“Vacation” with Kids

The sound of too-wide-awake and too-energetic children’s voices pierce my dreaming state. The irrepressible groan of frustrated exhaustion shakes me awake. “What time is it?” my body complains. And then I realize, with elated joy, that those sounds are not my kids. My kids are home, safe, with our amazing family friend. And we are in a hotel in Tahoe for a conference, which means one glorious thing–those are someone else’s too-wide-awake kids that I don’t need to make sure are brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and eating breakfast.  
As I winningly snuggle deeper back under the covers, I listen to our hotel neighbors. I listen to our hotel neighbor mom speaking in a continuous 100 decibel tone to her three boys. “Finish your yogurt!” “Take your pants off the floor!” “Put your boots on!” “Don’t fling that at your brother!” I listen to the kids sing and protest and laugh and bicker. I listen to them pound on the bathroom door and their mom yell back, “I’m in the bathroom!!! Stop pounding!” I listen to their endless questions about their day ahead, about what they will eat for lunch, about what they don’t want to eat in their breakfast, about what they want to watch on tv. I listen to them rebel as a united front against the world-altering news that tomorrow is Monday and they will return to school.
The frantic commotion, the never-ending high-pitched commands and urgings. It is all too familiar and understood. I think about what this may seem to an outsider. An outsider who has not experienced the ups and downs of parenthood. I imagine them cringing. I imagine them becoming epically aggravated at the constant ping-pong voices yelling back and forth. I imagine them congratulating themselves for not falling victim to parenthood at this stage in their lives. 
Taking your kids on vacation is always something epic. It is an exciting daydream until you are in the trenches. Then it is too many pieces of luggage and too many fast-moving, squealing little people to keep track of. It is bracing for the spontaneous meltdowns and syncing them with the unpredictable traffic, weather changes, or airline delays of travel. Yes, all things you are in absolute control of. It is managing your kids and willing them to find their zen in noisy crowds and bustling over-stimulated new environments. Come to think about it–fellow parents, are we insane??? Why is vacation with kids ever a good idea???
I’ll tell you why. These are my best memories: My three kids strapped into their life vests, watching the lake water splash against the pontoon boat on a gorgeous blue skies day, fresh wind and waves gently rocking us on the lake, the kids emphatically throwing pieces of bread to the ducks swimming in the water reflecting slivers of sunshine. Campfire s’mores and sleeping bag sleepovers. My daughter at the age of 5, meeting her most beloved Disney princess in Magic Kingdom, mesmerized with awe while Sleeping Beauty spun her in circles and oohed over her dress. Experiencing the pure elation of three kids excited to sleep squished in a hotel room and spend undivided time with my husband and I. Taking them to their first Cubs game at Wrigley Field and witnessing their disbelief turned uninhibited ecstasy when a player threw them a ball. Watching them splash in water parks, giggling maniacally all the way down water slides. Realizing with wide-eyed delight that I was saying yes to that chocolate-iced doughnut with rainbow sprinkles on the breakfast buffet spread. 

 When vacation ends, and the dust settles, and I ask my kids what they loved about our trip, I’ll never forget their favorite reply, “Being with my family”. When I ask them at the beginning of summer what they most look forward to and they remember with such excitement their last summer adventures and they yell, “cabin week!” “Chicago!” These are the ways I know that all the stress, all the chaos, all the unenjoyable corralling, mishaps, sideway glances from other travelers was well worth our energy. All of it. And I’ll do it all over again . . . after I lay motionless on the couch for awhile catching my breath.
I remind myself how amazingly lucky my husband and I are to still be at the stage of life where our kids would rather be nowhere else but glued to our sides. My heart aches knowing this will pass, and so I swallow the urge to growl as I nearly trip over them milling at my legs as I make dinner and I pick up my big six year old babies when they ask to be picked up like their little sister.   
I know it’s hard to understand why this is worth it when you aren’t in the trenches of parenthood, but to my hotel neighbor mom, I salute you and your never wavering 100 decibel voice. You and I know this is all worth it.  

