On Thursday, I made my triumphant return to storytime at the library.

There was no parade, no confetti, no shouts of “You Go Girl!!”.  But there should have been.

It was the first activity that Lewis and I had ever done together.  Yes, we’ve been to the supermarket, Target, and many other shopping adventures.  But never an actual “activity”.  Never something just for him.  And for me.

It wasn’t always like this.  When Gerry was a baby, we did everything.   We did all those gymnastics classes, music classes, and puppet shows.  I’d take him to the park to play and we’d stay all morning.  And we went to story time at our local library before he was old enough to walk.  Gerry would stay close to me, right in my lap, and while the other kids got up to explore, he always stayed put until the librarian was finished.  We’d spend hours at the library, sitting at the table, reading books, choosing our favorites and taking them home.

When Howie was a baby, we tried all those things again.  Before Howie was old enough for his own story time, I’d try to take Gerry to different activities at the library so he wasn’t missing out.  We had just moved to town and I thought it was a good way to meet other kids and parents.  Inevitably, I’d spend the whole time in the hallway with Howie.  He was either screaming, crying, or running away.  Following close behind would be Gerry, because he didn’t want to be in there alone.  After several attempts, we just stopped going.  I tried a few times when Howie was older (with baby Lewis in tow) and he still couldn’t sit there…for anything.  It was embarrassing.  I felt like the only one there chasing after her kid, covering his ears so the music wasn’t so loud or pulling him away from the crayons because it wasn’t craft time yet.  So after getting yelled at by the librarian for signing up for events and not showing up, we stopped even trying.

When Lewis was finally old enough for his own story time, I was a bit reluctant.  Ok, VERY reluctant.  Once bitten, twice shy.  I thought it was better for us to just do our own thing.  I can read to him.  I can color with him.  I didn’t want to go through the same embarrassment again.

But both my pediatrician and speech therapist told me Lewis needed be around kids his own age.  He needed to hear other 2 year olds talking and he needed to learn how to play and interact with them.  My friend has a 2 1/2 yr old, so we started searching around for activities that we could try – gymnastics, music classes – to get ourselves back out there.  I turned them all down.  It cost too much, it was 25 minutes away, the time of day was bad.  But really, I was just too afraid.

Then, the flyer for story time at the library came home.  A time just for 18 month olds – 3 yr olds.  Free.  Five minutes away. 10:45am.

It was like the library wrote the flyer just for us.  So my friend and I signed up.  Thursday was the first class.

I’d like to say it all went smoothly.  That Lewis sat in my lap and listened to the story and danced to the music and did the craft.  He didn’t.  The crayons were out when we first got there and all he wanted to do was color.  Of course, that was last on the agenda, and I had to keep pulling him away from the craft table.  He stood on my lap during the first story, left the room during the second one, and refused to give up his bean bag during the “pass the bean bag” game.

But you know what?  I didn’t care.

This time, I didn’t care what the librarian or the other parents thought.  We did our best to conform with the story time flow, but if we couldn’t, we didn’t.  When he screamed because he couldn’t color, I gave him his pacifier.  When he couldn’t sit, I let him stand, and when he couldn’t stand anymore, we left the room until he could come back again.  I didn’t force him to give up his bean bag for the game.  And looking around at the other kids?  They weren’t playing by the “rules” either.

When it was time to color, Lewis sat very nicely at the table.  He picked out the green crayon to match his shirt, and colored his little cut out person with scribbles and dots.  And when he was done, we were done.  I didn’t wait for some goodbye cue from the librarian.  I followed my own kid’s cues.  We left the library with my friend and her son.  No meltdowns.  No tantrums.  No screaming and yelling.  Lewis held my hand as we walked down the path to our car and we went home.  Just like that.

To say that my kids are different would be ridiculous and obvious.  Of course they are different – every kid is.  They have different strengths and challenges.  Howie is very articulate, yet struggles with sensory overload, auditory processing and behavior control.  Lewis is the opposite.  Certain activities will work for one child and won’t work for another.  There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that.

What I have to remember is that I am different now too.  I am a different parent than I was four years ago or even two years ago.  I understand my kids’ limits better and when it’s ok to push them and when it’s ok to pull back.  I am more focused on their needs and not conforming to what the librarian wants or thinks.  I attempt to work with in the parameters of the activity, and if my kids can’t do it, we leave and return when and if we can.  I’m not going to make the experience miserable for my child, the librarian or the other families in the room.

No more embarrassment, no more shame.  It’s not worth it.  Because the alternative is to never leave the house.  That can’t be an option.

So when the next Thursday story time comes around, we’ll be there again.  I’m actually looking forward to it this time.

