‘Mom? Can you slow down?’

This morning, after my Mother’s Day breakfast in bed, I came downstairs and told Steve I really wanted to go for a bike ride. The weather here in Western Washington is unseasonably hot, and after seven months of rehabbing my shoulder post-surgery, I am taking every opportunity to get on my bike. Plus, it’s Mother’s Day, and what I say goes.

Evan was lying on his floor, eyes glued to his iPad. His reaction to the bike ride suggestion was that of vociferous dissent, which is how he reacts to most things these days. Meanwhile, Steve summoned Bini from somewhere, and he agreed to go without complaint. I came downstairs after unsuccessfully trying to pry Evan off his floor to find Bini sitting on the stairs with his shoes on, waiting for me.

This is notable for several reasons, the biggest one being that Bini and I have had a difficult relationship in the last few years. Since we adopted Evan, now that I think about it. So, I guess it’s been five years. Add in adolescent hormones and you’ve got a recipe for lots of eye-rolling, plenty of defiance, and endless arguments. To see him suited up and ready to go on a bike ride with me? That was something.

Steve’s bike is busted, and Evan was still buried under his blanket fort watching “Naruto,” so Bini and I set off for our mid-morning ride. We pedaled through the neighborhood and caught the trail that runs across our city. We turned north, and I, happy to see the sun-dappled gravel road so empty, picked up my pace.

“Mom?” Bini called from behind me. “Can you slow down? You always go so fast.”

A simple request, about biking. But it’s not just about biking. It’s about everything.

I move too fast. I am brisk, efficient, and I do not suffer fools. I was a deadline journalist for years, and I still have that mindset: There is work to be done, boxes to be checked, goals to be met. There are always crumbs to be wiped from the counter, there is always laundry to be done. I’m like a great white shark: I’m afraid that if I stop moving, I’ll die.

When I became a mom 11 years ago (Bini was just a year old when we adopted him), I kept waiting for that switch to flip. The one that would transform me from a fast-moving great white shark into the type of person lionized on Mother’s Day cards. Moms like Carol Brady, and Mrs. Cunningham, from “Happy Days.” Moms like my own mom, who are kind, and patient, selfless and gentle. That transformation never really happened for me. I’ve softened my hard edges, relaxed some of my sky-high standards. But my kids still have to remind me not to leave them behind on bike rides.

This morning, I got all kinds of lovely text messages from fellow mom friends. From my own mom, from my mother-in-law. My husband got me flowers, and there’s gifts and what I’m sure will be a sweet card later. I appreciate people telling me I “deserve” to be spoiled by my boys. But I don’t believe it.

Can I be real? Raising kids from hard places is HARD. During my best times, I’m still prone to yelling. Sometimes, I criticize the person, rather than the behavior. I don’t always count to 10 before responding. I have said things I regret. And during these quarantine times? I’m trying, I’m really trying, so, so hard. And there have been bonding opportunities that I’ve seized, nights where I went to bed scared about the economy, and the front-line workers, but also, with a full heart because I connected with my kids. Still, there are just as many nights when I feel like an abject failure, like I’m not the mom that they both need — right now, or ever.

Bini and I cycled about three miles, and then hit an intersection. “Can we turn around here?” he asked. I fought the urge to prod him further — just another mile, buddy! Come on, you can do it! I swallowed that urge to do more because the voice in my heart overrode the voice in my head. We stopped, we sipped some water. And Bini led the way home.

A snob’s guide to surviving the Great Wolf Lodge

If you’ve been following along, you know that Steve and I decided to take the kids to the Great Wolf Lodge for 25 hours during mid-winter break. Before we left, I polled my friends on Facebook to get some advice. I also got pretty freaked out, because I heard that the clientele was “interesting,” that the place wasn’t particularly clean, that the food was lousy, and expensive, to boot. Now that we’ve taken the plunge — get it? — I’m gonna give you my own special spin on the place.

  1. Do not go for two nights. That was our original plan, as we didn’t want to drive 90 minutes to Grand Mound, Wash., only to turn around the next day and come back. But as one friend put it, there is not enough fun in the place for two whole nights. She was 100 percent right. Overnight guests get access to the water park starting at 1:00, and you can change in the changing rooms. We were able to get into our suite early, which was nice. (See #3.)
  2. I wouldn’t classify the “suites” as an actual suite. We booked a Wolf Den Suite, so named for the partially walled-off kids’ sleeping space. Inside, there was a bunk bed and a private TV. We got a queen bed which was the smallest queen bed I’ve ever slept in, a dusty couch and a carpet that I insisted only be trod upon with slippers or socks. I mean, can you imagine what goes on in these rooms? Anyway. A suite, as far as I know, is a hotel room with a separate living area that HAS A DOOR. The Wolf Den Suite did not have a door.
  3. Bini enjoying his second ice cream of the day.
    Bini enjoying his second ice cream of the day.

