Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Choosing a Nanny: 201


I’m a consumer of nannies.  Separate from our fabulous list of one-off babysitters, we have had a host of regular individual caregivers over the past five years.  And now, with fall approaching, I’m about to begin the process of searching for and interviewing nanny candidates for after school childcare.  For us, this is like choosing a teammate for one of our most crucial positions.

This post isn’t about the “why” of the Nanny Choice, but briefly I will say this: since EB’s birth and after the birth of the other two kiddos I have always worked full time.  This decision has resulted in our agonizing over, trying, revisiting, reanalyzing, and ultimately settling into a childcare system that works very well for us. 

We are fortunate to live in a community with some pretty amazing group childcare options for day care, after school care, and summer care.  For our family, what has worked best is group day care (or full-day preschool), combined with an after-school nanny for all three kids.  (Read more about that solution here.)  And in the summers, because of some of the other activities the kids enjoy, we have had great success keeping them home with a summer nanny.

Whether for summer days or after school, choosing a childcare system is tough, and the grass is always greener in someone else’s backyard.  Because we have exclusively placed college girls in our nanny positions, I have come up with a few criteria that weren’t intuitive to me when I started this journey but now play a huge role in our nanny selection:

1.    Tough Talk.  Have the difficult conversations ahead of time.  While a normal job interview doesn’t (shouldn’t!!) typically involve matters of religion and morality, you just have to make sure you and your potential nanny are on the same page spiritually/morally/ethically.  You think the tough and sensitive, life altering questions will come only when you’re home at the dinner table or at bedtime.  They won’t.  If you would prefer that your nanny defer those questions to you, make that clear.  But also recognize that there will be times when she has to answer “where do babies come from” or “is God real” or “how old is Earth” or “why Jesus got died?”  Have a good idea how she will answer those questions.

2.    Carry the Flag.  Overall, is this a person you want representing your family in public?  Because she will be.  I cannot count the number of times a teacher at one of my kids’ schools or a dear friend or neighbor will recount to me a conversation he/she had with our nanny about something substantive related to my kids.  I have never been more pleased than to have one of Little Belle’s day care directors make a point to come to me and express how impressed she is with our nanny’s interactions with our children, other children, and day care staff.  And it is such a delight when one of EB’s friends needs to come home with us after school, and other mothers are just as comfortable with our nanny as I am.

3.    Teammate.  Early in my nanny search days, I thought previous child care experience trumped almost everything.  While that experience is important, one crucial character trait that has been the difference between a good and great nanny is the ability to think independently. Imagine this:  it’s 4:00, you’re stuck in a meeting, and you were supposed to pick up kiddos from home and get them to a soccer clinic by 5:00.  You realize it won’t happen, and the nanny is going to have to do it.  EB and Main Man need full soccer gear, which includes cleats, uniforms, water bottles, and an easily-digested snack.  It’s chilly out, so they’ll need a layer they can easily shed once they get warmed up.  Little Belle has to go to the clinic, too, but she won’t be able to make it until dinner so she needs a To-Go dinner and drink, extra diapers, and a jacket and blanket to sit in the grass.  What do you want to have to text your nanny to communicate those instructions?  Everything I just typed?  No.  When that situation happens (and it does) in our house, my text looks like this: “Hey!!  Sorry – stuck in meeting.  Please take kids to soccer clinic that starts at 5:00.  City field #5.  Will meet you there at 5:30.”  That independent thinker anticipates problems, even when you don’t, and solves them for you.

4.    Flex Flex Flex.  Bottom line – no matter how fabulous you think she is, do NOT hire someone who absolutely has to/wants to leave your house at 5:30 on the dot unless you have never in your entire professional life needed to stay at the office 15 minutes late.  You’ll need that flexibility more than you think you will, and while I don’t advocate abusing her flexibility, if you get called into a late meeting and your spouse/parenting partner is out of town the last thing you want is to be worried that your nanny is upset because she has to stay a few extra minutes.

