Changes

I had a birthday last week. I turned 38 with very little in the way of pomp or circumstance, which is probably as it should be. 38 seems like a very boring age to turn. My husband and kids gave me some presents and we had take-out for dinner and I enjoyed the usual flood of Facebook greetings.

Since then, I’ve been thinking off and on about what, if anything, will be different about my life at 38 versus 37. I’m hard pressed to think of anything but then I started thinking about all of the changes I’ve made in my adult life so far and I realize that I am rather terrible at predicting the future. Last year, for example, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be changing jobs and yet here I sit, two months into a new gig.

I think sometimes that I want a year of no change, a year of things holding steady. But this is my track record:

Age 21: graduated from college, moved 2000 miles for a job, got first apartment on my own

Age 22: got promoted, moved 120 miles for a job

Age 23: started graduate school

Age 24: had quarter-life crisis, quit job, took leave of absence from grad school, moved to South Korea

Age 25: came back from South Korea, started a new job, met a cute guy, moved into a crappy apartment

Age 26: got engaged, got married, became a step-mother

Age 27: got a new job

Age 28: bought a house, finished Master’s Degree

Age 29: got pregnant, had a baby

Age 30: Got a new job, moved 1500 miles for new job with six month old baby in tow

Age 31: Moved again

Age 32: New job, moved again

Age 33: Got pregnant, moved again

Age 34: had a baby

Age 35: started graduate school again

Age 36: new job, new state, moved again

Age 37: finished graduate school, new job

When I look at this list, I’m kind of exhausted. For those trying to keep track, in 17 years I’ve lived in two countries, four states, six cities, 12 apartments/houses, had nine jobs and two babies.

I’m honestly not if this is just what life looks like for most people in their 20’s and 30’s as these are prime career growth and child-having years or if I am an abnormally change prone person.

So, I’d like 38 to be a year of stability but I’m not sure such a thing exists. I would be very curious to hear from others though– do you have years where nothing much changes beyond the expected growth of children and such? I feel like these are such blurry years- I fear I’m going to look back and this time is just going to seem like a rush of major life change after major life change.

I think I’d like to read more, play more, and breathe more this year.

 

Small Bites

At the start of the summer, I bought a family pool pass for the local outdoor pool. We have a YMCA membership and the Y closest to us has a pool but it is small and indoors and swimming indoors in the summer just isn’t my jam. For our pool, it costs between $21-24 for our family to go swimming, depending on how many of us go. This number is insane to me, as I still think pools should cost $1 like when I was a kid, but whatever, time marches on and my childhood pool didn’t have a lazy river so I’m making my peace with it. The family pass costs $200.

Today, I took the kids swimming for the 12th time of the summer so buying the pass is now officially a cost saving measure. I find that very satisfying.

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Speaking of swimming, we have spent several hundred dollars on swim lessons for the kiddos this summer and they have been worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY. Ev, at 4, can now jump in the pool and swim for at least 10 yards by herself and is a champ at back floating. Miles is diving off the high dive and can swim several laps. While they both require supervision at the pool, because of course, they are both at the stage where falling into a pool wouldn’t mean certain drowning.

The thing I’ve enjoyed the most about their increased skill is how much Ev LOVES the water. She reminds me so much of myself as a kid. She would be happy to go to the pool and swim for hours, every day. Miles likes doing the stuff at the pool: the diving board, the zipline, the lazy river. Ev just wants to swim to the wall and back out to me or swim down and touch the bottom for hours. I 100% believe that by next summer she could be a better swimmer than he is, which might very well drive him crazy.

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Next week is likely to be one of the busiest weeks of the year for me at work. I’m sort of dreading it, but there’s nothing to be done about it. The only way out is through. I’ve been at my new job for two months now and I feel quite certain that I made a good choice to take  this position, even though my previous position was arguably easier than this one. I’m not sure that I’m actually *good* at my new job yet. The learning curve is steep. But a friend who works in HR said that the goal for your first six months in a new job is just to make sure you don’t set the building on fire. So, with that as a standard, I’m doing swell!

