children

Intrepid Travels with Kids

Europe had the unique experience of encountering the Bottiaux family this summer. Our goal was to expand our kids’ horizons and impressionable young minds on the trip. France and Italy were on the agenda. Some people called us crazy for traveling to Europe for 2.5 weeks with four young kids ages 6, 8, 10 and 12.

…your six year old is too young …what about that long flight …there’s too much walking …what if they don’t remember the trip when they’re older …just wait until the kids are older. 

We did not listen.

There were plenty of sibling throw downs. It all piqued one night in Paris, as we blasted Les Miserables, Do You Hear the People Sing, from our way-too-small rental car. We couldn’t figure out how to use our ticket to exit the parking garage. None of the French signs made a heap of sense to us. Just as the impatient car behind us began to sound its obnoxious horn, one of the kids, who shall remain nameless, smashed her brother’s arm in the backseat. Blood curdling screams, from multiple family members, echoed through the parking garage; people tried not to stare. Bad words flew from our pulsating Peugeot like popcorn.

It was hot. Record breaking heat wave hot. Every day we walked until our legs ached and threatened to shrivel up and fall off. As Nathan stated, “My legs are at 1%”. It was hard work. Not at all relaxing. But, worth it.

Instead of five star hotels, our accommodations consisted of basic rooms without frills. Airbnb helped us locate clean, inexpensive basic accommodations with plenty of space for our family of six. It was a great way to truly acclimate. We hung our laundry out to dry alongside the locals in Sardinia, showered outdoors in our treehouse near Paris and befriended our friendly temporary landlord, just outside of Rome.

We live on an cul-de-sac with kids galore, in a dreamy master planned utopia. There are block parties, swimming pools a-plenty, concerts in the friendly neighborhood park, family activities at the club house and award winning schools. We are living the American Dream. Our kids are safe and sound in our not-so-cultural community. There is life outside our bubble. Life that we want them to experience.

Before kids and a mortgage, Paul and I traveled the world for four months. After scrupulously saving money and planning the itinerary, we embarked on our journey. We were young newlywed backpackers on a shoe string budget. Using around the world airline tickets, we were able to visit 17 countries.

In Africa I helped women paint. There were no brushes, we used our hands to slap wet mud onto huts. Paul paid 50 cents for a questionable haircut in Durbin. We ate a typical African dinner at our tour guide’s home in a poor township, listened to lions roar and elephant thunder on a safari and felt terrorizing fear as we faced a rhino head on while walking through the African bush. We visited a rural school and barefoot children in filthy clothes sang and danced for us.

In New Zealand we floated through dark caves and gazed up at millions of twinkling glow worms. We herded cows on the Australian farm of a couple we’d befriended in New Zealand. We stood in the Virgin Mary’s actual home, in Ephesus, Turkey, explored caves in Cappadocia, experienced painful massages in Turkish baths, rode bikes along the Mosel River in Germany, cried at Dachau concentration camp and spent our first wedding anniversary sipping champagne and eating French cheeses under the twinkling Eiffel Tower.

That trip changed us.

It’s difficult to be ethnocentric when you have traveled the world. Experiencing unfamiliar cultures opens your mind. The world was our classroom, instead of books or movies alone. Our kids lived and breathed the massive Wedding at Cana painting, instead of merely gazing at it on paper. Paul and I walked alongside more than 9,000 graves in Normandy; evoking emotions a book could never deliver. We want this for our kids.

Our kids need to know that life exists outside our shiny suburban bubble.

One of my favorite lines in the movie Good Will Hunting is, “Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

Although the “Sixteen” Chapel, as the kids had thought it was called, smelled like hot, sweaty humans on the day we visited, we basked in the glory of it all. Despite groaning kids asking why they had to go to “boring Nevadacin” City, we ignored our young haters and joined thousands of others for the Pope’s blessing. None of us understood a word of the blessing, but (most of us) received it with great reverence.

