World Down Syndrome Day…Because Down Syndrome is My World

We are going to give him every opportunity we can to learn, grow, and become the best person he can be. We want that for every child.

World Down Syndrome Day is on March 21. The date (3/21) is significant because it is the triplication of the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome. The day is globally recognized as a time to spread awareness of what it means to have Down syndrome, and share the vital role that people with Down syndrome have in their communities.

For me personally, I don’t need a specific day to be aware of Down syndrome, because Down syndrome is my world. Rather, a sweet little ten-month old baby boy is my world, and he also happens to have Down syndrome. Because of him, anytime I see anything about Down syndrome, my eyes are open and my ears are listening.

Something that caught my eye is a new video that was released in conjunction with World Down Syndrome Day. The video is called “Not Special Needs,” and it can be seen on It’s a humorous but thought provoking two-minute video that highlights the paradox of suggesting that someone’s needs are special. If you are on the internet and have two minutes, check it out.

Picture a guy in relaxed bliss on a massage table with a fluffy cat rubbing his back : “If people with Down syndrome needed to have cat massages, THAT would be special.” It has a few more funny scenarios of what would be “special needs” like wearing a suit of armor or eating dinosaur eggs. But what people with Down syndrome really need are “education, jobs, opportunities, friends, and some love, just like everyone else.” Those are not special needs, but human needs.

In the world here at our house, it’s the same concept, but different. We don’t have special Down syndrome baby toys, just baby toys. I don’t have Down syndrome baby food or outfits. It seems kind of funny, but the realization that there aren’t special toys, food, or clothes was comforting to me when he was brand new. He’s just a baby.

When he was born, I felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know how to take care of a baby with Down syndrome. I remember sitting on the couch and talking to my sister-in-law Tricia about it. She pointed out that he just needs love and for his needs to be met, the same as all babies. That made sense to me; that I could do. And the advice was meaningful because Tricia has extensive experience and education on the subject, with starting an adult family home and for years caring for her own sister Rose who had Down Syndrome. We just need to take care of him, just like we’ve done with all of our kids. And so, we do.

But it’s not just business as usual; he has expanded our world. A few months ago my kids noticed a display in the children’s department at Target. One of the models of children’s clothing was a little boy with Down syndrome. They were all excited to see that and commented how cool it was to see a kid like their little brother. I agreed.

I’ll be honest that the cynical part of me used to sometimes roll my eyes, thinking that sort of inclusiveness felt like a very staged and calculated move from companies trying overly hard to be politically correct. I’ve changed my view, though, as a parent of a son with Down syndrome. I’m happy that the executives in big marketing departments have expanded their perspective, and I view that inclusiveness with gratitude. Kids are just kids, and they happen to come in all sorts of packages. Yes, it is cool to see a little boy like my son on a billboard.

It’s cool to see because it makes me excited for the future. I can’t wait to see what he is like when he gets older. I can’t wait to see the person he becomes. Each one of our kids share similarities with each other, but they are each so unique in their personalities. Sometimes my mind moves ahead in time, and envisions what our family dynamic is like when our kids are older. I see good things ahead.

My oldest daughter commented one day “he’s such a peaceful little soul.” She so perceptively nailed it. He truly is a peaceful little soul. He has been since day one. I can’t wait to see how his personality grows as he gets older.

Right now, though, he’s just our sweet little baby boy. He’s just a few days shy of ten months. He loves crinkling up paper and shoving it in his mouth before it gets taken away. One of his greatest joys is sock removal. He loves holding spoons in each hand while in his high chair and making racket with a big smile or lots of concentration.

He’s developed his balance enough to become a champion sitter. He loves hanging out on the carpet in the action with other kids, grabbing blocks and dumping them out of the bucket, and playing peek-a-boo with blankets.


And, he’s a lover. He often reaches out to get from one person to another to give hugs and snuggles. He gives real hugs at bedtime, reaching arms out and wrapping his hands around his siblings’ necks. He gives big open mouth kisses on our cheeks. And, he’s a real, live baby. That means in the middle of snuggles, he’ll also reach out and grab handfuls of long hair. Or Dad’s cheeks, or his brother’s nose. HONK!

He gives all of us so much joy. We get big smiles when he wakes up, smiles for kids when they come home from school, and when everyone is laughing at the dinner table, he’s watching us and smiling because we are.

And as he grows, we are going to give him every opportunity we can to learn, grow, and become the best person he can be. We want that for every child. So, from us, happy World Down Syndrome Day…because someone with Down syndrome is our world. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.



A Good Heart and a Bounty of Babies

three cousins.jpg

Three baby cousins at Grandma’s house. 

In a fast and furious blur, week one of summer vacation is in the books.

Life is pretty busy when the projects that I have on my list for the morning don’t get done for days.  My poor six-year-old has been begging for a haircut for weeks. Every day I say I can cut his hair that day, and then at the end of the day, he goes to bed with a shaggy, sweaty head once more.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

And as much as I just want to tackle all of the things I see that need to be done, sometimes I get big reminders that I can’t add a newborn and lots of nursing to life and still keep up the same daily list of projects to do.  Last week I spent one of the days mostly laying in bed with a fever and a case of mastitis.  Antibiotics and rest took care of it. I am so thankful that Jarred’s mom Cheryl was still here.  She made it possible for me to be able to just “be sick” that day and get better. Even grown ups need a mommy sometimes.

Later in the week, the big event was our baby’s echocardiogram.  It went well.  Our little boy doesn’t have any heart issues that require surgery or long-term care.  In the course of the scan they did find a tiny hole of a few millimeters, a secundum atrial septal defect. The cardiologist said that very likely the hole would close on its own as he grew, but either way, it was nothing that required further attention or monitoring.  I’m very thankful for that.

As I navigated the Mayo jungle of parking ramp, subway, elevators and corridors, I walked with the baby tucked into my front wrap-style baby carrier.  It’s basically a long stretchy piece of fabric that you criss cross front and back, and it makes a pocket that the baby sits in, snug against your chest.  It’s very cozy and so much better than lugging an infant car seat.

