This Mother’s Day: Lessons in the Art of Loving (and Letter Writing)

It’s Mother’s Day.

Life ended up looking (literally) a bit different than expected this week and I didn’t get around to preparing fresh reflections on motherhood.

So I’m going to repost some thoughts from last year because, well, nothing has changed; if anything, I admire my own mother more, continuing to recognize new ways she has lovingly shaped and influenced my life over the years.

Once again, I want to start by acknowledging we all have different stories to share. Some readers may be mourning the loss of a mother or friend, others processing a difficult parental relationship; some may be desperately wishing to become a mother while others are finding the very role of motherhood complicated and overwhelming. For anyone struggling, I’m sorry for your loss, hurt, frustration, or grief.

One of my all-time favourite pictures of Mom (taken before I was born).

It’s a bit of a family joke how much I take after my mother. We look alike, sound alike, and think alike. We both have a tendency for “smoke to come out both ears” when we get worked up. Translation: we’re stubborn and emotional. Apparently (or so I’m told), we even eat ice cream the same way.

But more than anything, I write like she writes.

One of my earliest memories is of Mom perched on the edge of a wooden chair – complete with forest green crocheted “footies” (to avoid scuffing our 1970s-era dining room linoleum) – in front of the Christmas tree.

I was about four, though this same scene was repeated for years, so I’m surely amalgamating memories. I always found a place on the floor by the tree; blonde hair, blue eyes, bubbling with the delight reserved for four-year-olds on Christmas morning. My father would have been there too, having made the concession of waking thirty minutes early to shave and get dressed. Two older sisters and a brother. And Mom, sitting on her chair, clipboard in one hand, a blue Bic ballpoint poised in the other.

Christmas Eve would have found her hunched over that same clipboard. Stockings stuffed – including toothpaste and soap for every member of the family (which, once unwrapped, would be back in the communal pile under the bathroom sink before the turkey was on the table) – and breakfast prepped in the refrigerator. Her world in order, Mom would sit, ruler in hand, preparing her grid. Recipient on the horizontal, giver on the vertical. This careful tracking was as traditional as the cinnamon coffee cake for breakfast, the scented Avon mistletoe figurine on the mantel, and the vintage star (with questionable wiring) glowing atop our tree.

And so Christmas found us – Dad smelling of aftershave, the coffee cake baking, Mom with her pen. One at a time gifts were unwrapped. This year, a stack of Nancy Drew books from Grammie, the one with a fiery temper who was continually offering unsolicited advice but was, nonetheless, recognized as a top-notch gift-giver. Next up, new sewing thread for Mom. Licorice Allsorts for Dad.

Throughout the morning there was, without exception, strict adherence to a single rule: before opening, admiring, or using a gift you paused to announce the giver. And another block in that grid would fill up.

These were snapshots of our life and Mom was recording.

Before the ball dropped in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, our local postal team carried away the results of Mom’s dutiful records. A thank-you to the opinionated grandmother (those Nancy Drew books sit on my daughter’s bookshelf today). A note of gratitude to my other grandmother, a soft-spoken woman whose cheerful smile – which she removed each night for a bath in Polident – belied the fact she was widowed by 35 with three small children. One year she sent an elaborate tea set. My own children still use it, nibbling on chocolate chips and Cheerios piled on impossibly tiny plates, pouring Diet Pepsi out of the faded purple teapot. I wonder if Mom’s thank-you predicted the generations of use ahead?

Another note for Uncle Paul and Aunt Nadja. The arrival of their Christmas parcel was a tradition itself – wrapped in brown paper and plastered with stickers, this was a gift that kept on giving. There was the anticipatory journey to our local post office, parcel notification in hand. Then the first glimpse of that giant box – bigger and heavier than a child dared hope. At home, Exacto knife in hand, the outer shell would be carefully removed to reveal a pile of boxes wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper. Double-sided tape, crisp corners, and luxe ribbon. Seeing those gifts under the tree was a perpetual delight and I always saved their gift for last. The thank-you note for sisters Hazel and Marion (who always gifted Quality Street chocolates) would be hand-delivered at church on Sunday.

Somehow, Mom managed to capture all the magic of that giving and receiving in her letters, maintaining relationships the way she knew best – through words and a $0.45 cent stamp.

Mom and Dad in homemade matching sweaters…I did not inherit her handwork skills.

My mother is an extraordinary woman. She raised four children, managed a household, worked part-time as a nurse until we were teenagers, and then launched a big professional career. She is a doer. She patiently led us through Bible-verse memorization for Sunday School, cooked every meal from scratch (with a little help from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup), and created handmade Christmas gifts for decades. If you wanted something done, you asked my mother. Amidst the baked hams and scalloped potatoes, the cross-stitched mason jar toppers, and the endless years of diapers, she wrote letters. Every two weeks, for decades, she’d mail a family update to my grandmothers. They recorded births, deaths, blizzards, new recipes, and the status of blooming peonies. They bridged gaps of time and distance as her own children grew and married. Miscarriages and stillbirths, cancer, surgeries. There was a lot of hard to share. But also: awards, graduations, successes, new jobs, weddings, and the arrival of grandbabies. Often written in long hand and spanning multiple pages, they were crafted at the dining-room table (unless we were on summer vacation; then letters were written by the flickering light of kerosene lamps).

Perhaps most memorable to everyone were her Christmas cards, which were distinct from her Christmas thank-you notes; the holiday season warranted two letters from my mother. She devoted entire days to this activity.

In an era before Facebook and Instagram – and, can you even imagine, text messaging – this was her form of connection. She wrote to bridesmaids from her wedding, classmates from nursing school, distant family members, friends old and new, and the church members we saw three times a week. In early November she would pull out her address book and work systematically from A to Z. American recipients were prioritized, since their letters took longer in the postal system and needed to be dispatched first. The cards weren’t ornate, always purchased on a post-Christmas sale the previous year. But the letters they contained were a work of art.