Our kids have seen the view from the Eiffel Tower. They have touched the crumbling walls of the Roman Colosseum, said hello to the Mona Lisa in person, walked through the gleaming royal Palace of Versailles. Zachary tasted escargot in France (and to his astonishment, loved it), attended Sunday mass at St. Peter’s Basilica (we could only handle about 15 minutes of it, but still), swam in the warm, turquoise Mediterranean Sea in Sardinia, learned to make pizza and pasta on an agritourismo in Tuscany, lighted candles inside Notre-Dame Cathedral, walked miles and miles in stifling heat each day, rode numerous trains, boats, took several different flights and experienced the chaos of driving a rental car in Paris and Rome.

These memories will stay with us forever. As the kids grow older, they’ll realize how fortunate they were to have seen these wonders of the world. This is only the beginning of our family’s world traveling.

Trains are not a regular form of transportation in Southern California. We drive. Rarely have our kids ridden any form of public transportation. Navigating through the bustling train stations with confusing ticket machines and foreign signs was eye opening. In Italy it’s commonplace to offer your seat to the elderly. When my daughters did not know to do this, a man scolded them in Italian. They learned. All ages, races and socio-economic status’ take the trains. The true flavor of the city is present aboard the trains.

Our kids now know what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t speak the predominant language. It was tough at times and even a little embarrassing for them as they struggled to communicate with locals. Our kids were the outsiders for the first time. It was good for them.

The numerous Syrian refugee women lying prostrate in the middle of sidewalks, outside churches and sitting on cardboard with their families, didn’t go unnoticed. We talked with the kids about the millions of Syrians who had escaped violence in their war-torn country by migrating to Europe. Many of them seeking asylum. Europe has open borders, so the migrants were all over the big cities. It was a bit overwhelming for us suburb dwellers to encounter large numbers of beggars. But, it is part of the cultural landscape.

Now that we are home, we are singing the jet lag blues and longing for the wanderlust days of our trip. Our kids are brimming with ideas about where to travel next. I love that. My hope is that a seed has been planted within each of them. A seed that will blossom into their love of discovering our vast world.

Fat: Why it’s a Bad Word in Our Home

Swimsuit season has arrived. Ready or not, thousands of nearly nude sunshine seekers, of all ages, are flocking to beaches and pools. As moms we must decide if we’ll partake, or watch from the sidelines.

I grew up skinny. Never thought twice about what I put in my mouth. Friends joked that I had a tape-worm, since I could eat anything I wanted and never gain an ounce. But, by high school, I’d developed an unhealthy relationship with food. I had to be skinnier. Smaller. Obsessed about the size of my newfound teen curves, I spent hours in front of the mirror, at the gym and pouring over weight loss literature.

As a kid, I remember my mom dieting constantly. Mom wasn’t obese, but wasn’t thin either. She was always trying to lose weight. Weight. Diet. Calories. Fat. These were all words that were common in my home growing up. While my mom didn’t force any of us kids to diet, she was careful to provide low fat food. Strangely enough, there was little or no emphasis placed on exercise.

To my whole hearted dismay, junk food rarely crossed the threshold of our childhood home. No sugar cereals, no chips or packaged cookies. The standard after school snack at our house in the 80’s was graham crackers and apples. Every single night we choked down dark, leafy green salad with chopped scallions and vinaigrette.

Thin is in. Just standing in line at the market, we are inundated with magazine covers telling us how to lose weight. Society seems to be dabbling in plus sized, curvier bodies; but slim still wins.

imageI realize the impact that we, as moms, have on our children. Kids are always watching; imitating us. As a mom, I’m extremely cautious about how and when I use that F word; especially around my daughters. In our house, fat is a word we try to avoid.

Gone are the days of endlessly obsessing over my weight and size. But, naturally I still have a few body image hang-ups. When I declare that I’m going to exercise, I explain that I exercise to stay healthy and strong. True. I do not add the other reasons. I also drag myself to the gym to sweat off those ever growing saddlebags, chisel the caboose, say goodbye to the unlovely love handles and melt that tummy and that really hasn’t fully recovered from birthing four offspring (and probably never will).

imageI don’t want any of my kids to develop unhealthy relationships with food, like I once had. I want them to eat nutritious foods and exercise to be fit. We talk about making good food choices and living active lives. When they want ice cream for breakfast, we discuss how that’s not a healthy choice for our bodies. My white carbohydrate loving daughter would eat only white rice or plain noodles for each meal, if I allowed it. I’m constantly fighting the battle of re-directing her choices. I’m careful about how I word my suggestions.