Life Preserves 

In day to day life, you learn what makes your friends tick. How they may simultaneously cringe and gasp with laughter at that awkward moment you had at work. How they might react to the car that cuts in front of you in traffic. What they might say to that rude teenager loitering at the mall by the “No Loitering” sign. How they will listen and reassure you on a particularly frustrating day.
This is the day to day, and reacting to day to day is easy. We’ve all done it before. Most of us, 365 days a year, excluding leap year. No big deal. Your friends are your friends because you have grown accustomed to and like the way they react to the day to day. It’s all very relatable–often comically amusing–this day to day.
Until it’s not about the day to day. Until it’s about what stops our day to day. Something that unexpectedly takes your breath away in a way you were always too afraid to even dare imagine. A miscarriage. A divorce. A death. A terminal illness.  
This is not the day to day. It is an upheaval. A make-your-world-spin despair. A hollowing of your every comfort and warmth.  
What happens when this day to day is replaced by suddenness? The intensity of pain from the inside out?
Everything and everyone you touch whirls with you. 
“I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t know what to do.”
Friends stand dumbfounded in the smoke cloud that erupts around you.  
Some avalanche forward, too carried by the momentum of their own day to day, forgetting to stop and notice that you have fallen out of stride.
Some slow down to see the roadside crash with a sympathetic sideways glance, perhaps mouth, “Are you okay?” as they slow but never stop.
Some come to a simultaneous, sudden hault. Everything they are carrying falls out of their grip, and they rearrange to make room to help carry what has fallen out of your grip. They may not entirely be sure what needs to be carried or even what to say, but they open their arms with the utmost certainty. They are alongside you with purpose. As present as if it was another day to day. Your detour is their detour and they patiently wait.
As they ease in alongside you during this crowded, chaotic time, you wish there was more than thank you. They may feel awkward. They may feel it isn’t enough, but it is more than enough. In fact, exactly what they have to offer is exactly what you need. Because all you need at this very moment is those you care about being the people you love, right there by your side, as you try to pivot through the darkness. They are there to steady you. To remind you that the day to day will carry you along when it feels a lifetime away and today feels heavy and breakable. 
As we move from our lowest points back above water, these loved ones are our human life preserves.
It doesn’t have to be much–a card in the mail, a text message to show you are on their minds, a thoughtful delivery showing support, an offer of cooking a meal–these keep you lifted at a time of grief.  
As I try to find my way back to the day to day, it is these friends that have stopped to be alongside–my human life preserves–that keep me afloat.  
Thank you is entirely not enough. 


He was a Russian exchange student that had come to our high school at the beginning of the year. He had a tough time assimilating and most of us didn’t make it any easier. With his thick Russian accent, his style that was different than the trends at that time, and his general different understanding of cultural norms, he was just different. He walked an uphill path, making few friends, encountering more students that made fun of and bullied him. I wish I could say I was among the brave few that stood by his side and befriended him. I was not. I was one of the students that stood aside, my heart silently breaking for him.

I didn’t know much about him. I’m not sure I had any classes with him, but I knew he was one of the kids that just didn’t have it easy our senior year. When it came time to announce the homecoming court, it was the usual suspects. The girls and guys that you knew were the most popular. Except one. The Russian exchange student. He had been nominated. As a joke.

It put a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t believe that we could come together as a student body and unite to show our mean streak. Our ugly side. I felt helpless and in disbelief at the same time. How could we team up against one struggling student? But who was I to do anything about it? What could I do anyway?

It seemed to unfold before my eyes in slow motion. Was this really happening? It was really happening. How could the star students of our high school stand behind this? Think this up? Think it was funny? My heart silently broke more and more.

What I will never forget is how he responded to this cruelty and bullying towards him. Someone asked him if he was going to go through with it. He asked why he would not. “You know it’s a joke, don’t you?” “I know it’s a joke. It’s a joke to them, but not to me. But what did I do? Nothing. I’m going to live it up.” He accepted the nomination. He held his head high. And he joined in all the court activities, with his head raised high, standing firmly on the ground he deserved.

I can’t remember who ultimately won the title of Homecoming King. I remember how a class of students rallied and showed their snarling teeth. I remember the ache of feeling his isolation. But worst of all, I remember my silence.