You remind me I live in a shell
safe from the past, and doing’ okay
but not very well
No jolts, no surprises
No crisis arises
My life goes along as it should
It’s all very nice but not very good
And I’m ready to take
a chance again” – Ready to Take a Chance Again by Barry Manilow

I’m not a big fan of what I call “obligation holidays”. I’m talking about days like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and even my birthday. Holidays when you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something. Everyone asks what you’re doing on those days, and there’s the expectation that you need to do something great – a fabulous dinner, flowers, a midnight kiss. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a feeling of total failure. The end-of-the-day giant letdown.

Summer has always felt like one big long obligation holiday.

There’s the anticipation at the beginning of summer. Oh, we’re going to go on a trip, and go to the beach, and have cook-outs and family bike rides. This will be the year we finally take the boat out again, and…

(that last one is a tough one for me…the boat has been sitting in our garage for six years now. Tim and I used to talk about it every spring, thinking that maybe this will be the summer that we’ll rent a place on the lake for a week and spend the whole day out on the water like we used to do before…well, before everything. We don’t even mention it anymore. We both just stare at the boat in silence as we stack strollers and scooters and trash cans up against it.)

This summer I decided to break the cycle. I know our family better now. I know our limitations and have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. I set zero expectations for this summer. And as I wrote back in June, I dug my heels in and started counting the days until September.

And now, Gerry starts school on Tuesday, and Howie the week after that. Gerry has a memory bag that his new teacher gave him on the last day of school, and he’s supposed to put special things in there from his summer adventures. I remember getting sad looking at it, knowing that I had nothing special planned, and just hoping we could find a thing or two so the bag wouldn’t be empty when he returned to school.

So here I sit now, the last Friday of August. I’m trying to figure out what we could put in that bag.

The truth is, quite a lot. Here’s what we did on our summer vacation:

-attended a wedding (my mom’s)
-went to Storyland
-went blueberry picking*
-went to the library
-played at the park (not once, not twice, but three times)*
-went bowling*
-went to the zoo*
-shopped at the mall
-went to the beach (just me, Gerry and Howie)
-took family walks
-taught Howie how to ride his bike
-played in the backyard
-went to the New England Aquarium
-saw a ballgame at Fenway Park (ok, this was just Tim and Gerry, but still cool)
-went to birthday parties (two of them – both Howie’s friends, first time ever)
-had playdates
-took all three boys swimming in friends’ pools (once even by myself!)
-survived camp/summer school/swim lessons (just barely)
-had a sleepover (Gerry’s first…more on this another time)
-bounced in a bounce house. All five of us together.

note: the (*) next to some of the activities on the list means I did them with the assistance of a mother’s helper. I hired the 15 year old daughter of Howie’s one-on-one aide to help me out two mornings a week on the days when Howie wasn’t at his summer school. The best decision I ever made and worth every penny. I’m pretty sure this summer would have been an even longer one had I not done that. I’m forever grateful for her help.

I’m exhausted just typing that list. Well, I’m exhausted with a smile on my face.

To the average family, that list might not seem so impressive. It’s probably what most families do during those 12 weeks of summer. But for us? Not so average. Getting us out of the house is sometimes accomplishment enough. Getting us anywhere is impressive.

Were there days when the minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days? Absolutely. Were there days when I thought that all the progress we’d made with Howie this past year had disappeared in an instant? Definitely. Were there days when I sat at the computer, trying to hide my tears from the boys? More than I care to count. Were there tantrums, meltdowns, and screaming matches at some of those activities? Oh yes (just ask them at the zoo…)

But there were also mornings that started with laughter, when the coffee pot wasn’t the first thing I reached for. Afternoons filled with baseball, and swings and bike races. Nights when I fell asleep easily, knowing that we had made the most of the day.

That is our new version of summertime. The living isn’t easy, but it’s the best we can do. I know we’re not the rent-a-place-at-the-lake kind of family. At least not now.

Gerry has several things to put in his memory bag now, including one more to be made today with his dad at the water park. They’ve waited all summer for the perfect day to go. Can’t get more perfect than today.

Perfect song on the radio
Sing along ’cause it’s one we know
It’s a smile, it’s a kiss
It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime
Sweet summertime”
– Summertime by Kenny Chesney

It was another one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep.  By 2am, one kid had woken up once, another twice, and I was wide awake from my efforts to get everyone back to sleep again.  So, as I usually do, I just laid there in bed thinking.   Sometimes I think about what to pack the kids for snacks for camp.  Or I wonder if I forgot to put the laundry in the dryer. Sometimes I think about the long list of things I haven’t been able to get to.   This was one of those nights.

