A Very Important Birthday

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Today you are twelve.  For the last 4,380 days, my world has revolved, almost exclusively, around you (although it expanded to include each of your brothers as they made their successive appearances).  For twelve years I have spent each and every minute with my heart and my mind and my soul and often my body focused on mothering you, regardless of whatever else I may have been doing at any given time.  Although I have certainly made mistakes, and will continue to make them, I hope I’ve done enough good in the past dozen years to make up for the bad.  Looking at you, I think I have.  You are wonderful.

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In the past twelve months, your life –all our lives– changed dramatically.  I went into the year with great hopes of what you would and could achieve, but you, my darling dearest, surpassed them all.  You rose to a challenge none of us fully understood when you began this last school year, and you simply excelled.  

Your new school is far, far more similar to what I experienced in college than to any American middle or high school I’ve ever heard of.  From day one you had to navigate across a huge open campus with multiple buildings and fields and roads.  You took 13 different classes and had 17 different teachers.  You had to tackle homework that seemed beyond your years: physics and biology, French and Spanish, chemistry and computer coding.  You learned to manage your time, organize your materials, turn in assignments both in person and online, balance schoolwork with extracurricular activities, and you did it with relatively little assistance.  Next to none, in fact.  You also did it all with a British accent so good that it fooled your doctor into doubting that you were my child and indeed caused him to ask if you had actually been born in England. 

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With bravery and daring, you tried out this past year for one of the lead roles in the school play — one of the witches in MacBeth, no less– and although those main parts went to upperclassmen, you gladly took an ensemble part and reveled in the experience.  You were, in my highly unbiased opinion, an excellent child witch.  You must truly have been though, because you got your dad and all three of your brothers to sit enthralled through a 2.5+ hour Shakespearean production and to actually enjoy it, which was no mean feat. IMG_6275

Although you initially insisted you weren’t interested, with some coercion and convincing on my part you tried horseback riding and found that you actually loved it!  I don’t know if you’ll ever understand how happy I was when you came home from that first “give it a go” lesson and told me you loved it and really wanted to sign up; as a little girl who never outgrew her obsession with horses, watching my daughter learn to ride and love it too has been one of the greatest gifts I think I’ve ever gotten.  Riding with you over the past year has been more fun than I could have imagined, and watching you — tiny as you are — take control over those huge, strong animals with no fear and no hesitation, just a smile on your face and a determined gleam in your eye, makes me so proud. 

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Although you’ve always done well in school, this year you took it to a new level.  You worked hard and put your whole self into your lessons and the results speak for themselves: straight As most terms, top grades in effort, high marks on every exam and paper you turned in, and the academic achievement award for your class.  You got the third highest overall exam score in your whole grade and the very top score in several individual subjects.  Although I tried to downplay my pride as you brought home your marks, I am going to take this chance, as your mother, to brag a bit about what you accomplished.  You amaze me.  No one would have faulted you for a mediocre year considering the challenges and the changes you were going through, but never once did you consider letting those things get in your way.  You rose to the challenges, embraced the changes, and thrived in this new school.  Your grades reflect a year of hard work, consistent effort, and a true love of learning new things.  When I dropped you off on the first day of school I watched as you walked away from me — so small in comparison to the upperclassmen surrounding you, and the youngest person in the whole school thanks to your late August birthday — and I just prayed that you would do okay.  You did more than okay, though.  You did exceptionally well on every level and your father and I could not be more proud.  I hope you are proud, too. 

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You’ve become a travel pro in this year of adventure, navigating subways and airports and train stations with ease and comfort.  I have loved watching you and your brothers see new places and taste new foods and learn new words in new languages. I don’t think you take for granted these experiences, either, which is gratifying as a parent.  You aren’t bored or blase about the prospect of yet another trip, you’re excited to continue to see new places.  Curiosity and enthusiasm are great character traits and I hope you never outgrow them.

