an ode for the chick trip

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Ella conquers the Fisherman Wharf’s In-n-Out Burger

My husband and I have a total of five children in our blended (blender) family.  Two from his first marriage, two from my first marriage, and our love child who we had together.  Only one of these children is female.  That would be my daughter Ella, now 19.  Over the years, there was a need for a regular chick trip to get away from the testosterone fuelled chaos that lived in our house.

One of the (few?) things I have done right as a mother is that I have spent time individually with each of my kids.  These have taken the shape of date nights, lunches out and trips away.  I captured my eldest son, now 22, only once, when we went to DC together when he was 16 so he could go to a suspiciously-named event called the Maryland Death Fest.  More regularly, my youngest son and I often nip out for movie and sushi dates.

There are so many advantages to this:  alone, you see your children with an individual lens.  It is no longer ‘the children’ and ‘the parents’ – your relationship grows a touch of the more personal – and you can get to know each other as people, not as family-defined roles.  There’s that old adage that all children want from their parents is time, and I believe that’s true, no matter how old they get.

And then there’s the lovely Ella.  Born two weeks early of round head and big brown eyes, she’s transformed into a confident and gentle young woman.  When she was 11, she wanted to visit her birthplace of Winnipeg, so off to Winnipeg we went for our premiere chick trip.  We got our our toenails painted for the first time together and drove past the hospital where she was born.

In 2010 we ventured to Seattle to start our new tradition of travelling for food.  We went to the Blue Ribbon Cooking School for a class, experienced the (worth it) line-ups at Salumi (best sandwich ever, Ella proclaimed), toured the Pike Place Market, and ate fresh banana cream pie from Dahlia Bakery while watching chick flicks in our hotel room beds.  At Christmas in November in Jasper later that year, we indulged in two days of food demonstrations and eating with gaggles of other moms and daughters on their own chick trips.  We met in Chicago four years ago when she was 15, where we had a particularly strange trip which included stumbling upon hundreds of nude bicyclists (twice, which was extremely traumatizing to both of us) and sitting in the front wet row at Blue Man Group.  We ate a lot in Chicago too, at the Girl & the Goat, and requisite food tour eating of deep dish pizza and hot dogs the Chicago way.

But then life got busy.  Ella entered her last year of high school, and took her gap year off and worked as a baker’s assistant.  This year she began her nursing program at university.  She acquired a beloved boyfriend and it became harder to tear her away for lots of good reasons.  Time passed.  A few months ago, we managed to nail down a date and location.  I booked our tickets quickly, before life interfered, and two weeks ago we met in San Francisco, the City by the Bay.

In true chick trip fashion, we ate.  A lot.  Crumble cake at Mama’s, fancy dinner at Foreign Cinema, Italian fare on our food tour, egg sandwiches everywhere, and an important In-n-Out Burger.  We walked.  A lot.  For two girls from the prairies, we walked until our legs were shaking, up and down the famous hills of San Francisco.  We went on a silly double decker bus tour, where our faces almost got blown off on the Golden Gate Bridge.  We visited Alcatraz in the rain, which was particularly delightful because Ella chose this activity and it was an experience I would have never picked myself.

Basically, we thoroughly enjoyed each other for three days. I tried my best not to chatter incessantly nor repeat myself – both bad habits of mine. Then we reluctantly boarded separate airplanes and went back to our regular lives.

But when I’m trying to fall asleep at night, thinking about work or worrying about money, I remember my time with Ella.  I think about us hopping on the cable car at twilight, and the driver taking a run at the infamous hills on Mason Street, and ooohing at the snippets of views of pastel Victorians and twinkly bridges as we rumbled past, me nestled beside my favourite girl in the whole entire world.

Ella is brave and kind.  She is beautiful inside and out, and I feel as if the world is lucky to have her.  I feel gratitude wash over me for the time I shared with her and for being granted the gift of being her mom.

My prescription for you is to spend time with each of your children.  Get to know them as people, not just as your offspring.  It doesn’t have to be as epic as a cross-country jaunt – this can be done by simple things, like walking home slowly from school, arranging anticipated dates to the burger joint, or cooking dinner together in the kitchen.

I know I’m going to sound like a grandma here…but they do grow up.  My time with my adult children is now a rare and precious thing.  Slow down, and remember to like your children too…not just love them.  As Ella wisely told me:  it is hard when you think it is going to be one way, and then it changes.  Such as life – it feels like they are going to be little forever – with small pieces of Lego underfoot and the banging of little fists on your bathroom door…and then one day they are suddenly gone.

