This Year

This year was the year a lot of things went wrong. But it was also the year Christmas started to work.

When you spend the holidays with a big group of family or friends, little kids aren’t such a big deal. You celebrate the way you always do, you trade off with the kids, and it’s the same as every other year. But when you spend the holidays with just your little family and your family has only one adult, the formula changes. 

At our house we have thrown out most of the holiday trappings. I don’t spend hours working on a big meal, partly because it’s hard to do while also keeping an eye on kids, and mostly because the kids wouldn’t eat any of it anyway. And the traditions I’ve wanted to put in place haven’t always worked, little kids are fickle and everyone has to be treated the same and that just isn’t always going to fly.

But this year! This year we kind of got it. 

I didn’t put in a lot of extra effort this year. Actually the week before Christmas was really awful, a pile-up of bad thing after bad thing. So I came into the weekend with a bare minimum of plans. What I remembered, though, was my previous attempts at starting holiday traditions that crashed and burned because the kids were not interested. So this year we had traditions, but like much of our lives, they were simple and low key.

We bought a real tree this year. We’ve never had one before, and it was definitely a sacrifice this year in particular since the move has money tighter than usual, but it looks great. The kids helped me pick out ornaments and a star for under $30 and a few leftover ornaments from previous years plus gifted ornaments from friends meant we had a real tree decorating this year. 

One tradition I’ve been committed to doing with the kids is one my parents started. If you don’t give allowances and budgets are tight, kids can still give gifts with little money and risk with one simple trip: the dollar store. This one mostly worked, but neither Graham nor Tessa likes being alone. At all. And since secrecy is part of the deal, logistics were a little tricky. But each of them got two dollars to buy a gift for each other and for me. Dollar store gifts mean expectations are low, but the impact was really there this year. They both kept talking about the gifts they’d chosen, I had to tell them about a hundred times, “It’s a secret!” They were just really excited. Graham had me open my present from him before he opened any gifts himself. And while Tessa got me a card with a kitten on it “for a favorite niece,” I’m calling it a win.

Christmas Eve pajamas are always a win. You can take that to the bank.

After we opened pj’s, I decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner that was different and fun, but still the kind of stuff my kids actually like. So I got a bunch of red and green veggies (bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, celery), cut them up, and served them with a big bowl of ranch (and hummus for me) to eat while we watched Muppet Christmas Carol. The kids were thrilled to eat on the couch and enjoyed the dipping. I was just happy they ate and that it took only a little while to prep.

I stayed up after the kids went to bed to wrap presents and watch White Christmas, a little tradition of mine ever since the divorce. In the past it’s been bittersweet, but this year I was just used to it, it was the thing I always do, so it felt better. I thought about cooking our Christmas breakfast (strawberry muffins, settled upon after a few other efforts that flopped) then but ultimately decided the kids would eat the candy from their stockings in the morning anyway and no one would be wanting breakfast until at least 10. Which was 100% accurate.

I let Christmas Day just be. The kids enjoyed their new things, we went to a movie, we had a normal dinner. What makes my kids happy is routine, safety, comfort, so we had enough of normal with special thrown in to keep everybody happy. 

Christmas was Sunday, the kids were staying until Wednesday, and there would be no reinforcements. No school, no camp, no childcare, just me and them. The holidays are notoriously awful to try and do a big thing with your kids to get out of the house because everyone else had the same idea. So I was trying to think of ways for us to use the time. I planned a few activities.

But in the end, we didn’t do most of them. Because we were fine. Everyone got along. I gave one time out. I didn’t need to yell and only a couple times had to be called in to mediate or separate. Instead we were all just good.

Sure, I let them eat more candy than usual. I let them watch TV. I let them play video games. Because if not Christmas break, when? Everyone was in a good mood. We listened to music. Tessa and I played card games over and over again. Graham gave me regular updates on his video game status. Everyone was just good.

