Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Birthday Love Letter to a Wild Sweetheart

My Darling Sal,

On the night of your second birthday--after a busy day of ginormous balloons, princess tiaras, and buttercream frosted cakes--I sat down to write a love letter to you.  This is my tradition, I do it every year, so I opened my computer and fully expected the swell of adoration to come washing over me so I could write.

But I waited and waited, and the feeling didn't come.  All I felt was exhaustion.

Perhaps this is something that I shouldn't admit in a birthday love letter.  Perhaps I should skip over the weariness of motherhood and get right to the sweet scene of you blowing out your birthday candles.  But I tell you the truth because one day you will be a mother.  And you will know what I mean when I describe this exhaustion.  Sometimes, you will simply feel overwhelmed and tired, and you might feel guilty that you don't feel all-consuming, gleeful, giddy love for your children all the time.

I want to tell you that it's normal.  It's normal to be exhausted when you have little ones.  It's normal to feel so utterly depleted at the end of the day that the thought of writing a sentimental love letter is just too much.

And so, on the night of your birthday, I shut my laptop and went to sleep.  And in my bedtime prayer, the feeling came.  The awestruck swelling in my soul--the awe that I get to be your mother.  I get to see you grow and learn and become every day.  On my knees by the side of the bed, I smiled into the mattress as I thanked God for the beautiful little birthday girl in the sparkly crown and red-checkered dress.  I thanked God that you are mine.

Today is a new day, and I have a few moments of quiet to come back to this birthday love letter for you.  I want to tell you all about the things that I love about you as a two-year-old.

I love your little voice.  You have started talking so much in the past few weeks.  People comment on your little voice all the time because it is low and raspy--so unusual for a girl your age.  Maybe you'll be a growly alto like your mom and her sisters.  Ha!

You actually do love to sing, and as you walk around the house, you sing the ABCs, Popcorn Popping, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  You also sing along to the music in the car, and your favorite song is "Doh Doh" as you call it (Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars--it starts with a guy singing, "Doh, doh, doh" hence the nickname).  You screech, "Doh doh!" every time we get into the van until I turn it on. (Oh the screeching!  You are definitely a determined little lady!)

Your vocabulary is exploding lately, and it's so fun.  When you sneeze, you say, "Bless you, Mom!" even though you are the one who sneezed.  You pretend to talk on the phone and have entire conversations with your favorite babysitter, Ashlyn, using that plastic purple phone.   And just this week, you started counting to ten.  I love hearing all the new things you have to say every day. 

When you see babies, you shout excitedly, "Hold eeeeet!  Hold eeeet!"   Like your mama, you love a snuggly baby and grin from ear-to-ear when you are holding "it." Ha!

You love to pray and always ask to be the one to say it when I put you in your crib at night.  I lay you on your pillow, and then I kneel beside the crib and say each line slowly.  You fold your arms but keep your eyes wide open and smile with self-satisfaction as you quietly whisper the last word of each sentence that I say.  Then at the end you shout, "A-men!!"  It is the sweetest.  And the highlight of my night is when you stick your nose between the crib bars and ask for a nuzzle before I leave the room.  Rubbing noses with you and giving you a little kiss is a perfect way to end the day.

I love your bedhead and your sloppy pigtails when you wake up from a nap.  I love how much you adored this birthday card from your Bapa and carried it around the house with you saying "Bapa!  Bapa!"over and over and pointing out the animals:

You are a diva and a girly girl.  You are obsessed with princess dresses and shoes, and you love getting into my makeup.  You came out of my bathroom the other day looking like this, and you thought you looked very lovely:

You are a fashionista with your leopard print swimsuit and signature straw hats that you insist on wearing everywhere!

You also love diva sunglasses, and you yell, "Bright! Bright!" and ask for them every time we go outside.  Ha!

You love being the center of attention.  On your birthday, you insisted that we sing "Happy Birthday" to you about five times, and you sang along, loud and proud, and blew out the candles with gusto each time.  That will probably be one of my all-time favorite birthday memories of my children. 