Edited to add:  my food travels with my kids are chronicled on Foodie Suz Travels:
Jasper 
Washington DC
Seattle
Chicago
San Francisco

 

care of ourselves

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At the Erin Rose pub, off Bourbon, in New Orleans. (Note: go for the killer po’boys in the back room).

I have a colleague, Joanne Minaker, who is a visionary when it comes to women’s issues.  Her philosophy is that we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.  And I know y’all are nodding and saying, yes, yes, we know that.  But 21 years into motherhood, I can unequivocally say that this is absolutely true.  And while we might nod, how many of us actually take action on self-care?  We’ve got loads of excuses:  no time, no money, too many other people to look after.  But don’t forget:  a happy mom is a happy family.

Joanne hosted a Be Bold with Care Retreat two weeks ago.  One our Bird Associates Tara Hogue Harris, attended and wrote about her experience on our company blog here.

I could not go because I went to Los Angeles and New Orleans instead.  I went to LA to see my long lost eldest son, who is living the life in Koreatown with his lovely girlfriend, while drumming and touring across America.  It did his mama’s heart good to see him.  I was happy to see the whites of his eyes, go for Korean hot pot for dinner, walk around central LA with him, and then drag my pink suitcase up to a Mexican burrito place to meet up the next morning.  I saw where he lived, I saw he was in love, I saw he is happy.  All is well.

Then I boarded another plane and met my husband in the airport in New Orleans for what I (half) jokingly called Our Marriage Saver.  Every two years, we make very complex child care arrangements to go on adult trip together. (Yes, I realized how privileged we are to do this.  It costs a lot of money).  Since Aaron has been born, we’ve been to San Francisco (twice), Italy, New York and now New Orleans.  These have all been very adult vacations.  We eat hard, dance hard and go to bed really late and sleep in even later.  We eat food that isn’t kid friendly, go on big hikes, take leisurely shopping expeditions (Sue), go to pubs (Mike) and sail through airports, unencumbered by children.

It is frankly awesome.  Our cups get empty when we are neck deep into parenting.  The geographical cure does work to refill it, even if that cure takes you as far as your local bookstore or bathtub.

After six days away, I have the luxury of having an overfilled cup to draw upon.  My husband and I giggled together, and walked wide-eyed down Bourbon Street, drinks in hand and beads around our necks.  We jumped up and down to 80’s music, hung out in local pubs, ate po’boys, gator gumbo, jambalaya, muffaletas, shrimp and grits and pralines and drank a substantial amount of Hurricanes (me) and Old Fashioneds (him).  We went on a food tour, a bus tour and a swamp tour.

I’m still detoxing – drinking a lot of water and eating vegetables while I recover.  Want to go on an adult trip and not into Vegas gambling?  New Orleans is where it is at.  As Joanne says, caring for ourselves isn’t just about going for a pedicure (although that can help), and care is really about human sustenance.

When I got back home, I was hit by a tornado of problems:  crappy work emails in my inbox, scheduling medical appointments for Aaron, trying to find him private behavioural supports, being told the school speech pathologist won’t see him, and bearing witness to injustices in our educational system.  This is frankly exhausting. Plus, it had snowed when we were gone.  Winter has begun in earnest.  And it’s going to be a long one.

So go ahead.  I invite you to take a break from the grocery shopping, the laundry, the advocacy, the outrage, the therapies for your kids, the school phone calls, the early mornings.  Treat yourself, even if it is for one afternoon.  Disappear to a movie.  Go for that pedicure.  Browse in the bookstore.  Have a long hot bath.  You deserve it, my friends.  And I believe that you are well worth it.

Ps:  thanks to Corrie, Ella, Eisech and Helga who held down the fort back at home to make this happen for us.   And to my parents, who generously provided childcare for our previous trips. xo

 

 

tightly wound since 1993

IMG_4817I know where I belong, and it is 11 hours and 25 minutes from where I reside.

I live in Edmonton, a dusty, but frantic, prairie city in the middle of Oil Country, Canada’s Texas.  We holiday in Naramata, a hippy village perched on the east bank of Okanagan Lake in beautiful British Columbia.  Naramata sparkles with a patchwork of vineyards, fruit orchards, and the clear water below.  My youngest son, age 11, announces:  “this place has a nice view, Mom!”  And so it does.

Naramata has been proclaimed a slow city, including all 2,000 inhabitants who are a motley mixture of peacocks, dudes in pickup trucks with big dogs, young French Canadians with dreadlocks, old left-leaning types (aka the locals), and the tony folks who own the million plus dollar houses on the Bench that nest over the tiny village.  All these diverse citizens do the same thing:  meander down the middle of main street, sleepily wave hello to each other, and playfully jostle for position in line for ice cream at the town’s only store.

