Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Dear E.J. - Three Years


My dear E.J.,

Today we are celebrating your third birthday. This weekend we kicked off the celebration with your long-awaited, highly-anticipated baseball birthday party at the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp game. Ever since Ellie's birthday party in March, you have been anxiously awaiting your own turn. You chose to invite a couple friends and the nursery workers from church (plus we invited a couple family friends), in addition to our family, and we had a wonderful time. It was a perfect party for you, given how much you love baseball these days, but we'll get to that in a moment!

This year has been a pretty big one, both for you personally and for our family. At the time of my last letter, our family was very much in the midst of a transition. Daddy had finished his three years of teaching high school and the field of possibilities for the next step seemed to be narrowing - hopefully towards our final answer, but we weren't sure. As I wrote your second-birthday letter, I really didn't know what the next year held for our family.

Just a few weeks after your birthday, however, everything fell into place. Daddy got an awesome new job in education policy, one that not only challenges and excites him but also enables him to work from home! I know you love having him around all the time, even if you can't play with him as much as you'd like. We also moved to a new house, one with much more space to play both inside and out. Instead of feeling so in flux this year, we're feeling very settled as we get connected to church and school and our neighborhood.

We started going to church regularly this year, and you are famous all through the children's ministry as just an absolute delight of a child. The nursery workers adore you (you've been described verbatim as a "ray of sunshine" and "just the most precious thing"), you've made a couple sweet little friends, and you even attended your first Vacation Bible School this summer. You now know the Lord's Prayer in its entirety, and bedtime prayers have become a nightly ritual.

All your time in the nursery during church and my moms' groups will hopefully have prepared you to start school in the fall. You'll be attending the preschool at our church, as Ellie did, and will have the same teachers as Ellie did for her first year. I'm so excited to see how you do! I hope you enjoy it and it is a perfect positive start to your years of education. Of course, I'll be sad to see our days at home together starting to come to an end already! What a change for both of us.

You're just growing up so much. I mean, size-wise you're still a little on the smaller side (to illustrate, you're wearing the same size 12-18m shorts in this year's picture as in last year's), but I certainly don't mind that one bit as it enables me to imagine you as more of a baby than you really are. I especially love that I can still toss you on my back in the "wrapper" almost daily for walks to church/school!

Despite your smaller stature, you are growing into such a boy. You love (and seem to have a natural knack for) sports, baseball in particular. You love to play in our front yard, hitting the ball a good distance off the tee and happily running the bases with those adorably exaggerated arm swings. You also ran a couple of Disney races and the better part of a mile for a fun run, and love to play Gators (football), too.

As for other stereotypical "boy" things, you love to play in the dirt and I think you had a stick in your hand for about three months straight this year. You like to yell (we're working on keeping the yelling OUTSIDE), run, jump and climb. I'm constantly telling you to keep your tushy on the couch (rather than leaping all over it), and you climb most things at the playground with ease.

You still love Star Wars, so the light saber battles continue, and you can imagine anything and everything into a blaster. You've also told us you want to be a storm trooper when you grow up, so that's exciting news. We've had lots of fun this year at Disney World, with you in full Kylo Ren costume. You get lots of attention (including being chosen to march in a parade with the storm troopers!) and you love it. You get into full character, marching around with authority and using the Force on random passersby. That is probably one of my favorite E.J. memories from this year.

Yet even as you're growing into a little boy, there are still pieces of your babyhood that are hanging on (and I to them, for dear life). You still ask to be held a lot, especially if we walk to church or coming downstairs in the morning or after nap. When you wake up from a nap or are ready for bed, you like to cuddle up in my lap, resting your head on my chest, and lay still with me. When you sit on my lap and I drape my arm across your legs, you pull it in tight to your waist like a seatbelt and hold on. When I sing to you at naptime, you wrap your arms around my neck and pull my head close to you. You still have those soft baby cheeks and long (enviably so) eyelashes. Your hand still feels so tiny in mine as we cross the street. Despite your extensive vocabulary, your voice is still so young and sweet and if you never learn that the word is "dessert" and not "bessert," I will not be sad.

