Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.
I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.
Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.
A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.
While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.
They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.
I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.
When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.
Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.
The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.
I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.
I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I now have teenagers. Somehow this is not as scary as I thought it would be.
That may be because I’ve worked in mental health, helping kids, so I’ve seen teens in heart-wrenching situations. I knew a girl who got pregnant at twelve and had a baby at thirteen. That baby is nearly grown now—I hope she had a better childhood than her mom did. I knew a kid who was hooked on meth by the time he was a teen, and another who tried to kill herself with a shotgun blast to the stomach when she was in middle school. So…yeah. The bar for shocking me has been set pretty high.
I’m not a perfect parent, but so far, my twin boys have turned out to be amazing people. They are smart and funny and kind. They are sweet to animals and loving to their parents. They are loyal to their friends and brave enough to speak up if they see someone being bullied. They set goals for themselves and do well in school. I can’t complain at all (even if they remind me I’m not as cool as I used to be because the latest slang is a mystery to me or I’m clueless about dance moves).
I’m thankful to have good kids. Really, I’m thrilled to have kids at all. Back in my twenties, it looked like that was never going to happen. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a nightmare if you want to have a biological child. It’s a horror show for other areas of your life too, wreaking havoc on your endocrine system, but the disease is cruelest when it comes to fertility. This doesn’t say much for my character, but I’ll be honest: working in social services with people who didn’t want to be pregnant was tough when I wanted a kid and couldn’t have one. Still, the hardest part of having PCOS was the shame. Talking about infertility was taboo, and yet, I was at an age where everyone wanted to know why I hadn’t had kids yet. Didn’t I want children? I felt like I was under a microscope with all the intrusive questions and comments I received from people who likely meant well. I felt broken.
Then came the day I found out I was pregnant. Staring at the little blue lines that finally appeared on the pregnancy test felt miraculous. Finding out I was having twins felt too good to be true. I was terrified something bad would happen, that I’d have a miscarriage. We didn’t tell anyone but our family for a long time because I was scared we’d jinx our good fortune.
Confined to bedrest the week before my boys were born, I remember watching fireworks outside my hospital window. That July there was a forest fire, and the mountains around Tucson flickered with orange light, a show to rival Independence Day festivities. Then I had two new people in my life. I remember how miraculous it felt to finally see their tiny faces, how surreal it was to know life would never be the same.
There was more fear when we learned that one baby had been born healthy but the other would have to stay in newborn intensive care. We didn’t get a serene, post-birth moment of bonding. We got a machine, pumping air into my son’s fluid-filled lungs, keeping him alive. We bonded with him as best we could in the hospital, knowing he might not make it, while feeling grateful to be able to take at least one of our children home to live with us. We did a lot of praying. Over the following month, we drove back and forth to the hospital to see our sick baby, while taking care of our other newborn.
This was not an ideal way to start out as a new parent. Between our daily trips to the hospital, I had a lot of guilt about not being able to give either of my children the time or attention I wanted to give them. Things turned out better than they could have though, and for that, I’m thankful. My son did live, and now he’s a healthy, broad-shouldered kid who towers over me. My other son is almost as tall as I am, and often reminds me that he too will soon outgrow me.
The other day I found a bunch of videos of my sons as toddlers, much to their embarrassment. We filmed everything because we were so happy to have children.
One of my favorite videos is of them at age two, playing board games. Operation was a big hit, sending them into fits of giggling every time the buzzer went off. I know I’m biased, but it’s adorable. We also played Jumanji—after watching the movie—which pretty much scarred one of my sons for life. There’s video of him hiding under a chair as his dad reads a card about a hailstorm. (Bad parenting, but darn cute.) The other son (the one who had such a rough start to his life) loved the game. He thought the idea of a rhino crashing through our house was marvelous. He wouldn’t have objected to a rampaging elephant either.