This was a story of how one single exchange student was bullied. But he was not the weak one. He was never the weak one. He showed us all that he was better than all of us with his bravery, with his grace, with his head held high. We were the weak ones. We, that rallied behind a mean-spirited joke. We, that stood in herds, silent to it all.

What could I do anyway? How could I have stood up to something I knew was so wrong? I was just me, and I was no one to be known. But now I realize that I was wrong. There are so many things I could have done. Now, I realize that not everyone has to react in the same way. Some may publicly and loudly protest. Some may engage in heated discourse with those with whom they disagree. Some may work more quietly, befriending and standing by the side of those that need it most. Some may commit to public service. Showing solidarity in all forms from all perspectives is necessary. It is desperately needed. I know that now more than ever.

I regret and apologize for my silence when I could have been so much better; when I could have held my head high and stood alongside another human being that mattered.

I move forward knowing that it is my responsibility to challenge myself the way I didn’t challenge myself then. To show up. To be present. To stand up. I’ll do it in my own way. I hope you’ll find your way too.


Summer Cabin Week

There is one week of the summer that is the best week of our lives. Summer cabin week. We rent a cabin up north in Minnesota like Minnesotans do, and we, as a family of five, unplug from the world, spend long days on the shore of the lake, in the water, on a boat, eat s’mores and egg my husband on to make a better “World’s Best Toasted Marshmallow” than the last. In the evenings, my husband and I kick back with a glass of wine, cheese, and admire the lake or let our inner competitive natures take us to a different level in a cut throat game of Scrabble. Even rainy days can’t get us down. We watch morning cartoons, make bracelets, color drawings, and build legos. It is our week of complete togetherness and pure fun. It is the one week I look forward to the most all year long. Summer cabin week. The best week of our family’s year.

Except this past summer. It had been a grueling fall turned winter turned spring. It was a blurry concoction of muddy distress and gasping for air. I won’t get into the details, but my endurance had been my whimpering crutch to lean on through a difficult season of life. Our weeklong summer vacation was the horizon that I daydreamed about and when I took deep breaths, I imagined smelling the lake air that was just around the corner. But as the week drew closer, my husband and I both knew that we would not be out of the woods of our hard year that was wearing us both down in the worst of ways. And soon, we went from panic to surrendering that our magical summer week would be edged out by my husband’s work demands. Determined to still go, we went through the motions of packing, driving up north and settling into our cozy cabin with the sparkling reflections of the gorgeous lake taunting us from our cabin window. The week of vacation was filled with long, full work days for my husband and full, effortful days for me of trying to preserve the magic of the lake and cabin for my kids. From my kids’ perspective, it was still the best week of the summer. And while I will admit, I still enjoyed the joy of my kids as they laughed and buried one another in the sand, it ground at my patience that here I was, still leaning, trying to stay upright and keep together the fabrics of my family. I tried to hold on to the fact that all things considered, we were lucky to have this trip at all and that the bottom line was that my kids’ memories of our summer week would still be ones filled with happiness. But it was freakin’ hard.

My husband and I are always surprised when people comment on how we “have it all.” Handing off the baton stealthily as we pass one another during all hours of the days and weeks. Him out of town. Me working a string of overnights. Him working long hours. Me working the weirdest of hours. We still choose to manage our kids’ hockey team. I still choose to participate in the PTO at both our kids’ schools. He is on the board of a non-profit charity that helps provide support for legal representation for foster children. I like to bake goods for his office on days off. He trucks the kids along to their various activities on weekends I am working. I love to write on the side. He gets honored with awards and makes national lists of awesome lawyers I disgruntling agree to not share on social media. We plan big parties for our kids’ birthdays. We host evenings with friends. We plan date nights and sneak long weekends away to ski, to our favorite retreats, to Napa, to spend with friends. We plan week-long summer vacations for our family. We make crazy choices to train together for half marathons.

How do we do it all.