It also gets a lot of attention, in a sweet way.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw people’s mouths say “Awww…” as they caught a glance of this little bundle of baby on my chest.  Older people, especially.  By the time we finished and got back to the car, I had to smile at it all.  It made me appreciate how little and new he is all over again, and realize again just what a brief time this is when a baby is so small.

Speaking of babies, I’m happy to share that our little boy isn’t the new baby in the family anymore!  I have a brand new niece, Josephine Lily.  My sister Victoria and I had due dates just a day apart, but with my little guy showing up a week early and her little girl showing up over a week late, their birthdays are two weeks apart.  It’s pretty amazing to have two cousins so close in age.  A big congratulations to Rian and Victoria Jones and big sister Genevieve!

With her new addition, this past Sunday it was a baby fest at Grandma’s house: two newborn babies and their cousin William (son of Steve and April Kramer), who is only three months old but looks like a little linebacker by comparison.  Adding in my three-month-old nephew Eli in Montana and a great niece and nephew, my cup runneth over with all of these new babies in our lives.

With all of the new life around, we also still have an empty spot in our lives. This coming Sunday is a day I’ve been staring at for a long time on our calendar. It’s Father’s Day, and very poignant is that the day also marks three years that my brother Mike has been gone. I wish I had some sort of profound thought that made sense of it all, but I don’t. He was a great father who was active in the lives of his kids in every way, and three years later, while everyone grows and changes and continues with life, there is no question that he is still very loved and missed.

As for the dad at our house, I’m grateful for my husband who in the course of one day does things like making the best gooey cinnamon rolls with our kids and also teaches them how engine compression works.  A few days ago Jarred cut a tree down in our windbreak. Before he cut it down, he asked if any of the kids wanted to come out and watch. Only one did. I told him he does too many amazing things with big equipment on a daily basis that seeing a giant tree fall down didn’t even sound awesome. We both laughed.

Happy Father’s Day to the awesome dads, the ones here on earth and the ones up in heaven.

An Echocardiogram, a Grandma, and Seven Calves

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it's because he's being held on the couch by his big brother.

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it’s because he’s being held on the couch by his big brother.

It’s 5:00 in the morning, and for right now the house is quiet.  It won’t last long, though.  School is out, and it’s day two of summer vacation.

At 6:00 a few kids will trickle downstairs. They don’t have to be awake that early for anything, but they always are. Regardless of whether they go to bed at 8:00 or late at 10:00, they always wake up promptly at 6:00.  Someday when they hit that teenage stage and I can’t get them awake until noon I might miss this time, but right now I wish the day started just a little later.

I could use a later start because right now, I’m running on baby time: lots of nursing and diaper changing at all hours of the day, intermixed with ordinary life.  Baby time also makes me continually surprised how fast a few hours can go by.  When our baby starts to squirm and fuss, that usually means it’s time to nurse again.  So often I think, “I just nursed him,” and then I look at the clock and realize that an hour or two or three has gone by.  Without a baby’s tummy to mark time, hours go by so quickly in a day.

He’s two weeks old now.  Two weeks in “ordinary time” goes by in a blink, but with a new baby, it feels like a lifetime of living happens in a matter of days.  That lack of sleep combined with a big life change makes all of time seem blurry.  Hours slip by at night, but a baby grows and changes so quickly that a few days can make a huge difference.  In some ways, it feels like he’s always been here, even though he’s so very new.

We’ve been looking at his cute little sleeping face and tiny hands for two weeks.  He’s so irresistibly sweet that I find that after I’ve laid him down for a nap in his pack and play crib, he often disappears.  I’ll look over on the couch and see that he’s been scooped up and sleeping in the arms of an older brother or sister.

In these last two weeks, we’ve also had big news to digest.  I haven’t mentioned this earlier because we were still waiting on official test results.  However, the results confirmed what we suspected when he was born.  Our baby has Down Syndrome.

It’s all come as a complete surprise, with no indications of this during pregnancy. At my 20-week ultrasound, everything checked out just fine.  I remember commenting to Jarred toward the end of my pregnancy that this had been such a completely healthy pregnancy, with everything being just right all along the way (right down to having the least back pain of any pregnancy, with my sixth baby). For a healthy, ordinary pregnancy, I’m so very thankful and it puts me more at ease now.

When he was born, we suspected he might have Down Syndrome based on a few things about his appearance, and he was tested at his five-day checkup. For right now, he is otherwise doing just fine and he’s nursing well, which is important.

Because heart defects are common with Down Syndrome, he is scheduled to get an echocardiogram done this week, which is essentially an ultrasound of his heart. During his ultrasound at 20-weeks pregnant his heart looked good and at his five-day checkup the doctor did not hear any murmur, which are both good signs.

Long term, there are plenty of things to monitor health-wise and obviously things we’ll need to do to help him developmentally, too.  To be honest, at this point I don’t know what all that entails, but I know we’ll be getting a very good education on it all over the years.

So, this little guy took us by surprise.  It’s not what we were expecting, but I also feel like everything is going to be just fine.  I believe he’s here to bring good things to our lives and we’re going to learn so much from him.  We just love him and we’ll just take whatever we need to do in stride.

And truly, he’s just a part of the family.  We’re figuring out our new summer routine with six kids at home.  We also added seven Holstein bull calves to our little farm this week. We’ll be raising them for beef over the next year and a half, and right now, our kids are fascinated by the seven cute calves we’re adding to their chore projects.

With the busyness of life around here, we’re especially thankful for Jarred’s mom, Cheryl.  She drove 1,000 miles on her own to come and see the baby, visit our family, and be a set of open arms for a week.  It’s great to have Grandma here.  All the little things she does are big to us, and she adds a peacefulness to our lives when things feel a little crazy.

That means a lot in a week with an echocardiogram for a baby, six kids home for the summer, and seven new calves in our shed.

The Best Gift Ever

After a 2,000 mile Thanksgiving road trip, followed by a week of post-road trip utter exhaustion, we’re in full speed Christmas mode at our house. Mounds of boots by the door: check. Christmas tree cut down: check. Christmas Program at church: check.

