MSI Mom Blog Archive


Feeling the love on Valentine’s Day and beyond
By Katie Niekerk

When I was a kid, Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. (That has changed in the intervening decades.) Receiving cards from classmates, making my own by hand, all the warm and fuzzies on the day itself—what wasn’t to love about a day for love?

Though it might no longer make my “favorite holiday” list, St. Valentine still affords me the opportunity to relive the day through my 7-year-old son. This weekend, he asked, “Mom, are we making valentines for my class again this year?” I said that I’d like to, if he’s up for it. He agreed. “Everyone gives everyone a valentine at school,” he said.

In the current cultural climate, I couldn’t help but consider the wonderful simplicity of that. Everyone gives everyone a valentine. Everyone feels deserving of love.

Of course, it’s one thing to communicate someone else’s worth during a 24-hour period dedicated to being nice. The real question is, how does that extend beyond? Beyond Valentine’s Day, beyond National Random Acts of Kindness Day (which, by the way, falls on Feb. 17)?  

While pondering this, I decided to create an advent calendar of sorts for Valentine’s Day. But instead of simply counting down, each day will bring an act of love for someone else. Paying for a Starbucks order for someone behind me in line. Baking cookies to put out in the kitchen at work. Actually delivering the compliments I usually keep to myself.

There are all sorts of ways for kids to get in on the kindness, too. Have your little ones make cards for family members or friends to send in the mail for an unexpected pick-me-up. Leave small, anonymous gifts on neighbors’ doorsteps, from a little basket of candy to a gift card for a restaurant you know they like.

I know it’s cliché, but it’s so important now: a little kindness goes a long way. Take February as a chance to mine the power of love—for yourself, those close to you and strangers alike.

The value of tradition beyond the holidays
By Katie Niekerk
As a relatively recent transplant (from California, no less), winter in the Midwest has been an adjustment. Not all bad, mind you—December’s a sleigh ride through glittering lights, holiday cheer and snow! There’s snow!

January is when the blues kick in. The holidays are over, the air is cold and my 7-year-old son grows cranky from less time outside. This is the month I proclaim, “Something must be done!” What that something is varies from year to year, but this month, I’m thinking about the value of tradition. Events and experiences that bring friends and family together for the simple purpose of appreciating time together.

The holidays, of course, are ripe with ritual, from cookie decorating to seasonal movie marathons. But it seems after New Year’s Day, tradition goes out the window and it’s back to the slog of routine. And why? Because the passage of time mandates we abandon fun things?

This month, as the fervor of the holidays fades and it’s back to business as usual, let’s keep tradition in the mix. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate thing that requires major planning, advance notice and money. I’m talking just a little something special to look forward to. Saturday lunch at a kid-friendly restaurant with a group of friends and their little ones. Cooking dinner as a family on Thursdays.

And not all traditions have to center on food. How about family board game night every Tuesday? A simple at-home science experiment every Friday? Or, choose a day of the week to get outside and head to the Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon. Whatever it is, traditions help establish family culture. They tell a story about what’s important to you, and they give kids a sense of routine outside the daily go-to-school grind.

As 2017 kicks off, let’s keep celebrating tradition. The holidays might be over, but family rituals are timeless.

The goal of going outside every single day
By Kelly Q. Anderson

Ask any Midwesterner and they will rave about our summer. But our winter is pretty great. For one, kids are bundled up like puffy marshmallows, with down coats, snow pants and pom-pom hats. But aside from the adorable aesthetic, winter allows for us to do so much in nature with so very little.

Snow gives us a chance to be our own architect whether that be with igloos, snowmen, snowballs or mini-mountains. A sled gives us a vehicle for learning about speed, slope and that happy feeling of WHOOSH! when a hill is conquered. Trees, rid of their leaves, will often hold snow on their branches and create a beautiful winter landscape. And how about the magic of sidewalk salt? A few sprinkles here and there and the blessing of science helps us to stay slip-free.

But I won’t try to sell you on winter; more so the idea of exploring the season. For us Midwesterners, when the temps go down we often stay inside, bundling up in blankets and shutting out the world. But it’s time to reconsider since staying indoors takes away all the fun stimulation of outside: the cool wind blowing by, the shine of ice, the crunch of stepping through snow, the wonder of seeing the flakes fall from the sky. This world is fresh, unexpected and exciting for a child.

