5 Tips for Getting By Without Your Spouse

Tomorrow, Scott Frickson, whose daughter Jada is a month younger than Ethan and his best friend, will be on the “Part-time Single Parents” show.  His wife, Keilah, and I have served as substitute spouse when our husbands were out-of-town.  She would watch Kyra and Ethan when I had to teach and make dinner for all of us.  I would watch Jada so Keilah could go out for a run.  Sometimes, if both our husbands were travelling at the same time, we would have a sleepover and scrapbook together while our kids slept.

But what do you do if you don’t have someone like Keilah to help you out when your spouse is travelling.  Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. Ask for or accept help from strangers:  When I was pregnant with Kyra and Thomas was on TDY (a government employee travel assignment which stands for Temporary Duty Assignment), I got stuck at the bottom of my driveway.  Snow buried the front-end of my Land Rover, which had 4WD and studded tires.  My cell phone did not receive reception in this part of Eagle River, so I sat in the car for a while, watching fresh powder thickly coating my windshield.  I considered camping out in the car for the evening.

    Then, there was a knock on my driver-side window.  “Want us to plow for ya?” a bearded man bellowed.  Behind him, I could see a plow truck packed with men thicker and taller than this guy.  They looked like they were drinking.  I could imagine my city-bred husband warning me that these guys would rip me off or worse.

    But I was cold and new to Alaska and people here seemed to help each other, so I agreed and watched nervously from behind my ceiling-to-floor windows as these guys cleared out my entire driveway (which I’ve been told could cost nearly $500) and then drove off without even asking for any compensation.

  2. Turn on the music:  Was that the wind rattling the windows or a bear?  Was there a robber sliding off my roof or just the snow? Every creak and groan of my log cabin walls swelling or contracting made me jump until I learned to turn up the radio or hook up my iPod to our home entertainment system.  Of course, Kyra and Ethan make plenty of noise now too.
  3. Adapt your routines:  Usually when the kids or I spot a bug in the house, we jump on top of furniture and yell, “Oh Daddee!  Bug!”  If he’s busy or at work, then we’ll trap the bug under glass jars and ensure that no one trips over it or sets the critter loose before Dad gets home.

    This method doesn’t work so well when Thomas is gone for a week or more, especially as the kids got older.  Last year, Kyra decided she had had enough. A fly kept annoying her by circling her head.  Suddenly, Kyra ran to the trashcan and threw away a wad of paper towel. She skipped over to me and in a tone that sounded like she was simply stating that today was a sunny day, she said, “Mommee, I kill bug.”

    Her attitude was so nonchalant, so matter of fact, that I didn’t believe her. So the next day, when I spotted a fly buzzing on our window sill, I asked her, “If Mommy gets you a napkin, do you think you can kill it?”  She nodded excitedly.

    I watched with disbelief as she hunted this fly down. It gave her a good chase. It had more spunk than normal Alaskan flies, springing out of her way, even dodging behind the fireplace. When she finally anticipated its next move and smooshed it between her tiny fingers, she announced to my delight: “Mommee, don’t worry, I took care of it.”

    A day later, Ethan figured if his sister could kill a fly, he could too.  Now, I have three bugkillers in the family!

  4. Stay connected:  Most of my military friends swear that Skype is the greatest invention for getting through long TDYs.  Not only is it free, but the kids can goof off for an hour with Dad no matter how far away he is.  Thomas enjoys playing around with webcam gimmicks where he pretends to swallow squirrels jumping out of a log or something silly like that.

    The iPhone though is far more instant and reliable.  When Ethan took his first steps or Kyra said her first word, I could videotape or snap some photos with my iPhone and email or text message it to Thomas.  Like I mentioned in “Raising Techno Addicts,” the kids are so savvy with the iPhone that they even know how to call Dad on their own.

  5. Take it easy:  The most important lesson I learned is to relax.  Sleep when the kids sleep.  Forget about the rules and let them sleep in your bed.  Eat out instead of cooking.  Take the kids out for an adventure.

How do you get by without your spouse?

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Just One More Shot

I had seen what might’ve been the Northern Lights on only two occasions: October 2001, the evening Thomas proposed to me in Denali, and August 2005, when Thomas and I took turns rocking newborn Kyra to sleep and poking our heads out the door of our Eagle River home.

Both times, the sky teased us with a distant glow, the kind that a Wal-Mart or obscured moon might emit. Both times, I wasted all my time behind the lens, ending up with only the weight of failure. Failure to photograph this elusive natural phenomenon. Failure to even enjoy seeing it.

Two weeks ago, Thomas came home from work and showed me Facebook posts of friends who had seen the Northern Lights in Anchorage around 2 am.  I was jealous.  None of them have kids, I thought.

At 1:30am, Thomas woke up and popped his head into my writing room. “Did you check on the Northern Lights?”

By the time I had served dinner, put the kids down for bed, poured myself a glass of wine, and started to write, the Northern Lights had dropped to the bottom of my to-do list.