*******

I planted a garden again this summer. So far I’ve been able to harvest 20 carrots (+18 from last summer), one bell pepper (+1), four tomatoes (-20), and 1,300,782, 871 zucchini. Today I had zucchini fritters for lunch and I’ll make some more zucchini bread tomorrow. If you come to my house right now you WILL be leaving with some zucchini. Next year, I’m planting ONE (1) zucchini seed and calling it a day.

 

 

 

Pretty Girl

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My daughter has recently decided that she does not want to be pretty. She REALLY doesn’t want to be called beautiful and heaven help you if you suggest that she might want to wear a sundress or even a shirt with flowers on it. I generally dress up for work, wearing dresses several days a week, and she has taken to looking at me and saying “ugh, why do you always want to look so beautiful all the time?”

She likes to be told she looks “regular”. She doesn’t object to being called handsome, because I think she associates that word with her brother being called handsome and she worships the ground he walks on. Sometimes she’ll wear a dress if I assure her that it is a very ugly dress. She decided the dress in the picture above was ugly enough to wear because it doesn’t have any flowers on it.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this phase, if I am being honest. A part of me is sort of frustrated about it because last summer she wore dresses almost everyday so I bought a lot of dresses for this summer and there are some VERY cute dress with tags still on them in her closet that I fear she’ll never wear. I’ve never really dealt with a child who has opinions about clothes before. My son will still pretty much wear whatever I buy him and the items he has rejected are few and far between. Theoretically, I’m on board with either of my children wearing what they feel most comfortable with. Actually, and maybe this is A Thing I Need To Work On, I’m bummed that my daughter doesn’t want to wear some of the cute stuff I’ve bought her.

I think the bigger thing I wonder about with this phase is what does it mean to her to “look pretty” and why does she so strongly want to reject it? I don’t think it is a gender identity thing (she doesn’t really express a desire to be a boy)(and we’d be okay if she did) other than that she is aware of it as a word people use for her and not her brother. Maybe it is an outgrowth of her brother worship?

In some ways, I find it is sort of refreshing that she doesn’t think pretty is the most important thing to be. She is happy to tell you that she is a nice friend and smart and strong– these are all things I want her to like about herself. I don’t want her to ever worry about whether she is pretty enough or not. Too many women I know, including myself, know all too well that the pursuit of pretty enough is expensive, damaging, and exhausting.

It occurs to me as I am writing this that perhaps my fear isn’t some much that it is weird that my daughter doesn’t want to be pretty as much as it is that she’ll think of herself as the opposite of pretty. Feeling ugly, being certain that you are ugly…well, welcome to my brain in junior high and high school and college. Feeling unpretty felt pretty crappy to me and whether or not looks should matter, I can tell you that it mattered A LOT when it came to my mental health in those years.

I can’t help but look at my girl and think she is beautiful, inside and out. She is strong and funny and silly and tenderhearted (and willful and sassy and with a streak of stubborn) and, yes, she is pretty too.

Just don’t tell her that.

Saving For and Paying For College

At the end of my last post on college planning, I asked if there were any reader questions about college stuff I could answer and a few people asked about the best ways of saving for college. Because I am a nerd, I find this to be a fascinating question and one that as I started thinking about answering it, a bit more complicated than one might expect. In the interest of simplicity let’s create a scenario: Jane is a 17 year old going to a state university as a full-time student and is planning to live on campus. The tuition at her state university is $10,000 and her room and board is $5000. She has a backup choice of a private college where the tuition is $30,000 and room and board is $6000. So, how is Jane going to pay for college?