So I’m sticking with a challenge that has served me well: I’m heading outdoors with my kids every day this winter. No excuses. No harrumphs. No matter how long it takes bundle up little hands with mittens. No matter how cold it is (OK that’s a lie. Below zero is the cut off).

We are not just one season of fun. We are many. We just need to be willing to explore. Let’s open up that door.

The big deal with being busy
By Kelly Q. Anderson

I’ve been dropping the b-word lately. No, not that one. The other b-word: busy.

Sound familiar? This is the buzziest word in a parent’s vocabulary because heaven forbid someone should say “Things are good. I have so much glorious time on my hands.”

Daily life is chaotic: homes, careers, kids, pets, hobbies, holidays, etc. (this list could go on infinitely). Being busy is a scapegoat. We want to justify the fact that we haven’t seen our friends in ages or vacuumed our homes in a week. We want an excuse for not exceeding expectations. We want to look productive. So, we say the b-word.

But for all the times I look at my schedule and harrumph about what’s going on, I find myself also growing interested in a new movement: the un-busy life. This is a life where one recognizes when too much is simply, well, too much. This is a life where sometimes plans are declined and relaxation is preferred. This is a life that is unapologetic and refreshingly forthright.

We are not ingrained to live this way. Busy is a sign of productivity, right? It’s just the way we function: grab coffee to go, eat lunch while working at our desks, workout while listening to music, or scroll through our phones while the kids play at a park.

If we busy ourselves with a mountain of plans, that somehow translates to success. Or does it? I’ve often had to remind myself that with parenthood, you can’t pull water from an empty well. Not only that, but I don’t ever want my kids to think that an empty well is healthy or something to strive for. An empty well is depleted, basically useless.

Let go and let bicycle
By Kelly Q. Anderson

When we entered the bicycle shop I think I may have levitated a bit. Picture it: a local store in a lovely town (I swear birds were chirping) with friendly service and aw-shucks smiles. An excited child sets eyes on the rows of candy-colored bikes and a joyous grin erupts. Cue the wonder!

I don’t think my brain was working properly in the straight-out-of-a-movie bike shop. Though I cheered alongside my son as he tested bikes around the store, something odd transpired when we came home and hit the streets for a ride. I felt light-headed and a bit dizzy. Panic gripped me yet I couldn’t quite say the words aloud: Holy crap, what have we got ourselves into?

The quickness of the moment was jarring. In my very own driveway I had a memory flash of every device and contraption used to tote my son around: baby carrier, car seat, ultra-fancy stroller, ultra-banged up umbrella stroller, wagon with a janky wheel, little push car with a long handle, etc.

Somehow I always had him within reach. I always had the ability to steer my child in the right direction. Yet here I stood with a boy on a bike who was ready for the world without me. He would be making decisions about crossing streets or racing down hills. He would choose his speed, his trip and his destination.

And though I could watch or ride along on my own bike, this was how it was going to be from now on. In that whimsical bike shop I never imagined an emotional hit like this. In gaining a bicycle I somehow lost my grip on my son’s childhood. Before I can eek out a dramatic sob or beg him to return to the driveway, he pedals off down the street, his voice shrieks as he yells “It feels like I’m flying!”

As my son bikes away, free and independent to the world, I realize I have to let go. But instead of sadness, I exhale and embrace the moment. For I have ridden a bike too, and I know the joy of sampling that first taste of freedom. It does, in fact, feel like flying.

A first moment marked by song
By Kelly Q. Anderson

I’ve just returned from a destination wedding and I’m still starry-eyed. A young couple was married at a cherished north woods camp the bride attended as a child. The vibe of the wedding was rustic, candlelit elegance with nature serving as a glorious backdrop.

The couple joined together for their first dance and a beautiful song filled the room with wistful love (I later looked up the catchy ditty: Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘Ain’t it enough’). There was poignancy in have a first moment marked by song. How often was such a thing occurring in other elements of life?

Fresh off the Olympics, our country joyously celebrated 121 medals and listened to our national anthem play a grand total of 46 times (the most gold medals of any country competing). A moment of victory marked by song.