I took family pictures, which was a hilarious undertaking. Turns out my camera doesn’t take a wireless remote and no one carried a wired remote in the store so I had to use a self-timer. I also couldn’t find my tripod so I had to set it on a chair, squat down to make sure it was in the right place, hit the button, jump up, sit back down, pull the kids in close, and hope it turned out. Did that about 20 times. The kids were great sports, though. And I need to do it more often.

family picture

The kids left and I didn’t feel tired or worn out or in need of quiet time. I realized I had days left in me, which is much better than I usually feel, even when everyone has school or I keep the kids for a short time. 

I was on my own for New Year’s Eve but had an invitation to go out and took it. I danced in the year and it felt good.

This year was not an easy one. It was not a good one. There were not personal victories. In many ways I accomplished less than the previous year. But this last week was a reminder that there have been lots of little good things along the way, there have been bright spots in the thick darkness.

I do not have a milestone or accomplishment to present as my 2016 thing. I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this year but realized this summer that it wasn’t going to happen and made peace with that. Life gets in the way and that is nothing new. But that manuscript is over 80,000 words and I did most of that work this year. If I was going to pick one thing this year that I’m proud of, it’s that this year I decided to act like a person who is a real writer. I call myself a writer. I think of myself as a writer. And the funny thing about that is that you start to believe it eventually, even if I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for my writing this year. It’s a long process, it’s a tough process, and I’m squeezing it into the small openings in my life and that is okay. 

I am not approaching 2017 with any particular goal (though I would really like to start my 2nd draft by June). I am not going to say that it will definitely be better than last year. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that thinking you are on an upward swing doesn’t mean anything. Things can turn bad quickly and they can stay that way regardless of how hard you work or how much you deserve. I’m building a life and I just want to keep laying bricks this year. And that will be enough no matter what happens.

Backwards and Forwards

I admit, I like manufactured milestones. I like taking the turning of a new year to take some time to stop and look. 

Last year I started on a low note. I knew I could only move ahead so far. It wasn’t a great year, but it was a year of progress. 

There were plenty of steps forward, a decent amount of steps back, but overall I came out ahead. 

To me, the biggest sign of change is that last year I felt so adrift and unsure of everything that I couldn’t think about moving forward. It’s hard to do when you don’t know which direction to go. This year I’ve got direction, goals, and even plans. 

I still don’t feel great about where I am. I still feel like there’s so much ahead of me that it can feel difficult to know where to start. But I feel pretty sure I’m past the worst of it, which was something I couldn’t say last year. 

I’m on the way up.

And that’s the word of the year I’ve chosen for 2015.

up 2015

I know the exercise of finding a word of the year can seem a little silly or trite. But doing it requires you to spend some time thinking about where you’re going and what it means. 

Up occurred to me while I was brainstorming and I kept finding myself thinking about phrases more than individual words. Things like: Brighten up, Move up, Look up. They were about motion and optimism. And I didn’t want to limit myself to just one of those things. Up lets me embrace a lot of them at once.

Optimism is something I need. The honest truth is my circumstances aren’t great. And I’m an honest truth kind of person. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the awful-ness of reality. I want to focus on where I’m going and not get stuck where I am. I want to remember the progress and the movement.

My goals, I’ll admit, are mostly financial right now. I want to make enough money that I can work just one job. 

As a mother, I want to figure out what kind of parent I want to be. These days I fly by the seat of my pants, I react rather than act. I want to find the right balance between giving them independence and being involved in what they’re doing. I worry that I think too much about what I was like as a kid and what I wanted, but it’s hard to tap into those little brains to know what I can do that suits them best and lets them flourish. 

As a writer I want to get back to the projects that matter to me. These days my writing is a lot more about freelance gigs, which is great to keep me above water financially but not great for me to work on my craft.

Oh, and I want to keep taking great pictures of the kids. 2014 was a pretty great year for that.

