Sunday, August 18, 2013


These two are emptying our nest next weekend.

The thing I did not realize about this whole empty nest thing is how it happens in stages over a really long period of time. Unless you have an only child of course,  but for those of us with two or more, it is not an all-or nothing prospect.  I mean, all your kids don’t just get up and move out of the house one day and you and your husband are left alone.

No. Just as you did not fill the nest all at once you do not empty the nest all at once either.

And just as each child changed the dynamics and the nature of your household when you brought him or her home from the hospital, the same thing will happen as each one moves out to whatever is beyond life at home full-time.

Left behind will be a new, changed family.

The more kids you start out with on the front end, the more new families you get to parent on the back-end.

I first noticed this last fall when Atticus left and things were different right away. For example, I could keep up with laundry for the first time in years. And if I made a girly meal with things like quinoa and kale in them, no one said, “Umm, did you make meat with that?” and when we went to restaurants and hotels we found life was a lot easier getting a table or a room for four instead of five.

I found I talked a lot more to Grace than ever before. I have to admit, Atticus had been my go to guy for conversation for some simple reasons: he was there first and when the girls came along he was the first to move to the front seat next to me as we drove through life so I just talked to him more.

This is probably typical for the oldest but it does mean the second just doesn’t get the time to talk to mom as much.

Until the oldest moves away.

With Atticus gone I was free to talk to Grace and get to know her better. I liked her very much and realized there are many upsides to emptying the nest little by little.

Also, last year for the first time she was the oldest Ludwig at school and she finally had a chance to shine as she found herself out from under the long shadow her big brother has always cast.

It was a delightful year to watch her blossom then bloom.
The same thing happened to her relationship with Lilly: with the two of them left as the only kids, they grew even closer and it was great fun to watch as they explored life as two teen girls kind of owning the place (and the car!) together.

Their new life involved a lot of Starbucks trips and clothes sharing and at first a little more squabbling than normal (because it turns out big brother also served as a buffer) but ultimately less squabbling as a new equilibrium was established.

I started thinking about how this phenomenon must affect other families in the neighborhood who surely have experienced this same thing—the ever-changing family and the affects on the left-behind sibs. Like neighbor, Carrie O., mother extraordinaire of four kids.

She has two girls close in age and then two boys close in age. So when I first met her, in the mid 90’s she had two girls and a new baby, and her house was a girly house and her girls dressed like girls from a girly house. They were rather famous for their FABULOUS giant, crisp white hair-bows and we all found it impressive because we struggled just to keep our girls’ hair combed decently, let alone adorned with a big, clean white bow.

But last year, her second daughter went off to college. And her house became a house of all boys; the kind of house where you don’t serve a lot of smoothies and I’ll bet it’s been some time since Carrie opened a drawer and found it full of white bows.

And I imagine sometimes it is weird to Carrie that she started with an all-girl house but ended up with an all-boy house.

As I said, this also affects the kids left home. I think of my friend Kelly, whose youngest, Charlie, has grown up as the youngest boy of four. He has only ever known what it’s like to be the mascot of a giant fun frat-house complete with all sporting activities and multiple trips to the ER. But some day, in the not too distant future, he will wake up and find himself not the part of a great raucous clan but—an only child! And he will remain the only child for several years. And how weird will that be?

I know Lilly is not looking forward to being an only child but here it comes. Because when the house changes next week, she will go from having been the baby for 14 years to being an only child.

Now there may be kids out there from larger families who look forward to being the only kid in the house but I have yet to meet one. Most of them are perfectly fine having run in the shadow of an older sib with little parental scrutiny. And they are not looking forward to having that cover ripped off.

Lilly dreads it.

So now, in addition to dealing with the grief –and I don’t think that is too strong of a word to describe what she will feel when Grace goes to school-- she will have to deal with the fact that her father and I look at her each night at dinner and ask her, and her alone, what happened at school that day. And there will be no one else to answer that question.

