Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Shedding my exoskeleton

Was it just summertime? Did a season pass as I blinked? Or did I leave my body for a brief moment, floating above it, suspended in a spinning vortex of confusion?  Days went the speed of a camera shutter, passing in rapid succession, like flipping the corners of a notebook to watch a stop motion animation become a moving figure riding a skateboard that bursts into flames. I have relied on solid time markers to ground my earth body as it threatens to escape gravity's pull alongside my mind. Thanksgiving dinner, birthdays, holidays, the first snow remind me to put a pin in the day, marking my presence, "Sarah wuz here," so that my future self might look back and recall that indeed those markers meant something.

And I guess that's what this space means to me. It's a way of marking time, and of helping my future self recall what it meant to be a mama-wife-writer at this moment. I am already so thankful for these written records of days and adventures with the girls when they were especially young. There is so much I have forgotten. When I make space for new information by archiving old memories, I download some to this space so I can remember deadlines, to buy new shoes for growing girl feet, to plan ahead for anniversary gifts that need to be ordered.

Returning to school was a much more ambitious undertaking than I could have planned for. What I imagined would be a rough couple of weeks to adjust took months. I felt like a rough strip of velcro being uncomfortably torn from the soft landing of home. The girls felt it, too. Hailey broke her arm the second day of school. Summer drew pictures of me at home, telling me it was better when I didn't go to school. Abby brought her sisters home from school to an empty house, crying on the phone to me that she missed me. I navigated my days and night in great discomfort, always pushing against time as it pushed harder back against me. I felt like I was shedding an exoskeleton painfully, each bend in my back cracking away at expendable film. And classes at law school have been tough, too.

If I would have sat down in October to report on how things were going, I likely would have used the opportunity to fool myself into thinking everything was fine. I may have described how I was still getting healthy meals on the table most nights, getting adequate sleep and staying on top of my law readings and cases, assuring myself everything was fine. Difficulty, challenge and growth are where the magic happens, but they also require removal to appreciate context. Christmas break has been a helpful respite to appreciate what that growth has meant to me. 

I am not who I was in the summer. I am learning so much more than I could have predicted. I don't need everything to be fine. I know what it is to do my best, and then leave it alone, accepting my limits. manage time extremely well. I am learning how the law works and doesn't. I am learning how to give to my girls from a place of thoughtfulness, not of guilt. I am learning how to lean into difficulty, sometimes letting it wash over me completely, leaving me a soggy, wave-spun mess left crying on the bathroom floor. Mostly I am learning to accept my limits, and embrace the totality of my accomplishments, celebrating small wins along the way and patiently forgiving myself my missteps.

Law school student-mama-wife-writer life is demanding. It's a challenge, every day. But I know with absolute certainty this is what I'm meant to do, and I don't want to be bored with nothing to do, ergo, law school student-mama-wife life it is.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Snapshot: Niman Girls Summer 2018

The girls have been pulling out their baby books the last few days, asking me to read from it as their bedtime story. I forget so much of what I wrote in there, about what they did in the bath, favourite songs, first foods. I described how exhausted I was to even take a shower towards the end of the twin pregnancy, and how many walks Abby and I took in a day to settle her colic and manage my boredom. I'm so glad for these records, and delighted they enjoy hearing the words I took effort to write down.

I've been less interested in writing here, for a lot of reasons, and I am fine with this. Ebbs and flows. It saddens me, though, to think one day they will ask what they were like at this age and I will have only my memory to draw from. Memories of the busy summer days and increasingly challenging emergent personalities leave little space for me to commit longterm memories into my computer brain. Take this, then, as a time capsule, a snapshot of the girls at the end of summer 2018.


Abby at nine and a half is like an orchid. The soil conditions must be just right and much care is taken in attending to her fragile sensibilities as her stem lengthens. When she blooms, she is beautiful, and attracts the attention of those around her. Abby needs a push every now and then. It is hard for me to know when it is time to push (and how hard) and when to step back. We're learning together. Letting nerves win prevents growth, and she is learning to conquer that tendency.

She loves to be led on a guided meditation before bed, and we just finished reading Wonder together as our summer novel study. She tells me I know just how to make her feel better, but I think she is well-attuned to her moods and feelings, so she knows the way forward. She finished a great season playing house league soccer, where she was a very fast runner, and became a leading goal-scorer once her confidence set in motion. She likes to read before bed and listen to the radio, especially Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande songs. She wakes up early, before everyone else, and plays in her room until she's allowed to get her sisters and come downstairs. She craves responsibility, and we give it to her in measured doses, unsure of how much we can expect from a nine-year-old. She almost always surprises us and continually impresses us.


