies or moments of pain, it's okay to let him get frustrated and angry and figure out how to deal with it. Without violence. The violence was so prevalent that we didn't let him do that, but that's not a long term strategy for success. So I am supposed to address the emotion when it's presented calmly. If he's frustrated, angry, sad, excited--whatever--I engage with him when he presents that in a way that is acceptable. My crunchy tendency is to say, well shouldn't we validate all feelings? Yes, says the psychologist, but feelings and manifestations are not the same thing, and that lesson is a key one. Being upset with me because I used a block he wanted is legit. Screaming that he hates me and that I need to put back or, all too often, throwing a block at me or trying to bite, certainly isn't. So I keep on playing with that block, deflecting the attack, not making eye contact, and calmly saying "try that again." The absolute second he calms down and asks me for the block back I specifically  and enthusiastically praise the calm way he asked for it, and give it to him. Or don't, and tell him I needed it for my tower but let's work out a solution. You know, those human interactions we wish the road rage types could practice.

It boils down to this:

1) Really ignore negative behavior (no eye contact, no getting red in the face, no yelling, no engagement). If you need to intervene during dangerous behavior, say when a kid is throwing blocks, you walk over and take the blocks away without words and without eye contact. When a kid is four, he knows why you are taking them. Exposition is unnecessary.

2) Praise specific behavior in an over-the-top and immediate way. "You're doing great!" isn't as valuable as "You calmly put your toys back in the box. That's awesome!"

3) Schedules schedules schedules. Post them everywhere, so the child knows what comes next and what he or she has to look forward to. Teachers do this with their "Flow of the Day."

4) Charts charts charts. Reward the hell out of good behavior...give the kid a goal that is attainable but also missable so that they have something that requires a little improvement on their part. Behavior charts, "first/then" charts (that's been huge for us...don't say "if you ___, then you can __" because then it's an option!), stoplights. There are a lot of options, all part of the teachers' toolkit as well.

5) Give directions properly. I am the worst at my verbal tics. As adults, we make things polite by saying, "Could you?" or "Can you?" or "It would be great." As the psychologist asked me: is it really an option? If it is--and sometimes it is--then ask it like it is one. Kids are verbal literalists. If it's something that must happen, phrase it as such: "I need you to x." Give directions within arms length in a normal speaking voice.

6) Follow up. Our plan uses the following strategy: count to five in your head (not out loud), repeat the direction and add that if the child doesn't do it, you will help them do it. Then do it. For Boy, the best example at the doctor's office was his shoes: he took them off at the beginning of the session, and when it was time to go he didn't even acknowledge my request to put them on. The doctor told him to do it, waited five beats, reminded him and said she would help him if he didn't do it. He didn't do it. So she took his hand, put it on his shoe, then started putting his shoe on for him. His dignity was insulted and he started screaming screaming that he wanted to do it himself, digging his nails into her hands. She calmly, without eye contact, informed him that he had an opportunity and chose not to do it, so the consequence is now she will do it for him. Then she pried his nails off her. As soon as she was done, he took them off. And so it went. The next day, he put his shoes on by himself.

7) Make rewards meaningful but easy on you. Don't give dessert, make it a reward! Don't allow iPad time, make it a reward! Rewards should only rarely cost money and always be something a child genuinely enjoys. When Boy was three, we were buying crappy little toys he could earn by accumulating coins (read: poker chips). In the end, we were out a ton of cash and had a ton of plastic toys we didn't need around the house. I find iPad time or a TV show or dessert to be more meaningful for everyone. (Or picking the museum we go to or which restaurant we eat at get the idea).

8) It gets worse before it gets better. This has been very true. The first month after our trip to Baltimore was constant despair for me. I was scratched, hit, bitten. He told me he hated me regularly (current version: telling me he wants to die).

And yesterday was no different.

I was really proud of myself. The night before I had created a chore chart for Boy that listed his responsibilities (clean up Legos, brush teeth, be gentle with pets, etc.). He helped me make one for myself:

I have a lot more chores.*

We made a chart just for mealtime, and he could earn stickers for staying in his chair, using utensils, asking to be excused, and clearing his plate from the table. Twenty stickers on the chore chart equals twenty minutes of iPad time (achievable every two to three days). Ten stickers on the meal chart equals dessert (last night was hot chocolate).