This past week, we were up at my parents’ home in Michigan for an end of summer visit. Neither Atticus nor Grace could join us so Lilly invited her best friend Lauren to come along. Now Lauren, as it turns out, is an expert at being an only child. She has been one for her entire 14 years and likes it quite a bit, thank you very much.

She even tried to help Lilly out. “Watch and learn,” she said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I am going to teach you how to do it.” She tried to show Lilly the fine art of eavesdropping on the adults during cocktail hour. But man, Lilly had no game at all.

The girls sat playing Uno while we visited. I could see Lauren was half-listening but I could also see Lilly was actively NOT listening to us.

At one point, I saw Lauren’s ears pick up when we got to some juicy family gossip. Lilly continued to ignore us. I made eye contact with Lauren whose face was saying, “I know can you believe she just missed THAT?”.

After a few days of pointing out the benefits of being an only child without Lilly picking up any of it Lauren threw in the towel. “I see you have much to learn before you appreciate what you’re about to be given.”

So that’s where we are. It’s August, the nest will be two-thirds empty as of next weekend, I will be the parent of an only child for the first time, and Lilly is not even trying to embrace her impending only-childhood.

But just as we found much of the upside as the nest emptied of our first, I hope to find the upside of having Lilly as an only child.

And I know that some day, Charlie will also find much to love about at last being the center of his parents’ universe. Most of the time.

Best of luck to us all this month as many of our nests empty a little or a lot.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Remember, special agent mom, never say yes to candy at the check-out counter. 

Jeff LOVES Matt Damon.  Well, who doesn't love Matt Damon? But he has a total man-crush on him and and admires Matt's considerable on-screen skills at evading the bad guys when he is playing Jason Bourne.

(Real quick, in case you do not know, Jason Bourne is like James Bond only he has amnesia so he does not even KNOW who the bad guy is at any given moment!)

Anyhoo, Jeff decided while we were on vacation, that he was going to scope out new hotel rooms and lobbies and coffee shops as if HE were Jason Bourne. Then he shared this fun activity with us.

Which is why the five of us were standing in the open foyer of our hotel in Half Moon Bay in Northern California, a few weeks ago, as Jeff explained how he would escape from the second-floor atrium if he were Jason Bourne and had to evade a bad-guy. This plan involved hurdling over the balcony, bouncing off the ottoman below, and parkouring against the elevator before shooting out the back exit. 

The next morning, when Jeff and I had our coffee and pastry at a little shop around the corner, we watched as a young mom with two young children came in the store, holding the kids' hands carefully, looking over her sunglasses, and then scanning the room at the same time.

"Have you ever noticed," Jeff said, nodding his head in her direction, "how moms with little kids come into a restaurant or store and sort of scope it out like she's doing? It's, well, it's kind of like..."

"Like Jason Bourne?" I finished. Oh yeah, I have noticed that before because:  That's. What. Good. Moms. Do. 

We watched her order, pay, get the necessary napkins and stirrers, dispense the food, and calmly exit through the side door with no fuss. She was quiet, not one of those loud, self-narrarating, talking in the third-person moms (what is up with that anyway?). In short, she was as cool as, well as an international spy on a special ops mission.

Afterwards, I spent much of the day thinking of all the ways she was like an international spy and I came up with this list of what Jason Bourne and effective moms have in common when going out to eat or shop. If you think of more, let me know.

1. You must be willing to abort the mission at ANY time: That's right. You may be Jason Bourne or a young mom but the number one rule of survival is that if something, anything goes amiss, you have to be willing to leave before the mission is accomplished.

It does not matter if you just traveled to Moscow in a van from Bucharest with that spy girl you met and have not eaten since Slovenia or you just traveled fifteen minutes from home in the mini-van after waiting almost 24 hours for that first sip of your perfect latte--if you spot a guy in the corner with a watch-cap pulled over his eye who looks like former KGB or if one of your kids is about to have a melt-down because you did not time breakfast just right--TOO BAD for you. 