    If your kids are adopted, find the check-in agent who is also adopted. So, I need to ‘fess up to something here. I’d heard that you should tell the Great Wolf Lodge that it’s your kid’s birthday, so they can get free ice cream. I didn’t feel right doing that, but since we’re about two weeks away from our Adoption Day for Evan, I was prepared to exploit that for some free stuff. I didn’t need to, though. Somehow, we got the check-in agent who was also adopted, and when she saw our little rainbow family she got all teary and started handing out free ice cream wristbands. I didn’t need to say a word. I wish that I hadn’t pre-paid for the late check-out or the buffet breakfast, though (see #9) because she was prepared to throw those in too, but couldn’t take it off our invoice. She did hook us up with a room three hours early, though.

  4. Go with friends. We didn’t do this, and I so wish we had. Not only so we’d have other adults with which to share our pain, but because then we’d have people to tag-team with for kid-minding. I didn’t get to go on the Howlin’ Tornado, which looks awesome, because Bini did it once with Steve and then wouldn’t go again. I spent a lot of time in the wave pool going “whee!” with Evan, and in the baby pool area. It would have been nice to run off with Steve and go on water slides. I guess we’ll have to go back.
  5. The baby pool will be contaminated at some point. I’m not a germaphobe (which is helpful at the GWL), but I did wonder what might be commingling with the heavily chlorinated water in the baby pool. On the second morning, they closed the thing, and we all know what that means.
  6. It wasn’t as gross as I’d feared. I don’t know what I was worried about. A human head floating in the hot tub? Feces in Fort Mackenzie? The clientele was “interesting,” and I think I may have spotted some prison tattoos. But there were plenty of “normal” people there too — pale-bellied software developers and moms in sensible swimsuits, just trying to get through the day.
  7. I did get a rash, though. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the rash that I got on my neck, chin and upper lip was somehow related to our visit. Was it from Big Foot Pass? Or was it from the vegan, organic Eminence Apricot Oil that I had to buy because I forgot my body lotion?
  8. Don’t forget your body lotion. In order to filter out all the gross stuff, the Great Wolf Lodge employs “state-of-the-art water treatment equipment,” which I think means a shit ton of chlorine and saline. Your skin, my skin, everyone’s skin is no match for that. Bring body lotion. Lots of it. And hair conditioner, which I also forgot, and had to buy a travel-sized Aveda thing for $8.
  9. No, I will not enjoy your overpriced Dasani water. I will drink Grand Mound tap water. On ice. From Starbucks.
    No, I will not enjoy your overpriced Dasani water. I will drink Grand Mound tap water. On ice. From Starbucks.

    Prepare to be nickel-and-dimed TO DEATH. Everything, except life jackets and towels, costs extra. Those kids running around the hotel with magic wands? That’s extra. Wiley’s Story Time? Extra. Late checkout? Extra. Buffet breakfast and dinner? A fortune. (See #14.)

  10. Do not buy bottled water. I learned this from a barista in the lobby Starbucks (which is mobbed at breakfast time): Buy a Venti ice water for $.73, and you get free refills your whole stay.
  11. The spa actually sells good stuff. I might have to try it next time.
  12. There are kids everywhere. Even the goddamned exercise room. As Steve and I told the kids, there is nothing, NOTHING at the Great Wolf Lodge for adults. Except booze (see next tip). It’s like Vegas for kids, and they LOVE IT. But if you think you can escape to the gym for a little alone time, you can forget it. The sign on the door clearly says that no children under 18 are allowed without “proper supervision,” but the dumbass on the treadmill next to me seemed to think that that meant it was OK to have four kids clanging on the weight machines and yapping away on the elliptical while she ran. She kept saying, “Behave, you guys!” and “Almost done!” But she wasn’t almost done. So, after 20 minutes of it, I stopped my treadmill, turned to face her, and said through clenched teeth: “Get your kids out of here.” I must have looked scary, because she did. And then I changed all the TVs from Fox News to CNN.
    Tip generously, and you too can enjoy two very strong margaritas for the price of one.

    13. Bring your own booze. Or, tip generously when you buy booze from the bartender. After spending almost three hours in the water with the kids, Steve and I felt deserving of a drink. He took the boys to get ice cream, and I bellied up to the bar. I ordered a Mac & Jack’s for Steve and a margarita for me. The bartender had a full blender going when she handed me the receipt, and my swim-addled brain wasn’t thinking clearly, and I gave her a $5 tip on a $13 bill. She looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again, and said, very sincerely, “Thank you, honey.” And then she dumped the entire contents of the blender into two cups, and gave them to me. (They were strong, too.)