When the kids woke up, they had a great flow of the day up in their little hallway. We went over it. I told Boy that good behavior at the gym meant 15 whole minutes of iPad. He dutifully got into play clothes all on his own, went to the gym, and did well. He had a minor meltdown in the store afterward, but held it together during rest time and even learned some new words on our word wall while Girl was napping. Later, he was upstairs while I helped her in the bathroom downstairs. I had set up an activity for them (reading for him, colors and shapes for her), and I was feeling confident that our program was going to be effective and helpful for all three of us.

I brought Girl upstairs, eager to do our activity and happy with the way our day was going.

Boy had taken a marker and scribbled all over my schedule, moving parts of it and taking other parts away. He had take then same marker to the activities I set up, covering the work I had done with blue marker.

He looked viciously at me, as if challenging me to say something about it. My inclination was to lose it. In my head all I could think is that we had turned our life upside down and I was doing the best I could, on my own, while his dad was in a war zone, all to give him a better chance. I wanted to send him to his room, tell him he was awful, and then give up. But all that is horrible to lay at the feet of even the most difficult four year old. Plus, "Use a calm voice" was on my chore chart.

So I cried. I fake cried. I was angry and frustrated enough to cry, but I wasn't going to. So I squeezed some tears out, told him I was doing this for him to make his day easier, and that it really hurt me that he ruined it. I looked up to find him genuinely remorseful. He hugged me, told me he was "really really sorry for ruining your hard work." He did assure me he'd do it again next time he's mad, but we'll work on that. Rather than dwell on it, I recreated the activity and he read a bunch of sentences.

This morning, I had a new flow of the day set up.

So far it's intact and he earned his 15 minutes of iPad time for being great at the gym.

It's an ongoing struggle, but I know that consistency is going to be key.

There are a lot of parents who might not be comfortable with this. One school would prefer that he just behave or face consequences--corporal or not. That's just not our kid. Another would prefer that he be given the deference we'd give an adult, out of respect. That's just not our kid. I respect him, but there are certain things required of a functioning member of society. I'm with Louis CK on this one; sometimes you just need to put your damn shoes on. I'll let you know if this works the way I hope it will, but it definitely gives us structure, reference points, and goals. Girl likes the schedule too, and I even convinced her it was naptime by pointing to it. Ultimately, this reduces the number of negative interactions we have, as I just do not engage on most of the negative behavior. It's easier on our relationship.

I know from experience this is how classrooms in the U.S. function. Fingers crossed, we might finally be heading down the right path.

*Yep, on Sunday I neither showered nor put on clean clothes. Woot.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


So far homeownership has been akin to what I imagine a fast bleed must be like. Small purchases, big purchases...I'm constantly purchasing. The fence company is on day two of their build, Girl's super expensive 3-day-blinds just went up on day 14 (that's a rant for another time), and I just got a landscaping design and proposal that will require me to sell at least part of my liver.

Yesterday was my mom's last day in town. In the afternoon, she started doing her typical mom thing of straightening up unsorted piles and organizing a bit. I stopped her and told her what I wanted more than anything was to play with the kids while I left the house alone for the last time ever. She understood.

I don't have any non-PJ pants at the moment, so I went to try on jeans. I attempted to pull on a couple pairs, when I realized that what I really needed was a gym membership. I left the shop, drove straight to the closest gym with a daycare, and joined. I didn't hesitate to toss significant change at the personal training program. I start with a trainer on Tuesday and I fervently hope Boy won't get uninvited from their kids' center.

In an effort to squeeze as much as I could out of my mom's last couple hours in Colorado, I took the dog on a run this morning. Well, I ran, Dali trotted along like it was nothing, which was sort of insulting but no matter. My first conclusion is: where have all the oxygens gone? It's like some oxygen-stealing goblin flies around and steals alllll of the molecules and brings them to sea level, because there sure as hell aren't any left here.

To be fair, Estonia is essentially sea level. Exhibit A: there is no word to distinguish a hill from a mountain (both are "mägi"), as there aren't any of the latter and there are hardly any of the former. Exhibit B: Big Egg Mountain isn't. And when I ran (read: plodded) along the Gulf of Finland, passing a friend who had come out to clap for me, around mile 8 of my half marathon, I declared that the whole experience was worse than childbirth and whatever my body was doing at that moment, it was certainly not efficiently processing oxygen.