For Jason, it is a matter of life and death. For the young mother it is a little more important.

Because when you are on a mission out in the real world with kids you are not just trying to get to the store and get something and avoid being embarrassed but you are trying to parent on top of it all. Jason just has to stay alive.

My friend Mary W.B. taught me this lesson early on and it proved invaluable. She made her point by telling a story of an incident that had happened to her (this was many years ago: her kids are in college now). 

She had schemed for weeks to get out of the house with her tots and meet another mom and her kids for lunch at Applebees. As soon as they got there, one of her kids starting having a fit about something he wanted on the menu. Mary warned him once to knock it off or they would leave. He did not. He gambled that his mom was hungry enough and wanted to visit with her friend enough that she'd cave in and he'd get what he wanted.

Well, he picked the wrong mom. She DID want to visit with her friend. And she WAS hungry, but when he acted up again, she calmly put money on the table to cover the drinks, apologized to her friend, scooped up the kids and left. Everyone got peanut butter and jelly for lunch at home that day. 

And that never happened to her again.

Mary told that story, then looked around and said, "Remember, you have to be willing to leave at any time, otherwise they have the upper hand." She looked like she knew what she was talking about and I took note. And she's right, if you employ this tactic you will permanently disarm your terrorist. If you give in even once, you've put the weapon back in his hand.

Not even Jason Bourne has that kind of power.

2. Know where the bathroom is: Moms need to know where the bathrooms are for obvious reasons. But it isn't enough to know where it is--you also need to know if all the children with you will fit in the bathroom (if the kids are all very young) and if you do need to use the opposite sex bathroom (if the kids are a bit older but not old enough to go alone) how that is going to go down. 

Mom also needs to be able to go the bathroom herself while balancing any non-walking children on her lap and corralling the other kids in the stall, and she needs to figure out what can be used as a changing table if there isn't one available.

Jason Bourne needs to know where the bathroom is because the tiny window in that room is ALWAYS the ONLY way Jason will escape if the other exits are blocked.

It's possible Jason Bourne has the easier job here.

3. Spot the two or three areas of potential danger: While Jason Bourne is figuring out if there is an assassin behind the potted plant or a barista with poison, mom has her own issues to deal with. Is one of the kids what we call a toucher? The kid who has to touch everything? A clumsy toucher? Worse combo ever....quickly, she must get between her and that display of coffee mugs. Is one a curious dissembler--he likes to take things apart for fun? She must immediately get between him and the espresso machines for sale.

Young mom also knows to head all children off in front of the treat case by "selling" what they CAN have never what they CAN'T "Here's a nice muffin or fruit plate, which do you prefer?" as she keeps her gaze away from the cake-pop.

Meanwhile, Jason has figured out it's safe to go ahead and order an espresso. Or not.

4. Spot the two or three things that will serve as a distraction if needed: The flip side of  distracting a small child (or the leader of a terrorist cell) from trouble is to find something constructive to amuse them with first. 

This is why Jason Bourne always leads with a charm defense by chatting up or flirting with the spy before going for a throat punch. Much easier. 

The young mom sees quickly that the stir sticks make an awesome game of pickup sticks. Drinking little cups of creamer is a dream come true for most toddlers. And those toys for sale that the coffee shop manager has diabolically put on the bottom shelf at kid level--well you can just explain they are "not for sale because they live in the store and are to visit with". 

Distraction is great and here young mom does have an easier job than Jason Bourne because secret spies are seldom distracted by the flip-side of a paper placemat and a pile of crayons.

These are just some of the things that come to mind. There is probably a whole essay to be written on how Jason Bourne and young mothers keep enough clothing on hand at all times to completely change a disguise or a toddler's outfit after a total pull-up blow out.

My young mom days are long gone but I admire watching the new recruits as they learn and bring their own experience to the job.

So if you're new to the mom as black ops agent, please know I am like "M" (sorry, that is a James Bond reference but you get the idea) and I am watching and admiring your mad secret spy skills.