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21 Jun

I’m not going to lie to you. Today sucks.

This morning we said goodbye to our Italian daughter.

We spent almost a half a year preparing for the arrival of our exchange daughter, Emma. We prepped her on what clothes to bring, finished our guest room, and talked with our children about what changes may come from adding a teenager into our family. We watched orientation videos on the emotional stages our exchange student may experience while acclimating to her time in the United States and we role played how we would handle hypothetical misunderstandings. When she finally did arrive here in late of August of last year, I felt thoroughly prepared for any possible scenario that may have arisen during her exchange year. It turns out that I was prepared for her arrival and for her stay, but nothing has prepared me for how difficult it would be to watch her go.

When she left this morning, she left with a piece of my heart.

Let me be clear. I understand that I am not actually her mother. I’m not under any delusions that I played a role in the actual parenting or shaping of her person. Her real parents did an amazing job on that front long before she stepped foot on American soil. But I have comforted her, held her, encouraged her, advised her, and freaking loved the crap out her these last ten months. She is not my daughter by blood. I know this. But I love her like one of my own.

Hosting Emma has been one of the best choices we’ve ever made as a family. I’m not sure any of us realized how quickly we would bond and how deep our bond would be. So even though we all left the airport sobbing messes and I’ve been walking around with a box of Kleenex all afternoon, I have no regrets about being a host family. The fact that we’re all feeling her absence so profoundly speaks to the truth of the connections that we made in our time together. The memories we’ve made together, and the relationship that we’ll have with Emma for the rest of our lives are well worth any sadness we may be feeling now.

The word ciao, like aloha, means both hello and goodbye. I think this is appropriate because this may be goodbye to our year of living with Emma, but it is also hello to the rest of my life with her as my daughter overseas.

So ciao for now, my beautiful Emma. Our lives are better now that you’re in them, and you will forever have a home with us. I love you.
-Your Host Mum-

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Mom Guilt

12 Oct

This past Sunday when bestie was over we somehow got on the topic of Mom Guilt.

Mom Guilt is a special brand of guilt reserved for mothers who are doing their best to do it all. It’s feeling guilty when you tell your toddler he can’t play outside because you have to stay inside and feed the baby. It’s feeling guilty when you let your baby cry for ten minutes while you finish your shower. It’s feeling guilty when you let your children watch more television than you know is good for them so that you can do the dishes. It’s feeling guilty when you neglect the dishes so that you can take the time to write for the first time in months.

Now, I don’t presume to speak on behalf of all mothers, but I have spoken to enough of my mom friends to know that most experience at least some Mom Guilt on a semi-regular basis.

I’ve been experiencing higher than average levels of Mom Guilt these past few weeks. I know that logically this is to be expected given the recent addition of Child #3 to our family. I keep telling myself that it’s normal for things to fall behind and priorities to shift while we adjust to life as a family of five. I tell myself this, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

I’m doing my best to turn my life into a spinoff of an improv game I once played. Instead of adding, “yes, and…” to the end of each of my sentences, though, I’m adding an, “and that’s okay” to the end of each of my admissions of guilt.

Yes, Child #2 hasn’t had a ton of Vitamin D lately, and that’s okay. Yes, Child #3 had to scream bloody murder in order for me to shave my armpits, and that’s okay. You get the idea.

It’s okay because I’m doing the best I can. As much as I’ve prayed to the gods for superpowers or, even better, my very-belated Hogwarts letter, I sadly remain a mere human, and a muggle at that.

I’m not perfect. Even on my best days, there are still going to be dirty bottles on the counter and unfolded laundry in the dryer. There are going to be times when my household obligations don’t get my attention because of time spent with my children and vice versa. This doesn’t make me a failure as a mother, or as a spouse (side note: Spouse Guilt is another beast, entirely). It makes me normal.

I need to do better at reminding myself that at the end of each exhausting day [How long until babies sleep through the night, again? No, seriously, I can’t remember.] my children go to bed with all their basic needs met. Even better, they are (usually) happy, and at least somewhat clean. Most importantly, they are loved, and that is more than okay.

My Road Not Taken

29 Jul

One year ago today, to celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary, Husband and I embarked on our first European vacation. Throughout our trip, we spent time in Rome, Pompeii, Athens, Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi, Santorini, and Heraklion. As someone whose undergraduate degree is in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, the phrase “trip of a lifetime” doesn’t even begin to cover what this vacation meant to me.


