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.

But you know, things aren’t all bad.

In fact, things are pretty great.

My little muffin, trying out the swings.
My little X, trying out the swings.

Little X (who yes, still lacks an American name) is a true delight, a scrumptious little ice cream scoop of giggles and mischief. Steve and I are completely in love with him. He’s experiencing a lot of things for the first time: pollution-free air, sustained, one-on-one attention, dog kisses, peanut butter.  It’s so cool to watch him explore, and see his face light up.

Steve is off work until April 13, and so we’re both getting a lot of time to bond with him. Each day, we learn a little bit more about each other. Little X does not like strawberries but he will eat bananas all day long. He loves the song “Happy,” which proves that Pharrell has indeed achieved world domination. He likes stacking things. He likes pizza.

Communication can still be a challenge. He understands Mandarin and speaks a few words, but some of what he’s saying is just kid babble, according to our guide in China. We’re not sure if that’s because he lived in an orphanage for three years, or because of his cleft palate. Steve and I have learned a few key Mandarin words — “No,” “Potty,” “Wait,” “You’re cute.” We’ve also taught him a few signs.

We talk to him constantly, and I do think he understands most of what we’re saying. He sings the ABC song (although some of the letters are unintelligible), and he knows how to say “Big Brother, where are you?” among other things. He likes to walk around the house singing: “Xiao-Jie, no no no,” probably because he’s heard it a lot. He always accompanies this song with a devilish little grin. He’s definitely a smart cookie.

Bedtime is hard, as I noted yesterday. We’re trying a bunch of different things, but bottom line, he needs to sleep. It’s our job to make sure he gets enough rest, and let me tell you, this kid will nap for three hours if we let him. So it’s not a question of not being tired. His meltdowns around bedtime seem more mad than scared, but we’re seeing the adoption medicine doc we’ve consulted with all along on Wednesday, so we’ll hopefully get some solutions there.

With a kefir mustache. What, you thought I’d let him drink Mountain Dew?

I’m a little nervous about that appointment. Though little X seems to be perfectly healthy, other than his small size and repaired cleft palate, he hasn’t seen an American doctor yet. Our neighbor is an ER doc, and he says that X seems bright-eyed and engaged, and reaching out for Mom and Dad when he feels unsure. These are all really good signs. But I’m sure we have many more doctor visits in our future. Bini, who was absurdly healthy, had to see an eye specialist and a hearing specialist once we got home, just as a matter of course. X may need additional surgery, and he will almost certainly need speech therapy and orthodontia.

Four months ago, X was just another compressed file from The China Center of Children’s Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA). We’d seen five other such files before him, so when the phone call came in from our agency that November day, I let it go to voice mail. We’d said no to yet another little boy earlier that morning, and I just wasn’t up for a chat. I listened to the message while wheeling my cart through Metropolitan Market, and I just knew. I raced home, crying all the way. “Let this be the one, damn it,” I yelled to God, or whoever was listening. “We are such good parents. Please, let this be the one.”

Steve told me later that if X hadn’t been the one, he was going to suggest that we stop. But the compressed file was my precious, beautiful little X, who is (finally) sleeping upstairs. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that he existed all this time, and we didn’t know him.

Pondering the ducks at the beach.
Pondering the ducks at the beach.

Sometimes, I catch Bini watching me interact with X, and I wonder if he’s remembering what I remember: I was not as patient with him when he was a toddler. I can give you all the excuses in the world, but bottom line, I did a lot of things wrong. I didn’t know how to slow down, or reflect back his wonder, or talk in gentle Mommy voice. I have few regrets in life, but that’s one of them: That I couldn’t stop being selfish long enough to be the mother that Bini deserved in that first year. I get a second chance with little X, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bini got the short end.