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This birthday seems like a huge watershed to me, although you’ve already made it clear that NEXT year is the one you’re really waiting for.  To me, though, twelve is a major stepping stone.  I am sure that you haven’t looked at it in this way, but we are now 2/3 of the way through your childhood.  A full 66.6% of my years of parenting you full-time have already passed by — we only have remaining half of what’s behind us.  In just six years, you’ll go to college and the vast majority of my hands-on mothering of you, my only daughter, will be done and gone.  Knowing how quickly a dozen years have passed, I am acutely aware of how fast the next six will fly by.

I’m trying not to cling too hard, trying not to push too many teaching moments your way, but I know my days are numbered and I feel the need to make sure I’ve taught you everything I think you need to know.  I know it’s a silly and futile effort; I will do the best I can and you will do the best you can and the only really important thing I should probably do over the next six years is spend as much time hanging out with you as you’ll allow.  If I make every single second a Teaching Moment with a Moral and a Very Important Message, the time you’re going to want to actually spend with me will be very limited.  So I choke on most of my Very Important Lessons and just try to be normal and silly and spend time with you.  I hope that’s the right choice, but only time will tell.

B and Mom Plymouth center

While I have the floor, though, I can’t resist throwing out a few tips that I think will be important over the next six years:

Make good friends.  Although I am always here for you and want you to talk to me about anything and everything, good friends in your middle and high school years will hold you up through the times that your old mom just can’t understand because I am viewing life from a different perspective.  Some of the most important people in my life today are still the friends I made when I was 12, 13, 14 years old.  They get me in a way no one else can because they were there through all the hard and awkward years.  Good friends will support you, encourage you, laugh with you, cry with you, tell you the truth (even when you don’t want to hear it), lend you clothes when you need just the right outfit, help you with homework or boys or parents who just don’t understand.  Just know that in order to make good friends, you must BE a good friend.  It’s always, always a two-way street.

Be enthusiastic.  It doesn’t really matter what you’re enthusiastic about, as long as you find something you care about and you care about it unreservedly.  Drama, horseback riding, running, swimming, reading, writing, art, whatever — find something you love to do and do it as often as you can.  Don’t waste precious years not doing something because someone else might think it’s not cool; you will be a happier person if you’re doing something you love, so don’t care what anyone else thinks.

Don’t do what everyone else does just because everyone else is doing it. Do what’s right, and what’s right for you, regardless of what other people do.  Stand up for yourself and for people who need defending.  Think for yourself and use your smart brain to make good choices.  Be kinder than anyone else you know.  Be a voice worth listening to.

Have fun.  Oh my goodness, you are only young once.  And you are still SO young.  Try a new sport or learn to play an instrument (you’re absolutely not too old, you’re literally only twelve)!  Be silly, have fun with your friends, don’t take things too seriously.  And seriously, be nice to your brothers — they’ll all be bigger than you soon and you’ll want them on your side.

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Today, on this Very Important Birthday, I want you to know this: I am your biggest fan.  Always and forever, amen.  I am more proud of the young lady you’ve become than you’ll ever know, and I am so grateful that I get to be your mother.  I have loved every single minute of the last twelve years right down into my soul, even the minutes that were covered in spit-up and poop when you were a baby, the minutes full of stomping feet and hands-on-hips when you were a stubborn little girl, and the minutes full of wailing and drama that we regularly enjoy in your preteen years.  You’re awesome, every little bit of you.  You are my sunshine.

Happy twelfth birthday, baby girl.  I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.


Also, her birthday letters from age 11, and 10.


A Weekend in Paris

Rainy Paris

At the end of May my kids had a school break that coincided with a long weekend for Matt, so we decided to make the most of it and head to Paris for the weekend.  Since we’d done so many tourist-heavy things in Italy, much of not really child-centered, we wanted to make this weekend mostly for the kids and spend two of the three days in Disneyland Paris.

