Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Oliver is Seven!

The boy who made me a mother turned seven. When I snuggle with him at bedtime, I tease him about how I once was able to bath him in the bathroom sink. And now he's an artistically-talented, intelligent, social, Lego and Star Wars-loving little boy.

Oliver devours chapter fast as we can read them to him. He's read every book in the Clementine series, is waiting for the upcoming release of a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book and he just discovered Geronimo Stilton, which he received as a birthday present.  Oliver hasn't learned to read yet and I keep having to take deep breaths and remind myself that students in immersion programs read later and when they do, they can read in both languages. More importantly, he loves books and he loves being read to, something I hope continues even after he can read to himself.

At least the reading balances out the Minecraft.  I only vaguely knew what Minecraft was (I could tell you a video game, but nothing more) and didn't think Oliver knew anything about it, so I was taken aback when Chris returned from a trip to the cabin with the boys with a new Playstation and Minecraft.  It doesn't matter if Oliver had been unfamiliar with Minecraft or not, because he's obsessed with it now. There's part of me that admittedly enjoys a bit of piece and quiet when he disappears to the basement to play, but when I have to cut him off, oh my oh my.  He's a textbook example of the addicting qualities of screen time.

And oh my gosh, the Legos. That's another obsession of his, but one I consider much healthier, at least for his development.  It's not necessarily healthier for my sanity. I'm engaged in a never-ending battle to contain the Legos.  I can't vacuum without doing a detailed survey of the floor and when I try to clear out what look like piles of partially-built, unidentifiable creations from Oliver's room, I'm met with cries of "That's my [term I've never heard of and probably comes from Start Wars]!"

As happens every fall, I push Oliver into the next size of clothing even though they're a tad too big for him.  Last week I swapped out his 5T shorts and size 6 t-shirts for size 6 pants and size 7 long-sleeve shirts.  He's short and skinny, so his shirts hang a little long on him and we have to cinch the elastic bands on the inside of his jeans as tight as they can go.

Oliver continues to flash a smile full of baby teeth. I think he's starting to wish he would lose some teeth like all his friends.  I know it will happen soon enough though. Until then, he's my big boy with a smile full of baby teeth.

We signed Oliver up for a parks and rec league soccer program because he enjoyed playing during recess at school last year and we wanted to have him in an outdoor activity before starting on indoor activities for the winter. Not surprisingly, it took him awhile to warm up to it and even while he eventually had fun, he never loved it. Because of his birthday, he was in a group with older kids and he didn't know any of them. He's an active kid, but I think he likes to enjoy activities on his own terms.

An activity Oliver is loving more and more, despite his humble beginnings, is swimming. He is so much more comfortable in the water and takes every opportunity to go swimming. Even though his last formal lesson was this past spring, he has since learned to swim short distances. He can also now jump in the water, even if it's well over his head, like when he jumps off the dock or the back of the boat into the lake (with his life jacket on of course). For a kid who was once terrified of getting his face wet, (and who still isn't thrilled about having to wash his hair) this is a huge!

Oliver  got up on water skis for the first time this summer, although he still needs to develop more balance and strength before he'll be able to cover any sort of distance. Chris was Oliver's age when he first learned to ski, so this milestone made him one proud dad.
And he's (just about) up!
The picky eating and power struggles over food continue with Oliver.  Intellectually, I know not to engage in power struggles with my children, but it's hard not to when your child truly enjoys so few foods and there's little room for compromise. Dinnertime with four little ones is admittedly not often a very enjoyable experience at our house, but I do take comfort in the fact that we still eat dinner together most nights of the week and hopefully that's the memory that prevails.

These dinnertime power struggles are a few of many examples of the little disappointments or problems that can send Oliver into a spiral of emotions and negative talk. My psychologist friend calls them "automatic negative thoughts." It's hard as a parent to watch my child melt down over something so trivial and talk negatively because even though I know he'll eventually calm down and be back to his happy-go-lucky self, in the moment, he really feels those feelings.