You are a handful.  You have so much energy and spunk--you are much crazier than your brother Noah was at this age.  You want to try everything and you are super independent.  If I try to help you take your clothes off before a bath, you yell, "No, Mom!"  You want to do things yourself.

You are joyful and mischievous--and not obedient at all.  You almost always have a naughty little twinkle in your eye.  

You climb on everything.  You love to find ledges and walk on them--like the edges of sidewalks or  planters.  You have really good balance and can also climb the tall ladders at the playground.  Future gymnast?  You've started hanging upside down from the handles on the roof of the van and shouting, "Monkey bars!" Ha!  I am always amazed by your strength.  Maybe because you only weigh 23 pounds, it's easy for you to do these acrobatic moves. ;)

I mean, is this normal??

Yes, you only weigh 23 pounds. Noah weighed more than that when he turned one!  You are 10th percentile for height and weight--tiny but feisty, strong, and loud.  You know what you want in life, and you holler until it happens.  We usually let you get away with it because we are suckers and we are tired and you are too cute for your own good.

You adore your brother, even though he teases you constantly and you two fight like cats and dogs.  Aren't you too young to be fighting already??  I must say, sometimes when it's only 8:30 a.m. and you two are already shrieking at each other, I feel like I'm gonna lose my mind.  But then the other day I was giving you a bath, and I had to go grab a towel so I asked Noah to watch you for a minute, and as I was leaving the bathroom, I heard you spontaneously say to him, "Hi, Noah!  I wuv oo, Noah."   My heart melted.  Especially since I've never heard you spontaneously say "I love you" to anyone, not even Mom and Dad.  I hope you and Noah always look out for each other throughout life!

You are super dramatic in your facial expressions.  It is hilarious.  When you see a mashed up banana or something, you will screw up your face into the cutest grimace and say, "Ewww, gross!"  I can always tell by the look on your face exactly what you are thinking, whether it is disgust, joy, love, anger, or sadness.  I love how expressive you are.

You started riding your tricycle this month, and you love it.  You have to wear a backpack so you can reach the peddles because you're so short.  I can't get enough of my little urchin on her bike:

You fill my life and my heart with joy, Sally,  Yes, you are a menace (as we still lovingly call you), but overall, I think I am a much more relaxed mom than I was when Noah was little.  It feels great to see that I am maturing and becoming more patient as a mother, more able to enjoy my children and savor the stage we are in.  You are at a needy age right now--where you can't/don't really play by yourself, you hang on my leg all day, and you make huge messes--but when I start to feel really frustrated, I remind myself, "This is a stage.  The hard parts of this stage will pass, but so will the perfect parts."  In those moments, I try to just stop and get down on the floor and look into the eyes of my wild, beautiful, urchin-angel, and soak in every bit of your insane cuteness.

I love you, Sally Grace Nielson.  Every night, not just on your birthday, I thank God that you are my daughter.  Yes, motherhood is exhausting, and when you are a mom there will be some days when you just have to go to sleep and look forward to a fresh start in the morning--but it is so worth it.  Someday you will be a mother, and only then will you understand just how much I love you. 

Thank you for being mine and for filling each day of my life with your wild sweetness.

I love you, to the moon and back.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Oregon Coast with the Nielson Clan

We went straight from the DR to a family reunion on the Oregon coast.  Yes, the timing was crazy, but we couldn't bear to miss out on either event, so we endured exhaustion and made it happen.  I thought Noah would be in meltdown mode with all of the traveling, but he actually did great.  Sometimes I think I underestimate my kids or decide in advance that things will be hard for them.  I'm trying not to do that so much!

The reunion was so much fun.  Sometimes when we are all together, the little kids just fight and make things pretty miserable (there are eight of them under the age of five), but they did so well during this trip, and it really was a perfect time.  My mother-in-law rented a beautiful home with a view of the ocean (and a hot tub out on the deck--score!), and we spent a lot of time on the beach as a family.  The water was bitter cold, so we didn't swim, but we played in the sand, flew kites, searched the tide pools for starfish, played Slammo, and flew kites.  It was just so relaxing.