First, Jane and her family are going to fill out the FAFSA during the spring of her senior year, the sooner the better. When she fills out the FAFSA, Jane will indicate that she wants to get financial aid information from both State U and Private College. Once she submits the FAFSA, the following things happen:

  • Jane’s file gets processed so that her expected family contribution (EFC) can be determined. Her EFC is based on the following info and is the exact same for both schools:
    • her parent(s) adjusted gross income
    • parental cash on hand (savings and checking)
    • net-worth of parental investments (excluding home value and qualified retirement accounts like 401K and IRAs)
    • net worth of business or farm assets
    • student adjusted gross income
    • student cash and savings
    • student investment assets
  • When it comes to coming up with the EFC, there are a few things that are important to know:
    • The formula assumes that SOME but not ALL of a parent’s cash and assets are going to go toward college expenses. The ratio is about 6% (per year).
    • The formula also assumes that some but not all of the student’s cash and assets will go toward college expenses and expects that MORE of the student’s money is available for use, about 20% per year
    • The EFC is for the family, so if you have more than one child in college at a time, the EFC is what IN TOTAL the family would be expected to contribute for both students. This is when having more than one kid in college at a time is helpful.
    • The EFC formula is determined by law and applies to all colleges/universities. It is also not a secret. Go here and look at the worksheets if you really want to get a glimpse of what your EFC might be in the future, if you aren’t doing a FAFSA.
    • The EFC doesn’t factor in consumer debt or make allowances for regional cost of living differences.
    • You can have an EFC of $0 but you can’t have a negative number.
  • Let’s assume that Jane’s family has an EFC of $3000. REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: This does not mean that Jane’s family actually has $3000 available at the moment nor does it mean that either school will send Jane’s parents a bill for $3000. This is just a number used to fill in the next part of the formula.
  • State U and Private College will both use Jane’s EFC to determine her level of financial need. Financial need is determined by taking the school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) minus Jane’s EFC. A few  many words about the COA:
    • COA includes the following factors: tuition, fees, room and board, estimated costs of books, supplies, living expenses, child care (if applicable), and costs related to having a disability (if applicable).
    • The COA is also NOT A BILL. A good chunk of the factors in the COA are not billed by the school (supplies, living expenses, etc) and different students will spend very different amounts on those things in real life. But the COA uses an estimate that they hope will apply to most students. For State U, for example, the cost of tuition and room and board might be $15,000 but the COA for financial aid purposes might be something like $21,000
    • Don’t let the COA freak you out too much. It isn’t a real number.
  • Once the math on Jane has been done it might look something like this:
    • State U: $21,000- $3000= $17,000 in financial need
    • Private College: $42,000- $3000= $39,000 in financial need
  • Now that Jane’s level of need is determined, each school will figure out how to meet that financial need through a combination of grants and loans. Jane will get something called an award letter from each school that will break it down something like this:
    • award
    • The amount of money in those categories is going to be different for each school. State U might not have a grant program but Private College will (think of private colleges as being like Kohls. There is always a sale. Hardly anyone is paying the full sticker price)
    • Now, Jane and her parents can make the decision about which school is more affordable for her but they’ll want to ask some important questions about that dollar amount in the total award line:
      • How much of that money is loan versus grant?
      • Does Jane want to do work study? She doesn’t get that $2000 if she doesn’t get a campus job
      • Are the college grants and scholarships renewable? For how long? What are the criteria for renewal? I hate to say it, but the models are built on the fact that some students won’t maintain the GPA needed for renewal but will be so attached that they’ll stay at the school anyways
      • How much of those loans do we want to take out. Just because the loan is offered doesn’t mean it has to be accepted
  • It is either helpful or maddening to think of a college classroom like an airplane: almost nobody paid the same amount for their seat.
  • Once Jane chooses her school and accepts what aid she wants, only then does the bill arrive. If Jane chooses State U and her financial aid award was for $16,000 and she accepted the whole award (loans and all), she is not going to get a bill. Her tuition and room and board will be paid out of her financial aid award and she might even get $1000 back in cash because of the COA calculations. Or, let’s say she got offered a grant of $2,000 and decides to only accept that. She could end up with a bill of $12,000. Basically, Jane and her family will get to make some choices about how much they want to pay now and how much Jane will need to pay back later. This is comforting for some and confusing for others. Parents often want to know “what exactly will this cost us” and the answer is “well….depends….”
  • If you owe a lump sum, you’ll almost always have the option to set up a payment plan so you don’t have to write one large and painful check. Instead, you can write several smaller, painful checks.