I'm believe strongly that children (and adults!) need proper sleep at night and that children need more hours of sleep than we think. We've always had early bedtimes for our children because they, especially Oliver, need it. As a young child, Oliver was not the kid who could skip a nap or stay up past his bedtime because he melted down. Although I still think his bedtime needs to be 7:00 p.m., it's so difficult to eat dinner at 5:30 p.m. and still have enough time for the kids to wind down, go through the bedtime routine and be in bed an hour and a half later. On the rare nights we achieve that, Oliver still has trouble falling asleep. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preschool for Matteo

Matteo started preschool over a week ago and I'm only now posting his back-to-school photos. The truth is, by the time I had gotten my last child off to what is just one of the three schools my four children are attending this school year, back-to-school fatigue had already set in. It felt like a win just to get some pictures taken. Such is the life for a fourth child.

This fourth child had longingly watched his siblings start school and knew what he was due and walked into preschool like he owned the place. Because of his September birthday, he couldn't start Pre-K with Kiera and Soren through the St. Paul School District, so he's back for another year at the preschool he attended last year and with the same teacher. She adores him and eagerly accepted him into the Pre-K class.

When I arrived home from work after his first day, he was excited to show me his "All About Me" poster, which he and Nina had almost finished. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016


My "twins" started Pre-K today.  Don't they look so ready and full of promise?

We opted to send Kiera and Soren to Pre-K at the school down the street from our house to not only take advantage of free tuition, but also the routine of going five afternoons a week and extra support and services for Kiera.  There are 20 students in the class and four teachers, one of whom is an early childhood special education teacher. A speech therapist working exclusively at the school will provide Kiera's speech services in the classroom. 

I came home at lunchtime so I could walk with them to their first day of school.  Soren told me he was both nervous and excited.
The students and their parents gathered outside, but when the teachers asked the kids to line up, Soren started to cry. Just as it is for his older brother, new places and new people are tough for Soren. As I comforted him, I was surprised at how teary-eyed I became, even though I knew that with time, Soren is going to love school. He settled down, and when the line of children started to file into the building, he sought out comfort from his sister by grasping her hand and walked semi-confidently side-by-side with her into the building.

Despite a couple of emotional moments during the rest of his afternoon at preschool, Soren gave the experience a thumbs up. He reported that he probably won't cry tomorrow, or maybe just a little.

Kiera was also excited to start Pre-K and if she was nervous, she didn't show it. She generally goes with the flow in new situations. Her teacher reported that she didn't communicate more than with some nodding of her head, which I wasn't surprised by given it's a new environment, but she was otherwise engaged in the activities and happy to be there.  When I asked her what she did at school, the most I got out of her was "played".

From these quiet and nervous beginnings, I can't wait to see what this year as in store for Kiera and Soren.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Oliver Starts First Grade

And just like that, summer is over.  Oliver started first grade today. We sent him off with a brand-new backpack and a beautiful Schultuete Nina had made him.  I think Oliver was bummed summer was over and possibly a little jealous of his siblings who haven't started school yet and are getting an extra week and a half of summer, but overall, he seemed happy to be back. 

Our au pair, Nina, with Oliver and the traditional German Schultuete she made him.
This year's first day of school was vastly more relaxed and tear-free compared with last year's. There's much less for Oliver to be anxious about since he knows the school. Unlike last year when there were very few familiar faces, he now has friends, including one particularly close friend who's in the same class this year.

The chaos of the first day of school was also alleviated by the school's decision to start kindergartners two days later, which meant fewer parents and children packing the hallways, and fewer children in tears. The morning felt unusually calm, and actually, quite anti-climatic.

We helped Oliver find his seat and when I asked if it was okay if his dad and I left, he quietly answered no.  Although he wasn't crying, I could tell he was nervous. His mood changed when he saw his good friend Atticus arrive and once they were seated together and laughing and catching up, Oliver indicated we could leave. A friend who dropped off her daughter right after we left reported back that Oliver was all smiles and excitedly waved at her and motioned for his classmate to join his group at the table. 
Despite being a little nervous when he first entered his new classroom, Oliver radiated confidence by the time we left.
Oliver's first grade teacher is Frau Zinnow, a native German. Parents of older students think very highly of her and my hope is that Oliver thrives academically and socially in her classroom.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fistula Repair and P-Flap 6-Month Post-Op

Matteo had his six-month post-op visit to check up his recovery from his fistula repair and p-flap surgery back in February. Despite how well his mouth has recovered, he did develop a fistula, or in layman's terms, he developed a hole. The hole appears small, but the surgeon can't tell how deep it goes. The good news is that the surgery appears to have been a success given that the fistula is not impacting Matteo's speech and his p-flap closes off properly to prevent air from going through his nose, which gives him the ability to pronounce a broader range of sounds. At this time, we don't think he'll need another surgery to do a revision to the p-flap, which means his next surgery won't be until he's somewhere between seven and 11 years old when he'll have a bone graft.