I’ve wanted to write about our trip for the entirety of this past year, but I wasn’t sure how. How could I possibly put into words the magnitude of the significance of what I experienced? There weren’t enough words; there weren’t the right words. A year has gone by. They still might not be the right words, and Lord knows there won’t be enough. (I apologize now, at the start, for the length of this entry.) But I have to try.

There’s a scene in The Jane Austen Book Club where Prudie, a French teacher who had never been to France, is expressing her frustration about devoting her entire life to teaching youth about a culture that she herself had never experienced. It’s a scene that until last year hit all too close to home for me.

Though it may have seemed like it to my family at the time, my archaeology degree was not one that I stumbled into haphazardly. I have an “All About Me” book from my elementary school years proudly declaring that I wanted to be an archaeologist “when I grow up” to prove it. The time spent in my undergraduate courses did not feel like work to me. I could have read about amphoras and friezes and ionic columns and themes in Greek tragedies forever and been perfectly content. I had every intention of continuing my studies in graduate school, and then going to do field work somewhere. I had dreams of getting published and goals of teaching at a University myself someday. To this day I know I could have done, would have done it.

Except for I got engaged in April of my freshman year of college, and got married 15 months later. Husband and I started to talk about our future together and a life with a house and kids and before I knew it, my dreams and goals had changed entirely.

This is the part in my story when I need to be abundantly clear so there is no misinterpretation. It was my choice, made without the input of Husband, not to pursue a career in archaeology. Husband would have supported to me the moon if that’s the path I said I wanted. (He was always, and still is, steadfast in support of my dreams like that.) I wanted the life with the house and kids more than I wanted the life with my pottery shards, and yes, there probably would have been some way to have both. It would have been a way that likely meant extreme financial strain and unplanted roots, and it would not have been a way that led to my happiness. It should also be noted that I love and adore my chosen career path, and am perfectly content to continue teaching for as long as I am able.

Still, though, archaeology has always been my life unlived. There were moments where my friends sent me postcards from the sites that I spent hours studying where I thought I would literally turn green with envy. It got to the point where every time Husband and I talked about another choice in our life (another kid, a bigger house, another family vacation) where I thought I might burst if I had to wait through another life decision before I finally got my turn to at least see with my own eyes what could have been my alternate reality. This trip was no longer the trip I wanted to take someday. It was the trip I needed to take for my own sanity.

As luck would have it, December of 2014 found Husband surfing the internet and stumbling across the cheapest flight to Rome we’d ever seen, just in time for our wedding anniversary. We meticulously planned every detail of our vacation from there, making sure that I would see as much of my archaeological world as we could humanly fit into our 12-night adventure.

Obvious life events aside, those were the best 13 days of my life. To see the details of Trajan’s column up close, to walk through the original streets of Pompeii, to climb the stairs of the Propylaia… Gazing out at the view from Delphi with the stillness of summer and hearing no sound except for the never-ending chorus of cicadas made it so easy to understand why the Greeks believed it to be a mystical place. Hell, if an oracle had appeared predicting my future, I sure would have believed her. That feeling is something no number of textbooks could have ever taught me. To imagine the ancient Greeks traveling all that distance and climbing those same mountains… Like I said before, there just are no words. All of a sudden the people I had spent years studying were not an abstract concept. They were real, and I could feel them, everywhere. I’m not an overly emotional person, but there wasn’t a day of our trip that I didn’t well up thinking about the gift it was to be there. It meant, and still means, everything.


History nerdiness aside, I was also just so grateful for the cultural experience. I am not well-traveled, and my knowledge of culture outside of my own is embarrassingly limited. I relished every moment of my time in Europe. Every bite taken of a new food, every sentence I heard spoken in a foreign tongue, and every piece of life away from home I saw just made me want to taste more, hear more, see more.

Then there were the people. Professor Camp who took time out of his day off to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of his excavation of the Agora in Athens. Gracious Louanna, whose husband Albert chauffeured us around Santorini. One of our sunset cruise boat crew members who talked to me about dreams of college and made me instantly realize how often I take my own education for granted. The military man and his wife we spent hours laughing with, promising to look each other up on Facebook later except there was all-you-can-drink wine and I’ll probably never be able to recall their names. Our trip wouldn’t have been what it was without people like these. They were, and are, essentially strangers, but now they’re also treasured memories.