There are obviously so many other important criteria that I've not discussed here, but I don't think I could force rank these four.  Each of them has played such a huge role in the success of our relationship(s) with each of our caregivers.  Hopefully this list is helpful to some of you if you're looking ahead to school year childcare.

**photo by skeddy in NYC


Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Win Summer Camp


When I was in college I spent two summers as a camp counselor at a faith-based athletics summer camp.  I didn't have children then, I didn't have a boyfriend, and at 18 and 19 years old I had no idea what life would look like 6 months, much less 16 years, later.  Still, I remember with perfect clarity the moment I resolved in a very matter-of-fact way that any children in my future would attend camp, no matter what I had to sacrifice to make it happen.

Fast forward a few years.  This summer EB was just old enough to attend camp for the first time.  While the decision to send kids to sleep-away camp can be a tough one, for our family there had never been any question that she would go.  And, lucky for her, she happens to be exactly the type of kid that camps like this are made of.  She loves competition in every single form.  Cabin vs. Cabin, Tribe vs. Tribe, Camper vs. Camper, Boys vs. Girls.  She's in.  In fact, on the 6 hour drive to camp she asked from the backseat of the car "Mom, how do I win camp?"  This kid is all in, all the time.

I knew deep down that she would have a great camp experience.  I knew she wouldn't be homesick.  I knew she would make friends.  I knew that the two weeks she was away would only whet her appetite for everything that is camp, and that she would greet me at the end of the term with a request to stay for a full four weeks next year.  That all happened, and none of it was a surprise.

At closing ceremonies I sat next to EB.  We listened to a fantastic family devotional with hundreds of other campers and families, the substance of which I will never recall.  But halfway through the talk, EB leaned over to me and whispered.

Mommy, did you know that when you're at camp, and you sit outside and look around, you can see billions of things that God made?

You're right.  Camp is a great place to notice all those things.

And did you know that when you look at all those trees and the lakes and the birds and the cabins and the rocks and the swimming pool and the sky - did you know that God loves you more than ALL that stuff?

Well, yeah, I do know that.  

Yeah.  Me, too.  I learned that this week.


Can I admit that my first reaction was to feel a bit of a pit in my stomach?  She learned that this week?  Hadn't I done a better job telling her - showing her - how much God loves her?  Hadn't I taught my first born how special she is in the eyes of our Father?

But as quickly as my angst rose up inside, a wave of calm and steadfast joy began to swell and replace it.  Of course she had been told how much God loves her.  And she knew it in her head before coming to camp.  But my EB.  My athletic, spirited, nature-loving spark.  My full of energy, full throttle daughter.  Turns out she needed to experience that relative love.  She needed to sit right smack in the middle of God's creation, dig her toes into it, wrestle with it, discover her place in it, and realize that she is the Eternal Winner.  That out of all that stuff that God created - all that awesome, cool, beautiful stuff - he selected her as First Place.  She won the blue ribbon.  He picked her.  And she knows it with her head and her heart and every fiber of her being.

And that, EB, is how you win summer camp.

People asked me before she left how in the world I could "send her away for two weeks."  People ask me now whether I "survive[d] her being gone that long."  And let's be clear - I missed her dearly.  But as God often does, He affirmed our decision by doing far more than we could have ever imagined or guessed or requested in our wildest dreams. (Eph. 3:20)

Photo courtesy Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (Record Series 5801-02)
Seattle Municipal Archives

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gracewash



EB’s birthday is at the beginning of February. Every year. And every year, after the whirlwind of holidays, followed by Daddy’s January birthday and cold and flu season getting off to a bold start, I find myself shocked at the arrival of Groundhog Day and the Daddy Daughter Dance and another impending birthday party for my Big Girl.