Last month a few family birthday parties peppered our calendars and as children clapped around a cake that familiar ‘Happy Birthday’ tune filled the air. A moment of time passing marked by song.

My 4 1/2 year-old is really into viewing photos of himself as a baby, often relishing stories I tell about the ‘little boy’ he used to be. I explained that he used to call pumpkins ‘bup-bups’ and wave hello and goodbye to trees. But then I also tell him that no song ever made him happier than Pharrell Williams’ massive hit ‘Happy.’ It’s impossible for me to hear it without seeing a toddling little boy shrieking with glee and dancing in circles. A moment of childhood marked by song.

There will be so many more of these moments. They will nurture us through tragic news, they will inspire us to rise to our feet, and as our memories grow foggy we can always turn on the radio and find those moments once again.

Go ahead, let your kids be bored
By Kelly Q. Anderson

I can practically read your mind: finally a column that doesn’t list 2,000 things to do with your child this summer. Finally a chance to just let go and let be. Finally a chance to phone this whole parenting thing in (well, sort of).
Childhoods have undergone full renovations since I had one. It used to be that summer just meant being outside. But alas, now there are camps, classes, courses, sports leagues, mini-sessions and play groups to contend with. One half of my brain is delighted by this. The other half is a realist: do kids really need all this stimulation?
Recently Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of the acclaimed ‘Hamilton’ musical and his adorable son Sebastian) gave an interview with GQ magazine in which he professed that solid parenting is actually less parenting. He spoke fondly of his boredom growing up and having alone time to make up ninja games, bother his sister or act silly with friends all in the name of self-entertainment.
I thought of this recently when my family and friends were surprised that I bought a car that didn’t have television screens in the seats.
Them: “But what are your kids going to watch on road trips?”
Me: “They’re going to look out the window.”
Them: “Oh, so you’re going to get them iPads instead then?”
Me: “No. No iPads.”
Them: “Oh. But won’t they get bored?”
Yes, they will. And it will be great.
It will be great because boredom leads to that self-entertainment that Lin-Manuel speaks so highly of.
Being bored is a free pass to get frustrated and dream big. That restlessness isn’t just a part of childhood, it is wholly childhood. And who knows, the results of that restlessness may one day culminate in a Broadway smash, multiple Tony awards, a Pulitzer prize, a Grammy and a whole slew of personal satisfaction. Not bad for a little boredom.

Remembering to get out and play
By Kelly Q. Anderson

A sign of a successful summer is dirt. Yes, good ol’ mischievous mud.
It can be found under my son’s fingernails from a game of baseball, caked on his navy blue Crocs or even sprinkled across his brow from an afternoon of soccer kicks. Dirt is childhood plain and simple.
From a parenting lens, dirt doesn’t exactly equal success. When I think of dirt my first moody thought is ‘Vacuum!’ likely followed by stain treater, bath time, and various forms of scrubbing and generous swearing. Dirt just seems like a lot of extra work.
This past weekend the weather and my mind both shifted. Under a sweltering summer sun, I took my 4-year-old to a playground the size of Soldier Field and a memory struck. Not so much a vision, but a feeling.
As a child, I adored running over grass. I zoomed down hills and let my feet whip the wind until I was truly flying across the Earth. I felt so wild, happy and free.
In that moment at the behemoth playground, instead of worrying about dirt, I decided to play like I did as a kid.
Instead of parking myself on a bench, I actually explored the park with my kids. I stood high atop slides to imagine being perched in a castle and I swung from the monkey bars until I remembered that my upper body strength is hot garbage. But it was still cool, trust.
Dismissing makeup and perfectly blow-dried hair, I happily dashed through the sprinklers in the splash pad. It was refreshing in the heat and my son squealed each time I popped out of the water spray like a rocket ship.
I played on dry land, too. When the sidewalk chalk came out, I plopped myself on the concrete and doodled right along with my son. Powdery colors exploded on the walk ways and across my hands and T-shirt. It was surrealism, literally and figuratively.
At the end of the day, there was dirt. There was also chlorine, sweat, chalky bits, grass stains and even a few wood chips. For a brief moment, I harrumphed about the extra work. But then I thought about the feeling of childhood: wild, happy and free. Exactly as it should be and a success all-around.