She told the same stories and recounted the same highlights over and over, but in a personalized way. All written in her meticulous handwriting (only in recent years has she finally succumbed to the siren song of a more generic, typed Christmas letter). To the uncle who traveled for work, inquiries about destinations and hobbies; to someone whose loved one had passed, words of sympathy and hope. A few people responded in similar fashion but most, if we’re being honest, just attached their name to the bottom of a Hallmark slogan.

Yet my mother persisted. Year after year after year. Like spring follows winter, Mom’s letters were a constant; each one coloured with the beauty of recorded history. Her words gave meaning to our family story – a meaning that comes simply by sharing and connecting.

When I was 13 we moved. I likely wrote before this point, but here my recall starts. My letters, addressed with loopy adolescent cursive, were filled with details of high-school drama. I sent these letters for years. I wasn’t looking for anything in return (and got few replies), which seems odd for a self-absorbed teenage mind – but maybe even then I comprehended that the very act of writing was a gift of sorts. I shared my stories, my youth, and the world of possibilities in front of me, mostly for the benefit of the elderly seniors and childhood friends I’d left behind.

Then one day I received an unexpected response.

I was in the final year of my undergraduate Biology degree. The requisite hours spent dissecting pig fascia were behind me and I was doing a victory lap of sorts. Sitting alone in a summer rental, I opened a hand-addressed package. I didn’t recognize the sender’s information. The dull yellow of the mailer envelope was covered with black scuffs, paying homage to its journey.

Actually, let’s back up to introduce a new character to the story.

Her name was Nina and she lived at the end of the road. When I say the “end of the road, I mean that literally. The road that skirted my childhood home stretched up and down hills, twisted and turned, lurching precariously close to the side of a cliff face before it abruptly ended at the ocean. And there, nestled on the very edge of a cliff – near the very end of the road – was Nina’s house.

Nina was an artist, her husband a fisherman. The wharf from which he worked was at the bottom of that cliff. They attended our church, and I accompanied Dad through years of visitation. Visits where Leroy – her husband – introduced me to his homemade pickled herring (an acquired taste, but a delicacy I loved) and showed me the jewelry he made from sea glass and stones tumbled in their basement.

Leroy died, Nina grew older, and I moved away.

But I also stayed, I think, through my letters. I like to picture those notes perched on Nina’s kitchen table, stuffed into her napkin holder. Or maybe my letters served as bookmarks in the novel on her bedside table? I wonder how she read them. I want to imagine she couldn’t wait. When she opened up her mailbox, did she smile? Did she save my letters for the end of the day, or tear open the envelope on the walk across the street? Did she laugh with me? Did she laugh at me? Hopefully both.

But Nina never wrote back. Not a single time in all those years.

Now back to that package. The letter was from Nina’s daughter – someone I don’t ever recall meeting – informing me that Nina had passed away. Nina, maker of homemade fish cakes (her home always smelled like fish, which wasn’t entirely pleasant). Nina, owner of the wood-paneled living room where I sat in a floral-patterned swivel chair and watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy because we didn’t have cable but Nina did and she would sometimes invite me to stay for fishcakes with a side of Vanna White. Nina, who always set aside a special bag – (shhh: don’t tell anyone, it was a bigger bag) – of Halloween treats for me.

Nina the artist.

Her daughter wrote to tell me how much Nina appreciated my letters. The letters that told the story of how my world was growing as Nina’s got smaller. That Nina was gone. The bulky envelope contained several of Nina’s paintings, watercolours she’d made in her little studio (also perched on the side of a cliff; she clearly didn’t have an issue with heights). Her daughter said she hoped the art would leave me with happy memories of Nina. Her art and my “art” bonding us across time and space.

And I do believe letter writing is art. Like sculpture and oil and lyric. The canvas – heavy paper, hotel stationery, Hallmark cards. The brush – a pen, pencil, crayon and, yes, even a keyboard. From the first tentative letters scribbled by a preschooler to the final, halting scrawl of an aging parent.

I’m not sure what place letter writing has in the modern era. In a world where our stories are told through the filter of Instagram or within the confines of 140 characters.

I send fewer letters in the mail now. Christmas cards, the occasional thank-you note. But each month I write and e-mail Family Updates – lost teeth, first bike rides (without the safety net of training wheels), potty-training successes (and failures), kindergarten concerts; the ups and downs of life all make the cut. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, glimpses of our life show up on screens down the street, across the country, and then ping-pong around the globe – Portugal, Denmark, America. I’ve saved every e-mail, full of details that would be hazy for me (newborn era, anyone?) and forgotten entirely by the kids, without this written history.

Author Julia Cameron talks about piecing together the story of her grandmother’s life simply by reading through the decades of letters in which she [the grandmother] recounted “a series of small miracles. [Her] secret lay in recognizing the quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is in the gift of paying attention.”

Letters help us pay attention. To celebrate more fully. Find delight in the ordinary and share it with others.

A few years ago my daughter performed in a local play. A neighbor happened to be in the audience. The next day we came home to find a plate of cookies from that neighbor – congratulating my daughter for her performance on stage (and her little brother’s miraculously quiet performance in the audience). Delighted by the cookies and the praise, she picked out a thank-you card – a doughnut covered with sparkles that read “Thanks, with extra sprinkles!” I don’t know what she wrote, but I’m suspecting something along the lines of: “Thanks for the cookies. I liked them a lot.

It’s a start.

I watched her from the front window as she looked both ways and crossed the street in fading April light. She was in her pajamas already, a polar bear one-piece ensemble that was suddenly several sizes too small. Delivery complete, she came home flush with accomplishment. There was silence for a few weeks and then a surprise visit from our neighbor to express appreciation for the note. A beautiful cycle of thanks and connection and relationship, bridged with words.