Of course, I can’t talk about the joy of my trip without talking about Husband himself. For someone who sweats basically upon contact with the sun, he was such a trooper. He spent hours in sweltering humidity and 90 degree temperatures watching me read every plaque and examine every toppled column, and he didn’t utter one word of complaint. Husband enjoys history as much as the next person, but I know that every step (and there were many, many steps) of our trip was for me.

This vacation opened up new worlds for me, both literally and figuratively. When I think about our time spent in Rome and Greece, my heart literally aches with love for what I’ve seen and done, and longing to see and do it all over again. I may have taken this trip thinking it was going to satiate my desire to experience the world outside my own, but really all I’ve done was increase my hunger. I’m not sure how and in what capacity, but I know now that travel is something I need to have more of in my life, and hopefully in the lives of my children as well. There is just so much out there to experience, and I want to do it all.


On Luck and Love

9 Jul

Numerous people have told me on numerous occasions how lucky I am to have my husband.

“Not all guys are willing to change diapers.”

“Not all guys clean bathrooms.”

“Not all guys would watch the kids so you can go sit at a movie theatre all day.”

“Not all guys would be okay with you going back to school.”

While these statements about “not all guys” may be (unfortunately) true, I don’t think luck has anything to do with it. It’s not as though I was casually walking one day, tripped over a rock, and happened to find my husband underneath. It’s not as though he was the one assigned to marry me and he just happens to possess these qualities. I am not lucky to have my husband; choosing him was a conscious decision.

I always knew I wanted a man who would be involved with his children. A man who didn’t feel as though watching them was a burden, but a gift.

I always knew I wanted a man who viewed our marriage as an equal partnership, toilet scrubbing and all.

I always knew I wanted a man who would encourage ambition and dreaming; someone who would push me up rather than hold me down.

I have the husband I have because of my smart choices and high standards, not luck.

But, I have to give credit where credit is due.

I am lucky.

I am lucky to have found Husband at age 17. I am lucky that the same amazing man I wake up next to each morning is the boy who took me to my senior prom. I am lucky that now, at age 30, I am celebrating my 10 year wedding anniversary to the man of my dreams.

We’ve been married for 10 years, together for 15. We’ve gone from teenagers to young adults to (gulp) legit adulting, and I am so grateful that we’ve been able to grow and mature together. We’ve had our share of both joy and strife, but all of those snapshot moments, both good and bad, form a collective image of a beautiful life together.

I am lucky, yes. But even more so, I am grateful.

Husband is tied for first-place as Greatest Man I Know, right next to my father, which is the highest compliment I could ever give.

Thank you, Husband, for making the smart choice in marrying me. And for loving me after all this time. Always.


Young Love, Real Love

16 Oct

This past weekend I had the joyous pleasure of spending some time with a few of my former sixth grade girls who are now in ninth grade. They had invited me to go see The Maze Runner with them, since that is a book that we read together when I had them as students. To say I was flattered when they invited me is a gross understatement. When people talk about teaching being a rewarding profession, this is what they’re talking about.

We were the only people in our theater, which was fantastic. It allowed us them to cry out things like, “All four walls are supposed to be open!” and “Why does Theresa look like Bella Swan?” without fear of being kicked out. After the movie we went to Starbucks because, well, duh. After our discussion of the book and the movie and why the books are always better unless they’re Lord of the Rings, our discussion strayed to other topics. My girls told me about their classes and how middle schoolers should never, ever complain about the amount of homework they get because high school is so much worse. They told me about their families and their friends and their cell phones or lack thereof. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn. It went something like this:

Student: “Well Ms. Nelson, we had something we wanted to ask you.”

Me: “Ok?”

Student: “Well, ok. We’ve been trying to find our soul mates, so we wanted to ask you how you met your husband.”

My first reaction was to laugh at how stinking cute they were for asking me that. My second thought was the obvious one, that ninth grade is far too young to be worrying about things like soul mates. But then I really thought about it. Husband and I met each other when I was in tenth grade. Granted, we didn’t start dating until a year later, but still. I was only one year older when I met my husband than these girls are now. It was a really hard idea to wrap my mind around. They still seem so young in so many ways! Was I really that young myself when Husband and I met? Then I realized that whether I was or wasn’t, it didn’t matter.