We spend a chunk of each summer here.  We rent a friend’s mom’s place.  We housesit for my old boss.  We stay with my father-in-law across the lake in Summerland.   We will do anything to spend time in Naramata.  This year, we have rented a perfect little cottage in the flats, a two minute walk to the weekly farmers’ market and the pier, where Aaron climbs to the top railing and cannonballs into the smooth, clear water.

The cottage is obviously a grandma’s old house.  I wonder when she passed away.  The new owner has put in new lino and laminate.  The walls are painted a beachy light blue and yellow.  When we drive up, we shout with glee at the unexpected hot tub and fire pit.  I’m enamoured with the clothesline in the back, which isn’t allowed back in my Edmonton suburb.

There is an elderly lady living next door.  Rae is originally from New Zealand, and spends her days puttering in her garden.  She leaves baskets of warm freshly picked cherries on our back table.  One day she knocks on the door with two handfuls of raspberries in her garden-dirty hands.  These are only for you, she whispers.  I know how much work it is to be a mom.  My eyes tear up in gratitude.

Aaron laps up being unscheduled.  He gets up and watched Rio 2 on his iPad.  He sets up his ziplock bag of Batman and Shrek figurines and coordinates a dance party to Pitbull music.  He sits in his bedroom and reads anatomy books.  He wears his goggles in the hot tub and snorkels for invisible fish.  He gets dressed on his own, with no nagging from me at all.  He’s proudly figured out how to open a Fanta pop all by himself. He has me post pictures on his Facebook, all with a similar caption:  “I am the most awesome dude in the house.”  And that he is.

My newly-graduated daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a week.  We go floating on inner tubes in the river canal and shriek when we get seaweed stuck in our feet.   We take them to Salty’s in town for fish tacos.  We watch the salmon jump off the dam.  They go go-carting and spray each other on the bumper boats.  Ella and I go to the spa for leisurely massages.  Mike and I escape for twinkly-light and wine-filled evening with Joy Road Catering at the aptly-named God’s Mountain.  When the older teenagers leave for their own camping adventures, I feel the pang of missing them.  Ella has written, “Yay!  Holiday! Bye family!  Love you!  Have fun!” on the chalkboard in the kitchen.

We even have friends here.  We consume a goat-cheese and basil trout, charred vegetables and strawberry and rhubarb crumble feast with a food writer friend, her husband and their lively house guests up the hill.  My husband goes mountain biking with a work colleague, and he and his partner come over for a vegan spread of carefully chopped medley of watermelon, raw corn & mango and potato salads.  Our Edmonton pals have a boat and we zoom around a southern lake with them in the hot sun, while the kids jump off the boat and the moms supplement their coolers with extra vodka.

Here, the furrows leave my forehead.  My shoulder migrate from under my ears and settle back in their natural place.  I stop fretting about the next meal, or the cleanliness of Aaron’s face, or the sticky floors in the cottage.  My biggest concern becomes what should we pack for a day at the beach.  I’m only right here, in the moment, because that’s all I have, in this limited, precious time.

I’ve been tightly wound since 1993.  In Naramata, I finally, finally relax.  My only question now is this:  how do I bottle this Naramata nirvana and transport it back home?

 

put that supermom cape away

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Every few months, I need a break from the advocating, lobbying, educating, motivating and inspiring.  A wise woman once said to me:  you know, sometimes you can fold up your Supermom cape and put it away.

This is brilliant advice for two reasons.

One, all ‘special needs parents’ need to rest from the heavy work of changing the world.

And two, let me not view myself in such high regard that I think I’m the only one who is capable of changing the world.  Many many others are chipping away at this important work – this is not my sole responsibility.  It is humbling to regularly remember that it isn’t all about me.

The break from being a ‘special needs mom’ is not a break from my ‘child with special needs.’  It is a break from society, systems and the small minded.

So I fold up my cape, and pack up my kids and board a flight to the west coast.

We disembark in the land of the lapping ocean and shadowy mountains. Our generous extended family fetes and feeds us.  We eat fish and chips at the wharf and meander around the bobbing boats at the marina.  Aaron chooses what yacht he’s going to buy for his girlfriend.  We amble through a hidden community garden on the abandoned train tracks.  We carefully examine every single exhibit at Science World and admire the views from the top of a mountain.  We gobble up corned beef hash at a breakfast joint with my daughter and her boyfriend.

We walk laps around the ferry, challenge each other to racing games at the video arcade and hold our hats on the windy deck.