I should talk more about your speech, because it really is remarkable. Everyone comments on how well you speak, and they're right. In fact, your pediatrician reprimanded me earlier this year for missing your three-year well check (even though you were only 2.5), because she just heard you speak and assumed you were well past your third birthday. You have a lot to say and the means to say it. And your sweet little voice...Daddy and I often joke (except we're actually quite serious) that we wish we could mic you up for a day and record everything you say, just to go back and listen to it forever and and ever. We can't get enough of that little E.J. voice. My favorite is probably when you pray at the dinner table. Your favorite prayer is "God Our Father" and hearing you say "we all ask yer bwessin'" just breaks my heart every time. I also love to hear you say "Ewwie" (Ellie), "sit next by me," and "I'm thank you for" (I'm thankful for).

You're doing pretty well with your eating these days. You have your staples that you like (particularly ziti with meatballs, peanut butter sandwiches and chicken nuggets), and you live for snacks. I should mention that we did end our nursing relationship about a month after your second birthday. I was ready, and I think you were too, but it was still a tough thing for me to do. Very bittersweet. There are times that I still miss those quiet, still moments with you, but I am so grateful to have had so many of them for over two years.

In other Big News for you this year, you have officially potty trained (and ate so many M&Ms in the process), moved from a crib to a "big boy" (toddler) bed, and took your first international trip, to the Cayman Islands in May (you held a sea turtle and a starfish and petted a stingray!). You also had surgery (adenoidectomy) and were so brave, "like a Jedi." Hopefully that will be the cure for the unrelenting congestion and sinus infections you endured most of the year! As for your current interests, you obviously love all the Star Wars movies (Darth Vader and Kylo Ren are your favorite characters - you tend to identify with bad guys, for some reason!), the show Little Einsteins, playing in the front yard, fruit gummies, making a mess of your room during naptime, fun socks and band-aids. You like making forts out of the couch cushions, jumping off of things, running around like a crazy person at bedtime, and apple juice. You're getting more and more into books, and especially love books about - you guessed it! - Star Wars, or baseball. You love the beach and like to dive full-body into the sand and just roll around in it, so that's fun for me when it's time to go home. You like to sleep on your belly and like ice cubes in your water. You prefer shorts with pockets so you can store treasures (or, more often, have a blaster at the ready). You like to sing either "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or "We Are the Boys of Old Florida" at bedtime. You're really a cool kid!

I mentioned in my last letter that you were learning to push Ellie's buttons, and that has certainly not eased up this year. You do love to tease and you love to get a reaction (and she is usually more than willing to give one). Despite the sibling spats, you two do play nicely together often and it's easy to see that you really do love each other dearly. You're so lucky to have each other and I hope you will always be there for one another. Who better to commiserate with about your crazy parents, right?

As we head into your fourth year, you are definitely becoming a "threenager." You have strong opinions (that can change on a dime), and are very demonstrative when things don't go your way. We often get a "hmmmph" with crossed arms and a scowl. We also see a lot of your lower lip and hear a lot of yelling. There has also been some throwing and hitting, so you're keeping me busy. I remember this stage with Ellie and I know it can be a doozy, so I'm hunkering down for the next year as we work through this together. I try to remember that you're feeling big things without knowing how to process them, though sometimes I admit that I do let my frustration get the best of me. For that, I apologize. You deserve the best, most patient mom and I know that sometimes I fail. That is entirely my shortcoming and not in any way a fault of yours, buddy. I love you so much and every day I try to do better.

Despite this stage of testing and tantrums, you are, for the most part, still your happy E.J. self. You still regularly laugh yourself into a fit of hiccups, and love to tell jokes with Ellie (potty humor is huge right now). You give hugs and "smooches" and love to be tickled. You're kind and thoughtful, and as I mentioned earlier, everyone that interacts with you regularly just goes on and on about what a sweet, precious kid you are. You really have everyone smitten, sweet boy.

