Today is my last day to have a seven year old. Tomorrow, I will have two tweens in the house.
I love seven because it’s a magic number. But eight sounds so composed, so balanced, so very sensible. I think I’m going to love eight too.
Ten years ago in the last few days of August, the B and I put our four-month-old baby in the Corolla and started the drive from southmost Texas to Maryland, two years after we had first driven all the way there from Pennsylvania. In many ways, driving back north felt oddly like going home, even though Maryland is technically below the Mason-Dixon line (and therefore still in the South, unlike Yankee Pennsylvania). Texas was pretty alien. I’d only lived in Pennsylvania for 18 months before that, but B had been there a whole PhD’s worth of time. Maryland felt reassuringly familiar.
We’d rented a place to live, sight unseen, which is always a horrible way to go about it. It was not very close to B’s new place of work, because we were assured that we didn’t want to live in that particular county. We should live one county over, where it was – I don’t know, nicer, safer, more expensive, something. In retrospect this was a bad decision because with B driving the car off to work every day I was left trapped in the apartment, in walking distance of one set of shops but nothing else. Every day I pushed the baby up to the supermarket, took a look in Sears, stopped at Starbucks if he was either cheerful or asleep, and back home. He’d fall asleep on the walk back, but often wake up when I tried to get him back inside, which involved one flight of steps up to the front door and another down to our basement-level apartment.
I didn’t meet anyone while we lived there. I don’t know who our neighbours were. I didn’t make any friends. I tried to find a moms’ group but the only one I could find was about 30 miles away. We went once, making a game effort, but it was too far. It was lonely, but it was temporary, because we’d only rented that place for three months.
At the end of our three months we were more familiar with the area. We moved to a condo across the road from B’s place of work, in the dodgy county, where rents were lower and everything else, as far as we could see, was exactly the same. (We hadn’t encountered the school system yet. That’s where the biggest difference lies.) But for me, it was the beginning of actually making a life here rather than just pushing the baby around on my own, day after day. I had the car: I could go places. I found the library. I found the community center. I found a local group of moms and dads that met at the playground every Wednesday. I found my space.
But ten years. If you’d told me then, as we drove the highways north of New Orleans, along the Gulf shores of Mississippi and Alabama – communities still reeling from Hurricane Katrina the year before – through the panhandle of Florida, into Georgia and up along the coast of the Carolinas, that we’d still be in the US ten years later, I’d probably have demanded that we move home straight away. This was not the plan. (This is why nobody should know the future, even if it’s perfectly good.) The plan was another couple of years in the US and then home to Ireland to buy a house and settle down and send the baby to a nice Educate Together school if possible and be perfectly normal Irish people.
We still have the Corolla, but we have a Subaru too, because we’re true suburbanites now. We bought a house that’s still close to B’s work, but not where they’re out dealing drugs on the stoops. (Apparently that’s what went on in our second rental’s neighbourhood. I had no idea at the time.) Some of the friends I made that first year are still my friends, and their kids are my kids’ friends, and we’re all Americans now. (Even B. has a citizenship application in the works at the moment.)
Oh, we still have the baby too. Sort of.
I nearly forgot to mention my new stickers. I’m delighted to be shortlisted once again in the Personal Blog – Diaspora category of the Irish Blog Awards – but there’s a public vote element to this round. If you’d be so very kind as to click through here and take a moment to log in (sorry!) and vote for Awfully Chipper, I’d be eternally grateful.
I already feel like this is going to be the summer when everything changed.
Maybe every summer after this will be one of those summers, or maybe I’ll look back and think “I thought that was change? THIS is change.” But the summers when they were little kids, I think those are over.
One thing is the electronics. We sort of fell into the chasm of electronics without really meaning to, which is of course the worst way to do it. All at once, Dash got his iPad Mini because he had to do something with all that birthday money/tokens, and B invested in a Chromebook for Dash to use for homework and the kids to use for other things so they didn’t keep stealing my computer. And Mabel had already started treating my Kindle Fire like her own personal Minecraft machine, since I hardly use it when we’re at home anyway… it all got away from us a bit.