*****

So, that is a bit on paying for college. Let’s talk about saving for college now.

When it comes to saving, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • there is no perfect formula for guessing how much money your kid’s college will cost. So much depends on where they go (community college vs state school vs private) and how long it takes them to earn a degree.
  • you MUST (MUST!) prioritize retirement savings over college savings. I’ve seen parents put all their money toward their child’s future educational expenses before they max out their own retirement savings and this is just such a bad idea on several levels.
  • There are some things you may want to do beginning when your child is still in high school to lower your EFC:
    • consider using savings to pay down debt. Since your debt level isn’t calculated in your EFC and savings is, this might be a good time to get rid of consumer debt.
    • Max out your retirement accounts instead of building liquid savings (assuming you are generally financially stable)
    • Encourage elderly family members not to die and leave you an inheritance until AFTER your kid is in college. Now is not the time to come into a chunk of change, unless you want to use it to pay for college. So don’t sell that Picasso in the basement either.
  • Many families invest in 529 plans. These are tax protected accounts set up to benefit the named beneficiary. A few things to keep in mind:
    • Anyone over the age of 18 can open an account and designate the person it is for. An adult thinking about grad school in the future can open one for themselves. A grandparent can open one for a grandkid. A parent can open one for their child.
    • There are various 529 options offered in various states. You need to do a little research but you are NOT limited to the one in your state
    • 529 plans are to be used for paying educational expenses at a variety of types of post-secondary institutions. You don’t have to know where your kid is going when you open up the account.
    • There are risks to the 529:
      • many 529 plans are invested in mutual funds. If the stock market tanks than yes, you could lose some of your investment
      • Not all plans are created equal when it comes to fees and expenses. Some will offer insurance policies so you don’t lose your money if the market tanks when your kid is in 10th grade. Some don’t. You really do need to comparison shop. This is where it might make sense to meet with a financial advisor and pay the $150 for some unbiased advice.
      • If your kid opts not to go to college or if their college expenses are less than what you have saved you may face a 10% penalty plus taxes for pulling the money out of the account.
  • If you are putting money into a savings account for college expenses, you are probably better off saving it in the parent’s name versus the child’s if your goal is to lower your EFC.
  • Some states allow you to pre-pay tuition. So you can pay in today’s dollars for your child to go to a selected school in 10 years, when the cost of tuition has likely increased. The risk here is clear: what if your kid doesn’t want to go to that school and/or can’t get in?

The bottom line is that if you are financially stable and you aren’t carrying lots of consumer debt or paying off your own student loans and you want to save for college, you’ll want to consider a 529 plan or a savings account or perhaps CDs, depending on your tolerance for risk.

 

What I Wish People Knew About Going to College

Recently my favorite blogger Swistle had been writing about the college search process as her oldest son has starting looking at schools. It has been fascinating for me to read about how parents approach this process as I am usually on the other side, trying to figure out what will entice a student to be interested in the college I work for.

For almost 20 years, I’ve worked in higher education. I’ve worked for big universities (35,000+ students), small private colleges (1400 students), community colleges, and for one very uncomfortable week, a for-profit school. I started as an admissions counselor and am now a college vice president for student affairs, which means I oversee everything from admissions to financial aid to advising/counseling– basically if it has to do with a college and doesn’t involve the classroom, that’s my gig.