I just can't believe that you're mine. You're so special, and so dear, and I get to be your mama. I love you so much, my heart just aches. Thank you for being you, for bringing so much joy to everyone around you, for challenging me and teaching me and showing me just what a delight it is to be a "boy mom." I am thankful for every moment of it.

I love you so, nugget. Happy birthday.

All my love,
Mama


* * * * *

My dear E.J.,

Happy birthday my dude! For the record, this is the nickname you said was your favorite. A few weeks ago, I think I called you 'little buddy' or 'Big Jet' like the bad guy from the TV show Little Einsteins, and you had a fun reaction. I asked which nickname you liked best without knowing whether you even knew what I was talking about. You said, ever so sweetly, 'my dude.' So, it's official. Which makes me wonder how in the world are you getting so big? Besides being big enough to pick a favorite nickname, three is also apparently old enough to be excited about a birthday. You have been looking forward to your "baseball party" for weeks and had such a pleasant, knowing expression during cake and presents. Speaking of being big, it is also true that you are finished with your crib and diapers, you dress yourself (for the most part) and are starting two-day preschool in the fall. I know Ellie did all these things, too, so I should have expected it, but it feels different for you. Maybe it's because with her, I can't help looking forward to what is next because it is almost always the first time I get to experience someone experience something for the first time. But it is easier to keep you young because there are fewer of these habits to rush you along. Although it is always a true statement, you aren't nearly as young as you used to be and that just seems crazy.

On July 4, I have been working on two big thoughts that apply well to the way I think about you on your third birthday. The first has to do with choices and the second with luck.

I asked your Mama a few weeks ago about turning points in her life. Moments that, had they gone differently, would have set her life on a different course. I also read an article about moments in American history that determined who we are today. I am not sure whether there will be a specific point in time where you settle on a personality this year, but I know there is more than one way it might work out. Before we get there, I want to mention what an interesting thought exercise this can be and express how much I hope you will always feel good about where things find themselves settled. For me, I cannot imagine anything that would have made me happier than for Mama to have ended up with me, here in Jacksonville, and for her to have given me you and your sister. I also love what I do and the people I have met along the way, even if the path wasn't always straight and almost never matched what I first expected. Though you are not anywhere close to old enough to make these kinds of decisions for yourself, I do think this concept fits really well with how I think about you as a three-year old. This is a very challenging age. You are so very passionate and I wonder where the pendulum will stop swinging when you come out of it.

First of all, you give the sincerest hugs and cuddles and can still be just the sweetest little boy. I would never have believed "charisma" was a word I could apply to a three-year old, but it might work in your case. It's not just that you are simply likable or polite, but that you have a certain charm that people are drawn to. One of the ladies in the church nursery said you "light up her life: and another with three jobs offered to babysit without asking. I don't know how else to explain it, but your Mama and I sometimes joke about attaching a microphone to you for a day to capture your stream of consciousness. You speak so well for someone your age and I love to heat what you are thinking. I did mention a pendulum earlier and am obligated to note that there are many other times where you seem to antagonize your sister because you know it will bother her. I don't want to dwell on it just yet, but I do have a preference for which personality I hope wins out.

Since my last letter, we have moved into a home we can't see leaving without buying a house, and I started a job I can't see leaving without a really good reason. I work for an organization whose mission is to end the injustice of educational inequity and I believe this work is important and necessary. As Americans, we believe in the idea of a meritocracy, where people get what they earn/deserve. As much as I want this to be true, I can't ignore how well outcomes can be predicted by how people look or where they live. Whatever becomes of you and me, we will no doubt owe some of our success to the "happy accident of birth." We are lucky to be Americans, to have our family, and, quite frankly, to be white men. I am not necessarily going to ask you to begin making the world a better place, but I do believe that to whom much has been given, much will be expected. I can't believe how fortunate I am to be your daddy and I will do everything I can to help you become the man you are meant to be. But for now, we'll take it one day at a time and keep having fun. You make it impossible not to.

All my love,
Daddy

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dear Ellie - Five Years




My dear Ellie,

Today you are five years old.