Their obsession with various games waxes and wanes, and device time can be used for bribery purposes. Dash is proving fairly good at self-regulating with his, too, so it’s not all bad. I suppose. Maybe, like having babies, there’s never a perfect time to introduce electronics. Maybe if you think too hard about it you’ll never be ready. Maybe we’d all like to keep our kids little Luddites forever, since we had to be when we were children – but that’s not going to work, is it? We’re a bit like Pooh and the honey pot with it still – sometimes we’re on top and sometimes the technology is running the show, but we’ll sort it out.
Then there’s swimming. For the past six years, I’ve bought a three-month membership at the pool in June and we’ve trotted down there almost every afternoon of the long hot summers. It’s been a lifesaver. The kids learned to swim not really from sporadic lessons, but just from showing up over and over. The tedium of gathering towels and slathering sunscreen was made up for by some social time at the pool – where we’d almost always meet some friends, without needing to make plans to do so – and a good night’s sleep guaranteed.
So this year I shelled out for summer membership, as usual. We’ve gone to the pool maybe three times since then. Dash has had a vendetta against swimming, for no apparent reason, and though Mabel likes the pool well enough, she’s usually happy at home of an afternoon, not going bonkers and needing to be dragged somewhere. Nothing forces me to muster the energy for a pool run, and Dash would probably stay at home alone anyway, now that he can. Bedtimes are getting later and later. Next year I’ll probably save my money and give someone extra camp time instead.
It will have been the summer of my book, of course. My first book, let’s say, optimistically. I don’t expect instant stardom to ensue, so that they look back and say “Well, of course, that happened before Mom was famous…” but I do want it to be a beginning, not just the end of something. And whether I’m writing more or editing more or have a part-time job next summer, one of those things may well be the case, and then it would have to be camps all round, or at least a lot of boring stay-at-home time for Dash (who doesn’t like camps unless I can find some very cool engineering or rock climbing one, he says).
It might just possibly be the summer Mabel started to read books. She’s reading something called The Chronicles of Wrenly, and it seems to be holding her attention enough that she’ll quite willingly read a chapter or two a day, when I suggest it. (All right, there was a bribe involved to start her off, but even though the Playmobil set is already in transit, she’s going to finish the book. And it’s a series!) I think it’s just managing to hit that sweet spot of interesting enough and easy enough, so that reading isn’t remotely a chore.
But more than those concrete things, it’s definitely been a summer of more autonomy for Dash. He chooses to come with us or stay at home more often now. It’s mostly stay at home, but hey, if I could choose to stay home from the supermarket I probably would. He spends too much time on his iPad one day and then voluntarily keeps away from it for all of the next. So it’s been a summer of me figuring out how to let go, loosening the reins, trusting him, letting him be his own person.
This is Dash’s last summer as an elementary school student. This time next year he’ll be a rising middle-schooler. No wonder things are changing. I can barely keep up.
You have a baby, and it feels like forever. Time is measured in two-hour blocks, all day, all night, for ever. You’re constantly counting things, because it gives you the illusion of control: feeds, ounces, wet diapers, dirty diapers, weeks until breastfeeding gets easier, hours of sleep. Minutes of sleep. It takes so long, so much, just to get as far as that first smile, when everyone says things will start looking up.
He gets his first tooth, a white nub of sharpness poking through the bottom gum, and you feel a tiny chime of something, of sadness, of “over-ness” because this is the beginning of the end of your newborn, who isn’t a newborn any more anyway, he’s already up on hands and knees rocking back and forth and propelling himself backwards into the blinds on the french window instead of forwards to the thing he so badly wants to reach. You laugh and make videos because you know that in a day or three or five he’ll be going forwards after all, and he’ll never look back again.
You have a little boy, sturdy, chubby-handed, all grins and cheeks and dimples and still-fluffy wispy hair. He lisps adorably and says memote rontrol instead of remote control. You don’t teach him the right way to say it, but one day you realise he hasn’t called it the memote rontrol for ages, and you didn’t even notice that his lisp is mostly gone.