You don’t get many hand-written notes these days,” said our neighbour, somewhat wistfully. “It’s really nice, you know.”

Actually, I do know. That’s why I write letters. That’s why Mom writes them, and why I hope my daughter writes them too. I can’t force her, of course. But I’ll keep writing mine and hope she writes hers. Maybe she’ll even write some to me.

Things come full circle, and I now get a letter from my Mom almost every day. They aren’t handwritten, but they have Mom’s fingerprints all over them. She sends out hundreds of words via our family text chain. My siblings and I know what wildlife she and Dad spotted through the front window over breakfast. What neighbours they passed on their afternoon walk, how her quilt is coming along, and what vegetables she’s planning to plant come June. We hear about blizzards and doctor appointments and art classes and, sometimes, the state of her laundry pile. Yesterday I learned all about her canoe trip down a local river; Dad, apparently, took a nap on the shoreline after their picnic lunch. I can’t remember, but I suspect she told us what had been on the menu. Egg salad sandwiches?

It’s wonderful. Every word and description of her day makes me smile. Especially because I know This too shall pass.

This Mother’s Day, I’m so thankful for my mother. For everything she did – and continues to do – for me. And for the deep impact of her written words over the years.

And this letter…is for her.

To my Mom, to my daughter and all the other special women in my life (and in loving memory of Nina) – Happy Mother’s Day.

Header photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

I *AM* the Magic Fairy

I have come to the realization that I am a Magic Fairy.

Last week we ran out of toilet paper upstairs and, the same day, I discovered one of our bathroom soap dispensers was empty. By the time everyone got home from school (John was overseas for work, so he gets a free pass)…the toilet paper was restocked, soap dispensers were filled and, of course, the kids were none-the-wiser.

As far as they’re concerned, there is always toilet paper in the cupboard and there is always soap in the dispenser.

This is great. I don’t think my kids need to be out buying their own toilet paper and filling soap dispensers. Their time will come. Perhaps, for now, some part of their psyche assumes rolls of toilet paper spontaneously reproduce in our bathroom linen closet – voila! a whole new generation of fluffy white butt wipe, there on demand. Maybe they think soap dispensers are automatically filled from some invisible spring-fed well of Grapefruit and Yuzu.

But they are not.

There is a Magic Fairy who does all this work behind the scenes. She also matches socks, washes towels, cleans toilets, finds all. the. lost. things, signs forms, stocks the fridge, and cooks the food.


Your turn. What “Magic Fairy” tasks do you do in your house?

Header photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

How Parenting (And Life) Can Be A Lot Like Downhill Skiing

This is one of those blog posts that has been languishing in my drafts folder for weeks, but it feels like the clock is ticking on its relevance since all our snow is officially gone!

I had a lot of fun skiing this winter, despite the short season. First, the weather didn’t cooperate and then I had to battle the (false!) narrative in my head that I couldn’t handle an outing like this solo. But, eventually, the snow came, I dismantled my excuses, and I strapped on skis to hit the slopes.

You end up with a surprising amount of free time for thinking while downhill skiing, and I spent a lot of that time pondering parallels to parenting. In no particular order, here are some thoughts:

  1. Skiing involves short bursts of exhilaration, followed by long periods of tedium. It takes less than five minutes to get from the top of the hill to the bottom and, on a particularly busy day, it can take 30+ minutes in line, plus another 10 on the chair-lift, to get back to the top. But that 5-minute dopamine rush on the way down provides the motivation to keep going back for more. Parenting is exhausting – but it can also be extremely boring, repetitive, and downright tedious. Trying to convince a 2-year-old to wear shoes before going to the park. Sweeping the same messy floor day after day after day. Cajoling a child to drink out of the blue cup because their beloved green cup is the in the dishwasher (a travesty of epic proportions). Changing diapers over and over and over. Bedtime routines. Every. single. night. But then there are moments of pure joy. Watching your infant smile, catching your toddler at the end of their first steps, cheering on your middle-schooler at the soccer field. Rocking a baby to sleep. Those moments get you through the monotony and fatigue and tedium of day-to-day responsibilities.
  2. After a quick lesson, you get dropped at the top of a giant icy hill to figure it out for yourself. I did three (?) prenatal classes – which are optional, by the way – and then we checked into a hospital, had a baby, and were sent home to FIGURE OUT HOW TO KEEP A HUMAN ALIVE. It’s a lot. Literally one of the biggest life changes possible, and there is basically zero preparation.
  3. Lessons only get you so far + no one else can ski for you. Following along with Point #2, lessons are just the tip of the iceberg in your skiing journey. I was having an issue with my turns and spent several hours one night watching YouTube videos (there are a lot of skiing how-to videos on YouTube). By the end of my virtual tutoring session, I was exhausted but feeling confident. Then I hit the slopes and those hours of videos – watched at home in comfortable pajamas, without the impending sense of doom of realizing I COULD LITERALLY DIE any minute – felt absolutely worthless. Parenting books are great, but reading about parenting is completely different than parenting. Reading about how someone else parented their child is completely different than parenting your child. You hit a proverbial patch of ice or hidden bump and suddenly that perfectly scripted parenting spiel can feel useless.
  4. Some days, you’ll spend the whole time willing yourself not to fall. On my second day skiing this winter, I came up with a mantra that I repeated the rest of the season: Just don’t die. Seriously. I said that over and over – sometimes out loud – the whole way down the hill. And whether it’s trying to stay upright to the bottom of a hill or to keep your cool to the end of toddler tantrums or middle school angst or potty training, a lot of time is spent praying for survival.
  5. No one else is actually looking at you. I am very self-conscious as a skier. I know I’m not overly skilled, and I feel foolish and amateur (which I am!). But guess what – everyone else is focused on their own journey of getting from the top to the bottom. For the most part, no one cares when my child throws a temper tantrum….because they’re focused on their own parenting challenges.
  6. Everyone else will look like they know exactly what they’re doing. On a cursory glance around the ski hill, everyone else appears to be an expert. To be sure, some people are. They’ve been skiing for decades, while I’ve only been skiing for three years. Some people are also naturally athletic. But looks can be deceiving. Maybe someone is watching me and thinking: Wow, she looks like she knows what she’s doing. (Unlikely, but theoretically possible.) So often I observe other parents – seeing only the surface of their lives and relationships – and think they have it all figured out. Their kids seem so happy! So well-adjusted! Chances are good those parents feel like they’re swimming over their heads in the deep end, too. Uh-oh, now I’ve moved from skiing to swimming…
  7. There is no prize for getting to the bottom first. This is the second mantra I adopted this year. No one cares (see #5) how slowly I ski. And barring any invitation from the Canadian Ski Team, there is literally NO prize for getting to the bottom first. Why rush things? I might as well have fun and avoid injury. There are no prizes in parenting. It’s hard, exhausting, and quite often discouraging and demoralizing. But we don’t have to be rushing to get a prize…because there is no prize. The time on the hill, the time with our kids – enjoying it all as best as we can, NOW – is the only reward we’re going to get; how we approach the experience is going to largely determine how we feel at the end of the day. Exhausted, yes, but hopefully satisfied, too?
  8. Your brain will scream: Why am I doing this? There are going to be moments, careening down the hill, frozen to the bone, of thinking: Why have I done this to myself? I could be home sipping coffee in my pajamas. Instead, I’ve chosen to risk frostbite and horrible injury. The coffee experience sounds delightful, but skiing is an adventure. It’s an expansive activity that is exhilarating and addictive (in a good way). You know things can end badly, but most of the time they won’t and it’s worth the risks because of the many joys. Ditto with parenting.
  9. Rest and sleep are critical. Skiing is very physically demanding, plus all those adrenaline surges catch up to you by the end of the day. How many times have I ended up exhausted and in tears at bedtime since becoming a mother? Many! But a good night of sleep is usually enough to convince me that I can do this.
  10. It’s more fun with friends. I went skiing solo once this year and it was fine, but not nearly as enjoyable as being there with someone else. It’s fun to compare notes about the various runs (watch out for Expressway – it’s icy!), to chat while waiting in line, to buddy up on the chair-lifts. Sharing stories, looking for advice, and asking hard questions. That old adage that it takes a village to raise a child rings true. We’re better together – and it’s also just a lot more fun!
One of my skiing buddies <3