This is all to say, maybe it's me. Although it's also definitely the altitude. But it's really mostly me. For all the many commitments and contracts and purchases of the past few days, this is the one I'm most excited about: a little mom time, some great exercise, and hopefully more than a little self-confidence. Despite the perks of working motherhood (salary, adult time, you can sit down occasionally, I don't carry anyone at the office), fitness was the one thing I constantly sacrificed. I was gone from the house more than ten hours of the day and when I was home I was cooking, cleaning, reading stories, etc. The idea that I would take an hour of what time I had left and exercise just seemed, well, exhausting. I needed it, and I should have done it, but here we are. A fresh start.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Falling Short

Boy opened the front door yesterday to throw out his apple core, "so the bugs can eat it," and I added a compost pile to my growing list of domestic aspirations. Like many Washingtonians, I strive to overachieve, and though I fall short regularly and spectacularly, I cannot stop pinning DIY detergents and fabric organizers and memory books.

When Husband and I were debating how best to handle this massive shift to one stay-at-home parent, he told me that I needed to direct his ambition. That he was going to be ambitious was a given, but I had to tell him whether I wanted him to have career ambition or stay-at-home-dad ambition. I am similar, and so I strive to can, and sew, and generally make a home.

I haven't added "grow kale" to my list, but I figure with a sleeve of tattoos and at least one bird-print dress, I'm one pin away from growing some in a repurposed crate. I know my children will eye a kale smoothie with intense skepticism, as would I, but it seems to be what I should be aiming for, so aim I shall.

It would be great if I could pretend that's not how this ambition works, that I'm not competitive with myself and the world, but that would be a lie and you all would know it, so let's just dispense with such notions now.

Stepping back from the Service is harder than I thought it would be. I squeezed in a few precious minutes to read the Washington Post the other day, and as I read "Secretary Kerry" over and over again it hit me that the Department moves on without me. His first day was my last, and that was just one of many changes that will surely come. I know when I return the software will be different, the procedures will be different, and--possibly--immigration and nationality law in itself could be different. My friends and colleagues will be promoted over me. We are an intensely competitive service, staffed with people who genuinely like their work and each other, but who all aspire to superstar status. I am that way by nature, but I've had to step back for my kids. Even if Boy were your average child, I can't work 14 hour days with two small kids at home and a husband with a full-time job. So I end up in a life were I spend most of my day giving not-quite-enough at the office, and the rest of it giving not-nearly-enough at home. It's tough on your soul.

I'm hoping to enjoy this break from paid employment, however long it will be, as a break from the pressure and competition and, in my case, the omnipresent sense of inadequacy. I am still me, though, and as I finished re-upholstering our dining room chairs, I put out a cloth and called the kids over to paint embroidery hoops for Girl's room (pictures will soon explain). I whipped up some pumpkin bread this morning, and after the kids wake up from their nap, my mom and I will caravan to the other side of the city to pick up some great mid-century modern vintage vinyl chairs for my porch. I joined the local food co-op this morning, I bought kids chalk for their new chalkboard wall, and I even took a shower. It sounds great, right? I'm somewhat productive, I'm nesting, and I'm even clean.

All I can think is I haven't planted any kale and I haven't been anybody's staff assistant. And so my list keeps growing, passing aspirational and approaching delusional, as I calculate not how I can have it all, but how I can do it all. I'm still hoping that some day, in some way, I'll finally walk on water.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Real Estate by Skype: A Buyer's Guide

Another FS blogger wondered how to go about buying a house sight unseen. When I put something on the Facepage in January about putting in a bid on a house we've only seen by Skype and experiencing a heart attack waiting for the seller's response, a lot of dips wrote that they've done the same thing. One friend noted he's still never seen a place he bought several years ago. Another noted he and his wife went straight through closing without ever seeing their house. Such is the expat life.

Here are my tips. Keep in mind that I know really nothing about buying a house, but I am currently occupying one and no one has sent the police over to tell me I did the whole thing wrong and I'm actually a very well-established squatter. I mean, I just painted, so that would be awkward.

1) Get a good agent. We love USAA and naturally took them up on their MoversAdvantage offer. As part of the program (well, as all of the program, really), they set you up with a broker in your market. If you close with that person, you get cash on closing. It's a nice sum of cash in any other situation, but in the context of buying a house, it's not a lot and it's certainly not worth maintaining the client-broker relationship if you aren't comfortable. For a number of reasons, the realtor USAA selected for us wasn't the best fit. Husband's friend from college recommended her broker/next door neighbor and I checked out his agency's website (Green Door Living, for those in the market for a house in Colorado). They were absolutely perfect for us.