I will be the first to laugh maniacally and flail my arms like a rabid animal that we are hardly capable of “doing it all.” Except, most of the time, I’m too tired to flail my arms at anything. If you asked me, we are scrambling to “have it all”, one day at a time, with nothing truly figured out. Our priorities tug and pull at us and bicker with one another to edge out their competition.  We get stuck in the middle feeling like we are watching the construction of an overambitious house made of cards that might blow over at any given moment if one flimsy card is misplaced.

This is something we never trained for when we said “I do.” While I thought I knew when we were dating that my husband would be a good father and partner, I truly and foolishly had no idea what gave me that impression. He could have turned into the worst. So, first and foremost, I am thankful that did not happen.

What makes us functional is our uncanny awareness of one another. We both carry an internal stress barometer for the other. And when the other’s stress is ticking into the red, our ability to take over expands. When the other’s frustration and mood takes a nosedive for the worse, the other is their to lay out the trampoline so when we fall, we bounce and don’t hit the ground. When these safe measures are too late and we do crumple into the ground, we snatch up the super glue and mend one another the best we can with the fiercest devotion to one another.

This is how we make it doable. The to-do’s, should-do’s, already-late-but-still-have-to-do’s catch up and cripple us at times. Those seconds during the day that we are passing the baton are wobbly, we often both come close to dropping the hand-off or colliding, and our legs buckle as we try to run in stride with one another.  But somehow, we pull it together, for one more task of the day, week, month.

It is not easy. Oh man, it is not easy. Our days are infiltrated with irritability, disappointments, resentments, frustrations, misses, falling asleep on date nights. There are demands, setbacks, things we say yes to, many things we have to say no to–however much it pains us to say goodbye to new opportunities in our careers–but we remind ourselves that this is about our family. That this is our ultimate goal. The raising of a family. A marriage, kids, the preservation of love. All this that we are doing, it is about this core unit that we uphold over everything. If the baton is a little wobbly today, and even if we flat out drop it somewhere along the way and have to run back and pick it up, our team efforts will ultimately keep us in forward motion.

All things considered, we make it work because we carry the same vision and ultimate goal: to protect the best part of all of this—our family. We may have seemingly insurmountable days, outright failed days, and make all sorts of wrong choices along the way, but as we pass this family baton back and forth, we will fervently protect it with what we can and shoulder one another the best we can. Cabin week last summer is one I don’t care to replay–in fact, last year in its overall entirety is one I am okay to leave behind–but we are already planning for our cabin week this summer; the kids could not be more excited.

It Started With a Eulogy

It started with a eulogy, as things never start. I listened as my husband spoke about his stepdad. I listened as his daughter spoke about her father. I remember the words that came to me and filled the pages as I wrote about my father-in-law. The same theme resonated: our greatest admiration and adoration of him was his commitment to his family. He gave love to his family, to his friends, to his community with the greatest generosity. It was about his loyalty. It was about his steady support and “I’ll be there for you no matter what” way of living. It was that he would offer you a roof over your head if you needed one, better yet, he would build one for you. And as I wept alone and wept publically at this great man we have lost, I also came to an eye-opening conclusion.

When we honor one another at the biggest events of our lives–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, baby showers, and yes, even funerals, we honor the person. We honor their character, their connection to us, how they love us, how they fill our lives, whether they make us laugh, whether they challenge us, whether they support us, whether they take care of us. We honor them through our memories that have brought us closer and how they make us feel. We may touch on their accomplishments, their accolades; we may be impressed by what they have done in their lifetime, but this is not why we love them. This is not what they mean to us. To us, they are not a walking resume of achievements, but the soul that beats and fills our lives in whichever unique way that might be.

This has opened my eyes. So much of my life has been about striving. Striving to achieve. To get good grades. To reach my career goals. To always be in the top percentiles. It has always been about the climb, the achievements. I have sought the tangible accolades of degrees, position titles, awards, to prove myself and my worth.

Somewhere along this climb, I stopped myself. I thought about where I was going in this lifetime and why. I made a vow to myself that once I got to my goal of where I wanted to be with my career, it was time to change the course of how I dedicated my time and energy. It would be time to devote myself to maintaining my career goals, and shift my efforts towards what was truly my greatest aspiration and passion. And that is to be a mom, wife, and the greatest center force of my family. A close second to this is to be a loyal and present friend in the lives of those I love like family.