I often blog about my experiences with parenting or body image stuff. These are areas where I’m still trying to figure things out. I decided tonight that maybe it would be fun to write about something I actually do know a lot about: the college search process. So, I’m going to do that but with the major caveat that these are MY opinions and not those of any current or former employers (whose names I’m not gonna mention anyways). Behold my subjective list of things I wish all families knew about getting into college/university (I’m just going to say college for the rest of this, but assume universities are included):

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect college: There are literally thousands of post-secondary institutions in the US. The range in size from under 100 students to almost 50,000. While there are clear differences between the student experience at a small private liberal arts (SPLAC) college and a big public university, there isn’t nearly as much difference from one big public to another. They are far more similar than they are different. I 100% believe that people who have a great experience at a particular school could probably also have had a great experience at another. College often ends up being defined by the relationships you make there, far more than anything that is structural to the school itself. Even students who think they’ve found the perfect school are often wrong. Nearly 1/3 college will transfer at some point in their experience. So, what’s the take away? RELAX. Focus on choosing the right TYPE of college for your kid (small vs big, public vs private) and know that there is a chance they’ll want to transfer eventually anyways.
  2. Extracurricular activities aren’t actually that important: Okay, so here is the truth. The VAST majority of colleges aren’t that selective for admissions. If your kid wants to go to Harvard, then yes, extra curriculars matter. But if you are looking at a public university or a less selective SPLAC, whether you get admitted or not is really about the academic record: does the kid have a GPA of 2.5 or higher? Did they take 4 years of math and English? Done. When I worked at a large public university, I was also involved in the scholarship awarding process and guess what– that was also a total numbers game. GPA + ACT/SAT scores + Number of AP classes= scholarship.  So, yes, your kid should do extracurriculars in high school, IF they enjoy them. But don’t do it as a way to play the college game unless they are driven to go to the 10% of colleges that are selective for admissions.
  3. The truth about scholarships: There is this pervasive myth that drives me crazy when it comes to colleges and it is “there are so many scholarships out there.” The truth about scholarships is that there are many out there but the majority of students aren’t going to be competitive or eligible for them. There are two kinds of scholarships: ones provided by the school and external awards. The school based ones vary from school to school in terms of the criteria for awarding and whether or not they are need or merit based (need in terms of financial aid versus academic merit). Some schools will automatically review all students for eligibility, some require a separate app. This is a thing to put on your “questions to ask list”. For external awards, some of them will have incredibly specific criteria (the tall scholarship is one of my personal faves) and some will be very general. Is it worth applying for them? Depends. An average student (GPA 3.0-3.5 or below) is probably not going to see a lot of return on investment for doing lots of scholarship apps unless they are in a very specific pool for a very specific scholarship.
  4. There is a good chance nobody will read your kid’s application: Most admissions decisions at larger schools are made by computers, not people. When I was an admissions counselor, I would get over 10,000 applications from my territory. I actually reviewed about 250-400 per year. I reviewed the very very top for scholarships and the handful that were *JUST* on the cusp of being admissible by the computer. The rest I never saw. A computer algorithm made the admissions decision for me.
  5. Financial Aid: Every US citizen is eligible to apply for financial aid via the Free Application For Financial Aid (FAFSA). There are three types of aid that get awarded via FAFSA: Pell Grants, loans, and work-study. Pell grants don’t have to be paid back and are awarded to students with a low EFC (expected family contribution). Loans include subsidized and unsubsidized student loans and parent loans. Work-study is basically money a student could earn, if they took on a campus job. Everyone gets something but middle class and higher families may find that they only qualify for parent and unsubsidized loans. You still need to fill out the FAFSA as many schools will look at that info to determine scholarship eligibility.
  6. EFC: Let’s talk about this a little more. Your EFC is determined by a couple of factors: family income (as reported to the IRS), family size, and certain assets (investment and savings accounts are looked at, home equity and retirement accounts are not). Your EFC doesn’t include any considerations for how much debt you have, what your monthly expenses are, or how much money you WANT to contribute to your kid’s college expenses. It is an imperfect system in some ways (yes, it does sort of punish those who have saved more versus those with no assets) but it is what we have. Private colleges often look at the EFC and the total financial aid award and determine if there are ways to bridge the gap between those numbers for strong applicants.
  7. Loans: I’m of the school of thought that loans are, for most families, a necessary evil. In many ways, taking out a student loan is a pragmatic decision. People with college degrees earn, on average, nearly a million dollars more over the course of their working life than someone with just a high school degree. So, is taking on $25,o00 in debt worth it? Most people say yes. That being said, there are big exceptions to my general belief that loans aren’t the end of the world:
    1. Parent loans are no bueno: If you have a student college age, you are probably approaching the age when saving for retirement needs to be a priority. If you have to take out a parent loan, the college you are looking at is too expensive for you.
    2. Private loans: If you don’t get enough money in federal loans to make attending a school doable and you begin to consider private loans, look again at my first point and choose a more affordable school. Private loans are how students finish a bachelor’s degree with over $100,000 in debt.
    3. Be mindful of major: When I worked at the SPLAC, I often cringed at the number of students going into majors like social work and elementary education who were attending a college that cost over $40,000 a year. I am ALL FOR people going into the helping professions but am deeply concerned by students who will exit with loan debt that is higher than the median salary range for their field.
  8. Consider what you think the point of college is: Is college a place to get training for a job? A place to make a transition into adulthood? A place to make future connections (e.g. spouses and networking)? Getting the “college experience”? The stepping stone to graduate or professional school? The answers to these questions are SUPER important. If getting a degree to be more employable is the goal, there are affordable ways to do that: start at the community college and then transfer to a local public university and live at home. If you are driven by the desire for your kid to have “the college experience”, you are probably going to pay more for that.
  9. Students need to have skin in the game: Students who don’t pay for college are students who feel no sense of urgency to finish. Make them responsible for at least part of the costs. A good approach here is to have students make small loan payments every month while they are in school. This helps not only keep the loan from building quite as high (especially those that accrue interest while the student is in school) but also reminds the student that they are paying for this experience so they maintain a sense of urgency about finishing.
  10. Not every kid should go to college right away: In the course of my career I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who are only at college because it is the thing you are “supposed” to do. College isn’t 13th grade. The amount of freedom offered makes it very easy for an unmotivated kid to slip through the cracks. We, as a country, really should embrace the gap year concept. Some students would do much better to wait a year or two and then starting college. A year or two of working at the kind of job an 18 year old gets without a college degree can be a great motivator to think seriously about what they want to get out of college.
  11. Community colleges are a valid choice: Community colleges are a terrific choice for a lot of students. I wish that more middle class families were open to the idea of them, either for transfer or for vocational degrees. There are GREAT career options open in technical and vocational fields and many people don’t consider them for no other reason than snobbery.