As I sit down to write this letter, my mind is swirling with memories and reflections not only of the year that has passed since my last letter, but of all the time that has gone by since I first laid eyes on you on this day five years ago. It seems like a lifetime ago that I was lying in that New Jersey hospital room, staring down at your sweet newborn face as Daddy gushed about how you had just opened your eyes as he held you and how amazing it was. Yet even though that day seems so long ago, it feels like the years passed me by in an instant without me even realizing it. I can't believe we're here already. You're five. I have been your mother for five whole years.

And what an honor it has been to watch you grow into the little girl you are today! I hardly even know where to begin.

You are very smart, and have learned so much this year. You still plan to be an astronaut when you grow up, and I have no doubt that you can do it if that's what you really want to do. I love to hear you explain how the earth "orbinates" the sun, or talk about how you want to be the first astronaut on Mars (so then all the other astronauts will see your picture on Mars and know that they can go there, too, you say), but you don't want to go to Jupiter because you don't want to get caught in those wind storms. Your interest in space has sparked an overall interest in science and math, and you seem to pick it up pretty easily. You love patterns and order, so I think these subjects make sense to you. You continue to impress us with how well-spoken you are, and you are great at letter recognition and are eager to learn to read. You've been reading chapter books with Daddy at night and are able to sight read a good number of words. You will be very ready for kindergarten in the fall! (I'm not sure I'm ready for kindergarten, but you will be!)

You are very kind-hearted, sometimes to a fault. An example: you and E.J. tend to bicker a good bit, and he is prone to venting his frustration physically. It is always directed towards you, because he knows he can get away with it: he can sit there and hit you and hit you, and you will never, ever hit him back. It's almost as if it has never occurred to you that it's an option. You are too kind and sweet and gentle to even have the thought. Though it can be frustrating to me in the moment (if you would just hit him back, he'd probably knock it off, you know?), I hope your heart always remains so pure.

You are considerate and sweet, caring and affectionate. When we had a conference with your teacher earlier this month, two of her biggest comments about you were that you are a great classmate who is always willing to share with your friends, and that you are very loving to your teachers, hugging them and telling them you love them daily. You do seem to get along and play with everyone in your class, and for Valentine's Day this year you wanted to make each of your classmates a personalized Valentine that fit their interests. You are so thoughtful!

Going back to your relationship with your brother, it is clear that it is one that you treasure (despite the sibling squabbles!). You are so sweet to him, and really try to take care of him. When he cries in the bath as we rinse his hair, you offer to hold him in your lap and sing to him to help him calm down. You try to teach him things and keep him on the straight and narrow. Sometimes I have to remind you that it is my job to worry about E.J., because you get so intent on helping him be a good, big boy. I love that you care about him so deeply and that you want so badly to help him do the right thing. You are really an exceptional sister.

You try so hard to please us. When I ask you to keep your room clean, you do just that and give me regular updates about the things you have done to keep your space tidy. At school, you never eat your dessert in your lunch box before finishing your carrots. You are never mean and never purposefully disobedient. You told me the other day that you have never had to sit in the "thinking chair" at school and I can count on one hand (maybe one finger, even) the number of times you've been put in time-out at home.

You love music and dance. You have continued with ballet this year, and your ballet recitals have been far more successful than the first one! This year you also do Shining Stars (an after-school drama program) and sing in the church choir (and you did actually sing on Christmas Eve this year!). One of your favorite television shows is Little Einsteins, which focuses on music terminology, composers and instruments. The other day, you described the noise of a helicopter as fortissimo, so you seem to be learning a lot from that show! You also love to put on shows for us. These days, you most often act out scenes from Moana. You know all the words to all the songs, and the motions that go along with each. I love to watch you perform and hear you sing!

You also love art and crafts. You love to color, and that is literally the first thing you do upon leaving your room every morning - you go into the playroom, lay down on the floor and get to work on a coloring book. You love to paint and draw, too. I love your artwork and we have tons of it hanging in the playroom!