This year, like last, she insisted on having a party at home. We considered all the hassle-free, super fun, party-in-a-box options across town, but each of them either placed onerous restrictions on the guest list or included activities that EB only considers medium fun. In the end she insisted (with husband shaking his head quietly in the corner) that the only good solution is a party for 15 of her closest friends right here in our home. Our original party date was pushed twice, largely because the weather and various illness-related contingencies destroyed my ability to get invitations out on time. But over the weekend, when I suggested to my husband that we were going to push the date once again to the first weekend in March, he gave me crazy eyes and I relented.

Already weary from the thought of hosting a homemade party for 15 six year olds, and of only providing 5 days advance notice to her guests, I also realized yesterday that our laser printer is broken. So, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon with the cool breeze blowing through the windows across my kitchen table, I decided just to sit down with my Sharpie and hand-letter EB’s cupcake-shaped party invitations.

For hours, she watched me. She peered over my shoulder, careful not to budge the table or my arm. She left to play with a friend and came back to check on my progress. She sat next to me and chatted. She answered the door for the blessed Girl Scout selling Thin Mints. And she told me how much she loved her party invitations.

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As I shared a few weeks ago, this year our family decided to participate in Megan’s class Valentine project with Love146.org. I had big designs on creating cards and gifts with all the fabulosity my creative heart could muster. But the broken printer thwarted those plans. So after hand-lettering 15 party announcements, I dug out the construction paper, school glue, tape, Skittles, a Sharpie, and a glass of red wine, and set out to create Valentines for Main Man’s class party.

When I explained to him what I was doing, he instantly engaged. And so we sat in the living room floor together for an hour past his bedtime. He counted, organized, watched, advised, and generally invested himself in the whole creative process. Like his sister, I reminded him not to bump my arm or the lap desk where I was writing. He eagerly agreed to be oh-so-careful, and then with each new card I began to write, he leapt across the floor, skidded into my side, and rested his sweet chin on my arm to watch me write the message of Love146.org from our family to each of his friends. Before he went to bed, Main Man thanked me.

This morning when I took Main Man to school, he couldn’t wait to get inside. His arms exploded with his lunch and backpack as we walked toward the back door of the white wood frame, single room schoolhouse; still, he snatched the grocery bag filled with red and white plates and napkins and folded construction paper, handwritten Valentines. “Cheryl, look! Here are my cards for all my friends! My Mommy made them! Even as I had bagged them up earlier in the morning, my heart sunk a little at how plain they appeared. So I was slightly embarrassed and caught a little off-guard by the pride in his voice.

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I enjoy crafts but I wouldn’t consider myself crafty. EB’s party invitations and Main Man’s Valentines surely will not be the most beautiful any of the recipients has ever received. But I found myself humbled by the pride those kids took in my work. The joy they found when I simply gave what I had available to give.

Seeing my hands at work to create something imperfect, especially for them, made them both inexplicably happy. They indentify with creating. They create for me all the time. Creating is one of the many ways they demonstrate their love for me. The hand-written love note. The sticky, messy, drippy heart-shaped doily glued on construction paper. The pages of attempts at numerals 1-100 or letters of the alphabet. They pour their love for me – everything they have - into their own precious hands and create something imperfect. And somewhere in the Giving, those Creations become Grace-washed, like a fence with a pretty coat of white paint. They give what they have, and I see beauty and love and perfection, and I am so grateful.

They don’t understand (or care) that the long day I spend at the office exercising razor sharp professional skill provides them with a "good life." The story they understand with perfect clarity is the story told by my clumsy hands employing imperfect skill to create a messed-up creation that, when viewed through their innate lens of Perfect Grace becomes, to their eyes, a vibrant, tangible picture of my love for them. They gladly – even intuitively – Grace-wash my creative efforts when I give what I have.

And all that grace washing over my miserable attempts to give what I have? The clearest picture of their love for me.

The clearest picture of True Love, indeed.

photo by Vintage Collective

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Woman Who Taught Him How To Love


Yesterday was my husband's mother's birthday. Cathy passed away only a year after we married. I think of her so often, of her smile and her laughter. I wish my children had experienced her as a grandmother. I wish she could teach me how to make French Toast. I originally posted this story in 2010 and want to honor her again for the life she lived and the son she raised.