The bad news is that despite Matteo's incredible work ethic during speech therapy, his repaired and lengthened palate, his age (he's turning four soon) and being home for a year and a half now, his speech is still nearly impossible to understand. And when I say impossible, I mean that I as his mom have extreme difficulty in figuring out what he's saying. It's heart-breaking to hear him repeat a word over and over again with such persistence and helplessly can't understand him.  

The doctors told me what I already know, that he has a severe articulation disorder. Of the 44 phonemes (the smallest units of sound that distinguish one word from another) in American English, Matteo can only pronounce nine according to his speech therapist's evaluation. His speech includes multiple phonological errors, such as phoneme omissions ("poon" for "spoon"), syllable reduction ("jamas" instead of "pajamas") and difficulty sequencing phonemes in single words. Just like Kiera, Matteo doesn't readily initiate verbally and communicates in one- to three-word phrases at most. 

Aside from identifying that Matteo has a "severe articulation disorder", they can't do further testing on his expressive language skills due to how unintelligible his speech is. So we must plug away at speech therapy and wait until he develops more intelligible speech to be able to identify a more exact speech disorder. 

Matteo is so smart and inquisitive and like his sister, I'm curious what he's thinking and wish he were able to tell me.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Family Camp

Friends invited us to join them on a trip to western Montana where family friends of theirs rent out a Methodist church camp for a week of "family camp". I've been hearing about their Montana trips for years and it sounded just like my kind of family vacation because Chris and I could get our kids into the wilderness without having to camp. I'm not opposed to sleeping in a tent and enjoyed it quite a bit as a young adult, but at this stage in my life with four young children, camping is too logistically-challenging.  However, in order to really experience remote parts of the U.S., you almost can't not camp. The compromise was a summer camp with cabins, beds, flush toilets, hot showers, a laundry room and a dining hall that served three meals a day. I was sold.
The challenge, though, was getting out there. Camp on the Boulder, deep in the Absarorka Beartooth Wilderness, is nearly 15 hours and 1,000 miles of driving, with the last 14 on a poorly-maintained dirt road.  That's two days of driving and a hotel stay in each direction.  I tried to psych myself up by calling it a "road trip" because this term brings up feelings of adventure and nostalgia. But as soon as I found out that Chris had nearly enough airlines miles to get the seven of us to Billings and back, (and that there were direct flights) I decided the great American road trip was overrated (at least if it involves young children).  So we flew - and it was wonderful.

We exited the airport in Billings, Montana and I remembered why the state has the nickname "Big Sky".  The sun beat down on us from a cloudless sky, which somehow really did look bigger than the sky back home in Minnesota. I couldn't wait to get out and see some of state.

We stopped at a coop grocery store in downtown Billings to have lunch and pick up some extra snacks for the week.  The cashier was friendly and chatty, so I told him we were from out of state and asked him what he liked most about Billings.  Without missing a beat, he replied, "Leaving."

At our next stop, Pictograph Cave State Park, I asked the park ranger if he had anything redeeming to say about Billings. He admitted the city is considered the "red-headed step-child of Montana" because of the oil refineries, but he very enthusiastically talked about the city and region's highlights, such as the the arts scene and all the outdoor recreation opportunities. In addition to all the good things to say about his home city, he raved about Minnesota's state park system and gushed about it being among the nation's top three (along with Maine and Montana).

Hiking the short loop trail at Pictograph Cave State Park.

The park was tiny, but it was the perfect spot to get a dose of sun shining down from Montana's big sky and some exercise before piling back in our rental car and making the nearly-three-hour drive west across the Montana plains and into the mountains.  Fourteen miles from our destination, the pavement of the county road abruptly turned to dirt, the Boulder River tumbled toward the Yellowstone River and the mountains appeared bigger and bigger as we bumped along towards camp.

A river literally runs through it.
We turned into camp kicking up a cloud of dust behind us. With the exception of the difference in scenery, it immediately reminded me of my summers at a YMCA camp in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey with its small cabins dotting the property, the dining hall, playing fields and an outdoor chapel.