You have a boy whose elbows and knees are suddenly pointy, poking into you when he sits beside you, too big to sit on your lap (but still trying). He has grown into the gap where he knocked a front tooth out: nobody is surprised to see it any more because his classroom is awash with wobbly incisors and gappy gums and children who want to show you that their tooth fell out. Your boy has a classroom where things happen that you don’t even know about. You’re not too sure how you feel about that, even after all these years of waiting for the day when you could go to the bathroom without an audience.
Now you have a boy whose legs are long and strong and tanned and covered in bruises from baseballs and mosquito bites from staying out in the back yard making crossbows from sticks. You have no more duct tape in the house. When he lazes on the sofa playing a computer game he takes up the whole thing – the same cool brown leather you laid your shirtless newborn down on one small portion of because the hospital said you had to wake him for a feed every two hours. It has more scratches now, more pieces of breakfast cereal and dried-up pasta and toast crumbs between the non-removable cushions, and its backbone is broken from too much jumping, but it’s the same sofa.
Yesterday. Yesterday and forever. What they didn’t tell you was that after that first smile, time would catapult you forward and it would only ever get faster, never slower again.
Today is Mabel’s last day of first grade. She did not deign to pose for a photograph.
She bought her own chocolate croissant at the farmer’s market yesterday morning. Not even with me standing beside her: she left us sitting on the hill and headed off to the bakery booth by herself, a five-dollar bill flapping in her hand. I don’t know if she was polite, but she got what she went for and brought us back the change. She wrote thank-you cards to three of her teachers last night, with minimal prompting from me and no dictation required. They weren’t exactly individualised, but they were quite nice and very neat.
She made a poster for her brother’s lemonade stand, but then she quit the job because he wouldn’t give her any free samples. You need to negotiate your terms of employment up front, I told her. But I told her he needs to learn some managerial skills too.
She builds houses and towers and spawns wolves and ocelots in Minecraft, she wheedles me into putting more games for her to play on my Kindle Fire, she can quote The Princess Bride at an apposite moment.
She still draws while she watches tv, piles and piles of papery people with varying expressions and colourful clothes. She still puts her babies to bed under blankets, and makes families of puppies and little tableaux of Playmobil figures or plastic dinosaurs. She still wants someone to stay with her until she falls asleep.
She is still completely unreasonable quite often, but she does it with such minxy insouciance that half the time we have to laugh. “Miss Unreasonable-Pants,” I called her the other night, and she spent the next five minutes narrating an argument between the two legs of her unreasonable pants.
She’s seven and a half. When did she get so big?
We have fixed Dash! I feel like we’ve finally accomplished something as parents. They say you can’t change people, but they’re wrong.
No, we haven’t got to the root of his reading trouble, or his vision if that’s what it is. He still won’t eat more than about four very specific things. And singing in tune is not always, yet, his forte. But his teeth are straight now! We made it happen! Yay us!
You might remember, or not, because I didn’t blog much back then, that Dash knocked out a tooth when he was a baby. One of his top front teeth, in fact. He’d only had it a month, when bump, thump, bang, and out it went. The sort of thing that makes you want to envelop them in bubblewrap and never leave the house again.
(Though in fact it turned out to be one of only two trips ever to the ER, and apart from that time he nearly bit through his tongue and the time he cut his eyebrow on the corner of the coffee table, and … well, anyway, he’s surprisingly not accident-prone, actually. I promise.)
Anyway, that meant he had a gap in his smile for a long time, and it gave the adult tooth there all the time in the world to decide on its trajectory, which I think is why when he finally had two top teeth again by age seven or so, they were at odd angles to each other. One sort of stuck out more than the other, and there was a big gap between them. They looked like an awkward couple, askance.