As always, we attempted to get a photo of the grandparents with their brood of little ones, and as always, this is how that went:

So we decided to hire a professional. ;)  We had family photos taken on the beach one morning, and I just love the colors and the way they turned out.  The Oregon coast is stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. And I love all of these people so much!

Ryan and his siblings.  A group of stunners right there!

Uncle Tanner is such a good sport to put up with eight littles who all want a piece of him.  It gets super loud and crazy at these reunions, and he is so patient with all of them.

I love this one of the little cousin besties, and of course my peanut Sally is losing her pants even though they are size 12-18 months.  Ha!  These girls are full of fire and spunk, though they look pretty stinkin' sweet in this photo:

And finally, BEHOLD!  Not all of the kids are looking at the camera--but hey, none of them is crying, which is truly a miracle, so we will take it!!

And speaking of the grandparents, one afternoon the little kids wanted to stand in the surf and let the cold water wash over their toes, so Grandma stood with them for almost an hour as they watched the waves come rolling in.  I couldn't believe how long they wanted to stand like that!

Can we just talk about their cute Grandma for a minute?  This woman is incredible. Looking at the photos of her with the grandkids almost makes me emotional.  She just loves them so much, and they are so lucky to have her.  We all are!  She planned this entire vacation so the family could be together, and she prepared for the trip while also watching Sally for us while we were in the DR.  She drove with Sally (who is not a good traveler) for 12 hours so we could meet up with them there.  There is no end to what she sacrifices for us.  She made all of the little girls matching dresses for the family photos--yes, she sewed them--and she bought them all festive 4th of July outfits for the big day. I am so grateful for her and for the memories that she makes happen for our family. She brings us all together, and she makes everything special for us.

The entire event was planned for Gordon's 60th birthday, which was the 4th of July.  Sally had t-shirts made and we celebrated with patriotic cake, birthday dances around the house to the Mickey Mouse Happy Birthday song, and of course fireworks over the ocean that night.  Magical!!

I am beyond grateful to be a part of the Nielson family.  We will always treasure the beautiful time that we had with them in such a beautiful place!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Family Humanitarian Trip to the DR


At the end of June, Ryan and I took Noah to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic for a family humanitarian trip.  Some of our best friends from dental school, the Cardons, went last year with their kids, and they invited us to join them this year.

It was a great experience.  I have so many thoughts about it.  Humanitarian service work is very nuanced, with questions about sustainability, ethics, respect for others, etc, and I did a lot of thinking throughout the week about how I hope our family can be involved in giving long-term.  I felt like this trip was a perfect springboard for that discussion with Ryan.  It was also a great happy-medium between service and vacation, which is perfect for a family with young kids. 

I did a lot of humanitarian work before Noah was born, but this was my first experience since becoming a mom.  I loved taking Noah with us.  I hoped he would get a lot out of it and learn about poverty, other cultures, and gratitude for his blessings.  Honestly, I think he just had fun.  I don't think he learned much or changed much as a result (he's too young), but it was a great trial run for doing service trips in the future with our family.  I think the perfect age to take kids on humanitarian trips would be about eight years old--that's when they would start to absorb and understand.  But I was still glad Noah was with us because I loved spending that one-on-one time with him (Sally stayed home with Grandma), and I just loved seeing the world through his eyes.  One thing that I loved was that he didn't pity the poverty.  He didn't see himself as bestowing anything on anyone--he was just there to make new friends!  I loved that and learned a lot from watching him.

So what did we do when we were down there?  Well, Ryan did dentistry, of course.  The organization that we went with (Ayuda Humanitarian) sets up temporary clinics in church buildings.  They lay camping mattresses on tables, set up portable handpieces and cleaning stations using a generator, and get the word out to the local community.  The people sure lined up!  Some of them had never been to the dentist, and they were so patient with the long waits.