Overall the weekend was fine.  We enjoyed it and all the children want to go back to Paris.  But let’s just say that not every trip can go perfectly.

We arrived late on Friday night and had a car service booked to take us to an Airbnb just outside the Disney park.  Since we arrived so late, the property manager had left our keys and instructions with the host at a restaurant near the apartment.  We arrived, picked up our packet, and followed the directions to the property.  When we got to the correct floor and looked for apartment #222 as was listed in our instructions, we found that the apartment numbers only went as high as 210.  Reluctant to try the keys in multiple doors in case people were in those apartments and thought we were breaking in, we checked #202 just in case that was the typo, and were unable to get in.  Unfortunately, our phones weren’t working either, despite having gone to the service provider earlier in the week to make sure we knew the procedure for getting data and cell service abroad.

It was about 10:30PM, so we found a restaurant with WiFi and emailed and texted the phone numbers for the property managers.  But, since it was 10:30PM on a Friday night, we doubted we’d hear back.  With no other options, we searched online for a nearby hotel.  Thankfully, because we were so close to Disney, there were plenty of options.  We walked to the closest one, paid double what the Airbnb had cost us for a night, and finally got into a room and put down our suitcases at about midnight.  The big reason we always use Airbnb is that, with six family members, one hotel room is usually not big enough.  This hotel DID have a suite that slept us all, gratefully, but we paid a pretty penny for it.  At that point in the night, though, we had no other option and were just grateful the hotel had vacancies.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the property manager obviously got my message and responded saying she was sorry about the mix-up and hoped we had figured it all out.  No correct apartment number included. 

The next morning I saw the message and I was pissed.  My response was that NO, we had not figured it all out, still had no idea what apartment we were supposed to be in, and had had to pay for a hotel room.  Eventually she got us the correct info and we made our way back to the apartment building and got inside.  Unwilling to let the delays destroy our weekend, we hopped on the train at a nearby station and took the 35-minute ride into Paris.

From that point, the day was lovely; the children loved the city and so did Matt, who had also never been.  We strolled the banks of the Seine, saw Notre Dame, toured an underground ruin, and had a yummy lunch.  We walked miles and the kids never complained.

kids at Louvre

Having checked the weather forecast before leaving for Paris, we knew the whole weekend looked very rainy.  We came prepared in waterproof coats, and the temps were only in the 50s.  Paris is lovely in any conditions, so we didn’t let the occasional drizzle stop us.  We walked BY the Louvre, stopping outside to check out the fountains and the pyramid, but we didn’t go in.  We strolled through the Jardin du Tuileries, let the kids ride the carousel and play on the playground, and had a delicious pastry-break at Angelina Paris where we drank the most delicious hot white chocolate imaginable.  After our snack, we caught a ride in a giant, motorized bike taxi (that fit all of us!) down to the Eiffel Tower. 

Standing under the Eiffel Tower for the first time is pretty awe-inspiring.  Nevermind the fact that it’s one of the most famous sites in the world, it’s sheer size is just so much more massive than I ever anticipated.  It’s just huge and incredible.  Watching the kids and Matt’s amazement as they saw it for the first time was even better than seeing it myself.

Gabe at Eiffel Tower

Because we’d planned this trip pretty late, tickets for the Eiffel Tower had been all sold out online for the day we’d be there.  But the rainy, cold weather worked in our favor and when we arrived at the base of the tower, there were no lines at all!  We walked right up, purchased tickets, and started climbing.  We made it to the second level, where there’s a shop and a restaurant and some really cool views, but the line to get all the way to the very top WAS quite long.  With the fog and rain, we also doubted the view would be much better.  Walking up the Eiffel Tower was one of my favorite adventures yet because we’d been so sure we wouldn’t be able to do it, it was a fantastic surprise when we could.

climbing the eiffel tower

Coincidentally, an old friend of mine from high school was also in Paris that weekend, so we met him and his girlfriend for dinner.  As we sat in the restaurant, the drizzle turned to real rain, and the rain turned into a downpour.  We caught a cab to the train station to make our way out of the city back toward Disney, and the rain just kept on falling.