Your turn. Have you ever gone downhill skiing? Any other connections you could draw between parenting/work/life and some athletic pursuit? What one piece of advice would you give to new parents-to-be? If you’re a parent, what has been the biggest challenge about that transition for you?

Here’s a related post from last year when I thought about life as it relates to figure skating! I Haven’t Mastered the Triple Salchow Yet (Or, Why I Still – Occasionally – Exhibit Toddler Tantrum Capabilities)

Grade Two Reading Logs: I’m An Adult

I feel like I’ve written about Grade 2 reading logs before, but they have taken up a significant number of mothering hours over the years.

Levi’s current Grade 2 teacher taught Abby for Grades 1 and 2. She is a huge fan of literacy (excellent, so am I); one of her strategies for at-home reading is to provide reading logs. Students bring home a little bag of books each week and the kids/parents are asked to log any and all reading.

Full disclosure: when Abby was in her classes, I found the whole experience a huge drag. Abby is an excellent reader, but having to write out the title, enter comments, record the date, and add my initials felt like a cumbersome end to what could have been a fun reading experience.

I get it. The log is helpful and serves as a great source of accountability. So I dutifully completed the log, sent it back each week, Abby got her stickers and life was grand.

One day I happened to mention my disdain for filling out reading logs to the mother of one of Abby’s classmates.

Oh, that!? She waved her hand dismissively. I told the teacher we weren’t going to do it. I just keep the logbook at home and don’t bother sending it back and forth.

Again, I am a HUGE fan of literacy and I know that teachers are doing their absolute best. I am also a big fan of following rules, and so – even though Levi is in her class and we’re back to the reading logs – I DO follow the protocol.


There are days/weeks when I don’t feel like monitoring his reading. He doesn’t love sitting down to do it and, well, I don’t feel like pushing too hard. I expose my children to books and encourage reading in many ways. Some weeks we send back the log book, some weeks we don’t.

I’m realizing it’s okay to give myself permission to not always tick all those reading log boxes. I’m an adult, and I can say no to Grade 2 reading assignments. Really.

Your turn. Is there any school-related parenting chore you particularly dread? Are you a staunch rule-follower, or do you look to uphold the spirit of guidelines?

Header photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

A Super Awesome Birthday Recap (Also: My Firstborn is 12!?)

It still feels a bit surreal that Abby is 12. (This is mostly a jaw-dropping reality because it means that this time next year she will be a teenager. Fellow parents, HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN TO OUR BABIES?!)

Party planning is not one of my superpowers; it should be telling that right after Abby’s party finished, a friend made a point of specifically congratulating me on “surviving another party.”

While I used to genuinely dread kid parties (mostly because parents stayed in those early years and it felt completely overwhelming to juggle the needs of kids and adults), it is definitely much easier – not to mention more fun – as the kids get older.

BIG vs. Little

I talked about our party cycle in more detail here but in short: our kids rotate between “big” (6-8 friends) and “little” (2-3 friends) parties. I think this may be our last year of making this distinction but, technically, this was Abby’s “big” year.

She invited 6 friends (we set the cap at 6 after Levi’s birthday party went slightly off the rails from the chaos of 8), but 1 friend was still away on March Break. I found 5 friends + Abby to be the perfect number. Enough kids to make group games fun and competitive, but everyone got to shine and participate equally.


I am still in love with last year’s party – where Abby and her friends actually baked the cake as part of the party itinerary – but this year was pretty awesome, too.

Abby requested cake pops.