But instead of the thoughts leading towards my inability to empty the dishwasher, or put the kids’ clothes away in their bureaus, or the fact that the house hasn’t been vacuumed in a week, I started thinking about all the activities I haven’t been able to do with the kids.  We don’t go to the playground, or play groups, or museums, zoos, or mini-golf.  Or even the library.  The kids ask, especially Gerry, but the answer is almost always “not today”.

I laid there thinking of how I got to this place of being so paralyzed by fear or worry about going out with all three boys.  Maybe it was just laziness.  When Gerry was little, we did everything.  We did an infant play group that morphed into a group of friends that continued to meet for a year after.  I took him to gymnastics classes, music classes, playgrounds, day trips, the beach.  Gerry was a “good kid”, meaning of course that he clung to me and was hesitant to join in any rough-and-tumble activity until he warmed up to the situation.  That meant that he was never the one to instigate any battles or throw sand at other kids.  He would share his toys, almost to a fault.  It was never me as the parent doing the apologizing for my kid, the “I’m so sorry he pushed your kid down the slide into the dirt” statements.

I closed my eyes and remembered when that all ended.  Howie was a cranky, colicky baby.  He never napped well, and when he did it was only on my lap or my bed.  That completely restricted our ability to do much of anything when he was very little.  And as he got older, his sensory issues really started to flare up.  Movies and museums became very difficult adventures.  And don’t even get me started about the zoo.  We took him when he was about 2 years old, and one loud squak from the peacock and we were done.  I ended up having to carry him through the rest of the zoo while his face was buried in my shoulder.  Even storytime at the library became an impossible outing.  Howie couldn’t sit still in the circle to hear the story or listen to the music, so he’d run off.  I’d chase him, Gerry would follow me out, and that was the end of that.  When Lewis came along, I was finished.  I couldn’t chase Howie, listen to Gerry complain about what he’d missed, and try to keep a baby asleep through his nap time.  So we just stopped.

I opened my eyes again and got very sad.  What was it that was keeping me from doing these things with the boys now?  Was it the fear that something might happen?  What could that something be?  A tantrum? Screaming and yelling?  From me or the boys?  Was it the fear that we’d see someone we knew while this was going on?  Was it the kids that I was worried about, or was it my own pride?  I finally settled myself back to sleep, wondering if the schedule for the next day would include more than just a trip to Target.

The next morning, I got the kids their juice and checked my e-mail as I usually do.  In my inbox was this blog post from a mother who is a lot like me.  Like me, she had spent the night planning  the week for her kid, knowing he needed routine and a schedule.  And like me she’s not a planner.  In her post, she writes about realizing there were things she hadn’t done yet with her youngest that she used to do with her older one.  So she put it on the schedule.  It was the push I needed to get us out again.

So “library” went on the Monday schedule.

The boys had been good all day so after Lewis woke up from his nap we got in the hot car and headed to the library.  I chose the one in the next town over – telling the kids that it had better books for their age, but really it was because I figured we’d have less chance seeing someone we knew.  We pulled into the parking lot and a big “Sorry We’re Closed” sign hung on the door (you’d think they’d update their website with their summer hours!!).  So with a deep breath, and with moans from the backseat of “But we wanted to go to the LIBRARY!!!”, I turned around and headed back to our town’s little library.

Luckily for us, and the other people in our town, the children’s part of the library was empty.  I could see the surprise on the face of the librarian when we came in – she recognized me, but not the kids.  Gerry wandered around looking for the one book he hadn’t read yet.  Howie climbed onto the stool, pulled out three random books and proclaimed that “these are the ones I want to buy!”.  Lewis spotted the crayons, climbed up into a chair, and proceeded to draw all over the table.  I felt like I was herding cats.

But we survived.  Not sure the library did.  Somehow we managed to leave with two books for Gerry and three for Howie before Lewis turned off every computer in there.  We even signed up for the summer reading program which I may try to actually do this year.  With Lewis squirming under my arm, we gathered up our books and climbed back into the now screaming hot car.  I was beaming with pride.  Hurray for us!  We went to the library!  And even better, that must have killed an hour or so of the afternoon!  It must be almost dinnertime!

Fifteen minutes.  We were only in there fifteen minutes.

But we did it and that’s all that mattered.  While I’m still wary of going out with all three boys alone, I know that I have to try.  I owe it to my kids to give them the experiences they deserve, and not get wrapped up in my own fears.

I’m now planning our schedule for the rest of the week and thinking of what we could do.  Dare I say, maybe the zoo will be on that list?

But what do you say to taking chances,
What do you say to jumping off the edge?
Never knowing if there’s solid ground below
Or hand to hold, or hell to pay,
What do you say
?” – Taking Chance by Celine Dion