We spent the next two days soaking wet right to the bone in Disneyland Paris.  We made the very best of it — we went on tons of rides and had lots of fun — but that kind of weather makes it hard to really enjoy the scenery.  I don’t think I could tell you what most of the park looks like, because I spent the whole two days with my hood up and my head down as we walked between rides.  We laughed and splashed in puddles and tried to remain positive, we hung our wet clothes to dry overnight, and we did it all again for a second day, but it was certainly not the trip of our dreams.

Disney Paris

By Wednesday, after we’d been home a few days and the rain in France continued to fall, we watched the news report historic flooding in Paris as the Seine crested its bank and the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay were forced to move art from certain parts of the museums to save it from the rising waters. 

In the end, it was a good trip and it proved that conditions don’t have to be ideal for us to have a good time.  Not every trip can go smoothly from start to finish.  Now we just need to go back to Paris and enjoy it in the sunshine!


Also, a weekend in Edinburgh and a girls’ weekend in Paris!


The Ocho

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If I said I can’t believe you’re already eight years old, I’d be lying.  The truth is, I can hardly believe you’re only eight.  Somehow, my blonde-haired boy, your eight years have seemed to stretch out and bend the space-time continuum so that I cannot imagine what our lives were like before you and I cannot imagine a life without your quiet presence in it.

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You are the silent type.  Except when you’re not, and then you’re the opposite-of-silent-type and you never stop talking.  I generally know when you start chitter-chattering that you’re tired and heading into what we call Owen’s “Shark Mode”, wherein you don’t stop moving or talking for even a second because if you do, you’ll fall asleep.  Shark Mode is always interesting, and generally exhausting.

Your snaggle-toothed grin has changed a lot in the last year.  Looking at the pictures of you from last summer, I’m astounded at how much you’ve grown up.  I believe that all our new experiences have played a big part in that; you’re a man of the world now.  You travel.  You know lots of new things and new places. 

Owen in Florence

You’ve made new friends and picked up a new accent which you don’t even realize you’re using when I pick you up from school, and which you immediately switch off if anyone draws attention to it.  You became the first person in our little family to wear glasses, when, after announcing to the doctor in your physical that your left eye “doesn’t really work” (a fact of which I was blissfully unaware), you proved that to be true in two eye exams.  You picked out some sweet Clark Kent-esque black frames and you’re looking pretty cool in them.  Knock on wood, you’ve had the glasses three weeks and haven’t lost them yet.  You’ve grown up a lot.

Owen is Eight

When we moved, you were the child for whom I harbored the greatest concerns.  You don’t tend to talk in a crowd and you’re shy and reserved, especially around adults you don’t know well.  You’ve always generally relied on your older brother to be the grease in your social situations, allowing you to slide along in his wake and make friends by default.  But moving here, your teachers wouldn’t know you by association as all your previous teachers had.  The kids wouldn’t know that eventually you’d talk, and I hoped so hard that you would be okay making friends on your own without your gregarious older brother to assist you at all times.  Man, did you prove me wrong.  You HAVE made your mark, and you’ve done it on your own.  I am so, so proud of you because I know it’s not always the easiest thing for you.  You did it, though, and did it well. 

Owen in Capri

At the beginning of the school year, you, who has generally always been somewhat bored and uninterested in school, were faced with challenges wholly unfamiliar and new.  Your teachers here required far, far greater attention to detail than ever before.  Your handwriting was inspected and found wanting and you were instructed to practice and improve it.  I think you were a bit shocked, to be honest.  Not because what you were doing wasn’t quite good enough, but because you were expected to make it better.  As you always do when challenged to improve something, you (somewhat obsessively) practiced writing your letters.  Your handwriting is quite lovely now.  I will remain forever grateful to your teachers for establishing a high standard and then making you actually reach for it.

matt and kids in st peters sq

Along the same vein, your father and I were also told in our first parent-teacher conference that although you were obviously quite capable of achieving high marks in school, you were really not putting your best effort out: you rushed through assignments, didn’t always read the directions fully, and often did the bare minimum required.  This would not do, your teachers said.  You’d have to pay more attention to details, take your time, and hand in your best work on each assignment.  Although neither your Dad nor I were surprised, I will admit that I felt a bit at a loss.  Getting you to do something well when you’re not super-interested in it has always been a battle. 