Full disclosure: until last weekend I had never even eaten a cake pop, let alone made a cake pop. I debated outsourcing this to a local cafe, but Abby was adamant we make them together.

They were absolutely delicious and pretty darn cute if I say so myself. But don’t let these pictures fool you – the prep work was complete and utter chaos.

I don’t have in-progress pictures because my hands were covered in chocolate and every dish in the kitchen was dirty; the floor was covered in sprinkles and my stomach was hurting from eating wayyy too many candy melts. I scoured the internet for recipes and how-tos and everything looked SO clean in all the prep pictures!

This was a lie.

Take it from me: chances are very good that if you make homemade cake pops your kitchen will look like something straight out of a culinary crime scene.

But we finished, the cake pops were adorable, and I think they’re a wonderful option for birthdays because:

  1. They are so much cleaner than cakes/cupcakes! Since you mix the crumbled cake with icing to form a smooth textured ball – almost like a truffle – there were no giant chunks of cake to fall on the floor and no gobs of icing smeared all over the table.
  2. Portion control! I hate, hate, hate throwing away giant pieces of cake (kids always ask for big pieces and then eat like two bites – except my kids; they will ask for a giant slice, eat it all, and then ask for another slice). Cake pops are small and, in our case, completely eliminated waste. A few guests wanted two, but everyone finished what they started.
  3. Cake pops are delicious! Not too sweet and a great contrast of soft/crunchy with the velvety cake interior and the firm outer chocolate shell.

So despite the gong show that was preparation (I learned a lot and the process would be much easier another time), I thought this ended up being a major win.


This year Abby was determined to have a prize section – her creative vision was to create a carnival atmosphere. She and John trudged to the DollarStore to find various and sundry things for a prize bin.

Their prize haul – spoiler alert: the candy was the first thing to go!

Here are the games we played:

Doodling! While waiting for the final guests to arrive, we doodled on brown paper I had taped to the tabletop. (Note: we ran out of the white paper roll from IKEA that I used at Levi’s party; I definitely recommend the white paper over brown as the marker colours show up more vividly. But the kids didn’t seem to care and it was a great way to keep people occupied during gaps in guest arrival.)

Just One. We played this game while waiting for the final guest to arrive. One person goes out of the room and the remaining players brainstorm a word collectively (in the example above: dinosaur), and then each secretly write one word to describe the noun of choice. If a word appears twice, it cancels out – so you want something obvious…but not obvious enough that everyone else is going to choose the same word. This game is a crowd-pleaser and Abby’s friends really enjoyed it.

Treasure Hunt. We do a candy hunt at every single birthday party and it is always the star of the show. This year Abby wanted Hershey’s Kisses and Jolly Ranchers (individually wrapped candy is a must). John and Levi hid the candies in specific rooms upstairs and down. I divided the girls into two groups of three and assigned each group a floor. After 2 minutes, we switched who was upstairs and who was down. (The person who found the most candy got to pick a prize).

Left-Right. I described how to play this game here. Once again, I wrote a script that included lots of the words Left and Right. Each girl picked a sealed gift bag and traded them back and forth when they heard the word Left (hand your bag to the left) and Right (hand your bag to the right). Hilariously, the girls all ended up with the exact bag they had chosen at the beginning of the game.

Kids tiptoeing back and forth between their chosen corners.

Four Corners. We labeled each corner of the room with a number and 1 person stood in the middle of the room and counted to 10 with their eyes closed while the rest of the players dispersed to the corner of their choice. The counter then announced a number (1 – 4), and whoever was in the corner called was out of the game. We did about 5 rounds of this, and the winner of each round got to pick a prize.

Musical Chairs. This is an old classic, but it’s a favourite for a reason. The kids loved it! There was lots of laughing and yelling and rushing and arguing over who had commandeered more butt space on a chair. Again, the winner of each round got a prize.

Yes, those are leftover plates from Valentine’s!

Stickers. Before the party, I put a sticker on the bottom of one of our dining room chairs and on the bottom of one of the paper plates. While we ate cake and snacks (literally just Abby’s favourite chips + juice boxes), I told people to check their plates/chairs and the random “winners” got to choose a prize.

A very intense round of Scattergories!

Scattergories. We finished the party off by playing Scattergories. This was a lot of fun, and the creative answers kids come up with continue to blow me away!

party miscellany

  • We didn’t do formal “treat” bags because the kids won prizes. While I think it was more expensive to do it this way, I fully appreciate how nice it was for kids to be able to make their own decisions about what they wanted!
  • I had the party run from 2-4 pm. Two hours appears to be the magic length for an at-home party. We fit everything in, and there was no dead-air time to fill.
  • I kept decorations to a bare minimum. I opted to blow up balloons and just leave them lying around. No stringing them up anymore – kids want to have access to play with them. In addition to the balloons, I put up a birthday banner and…that was it!
  • I organized a walk with my best friend for 4:30 pm (stay tuned – she’s guest posting tomorrow!) which was a great way to decompress, even though this was likely the least stressful kid birthday party to date.
  • We didn’t do candles. Oops. That’s an issue with cake pops. Abby didn’t seem to mind.
  • The last few years one of my Mom traditions (the groans on this just keep getting louder) is to have Abby get in individual pictures with each of her friends + do a fun group picture. They all complain vociferously, but Abby sure does enjoy lingering over her birthday party pictures in our annual photobook…

birthday miscellany

  • I made pancakes on Sunday morning (her actual birthday). Per tradition, I created pancakes in the shape of her age. My “1” was acceptable; my “2” looked like a very ill and/or partially decapitated snake. One child couldn’t resist making a comment, but certainly enjoyed eating the pancakes regardless of their artistic merit.
  • We went out for a birthday supper. We don’t eat out as a family unit very often, but our favourite restaurant (Swiss Chalet) is a go-to for birthdays. My parents joined us.
  • Gifts were simple; some oven-bake polymer clay (technically I bought this for Christmas 2021, ended up saving it for Christmas 2022…and got around to giving it to her for Birthday 2023), I wrapped up a little can of Pringles (handed out to John on a plane ride), a Babysitter’s Club book I found at a thrift store, some place cards (she loves to create place cards when we have company and we found some cute ones at a DollarStore in Rome) and a little scratch art kit. Her main “gift” is redoing her bedroom. Nothing has been touched in this space since we bought our house and it is in serious need of fresh paint, along with some drywall repair. Hopefully, the baseboards/drywall will get done in the next few months, and then we’ll source a paint colour and some new and/or thrifted art and curtains.