I had noticed that a lot of kids here seem to get braces earlier than we did Back In My Day. At first I was sceptical, but after interrogating a couple of dentists I came around to their way of thinking. If you straighten up the front teeth first, the rest of the adult teeth have a better chance of coming in straight to begin with, you can monitor it all better instead of plonking an fully developed 14-year-old down in front of an orthodontist and saying ‘Have at it!’, and the entire treatment should be shorter and maybe a bit cheaper. Not to mention that if you can get some of it over with while they’re still young enough not to be quite so self-conscious about their looks, that’s got to be a good thing.
So Dash got braces in August (did I tell you? I don’t remember), just on the top four teeth, and yesterday he had them removed. Phase one is complete, and he might not need phase two at all – though the orthodontist will keep an eye on him at intervals to see how everything’s coming along as the rest of his adult teeth come through.
Today Mabel got another crown, a filling, and she has an appointment for an orthodontist consult because even with only four adult teeth so far it’s clear that she will have crowding issues. Poor girl drew the short straw, evidently.
I’ve fixed her, for now, with a dose of Motrin, a Harry Potter double bill and a new puppy toy.
Mabel. Oh, Mabel mine. Happy sad girl. Puppy lover. Your fringe is in your eyes again and your shins are scraped. You still don’t go much for shoes, especially if there’s a pile of leaves to be jumped in. You’re a natural teacher, a committed animal-lover, a linguist. You speak fluent opposite, excellent gibberish, and your command of Russian is impressive. (Seriously.)
You hate princesses but you spent half an hour surfing Frozen clips on YouTube yesterday. You don’t like girly things, but you haven’t thrown out the pink half of your wardrobe yet. You don’t want to be limited, that’s all: you’re an equal-opportunity lover and hater of pink and blue, of bracelets and beyblades. You complain that your brother gets all the best stuff, but then you pick out the American Girl doll and know exactly which outfit she should have.
You think you can have everything. Keep believing that.
You’re a fun lunch date, even if you do only want fries and ketchup. You and your brother, when not fighting tooth and nail or driving us nuts staving off bedtime, can be the most hilarious double act around. You’re a serious goofball, a crazy gorilla on Broadway, and did you know that meatballs are very rare in Australia?
You’re seven. Seven is the most magical age I can think of. Remember your magic. Use it well. You will always make me proud, no matter what you do, because I struck it lucky when I got to be your mother.
Dash’s new school is ten miles away. It’s a straight shot around the Beltway, and except for the home-to-school run in the morning, it takes 15 minutes door to door. The morning run to school takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. Maybe longer; we haven’t had a rainy day yet. This commute (no bus, nobody close to carpool with) is clearly going to be one of the less fabulous aspects of the new school, but we knew that. B and I take turns with the morning run, but of course I’m always the lucky candidate for the afternoon pickup. So between our two cars we’re driving 40 extra miles every day, with me spending an hour and a half in the car on a day when I drive him to school as well as back. I can’t wait for next week, when there’s a parent association meeting on Wednesday evening so I get to go over one more time that day.
But driving in good weather, even on a slow road, is fine. We have the radio, for news – educational! – in the morning and music in the afternoon. I can talk myself through some knotty plot holes when I’m on my own; I find talking to myself in the car is very productive, and nobody else knows I’m not on a handsfree phone call, right?
Really, the mental adjustment is about having one child so much farther away from me than I’m used to. It just gives me a tiny niggle when I think about emergencies, or bad weather, or terrible things like, say, for instance, what happened on this day fourteen years ago. I wasn’t even in the country, let alone a parent, then; I worried about my boyfriend but he was safely in Pennsylvania, and not in a field or on a plane. But if we’d lived here, if my kids had been at school that day, we would all have huddled together as soon as we could, to hold what’s dearest closest to our hearts.
In the winter, Dash’s school will follow the decisions of the county next to ours when it comes to late openings and early closings and cancellations. Mabel’s school, of course, just up the road, is in our own county, so they may have different decisions on the same day, in the same weather. And we’ll have to get onto the Beltway in snow or ice or storm to go and get him, or bring him there. (Then again, the Beltway is always the first to be attended to with salt and grit when there’s bad weather. It’s usually the minor roads that are harder to pass.)