Thomas grabbed my hand, pulled me out of my chair, and walked me out to the living room.  Before we even got to the windows, Ethan started to cry upstairs.

I sighed. Thomas squeezed my hand and ran upstairs to check on Ethan.  I peeked out a window and studied the star jammed skies.

“Anything?” Thomas asked, returning with Ethan in his arms.

“Nope,” I said.

Thomas handed me Ethan, then disappeared downstairs to get his jacket.  A few minutes later, he yelled up the stairs, “They are out! You’re finally going to see your Northern Lights!”

“Uh, what do we do with Ethan?” I asked.

“Bring him with us!” Thomas said, as he suited Ethan up in his snow gear.

Even though I could hear my Aunties scolding me about taking a sleeping two-year-old into 10 degree temperatures, I asked, “What about Kyra?”

“We probably should just let her sleep,” Thomas said.  I agreed.

Huddled on our driveway, Thomas and I peered into the skies and started to see wisps of pale cream and green light flickering above. It was subtle, for sure, not the kind I normally see on calendars or posters.  Words froze on our lips. Our eyes dried from forgetting to blink.

Poor Ethan had his eyes shut tight.  His head and hands pressed against Thomas’ chest.  I kissed his chubby cheeks and he whispered, “I like outside. I like lights!”

ethan sleeping on dad's shoulder

We started to laugh.  I wrapped my arms around my boys and said, “I wish Kyra could see this.”

Thomas asked, “Aren’t you going to get your camera?”

“Naw,” I said.  After becoming a mother, I had tossed aside some of my kid unfriendly aspirations like mountain climbing, travel writing, and nature photography.

As I rambled on about how I was just going to enjoy the moment with my naked eye, something I rarely do, Thomas gently reminded me that he had bought me a thick book on how to do cool stuff with my Canon EOS Rebel which I never had time to read.

Half an hour later, I was out on the driveway again, bundled up in my snowboarding gear, shivering before a tripod, fidgeting with all these settings I had never played with before on my camera. Meanwhile, the Northern Lights had shifted so that it now spotlighted my house.

Thomas and Ethan came out for a few minutes to check on me.  Thomas said, “It would be pretty cool if you could capture that.”

He knew just what to say to get me to believe in myself.

Another half an hour later, I started to lose steam. The Northern Lights thinned into wisps of smoky light. Every shot was dark. I had no clue what I was doing. I had tried everything recommended by web sites like “How to Photograph the Northern Lights with a Digital Camera” except the self-timer release (because I don’t own one). My fingers and toes were numb.

My last shot of the night, I told myself. Snap. And suddenly, a ghostly image of my house appeared in my LCD.  I kept shooting, at different ISO and f/stop numbers.  30 some shots later I accomplished a goal I thought impossible after having kids.  The photo wasn’t anything like the award-winning one I had imagined, but I wondered how many times I had missed the Northern Lights by looking out the window.

Northern Lights above our cabin

I jumped up and down in joy for a few minutes. Only the stars glittered in acknowledgement. I felt insignificant and significant all at once.

Was there anything you gave up when you become a parent?

The Phenomenon of Superhero Play

Day 10 of Kyra’s spring break.  The sun pierces through our ceiling to floor windows, heating up the air between the three of us seated at the dining table.  We squint, barely able to make out each other’s features.   Ethan growls.  He’s angry that I’ve interrupted his attempt to “save the world” for something as frivolous as lunch.  He smashes a meatball in each hand to juice.

Kyra sips on her milk as she tries to catch her breathe.  She had just run up and down the stairs several times, screaming at Ethan, “No, I’m Superman.  You’re Batman.”

I try not to react.    Spring break has been quite an eye-opener.  Apart from Kyra’s newly discovered abilities to help me around the house, the two of them appear to be figuring out how to role play on the same team.   For the first time, it seems, they are either both Superheroes or bad guys.  Their scenarios grow more elaborate every day as they actually try to “help” rather than “attack” each other.

Freeing her cape from her shoulders, Kyra collapses onto the floor and starts to writhe.  “Save me!  The alligators are getting me.”

Ethan ignores her.

“Help me!” she pleads dramatically, thrashing and kicking.

He growls again.

Finally, she tries, “Help me!  Superman!”

Ethan stands up on his chair and places his fists on either side of his hips.  He puffs up his chest, rippling the “S” on his favorite pajama Superman shirt that his cousins passed down to him and he insists on wearing every day.

“Okay JieJie, I’ll save you,” he says proudly.  He climbs down his chair, runs over to Kyra, grabs her wrists, and pulls her back onto her chair.

They run this play over and over with tweaks here and there in the plotline, but always exhibiting a healthy dose of heroism.

Later that day, we are at Fred Meyers picking up some groceries for dinner.  Kyra approaches a girl about her age and asks, “What’s wrong?”  The girl looks at her with big sad eyes.  Kyra reaches into my cart and pulls out a few frosted animal cookies from a bag I had opened for them.  “Here are some cookies,” Kyra says.  “Better now?”