I realize, now that I’ve started this, that I could write probably many blog posts about this. But in the interest of this not being ridiculously long, I’ll wrap it up here and do that annoying thing of ending a post with a question: what do you want to know about getting a kid (or adult, really) into college? Or about succeeding in college?

Short Timer

I start a new job in 12 days.

I still need to clean out my desk at my current job and to start reading through the large pile of prep materials provided to me by my new boss.

My current office is a mess as I try my best to sort through what things I need to save for the person who comes after me and what needs to be shredded/recycled/ trashed. I also need to figure out how to get boxes of books to my car, which is in a parking garage across the street.

I have five working days left in this job and I am spending all of this last, precious day in a meeting where I just discovered that, despite the fact that the meeting is going from 10am-3pm, they are not providing us with lunch.

This is obviously unacceptable. And on a Friday, no less!

It is only my life-long desire to not get into trouble that is keeping me from ditching the meeting entirely.

Unrelated Thoughts

I was on Facebook this morning and found myself sighing with annoyance after logging out because of YET ANOTHER post with a fretful message about how American is being ruined and that we are, collectively as a country, going down the shitter because of one political thing or another. These kinds of messages are like little pin pricks to my brain and the overall effect of seeing more and more of them is growing increasingly painful.

I don’t, as a general rule, engage in talking about politics on FB. It seems to never go well and it just riles me up in a very unsatisfying way. But I can’t help but wonder if the people who post these things have any sense of American history. Like, at all. Because if you do, how can you argue that the country once had some glory time in the past without also having to acknowledge that said glory time was probably only actually glorious for straight, white, not-poor, men?