Hailey is very laid back, smiley and chill, until she is not. Then she is quick to ignite, throw down and declare it is the worst day ever. She loves using her hands to build and create, and says she wants to be a mechanic or construction worker when she grows up. She laughs easily, helps out when asked, loves to ride her bike, enjoys reading the Captain Underpants books and can't stop herself from dancing when her favourite Justin Bieber songs play, even if we're at the dinner table. She planted carrot seeds months ago and proudly harvested two huge bunches for us to eat this summer.

She loves to snuggle into me when she's feeling afraid, overwhelmed or sad. She needs prompting to say how she feels, and wishes she could sleep next to me every night. She played a great season of soccer this summer, tearing through the other team with the ball, scoring so often she would lose count. She loves Kraft Dinner, and has trouble controlling herself with junk food; she has been known to eat so much she later throws up. Yuck! I see Hailey act shy at school, but as soon as she's comfortable around people, she lets her silly side out full force.


Robin wants so badly to be older, but settles for acting older at age six. She loves to dress up, read everything she can about animals, colour pictures, and eats anything made with sugar. I have a theory that Robin was meant for a smaller family, but was placed in ours at the last minute; she has difficulty adjusting to sharing resources with her sisters, especially my attention. I make sure to have our serious talks away from the others, where we can calmly and thoroughly get into things, as she does not like her sisters to overhear her express her personal thoughts.

Robin loves beautiful things, I have said this since she was a baby. Be they paintings, dresses, voices or sunsets, Robin's beautiful blue eyes see things most do not. Sometimes she'll see something she admires and excitedly tells me she can't wait to get home and draw a picture of it. She feels deeply hurt when her sisters and friends act unkindly or ignore her, and is learning to take a few breaths before reacting with scorn. She loves to have her back rubbed, and to sing.


If I put Summer on a city bus at age five, I have no doubt she could navigate the whole city on a grand adventure before returning home with stories to tell and a big smile. She is confident anytime she meets someone new, and makes friends easily and instantly, wherever she goes. She loves her independence, next only to her love of being accepted and included by her sisters. She adores them, a little much sometimes, so then they exclude her, she creates her own game, and the cycle repeats. Summer makes us all laugh with her clever insights and frank honesty.

Summer likes jungle cats, reading Elephant and Piggy books (she is an early and avid reader, like her sisters), swimming, making crafts, and going on adventures. She is game for anything, anytime, anywhere. Summer is very empathetic and has learned to recognize when someone is being left out, whereupon she will invite them to join her. She loves candy, black sparkly dresses, contributing her two cents to anything anyone is discussing and being singled out, for any reason.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Away and Back

It doesn't happen every year, but when we go to Maine, we soak it all in. Literally and figuratively. We bask in the sun, play in the surf until our fingers wrinkle and wake up each day happy to be in such a beautiful place. This year, the girls were mature enough to regulate their moods when they were tired and flexible enough to keep it together if we stayed up late. Rich was healthy this year, and that made it feel like our family was there together, fully present, as a unit. My family members were there to love on my girls and share in our love for the sea.

It was a special week away, and I came home feeling all kinds of rested. Mothers of toddlers, be told: it gets better! 

Our summer is half over and I am so at peace with how we're summer-ing thus far. The girls are in soccer, but otherwise, we've been living unstructured. Afternoons in the pool, checking items off our family summer bucket list, road trips and hosting visitors from away have made Summer 2018 one for the books. I approached it knowing it will likely be my last one home all summer with my girls, so I endeavoured to do it right: not too many plans, a laid back approach to expectations of how it should be, and effort made to make memories. Ice cream for lunch, reading our summer novel study books before bed, cake on the beach the day Summer turned five. This is the good life, and we are lapping it up greedily.

I have spoken on here a bit about Rich's health, and as we approach the two-year mark noting a traumatic head injury, I can joyfully and confidently declare he is healthy again. I had hope we would get here but, to be honest, I didn't always believe we would; there were to many odds stacked against his recovering, too many stories I heard from people who didn't. The hardest parts were the kind of hard people warned us about when we were first married, though we couldn't have foreseen this. It isn't completely behind us and there will be things that came out of this whole process that we will walk with forever. Rich is back to work, he is healthy, he is himself again and he is able to fully participate in our family again, and that has been the stuff dreams are made of. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Finding our breaths

When the girls were young toddlers, grappling to make sense of the confusing world around them, their frustrations were easily identified: A tantrum when told, "no," a red-faced outburst when they couldn't find the words to express themselves, an overtired meltdown when we strayed from our routines. From the beginning, I tried to cultivate empathy, and see things from their perspective before I rushed in with a reaction based on unrealistic expectations or adult concerns. We started working together on really basic mindfulness practices in moments of calm so we could employ them in moments of frustration. We did this as much for my own sake as theirs.