  13. Bring your own food. I’d heard from some people that the food at Great Wolf Lodge was awful, and I remember thinking they must be high-maintenance. No. The food at Great Wolf Lodge is indeed awful. And it costs a fortune. We did the dinner buffet, because we were too tired to get in the car and go somewhere else, and it’s $20 per person. I gotta hand it to them — the buffet is huge. And has all the bells and whistles: Pizza, “Mexican” food, salad bar, carving station — even salmon for the fancy types. There was no way I was eating the salmon at this joint, so I had a $20 salad. And got a stomach ache. I swear. Steve grimaced while eating the salmon. The kids loved their pizza and Costco taquitos, as well as the dessert bar. Next time, we’ll rally and go off property.
  14. Get down to the water park as early in the morning as possible, or, go after dinner. These are the least-busy times, and you’ll actually be able to snag a table or a solitary chair to dump your stuff. We ended up having to clump our shoes and towels and duffel along the wall with 100 other people’s shoes, towels and duffels.
  15. When a table opens up, be ruthless. Evan and I were waterlogged and hungry, but Steve and Bini wanted to do one more ride, so we nabbed a table as it was being vacated. It had pretzel salt all over it, but I didn’t care. These teenage boys had claimed two of the chairs accompanying the table, but I was undeterred. Cool as a cucumber, I ignored them and placed our stuff on the remaining two chairs, and the table top. “Um, is this your table?” one of the kids asked. “Yes,” I said, giving them the best haughty stare I could muster with a towel wrapped around my head. (They went away.)
  16. Yes. I actually had a good time.
    Yes. I actually had a good time.

    The cabanas are stupid. Don’t waste your money. We actually considered renting one of these, to the tune of $159 a day, so that we didn’t have to fight for space. But these aren’t Seahawk Suites at Century Link, for God’s sake — they’re just little nooks with a place to sit, a safe and a TV. If you’re a guest in the hotel, the cabanas make no sense. They make no sense anyway. They’re stupid.

  17. Get late checkout. It’s worth the $50 splurge. That way, you can enjoy the delicious breakfast, take advantage of the exercise room and use the water park one more time. And your kids might fall asleep in the car on the way home, like mine did.
  18. Watching your kids have a blast is infectious. The Great Wolf Lodge was tied with Pyongyang on my list of Places Not to Visit. But as one friend said, it’s kinda magical seeing your kids having The Best Time Ever. Bini was beside himself when we pulled in to the parking lot, for God’s sake. The looks on their faces when we walked into the water park? Pretty awesome. At some point, you’ve gotta just let go of the fact that you’re in an indoor water park in Grand Mound, Wash., and roll with it. And think about what you’ll do next time.

Who’s coming with us?

Great Wolf Lodge or: Why I stopped complaining and finally went to the damned place

Look at how much fun they’re having! What was I supposed to do?

About a month after winter break,  and eight weeks before spring break, Bini’s school district takes a “mid-winter” break. If it seems like the kids are out of school more than they’re in school, you’d be right. And don’t get me started on Evan’s school, which didn’t sync its weeklong mid-winter break with the local school district.

Still, it is mid-winter and dreary here in the Pacific Northwest, so it seemed like a good time to get out of town. I lobbied for a Southern California trip, where we could visit with friends in Los Angeles and then head down to San Diego to go to Legoland.

It was a lot of traveling (fly to L.A., stay somewhere, drive to San Diego, stay somewhere, fly back) and it was also pretty expensive. Also, after flying to the Bay Area twice in 10 days, I was weary of airplanes. It was snowing a lot by then, so Steve and I booked three nights at Suncadia, a mountain resort about 90 minutes away.

Two weeks ago, we were getting really excited about our fun family trip filled with snowshoeing, sledding and snow tubing. Then I looked at the long-range weather forecast: Rain, rain and more rain, which meant melting mountain snow and a trip spent indoors.

“Well, what should we do?” Steve said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

We had this same conversation about three dozen times over the next few days, and finally, I said: What about Great Wolf Lodge?

I don’t think I could have surprised Steve more if I’d come home and said: “Honey, I’ve decided to live my life as a armadillo.” Great Wolf Lodge is an indoor waterpark and hotel in Grand Mound, Wash., and since becoming a mother almost seven years ago, I’ve always said never. Ever. Ever, ever, ever, over my dead BODY. Nope.