As dismaying as I find the current electoral climate  (and, yes, I am dismayed) I can’t think of a time in the American past that wasn’t deeply problematic for SOMEONE. Perhaps it helps that I don’t think America is a special snowflake/best country ever/God’s chosen people so I’m comfortable acknowledging that we have a messy, complicated, racist and sexist history.  I’m probably never going to be able to run for elected office on the platform of “we’ve always kind of sucked– let’s try to suck less!”

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After a lifetime of believing that I don’t like the combination of fruit flavors and chocolate, I’ve discovered that I do, in fact, enjoy the presence of dried cherries in chocolate. I’m clearly growing as a person.

*******

I start a new job in less than a month. Accepting new job has meant coming to terms with the fact that I will have to dress up each and every day. I’ve been shopping for new work clothes that are professional, flattering, and comfortable. As I am a plus-size person, this is far more difficult than it should be. So far I have resisted the siren song of being more leggings. I feel like the reward for that should be a new pair of leggings.

 

Big Girl

I was weeding my garden plot this morning, hoping the spring weather will stick around long enough that I can safely plant my seedlings. I was admiring a particularly fat worm when Ev came bounding out of the house, dressed in overalls and ready to get dirty.

“I can help! I can help, right Mama?”

I gave her a trowel and set her in the corner on the garden box and told her to start breaking up big dirt clumps and to pull out and rocks or weeds. She happily got to work, singing Jingle Bells exuberantly will she dug her hands in the dirt.

“This is a job for BIG GIRLS, right Mama? Babies and little kids couldn’t do THIS job, right?”

Ev turned four two weeks ago and I’m not convinced there has ever been anyone who has been more pleased to be this age. She remarks almost daily about some aspect of her life that is further proof of her new and exciting big girl status. She goes potty like a big girl, she hops on one foot like a big girl, she writes her name like a — well, you get the point.

Ev at four is a delight. She is funny, charming, and so kind-hearted. She goes to all-day preschool now and her teachers remark that Ev is “everyone’s friend because she is so kind and nice.” She has her moment of whining and has been really upping her bedtime stalling game lately, but she is also so sweet that she’d give you her last piece of candy and all the money in her piggy bank. She loves to tell me that my work clothes are “so beeeeutiful!” and she’ll grab my face between her still slightly chubby hands to tell me that I’m her very favorite mama.

She adores her big brother, even though he is, frankly, often kind of a jerk to her. Although Miles can also be nice and kind, he is much more combative and competitive than she is. He has also discovered sarcasm and the words “actually”, “duh”, and “give me a break, Mom” and so there are some moments of teeth grinding frustration when it comes to his familial interactions these days. I wish a little that I could scoop out some of her inherent sweet selflessness and give him a transplant.

Sometimes her kindness and accommodating nature make me wonder if we’ll have to be careful as she grows up to make sure she knows that you don’t always have to be nice. I want to celebrate her tender nature, but I also want to make sure she knows that, as a girl and woman, nice isn’t the highest of all the virtues.

Ev at four feels like the start of a new chapter in our family. We are SO VERY DONE with babies now. We don’t even have a toddler around this joint anymore. I’ve got two kids and given that Ev is 90th percentile kid in terms of size, I’m basically done shopping in the baby/toddler section of Target for clothes. We have no diapers in the house, no bottles, no cribs. There are things I will miss about the baby stage– I love a snuggly chubby baby asleep on my chest and the drunken staggering of a newly upright citizen– but it feels nice to feel like we are moving daily toward a family life with a little more breathing room from the constant demands of the early years.

I have a good feeling about Ev at four. She is my big girl.

This Old House

Mr. Monkey and I have lived in seven houses since we’ve been married and all of them were decades old, one or two of them closer to a century old. We tend to prefer older houses (give us a Craftsman with original detailing and we are in real estate heaven) so it isn’t too surprising that when we decided to buy our “forever or at least very long time house” we ended up with something that was built in 1926.