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One evening my husband asked me to recount my earliest memory. I suspect that many of the events and moments I recall are colored by the photographs and home movies I’ve viewed time and again. But there are a few that I know exist independent of any documentary evidence. Like I have a memory of a terrible ear infection when I was around five. And I remember one time when I was in preschool some friends and I were playing outside in a group of metal barrels. When we emerged, we discovered that the entire class had gone back inside the school building. We were all alone. And scared. I suppose roster checks weren’t The Thing back then.

My earliest memory, though, is very distinct. It is a memory of the day my parents brought my baby brother home from the hospital after he was born. I remember the house. And I remember all the people. Our teeny little frame house was packed with family, and lots of love, awaiting his arrival. In an effort to make sure everyone knew his/her place, I announced loudly to the group that my brother had very special diaper cream. I knew this because his name was Dustin. The cream was labeled Desitin.

I was a precocious 3 ½ year old.

I recounted several other memories of things like family trips to the lake and my church and large family gatherings and ballet classes and gymnastics and learning to read. And then I asked my husband to tell me the earliest memory he could recall.

Here’s the story he shared:

My earliest memory is from around the time I was three years old. I was the youngest of 4 kids, with my nearest brother exactly seven years older than I am. The oldest two never lived at home with me – they were Mom’s kids from two previous marriages.

Mom became pregnant with me when she was 41 years old. Undoubtedly everyone was surprised, though she never told me that. She and her husband – my father – had adopted my older brother when he was a toddler, and he was six when mom became pregnant with me. My brother and I share a birthday.

My mom and dad divorced when I was only two. My father was an alcoholic. I don’t remember much about him living at home with us, but I know it wasn’t good. He wasn’t physically abusive. He was just a drain on the emotional resources of our little family. My mom was a hard worker, managing a local branch of a national finance company, and worked full time during my entire childhood. My dad? He was a cowboy, figuratively and literally. Dad broke horses, rode bulls, and traveled the country chasing the rodeo scene. A caricature of himself.

After my parents divorced my father lived with his mother, my grandmother, in our same little town. For some time, though, he would still come around the house quite a bit. I understand that I saw him fairly regularly until I was three.

And then one day I remember my dad came to visit Mom and me. It wasn’t all that unusual for him to hang around the house on a Sunday afternoon. I remember climbing on the back of my mom’s dusty blue leather recliner like I did so often when she sat there.

I had a favorite spot on the recliner, on the well-worn arm that was just the right size to hold a wiggly little boy. I sat on the arm of that chair so many times as a child. From that chair I stole sips of my Mom’s instant iced tea, because tea out of Mom’s glass always tasted better than my own drinks. I remember listening reverently and cheering wildly during Oklahoma football games as the announcer called the game from the transistor radio that sat on the coffee table, while Mom and I watched the game on television. I was always dressed in my Sooner jersey, perched on the arm of that chair. No matter what was happening in our world, there was always room for me on Mom's blue leather chair.

And so as my dad and Mom visited that afternoon, I climbed on the chair like I always had done. My space on the chair made my presence in the conversation seem natural, appropriate.

And then I heard my dad ask Mom to marry him again. And everything around me paused for a moment.

How my mother answered that proposal so confidently and quickly, I will never know. Today I can’t fathom what it meant to face such a question. Continue to raise two boys all alone? Or give dad Just One More Chance to get it right. To live in our home sober. To be a husband. To be a father.

What I don’t remember is having any particular desire for her to answer the proposal one way or another. When I think about that day, that moment, I don’t recall emotions of anticipation or hope. I recall a curiosity.

What would she say? And what would that look like?

If she said yes, would that mean he was going to hang around more? Would that mean he would play catch in the backyard with me and my new glove that Mom gave me? Would that mean he would come to my tee ball games and coach my teams?

(Later in my life he did come to my games. He never watched from the bleachers. Instead he sat in his truck in the outfield and drank whiskey. But he was there. I knew.)