What does that look like? Well, in our first conversation Christian told me about the current Denver market and what to expect (low inventory, booming demand, bidding wars). He spoke directly with our lender to make sure everything was going well. He spoke knowledgeably about each neighborhood, each street, and house construction. He was up for the long-distance buying process and understood our urgency. When we narrowed it down to seven or eight houses in two different areas of the city, he took my aunt and only Skyped me from two of them. He felt confident in our needs enough that he ruled out others for being too small, too structurally unsound, etc. We found this house on their first day of looking, but I had a couple reservations about the block. He drove back over to the house, called me, walked the block, and talked about everything he saw. He looked into the vacant house next door and found out that it was purchased in December. It made me feel really comfortable with putting a bid in long-distance and once we did put in an offer, he stayed on top of the seller to get a quick response. He held my hand through the buying process. Just everything about our broker-client relationship was great and that trust is imperative when doing all this sight-unseen.

Can you tell I like my broker?

2) Skype or Facetime into showings and the inspection. Use Google Streetview to get a sense of the neighborhood and surroundings, but keep in mind that it might not reflect changes on flipped properties, depending on when it was last updated. I am an idiot, and I kept wondering why our block was so gloomy and rundown compared to the surrounding blocks. Um, that's because it was a stormy day when Google Maps was on your block, and normal Colorado sun on the other blocks, you moron. Really, I'm that dumb.

3) Ask questions that normally don't need to be asked, because you would normally be there to see the house. How far is it from busy streets? What do the neighboring properties look like? What's the closest restaurant? Whatever matters to you, ask.

4) Ask your broker as early in the process as possible how contracts will work in your state. Can you do electronic signatures? Do you need access to a scanner or fax on short notice? Be prepared to hustle once you want to put in a bid. We were frantically signing things electronically to beat out another offer, but had we been required to sign and fax, we would have hired a sitter and camped out in the office for the night.

5) When working with your lender, consider whose income to put on your application. Many FS families have one consistent bread-winner. We had two until this month, but only put Husband's income on our application. They check your employment about a week before closing to confirm nothing has changed and nothing will change, and it would have derailed us entirely if they had to ask about my LWOP. If you work at the Embassy but don't have a job lined up for when you return to the States, consider whether you should put your current income on your mortgage application (this may be common sense for most people, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to not mention my employment until we went through this).

6) If you are going to buy from overseas, or anywhere really, go onto Employee Express, check your TSP address, change it to your actual mailing address (or a trusted friend or relative's, for quicker delivery). If you don't have your password, request one after your address has been changed. It took forever to get a new password, which meant it took forever to provide our lender my TSP statements.

7) If you are doing a TSP loan for your down payment or any part of the housing process, fill in the application online, print it, have your spouse sign it, and fax it in BUT ONLY ONCE. It will delay the process a bit if you do it more than once (speaking from experience). If you aren't sure whether they got it, call them later to follow up. But have your phone PIN. Please see number 3.

8) Ask your broker for a trusted EVERYTHING and join Angie's List. I'm not established in Denver. I know about five people here. I didn't know where to begin to find a good painter or fence company or anything. My broker hooked me up with our painters, who gave me a good deal because of the referral. Angie's List has a small annual fee, but you can get reviews on companies, which is how I found my fence guys.

9) If possible, stay with family or use cash for temporary quarters if you are coming home before closing. Don't charge a month of a corporate stay on your card even if you will pay it off every month, as your lender will check your credit several times once you are in escrow. I had to rent a car, get a cellphone (requiring a credit check), etc., but I stayed with family so at least I didn't have that expense. Credit checks and a change in your debt-to-limit ratio could scare your lender.

10) Lastly, in the hullaballoo of an overseas move, it is always helpful to have family swoop in and lend much-needed hands. I found this to be extra true when buying a house instead of renting. Because we came back to the country so soon before closing, I had to do everything at once. My mom, aunt and cousins have helped me pick up furniture, build furniture, accept shipments, unpack, distract kids, find a blinds company, go to Home Depot (really, I'm there almost every day), etc. I have vendors coming in and out several times a day, and having another adult or four around has been very helpful. Our window coverings salesperson (that is a thing!) was amused to walk into a house with four children and five adults and three animals, but that's how we got things done. I told my young and strong cousin and her fiancé that their wedding present would double in niceness for every piece of furniture they assemble. I'm not sure I was kidding. It takes a village.