Bundling up our kids to head out the door after church, our pastor stopped me and asked if I would mind being one of the volunteers to write about “My Best Christmas Gift Ever” for an advent season devotional. I agreed, with mixed thoughts of “that sounds interesting” and “why did I just take on another project.”

Sitting in the van on the way to my mom’s house after the three and a half hour marathon of the kids’ Christmas program practicing and performance, I felt more than a little fried as I tried to ponder my best Christmas gift ever.

Nothing really jumped out from my memory.

Perhaps my favorite gift ever was my Cabbage Patch Doll in first grade. It was the one I longingly stared at week after week at the hardware store in Plainview. I dreamed about getting to hold the doll in my arms. On Christmas morning, it was the first present I opened, and it was indeed the very doll I’d wanted.

Mahala Sibyl (yes, that was the name the doll had) was a great present and very memorable, probably because stared at her week after week in the store. I don’t know, though, if that was my BEST gift ever.

Then I realized the present that meant the most to me was not a Christmas present, but an unexpected birthday gift from my younger brother.

When we were kids, our grandma used to give us five dollars every year on our birthdays. My younger brother Matthew has his birthday two days before mine. The year that he was about six, he brought his crisp five dollar bill from Grandma along on a shopping trip to Rochester, ready to spend it the day after his birthday.

The day after his birthday, of course, also happens to be the day before my birthday. I remember being at the mall that day, looking at a little display of rings on the counter, on sale two for $5.

I wandered away then, knowing that I wasn’t really going to get them. Then I saw my mom helping my little brother with something at the counter, and I tried not to pay attention too much, although I knew what was happening.

Later my mom whispered to me, “Matthew just spent all of his birthday money on two rings for you for your birthday,” confirming what I already suspected.

We always had everything we needed, but as little kids, we rarely had money of our own. The five dollar bill from Grandma was often our entire cash earnings for the year. At nine, I fully understood the generosity of getting a gift that came from Matthew’s birthday money for the year.

On my birthday, I opened up a little box with two sparkling rings, one looked like a diamond, and the other was aquamarine. They were the same two rings I’d pointed out to my mom, but never expected to get. The rings tarnished over time, but I kept them safe in my jewelry box for years, and occasionally wore them even in high school. I think I still have them in my old jewelry box up in my mom’s attic.

Of all the gifts I’ve received over the years, it was the unexpected generosity and thoughtfulness of a little boy that meant the most to me. Matthew didn’t make a big deal about giving me a present, he just did it. And he never complained about not having money left over to spend on himself. That just the kind of person he was, and still is today. Even as a kid, that made a big impression on me.

That was my best gift ever.

Heading full speed into Christmas, I’m trying to keep all of this in my head.

My favorite present ever came from a generous little brother, and when asked “What was your best Christmas gift ever?”, nothing to me really stood out.

And maybe that is the most significant thing of all about Christmas: the lasting memories of Christmas weren’t about any specific gift. My memories are of the feelings that surround of Christmas:
-the excitement of decorating the tree,
-the secrecy of wrapping presents,
-the magic of the lights turning off in the church on Christmas Eve for the play,
-the anticipation on Christmas morning,
-the nervous excitement sitting in the crowded living room at Grandma’s house on Christmas Day.

Any one of those thoughts triggers story after story in my head about Christmas time. It’s not the presents, but the whole Christmas package that makes me so excited to celebrate Christmas with my own kids.

I’m writing this to remind myself as much as anyone. In my head, it’s easy to get stuck on needing to buy x, y, and z for my kids for Christmas to be “just right.”

In reality, the best gifts are getting to decorate gingerbread houses with cousins in Montana, cutting down a Christmas tree with family in Minnesota, and getting to hold a new baby cousin. That’s what they’ll remember.

So when Christmas morning rolls around, we’ll be up bright and early to open presents, but the best gifts we’re getting this year are nothing that can be wrapped and put under a tree.

Getting to hold a new baby of the best gifts ever.  Welcome to the world, Gabriella! Congratulations to Steve and April Kramer.

Getting to hold a new baby cousin…one of the best gifts ever. Welcome to the world, Gabriella! Congratulations to Steve and April Kramer.

Kids Still Say the Darndest Things

Even though I’m with my children 24/7, they still have a way of taking me by surprise. Just the other day, my three-year-old proposed.

He first asked me about the plan for the day.  I said it was just a day to stay at home. He saw that as an opportunity and casually responded, “Okay.  So why don’t we just get married today, you and me?”

I have to say, I was surprised and flattered.  Nobody has proposed to me in quite a while.  I told him that sounded nice, but then he went off to ride his trike and the whole wedding never happened.  It’s probably for the best, since I already married his dad.

I love to hear the thoughts and ideas that come out of kids’ heads.

A year ago, I interviewed my three oldest kids, asking them each the same set of questions in a personal interview.  A few nights ago, those interviews popped into my head again as I sat next to my two-year-old girl’s bed, holding her hand so she could settle down to sleep.  I looked at her little self, and I realized that in a year, she progressed from a few baby babble words to commanding her siblings with the oratory skills of a tiny part-time dictator.

I wondered what she would say if I asked her that same set of questions, and then I wondered how the responses of my other kids would change as they grew and matured during a year’s time.

Part of a "perfect day": heading to the pool in St. Charles.

Part of a “perfect day”: heading to the pool in St. Charles.

This morning, I dug out those interview questions again.

Remembering interviews from last year, my kids eagerly took turns receiving 10 minutes of Mom’s undivided, fully engaged time.  Below are their responses: the sweet, the silly, and the surprisingly perceptive.  For simplicity, I listed each child by age.

What was the happiest day of your life?
7: Days when I go shopping with you.  And next year when you give me an interview, I’ll say when I got my ears pierced.
6: It’s hard to say.  Like maybe the Christmas when Santa put up the train track in our log house.
3: My happiest day is hooking things together and unhooking them, and tying knots together now.
2: Cody.  I love Cody.  (her cousin)

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
7: Make Spot not roll in sheep poop.
6: Christmas to be in the summer everywhere, on our side of the world and the other side.
3: I could be mad.  And I don’t know how to fly.
2: My brother’s bed.  (New bunk beds arrived today.)