My mom and dad take us to secret island places.  We visit the barking sea lions and chat with the goats at Coombs.  We shriek when we touch the sea cucumbers at the marine field station.  We turn over rocks to find scattering crabs.  We use binoculars to spot thousands of gulls feasting on herring eggs with Pappa Neil at the estuary.

We read chapter books at bedtime, and lounge in bed for a long time before we get up.  We eat pho and Nanaimo bars and lay on the floor while our one year old cousin and niece scampers over us.

All this is done on Aaron slow time, with no heed to clocks or schedules or meetings or the damn Internet.

Let’s give each other permission to fold up that Supermom cape and hide it in the back of the closet.  Sometimes we need to relax into these small moments with our kids, and leave the changing the world business to someone else.

 

the norway cure

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I am a fan of the geographical cure.  When the going gets tough, I leave town.  Thirteen years ago, I took my kids to Norway for four months to flee from a divorce.  I was sad, muddled and confused.  The runaway tactic worked.  While living in an attic in dark and drizzly Scandinavia, I had a lot of time to think.

After my tourist visa expired, I got my single mom sh*t together, moved back with my kids to a new city and got myself a job after being a stay-at-home mom for the seven years.  The distance helped me make these decisions, as did being in a country where I didn’t understand the language.  I sat in soup cafes in Bergen, terribly alone.  Norway cured me.

There isn’t a lot of space in real life to just think.   I have to claw and dig out that space.  I take a milder version of my Norway Cure on a regular basis.  For me, it helps to add a couple of extra days when I’m speaking at conferences.  I wander the streets of Melbourne or Toronto or San Francisco on my own, and come back home with a clearer head, and with a greater appreciation for my family.  This is a good thing.

We schedule regular breaks for Aaron, too.  He has been in a school setting since he was two years old. (Contrast that to my eldest son, who skipped preschool altogether and showed up, at age 5, for kindergarten).  Aaron got government funding to have an aide to accompany him to preschool, so I bundled him up and off he went.  At age 10, he’s already been in school for eight years.

I know his teachers schedule breaks during the school day for him.  It is hard for him to sit still and ‘behave’ for six hours every day.  It wears him down, and after a few weeks without a break, I sense he is unravelling.  I get calls from the school.  I end up in school meetings, where I cry.  The system wears all of us down.

So every few weeks, we pull Aaron from school.  Sometimes we hang around in bed in our pajamas, play board games, sneak off to movies and go for pho.  If we are lucky enough, we get on a plane and disappear for a few days.  (Note:  this option requires the privilege of having both time and money).  I adjust to Aaron’s pace, which is slow.  I purposely don’t drag him around, ticking off to-do lists.

We just returned from five days in Disneyland and San Diego.  It was a quick little trip, but it was brimming with anticipation.  In D-land, Aaron’s professed favourite ride was the last ride he just was on.  He lives gloriously in the moment (save for planning for his next meal), and defaults to fun.  That dose of Aaron time was just what the doctor ordered.

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the toronto speaking tour

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The Distillery District in the rain. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hawthornthwaite.

I had a whirlwind tour of Toronto hospitals, with four speaking engagements in three days.  The thing about multiple presentations?  You just can tackle them one at a time.  It helps to have thorough discussion with organizers about what they are looking for, an understanding of the audience, writing and re-writing speaking notes, and lots of timed rehearsals.

My highlights were:

1.  Participating in a storytelling panel at the Canadian Family Advisory Network Workshop with Bloom editor Louise Kinross and Dan Yashinsky.  Louise talked about narrative medicine, and the importance of clinicians telling their story.  As a professional storyteller, Dan shared his Talking You In project, which is a beautiful initiative that combines storytelling and music to honour parents and babies who have had an NICU experience.

2.  I was so thrilled to spend the day hosted by Kate Robson at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.  I spoke about the Art of Storytelling to their patient and family centred care champion group, and presented about Sharing the News:  Disclosing Diagnosis to their NICU staff and neonatologists.  I loved seeing Kate in action as the Family Coordinator in the NICU.  She has such positive energy and a listening presence.

3.  There was an awesome turn-out at my session at SickKids NICU, which was about the Art of Health Care:  Nurturing Relationships with Families.   The NICU has embraced peer support, and have recently hired a lovely Parent Liaison, Rita Visconti, who works with the families who have very sick babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

I’m like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz when I travel to Toronto:  Toto, I have a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore.  This is one big city.  Connecting with all my old and new Toronto friends left me inspired and motivated – and hopeful that the hospital world is changing for the better for patients and families all across Canada.