B O Q at Eiffel

But, somehow, maybe the new environment in the school or a developmental maturity that you finally reached or the pressure put on you by your siblings attaining high marks, about 2/3 of the way through the school year, something clicked in you.  Suddenly you were spending time making sure your assignments were neat and detailed.  You colored in pictures with an attention to detail I’d never seen you use.  You completed “extension” assignments without being reminded and did them well.  You were engaged and interested in school work and it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone and angels sang, so great was my relief and excitement.  Your teachers remarked on it, your dad and I noticed it, and your report card certainly reflected it.  Whatever happened, you seem to have turned a corner and I am so proud of how hard you worked.  Please, please keep it up!

3 Kim boys

You have thrived in this new school environment in non-academic ways too; in fact, the set-up of the school seems designed with kids like you specifically in mind.  There’s so much activity built into your weeks and you have full classes devoted solely to sports!  You swim every other week during school AND you have P.E. class AND you have random sporting events like cross-country races and soccer matches popping up in every term!  There’s no time to get bored and you rarely have to sit for more than an hour at a time, ever.  

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As you always have, you did apply yourself fully to being the best athlete you can be.  You made the A-team in soccer, were the only kid in your year to make the cross-country team (actually beating your older brother in the tryouts to his absolute dismay) and you also made the A-teams in hockey and cricket, too.  You absolutely ROCKED it on school Sports Day, coming in second in the 50-meter race, 4th in the 100-meter race, first in the 800-meter race (by quite a distance, actually), and first in the cricket ball throw, breaking a ten-year old school record by 2 full meters — a considerable margin.  Your obvious joy when you compete in athletics is just uplifting.  No matter what the sport is, I love watching you play.

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The discovery of your love for running has been an interesting development.  You literally LOVE running.  You will run short or long distances.  You run fast, the whole time.  Sometimes, as you’re running, you throw in a few skipping steps, but you never seem to tire.  You ask me to please go for a run with you, and so I do it, but you are definitely the rabbit and I spend the whole time telling you to keep going as long as you can still see me in your rear view.  It’s a great thing for you, my child who is always full to the very brim with energy.  And we’d never really have realized how much you enjoy it were it not for the cross country and track programs at your new school.  I hope you always keep running; you look, as you go, like you’re at peace with the world.

owen running

You, my friend, continue to challenge me as a mother.  You can be the most loving and attentive child or the most stubborn and taciturn child, depending on the day.  You keep me on my toes, always.  But as you’ve gotten older and more mature, the lovey days outnumber the grumpy days. It’s a nice thing.  I want you to know, though, that I am grateful for the challenging days too, because they make me work to get better at this parenting gig.  And they definitely make me appreciate the lovey days even more.

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And so, as we go into this year — the Ocho — I only hope you continue on the path you’re on.  May the year of being eight be as amazing as you are.  I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.  Happy birthday to you, my little blonde baby.  


Also, here’s my note to seven year old Owen and six year old Owen.


Summer Vacation in England

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School finally wrapped up here last week — July 6th was the last day.  Although the school year extends a few weeks beyond what we’re used to in the States, I never felt that end-of-the-year slog we always seem to get in June at home.  The last few weeks of school were full of so many activities and events, and the children were still getting homework assigned right up until the last week, so the end of the year felt less like a drag.