After spending that first afternoon unpacking in our cabin, getting ourselves situated at camp and meeting everyone, we headed out on the trail the following morning right after breakfast.We joined our friends Kelly and Jim and their children for a hike that started a half a mile up the road from camp, where we crossed over the Boulder River and connected with the Placer Basin Trail in the Gallatin National Forest.
Heading out on our first hike of the week!

The hike turned difficult as soon as we left the road, but surprisingly, the kids were in great moods! I was a little nervous about how my inexperienced little hikers would do, but I think a bit of peer pressure in the form of Kelly and Jim's five-year-old daughter, Claire, kept them going.  The only time we heard any whining or complaining was when they weren't walking beside her.
One of my favorite places to the bring the kids to is the natural playground at the Tamarack Nature Center.  The kids loved this playground they found on the trail.
Kelly and Jim use a tactic Kelly's parents had used on the trail when she and her sisters were little and that was to bribe them with jelly beans to keep walking.  A generation later, us adults had jelly beans stashed in our packs (along with M&M's, Skittles and fruit snacks) and we doled those out during water breaks and whenever spirits started to lag.

The kids were slow making it up the steep trail, but remained steady even in the spots that were difficult for little legs to navigate.  We stopped for lunch at the Lookout, where we had a beautiful view of the Boulder River below.

Snack time for five of the kids, nap time for the sixth.
Kelly, Jim and their kids were our guides for the week at camp. 
I was so inspired by how well the kids were doing that I wanted to push ahead to the end of the trail, but I was out-voted by those who wanted to take advantage of the good moods, not by trying to go to the top, but by making it back down to the bottom while everyone was still in a good mood.  That was a good call because the last half of the descent was trying on everyone.

Matteo was so wiped out that he just didn't want to walk anymore, so I ended up having to use my pack as a make-shift Ergo and carry him down on my back.  I hoisted him up onto my back, where he clung to me like I was giving him a piggy-back ride, and then Celina helped me put my pack back on and when I fastened the waist belt, Matteo was able to sit on the waist belt where it met my pack.  I cinched my shoulder straps, which kept him snug against so I didn't have to worry about him tipping back.  He seemed so chill that I kept asking others if he had fallen asleep. I couldn't have hiked the whole way with him on my back, but the backpack Ergo was a heck of a lot more comfortable than carrying him any other way and I was thankful we were able to make it down the mountain and back to camp in a timely manner.
At the end of our hike, we stopped at the Boulder River to dip our feet in the water and cool off.  And cool off we did! I'd forgotten how cold mountain streams are!
At dinner it was clear that my kids were going to need a recovery day after their hike.  Celina offered to stay at camp with them the next day so that Chris and I could do a long and hard hike. We again tagged along with Kelly, Jim and their children, as well as Kelly's parents. I enjoy hiking with them because they always have great stories and they've hiked the trails around the camp so many times that they notice all of nature's influences on the landscape.

We hiked Meatrack Trail, which I thought was ironic given that I'm a vegetarian. Meanwhile, my meat-loving husband was secretly hoping he'd get a steak at the end of the trail. I learned that the Native Americans would hunt up in the mountains during the summer and would dry their game on racks, which is how the trail got its name.

I felt guilty about leaving our kids behind, and it's possibly the first time in my life that I was out of cellphone contact should an emergency arisen, but it was ultimately the right decision because the trail was tough!  Long sections of the trail consisted of switchbacks up the side of the canyon and it was very rocky. It was on this trail that I realized that hiking in Montana is like learning to ski in Switzerland - there are no easy trails.

While the hike was the most difficult one we did all week, it was my favorite. The scenery was gorgeous and completing a hike of that difficulty was physically rewarding.  We stopped for lunch along the Boulder River and could see the end of the Box Canyon and its majestic mountains looming before us. When I imagine Montana, this was one of those views.

After the hike up the Meatrack Trail, Chris and I needed a day off too. So Wednesday was our day to rest our legs and escape the heat to the air conditioning of our car.  Our destination was Big Timber, the nearest town, about an hour and a half away from the camp. 