It’s easy to dismiss relationships that start at a young age as puppy love. A fleeting feeling that isn’t “real,” and cannot possibly withstand the test of time. For many, that may be true. But for some relationships, like mine, it’s the real deal. The beauty of love, true love, is that it evolves with the people who carry it and mold it. The love Husband and I have for each other now is different from the love we had back when I was in high school. Our love is calmer now, less full of angst. It seems less urgent somehow, but no less vibrant. No less meaningful. No less real.

My first reaction was to laugh at my students and brush off their request for advice on finding one’s soul mate, but to do so would have belittled the lives they lead. In retrospect at age almost-thirty, the trials and tribulations of my fourteen-year-old self seem small and unimportant. But I remember clearly, that at the time they were everything. So I told them my story. Husband’s story. Our story. Even the embarrassing parts. Especially the embarrassing parts.

These particular girls hold a special place in my heart. They’re my girls from my first year of teaching and my first year of our middle school book club. If I’m being completely honest, I see parts of my sixth-grade self in each of them. Their proclivity for falling in love with fictional characters, their feelings of self-doubt, their yearning for fairy tale romance, kindred spirits and something more. I can relate to it all. The thing that got me through those painfully awkward years were my friends, my books, and my teachers. Teachers who took me seriously, related to me, and saw my life not as a fleeting moment in time, but as the only moment that mattered. If I can do that, be that, for these girls, then I will be able to consider myself a success.


On Robin Williams and Mental Illness

12 Aug

I am no stranger to celebrity deaths. I carry vivid memories of my grandmother weeping when Princess Diana left us too soon. I remember down to the detail where I was and what I was doing when I heard about Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. The shock of Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and Paul Walker, all taken unexpectedly in the prime of their lives, is still with me. It goes without saying that at the time of these deaths I felt sad. Death is not the kind of news that makes one feel joy. Still, though, I felt removed. The way you would feel if a coworker told you their husband’s mother died. Sad stuff, but not really impacting my daily life. I watched the people wailing on TV about how their lives were never going to be the same and I couldn’t help but think, “Why are you crying? You did not know that person. You knew their work as an artist, but you did not know them.”

Last night when I heard the news about Robin Williams, I felt as though it was a personal loss. I found myself tearing up, unable to watch the endless montages of his films playing on every station ever. Given my standard reaction to celebrities passing, this took me by surprise. I did not know Robin Williams. I knew his work as an artist, and I loved his work as an artist, but I did not know him. I spent a considerable amount of time yesterday trying to figure out why his death has touched me more than the deaths of so many others.

Perhaps it was because I appreciated his work more on a deeper level than those other celebrities. Any actor who voiced a character in a Disney classic is automatically on my List of Favorite People. I watched Aladdin so many times the VHS needed to be replaced. As a kid I chewed on a chunk of soap for quoting Mrs. Doubtfire. (“P-P-P-Piss off, Lou.” It was totally worth it.) Times spent watching his Live on Broadway DVD constitute both some of the best (bachelorette party!) and worst (That Night We Don’t Talk About EVER) memories that I have. Yes, the jokes are no longer timely, but I couldn’t care less. Martha Stewart prison jokes will always be funny. There was not a movie Robin Williams was in that I didn’t like. Furthermore, I do not remember a time when there were movies without him. I grew up watching him. Will I miss his talent? You betcha. But I still don’t think this accounts for 100% of why I feel his death so acutely.

After much soul-searching last night, I think the reason Robin’s death (yeah, we’re on a first name basis now) hurts so much is because of why he died. Accidents are always tragic, but it seems pretty clear that his death was no accident. In case you somehow are reading my blog before any piece of news on this matter, Robin Williams was a long time sufferer of depression, and it is believed that he committed suicide. This hits close to home.

There is a history of mental illness in my family. Who has it and what specifically they are suffering from are not relevant to this pontification. Suffice it to say that I have on several occasions had to talk someone off of the suicidal ledge. I have had to defend that person’s self-worth, explain their importance in my life, beg, cry, and plead for them to stick around just one more day. I’ve also had to call the police when my words alone wouldn’t cut it. I thank God every day that the people I’ve had these conversations with are still alive. Are they “cured”? Hell no.

I have seen firsthand the struggle it is to simply cope when you are diagnosed with a mental illness. If you have diabetes, insurance will cover your doctor visits and medication. When you tell someone you have diabetes, they do not look at you like you are less of a human being. If you have an attack due to low blood sugar, people offer you orange juice, help, and empathy. You are not to blame for your symptoms. It’s not your fault, it’s your disease.