Spot, sporting a coating of green muck, received dishonorable mention for his new hobby.

Spot, sporting a coating of green muck, received dishonorable mention for his new hobby.

When were you most afraid?
7: I was kind of afraid to move, and going to kindergarten.  The night before the first day of kindergarten, I was really afraid.
6: When a blackout happened and the TV just randomly shut off.
3: Bed and monsters…and tigers.  That’s what I’m always afraid of.
2: Tractors scare me one time.  Go home, tractor!

What do you want to do for a job?
7: I want to be an artist, and I also want to be a veterinarian because it looks like fun and every day you get to see an animal.
6: I want to be a lifeguard.  Can lifeguards be a grownup?
3: I just don’t like doing my chores.  I just like to play.  Chore time is just stupid.  I just want to play, play, play.
2: Cody.  Hold him.  Hold me also.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
7: My family and cousins.
6: Having a toy or a few toys.
3: I can’t live without my teddy bear.  I just can’t even live without it.
2: I need girl.  Girl, girl, girl.

Describe your perfect day.
7: I would go to the park, go to the Mississippi, go to the Hawaiian shaved ice place, maybe buy a girl puppy and get my ears pierced.  And I would eat dumplings for dinner.
6: Have ice cream for breakfast, go to the St. Charles pool, have corn dogs for lunch and go back to the pool.  Go home and have brunch for supper, and then stay up until midnight.
3: Hooking hooks onto my ropes and pulling trailers behind my trike with my hooks.
2: Cody.

Who are your friends?
7: Claire, Julia, Audrey, and Indie.
6: I have lots.  It’s hard to say just a few.
3: Katie. (his cousin) And sometimes I see my friends at Early Childhood.
2: Cody, my friend.  Nathan.

What was Mom like as a child?
7: Um, fun?  Wild!
6: I don’t know.  Can you give me a hint?
3: You liked to do the same stuff that I like to do.  Did you like to do that stuff when you were my age?
2: Like me? Slide down.  Hold me!

What does Mom do when you’re not around?
7: Types her articles and goes shopping sometimes.
6: Do the laundry or clean the dishes.
3: Usually you need me badly and you don’t know where to find me.
2: Mommy wake me up.

What’s Mom’s favorite food?
7: Dumplings!
6: Tacos.
3: Stuff that has ketchup on it like hot dogs.
2: Crackers.
(all sound suspiciously like their own favorite foods)

What’s Mom really good at doing?
7: Being a mom.  A good runner, too.
6: Taking care of the kids and making meals like Chinese.
3: Cooking and giving me anything I want for breakfast.
2: Eating.

What’s Mom really bad at doing?
7: Not being a mom.
6: I don’t know…but I think you’re not very flexible at doing stretches.
3: Getting stuff right or wrong.  Knowing which way to go in the car.
2: Making clean table. (She’s right.)

What’s Mom’s favorite place?
7: Grandma’s.
6: St. Charles pool and the ice cream shoppe.
3: Grandma’s.
2: Upstairs.

How do you know your mom loves  you?
7: Because she gives me hugs and kisses every night and gives me breakfast.
6: She kisses me and hugs me goodnight.
3: Because I love her by giving kisses and hugs.
2: Seven.

If you have kids around, please just sit down one-on-one and do this.  For me, I realize all over again how much I love seeing how my kids’ minds’ work.  The interviews are also my reminder that the simple act of truly listening makes anyone just light up.

Part of me wishes I could fast forward and interview my kids in ten years and see how much they change, and how much of their personalities remain just the same.  Will my curly-haired boy still happily ramble on indefinitely about any subject?  What will they recall as the happiest day a few years from now?  Will they still want hugs and kisses every night?  I’m not sure, but I am pretty sure that my son will no longer want to marry me.  I’m okay with that.

Thanksgiving in Montana: In Numbers and Pictures

With half of our family living in another state, long distance road trips followed by marathon family visits are the norm.  When we only make the trips about twice a year, there is a desire to try to fill up a half a year’s worth of family interaction in just a week.  When it comes time to leave again, it’s never quite enough, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

This Thanksgiving, we made the trip to Montana.  Like many other trips, when we first saw our teenage nieces and nephews, I had a few moments of disbelief at how much all of them have grown.  In my head, I sometimes still picture them in their preschool size, but the reality is, almost all of them are now taller than me.  That really can’t be, and I have no idea how it happened.  We all exchange a few “I can’t believe how tall you are/how long your hair is/how long those legs are,” and settle into getting to know again the new versions of the family we love.

On our big family trips, the specific people gathered and the events vary, but every trip involves multiple big gatherings for family meals, plenty of sitting around together, and kids running through all of it.  After a week or so, we head home.  At the end, it’s all a busy blur, and the days and meals run together, but it’s just enough to get us through until the next time we can see our family in person.  As I write this, we are wrapping up our trip and preparing to make the drive back to Minnesota.  It’s always bittersweet to leave.  There’s the excitement of knowing we’ll soon sleep in our own beds again, but there’s the sadness in knowing that pulling away from Grandma’s house means we won’t get to see our family in Montana again for several months.

In that time, we’ll miss countless daily events in their lives, but we’ll have all sorts of stories to tell the next time we see each other again.  And in the middle while we wait, phone calls, text messages, and facebook help fill the gaps.

As I gather up our things to leave for MN, I took stock of our Thanksgiving trip in a few numbers…
1,000–Miles to drive each way.

Wide views of blue sky during the sunrise on Thanksgiving morning in Broadview, Montana.

Wide views of blue sky during the sunrise on Thanksgiving morning on Comanche Flat, south of  Broadview, Montana.

24–Family members gathered together on Thanksgiving day.

Our baby takes a Thanksgiving nap on Dad just before the big meal.

Our baby takes a Thanksgiving nap on Dad just before the big meal.

5–(At least) meals of turkey dinners over the days.  Yum.

4–Month-old niece, with adorably thick hair and blue eyes, that we all finally got to see and hold for the first time.