I know that if I was held up getting Dash from school, for whatever reason, the friend who picks up Mabel would take her home with them for as long as was needed. I know that we all have mobile phones that allow us to communicate in emergencies (assuming I (a) remember to bring it and (b) remember to charge it). I know that statistically everything will probably be fine. I know that Dash would be looked after if I didn’t make it to the school because I was stuck on the road waiting for the AAA truck. I know that we have two cars, which helps a lot on days like this when the Check Engine light comes on and I ask B if he can bike to work so that I can bring the one car to the garage and still have the other for 3pm pickup time.
But it was nice when they were both a short walk away, all day, and I felt that no matter what happened I could run up the road (panting) and grab my babies and stick them under my wing and keep them safe from every sort of harm.
I suppose the distances are only going to get bigger as they get older, right? This is just the first leap.
As we left a birthday party last weekend, Dash totally pre-empted my reminder to say “Thank you” by spontaneously thanking his friend’s mom.
Yesterday I asked him to bring the washing in off the line, and he went and did it. Just like that.
He wrote a long list of the food he wanted for his birthday party, but when I brought his desires down to earth by telling him what I was planning and how it wouldn’t be quite the three-cake extravaganza that had been his opening gambit, he said “Okay.”
He’s also planning on baking his own birthday cake.
He got 100% in his spelling test today. Spelling’s hard when you have dyslexia, because nothing “looks right” on the page.
He goes to poetry club and plays baseball. He’s a Renaissance boy, y’know.
You’ve come a long way, Baby.
Mabel turns six tomorrow. I can’t tell if six is very big or still pretty small. When Dash turned six, of course it was very big. It was the biggest I’d ever had a child be. But now, as with all her ages, Mabel has so much expected of her, and yet is still the baby.
Five is able; six is sturdy; seven is whimsical, etherial, the dreamer. Eight is practical. Nine… I don’t know about nine, it remains to be seen. But these aren’t things I’ve seen, these are just notions I have, word associations. Six is so much more than five was, because five was only just after four.
Mabel has taken to school like the proverbial duck. I had no way of predicting this, because it wasn’t very true in nursery school, but it turns out she’s just as much a rule-follower as her brother, now. She wants to get everything right. She tries so hard to remember all the things she’s meant to do. She’s enormously motivated by the points system they run which allows them to buy things in the school store. She comes home and starts playing school again, except this time she’s the teacher and her hapless brother is the student. (She has a special teacher accent, which bears no resemblance to any actual teacher she’s ever had, but adds verisimilitude, apparently.) She makes worksheets for him and sets him math problems.
She’s starting to read, as if by magic. I can see it happening so much faster for her than it did for Dash* – she has six months’ advantage over him because of her November birthday, for one thing; and she has the probably-not-dyslexic advantage too, I’m pretty sure. She has always been more attuned to words than he was, more willing to pick up a pencil and draw; letter shapes are coming so much more easily and neatly for her, and she’s noticing all the words that are strewn in front of her in this literate life, in a way that I despaired of him ever doing. (He still rarely does.)
I went on her class field trip last Monday, to a pumpkin patch. She was so good she couldn’t be gooder, the whole day. No wonder she comes home and picks a fight with her brother over sofa space – that much being good has to balance out somewhere.
She brushes her hair and brushes her teeth and dresses herself and is very self-sufficient in many ways. The biggest development of all, though, is that I can put her to bed and walk away, at least some nights, now. It took six years, but the baby is finally learning to self-soothe.
I’m pretty sure I don’t have a baby anywhere any more.
*The funny thing is that, while it’s happening faster in school terms (as her birthday is closer to the start of the school year) she’s the exact same age as Dash was when he first read Go, Dog. Go!, which I was very impressed by her reading to me last night for the very first time. She does it with more ease, but it’s only in my mind that she’s doing it earlier.