The Problem With Abundance

When I was a little bit older than Henry is now, I desperately wanted a new bike. I had the exact one I wanted all picked out, too. As a kid that existed before the internet (SOMEONE GET ME MY CANE), I would pour over the weekly fliers that would arrive with the Sunday paper. I found the perfect bike at Children’s Palace (remember that store?), in the perfect shade of 1980s mauve. It was called the Desert Rose by Huffy and it was a beauty. I pined and pined for that bike and I can remember bringing the ad to my dad’s desk repeatedly to show him the picture. I loved that bike with my whole being.

One Sunday, while on the drive home after church, we took a detour and pulled into the parking lot of Children’s Palace. My parents surprised me with the news that we were there to buy THE BIKE! I was simply beside myself. It was pretty much the best day of my young life.

I have a dozen or so memories like the Desert Rose acquisition; a brand new Barbie I was allowed to pick out from the second story toy section of a hardware store in Ohio; a new sleeping bag received at Christmas; a special ring for my seventeenth birthday that I picked out with my parents at JCPenney (still have it).

I have distinct memories of receiving specific presents because it did not happen with frequency. We received gifts on our birthdays and on Christmas. There were certainly treats in between but they were the exception, not the norm and were often purchased with a little of our own money from allowances or babysitting tossed in. I realize the eighties were quite a bit less lucrative than the Clinton era that followed so I’m sure cost and budget played a big part in my parents’ ability to purchase items for us, however, when we received something new, it was a big deal.

When we were moving from Richmond this past spring, I waited until the kids were occupied elsewhere and tore through their playroom in an effort to cull the toy herd. I was determined to not have to move a dozen boxes full of nothing but toys to our new (smaller) house, some of which had barely been used. I collected quite a haul and it filled the trunk of our sedan to the brim. When I pulled up to the donation site and a volunteer approached to help me unload the bags of toys, I WAS ACTUALLY EMBARRASSED. Embarrassed that we owned this much stuff for our kids. That THIS was the reject pile. That we had ten times this amount at home. I actually think I mumbled some kind of explanation about how we’d had most of this stuff for so long and the majority of it had been gifts. Like, volunteer-guy at the church thrift store was going to judge my consumerism so I must offer an excuse.

Somehow, the home where I am raising my children is a deep departure from the home of my childhood where new items were a true treat.

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If you see my kids, don’t tell them I gave away all of these toys.

When Henry was younger and Charlie just an infant, I used to be able to blame our toy volume on other people. We received an inordinate amount of gifts from very generous friends, neighbors and family members in the early years of parenting. I could pretty much point to any item in our play area and tell you that it was a gift or a hand-me-down or purchased at a deep discount for a special celebration. This, somehow, made the ever-growing pile of plastic noisemakers in our family room more palatable. They were gifts.

Then, slowly, with each passing year and the arrival of an additional child, the percentage of presents coming from outside the family shifted and we found ourselves buying many, many more things for our kids almost as a matter of course whenever we left the house. A trip to Target would result in a round of Matchbox cars. A visit to the sporting goods store for sneakers and everyone comes home with fishing poles. A vacation to the beach means new presents for the car ride. A weekend in Gettysburg and, thanks to an expertly stocked gift shop, the boys are staging their own full-scale Civil War reenactment.

None of this is inherently bad, I guess. My kids certainly don’t think it’s bad. It’s just that it never ends.

But, I don’t like it. I don’t like how they ask if wherever it is we’re going has toys to look at. I don’t like how their toy budget is bumping my decorating budget off the spreadsheet. I don’t like removing 75 twist ties to free a toy tractor from its packaging. I don’t like managing all of their STUFF. I don’t like how they expect presents when family members arrive for a visit. And, I really don’t like seeing them treat their belongings with disregard because they have SO MUCH.

My intentions come from a good place. It isn’t my intention to spoil my kids. Whenever I purchase something for them, it’s because I know it’s something they would truly enjoy. Bob is the same way, too. Our intentions come from the deepest recesses of our hearts that want to see our kids happy.

However, I think it’s time we acknowledge that WE’RE THE PROBLEM. And, I know this because when I went to IKEA with the kids on a whim last week (because there is one week before school starts and I am OUT OF IDEAS), I somehow ended up with a pop-up castle in the middle of my living room that I will stare at with resentment for the next month before collapsing and stashing it in the basement. We also brought home an assortment of animal finger puppets that have already been forgotten and discarded throughout every room in the house with the mouse puppet, in particular, scaring the crap out of me every time I spy it out of the corner of my eye.