I snapped out of my day dream.

She said no.

And in that moment, I remember knowing in a very matter-of-fact sense that Mom had made a choice.

In that moment I knew that I wouldn’t have a dad around.

And in that moment my three year old heart realized that Mom must like playing catch with me.

And she must not mind that I use her broom stick as a baseball bat. And she must enjoy making Nana Eggs and purple Koolaid and mowing her own lawn and working so hard at her job every day.

And she must think that we’ve got a pretty good thing going.

And surely she’s right.

It seemed like my dad didn’t come around much after that. It was okay, though. Mom had decided we were good just the way we were, and so I believed her with all my heart.

Plus, I could keep sitting on the arm of the blue leather chair.

That’s just how things were for us.

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Through welling eyes I listened. I listened to my husband travel back to the arm of that blue chair. I listened to the mind and thoughts and curiosity of a three year old navigating some big talk. And I saw a tinge of sadness. The kind of sadness that can only be experienced by a child who can’t know how things are supposed to be, but can sense that they aren’t supposed to be this way.

And then I spent a moment in awe of my husband’s mother. How tempting would that proposal have been? Working twelve hour days, raising two boys – 3 and 10 – to become strong men. And now, standing in her living room, was not just any man. It was their father. It was a man who once had made her swoon. Who she had loved with all her heart. I mean, he didn’t really abandon them, she must have thought. He’s been hanging around. And now he’s asked to come back. Back into our lives. Sure, he has his faults. But wouldn’t this life be just a little bit easier if I had another set of hands? If my boys had a man in the house all the time? Not just any man – their own father was asking to come back. Asking for permission to raise them. To love us.

And so I closed my eyes and thanked God for my husband’s mother. For the choice she made that day, and every day after that. For going to his baseball games after work by herself. For playing catch with him in the backyard, and raising up a man who didn’t leave his own wife and three children. For making lots of grilled cheese sandwiches and lemonade. For inspiring a man who is exceedingly careful with his personal choices because of his father’s history.

I hold her personally responsible for a man who doesn’t care for my French toast and has little tolerance for bad moods, but loves me with a ferocity that is impossible to assign words.

And for a man who demands so much of me because of the example his mother set for him.

She loved her little boy when she refused his father’s proposal.

Her choices taught him how to love me. How to love all of us.

photo by ^@^ina

Monday, January 24, 2011

Second Grade


Nora’s gifts were kindness and grace and a gentle, genuine smile. I knew she was different before I knew what those words meant.

We lined the wall of Mrs. Howry’s second grade classroom, one in front of the other, waiting our turn to walk to the cafeteria for lunch. In our minds we were already there, though. Lunch and then recess – a welcome oasis from mornings filled with hard work like Math Facts Baseball and spelling contests. Such relief in the instruction to retrieve lunch boxes and jackets and line up at the door.

Nora certainly was my friend, though we were very different in many ways. She had dark hair and dark skin. I was pale and blonde. I was outgoing and outspoken and still wanted the lead in the school musical (that much would change). She was quiet. Shy, maybe. As I look back and think about Nora, I see a calm and observant spirit that, even now, I envy.

Most of all, though, Nora was kind. She was peaceful. She was gracious. Her eyes always smiled a thoughtful Welcome.

And I noticed that Nora wasn’t standing in line with the rest of us. There she was, still seated in the yellow plastic chair pushed up to her desk, in the very front of her row.

I don’t remember what happened next, exactly. Mrs. Howry certainly must have asked me to help Nora, because I never would have left my place in line otherwise. As I approached her from behind, I realized she was crying, sobbing softly, with her face buried in her arms. Then at the same time Nora stood and Mrs. Howry came over with a wad of paper towels and I could see clearly what had happened. Nora was wet from the waist down, and what the fabric of her clothes couldn’t hold formed a puddle in the concave seat of that school chair.