So now my boys are thirteen. Time has gone by too fast, but I’m so thankful we’ve had this time together. We’ve got a few more years before they’re off to college, and I’m grateful that we’re close, that we still take walks together on the beach and talk about our favorite books. I know there are a lot of changes coming, and with those changes, new challenges. I hope, no matter what happens next, they always know how much they are loved.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This week I was talking with a friend about advice. When you’re seeking advice, it’s always wonderful to find someone who can help you, who can say the exact right thing to help you solve a problem or give you a nudge to take a risk you would have been too scared to take otherwise. Sometimes you’re not seeking advice though, and when it comes unsolicited, usually from someone who means well, it can be difficult to digest. My friend related the story of her wedding shower, when someone announced that everyone present needed to share marriage advice with her. Some of the advice touched on topics the guest of honor didn’t feel comfortable discussing in a public setting. I imagine the person who started the chain of advice-giving had only the best of intentions, but my friend still felt like a bug, skewered to the wall and put on display.
I could relate. When I was trying to get pregnant, I felt like I was suddenly in the spotlight, a beacon for unsolicited advice. I have health issues which made it difficult to have children, and that was hard enough as it was, trying to understand what was going on with my body, and grieving the fact that I was never going to be able to have children like a normal person, that I would be lucky to have a child at all. It made me feel like a failure, like I wasn’t a real woman. People with good intentions, who had no idea what was going on with me or who didn’t understand the medical issue, came out of the woodwork to give me advice. A few people asked questions that were shockingly invasive.
Part of the problem is I am introverted, and wanted to keep the issue to myself. I hadn’t gone around telling everyone about my troubles, but some people in my inner circle had. Part of it was I was embarrassed—infertility is a deeply personal issue. It wasn’t my fault my body was screwed up, but I still felt like I had failed somehow. Like I was broken. There was so much pressure to have children—it was part of the culture that surrounded me. That was what a woman like me was supposed to do. No one said it directly, but within all those intrusive bits of advice, there was a message: if you can’t have children, you are to be pitied because you are not fulfilling your role. Never mind that I had a master’s degree and was working toward a doctoral degree. Never mind that I had a good job. Never mind that I was an adult in my late twenties who paid her own bills. It didn’t matter how independent or accomplished I was, it all came back to my ability to reproduce. The barrage of advice was relentless, and made me feel even worse about the situation.
Finally, I got pregnant with twins. I was scared to tell people for a while, worried I’d jinx myself and lose my children. I felt great joy and a sense of relief about finally being able to have children, and I hoped I’d find respite from all the advice and questions. I didn’t.
When you are pregnant with multiples, you start to show early, and my bulging waistline now made me a target for strangers. I worked with the public, providing customer service, and nearly every person, every day, had something to say about my pregnancy. It was exhausting. I was often tempted to hold up my hand, stopping people mid-sentence, to tick off a list of questions for them. “Are you pregnant?” “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” “Twins? Oh my gosh! You’re so lucky!” The same thing over and over. Every. Freaking. Day. Now and again, I’d get a real weirdo, who would ask something off the wall. One guy wanted to know who my OBGYN was. “Why do you need to know that?” I asked him. Seriously, why did he need to know?
Now the unsolicited advice I got was about what I should be eating, how much weight I should or should not gain, what I needed to know about giving birth, how to get my figure back after birth, and how I should care for my bundles of joy once they arrived. Again, it was all well-intentioned. But here’s the thing: I am not normal. The body I live in is absolutely not normal. I can accept that, but what works for every other woman on this planet is not necessarily going to work for me. For example, I know that carbs are my kryptonite. A low-fat, veggie-only diet is never going to work for my body. I need low-carb protein, dang it, and woe to the fool who denies me. I am a carnivore, and you should not cross paths with a hungry carnivore. Especially one who is eating for three.
I learned to listen to my body and disregard bad advice. I learned that when you care for multiple babies, all those nice little parenting rules go flying out the window. You’re in survival mode, and you do what you need to do to keep those things fed, diapered, and happy, or you’ll lose your mind. When people ask me what it was like to have twins, I’m way too honest. “That first year was hell,” I say with a sweet smile. If they say they always wanted to have twins, I’ll throw in a horror story as a bonus treat (preferably one that involves projectile vomiting or poo—I have quite a repertoire of those). One woman told me she always wanted to have triplets. I informed her she was mental.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my children, and I’m so blessed to have them. They are awesome kids, and I feel grateful for that too. In spite of my failings, they are turning out to be wonderful human beings. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told my sister-in-law, when she was having a baby shower and someone decided she needed pumped full of advice. “Having a kid is not going to be easy,” I said. “Everyone is going to give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be bad. Do what works best for you and your baby, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.” That’s the best advice I can give.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016