Speaking of short, we have a short list of American names for X, but nothing is sticking. His Chinese name is Xiao-Jie, which means “Little Hero.” I would love to keep it, but I do think that might be a challenging name here in the U.S. This was disputed by a snotty little 14-year-old we met doing a heritage tour in Xi’an, who told us that we absolutely shouldn’t change X’s name. We had to decide on an American name when we took custody, for the paperwork. But that name, Theo, completely doesn’t suit him. He calls himself Xiao-Jie, and that’s what he responds to. I feel a little bad about renaming him, and I think Steve does too. So we just haven’t.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the flight back. I know everyone wants to hear about that seventh circle of hell.

I have two kids.

X and Bini, in a rare moment of brotherly harmony.
X and Bini, in a rare moment of brotherly harmony.

We’ve been back a week and three days. I’m sorry to have neglected my blog, but I was in China, and WordPress is apparently blocked (along with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google). I kept somewhat decent notes in Word, but I don’t feel like writing about China right now so just BE PATIENT, for the love of God.

Right now, I want to write about having two kids. It’s a lot harder than having one kid. I know lots of people have two kids, three kids, six kids. But until three weeks ago I had only one kid, and he’s nearly seven now. He can dress himself and make his own bed. I had blocked out the toddler years, and the trails of crumbs and the snot-covered napkins shoved into pockets. If I’d remembered, I might have stuck with just one kid. (Oh hell, I’m JOKING.)

The problem, actually, is Bini. All this time, I was worried about how the new child would be — if he’d be afraid of us, our dogs, the grocery store. But X is a trooper. He likes our pets. He was totally unfazed by Target. He’s happily engaged in every activity we’ve introduced: Play-Doh, sitting with the Easter Bunny, bouncing on the trampoline.

Bini is infuriated by the attention X is getting, from us, and from everyone. Steve and I tried to make things equitable (losing battle), we tried taking him off for special time, we gave him a notebook so he could vent. But he’s still impatient and mean. He rages. He wants us to carry him, he wants to eat the toddler food that we’re giving his brother. He teases X for not knowing English, and the “stupid noises” he makes. And X, who has learned a thing or two about staying away from mean kids in the orphanage, is steering clear of his big brother. It makes me sad.

Occasionally, Bini is kind. On the day that we got X, Bini was amazing — I don’t know what we would have done without him. Today, he went bug-hunting with his brother. But there have been deep, deep lows, too.  On our drive to the airport in Xi’an, X was screaming because he didn’t want a seat belt on, and Bini started screaming because X was screaming. Steve and I were screaming at them to be quiet, and then at each other for screaming. The driver and our guide sat stoically, facing forward, most assuredly judging our weak American parenting.

Bini isn’t the only problem, though. Little X does not like going to sleep — although he’s Rip Van Winkle once he goes down. In China, he slept like a champ: One two-hour nap and a full 12 hours at night. Jet lag hit him like a semi truck, and for several days he was up in the night for a couple of hours, totally awake, wanting a snack, play time, etc. Thank God my parents were here to help keep the wheels on the bus or we might have survived on condiments and uncooked penne.

The adoption experts do not recommend sleep training for a good while, so here’s our current bedtime routine: The lights go out, and X goes ballistic. He kicks, punches, pinches and screams. To avoid being injured, we put him in his crib (they keep kids in cribs until 3 in China) and that makes him madder. Once he calms down, we pick him up and walk him around the room until he just sags into us.  Sometimes, we can put him back in his crib without incident. Other times, we put him on the floor and he falls asleep there.

Is this interesting to anybody? I have no idea.

So, other than grappling with jet lag and sibling rivalry, we’re all still alive and (mostly) talking to each other. We’re running two dishwasher loads a day, doing mountains of toddler-sized laundry and today I caught the cat sleeping in X’s crib. I’m exhausted and stress-eating and drinking more wine than usual. But I also know, from doing this before, that we’ll get into the swing of things sooner or later.

If not, there’s always Xanax.