If you have a mental illness, insurance will only cover so many therapy visits and only some forms of medication. When you tell someone that you have a mental illness, they look at you like you are somehow dangerous or unworthy of standard human kindness. If you have a mood swing, a flashback, or a panic attack, people turn away and expect you to get it “under control.” You are to blame for your symptoms. It’s your fault, not your disease.

There are people in my life who are fighting these struggles on a daily basis. Every waking second takes effort to behave in a way expected by society. There’s no such thing as feeling “normal.” I can absolutely understand how enduring these circumstances could seem unbearable, and where Death could seem like the better option when faced with a lifetime of pain and scorn. Obviously suicide is not the answer, but I can see how someone struggling could find themselves in such a desperate place.

As I said before, I did not know Robin Williams. I cannot say with certainty that the struggles I’ve observed in my family were also his struggles. I do not pretend for even a split second to know the specific brand of pain he grappled with. I only know that he suffered from depression and that now he is gone. I can only hope that his death sheds more light into the darkness that is mental illness. Rest in peace, Robin. You were loved, and you will be missed. And if you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, please know that you are not alone.

*Disclaimer: The above blog details some of my personal experiences with and opinions about mental illness. It is not intended to speak on behalf of all people with mental illness or all people who know someone with mental illness.  




For My Father, On Father’s Day

15 Jun

Every year on Father’s Day I stand in the card aisle struggling to find one that really captures the essence of my father. There’s a stereotypical image of a “dad” in America. Every card seems to have something to do with grilling, beer, farts, and tools. Clearly in our culture when we think “dad,” we think Tim the Tool Man Taylor. But my dad has never been that guy. He’s never been the “greets my dates at the door with his shotgun” kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong; he’s great on the grill, likes beer as much as the next guy and is most definitely protective of those he holds dear. He just does it in a “strong and silent” kind of way.

As I mentioned in my mother’s day post, my parents struggled financially. My father has worked two, sometimes three, jobs for as long as I can remember. It would be understandable if he had been more of a fringe figure in my childhood since he was sometimes at work more than he was home, but on the contrary, there’s not a single important moment of my life that my dad hasn’t made time for. From the father-daughter sock hop in Girl Scouts to the time he agreed to coach my hopeless softball team and every conference, concert, performance and camping trip in between, he has always been there. He may have been sleep deprived and coffee fueled, but he was there with a smile on his face.

The man worked tirelessly to give us everything we wanted. I remember him agreeing to take me to the store on the day after Christmas to do an exchange for whatever it was I absolutely had to have that day. We took a number and sat on a bench for an impossibly long time waiting for our turn to arrive. While we sat there, my father smiled the entire time. I, being crabby and impatient like usual, asked him why he was so happy. “Andrea,” he said, “I’m just happy to be sitting.”

My father has set the impossibly high standard by which I judge all men. There is nothing, literally nothing, that he wouldn’t do for his family. He was the only sibling out of four to stay in Minnesota and support his mother until the very end. He has taken that whole “in sickness and in health” thing to heart, sticking by my mother’s side through too many ups and downs in their relationship to count. A lesser man would have split under the pressure, but he has taught me that  love is something worth fighting for, and marriage is a commitment to be taken seriously. My dad has always, always, treated my mother with the utmost respect. No, scratch that. He has always, always, treated everyone with the utmost respect. He taught me at a very early age through both his words and his actions to follow Thumper’s rule (although with better grammar), “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” And the things he would do to make my brother and me happy… The man even dressed in drag once in an attempt to win me *NSYNC tickets. Father of the year? You betcha. More like father of the century. It goes without saying that my own husband, father of my children, has his work cut out for him if he is to ever live up to the legacy that is My Dad.

There’s been a long-running joke in our family that my dad’s real name is “Saint Stephen.” We laugh about it, but the truth is that he does possess many of the qualities the saints are revered for. Compassionate, selfless, dedicated, loyal. Willing to give his everything for those he loves. My father is without a doubt the best man I have ever known.

So today on this day when we celebrate our fathers, I want to say thank you. Thank you, Dad, for never giving up on our family. Thank you for your humor, your support and your sacrifices. I appreciate you more than I can ever express in words. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.