And that’s a wrap on the birthday shenanigans in our house. The days can be long, but boy howdy the years are short.

Your turn. Have you hosted a child’s birthday party recently? Any favourite games or hints about making it relaxed and fun! Have you ever made cake pops? If so, did it render your kitchen a complete and utter mess?

Header photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Notes from a Decade of Regular Solo-Parenting: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (& The Great)

Before tackling this subject, I want to clarify that I am not trying to equate my stints with solo-parenting as anything akin to single-parenting. I have never been solely responsible for making major decisions (even when out of town, John is almost always readily accessible via text/e-mail), nor have I watched my spouse leave on an extended tour of duty, or participate in regular out-of-town shift work.

But…since becoming a mother, I have spent the cumulative equivalent of several years parenting solo. Here are some thoughts about my experience:

the good*

*I always prefer when John is home. Categorizing the below as “good” is my way of reframing a less-than-ideal scenario to highlight the fact there are positive elements to be found…

  • As an introvert, I can find the reset helpful. When John is away, I naturally slow our family pace. I cut out extraneous activities and focus on survival. We start evening wind-down rituals early and I prioritize “self-care”.
  • Because I work from home (and we share an office), weeks when I’m home solo can provide a great opportunity to tackle lingering projects. When the kids are at school – and John is away – I have zero distractions.
  • I feel less guilt over how I spend my flex time. Once the kids are in bed, I have complete autonomy over my evenings. While I love cuddling up and watching a sitcom or chatting before bed, when John is away I maximize evening time in a completely different way (which includes a lot more time spent reading).
  • I enjoy the feeling of control over my space. Again, once the kids are in bed, if I get everything organized and put away for the night – it stays that way. There are no late-night snacks, no dirty workout clothes from an evening run on the treadmill. John is very neat – neater than me in many ways – but having total control over our bedroom/bathroom does feel nice!
  • It is, ironically enough, easier for me to be decisive. When the buck stops with me, I don’t have to dither and say: Go ask Papa what he thinks. While we are highly aligned on our parenting techniques, if John is home I might check in if he cares if I arrange a playdate for the kids or see if he has plans that would interfere with me going out for coffee with a friend. When he’s gone, I can quickly make these sorts of decisions knowing I’m the only adult impacted by the outcome.
  • I get to do things my own way on my own timeline. I don’t have to think about his work schedule at all. As the only adult in the house, I can dictate meal times and bedtimes and…just about everything. For example, John is not a fan of empty oatmeal bowls being left to soak in the sink before getting loaded into the dishwasher (he prefers to rinse and immediately load; I get it – dumping out a bowl full of cold oatmeal water isn’t overly appealing). But at this very minute OATMEAL BOWLS ARE SOAKING IN THE SINK and he is none the wiser…that is until he reads this blog post. He is not a fan of me pulling the office space heater out into the middle of the office (he trips over the cord); guess who stretched out that cord today and blasted the space heater right at my desk area for an hour? I did. And it was lovely.

the bad

  • It’s hard on the kids. It’s hard on me. Emotions tend to run high and it throws our family dynamic off-kilter. It’s impossible to predict how a week will go; sometimes the kids are at each other’s throats or sick or just sad – other weeks, everyone is happy and the sun is shining and life is wonderful. I’m always holding my breath not knowing what hormones or weather or mood swings I’ll be dealing with over this particular stint of solo-parenting.
  • It’s hard to delegate cyclical responsibilities. When John is home, he will take out the garbage (ours is collected every other week), but I can never remove “garbage” from my to-do list because he could, theoretically, miss weeks and weeks of garbage pickup. I have taken cars in for routine servicing and emergency repairs. I’ve found and hired contractors to replace roofing shingles after a major wind storm (twice!). I have to keep my finger on the pulse of virtually everything in our family/home, which can be exhausting.
  • It’s hard to balance the right level of communication. In general, I find phone calls and FaceTime much harder than text. John prefers more direct forms of staying in touch, but I find it tends to leave everyone emotionally charged. There are trips where we go the whole time primarily communicating via text. Text adds a layer of separation and, for me, it is less difficult to be handling a hard home situation when I can type out a response at my leisure. If I’m going to cry – it’s going to be on a phone/video call. Again, though, it’s tough to balance. One of our kids, in particular, often wants to see Daddy…but then that pleaded-for video call can lead to tears. It was especially difficult in his last role where he was often traveling to MT (we’re on AST). He’d be breaking for supper right when I was putting the kids to bed and I found those nightly check-ins very disruptive. Now, he’s almost exclusively in Europe, so he’s in bed for the night right around the time the kids get home from school and that afternoon buffer really helps. Also, I love waking up to texts from him in the morning instead of having radio silence for hours while I wait for him to get up (which happened when he flew West).
  • It’s hard to maintain routines. When John comes home, he may notice some new behaviour (say a step we’ve incorporated into a bedtime routine) and he’ll add/subtract to it not knowing I implemented this new rule/habit for a specific purpose. It’s impossible to stay on top of the minutiae of parenting decisions when he’s thousands of miles away, and there are often some friction points while we readapt to having two parents weighing in on decision-making.
  • John misses swaths of the kids’ childhood. While he is rarely away for more than a week (though sometimes he’s only home for a day or two before leaving again; the longest he has been away is a month back in 2017 when the kiddos were still pretty young), that time has included various Christmas concerts, class trips, and lots of minor holidays. When the kids were young, he missed some developmental milestones – new words and motor capabilities. He misses good days…and he misses bad days. And he has missed so many bedtimes. So. many. bedtimes (if you know, you know)!
This is the very first time Levi pulled to a stand and John was away…somewhere?

the ugly

It’s a running “joke” in our household when I start a story about a catastrophe of one sort or another, it almost always concludes with the line: …and John was away.