My three-year-old happily asked to hold his newest cousin several times, "Aww, she's so cute!"

My three-year-old happily asked to hold his newest cousin several times, “Aww, she’s so cute!”

3.1–Miles that I ran in Billings, Montana during the Run, Turkey, Run! race on Thanksgiving morning before the big feast.

On Thanksgiving morning I ran a 5k and got to enjoy a complimentary beer afterward, all before ten in the morning.  With the proceeds going to the food bank, I think this may be my new holiday tradition!

On Thanksgiving morning I ran a 5k and got to enjoy a complimentary Dirty Girl beer afterward, all before ten in the morning. With the proceeds going to the food bank, I think this may be my new holiday tradition!

2–Nieces baptized on Sunday, through a series of clever last-minute arrangements.

A big family crowd watched our two nieces get baptized over the holiday weekend.

A big family crowd watched our two nieces get baptized over the holiday weekend.

1–Snowfall, making my kids very happy for their first time playing in snow for this winter season.

Add to that countless smiles and laughs, a few tears, a couple of kid tantrums, and a great glass of wine with my mother-in-law.
It all adds up to great memories of this year’s Thanksgiving with our family in Montana.

An early Christmas present puppet theatre makes a very happy girl.

An early Christmas present puppet theatre makes a very happy girl.

The Value of a Child-Friendly Nativity Set

Mary and the angel lost their heads this week at our house.  Baby Jesus?  He’s MIA.   It’s ok, though, we have a spare Jesus at ready.

At our house, the nativity set is hands-on.  We get out the tacky glue, and Mary and the angel get back to the action, ready for small hands.  We like lots of traffic around the manger.

In many people’s homes, nativity sets are ornately beautiful and fragile, set up on display as a look-but-don’t-touch Christmas decoration.  I appreciate those beautiful sets; there is a certain amount of reverence inherent in beautiful things.  Some day I’d love to have a set like that.  But right now, that’s just not the way we live.

baby jesus

We are a household with four young kids. I don’t really have a place to set up a fragile nativity set without fear, and I don’t want to anyway.

Our little wooden stable and nativity set currently reside in the dining room on top of my grandma’s sewing machine table.  At children’s eye level.  To make it accessible to even our littlest one, I put the step stool right next to the nativity set.

One of the sheep in our nativity is a three-time amputee.  He now spends his time laying down.  We have a wiseman that lost his legs, another is missing part of his crown.  You get the picture.

We have a backup nativity set, though, so we can create a full “cast” by combining the two sets.

The nativity set figurines sit next to our Little Golden Book called The Christmas Story, a simple version of the Bible story with beautiful traditional artwork.  The nativity set and the story go hand in hand, and we can grab the book and read it whenever the mood strikes.

I give my cousin, Annie, the credit for this child-friendly arrangement.  A few years ago, I spotted a picture on her facebook page: an adorable wooden, hand-painted child’s nativity set, rearranged in some sort of humorous configuration by her young son.  This struck a chord with me, and thus began a quest for a nativity set for our children.

While I loved my cousin’s set, the hefty price tag for that nativity didn’t sound feasible for me.  I’m too busy (or really, just too lazy) to keep track of expensive little figurines that our dog might chew up.

I then looked at the nativity set made by Little People.  While I love those little figures as toys, I didn’t want them as a nativity set because they really just look like another toy.  I wanted the nativity figures to look more realistic, and somehow different from “just another toy.”  Not finding what I wanted in any stores, I hunted around on the internet and almost bought a set there.

Inspiration struck, though, and I headed to the thrift store.

Eureka!  I found a classic wooden stable, complete with a working(!) light.  Conveniently attached was a plastic nativity set with traditional-looking figures, super-glued in place.  I spotted and then snatched up another nativity set made of resin for a few bucks more.

Those figurines seemed like just the ones: worn just enough to not worry about future nicks, and very similar to the set from my childhood.  For less than fifteen dollars, I now possess a lighted wooden stable and two nativity sets, one plastic and one resin.

Wanting an interactive nativity set experience for my kids, I pried off the plastic figurines that came super-glued to the stable.  One king refused to budge, as did all three sheep, which tend to be stubborn animals.

It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not meant to be, which actually makes it perfect.  From a distance, the set looks nice, and up close, the apparent wear and tear makes our nativity fuss-free for our kids.

So why do I intentionally allow my children to potentially damage these semi-sacred objects?

We all know that children benefit from hands-on learning.  Both educators and parents alike know that children learn by seeing, touching, and doing.  So often, though, when it comes to “the reason for the season,” people set up nativity sets that are off-limits to children.  To me, that looks like a missed opportunity for learning.

Child-friendly nativity sets provide the visual and tactile opportunity for kids to engage with the Christmas story.  Learning about something that happened so long ago is an abstract concept, but seeing, touching, and manipulating the characters in the story helps kids to sort it all out and create understanding.  The teacher in me likes that.

And the kid in me says it’s just plain fun.

When I took out our nativity set and stable for the season, I never actually pointed it out to our kids.  I just set it up, turned on the stable light (“open for business”), and waited.

A few hours later, I noticed our 19-month-old daughter sitting on the step stool, playing with the figures.  I overheard her little monologue: “Mama, baby.” “Dada!” Then the holy family climbed the roof of the stable, “Stays (stairs)…up, up, up!”  Soon the wisemen took turns riding on the cow, “Weee!!”

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

As she played, I told her the names of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  That’s enough for her for now.

Our kids aren’t always reverent with the figurines.  I already mentioned the missing heads.  Sometimes the donkey fights with the cow, and sometimes the figures are stacked in pig pile fashion.  Kids are kids, after all.

However, our 19-month-old often carries baby Jesus around the house saying, “Aww, baby,” and lovingly kisses him and gently covers him up with tiny blankets.

My three-year-old son, also a baby lover, has the same reaction.  When he plays with the nativity set, he always makes sure that baby Jesus has his mom and dad close at hand.  And after seeing and playing with the set at home, he can easily name the “characters” in the story when he sees them in other places, like church or TV.