The kind of mom I am

Bini and I, playing Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots. It's a pretty good metaphor for our relationship, sometimes.
Bini and I, playing Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. It’s a pretty good metaphor for our relationship, sometimes.

We’re in Hawaii this week, on the trip that Steve’s company gives its employees and their families every year. It’s a nice perk, and much more manageable now that Bini’s almost six and can swim like a fish. Our first trip with him was rough  — the three of us in one hotel room, coming to terms with our much-diminished freedom and trying to maintain a nap schedule.

The trips have become a yardstick of sorts for me — noticing how other moms mother and how I stack up. It’s hard not to do: there are hundreds of us, in the pool, at mealtime, at the beach. And the moms judge each other: who lets her kids eat too much sugar, who lets her kid bop other kids with beach toys, who lets her kids have too much screen time. I’m sure the moms judge me. I know I judge myself all the time. I know how I’m different, and what I do “wrong.”

I am not a sweet mom. I have a soft heart, but I wouldn’t call me gentle. It’s just not my personality. My attempts at “mom voice” sound forced and inauthentic. I can be brusque, I can be stern.

I am not a patient mom. I remember reading “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up,’ on Hands Free Mama. A bunch of my friends had reposted it on Facebook and were vowing to be more tolerant of their children’s lollygagging. I’m all for honoring my kid’s personality, but sometimes, he needs to get his damn shoes on and go to school.

I am not a crafty mom. Well, unless you count cutting up old Zappos boxes into the shape of surfboards. (Hey, that’s what he wanted to do.) I tried doing a couple of crafts with Bini, but to make it look like the picture on Pinterest, I had to step in and that seemed to defeat the purpose. I love coloring and drawing with Bini, but I don’t see any paper tube trains in our future.

I am not an easygoing mom.  I don’t believe that the inmates should run the asylum, so I’m a hardass about rules. Bini says I’m “mean,” which is one way to interpret it. I believe in structure and consistency, and I’m strong willed. So is Bini. We butt heads a lot.

I yell. I was raised by a father who yelled, so I just thought that was normal. I’ve tried to tamp it down, mainly because my yelling was turning my kid into a yeller. But I can remember times when I screamed myself hoarse, like the time Bini drew all over the underside of my beautiful honed-granite counter with a Sharpie.

I am a mom who needs her space. I know moms who are attachment parents, those who won’t hire babysitters and who selflessly sacrifice daily showers so they can be attentive to their kids’ needs. These moms used to make me feel horrible about myself, because I’m just not like that. I need time to take care of myself or I’m just not a very good mom.

But, for all of these bad mom attributes, I have a few things that I like about the way I’m raising my kid.

I am silly. Bini and I find it hilarious to have butt-cheek-squeezing contests. I taught him how to tape his nose so he looked like a pig. I’m queen of the spontaneous dance party. I make up games. I make up songs.

I play wall ball.  Bini came home one day this winter and said that he was bad at wall ball, this strange variation on handball with little-kid rules. He was trying to play it with the big kids (first and second graders) and he kept getting out. So I bought a playground ball and we practiced most days, in the garage or up at the school. When I asked him if his friends knew his mom practiced with him he said no, that he wanted it to be his secret superpower. That’s one I’ll cherish when I’m on my deathbed, I think. I was my son’s superpower.

I have turned my son on to music. Music is something special between Bini and me. We have our own playlists, filled with stuff that we listen to together and that’s just ours to share. Bini loves Queen, Daft Punk, Linda Ronstadt, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson and Earth Wind and Fire. Bini has his own little guitar (which he wields like a natural) and he plinks at the piano with a surprisingly good ear. He loves to dance.

I am trying. I am only too aware of my maternal deficiencies, so I’ve worked hard to learn how to be better. I got help for my own issues. I go to support groups for adoptive parents. I ask questions and pester experts and I reach out for help, all the time. I love my child, and somehow, he’s turning out awesome, despite my screw ups. And every day, I get a chance to try again. That’s all I can do.