This house is solid and cozy and would be a total nightmare if either of us ever ended up disabled or with limited mobility. The stairs are narrow and steep. To make it ADA compliant would require first setting it on fire and burning it entirely to the ground to start over. But it feels very much like home to me and I love imagining my kids growing up here.

A friend of mine recently shared that she had a 1939 phone book for our area and was able to look up the listing for the house. She was able to give me the names of the people who lived here in 1939 (Raymond and Marie), which led me to search for them on the internet and discovering that Marie was born in 1906 and Raymond in 1911. Marie ended up outliving him by 18 years and now the two of them are buried together in a small town in Minnesota.

Another friend posted a link to the 1940 Census where I discovered that Raymond and Marie had moved out of the house and were replaced by a different couple (Charles and Rosalind) who were 30 and 33, respectively. They did not have any children, but did have a 21 year old border living in the house. The young woman border worked as a store clerk. Charles worked for a railroad. I can’t quite make out their last name on the Census record. I wish I could. I wonder if they ever had children. I wonder what happened to Mae, the border.

Having names to put with the earlier years of the house makes it impossible for me to stop wondering about all of the other families that have called this place home. My son is grouchy tonight, so he is stomping all over the place. On our old wood floors, it sounds like a charge of elephants. I wonder how many other exasperated mothers have told their children to stop stomping in this place. How many babies has this house seen? Have there been babies even born here? How many first steps, first words, first days of school, first dates has this house seen?

In our little backyard, I’m growing a garden and we have grass but no trees. The children wish we had a tree so we could build a tree house. I’m curious what the back yard looked like when Marie or Rosalind lived here. Did it ever have trees? I think about planting a tree for the next family’s children to enjoy, long after I’m gone.

It is a wonder to imagine all the life that has happened in this little yellow house.

April Showers

Spring in Minnesota comes in fits and starts. One day is glorious and sunny, causing you to scramble through your children’s dressers for short sleeved shirts that still fit. Then the next day it snows. The snow surprises no one and though people may grumble we seem to accept that this is part of what you sign up for when you live here. It is nearly the end of April and I’m still not quite confident enough that spring is really here to put away the snow pants and boots just yet.

But the signs of spring are growing more apparent. The grass in my yard is starting to grow. Mystery chives (when did I plant chives?) have sprouted up in my garden, along with some weeds that I need to pull before I move my seedlings from the house to outside. Despite the promise of much rain this week, I’ve pulled my hammock from the garage and have had one glorious afternoon of hammock reading time so far. We’ve started having to bathe the children almost nightly as afternoons of outdoor play lead to dirt streaked faces and feet that are black on the bottom (neither of my children can seem to keep their shoes on outside).

Our neighborhood really started to come alive this month. After months of hibernation, the children are finally free to play outside and so they do, for hours at a time. They form little packs and move from backyard to backyard. The parents sometimes sit on a porch and loosely supervise but we all mostly let them have some freedom to roam. Sometimes I sit on my covered porch with a book and listen to the sound of them play and I remind myself not to interfere when the inevitable squabbles breakout. I am both on part too lazy to want to get off my porch couch and one part determined that kids should have time in what my husband calls “kid world”, the space where grown-ups don’t get involved and kids learn to sort things out for themselves. This works until someone comes crying into the house because of hurt feelings or scrapped knees. Then kisses and Band-Aids are dispensed and I can blessedly return to my book.

This is the first spring in years that I’m not in school. Though I think of myself as a writer-ish person, I’m not quite sure I have yet figured out how to best describe how great it feels to not have the weight and worry and guilt of grad school off my shoulders. I feel an internal lightness. I’m also beginning to remember how much I love to read for pleasure. In the 25 days since I defended my dissertation I’ve read four magazines and five books. I have big plans for doing a lot of quietly sitting on my porch reading more this spring.

I think this feeling is contentment. I’m a fan.