My personal battle of the bulge is daily fight. Every day I choose what food I put in my mouth. Fried versus baked. To butter or not to butter. Cheese, oh how I love thee. Chocolate, wine and everything fine. Portion control. And they’re watching. There are four impressionable young kids who are eyeballing me. The struggle is real.

imageOn our family vacation, I was quite aware that all of those 5:30 am cycle classes hadn’t quite done the trick. Instead of hiding out in a cover up, poolside, I got out there. My kids and I took full advantage of the hotel waterslides and pools. I was definitely self conscious about the bikini situation.  However, it was more important to make lifelong family memories, than worry about bulges and misplaced jiggle.

So, to the old man with whom I recently crossed paths at Costco, who slowly looked me up and down, then with squinty eyes proclaimed, “well, I can tell that you like to eat”, yes, yes…I do. Thank you for noticing.  And I shall continue to eat. I will model healthy food choices, exercise and bravely go where no mom in a bikini has gone before; all in the name of blazing positive trails for my kids.

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In Flight Entertainment

Air travel with four young, spirited individuals is its own special form of torture.

Just before take off, Zachary, who hasn’t been feeling quite himself for a week, started begging to “just get off and go home”. The fat, silent, crocodile tears slithering down his cherry red cheeks and his pleading eyes, told me he wasn’t kidding. 

 Crap. 

This dreamy Hawaiian vacation has been locked into place for 12 solid months. The very idea of relaxing on the pristine Hawaiian beaches, cool, crisp Lava Flow in hand, has been the sole reason I’ve survived most days leading up to today. 

Five minutes into the five hour flight, Mr. Grey Hair With Glasses, in front of Lauren wormed around, while peeking between the seats, and with a tight, I’m-so-peeved-to-be-seated-in-front-of-the-ten-and-under-crowd, leathery smile, lectured her about how to gently close her tray table.  
 Really?

I’m seated next to Cinderella’s step sisters. Help me. I cannot fathom why they perpetually argue with each other. But, argue they do. Nonstop. I’m ready to ask to be seated elsewhere. Would that be weird? 
 Meanwhile, the brothers behind us are actually behaving. The children’s chewable Advil for which we paid top dollar in the airport bookstore seems to have kicked in. Zachary is holding on. 
 During drink service, the flight attendant takes pity upon us. 

“How many do you have?”

Four. 

“Ohhhhhh my gawwwd!”

I force a small laugh. This is a scenario that has repeated itself dozens of times over the years.

“How old are they?” 

I politely list their ages, and don’t even have to pause awkwardly to recall this time. Jovial flight attendant shakes her head and erupts in laughter. She grins a big you’re so nuts, grin.

“What’ll you have to drink?” 

Wine.

She reappears with the biggest little bottle of airplane vino ever. I think it’s nearly full sized. And she’s not even charging us for it. I look behind me, she’s deposited four free beers onto my husband’s plastic tray table. Four?Four! 

 Woah

We must really appear to need outside assistance. 

Time passes by shoveling copious amounts of chemically enhanced edibles into our mouths. By the time the fasten seatbelt sign has disappeared, we’ve plowed through gummy bears, Cheez Its, Swedish Fish, Juicy Fruit Starburst flavored gum, strawberry icebreakers, s’mores fishies and Reese’s Pieces. 

I hand out the surprises. A My Little Pony coloring book, An American Girl chapter book, level 2 Planes Fire and Rescue reader and Matchbox cars. They devour those too. 

Soon we are all jumbled up. Everyone’s playing musical seats. Some are here. Some are there. Lauren, in her sparkly pumps, has been playing flight attendant for the past hour. The sharing of ear buds proves to be a poor way to save a buck.   

  

I tell the kids we aren’t that far away from heaven, way up here. The boys stare at me.