Hailey's picture: "God's creation," she said.
These mindful moments looked like holding hands and counting to ten or shaking up our calm-down jars (mason jars filled with glitter water), watching the sparkles fall as they/we slowed our own breathing. We would remind each other to pay attention to our breathing first: Is it fast? Caught up in sobs? Running away from us? Then we could begin to slow it down, breath by breath. The simple language and easily remembered practices were usually enough to help them/me calm down after an upset. We still return to these tenets, but as they grow as people, so too do their sources of frustration. They are caught up in increasingly complex worries, fears and anger.

Portrait of Mama, by Summer
So, I try to understand what helps them. I find myself less able to fix or address the things that cause great hurt and frustration. Like a sister who cries for attention, pushing the others away rather than inviting empathy. Or making mistakes in front of others and feeling embarrassed. Or feeling shame and guilt when they make amoral decisions that come with consequences. I can help them return to that familiar place of calm before they try tackling the issue. We sit and breathe. We count to ten. We sometimes break out the calm down jar to watch the glitter fall. Older, growing minds mean we can also add deeper mindfulness practices. We take a walk in the woods when everyone is bickering. I recite a guided body scan meditation when minds are racing too quickly to let bodies fall asleep. I help them find mantras to repeat to themselves when self-doubt creeps in after a rough day.

Sometimes, it's not enough, I can't figure it out, and a bad mood carries through an entire day into night. Or repeating patterns of blame and misguided anger need to be met with gentle coaxing and reminders that this, too, shall pass. Or the crying, stomping, and door slamming continue unabated in spite of my pleas to find a quiet place and breathe. Sometimes I am the one who needs all these reminders and practices. Sometimes it is one of them. Patience with each other is hard; compassion towards one's self is harder. I hope my invitations to sit and breathe will become instructions that pop up in their minds automatically as they grow. There will be so many heartbreaking reasons for them to crumple up in a ball and sob, or want to put their fists through a wall, or lash out and yell obscenities. Before embarking on the work of figuring out how to navigate such complicated terrain, they will have their breaths, and I hope they will remember how to return to the quiet hideaway inside each of them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The energy of warmer days

Ask me how I am doing the last weeks of May, and there is really only one way for me to answer. With hands stretched out, face tilted to the sky, eyes closed and a deep breath, inhaling the wafting scent of lilacs in bloom as a soft breeze cools my exposed, sun-warmed skin. What a welcome respite from a long, cold winter that only weeks ago had me wrapped up in wool, my head angled down against bitter whipping winds as I walked to the store along a street lined with leafless trees.

It's here! The pool is open, the garden has been planted, the barbecue has been lit, the mama has been lit, and my sandals have replaced my mukluks by the front door. 

Homemade strawberry ice cream is best served to dirty children outside, picnic style!
I am a better version of myself as summer rolls out. I wake early to run under a sun already climbing high in the sky, I read prolifically, I let evenings meander slowly at the park with the girls instead of hurriedly towards bedtime. I am writing, remembering to reach out to friends who are also emerging from hibernation, making snack recipes to fuel our outdoor adventures. I even allowed a six-year-old to convince me she should shave half her head, because of course you can darling, summer is coming!

I used to concern myself with cultivating a joie de vivre in warmer months that could continue into winter. If only I could translate this energy into my winter life, I would be happy all the time, I figured. But no. I have come to accept that summer is summer and winter is winter, and seasons have their own energies to be lived. Summer is for swimming, being outside, staying up later than the sun, rising with the sun, eating fresh produce, inviting everyone over and bringing adventures to life. Winter is for fireplaces, wool, board games, movie nights, comfort food and introspection. 

Makin' potions
The girls feel it, too. They show me who they are, in their walks and dances. I look into their eyes and hold the look as we sing the lines we remember from our favourite songs. I use my nails to lightly scratch their backs, their chests pressed against mine, horizontal in a bunk bed at the end of a long day spent outside. I bend over their shoulders to see what they are colouring and am frequently amused by their creativity, always moved by their individuality. Four girls in one family and all the many ways to interpret the same things. I show them what wondrous potential lies in the invitation of warm weather days, and they accept my offer with their own ideas of how to make them better.

Raspberries, rhubarb, garlic, strawberries, blueberries, chives, lavender and a narcissus photographer

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Right Words

There are popular sayings I don't relate to on the topic of motherhood. I've never felt it is an experience of my heart walking outside of my body; the girls are their own people, with their own hearts. I cringed when my therapist reminded me that motherhood is about remembering to put my own oxygen mask on first. I am not obsessed with wine or coffee. It has always felt too foreign to me to describe motherhood in terms used by everyone else. How could anyone else understand my motherhood? Those first few months as a mother in Ross River, Yukon, were isolating, frightening, overwhelming and not at all what I had been promised. I was 23 (23!), far away from my own mother, with a colicky baby, and heaps of well-meaning advice that proved useless within the first weeks.