“I hate the idea of it,” I would say whenever we passed the exit for Grand Mound, on the way down to Portland. “It’s my version of hell, being trapped inside like that.”

Bini was forever telling me that he was the only kid never to have been there, but I wouldn’t relent. I even remember, at a playgroup, telling the assembled women that I would rather endure my children whining and complaining through back-to-back museum visits than go to an indoor waterpark.

But here I was, suggesting it. Why?

The only answer I have is motherhood. It’s somewhat easy to cling to your pre-child ideals when you only have one child. Like: “I will never buy my kid a Happy Meal!” Like: “I will never let him watch more than an hour of TV a day!” Like: “I will never  hand him my phone while I get my hair cut/try on clothes/finish up dinner at a restaurant!”

When one has more than one child, however, one’s righteousness begins to lose out to one’s weariness. As in: “Sure. You can stand on the end of the shopping cart.” As in: “Don’t cry– Mommy has 15 Oreos for you!” As in: “Oh, did Bruno Mars just use the ‘f’ word? Just don’t say it on the playground.”

And that’s how I found myself rebooking our luxurious mountain suite at Suncadia for later this summer, and reserving a Wolf Den Suite at the Great Wolf Lodge for one night. Also: blog fodder.

How’d it go? More on that later.

Work/life balance? Going great, thanks.

When we left off, I was beside myself about hiring a babysitter. Remember that? I was sure that 12 hours a week would give me enough time to get going again on freelance work, get some time to myself, etc. It seems fitting, then, that I would end my three-month blog-writing drought with a post about how it all worked out.

It’s harder than I thought.

Babysitter is and was great. But by the time she got here, I was typically so behind schedule that I’d spend the first hour extricating myself from the kids and taking a shower. Then, I’d have three hours left to return emails, make phone calls and write. Still, there was always, always a hiccup of some sorts. I did not budget in time for hiccups, like the cat vomiting on the carpet, or that midday physical therapy appointment that I’d forgotten about or a clogged toilet or the lack of food in the refrigerator. I often feel, at the end of the day, like I’ve barely outrun a pack of wolves.

And don’t even get me started on sleep. That’s a whole other post. What I’ll say is that pre-Evan, I used to do a lot of writing in the evening. But now, because Evan strongly believes that 5:30 a.m. is “good morning time,” Steve and I both stagger to bed like zombies at around 10:30. We don’t sit downstairs and binge on Netflix shows anymore. We do chores and then I try to switch gears and work for an hour but I usually end up staring into space or folding laundry.

I didn’t do any freelance work from mid-March to June. And I’m glad I didn’t. I was physically and mentally drained by the end of each day, just trying to adjust to having two active boys. But once Bini got out of school and I hired our sitter, I started saying yes to things. Just one story assignment at first. Then two. Then, I had to start saying no to things. Right now, I’m juggling three assignments and one that’s due in early December that I don’t even consider a thing yet.

I could always say no to everything and go back to being totally focused on my boys. But I can’t. I have to work. I am fortunate that I don’t necessarily “have” to work, but I need to. I love being a mom. I also love being a professional and using the talents I worked so hard to develop. I won’t give up working. Not ever.

And so, that work/life balance remains elusive. As a freelancer, I fear that if I say no, the work will dry up. On the other hand, I’m stressed and snappish and I’m not as patient with my kids as I’d like. I’ve also agreed to be a room mother for Bini’s classroom. (Oh, shut up.) It’s been a tough year for him, with lots of changes, and I want to prove to him that I’ll be there. That I’ll show up.

I can’t cut back on anything, not right now. My work ethic demands that I finish the assignments I’ve agreed to. My maternal love demands that I put the time in with my kids — watching the martial arts classes and ferrying Evan to speech therapy and practicing spelling words with Bini. My OCD demands that my house be somewhat clean at the end of each day. My need for personal time demands that I do some sort of exercise. I haven’t budgeted in any time for relaxation. It’ll just have to wait.

How to survive in Xi’an with your kid and a kid you don’t really know yet (hint: TV, yelling and alcohol)

Our last night in Xi'an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. It did the trick.
Our last night in Xi’an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. With a slice of lemon. It did the job.

So, when we last left off, Steve and Bini and I had just met our brand-new family member, and ferried him back to the hotel. We’d been bundled off into the elevator by the kind, curious and solicitous Sheraton hospitality staff, and finally, we were in our room. We’d done it.

All the home visits, the paperwork, the notarizations, the check-writing and the waiting, waiting, waiting — it was over. Steve and I had made this happen. With the help of our agency, we’d navigated the legal requirements of two countries and flown halfway across the world and been united with this little person. It’s awesome and yes, I’ll admit it, empowering. Because it does feel so theoretical, for such a long time. Even when you know there’s a child out there that’s been earmarked as yours, until he’s in your arms and in your hotel room it’s just not real. And then it is.