  • Most of the time when flying solo, I feel competent. But when the wheels fall off, it can be spectacular. This has often involved coordinating emergency childcare for one child when the other needed immediate medical treatment. Let’s just say I have lots of stories of weird/random/gross/hard things I have had to manage alone. And those situations can feel much harder when I know John is oblivious to what I’m dealing with at home. I’m knee-deep in vomit, doctor’s appointments, and dosing out antibiotics while he’s eating Pad Thai and watching MMA.

I remember one particularly rough night: Levi had been sick with a fever for almost two weeks which had involved all sorts of sleepless nights and doctor’s appointments. On Day 11 of the fever I took him to yet another doctor, where I was told I needed to get him seen ASAP at the emergency room. I called a friend to come watch Abby (in the middle of a major snowstorm), packed up Levi, and headed to the hospital. At some point in the evening John checked in, sending me a picture of the professional hockey game he was attending with a client. How are things going? he asked. I sent him back this picture of Levi sitting on a gurney at the hospital. In essence saying: This is how things are going, dear. I sure hope your arena hotdog is tasty. AND WHY AREN’T YOU HERE!

Look at that adorable head of hair.
John missed this chin-splitting incident (a sibling game of tag – just before bedtime – gone awry). The kids STILL talk about those Popsicles.
  • It’s not just kid stuff, either. He was in Nunavut when I was in a car accident. He was out of town when a contractor told me about a crime he had recently committed. He has been away as I’ve dealt with various health issues. But without a doubt the biggest stressor I’ve handled solo were the series of house debacles we faced right after moving in. At one point I had two sick, young kids stuck at home during a deep freeze, right before Christmas (with company coming from out of town) and John was literally on the other side of the world (Japan) while our front yard and basement were being ripped to shreds!
  • Transitions. These are the biggest recurrent hurdle for me. In the days leading up to a trip, I can get irritable. John handles all his packing solo and does the majority of his own laundry for business attire, but when his luggage comes out (he packs over a series of days), my gut always does a sad flip-flop. Likewise, the transitions home are often tough. I’m in solo-parent mode and have just gotten into a good rhythm for that dynamic when, suddenly, John is home. When he walks through the door, I want to hand over all responsibility, but he’s arriving home jetlagged and exhausted. My best way of describing it? Running a marathon and getting to the end where you feel complete relief and euphoria for a few minutes, only to realize there is a car waiting to take you back to the starting line so you can immediately start walking the course. There is a sense of relief, but it’s never as complete as I’d like. (I think this same analogy describes so many parenting experiences! You get over middle-of-the-night feedings, and then there are tantrums and potty training, etc.) Also, when John is home he is right back into work mode. He’s not a shift worker (e.g. 1 week on/1 week off), so he’s coming home tired and he has to jump back into work. *Note: I asked John to read a draft of this post; while it’s written from my perspective I wanted to make sure I captured the essence of our shared experience. His main comment: Don’t you think transitions are a lot better than they used to be? Yes! This is one thing that has definitely improved over time. They’re still a challenge, but they are less emotionally charged than they used to be, especially the return transitions. I think the biggest reason for this is the change in his travel schedules – he now leaves and returns during daylight hours which I find tremendously helpful.


  • After years of hustling and sacrifice (as a whole family), John has had phenomenal career opportunities. Not only is he pursuing his passions – both in terms of work and regular international travel – his career has allowed us the flexibility to do all sorts of wonderful things as a family.
  • He accrues frequent flyer perks that make family travel more streamlined (and much less expensive). We’ve also been able to combine work/pleasure trips on a number of occasions (I went to a conference in Australia with him; I flew over to meet him in Paris).
  • His salary allows us to save for retirement and to own a home.
  • Because he works from home when not on the road, he has a lot of flexibility. He can almost always carve out time in the day to run errands, can usually help walk the kids to school, and tries to always be there to meet the kids at the bus stop. While there is a major tradeoff for this flexibility – ~40% of his time spent on the road – it comes with major perks. I realize this is a short paragraph compared to the “negative” impacts of his travel outlined above, but “the great” aspects of this work/life dynamic are very significant. Also, every job comes with tradeoffs; we just have a different suite of pros/cons when compared with more traditional 9-5 (local) careers.

a note on childcare

If I had one thing to “do” differently, I think the obvious answer would be to outsource more responsibilities, particularly childcare. This wasn’t really feasible in the first five years of solo-parenting. We were putting a tremendous amount of sweat equity into our small businesses and any financial profits went toward paying staff (for several years we were grossing $400/month from our company – $388 after taxes!). Now we can afford childcare, but it’s tricky to find someone for casual hours (we don’t need a nanny – I work part-time from home). While my parents are in town, we don’t have other childcare options lined up, but last winter I had a teenager come over once a week when John was away and do the after-school-until-supper slot so I could continue working. When my parents leave, I aim to get back into this routine.