One night as I read The Christmas Story book to our kids, my six-year-old daughter jumped up off the couch and grabbed the nativity figures.  Giggling and using exaggerated gestures for comedic effect, she made the figures act out the play as I read the book.  Afterward she took an especially grand bow, and we clapped.

I think the person who said “let the little children come to me” would approve.

And as for Mary and the angel, they might lose their heads again before Christmas, but hey, don’t we all sometimes?

12 Things I’m Thankful for During a Day in 2012

By the time most people read this, the turkey will be picked over and someone will already be trampled from a Black Friday shopping rush. As I write this, though, it’s just a quiet Monday morning before Thanksgiving. We’re contentedly hanging out at Grandma’s house, in Broadview, Montana. Yep, over the Missouri River and across the prairie, to Grandmother’s house we go. A few days after our all-night driving trek, we’re still wiped out, but very happy to be here.

While 1,000 miles between our families is a big odyssey with four kids in tow, what I love is that no matter if we are heading east to Minnesota or west to Montana, it feels like we are going home. Family is home. We cheer when we finally hit Montana on the way west, and we cheer when we finally hit Minnesota on the drive back east.

To be completely honest, though, I have absolutely no desire to sit in front of the laptop and write this morning. We’ve been waiting for months to see our family here in Montana, and all I want to do is just hang out and play. It’s been six busy months since we last visited family in Montana, several of us moved into different homes during that time, and a baby was born. But right now we are in the midst of that great, but all too short, time of getting to see everyone in person again.

After the overnight drive I’m still groggy and a little rough around the edges, but I’m happy to be here for Thanksgiving, the holiday focused on gratitude. I could fill a book with the many people and things that I’m grateful for, but right now, I’m just thinking of today. So as I’m sitting here, I’m counting my blessings for what I have, this very day.

I’m Thankful For:

1. Church Bursting with Kids–The Broadview Lutheran Church, with a usual Sunday congregation of 5-8 people, swelled with our extended family. We had ten young Mosdal cousins hanging out there together, including our four kids. A zoo of children is a happy sight in my world.

2. A New Baby–Four months after she was born, I finally saw my new niece for the first time. The newest little cousin in the family has an amazing shock of thick reddish brown hair, sweet blue eyes, and perfect creamy white skin. I got to hold her and snuggle with her long enough to soak in some of that baby goodness, and my kids, her cousins, held her and proudly proclaimed “she’s so cute.” We also watched her little fingers grab for the homemade cinnamon rolls at church. Obviously, she’s got good taste.

3. Ice Cream with Great-Grandparents–Noticeably absent on Sunday at church were two long-time church goers: my husband’s grandparents, Grace and Thelmer. Three months ago, they moved off the farm and into assisted living. On Sunday afternoon we brought our kids to the ice cream social where they now live. Grace and Thelmer enjoyed seeing four kids devouring ice cream, and they beamed with pride as other people walked by and asked about the kids. We enjoyed seeing that they now live in a nice little apartment and have three meals a day (plus cookie time snacks) provided. It was good for all of us.

4. Early Coffee With In-laws. Our kids are still on Minnesota time, despite losing all sorts of sleep on the drive. The kids are up and at ’em around five AM, even though they go to bed late the night before. It’s a busy, bustling breakfast time with hungry, chattering squirrels waiting for food, but eating breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa just makes it all feel festive, even if we are all tired. And the coffee and pancakes? Superb.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

5. Napping Baby–After several long days, our 19 mo. old finally crashed for a real nap this morning. Seeing her peacefully recharging her batteries makes me feel more rested, even if I don’t get a nap myself.

6. Craft time with Grandma–It’s a simple thing, but our kids hanging out at the kitchen table putting together craft foam snowmen with Grandma is a lot of fun. We all just need time together.

7. Cashews, not a Hernia–Our three-year-old’s love affair with cashews drove him to bring his little snack bowl over three times to get a pile of cashews from me. At the time he was eating, I was distracted by other things, and it didn’t dawn on me that the quantity he ate was a fair bit beyond normal preschool cashew capacity. Later on, tummy trouble made that fact fairly obvious. In the midst of him crying that his tummy hurt, I couldn’t help but be thankful that this stomach pain was only from too much of a good thing. The last time he cried about his tummy, he needed emergency hernia surgery. I’ll take the cashews. In fact, I’ll probably just take the cashews away.

8. Uncles on Horses–In the afternoon, I glanced out the front door and to my amazement, Jarred’s brother was outside on horseback, with his second horse following on a rope. He’d ridden into town from their place out in the country, and he gave our kids their very first horse ride. Seeing our animal-loving 19 mo. old’s eyes light up at seeing the horses, and then happily take a little ride with her uncle was pretty priceless.

9. Friends Across the Street–My six-year-old daughter headed kitty-corner across the street from grandma’s house this afternoon to her friend’s house. The two little girls wrote letters back and forth from MN and MT over the summer, and today they played together in person once again.

10. Run, Turkey, Run–Today I discovered a Thanksgiving run in Billings, MT. My new Turkey Day plan is to take the short drive to Billings on Thanksgiving morning, run a 5k among silly people in turkey costumes, drink my free pint of ale post-race (you know, replenish any calories burned), and be back to Broadview with plenty of time to consume the required gigantic Thanksgiving meal. Runners are often a crazy, quirky lot, and runners in turkey gear just sounds too good to miss. Best of all, the run benefits the local food bank. It’s a win/win for everyone.

11. Van-Free for 36 Hours. After spending long, grinding hours in the van during the last few days, we parked the van and gave it a much needed rest. I informed my kids that we were not leaving Grandma’s house today, and there would be no driving. At all. Staying put never felt so good.

12. Bedtime. After baths, pajamas gymnastics, several repeat offenders on bathroom and drink requests, all the kids finally got in bed. Two big kids finally fell asleep on their living room couch “beds,” two little ones fall asleep on their beds in the guest room, and the house bursting with people is suddenly fairly quiet. And that, my friends, is cause for thanks-giving.

Wishing all of you a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Mom Goes Bump in the Night

Who needs a margarita?  I’ve got sleep deprivation, thank you very much.