Halfway to Big Timber, we stopped at the Natural Bridge Picnic Area, which has a beautiful waterfall on the Boulder River. After hiking up mountains, the trails, many of them paved or well-packed dirt, could barely be considered a hike, even for children.

The only reason our kids are smiling for the camera is because we promised them fruit snacks.

Celina, Chris, Oliver and Soren wanted to hike down to the waterfall, which was a very steep hike down. Unfortunately Soren got stung by some sort of Stinging Nettle as soon as he got to the bottom, so with barely a moment to take in the view, Chris hoisted a screaming, crying little boy into his arms and made the steep climb back up carrying an extra 35+ pounds.
Our first stop in Big Timber was The Fort so Chris could buy his fishing license. Our friends had described the truck stop as a small town's version of a very tiny Walmart. You could get anything you needed - or didn't need - there. Groceries, ammo, clothes, fishing gear, lots of kitschy art with the American flag and Bald Eagles, The Fort had it all. I picked up some bison jerky to add to the assortment of prizes for Thursday night bingo.

Some other treasures I found...
The rest of our time in Big Timber was low-key. We stopped for ice cream at an old-fashioned pharmacy with a soda fountain and then visited the Crazy Mountain Museum on our way out of town.

On the dirt road leading towards camp, we had a surprise bear sighting. Where we were in Montana is technically Grizzly and Black Bear country, but none of the regulars at camp had ever seen a Grizzly and Black Bear activity in the area is rare enough that the camp had open trash cans outdoors on the property.  Our bear sighting was brief and from inside the safety of our car, but was nonetheless exciting for everyone. 

We were back at camp with plenty of hours left in the day to relax and read a book, play on the playground or play board games in the dining hall. That's where Soren found his new favorite game, The Game of Life. 

When we arrived on Sunday, the week seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us, but by mid-week, I realized how little time we had. Our simple schedule of meals, hiking and lounging around camp had been deceiving - a week wasn't enough time to do all I had wanted to do.

Thursday arrived and I really wanted to get the kids back into the mountains. I learned that the only trail folks considered easy was the Bambi Trail, which traversed the ridge line overlooking camp. I was warned the trail was overgrown, but that it would otherwise be obvious where to follow the trail.

Overgrown was an understatement.  We bush-wacked our way through the first half of the trail and were never sure if we had found the trail, left the trail or had ever even been on the trail. We were excited to see a blue blaze, only to turn around and see blue "blazes" on multiple trees.  The markings weren't trail blazes after all, but most likely trees selected for chopping down.  I was relieved when we finally heard the roar of the Speculator Creek, because I knew once we arrived at the creek, we'd make a left and follow the "trail" up the creek. 

We stopped at the creek for a snack and I marveled at how lush this area of the mountain seemed compared with the arid landscape around camp.  Moss covered many of the rocks and tree stumps on the banks of the creek and I expected to see a gnome peak out from behind a tree.

Speculator Creek

Much of the trail was overgrown or covered in debris, like this section, which looked like a giant game of Pick Up Sticks.

Even though we were finally on what resembled a trail, the hike up the creek was a scramble as we climbed over lots of blown down trees and other debris.  We eventually found the turn off towards camp and after a little more bush-wacking, we spotted the roofs of the camp buildings. 

Later that night we participated in the camp's Thursday night bingo. The kids were so excited to try to win. Celina ended up being one of the first winners though! She picked out a cool memento from Montana. The kids eventually won and were overjoyed to finally have their chance to look over the prize table.

On our final day in Montana, Chris stayed behind with the kids so Celina and I could hike at our own pace. I was thankful I had this final hike with our wonderful au pair. Our trip to Montana was bittersweet because it marked the end of Celina's year with us. We would arrive back home in Minnesota on Saturday and Celina would leave us forever early Monday morning. But I had this last hike with her where we reminisced about her year amid the peace and quiet of the Montana mountains.
The mountains were just begging me to do a cheesy Sound of Music reenactment.
After all these years hearing about "family camp" in Montana, I'm glad we finally got to join Kelly and her family.  I can see why she loves that place. It truly is family camp. Our children had the freedom to roam and be kids with hours of unstructured time outdoors. Us adults had the camaraderie of other adults ranging from fellow parents of young children and as old as great-grand parents. Camp was like a small town where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other. It had its own culture that we quickly acclimated to and everyone welcomed our large family with open arms.