Point is, we’re doing this to ourselves. Since we give and buy and provide treats for our children with regularity, they have come to expect those treats. We are fully responsible for the culture of gimme, gimme, gimme that we have created in this house. The expectation that frequent new things are standard operating procedure.

I’m honestly not sure how to course correct on this one. Every time I make some blanket pronouncement like, “No more new things until Christmas!” Henry will bring home a Scholastic flier from school and I can’t say no to books, right? What am I, a monster? So, we’ll buy books and then there will be a fun trip to Target where we discover they’ve put Lego sets on sale and all of a sudden, Bob shows up at the house with a John Deere bicycle for Charlie that is literally too big for him. My big pronouncements never work and my house always ends up looking like this:

Even Millie is like, dude there is crap EVERYWHERE down here.

Even Millie is like, dude there are toys EVERYWHERE down here.

Bob and I have talked about setting up a chore chart when school begins where the boys, especially, can earn a modest allowance for completing tasks around the house. They can decide what to do with their money as it is earned and if they decide to buy toys with it and not flowers for their very deserving mother, I promise not to hold a grudge. I think if they understand the value of money a little bit more, then hopefully the idea of judicious choices will follow? I’m not really sure here. I’m just guessing. These are unchartered waters for our family.

I’ll let you know how this shakes out.

As an aside, I find it ironic that the same people that instilled a sense of moderation and careful consideration in me as a child – my parents – have turned out to be the worst offenders in the buying stuff for my kids arena. They are always, always bringing or buying things for my children. Always. The last time they showed up at our home, they brought light sabers with them that the boys demolished in under thirty minutes, leaving tiny puff pieces of styrofoam all over everything. Grandparents, man.

Countdown

We’re in the home stretch of summer around here. I ceased being able to form a cogent sentence sometime around August 9.

This summer has been different in many ways from the ones that came before it. Most notably, because Bob has had very little time off from work. We usually pack our summers with trips to the Midwest and trips to the Northeast but this summer, with vacation time devoured by stroke recovery, we’ve had to stick close to home or face traveling without Bob.

(As an aside, can I just complain about health insurance for a minute? We have excellent health insurance that I adore, HOWEVER, we keep getting random bills from the hospital, piecemeal-style, invoicing us line item by line item for instruments and equipment used during Bob’s cardiac procedure. It’s a lot of money, sure, but that’s not my big issue. My issue is that if we’re paying $1,400 for ONE piece of equipment, I’d kind of like to take it home with us, right? I mean, in any other part of our lives, $1,400 would buy us something tangible. Not something that gets discarded in the operating theatre. What if it’s something really cool? Like a tiny little camera on one of those catheters? We could GoPro that sucker in a hundred different applications. Sure, his repaired heart is the big takeaway here but wouldn’t it be amazing if, upon discharge, we got a little to-go bag of all of the items we’ve actually paid real dollars for? Just a thought, medical establishment.)

So, anyway, back to my point. I don’t begrudge any of our situation this summer since Bob’s recovery has gone so well and, as a single-income household, his return to work was so speedy. It’s just meant I’ve had some SUPER concentrated time with the kids for many, many, many days that are endless. The endless days. That are endless.

This summer has been long and different but not necessarily in a bad way because, thanks to some unusually mild weather, the kids have spent most of it out of doors. It has delighted me to no end to see our three children relishing in their new surroundings; Henry on his bike, Charlie on his Gator, Millie on her scooter. This has officially been The Summer of Fresh Air. The kids have had fun. Of that, I’m certain.

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Adult-sized hand-me-down snowmobile helmet? Check. Hand-me-down too-small farm boots? Check. Nerf gun? Check. Shirt on backwards? Check. Neighborhood safe? Check. Check. Check.

Despite our rough summer start, we’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit! We’ve read a ton of books, learned how to tie our shoes, built some quality indoor forts, cooked in the kitchen, spent time with lots of family and friends, discovered new playgrounds, colored more artwork than I have walls to hang it on, avoided napping most days, watched WAY too much television, battled a stomach bug that threatened to take us all down and, most importantly, enjoyed the view.

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Henry looks contemplative here but he’s probably just contemplating whether or not he can recreate this scene out of Lego bricks.

However, do not be mistaken, I will still load two of my three children on to a school bus exactly two weeks from today and DELIGHT in the relative peace and quiet of our home every morning. For a few hours each day, there will be no arguing over Lego pieces, no complaining about lunch selections, no declarations of boredom. If Millie wants to fight with someone, she’ll have to fight with herself. (Which, I’m sure she’ll find a way to actually do.)

Fall better be filled with more naps from this one.

September better be filled with more naps from this one.

Bob and I have talked about working in a family trip later this fall as a kind of do-over for our botched summer plans. A way to recapture some of the time away together that we didn’t have over the past three months. It sounds like fun but, we’ll see. I’m not so sure this summer was botched after all.