After all that emotion, and adrenaline and huge, euphoric smiles shared between Steve and Bini and I, there he was: Xiao-Jie, in his split pants, his multiple layers and his squeaky shoes, looking around our suite with an inscrutable expression. Now came the real hard part.

I’m not going to go into the details of the everyday, so let me sum up: Bringing a new child into your lives is bewildering, for everyone involved. We didn’t know what his cries meant, or if he liked baths, or what he liked to play with, or if he hated spicy food. We knew all of his vital statistics: his height, his weight, his head circumference. But we didn’t know anything about the person. There’s no way to shortcut that process. It just takes time.

Playing in the hotel room.
Playing in the hotel room.

Steve and I deliberated about bringing Bini to China. We felt, ultimately, like it would be an amazing experience for him, both to visit the country, and to be a part of this huge change to our family. We wanted to share that with him. There were many, many times on that trip where I wondered if we’d made the right decision.

From the day after The Day, Bini was tough. Not always, but mostly. Bini kept up a constant, running commentary about everything he deemed unfair: that Xiao-Jie “got” to sleep in a crib, that we helped Xiao-Jie get dressed in the morning, that we held his hand to help him walk. We tried enlisting him as a helper, and sometimes that was effective. Most of the time, Bini gave us a look that said “nuh-uh, he’s YOUR problem” and continued with his litany of complaints.

At home, we could move to a different area of the house, but in China, the four of us were together. All the time. For 12 days. If Steve had Xiao-Jie, I had Bini. If I wanted to take a shower, I had to haul ass because Steve was lion-taming Bini and trying to meet Xiao-Jie’s needs. If Steve took a shower, I was on duty. It was man-to-man defense. And nerves started to fray.

There wasn’t much for us to do around our hotel. Steve took Xiao-Jie and Bini to a weird park one day, but XJ got tired on the way back and Steve had to carry him for many blocks (with Bini complaining that he also wanted to be carried). So we mostly just prowled the hotel, went to stores on aimless errands, or went sightseeing with Sherry.

The amazing Terracotta Warriors.
The amazing Terracotta Warriors.

We went to see the Terracotta Warriors, and that was as impressive and awesome as everyone had described. But what we didn’t know is that from the entrance, it’s about 100 miles to get to the excavation site. OK, I’m exaggerating, because that’s what it felt like. XJ walked fine, but very slowly, and we didn’t bring a stroller. So I put him in the Boba carrier my mother-in-law had bought me, and quickly learned that it made my back and injured shoulder very, very angry. That limited our outings as well: That XJ could only walk so far, and neither Steve nor I wanted to carry a 28-pound kid for hours. (Note: He’s now 30.5 pounds.)

We also went to see the Big Goose Pagoda and the impressive City Wall. These excursions would have been way more fun if we hadn’t had Bini and Xiao-Jie, but we were happy to be out of our hotel room.

On the Xi'an City Wall. I'm pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.
On the Xi’an City Wall. I’m pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.

We still had adoption-related errands to run with Sherry. We had to go back to the office where we’d taken custody to finalize some paperwork, and to the police station to get XJ’s Chinese passport. We had a driver, so we were in the van a lot, and in traffic a lot. We had a few potty emergencies. Once, XJ had to pee into a plastic grocery bag because we were gridlocked in a tunnel. There was another time, which I’ll write about later, that involved a Chinese toilet and a particularly low point in parenting.

By the time we were ready to leave Xi’an, five long days after getting Xiao-Jie, Steve and Bini and I were all snapping at each other on a regular basis. I was speed-reading “Siblings Without Rivalry,” and would start every day armed with good intentions. By lunchtime, though, I was beyond irritated and yelling SHUT UP SHUT UP at Bini. I was not the best me I could be on this trip, I admit it. Steve and I were doing the best we could to just go with the flow, but it was really stressful.

A fellow-adoptive-parent friend told me, via text, that China is all about survival, so, we relaxed our rules with Bini regarding iPad and TV time. He became an ace Madden Mobile player, and was allowed to watch “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which had long been denied him. My personal rules about alcohol consumption (Wednesdays and weekends only), went out the window. Since wine isn’t sold by the glass in most Chinese restaurants, Steve and I bought a bottle (or two) at the grocery store and started pouring at PRECISELY 5:00. That’s how we got through it: Yelling, TV and alcohol.

Next: The Chinese toilet story. Be sure not to read that one on a full stomach.