You're also getting to be quite a little runner! You ran several races this year, the majority of them without parental accompaniment. You tell us how fast you are and then go show us. You are willing to try your hand at other sports, too. I was so proud of you when, as you played football with a couple boys after school one day, you announced to them that you are great at sports. I just love your confidence and I really hope you can hang onto that!

You love to be silly, too, and jokes became a big thing this year. The preschool humor is not necessarily my cup of tea, but you sure can get E.J. rolling! It's pretty easy to make you laugh, and it's contagious: when you laugh at your jokes, E.J. laughs at your jokes, and before we know it, the whole family is giggling! Thank you for bringing us so much joy, sweet pea.

You still experience your emotions very deeply. It is not such a constant factor as it was when you were three (going on four), but still, it's just your way. When something upsets you, it upsets you to your core and it can be very frustrating for us because often there is nothing we can do to settle you. You will be upset until you decide you're done being upset. I'm doing my best to try to teach you ways to calm yourself, but it can be a challenge. Your strength of emotion is something I can relate to, at least to an extent, and I hope that you always allow yourself to feel what you feel and express your needs so freely. It can be hard for me to handle sometimes but I think it is very admirable.

You're just getting so big. I feel like a day doesn't go by that I don't stop and marvel at how grown up you are becoming. You don't cry in the bath anymore. You can ride a bike with training wheels (and that's what you're getting for your birthday from us this year!). You say things that are so smart, they stop me in my tracks. You are eager to help around the house: feeding the dog, clearing your dishes, making your bed. Every day, you are finding new ways to grow up a little more.

One big milestone this year was getting rid of your crib and replacing it with a "big girl" daybed. Packing up that crib and getting it out of the house was so bittersweet. Just that one piece of furniture carried so many memories for me. It was the first thing we ever bought for you, even before so much as a bib or a pair of socks. I remember ordering that crib for you before I even know you were a girl. I remember painstakingly picking the bedding to adorn it, and Daddy running all over Manhattan in search of the crib skirt of my dreams. I remember how tiny you looked lying in there on your first night at home, swaddled up tight in a pink blanket and just looking like a tiny, precious burrito on a bed of pretty flowers. I remember how gingerly we laid you on that mattress each night, praying you would stay asleep. I remember coming in to retrieve you from a nap in your crib only to find you sitting up in the corner, bewildered at having just sat up by yourself for the first time. I remember watching you play in there after your naps, which you were always happy to do for long periods of time as I sat beside you in the glider.  I remember switching it to a toddler bed and worrying about how you would adjust, only to find you happily reading books in your new bed after your first night of sleep in it. So many memories for one piece of furniture, and now, it is out of our house and the memories are all that's left of it. I think my struggle with saying goodbye to the crib was that it felt symbolic, a representation of the far-too-fast passage of time and the end of your babyhood. How can we be so thoroughly through that stage already?

This year brought more changes for our family, as have all the years of your life prior, really. But hopefully this year's changes will bring more stability for the years to come. Daddy has a new job that seems to be exactly what he was meant to do (and I hope that someday his career change and ensuing journey will inspire you to find your right place int he world, too). We moved into a new house with more space for our family and a big yard for you kids to play in (not to mention the playroom!). Our house is in a great location, practically across the street from both your current school/our church and your new school next year. We have decided to stay in Jacksonville indefinitely and are trying to put down roots, making friends and getting involved in church, school and community. I think about my own childhood, and how connected to my hometown I felt - it was where my home was, my house, my friends, my family, my church, my history. I'm struck by the realization that we are creating that for you now, and I hope we're able to provide a feeling of security and belonging for you here.

You have such greatness ahead of you, my girl, both in the immediate months and years to come and in the rest of your lifetime. I know you have what it takes to really be something special in the world. You already are to me, of course, a million times over, but I think you really can make a larger impression in the world around you. Please remain true to yourself, continue to be who you are without hesitation, assert yourself and proudly show all that you have to offer. You are really something special and I love you so much.