 11929890674 53e2d15c3a z Austin Adventures With Kids

 Grahams Fenway Birthday

 Riding Bikes 3

MFA Chihuly


Tessa colors

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I’ve had my camera for 2 years, I never expected I would be able to do things like this. Progress, guys, it’s happening.

Merry Merry

The kids spent Christmas Eve at their dad’s and then came home, just waiting to get to bed. They opened their Christmas pajamas (which I remembered to wrap just in time before they came back) and headed upstairs at 7:30. “You should close the door,” Graham said. So I did.

I think the real miracle of Christmas is kids volunteering to go to bed early and then staying in their room quietly. 

That left me to do the dirty work. I felt under the weather, I’d woken up with the cold that Graham is recovering from, so I was extra tired. 

Okay, let's wrap some presents. #whitechristmas #binganddanny4ever #thankyounetflix

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

I turned on Bing and Danny, made myself a hot toddy, and set to work. It was more than wrapping and assembling, there was also plenty of housework to do but I didn’t get much farther than tidying up the living room enough to make room for the new stuff.

It only took a couple hours to wrap the presents and fill the stockings. Then about an hour to assemble the new dollhouse. The assembly was not without hiccups. Nothing quite fit together right until it got screwed in. And even then, one piece of the roof has the pegs that go into the walls too wide-set to fit. I have no drill so for now the right roof is just kind of hanging on. 

I got to bed around 10, not too bad, but still later than I wanted in my sick haze. 

It was not terrible, it wasn’t even bad. It was just quiet. And while it wasn’t bad, I was acutely aware that this first year that I really get to do Christmas for my kids, I’m all alone. I’d always imagined it being different. Fun, funny, a little tipsy, with snacks and drinks and jokes. Just like the kids have waited for this day, I’ve waited for this night and it’s not quite what it was supposed to be. At least, not this year. But Bing and Danny were there, and it was familiar and I nibbled on Santa’s cookie and felt happy for the kids.

Those delightful children woke up at 6. In my sick state, I could’ve sworn it was around 3 a.m. I held them off for a bit, then went downstairs to get everything ready, grab a little breakfast, and make coffee. 

The kids waited until they heard the music. Perhaps the happiest I got this whole season was finding the Christmas album we always listen to on Spotify so I could turn it on for the kids just like my mom still turns it on at their house. I got kind of misty as I turned it on and watched the kids come down the stairs. 

Then I let them at it.

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Since they were up before dawn, the light was less than ideal but we got by.

Given all the time they took to wrap and shop for, it took surprisingly little time to open them.

At the end of the day they each had a shirt, a book, two toys, a couple stocking stuffers, and the big house to share. Thanks to Grammy and their Auntie it even looked kind of bountiful when all was said and done. And even a few presents can leave wrapping paper for days. 

I’d planned to start a new tradition with Christmas breakfast. This was a ridiculous idea. I was tired and feeling like death so the kids ate jelly beans and Pez for breakfast and couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking this is a tradition worth keeping. At least it gets me off the hook for a while.

It only took a few minutes for Graham to request television, insist he wasn’t in the mood to play with his toys, didn’t want to read his book, and then finally chill and start actually playing.

Christmas magic for my kids is all about the anticipation, I think. Christmas morning was not filled with talk of Santa the way the last few days have been. Graham asked to turn the music off. There were no pronouncements of the magic and joy and wonderful toys. They were a lot like they usually are. I admit, I expected a little more from them given the excitement of the last few days.

Parenting these two is a lot about learning the same lessons over and over again, expecting them to be something else and then remembering who they are. Maybe I’ll figure that out eventually.

Right now it’s barely past 9 am and it already feels like we’ve been up for eternity. I have caved and let them watch television, but am restricting it to holiday movies. 

Soon they’ll head over to their dad’s house and tomorrow they’ll be off to visit family for a week. Even though it’s Christmas I’m still feeling the weariness of having them in the house for 5 nights in a row, my fuse shortened as it usually is after I have them for a stretch (especially one that had Tessa home every day since day care is out for the week and Graham at school just one day). 