“We’re like an hour away?”, asks Zachary.

I think so.

He adds, “So, God can actually smell us?”

Probably.

Finally, we start the descent. The 757 floats down. Little blinking eyes peek out the tiny airplane windows. Through the clouds. Down, down, down. With a giant thud onto Earth, we’ve landed. Hello, Hawaii. 
 I carefully avert my eyes from those around us. Yes, I’m their mother. Please, stop judging me. I tried. Really, I did. 

I over hear the man behind my husband say, “Well, it was a pleasure sitting behind these kids”. 

Say whaaa?

He doesn’t know. 

The kind gentleman doesn’t realize that I’ve reprimanded my daughters 496 times in 300 minutes. We bag it all up. Hurry. Let’s get out of here before we ruin the well behaved children perception that this misguided sole has.

Aloha. 

 

You Made Me a Mom

Dear Sarah, Lauren, Zachary and Nathan,

You probably didn’t think Mommy would have a special note for you on Mother’s Day! Each of you has been gushing about the special projects you’ve been working on at school for me.

Homemade gifts are the best.

Homemade gifts are the best. But, the gift of no fighting, is my favorite of all! (hint, hint)

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I wanted to give a little something special to you too.

All my life I thought about my future children. I imagined us all sitting around our dinner table talking about life. I’d imagine narrating interesting parts of my life to you. Like, that time I was too timid to ask my Brownie troop leader where the bathroom was, and instead of letting out just a drop to provide a little much needed relief, I ended up releasing Niagara Falls on the Drosos family’s kitchen floor.

As I stood, mortified, in a sea of my bodily fluid, I’ll never forget the look on Andrea’s big sister’s face. She just stood there, mouth hanging open; with huge, disbelieving eyes, staring at the giant golden lake, and at me. I was absolutely horrified, and age 8 is way too old for a potty accident. Never be afraid to ask where the bathroom is, kids!

Although I could never clearly see your faces, or hear your voices, I knew I loved you deeply. Already. Tears would well in my eyes, as my mind would drift to the future. I knew I’d meet you one day. I longed to see you. Know you. Hold you.

Each one of you was planned. Wanted. I’ve been asked, more than once, if all of you kids were “planned”. The answer,  without a second of hesitation, is yes. Mommy and Daddy dreamed of each and every single one of long before you breathed your first breath. Someone once said to me that they’d never have four kids, because it would be too hard to visit Disneyland. That’s certainly never been a problem in our family.

When I was 29 years old, I found out I was pregnant with Baby Sarah. We weren’t sure I was going to be able to have any babies. Before Sarah, I miscarried a baby. That means another baby lived inside of me who died before they were born. It just about broke me. It seemed like forever before I became pregnant again. But, finally it happened! This time, the doctor gave me special medicine to help you grow inside of me. Daddy had to overcome his life-long fear of needles and learn to administer injections in Mommy’s buns. (Stop laughing, at the word buns, boys.)

It was not looking good when Daddy turned as white as a sheet, began sweating and had to lie down in the doctor’s office, while the nurse taught him how to do this. But, guess what? He did it! He gave me those shots for many weeks. He did it during my pregnancy with Nathan too. And oh my, they made me sick. I was sick with all of you while I was pregnant, but never as sick as I was with Sarah. Every one of you was worth the months and months of barfing and feeling like a giant whale.

Speaking of needles. Do NOT ever get a tattoo. Trust me on this one. You might think you want one — when you’re a teenager, going through your weird-o, wanna-be hippy, listen to 70’s music, hang out in coffee shops on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley phase. Oh, wait. That might’ve been me. Tattoos are permanent, kids. Removals are pricey. If you’re feeling a little zesty in those teen years, maybe go for a temporary henna deal,  or…or nothing. Lots of unsavory ideas come to mind. But, just know that you’ll regret it later.

Sarah was the one who taught me how to be a mommy. I’d read all of the books about how to be a mom while I was pregnant. But, nothing you read in a book can really, truly prepare you for what lies ahead. They say you don’t know what love is until you have a child. They are right. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love my children. Yes, of course I love Daddy, but that’s a different love.