Summer in Chicago: The Ultimate puzzle
By Keely Flynn

I’m obsessed with puzzles. Crosswords, locked room mysteries and apps with continuously unrolling installments. (For a small fee! Darn you, apps.) 

It doesn’t take a (standing, bi-monthly) therapy appointment to figure out why I, as a parent, am soothed by these games. When you have tiny children — and later, children who call home to frantically ask which soap goes into which appliance — you realize that A plus B doesn’t always tidily equal C. You’re never done. A modicum of finality, then, in the form of a solved riddle or firmly placed tile, eases the brain like lunchbox prep never could. (A word search, for example, will never send back home a thrice-bitten apple.) 

With the onset of summer, looser schedules and permissively nonexistent bedtimes, this sets my puzzle-happy brain into high gear. How best to arrange this? On one hand, structure and activities to anticipate make for an engaged, reassured child. But on the other hand, planning for easy and breezy weeks gives everyone a break from the “shoulds” and “have tos.”

Pro tip: If you find yourself charting out how best to ensure “easy and breezy weeks,” perhaps you’re not the gypsy soul you always considered yourself to be. 

A propensity for/obsession with multitasking doesn’t help in this pursuit of all things casual. I envy my husband his ability to be — and stay — in the moment. I absolutely cannot do it. I find that the majority of mothers cannot do it, either. (No slight intended for the Dads and other such males who can juggle tasks like a circus performer. I’ve yet to witness them, but I’m sure they’re out there.) When he’s playing with the kids, it would never cross his mind to simultaneously fold laundry or schedule an appointment. When he takes them on walks, he actually acknowledges the things they hand him, as opposed to distractedly nodding while adding ingredients to a meal planning app. And when he watches movies with them? He truly watches the movies. (To this day I could not tell you how the movie “Frozen” ends; I’m usually mopping the kitchen floor during the guaranteed footprint-free span of time.)

Maybe my husband’s formula for puzzle solving involves being present. Maybe mine is spinning as many pieces before the timer runs out. Either way, I know we both want to raise children who don’t view life as something with a difficulty level of impossible. 

So maybe the code isn’t all that hard to crack. Perhaps the bonus levels will appear if we set our game play to “easy.” We’ll take the train to the Loop when we’re feeling up for adventure, stay barefoot at home when we’re not. Scrawl things like “go to the beach” on a whiteboard (and even scrawl and cross off after the fact, because striking through insignificant tasks feels really, really good). And when in doubt on this riddle of a summer vacation, we can just shove them outside. (Hey, it worked for our parents!)

Maybe we’ll even spend some time going analog.

Chicago moms deserve more than a day
By Keely Flynn

May means Mother’s Day. Or at least it should.

Oh, I’m not talking about your maternal status, or even the status of your own Mama. (Although those definitely count and should be feted left and right.) I’m not even talking about the one, single, solitary day — or, let’s be honest — late Sunday morning in May where everyone sits down to brunch for an hour and showcases their handmade cards. (Although, again, that hour is awesome.)

No, I’m talking about how we all have “mothers” to honor. That neighbor who watches your kids and pretends she’s just thrilled to have a quiet night watching Netflix on your couch. The mentor who truly actually reads each word in your emails and responds in a way that makes you feel smarter, calmer and more validated for the exchange. The friend who knows which length flatters, yes, but also how to deftly help you disembark from the Self-Pity Train. 

You never stop needing a mother. 

I think you’ll agree with me, then, that one day (and one morning of one day) is entirely too brief of a time to celebrate an emotional impact of this magnitude. So month-long Mother’s Day it is! Ditch the brunch and plan some gal pal lakefront picnics. Stoke the bonfire and host the first outdoor movie night of the season with your sisters, your aunts, your visiting college roommates. Raid your hard-won tulip garden and hand-deliver (or ding dong ditch) a tiny bit of cheerful loveliness. This is the month, after all, where Chicago begins to unfurl just enough of its beauty (thanks, Mother Nature!) and give us all a good bout of energizing, life-loving Spring Fever. And as everybody knows, at the first sign of a fever …

… You’re going to want to stick close to a mom.