The mom thanks Kyra and looks at me in astonishment.  I am surprised too.  Even more so, when my son insists on handing her some cookies too.

Honestly, I’m not sure why some educators believe Superhero play is too aggressive or violent and should be discouraged, even outlawed.

I definitely agree with researchers like Penny Holland, We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon, and Superhero Play in the Early Years, and Lawrence Rubin, Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy, that Superhero play allows children to explore complex roles, rules, and concepts like morality, strength, power, and justice.  It also helps children relieve tension and express care for each other.

But I’m biased.  Both Thomas and I collected comic books when we were kids.  Our favorite dates involve critiquing Hollywood’s latest renditions of our heroes on the ride home from the theater or waking up in the middle of the night and playing Wii Marvel: Ultimate Alliance or something that involves fighting side-by-side against Supervillains.  After we became parents, we would watch T.V. shows like Heroes or Ordinary Family when the kids were in bed, and lose ourselves in the fantasy that one day we too could wake up with extraordinary abilities.

After all, according to Rubin “…one of the most powerful resources for self-understanding, growth, and healing may be fantasy.  It is the metaphoric place where problems of the past and present meet the possibilities of the future, in conflicts both minor and epic.  It is the place in which children and adults escape from but also make sense of their worlds by creating and then living their stories — their own personal mythologies.”

Here are some helpful tips about how to encourage healthy play.

  • Help children understand more about “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” Talk to the kids about real-life heroes.  Ask a local hero, such as a firefighter or police officer, to visit. Emphasize that this real-world superhero is also a neighbor and parent — in your community.
  • Encourage preschoolers to practice heroism and conflict resolution.
  • Establish rules from the start. For example, no pointing sticks or other props used as weapons directly at another person.
  • Respond accordingly either by interrupting the play to stop aggressive behavior or talking about it afterward.
  • Make sure there is an appropriate amount of space for safe play.
  • Use this play as an opportunity to build problem-solving skills. When there is an issue, resist resolving it for the children. Ask for their ideas.
  • Be positive. Acknowledge children’s new accomplishments and skills. Help them feel powerful.

Do you encourage Superhero play in your home?

It’s Mommy’s Spring Break Too

Our 6:30am alarm has not rung yet when I hear a pitter-patter of feet crescendo into our bedroom.  Ethan and Kyra giggle as they climb under our covers and arrange themselves on each side of me.  They compete to plant the most kisses on my cheeks.  Pudgy arms grab my face and ears.  Their bodies pressed like cellophane against mine.

Kyra says, “I love you, Mommee.”

Ethan says, “No, I love you Mommee.”

I manage a groan, since I had a productive writing session last night and only got two hours of sleep.  But my face is stretched in bliss.  What a wonderful way to wake up in this love sandwich, as my husband called it.

After they warm their toes and fingers in my bed, Kyra asks Ethan if he wants some Go-Gurt and the two of them race off to the kitchen.  I listen for their return, to pull me out of bed and get them milk or tear open their Go-Gurts or referee a fight, but its day four of Kyra’s Spring Break and my Kindergartener has decided she’s going to give Mommy a break.

I hear her talk gently to Ethan the way I might talk to him, “Jei Jei (Older sister in Chinese) will open for you.  Okay, don’t make a mess.  Now, let’s go watch some T.V.”

So far, each day progresses in this fashion where Kyra pretends that I’m not home and she is Ethan’s babysitter or teacher.  Sometimes, she pokes her head into my office just to inform me that they are travelling the world.  They both have a suitcase in their hands and I ask her where they are right now.  And she tells me Australia.  Sometimes, she has miraculously tamed my son into house chores.  They put the silverware away, pick up the toys scattered in the living room, clear off the dining table, tidy up their rooms.

Ethan is, fortunately, completely in love with his sister.  He will do anything that she asks.  Well, most of the time.  With her home, he no longer sits in my lap or cries if I don’t give him 100% of my attention.  Of course, they do fight at least a few times a day.  But overnight it seems, Kyra has matured.  She tells him “sorry” or asks him to say “sorry” to her.  She takes great pride in being able to solve problems without needing to trouble me.

This phenomenon occurs even on days that we head into town.  In the car, she tells Ethan to play the quiet game.  “Okay, whoever is quiet until we get home, gets to play with Mommee’s phone.”  If I get sleepy and have to pull to the side of the road, she starts to sing a song.  It goes something like this:

Mommee, you are the best.  The best.  The best.
You are the best in the whole wide world.
I love you.  I love you.  I love you.
I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.
You are amazing.
You are beautiful.
You are terrific.
You make me soooo happy.

Then, she says, “Okay, Mommee.  When you’re tired, I am going to sing you this song.  Is it working?  Are you awake?  Can you drive home now?”

It’s every parent’s dream, right?  That one day your kids can take care of you or at least make your life easier?  I just had no idea that this dream might come true when my child reached five instead of sixteen!

I don’t think it’s due to any magical parenting skills here, so is this a natural thing that occurs when kids turn five? Has this happened to you?