New at the Mommy gig.

New at the Mommy gig.

A child is like your heart existing outside your body. I feel deeply on behalf of each of you. When you are sad, I’m sad for you. When you’re happy, I am too. I’m super protective of you all, just like a great big Mama Bear. You are a part of me. My love for you is deep like the vast ocean and vast like the sapphire sky.

Zachary felt nervous and unsure about going on his very first kindergarten field trip last week. After everyone left for school, he had a nervous tummy and tears. I knew he’d end up loving the field trip. But, convincing Mr. Z, can be a difficult task. We dried those tears and I held his hand tightly as we walked into class that morning. He was trying his best to put on his game face, but I knew. My eyes grew watery and a big lump formed in my throat as I watched my brave little boy climb onto that big yellow school bus. I feel what you feel.

You ended up having the best time.

You ended up having the best time.

I felt you, as babies growing inside of me. I loved you from the second I knew of your existence. I watched you on the ultrasound screen in the doctor’s office grow from the size of a grain of rice, to a gummy bear, to an apple, right up to a tiny baby. You kicked me from the inside, and I could feel you growing stronger. Sometimes you woke me up at night by kicking and moving around.  Lauren and Zachary, you were the strongest! Lauren was dancing, I’m sure and Zachary was practicing his swimming kicks. That fluttering in my belly and your hiccupping was a gentle, reassuring reminder that a tiny person was living within me.

There's Zachary!

There’s Zachary!

God has given you a life and you need to live it to the fullest. Live your life for God; not for yourself. That means that you talk to and listen to God. You follow what he tells you. Trust in Him. The times in my life that I’ve forgotten to do this have been the toughest.

You will make mistakes. Lots of them. But that doesn’t mean that you give up. Don’t fall into the trap of peer pressure. You can learn valuable lessons from things that don’t go as you hoped they would in your life. I’m always here for you, if you need to talk. I’m a good listener. I’ll even pledge not to post our conversation on Facebook.

Please be respectful, and kind to others. A little act of kindness to another, can go a long way. Remember that. Put others first. By giving back, and serving others, you will feel fulfilled and happy. Remember that time we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toiletry bags for the homeless in downtown Santa Ana? We were all a little nervous driving around in that part of town, where lots of homeless people live. Then, we walked around and delivered the things we’d brought. It felt good to help others.

I love each one of you. And no, I do not have a favorite child. I was asked that once, recently. It caught me off guard, because it was something I’d never even considered. Each of you is so different. So unique. Sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that four children, all born from the same parents could turn out so differently. I hope you feel like we celebrate your individual qualities.image

I want each of you to feel special for just being you. No accomplishment of yours will ever make me love you more than I already do. You are enough. Just be you.

Thank you; each of you, for making me a Mommy.

I love you. 

This was all I saw of him.

Quick. Silent. Deadly.

I sat on the lounge chair by the pool, a mere five paces from where my youngest was perched on the steps leading into the swimming pool. All four of my kids were in the water. But, my eyes were glued to Nathan, my only non-swimmer. He was holding onto the gleaming metal railing while repeatedly dunking his little noggin under and blowing bubbles, which he proudly called his explosions.

The water thing has all been a very recent major breakthrough for Nathan. Besides the bathtub, garden hose and backyard water table, he’d never enjoyed the water. He’d always preferred to merely dip a toe in the water on the steps, while all his siblings swam like fish throughout the pool. I had put off swimming lessons every summer because of his strong aversion to all things swimming related. I just didn’t have the fight in me to force him into the pool to learn to swim. Until last month.

‘Lil land dweller.

I’d avoided it for four summers, but this had to be the year. Like it or not, he was going to learn to swim. Becoming water safe was the main reason he had to learn to swim. Living in Southern California, we are constantly in or near the water. It’s a way of life. We live seven minutes from the Pacific Ocean and two minutes from our closest community pool.

I signed him up for private mini sessions twice a week at the local aquatic center. He was bitterly angry with me for doing this. I could tell by the way his tiny chin quivered when he asked me why?, that he felt that I’d betrayed him.