In Times of Need

I loathe asking other people for help. I have this innate fear of inconveniencing them; of having someone go out of their way just for me. I worry that I’m somehow adding to their burden.

I’m not sure where or when this started but I know that in the past I had to get pretty desperate before I asked for assistance from others. If there was an especially sick kid or Bob had a lengthy work trip or I was having another baby, I would make a call. And, then I would only call family who would travel great distances to help out. And, I would feel bad about it. About having others spending their time and money to help us.

It’s like my approach to parenting is some super sad contest where those that need the least amount of assistance, win. Only, the trophy is a stress ulcer.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the past eight years when others have offered a helping hand and I’ve fought every urge in my body screaming, “YES, that would be great!” and instead replied with a, “No, but that’s so kind of you to offer.” See, I don’t want to cause anyone any trouble.

But, the thing is, we would have never been able to emerge from the intensity of the past two months without the graciousness and generosity of others. It took Bob’s stroke, this experience, this absolute crisis, to understand that people naturally want to help. People need to help. People expect to help. LET THEM HELP.

This was one of the long halls between the parking lot and the wing of the hospital where Bob was being treated. I called it my Sally Field hall since I always envisioned her clicking

This was one of the long halls between the parking lot and the wing of the hospital where Bob was being treated. I called it my Sally Field Hallway since as I walked it, I would remember her, in her brown blazer, carrying her smart handbag, clicking her loafers on the tile floor on her way to Julia Roberts’ bedside. Except Bob didn’t die of diabetes or anything at the end of all of this. So that’s good.

In the wee morning hours after Bob’s stroke, when it became apparent that he was going to be hospitalized and that I would want to be bedside, I can remember running through the contact list on my phone trying to figure out who I could call upon to take care of my kids. I stood in the hallway outside of Bob’s room strategizing over who to ask and how to ask and for how long to ask. I knew that first day was so crucial to Bob’s recovery but my parents were a day’s drive away, my stepson and his wife were at a wedding out of town and several of my local friends were on vacation. We had just moved to our (small) neighborhood two months prior and really didn’t know anyone well enough to shove three kids at them with a questionable return time. The outlook was grim.

By mid-morning on Sunday, I had reached the tipping point. I knew I was needed back at the hospital. That I needed to get back. That it had become rather desperate. So, I called the same neighbors who had slept on our sofa the night before and asked if they could watch the kids while I headed back to the hospital. Even with a husband in the intensive care unit, even though they had walked out of my house offering to help in any way they could, I was still nervous to make that call. Still nervous!

“Bring them on down!” they said.

Our neighbors went on to watch our three kids plus their three kids for SEVEN hours that Sunday. They cared for them, fed them, potty’ed them and tried to nap them. Of course they did. Because anyone would. I just simply had to ask.

I

I slept in this chair, right by Bob’s side, for eight nights. Our time together (the nights are always the hardest, ask any brand new mother and she will solemnly nod) was made possible, initially by Bob’s sister and sister-in-law who were first on the scene and later by my mother and sister who worked tirelessly caring for our children and our home.

The subsequent weeks were filled with perfect examples of others providing us with the support we needed to get through an extremely difficult time. Our neighbors, our friends and our families stocked our fridge, took care of our kids, cut our lawn, washed our laundry, sent emails, cards and texts, lent a listening ear and showed such compassion and kindness that I am still taken aback reflecting upon it today.

And, throughout Bob’s hospitalization and the weeks following his return home, I got better at both accepting help and asking for the right kind of help. (The answer, by the way, is food. It’s always food. When you have a house full of guests who are there to help, turns out they need to be fed.)

When a neighbor asked to drive Henry to the bus stop every morning to make it easier on my family, I said, “YES, thank you!”

When a friend emailed to say she was close to the  hospital and did I need anything, I said, “YES, can you give me a ride back to my house?”

When another friend offered to watch the kids, I said, “ACTUALLY, can you bring food instead?”

I just kept saying, “YES!” Yes to all of the things because it made everything else easier. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one was put out by their efforts. No one felt burdened. No one felt disgruntled from going out of their way to help someone in need. Everyone was gracious and lovely and pretended not to notice that my eyes were red and puffy.

Bob’s stroke was a giant lesson in humility. Humbling accepting the help offered by others and humbling admitting that I do not reciprocate that help as often as I should. I am determined to change both my attitude and my effort.

So, when something horrible befalls you or your family, please know I stand at the ready, armed with a Compassion Casserole (or seven). Or, if you just need someone to hold the baby while you take a nap, I could do that, too.