But it was still worth it, it was still nice, it was still a new Christmas just for us. Merry merry to all of you, too.

A Little Free Fun

Graham is so into Christmas. He is 110% invested. He talks about it constantly, he is counting down the days so often that he regularly finds himself disappointed that another day hasn’t gone by so he still has the same number of days left that he did the last time he counted.

I am doing what I can to go with it and give them some holiday excitement. We went to the Christmas store and each child got to pick out an ornament for the tree. We visited Santa and observed him from a safe distance. We saw the giant tree at Faneuil Hall and its lights and music show. 

But I’m relieved it’s almost done because we’ve basically run through our free or low-cost holiday activities. There are so many holiday events, but there’s always a price tag. Hey look, ice skating is free for kids at Boston Common! Except it’s $5 for mom to get in, $20 for everyone to get skates, etc., etc. I’m already over my budget for the month so this leaves us with few options.

So this weekend was a bit of a challenge, but we made it through.

On Saturday we went to a Hanukkah party where the kids didn’t even care there weren’t other kids there because they were so enjoying the dog and the dreidels they took home. (Graham has decided we should celebrate Hanukkah, too. Though he refused to eat a latke. Tessa, however, ate two.)

On Sunday we took a little drive north of town and went on a Story Walk. It was free, it wasn’t too long, there was a playground afterwards, and the hot chocolate we stopped for on the way home was only a couple bucks. I brought the camera along.

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Oh winter, I’m not looking forward to filling the time in the months ahead. After a half hour we were all shivering and anxious to get in the car. 

But we made it. And Christmas is this week and I think I’ve spent all the money and purchased all the presents and we’re good to go. At least I hope so. 

Autumn Cuteness Overload

I hope that in a few years when I look back on my life right now I’ll think, Well that sucked but at least I have lots of really beautiful pictures

I get serious satisfaction when we come home from an outing, put the SD card in my computer, and see that everything turned out so nicely. I’m not a pro by any means, but I’m getting pretty fantastic at getting pictures of my own kids, if I do say so myself. No more professional photographers for us, although I’m going to have to figure out some work with the self-timer if I ever want a decent picture with me in it.

We headed out to Pakeen Farm for pumpkins. I chose it for a few reasons. 1) Way closer than most other options. 2) No apple picking, so hopefully smaller crowds. 3) Mini-maze for pumpkin picking. 4) Cider donuts. It turned out okay. Short drive for us, a very small place, and even though we got their early it was starting to fill up by the time we left. The mini-maze was cute, very small, perfect for kids 6 and under to wander through and pick out pumpkins. 

Autumn Leaves

Nice foliage, if I do say so myself. I haven’t been able to get out and see much of it this year.

Pumpkin Maze

In the Maze

Pumpkin Maze

I found a little corner of the patch to have the kids sit down and smile for the camera. Thus began the ongoing struggle to get Tessa to look in my direction for pictures. It’s a battle I rarely win. 




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Inside, and many pictures later, I finally got eye contact from the little one, only to lose it from the big one. Of course. Side note: when your kids yell “pumpkin” instead of cheese you get really hilarious open-mouthed pictures. Also this was totally their idea, not my suggestion.


Say Pumpkin

Then we ordered our donuts and cider, and the kids went leaf hunting while we waited for our snack. Graham was a big fan of the multi-colored leaves.

Autumn Leaves

Red Leaf

Tessa and a leaf

Graham was being silly, it made for some great pictures, with more than the usual smiles.



And this head tilt from Tessa shown in sequence below, is SO HER that I just about did a double take when going through the pictures.
Tessa's head tilt 1

Tessa's head tilt 2

All in all, it was a simple trip, not too long, and totally worth the small price tag for the pictures and the pumpkins which we decorated at home. (They picked little ones, so no carving which is fine by me.) And I now have a bag of leaves we may press if I get really ambitious. Don’t cross your fingers.