Ryan and a few other dentists worked all day for four days, and I think they did some good.  That is something that I am always thinking about with humanitarian work: "Is this actually doing long-term good?"  I asked Ryan about that, because some people had mouths full of cavities and couldn't possibly get everything fixed in the limited time that we had there.  Ryan said that if he keeps people out of pain for a few more years, it's worth it to him--especially the children.  If he saved a few baby teeth so they won't cause infection and pain before they fall out naturally, then he feels like it was worthwhile.

I must say, seeing Ryan at work made me appreciate him all the more.  I assisted him for about two minutes one day, and I kind of wanted to die.  It was so boring and hard.  I can't believe he does it all day every day.  Now I am even more inclined to give him a backrub and a kiss when he gets home from work!

While Ryan was doing dentistry, Noah and I played with kids outside the clinic.  We brought games, art supplies, chalk, jump ropes, toy cars, etc.  Noah bought the cars with his allowance money (with a little help from Mom, of course), and all the little boys were in heaven.  They each picked a car and raced them down the ramp outside the church.  We also drew roads out of chalk that they could zoom them around on.  At the end of the day, Noah said, "My cars were a hit!" I think this was Noah's favorite day in the DR.

The kids loved the game UNO.  I swear this game has magical powers--it transcends cultures and defies language barriers.  I used it all the time when I volunteered in El Salvador in college.  I would carry a pack of UNO cards around in my backpack, and if I ever encountered a group of kids that needed/wanted to be entertained, I plopped down in the dirt and started a game.  Kids always catch on quickly and, even though my Spanish is super limited, they can learn how to play just from watching.  We played UNO for hours outside the clinic. 

Bracelets were also a huge hit.  Some of the other dentists' families brought those little elastic rubber bands that can be woven into bracelets, and the Dominican kids loved doing that.  When we do humanitarian work in the future, I definitely need to get a supply of those!  I brought glass beads and elastic string, and I sat with a couple of little girls working on those for an hour or so.

I was amazed, completely blown away, by their patience.  One little girl who was four years old strung her beads so carefully--only to drop the bracelet at the end right before I could tie it off for her.  I expected a massive tantrum (that's what Noah would do), but without a grumble, she simply picked up all the scattered beads and started over.  This happened about seven times, and she never cried or complained.  When she finally finished that bracelet, she was grinning from ear-to-ear.

It seems like growing up without a lot of "extras" makes kids more persistent and patient.  They develop an entirely different level of grit than most of the American kids I've worked with.  I want to know how to help my kids develop this kind of attitude, even though they are growing up in a culture of abundance!  Is this even possible? I hope that exposing my kids to a variety of places, life experiences, cultures, and perspectives will help with this--but I'm not sure that a few days in a foreign country can combat a lifetime of privilege.  Hopefully I can weave some of these lessons into daily life, and I welcome all ideas on this!

On the mornings that Noah and I weren't at the clinic, we tagged along with a non-profit called the Dominican Starfish Foundation and witnessed the good work that they are doing.  Their biggest project is rebuilding homes in some of the poorest communities in the DR.  Families who need a safer home go through an application and approval process, and then the foundation helps them demolish the house that they are living in (usually made out of scraps of wood and corrugated tin) and rebuild it with cement.  It is life-changing work.

We got to walk around that neighborhood and deliver food packs.  I must say that entering one of the little houses made of scraps was the most impactful experience I had while we were in the DR.  It was so eye-opening.  The entire house was the size of a tiny room in the US.  It was divided by a sheet: kitchen and living area on one side, bedroom on the other.  All five people in the family slept on one queen-sized mattress on the dirt floor in the bedroom.  I've witnessed poverty in El Salvador, but this was a shocking reminder of just how blessed I am and how much I should appreciate our three-bedroom rental home, which is truly a palace compared to what we saw in the DR.

The Starfish Foundation takes the houses from this... this! One family at a time!