I can’t remember the last time I slept all night.  It wasn’t this month.  It wasn’t the month before, either.  I honestly have no recollection of the last time I crawled in bed and remained there until the morning.

Researchers now say that a person with sleep deprivation suffers some of the same hazardous side effects as being under the influence of alcohol.  Getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night, like drinking, can affect coordination, reaction time, and judgment.  Six hours or less?  That’s pretty common for me.  What does all this mean?

I’m drunk, even without a drop of alcohol in me.  Who needs a margarita?  I’ve got sleep deprivation, thank you very much.  My oldest will be seven in January, and I’ll classify the last few months of pregnancy as rotten sleep, so that makes seven years of drunkenness, no bar needed!

I’ve personally conducted extensive longitudinal trials on sleep deprivation over the years.  While I conduct my personal research in flannel pajamas pants rather than a white lab coat and my time is free of charge, my findings are just the same.

The four accomplices that keep me up at night, in a Halloween lineup: Ladybug, Mighty Thor, Iron Man, and the Tooth Fairy.

After particularly rough nights, I often wake up with what feels like a hangover: exhaustion, bleary eyes, a pounding head.  Unlike a big night out, though, I have no wild stories to show for my exhaustion.  Although, sometimes my late nights do involve stories of people throwing up in strange places.  But when the people are my kids and it’s my job to clean up the mess, there’s not much entertainment value in recounting the story to my friends after the fact.

Theoretically speaking, I probably should get to sleep through the night by now.  Our baby is now 18 months old, but she still usually wakes up once a night.  All sorts of people tell me their wonderful children started sleeping through the night at six weeks or something magical like that.  Sometimes I just don’t really believe them, and sometimes I feel a little envious.  Other times if I know them well enough, I put on my mock horrified look and jokingly exclaim, “Are you sure that’s normal?!  Is the baby getting enough to eat??”  I believe in equal opportunity, and even parents of perfect kids should have the chance to feel unsure of their parenting techniques, right?

The joy of a sleeping baby.

Truthfully, though, it’s not just our sweet baby girl that is the culprit for my sleep-deprived state.  She has three other young accomplices.  The beauty of sleep-deprivation, though, is also loss of memory.  When I wake up in the morning and I try to recall why I’m so knackered, often I can hardly remember.  Usually the nights are a blur.

In the last week or two, though, I began to keep track of my late night escapades.  Well, I sort of keep track, with no financial backing for my sleep deprivation study, I’m not exactly fastidious about documentation.   Oh well.  Below are some of my recent sleep interruptions:

1.  God Was Bowling:  The recent colossal thunderstorm that came through with lightning and thunder all night brought a wonderful amount of rain and a pitiful amount of sleep.  My three-year-old wandered into our bedroom scared of the storm.  I tucked him back in bed, explaining that the loud thunder was just the sound of God up in heaven bowling.  When God does a really good job knocking down the pins, it’s very loud, and the angels use their cameras to take pictures.  That, of course, is why we have lightning.  I added in ridiculous sound effects and a cheering section to make my story more convincing (all the while not waking up his brother in the same room).  My little boy went bowling twice in the last month, so he is quite an expert about all things bowling.  The notion of God bowling was enough to keep him in his own bed for the rest of the night.  Score for Mom!  Back to sleep.

2.  Puke in the Sink Makes me Happy:  (Sorry folks–Just skip reading this if you have a weak stomach.)  Last week my five-year-old coughed hard enough in the night to make himself nauseous.  He wandered into my room saying his “throat felt funny.”  I took him to the bathroom thinking a sip of water might get rid of the tickle in his throat, and as soon as we walked in, he promptly threw up in the sink. I cleaned him up and held him until the shakiness went away, and tucked him back in bed with a big bowl next to his pillow.  Afterward, I scooped the mess out of the sink.  A wave of gratitude came over me in addition to my own wave of nausea from the task at hand.  At two in the morning, I felt so grateful to be cleaning a mess out of the sink.  Had it happened a few seconds earlier, my bedroom carpet would have been the disaster site.

3.  Running from the Bulls:  A few nights ago my six-year-old came to my bed, telling me of her terrible bull dream.  Part of me felt secretly a little pleased and nostalgic.  I clearly remember scary bull dreams as a child.  And in the 4 AM haze, I thought to myself, “how wonderful, my daughter is truly growing up in the country.”  I don’t know what the standard scary dream is for an urban area, but I certainly do know that big scary bulls are pretty standard dream fare in rural places.  I initially felt inclined to tell her, “Don’t worry, you’ll have many more scary dreams about bulls,” but even in my sleepy haze, better judgment won out.  Perhaps I’m not completely “drunk” after all.

4.  A Towel is Almost as Good as New Sheets:  A few times a week, we have wet sheets from a kid or two.  I help my kiddo change into dry pajamas, and then the sleepy mom in me just spreads a thick towel over the wet spot, making a dry place to sleep.  Maybe it’s sleep deprived poor judgment to not change the sheets immediately, but I know I’ve still got pretty good reaction time.  A towel gets us back to bed in just a few minutes and it does the job until the morning, when I change the sheets with daylight and slightly more coordination on my side.

5.  Home and a Kiss:  Last night I brought our crying baby into bed.  Usually she just wants a quick pick-me-up of nursing and then I return her to her crib in about ten minutes.  This time, though, I zonked out.  A few hours later I woke up to a baby head hovering over me, with eyes wide open in the moonlight.  She looked at me, leaned in and gave me the softest little kiss on the lips, and then snuggled back in next to me and went back to sleep.  I fell back asleep, too.  A little while later she woke me up when she quietly mumbled, “Home.”  She understands what home is, she says it with excited relief when we pull in the driveway after being gone.  And in the middle of the night with the security of finding herself wedged in between Mom and Dad, she knew she was home.  That kind of sleep interruption makes my heart melt.