Ellie, being your mother has been the great honor of my life. These five years have humbled me, challenged me, exhilarated me and changed me immeasurably. I have loved you more than you can know from the moment I first dreamed of you, and I will always love every bit of you. Thank you for being mine, for trusting me, for teaching me, and for being you.

I love you all the much, baby girl. All the much and then some.

Happy fifth birthday, sweetheart.

All my love,
Mama


* * * * *


My dear Ellie,

First of all, happy birthday!!! I remember one of mine from before your mama and I were married (which will be 10 years this year!) when she made it a point to say "happy birthday" to me all day long. It was pretty weird for a while, but I really liked it and try to make it a point to pay it forward. I know I only typed it once here and don't plan to keep typing it, but I did lead with it and will say it a bunch throughout the day. In fact, we started saying it about a week ago after our nighttime routine and before we leave your room. You always try to sneak in one (or five) more exclamations before we leave you for the night, and one is always the most proximate holiday (including birthdays). Most nights it's pretty cute. Yes, most; I'm not perfect.

Well, that didn't take long to reach a digression, did it? You see, I am really struggling to figure out what to write. After using the "I don't know what to say" line so many times, you would think I might have figured it out by now. After all, five years is a long time. Since you were born, we have occupied five homes in three cities and I am over six months into my third career. Fortunately, and for the first time in the life of our family, I am doing something, and we are living somewhere, indefinitely. Whoops. That may have been another tangent, but I think I can make more of a case that it is useful updating information. However, the sentence I spent the most time thinking about is definitely a digression, so we'll move on before this gets out of hand.

I think it would be a really fun letter to recount all of the great Ellie stories from the past 12 months, but that's not going to happen this time. I could submit that I have been really busy at work, which is true, but the actual issue is I don't think about these letters at all during the year. You'll have to take my word for it that we made so many great memories. So many great memories that I can't think of right now. Stories like singing a duet to "A Whole New World" at bedtime with me singing the verses and you getting super into character and singing the chorus, or like the knock-knock jokes you started telling where instead of a punchline, you just crack up laughing. There was the time you taught some stuffed animals about lunar eclipses and how the planets "orbinate" around the sun. We also went on dates to the movies, the arcade and Chick-Fil-A and you performed spot-on scenes and songs from Star Wars, the Little Mermaid and Moana. Even if I don't write all of my memories in these letters, I am super excited to keep making them with you! If it's any consolation, we do take a lot of pictures of everything and your mama does an amazing job keeping them safe for posterity. And since a picture is worth a thousand words, you are going to have what you would describe as "a 100 of words" to lok through. It's like the preschool equivalent of "infinity," if infinity was an actual number.

Another option for the letter would be to describe you at five with a laundry list of great qualities that everyone thinks apply to their kids, but which actually do apply to you. Like how well you get along with everyone, or how patient you are (most of the time) with your brother, who often deserves worse. There's also how much you like to help and how independent you are becoming. How much you love so many people and things, the sincerity of your hugs or the regularity with which you experience pure joy. You are also obviously smart. You rock the alphabet, count past 100, do some adding, read/recognize a lot of simple words, and can keep your interest while we read picture-less chapter books written for kids a good bit older than five. I am, however, most impressed with how curious you are about our world and how well you remember the answers I give you. In fact, you want to be an astronaut when you grow up. Yep. A freaking astronaut. And not just in the outer-space-is-cool, I want-to-go-to-there kind of way, but in that you want to play space school, read about Sally Ride, and notice space stuff everywhere. E.J. even calls paintings of people in space suits, "Ellie."

Lest you get too overconfident about all the wonderful qualities and stories that your mom has definitely described in detail in her letter, I want to mention you are also the girl who had me read her "tushie" a story because it itched at 4:00 a.m., and that was the only thing that would help it get back to sleep. Ellie, I wouldn't trade you for anyone in the entire world. Not that that's a thing that someone can legally offer to do, but my life, marriage and our family are so much greater because they have you in it.

You are my very best girl and I love you so much.

All my love,
Daddy