Just amazing!!

Through the Starfish Foundation, we also participated in a local youth baseball game, which was a blast.  I bet those Dominican twelve-year-olds never expected to see this chubby American mama running the bases!  Ha!  I actually had a small group of younger boys off to the side and we played our own little scrimmage.  Then we pumped up balls to hand out to the kids, and of course, played a mean game of UNO on the floor of the dugout that smelled like pee.  ;)  It was a really fun day.

We also accompanied this organization to a local hospital to see conditions there, which were totally appalling.  We went into the maternity area where they have one big delivery room with lots of beds. You give birth right along side everyone else--no privacy.  And if you want sheets on the bed, you have to bring them yourself.  Then you are taken to a big recovery room with everyone else, and then you are sent home with the new baby to fend for yourself. 

Honestly, it was hard for me to be at the hospital.  It just made me feel sad.  It also felt really inappropriate to me.  Many volunteers were taking photos of the babies and other sick patients in the hospital, gawking and just overall imposing at a time that I'm sure is very stressful for people.   I thought to myself, "Yeah, because what I wanted right after I gave birth was a group of twenty strangers coming into my room to take photos of me and touch my newborn baby!"  It made me feel a little sick to my stomach.  This is why "voluntourism" often gets criticized--because it's easy to show up somewhere and pose for a photo with someone, but really, we didn't do anything to affect their lives long-term.  It was all for show.  I understand that the hospital administration wants (and needs!) people to donate money, and this is a great way to help Americans see just how bad the conditions are, but I feel like there has to be a way to do it that provides more dignity for the patients.  This visit really got me thinking about humanitarian work and the ways that I want and don't want to be involved in the future.

Other than that "low point" of the visit, though, I truly enjoyed the work that we did in the DR.  Hopefully Ryan kept a few people out of pain for a few more years, and hopefully Noah and I brought some joy to those kids for a few afternoons.  We didn't change anyone's lives, but our lives were changed for the better by what we experienced.  We learned so much and grew closer as a family as a result.  Since we've been home, I have thought back to that two-room, dirt-floored house several times, and it has given me new resolve to be content with my blessings and to donate money to great causes that affect change.

And in addition to all that cool life experience we got from the service portion of the trip, we also got to stay at a nice resort and spend time in the pool and at the beach.  Score!  We spent most mornings out in the community doing service and most afternoons back at the resort chillin'.  It did feel a little weird and hypocritical to be bouncing between worlds, but we were grateful for the nice accommodations that the Ayuda organization set up for our family, and I recognize how much that resort helps the local economy of Puerto Plata.  Like I said at the beginning of the post, it's all just so nuanced.  I could spend the rest of my life thinking about it all (and I probably will), but overall, we just had fun and it was a fabulous vacation. 

Noah loved sipping pina coladas, hugging a dolphin and touching tropical birds at Ocean World, and playing with our friends' kids, Maddie and Boyd.  He and Boyd played swords and called each other potty words all day long. (Oh the potty words!  Five-year-old boys are something.)

I loved evening walks down to the beach with the Cardons, nice dinners with the family, and the afternoon that I spent with just Noah, giving him a swimming lesson and eating chocolate crepes on the beach.  I sure love my Noah.

We also got to go on a hiking/caving/swimming expedition where we slid down waterfalls and jumped off cliffs.  Super fun.

Overall, it was just a great learning and bonding experience, and though we won't be able to do something like this every year, we hope to continue traveling and doing humanitarian service with our children in the future!

And speaking of, I have another adventure planned for next month: I am going to South Africa with an organization called Help One Now to work with a couple of community centers and schools there.  I will have so much more to write about that experience, I'm sure.  I am going with a small group of volunteers--I don't know any of them--and I am leaving my kiddos with their dad for the week.  I am super nervous but I think it's a great organization, and I am honored to be involved with their work.  I love seeing the world and trying to figure out my place in it and how I can help.

On to the next adventure!