This was no easy shift. Why couldn’t I do it all? All those years in college and medical school, I had been told, “You can do it all. You can have it all. You can have success in your career and you can have success in your family.” I believed it. I believed every word. But as reality has shown me, when you dive into something such as a demanding career, you better give it your all to be the best. And when you give your all to one thing, where is the rest of you to give to “doing it all”? You may have a family, but you also have the support that becomes more and more essential to “having it all.” A supportive husband, supportive parents, a supportive care provider by your side, partnering in this raising of a family. These extensions of you become more dominant, they become a greater and greater force in those aspects of your life that need supporting, until you become the supporting role behind the real presence. And is that okay? Of course it is okay. Every family is a blended family of different pillars, different roles; that is how we have successful, dominating career oriented females and males in our society that we so greatly admire.

For me, this just couldn’t be the story of my life. I had to take a step back. I had to think about the repercussions of saying yes to this committee, to the added honor of accepting a promotion, writing a book chapter for a medical textbook, or a position of more responsibility. When you say yes to something, you are taking away from something. There is not an infinite amount of you to give.

This was tough for me at first, and if I am being honest, it is still something I struggle with to this day. Being entrenched in an environment that encourages you to strive for more, to reach higher, to produce greater things, to ultimately be better in your career and dedicate yourself to the pursuit of excelling, this is what I defined as success. Career success was life success. Life success was the sum of all your achievements. As I watched friends continue down that path, I felt pangs of envy, of resentment towards myself. Why aren’t you doing what they are doing? You could do that too you know. Are you lazy? Are you not good enough? Why are you giving up?

These questions haunted me heavily for years, and at times, still float to the surface and taunt me. But somewhere along the line, I acknowledged what I have known is the core of who I am. What matters to me above all else is not my career, but my family. My husband. My kids. They are my everything. My friends. Devoting my life to being present for them is a very conscious and very active decision I have made. By not “having it all”, I have intentionally created space and time to let my family know that they are what matters. Whether it be by making home-cooked meals, being home to pick the kids up from school and hear about their day, deciding to set up for a surprise, spontaneous fort-making extravaganza after school, baking zucchini bread for lazy weekend morning brunches, bringing homemade cupcakes to my husband’s office, or bringing a home-cooked meal to a friend’s family at her time of need, these are the things that matter.

This is my success story and I define success as prioritizing the people that matter most to me. Being involved in two PTO’s, managing my kids’ hockey team, these are the commitments that I invest in, because by investing in these things, I am showing my kids that they matter. That they matter to me more than any hospital committee or council I could be on.

This is not to say that I believe the opposite is true.  If your path is to to pursue that high-powered career, this certainly does not mean you are any less dedicated to your kids and certainly means nothing about how much you love your kids.  You make the ends meet the way it works for your family, showing them the importance of work ethic and showing them the tremendous value of commitment to your career and your life passions.

I do recognize that when I actively say yes to one activity, I passively agree to take time away from another. I therefore choose my career-oriented responsibilities with greater scrutiny. And the things I can most easily take away from are the ones with the smallest voices, that may not even realize their needs, and those are from my children and even from my husband. They are the ones that won’t provide me with another title to add to my resume, but it is these intangibles that I find my greatest responsibilities.

I won’t lie, some days still get me down and are hard. Surrounded by the high-functioning overachievers that define success that very way I had for so many years when I was achieving right along side them, I can see it in their eyes–they know they are leaving me in the dust. That my success story is a fading one. I have come to realize, this is far from the case. My success story is a blazing one.

My worth is defined by my intentional presence in the life and lives that matters to me most. This may sound morbid, but when those that love me sit down to write my eulogy, I want it to be about my fierce dedication to loving them, about my love and pride for the family my husband and I raised, and how devoted I was to always being present and there for them.

I have sought to re-define life success. Career success is not synonymous with life success. Career success is only a small fraction of what truly matters. My priorities are in order, and I can proudly say, my husband, my kids, my family and friends, will always be my greatest definition of success.