So after seven years of bad sleep, when my son vomits in the sink, I think “wow, that’s lucky,” when my daughter has a scary bull dream, it reminds me of my youth, and a wet bed?  Well, that’s  just a whole upgrade from a pile of barf, right?  Researchers might call that “impaired judgment,” but I’ll just call that seeing the silver lining in life.  And if a baby wakes me up in the middle of the night to kiss me, well, I certainly can’t complain about that.  Someday, we’ll all sleep through the night. Someday.

To All the Blankets I’ve Loved Before

With fall in the air, the nip and chill makes everyone turn toward all things cozy, warm, and snuggly. It’s a deeply instinctual homing device. Something inside us says get inside, eat something warm, and get a blanket. What’s better on a fall night? In honor of the chilly season, I specifically salute you, warm cozy blankets. You make Minnesotan falls and winters so much better. If blankets had ears, I’d serenade them in a Spanish accent like Julio Iglesias, “To all the blankets I’ve loved before…”

Our two little ones wrapped up in the afghan made by my grandma, watching early morning Sesame Street.

My first blanket love was my blankie. Someone gave it to me as a baby gift, a rainbow of soft pastel rectangles on the front, a layer of fluff in the middle, and light yellow on the back. As far back as I can remember, that blanket was my everything: my rock, my shield, my fortress against every danger, especially the ones that lurked in the night.

Scared of the dark at night, I always brought along my blanket on the midnight bathroom trips. I held it up next to my face, and blocked the view of the open stairwell, so I couldn’t see the monsters and bad guys that lurked on the landing waiting to get me. My blankie protected me, because everyone knows that if you can’t see the monster, it can’t reach out and grab you. During the daytime, if I held my blanket, the spiders under the basement steps wouldn’t get me when I walked up.

When I was sick, my feverish state made my bedroom ceiling grow gigantic, high, and ominously confusing, but my blanket made it all ok. On numerous occasions, my mom wrapped a hot water bottle in my blanket to press against my ear in the long nights of ear infections. And on those completely disorienting childhood nights when I woke up and found the wall was on the wrong side of the bed after doing a 180 spin in my sleep, as long as I could pat around and find my blanket again, I would be ok, even though somebody had inexplicably moved my wall in the middle of the night.

In the mornings as a kid, I’d haul my blanket downstairs. When I was done with it, I hung it on the post at the bottom of the stair railing until bedtime, because that’s where blankets go. And I have to say, I was thrilled to see that the stair banister in our new house is identical in style to the one in the farm house growing up. I know just where to hang my kids’ blankies when they drag them down the steps in the morning.

A typical sight at our house, two favorite blankies hanging on the steps.

I used my favorite blanket far beyond the acceptable age to have security blankets, but I didn’t care. It’s role just changed as I grew up. In high school, I wrapped my good old blankie over my head to keep the sun out of my eyes as I slept until noon on Saturday mornings.

My beloved blankie is still around, up in my mom’s attic. After years of love, the puffy batting in the middle evaporated to just a few clumps in the corners, the cheery yellow on the back faded to off white, and if held up to the light, the blanket is but a thin, gauzy remnant of what it used to be. But a blanket like that is like the Velveteen Rabbit from the classic children’s story: it becomes much more as it dwindles to less. The most pitiful looking baby blankets are the most beloved. I remember a friend’s little sister proudly hugging her ratty baby quilt with missing strips of fabric, and announcing that the holes in her blanket were “full of love.” I believe they were. So many blankets are full of love.

On a similar vein, I often hear the expression that “food is love.” Making food to feed the ones you care about certainly is one of the highest forms of showing you love someone. I get that. Minnesotans don’t go around babbling “I love you” all over the place, that’s just a little too much. But making food to fill up someone’s belly, now that’s love. With that same line of thinking, I’d also add that making a blanket is love, too. A homemade blanket is the Minnesotan hug–warmth, comfort, love, and security against the harshness of the world outside.

My grandma was a blanket-maker extraordinaire. She crocheted an afghan for each and every one of her grandkids, well over 30 in all. Hours and hours of her day passed with a crochet hook and yarn in her hands, during Days of Our Lives and the news, day after day, always a crochet project in the basket next to her chair. She’s now 100 and her crocheting days have passed, but the afghan she made for me when I was a kid still looks beautiful. My three-year-old now uses it to stay warm in the mornings when he watches cartoons before breakfast, wrapping himself up in a yarn nest in the middle of the floor. It’s just yarn, but it’s love. I know it.

As a mom, one of my very favorite things is tucking my kids into their blankets at night. While they have mounds of blankets, each kid has one special blanket. There is never a question about what blanket is being looked for when we hear, “Where’s my blanket?” For all four kids, The Blanket is two layers of fleece, cut into a fringe on the edges, with the fringes from each side tied together to make a double-layer blanket.

My first daughter received her fleece blanket as a gift, and she loved it so much that I made a tied fleece blanket for our other kids, too. Those blankets are addictive. When brand new, they’re intoxicatingly soft and cuddly. Every time I’d nurse someone for a nap or bedtime, I’d grab the baby’s fleece blanket to keep us both cozy. After repeated use and lots of washings, the fleece blankets pill and lose the magical softness, but by then, it doesn’t matter. Our kids are hooked. Hour upon hour I’ve watched our four babies snuggled up next to me, nursing and holding the fringed edge of the fleece blanket, absent-mindedly rubbing fringes between their fingers until they fell asleep. It’s security and contentment, snuggled together in a fleecy package.

My oldest daughter’s fleece blanket used to be pink on the back side. Six years and a half years later, it’s now barely pink, barely soft, and far too tiny to wrap herself up in it. But like Linus, she still hauls it most everywhere. Wadded up into a ball and tucked up against her cheek, it is the perfect night-time protection against the wolves and bears she thinks lurk around our house at night. Judging by the fact that she loves sleep and loves blankets as much as me, she’ll probably still use her blankie as a teenager, to drape across her eyes when she sleeps in until noon on Saturdays. I understand that kind of blanket love, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So, blankets, I salute you. For all the comfort you’ve given me, allow me to serenade you one last time with Julio Iglesias,

“To all the blankets I once caressed,
And may I say I’ve held the best
For helping me to grow
I owe a lot I know
To all the blankets I’ve loved before…”