Having now finished our first year of British schools, I am overwhelmingly proud of what my children accomplished.  All four of them made good friends, threw themselves into school activities, and achieved impressive grades and phenomenal feedback from their teachers.

Bridget finished in the top three of her class, with such high marks in every subject it seems hard to imagine a way she could improve academically.  She participated in the school production of MacBeth, she did equestrian lessons throughout the entire school year, she joined the Drama Club, the CSI Club, the Football (soccer) Club, and a singing club.  She ran cross-country for the school in regional competition.  She just knocked every single thing out of the park.  And she did it in a school environment MUCH closer to what I experienced in college than in elementary, middle, or even high school at home.  She had 17+ different teachers, 13+ subjects, and had to make her way around a large campus with the correct materials for each class every day.  I was completely amazed by her organization and responsibility and willingness to try new things.  And I am simply astounded by her academic achievements.

Gabriel has blossomed this year perhaps more than any of the other kids.  More than one time in this school year he said to me that he felt like “he mattered” at his school — that his presence there made an impact.  I can think of nothing that I want more for my kids than to feel like they matter.  He improved vastly in his academics from the beginning of the school year to the end, and he worked hard and constantly to do so.  The expectations placed on him here were much higher than those he was accustomed to, and he rose to the challenge.  He discovered a love of history that I would never have expected, to the point where our dinner conversations are often initiated by Gabe telling us about a specific period or event in history while the other kids chime in and Matt and I sit there with big, stupid grins on our faces.  Gabe also made the A-team in every season — all in sports he had never played before (soccer, field hockey, and cricket).  He joined the school choir and sang with them in the play put on by the Year 6 kids.  He loved singing and loved the play so much, again surprising me with an interest I would not have expected from him.

Owen was my toughest nut to crack, not seeming as affected by the major changes when school first started or as engaged in the new environment.  He certainly dove in, joining the running club, the chess club, and making the A-team in soccer for his year, but he didn’t seem to make the connection that more effort was required, particularly in the classroom, for him to be really successful.  Partway through the school year, though, he received a student report — essentially a long-form report card in which each of his teachers from all of his subjects wrote out a few sentences describing Owen’s strengths and weaknesses.  Across the board teachers said that he was doing passably well, but certainly not reaching his own potential.  They said that he rushed through work and didn’t fully apply himself to the best of his own ability.  I made him read it.  He spent the last half of the school year more engaged and trying harder to do well on his assignments than I have ever seen him.  He made the A-team in hockey and cricket as well, and he brought all his grades up and his effort marks up in almost every class.  He was a changed man after reading that report, and I can’t wait to see him get back to it when school starts again in the fall.

Then there was Quinn, who, in his first year in full-time school was thrust into an environment that none of us was familiar with.  When he started the school year, we realized he was a bit behind his peers, who already had a full school year under their belts since British schools start at age four.  He met with a remedial specialist for the first term up through Christmas to catch up in areas where he was lagging.  In those three months, he not only caught up, he surpassed his peers and amazed us all.  He has found that he loves math especially and is also thrilled with learning new languages — his French and Spanish classes are some of his favorites.  He was a Wise Man in the Christmas Nativity play and was completely comfortable and happy on stage in front of 200 parents.  He made friends as quickly and happily and easily as he always has and knew every kid in his grade and the grades above and below him in no time.  Quinn, as always, loved everything he did and made us all love it too because of his enthusiasm and joy.

I know that this school year could have gone very differently; there are more strict expectations within the school here and a higher standard for behavior, effort, and academics.  My kids could have balked and made the year miserable for all of us.  But they didn’t; they embraced the changes, grew more mature and responsible across the board, and threw themselves into their new life with abandon.  I am so grateful and so proud of them all.

The weather is finally hitting the 70s pretty consistently, after the rainiest June anyone here can remember, July has been nicely sunny, and we’re all ready for some relaxation!  On to summer vacation!  


Also, here are some of my thoughts on why the British school system we’re in is so awesome.


 

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