A few thoughts on making it work

  • Drop or delegate. Whenever I’m in solo-parenting mode, I try to minimize external commitments. For example, while I am still open to hosting playdates for the kids, I feel zero guilt if I don’t. We eat differently and I spend a lot less time in the kitchen. When John is home, I often tuck away small dishes of leftovers in the freezer so I can pull out a smorgasbord of things while he’s away. And while both kids have regular go-to chores, I assign more responsibility when John is away.
  • Prioritize sleep. Since there is no one else to help with lunchboxes and school stuff and extracurricular dropoffs/pickups, weeks where I’m going solo can take a lot of excess energy.
  • Stay ahead of home responsibilities. It’s so easy for the garbage or laundry to spiral (though we have less laundry when he’s gone!) and with it my sanity. Keeping things organized and tidy helps me stay sane.
  • Aim for a clean slate. Before John arrives home, I’ll run the dishwasher and get all our laundry done so that when he starts unpacking his week of laundry, things are in a state of order.
  • When possible, say goodbye in the daytime. It works much better when he leaves during daylight hours and arrives home on a weekday. For years, his main route involved him getting up and leaving (via a hired car, I wasn’t driving) for the airport at 2:30 am. It was terrible. Waking up to an empty house and his pajamas folded neatly on the guest bed was a truly awful feeling for me every single time. Now he typically has mid-morning flights, and these are much better for everyone’s mental health. It’s also ideal when he’s able to get home during the work-week (while the kids are still in school) which allows us to ease back into things without the pressure cooker of hands-on parenting.
  • His new role/work environment have improved his at-home work/life balance. For starters, he’s working for a company based in Europe, with predominantly European clients. This means most of his meetings happen before lunchtime. In his previous position, he was engaging with colleagues and partners from literally ALL around the globe so he had extremely early meetings, many meetings that ended up falling over suppertime/bedtime, and then plenty of late-evening meetings (it wasn’t uncommon for him to head down to the office for a meeting with someone in Japan or Australia at 9:30 PM AST…which meant he came to bed at 11:00 PM…and then needed time to unwind after a mentally taxing conversation…only to wake up early the next morning to take a call with Europe.
Meeting “Captain Obvious”of fame at a football game.
  • Less is more. I don’t assume that his life on the road is glamorous. He has early mornings and late nights and all the stressors that come with being on the road, PLUS jet lag and non-stop conferences/meetings. That said, he has gotten to experience some pretty incredible things. This very minute he is in Paris (yesterday he was in Amsterdam). While most of that time is spent in meetings, he’ll eat great food and see some cool sights. He’s gone to all sorts of professional sporting events, he’s seen a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, he’s walked along beaches in Spain and Thailand, and gone up Tokyo Tower. It can be hard to hear about those things when I’m back home juggling contractors and vomit. So he has learned over the years to tell me everything is fine. When he first started traveling, I’d get a play-by-play of special hotels or meals, but now he typically will say: The hotel was fine. The meal was fine. A few times in those early days he would call home from a fancy dinner…and I’d be crying over boxed Mac n’ Cheese having just dealt with a toddler tantrum. Once he went to a swanky restaurant where ninja servers REPELLED from the ceiling. I didn’t hear about it for months; he thought it best to keep those details quiet. Good move.

Solo-parenting is no different from consistent two-parent dynamics in that there are ups and there are downs. Sometimes the downs can feel unsustainable; we got to this point a year ago and John took a much-needed 6-month sabbatical, followed by a job change. I’m so glad we took that leap of faith. A year later, he’s back on the road and solo parenting still has plenty of tough moments. But that’s life and I am so grateful my spouse has a job he loves…and we learn to take the good with the bad.

Your turn. Do you do regular stints of solo-parenting? If so, what are your best tips for surviving (and/or thriving)?

The Best $1.99 I Spent in January

We were out grocery shopping a few weeks ago when one child presented with a sudden – and overwhelming – need for water.

I am not in the habit of bringing drinks along for errands anymore; the kids are old enough to manage these things independently and can typically hold out until we get home.

But this time I knew we were at least an hour from wrapping up errands and I also learned said child had not had any water since the previous day (this child usually drinks a LOT of water and I do not monitor their consumption because it is so regular, but they had been at a birthday party the previous afternoon and had skipped supper because they were full…and then had a big breakfast and somehow managed to not get a drink then, either?).

I thought there might be a fountain in a nearby shopping complex, but the logistics of coordinating this pit stop were complicated. But, this was the only logical solution, right?

Water is free! Water is not something we buy! We have a water cooler full of refreshing aqua at home!

As we were standing in line to check out – with a thirsty child and a pile of groceries – I attempted to coordinate with John how to split up and go on a hunt for a water fountain.

And then, shocking even myself, I added: Or I suppose I could just buy a jug of water.

I grabbed a $1.99 4L bottle out of the nearby fridge – it was the exact same price as a 950 mL bottle, so I didn’t throw frugality to the wind entirely – and within seconds our very thirsty child was chugging water. (This is the best water I have EVER tasted was their official response).

Because of my hardwired desire to pinch pennies – and because water is something that I equate with being free – it was not my default reaction to shell out $1.99 to buy a bottle of the stuff. But I did…and it ended up being the most satisfying $2 I spent in January.

Your turn. What’s the best small purchase you’ve made lately – let’s say something under $5. Do you have a hard time spending money on “convenience” items?

Header photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Thanks + A Quick Update

Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement on Friday. Each comment and e-mail felt like a warm hug.

We had a very long (almost 2 hours!) and thorough appointment with a wonderful gastroenterologist. Test results remain reassuring; based on some relevant markers it appears to be a virally induced response (probably his 48-hour flu bug back in November). The solution?


It could take weeks – or months – for his body to fully heal.

That said, we walked out of the appointment with a game plan (including some at-home supports aimed specifically at children with chronic abdominal pain/nausea). We’ve also been brainstorming how to best support each other as a family, and have lots of great ideas – many coming from the kids!

I’m not going to lie. Nights are still very bleak. But we’re working on those, too. As Nicole so wisely said: There will be a time after this.

Indeed there will be a time after this; in the meantime, while I’m in this time – with its worry and frustration and lack of sleep – thanks for coming alongside and offering support.

Header photo by Manuel Cosentino on Unsplash