On the first day of class, he cried for hours before it was time to head to the lesson. I had to peel him off of my body, unclamp his hands from my t-shirt, and hand him over to his new swim teacher, Kayne. Although Kayne is a well respected swim teacher, I had my reservations.

Kayne is nothing short of a drill sergeant in water. At about 6′ tall, she’s tough as nails, her deep, gruff voice can sound a bit intimidating, and she wastes no time letting her students know who’s boss. She wasn’t having any of Nathan’s sprinkler fest. It was time to turn off the tears, get in and get to work.

It felt so wrong. I felt so guilty. It was awful. I fought back tears. His little face kept looking at me, pleading with me to rescue him. I forced the corners of my mouth to curl into a tight smile, in hopes that it would help encourage him, if ever so slightly.

For the next few weeks, he’d ask if he had swim lessons that day. If the answer was yes, he’d cry until 11:30, when his lesson began. It wasn’t a whiney cry. It was a frightened cry, and he would tremble uncontrollably. He was terrified of those swim lessons, and maybe a little scared of his coach too.

Soon enough, I began seeing hints of happiness creeping across his face. Little laughs here and there. He even floated on his back one day…unassisted. He’d climb out of that pool, at the end of the lesson and his little green eyes would flicker with delight. I was so proud! He was so proud! It was happening. His fear was slipping away.

he started having fun

He started having fun.

this was a huge day!

Huge day!

I sat there, warmed  by the May sunshine, clapping, and flashing the thumbs up for his small accomplishments. I watched him on those steps that day, squealing with excitement each time he plunked his head under, knowing this summer would be different. I’d have to really watch him closely in the pool and ocean this year. He was no longer terrorized by water.

I must’ve looked away. Maybe I’d glanced around the pool for my other kids. But, when my eyes returned to Nathan, I saw only his two hands wildly flailing. He had gone under. I bolted over to the steps, in what felt like slow motion, threw myself into the water, and yanked him up by his hand. He sputtered water, gasped for air and was shaking with genuine fear.

this was all I saw of him

This was all I saw of him.

My heart refused to slow. It remained beating wildly out of my chest. I’d been so careful, so aware. Yet, this had happened. I’m guessing it took me 8 seconds total; to realize what had happened, jump up, and get over to save him. What if? What if…

Initially Nathan wanted out of that water. I envisioned all of that hard work to overcome his fear of swimming, reversing itself. We sat on the lounge chair together. I held my little burrito, wrapped tightly in a beach towel. I hugged and kissed him. I reminded him of a promise I’d made to him when he began swim lessons. I’d promised him that I would always jump in the water, even if I was fully dressed, to save him if he started drowning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the #1 cause of death in children ages 1-4. Drowning can be quick, quiet and can happen anywhere. Bathtubs, pools, buckets and even toilets are common places young children to drown. Sadly, most drownings happen at home, in backyard swimming pools.

this is what drowning looks like

What drowning looks like.

When we told Kayne about Nathan’s near drowning experience. She scoffed. “Why’d you jump in?” (I couldn’t reach him without jumping in up to my torso!) She added, “I take my time rescuing them, because I know that I have three minutes. I want to give them a chance to swim to the safety wall. I want them to learn from it.” While that may sound harsh, it’s coming from a woman who’s been teaching babies, adults and everyone in between, to swim for decades. Thankfully, he’s not scarred too badly from his experience. Getting him right back in the water afterward was the best thing to do.

It’s preventable. Risk of drowning can decrease significantly with swimming lessons. I’m hoping to have all four of my kids water safe by summer. Nathan’s improving with each lesson. So, sign ’em up. Even if they scream, kick and complain. Sign ’em up. The sooner the better. I was weak, and waited. But, it could’ve ended up costing my child his life.

 

K.I.S.S. (Kayne’s Instructional Swim School): A year-round private swim lessons program offered through the city of San Clemente, for ages 3+, at the San Clemente Aquatic Center. Please call (949) 429-8797 for details, or visit www.san-clemente.org/recreation-community/classes-programs