I took the towels from my teacher and began cleaning Nora’s chair. Little did I know that just a few years later my own embarrassment would be mocked by the contents of a little yellow school chair. Mrs. Howry took over the cleaning and asked me to help Nora to the restroom.

By that time all of our classmates knew what had happened. No one laughed. Real embarrassment hadn't entered our collective experience by seven. At seven, we all just breathed and shared an eerie wisdom that it could have happened to any one of us. (When, and why, do we forget that truth?)

I remember very little of the rest of that day, or of second grade. I do know that Nora remained kind and gracious and quiet. I think of her strangely often. I wonder where she is. I wonder whether she remembers that day. I wonder how it made her feel then. Or now. I thank God, for her, that she was seven and not eleven. I suspect that made a difference.

Nora is someone I wish I could talk to today. I imagine she is living a blessed life, teaching everyone she knows about grace and kindness in the way she carries herself. And helping other people know they are valued with that gentle Welcome smile.

But a lot of times I just wonder why it happened to her. It still makes me sad.

photo by IMLS DCC

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Just Right


Her eyes were so heavy, and I offered to say prayers over her rather than her saying them aloud. But she insisted.

Dear God. Thank you so much for our house.

Thank you for our family.


(long pause)

Thank you for making me Just Right. Amen.


She drifted off peacefully. Her thoughtful words lingered in my ears. The magnitude of that innocent, precious confidence weighing heavy in my mind and heart. If she never learns another thing about herself as long as she lives...

And the weight of my responsibility looms large. To create a haven where what she believes today will always, always be true.

photo by through my eyes

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I can't un-know about this.



My heart is bursting with knowledge of an issue, and an action, that I have no choice but to share.

I care about social issues, and typically I am able to engage in my fair share of political wonkiness discussing remedies to things like a broken public education system, the childhood obesity epidemic, and immigration policy.

But there is one issue that messes with my head and heart in a way that I just can't shake. It causes my voice to catch and all notions of clear-minded banter just slip away.

Child exploitation and human sex trafficking.

Even typing that phrase makes my stomach lurch. In 2011 it is happening all over the world. Children as young as 6 sold into sexual slavery. It's happening to little girls in Thailand. It's happening to little boys in Cambodia.

It is happening to little boys and girls on the streets and in hotels in the United States.

If you don't want your world rocked, I recommend that you not visit this website to learn of the second most lucrative criminal industry in the world (second only to drug trafficking).

Because once you read, I promise you that you won't be able to un-know.

I read. My mind was wrecked. But my heart was encouraged by the work of Love146, and I think yours will be too. Formed in 2002, Love146 is a non-profit organization dedicated solely to "The abolition of child sex slavery and exploitation. Nothing less." And what they are doing to educate the public about child exploitation and sex slavery, to prevent and eliminate this wretched practice, and, equally important, to provide safe homes and aftercare and reintegration resources for children who have been victimized by this thriving criminal industry is phenomenal.

Interested in the work of Love146? Want to know how you can get involved easily and immediately, and get the word out about this organization's work? Friends, you're in luck.

My incredible soul sister Megan, whose heart for this issue knows no boundaries, has connected with Love146 to organize a project surrounding (get this!) children's school Valentine's Day parties. Megan's Give: LOVE provides you with (1) a DARLING, interactive project you can do with your kids that (2) gets the word out about Love146's work, and (3) replaces those ugly boxed Valentine's cards that they're going to take to school anyway with something parents will see and notice. A win all the way around.


I hope you'll take a moment to click over to SortaCrunchy and read more details about Megan's Give: LOVE project. My two daughters and my son will be participating in Give: LOVE this year, and I haven't been this excited about a school Valentine's party in... maybe ever.

And then I suspect you'll be curious about what kind of amazing mama came up with this incredible idea. And so you'll want to spend a few moments reading about Megan. And then, I anticipate you'll be jealous of me and the fact that Megan is a member of my Village who challenges my heart to be better daily.

photo by seyed mostafa zamani