My entrance to motherhood was framed in isolation in a place where resources were quite limited. I had little choice but to figure it out on my own. I learned to love baby Abby and my new role slowly, but surely. Soon after I settled into the acceptance of what I had undertaken, the rug was pulled out from under me. I started walking the long journey of infertility and multiple losses. No longer were baby showers fun excuses for cupcakes and gushing over impossibly small sleepers. Nobody could undo my pain, so I learned to be a grieving mother. 

When my belly grew with Hailey and Robin, I felt high, like I could inhale after holding my breath so long I grew delirious. People had their comments and cliches about twins, but I had secrets inside me. Secrets like how it felt to be so desperate for a baby I would gladly tear off my skin so my heart could be exposed as raw as it felt. Secrets like no matter what anybody else had read or said to me, motherhood was a coiled serpent, beautiful but ready to bite me with poison if I dared ask for it with an outstretched hand.

They were born, and so was I. I was set free from expectations, from holding my breath. They were beautiful babies. I felt like a Divine Mary kind of mother, like I lived in a painting from the 1700s, with a busy, layered background, a well-lit mother who gazed adoringly at her babe, awash with a serenity known only by those touched by God.

I was terrified to become pregnant again so soon, unplanned. Buddhists say we are challenged with lessons over and over until we learn them. There was chaos, and I felt cheated. I felt I had earned what I had and nothing, not even divine forces, should be allowed to interfere. I was humbled, tested, and became unrecognizable to myself for a time. I shed that skin and came out evolved. No cute T-shirt slogans for that hot mess.

Today, I still feel like motherhood is my secret hideaway. I may wear children on my arms and hands as we cross the street en masse, but there is so much more to it than anyone else could possibly know. No one outside the walls of my heart's four chambers can put the right words to what it means to me. I will take great joy in receiving handmade gifts from my girls on Sunday, knowing full well that we are unequipped with the language to express our heartsong. Long is the hallway I have walked, crawled, limped to this place, this priceless secret.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Missing Them

I walked the girls to school yesterday morning under a rising sun. The forecast promised to be warm again, 18 degrees. I kissed them all and said, "I'll see you at the end of the day," watching their oversized backpacks bounce into the schoolyard. Skylar was leashed to my hand, and she pulled, asking for a walk with a wagging tail and fixed stare. I happily obliged. As we rounded the corner on the path that goes by the play structure, I was heartbroken to suddenly feel the absence of a fat-fisted hand in mine. No little girl walked with me. I strolled past the park a little forlorn, for no one was asking me to stop and watch her on the swings.

I have moments like these, wherein I am reminded how impermanent it is to have small children. All my kids are in school, and have been for months. I suppose the changing season is what feels new; this is the first spring I walk through the park after dropping the girls off at school where I don't have a little one in tow. I have a friend with a toddler at home who tells me how much she craves a few hours to herself, untouched by grabbing hands, not answering to cries for "mama" when it has only been two minutes since the last request for attention. I am reminded of the desperation I felt when the girls were at home, Rich was at work, and the days were long.

This new stage brings small heartaches for the passage of time, for the stinging reminders of stages that will not return. A new development is that I find myself missing them. When I am away at work, out of the house for bedtime, or can't be there to pick them up from school, I miss it. When they are having adventures at school, I am having my own, working, writing, researching, going and doing, and when we reunite, we have stories to tell each other. I have the chance to look forward to seeing them. I miss some bedtimes and then delight in making up for it the next night by reading their stories, rubbing their backs, listening to them tell me about their day. We hug and I soak in what used to drown me. 

I am really enjoying loving them this way. I anticipate the joy of our Friday evening tradition of watching a movie while eating pizza in our pyjamas. I break away from what I am doing when I see one feeling left out before school in the morning, and we pick up a book to read together, slowly. They don't need me to dress them, to get out the colouring, or empty their lunchboxes when they come home. They can get themselves up in the morning, and when I have tucked them into bed, they can be left to fall asleep on their own. They are growing into such amazing, self-assured people, which leaves space to fill in my own life again.

I am glad to be going back to school in the fall, and I am thankful for the transitory lead time. I am glad for the chance to miss them, a little bit, so when we are together again, I whole-heartedly enjoy it. I am not needed as frequently, and this is the natural order of things. Abby needs me to answer her questions about navigating life with a full, sensitive heart. Hailey needs to snuggle into my chest while I remind her of her unique qualities when she needs assurance about her identity. Robin needs me to validate her when she notices something beautiful about a song, or a picture. Summer needs me to laugh at her jokes and listen when she reads. I know how to do all of that.

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