Clay turns five: “Welcome to the ‘big kid’ years!”

Helping daddy make smoothies

Helping daddy make smoothies this morning

Today is Clay’s fifth birthday, and I just got an email from BabyCenter that nearly made me cry. “Welcome to the ‘big kid’ years!,” the first line said. I guess it’s better than “your baby is going to kindergarten this year, where does the time go?,” which is what I’ve been thinking a lot lately.

I signed up for BabyCenter five years and eight months ago, when I was newly pregnant with Clay. I liked the weekly updates telling me how the baby was growing and comparing his size to various food items, though the shrimp comparison was creepy, and the jicama one had me frantically searching Google images.

As time passed, I no longer needed BabyCenter to tell me how big my baby was getting – I saw it every day. He was so tiny when we brought him home from the hospital five weeks early, but eating every two hours helped him grow quickly. He smiled and laughed and rolled over. All his dark hair fell out and he looked like Uncle Fester before it came back blond. He talked when he was 10 months old (and hasn’t stopped), but he started walking late, which Chase still talks about. “Clay didn’t walk until he was 18 months old, right?,” he’ll ask me. It was 15 months exactly. I’ll never forget. He was home sick, and my dad had spent the prior week practicing with him. He took five steps to me in the kitchen before falling. I screamed with excitement, which scared him. I kept quiet on the second attempt, taking video instead.

Clay is a typical first born. He’s very cautious, thinking about everything before he does it.  He has empathy for everyone and hates conflict, even in Disney movies. He’ll actually leave the room during fighting or “scary” scenes. He loves with all his heart. There is nothing he’d rather do than spend time with friends and family. He leads his cousin and his sister around by the hand, and I’ve seen him put his arm around the waist of his best girl friend when they play together. His teachers tell me he is a natural leader and though that makes me a little nervous (I’ve met Bill Clinton), it also makes me proud when they say he’s very inclusive and everyone likes to be around him.

That’s how I feel about him, too. When I was pregnant, people assumed I would rather be having a girl (which wasn’t the case) and would try to cheer me up by telling me how special a mother-son relationship can be. Watching Chase and his mom and my brother and my mom, I don’t think that bond ever goes away, which makes me smile.

I went to kindergarten information night a few weeks ago and it hit me that my first baby is turning a “big kid.” Watching him help around the house, write sentences at school and especially today, on his fifth birthday, I know in many ways he’s already there. I’m just glad I get to go along for the ride, because we’re going to enjoy the heck out of these “big kid years.”

Happy birthday, Munchkin!

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The Happiest Place on Earth: How to save time and money at Disneyland

Ready for the day!

Ready for the day!

We’ve been back from Disneyland for a week, and we’re still talking about it. Disneyland is not far from San Diego, but we were waiting until our kids were a  bit older to make sure they would really enjoy (and remember) their first visit. Since their birthdays are a month apart, we asked if they wanted to spend a couple of days at Disney instead of having birthday parties, and the Cars lover and princess fanatic thought this was a great idea.

I read some helpful tips for saving time and money before we went, so I thought I’d share what made our trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth” so much fun.

1. Buy tickets online
I buy everything online, so it’s no surprise I purchased our tickets that way. What was a surprise was how many people didn’t purchase tickets in advance and how long the lines were to buy them at the gates. Buy online and save valuable time!

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

2. Stay at a Disney hotel
I know some people may argue this, as the price is significantly higher than it is to stay at the local Marriott or Hilton. Time is money though, so it was worth the extra $100 to park our car on site and walk (not shuttle) everywhere. Another big advantage is that you can get into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else and avoid crowds. We were also able to come back to our room in the early afternoon. The kids and Chase took a nap while I did some work, then we watched the end of the Masters and had a drink and snack before heading back to Disneyland feeling refreshed.

Mmm...Pirate's Booty and fruit snacks

Mmm…Pirate’s Booty and fruit snacks

3. Bring snacks and drinks
I do this at every theme park (Sea World, San Diego Zoo), but it’s especially helpful at Disney where lines are long and prices are high. I bought Capri Sun waters and made individual bags of snacks for each kid. The obvious advantage is saving money since a bottle of water is $4 and popcorn is $6, but it also allows you to eat healthier than you would with most Disney options. Not to mention it keeps you sane, helping to distract the kids in long lines. And of course, you’ll be grateful for the time you save not having to wait in line with other hungry (and often grouchy) families.

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

4. Limit souvenirs
Disney is a marketing machine, and many attractions spill riders out directly into gift shops. We exited quickly, leading the kids off to new rides. Though the toys in the shops look fun, they were there for the experience and didn’t seem to mind. That being said, Avery got a Disney gift card from her aunt and uncle for her birthday, and Clay had a great week (of listening) at school, so we told him he could pick something $15 or less.  I was shocked Clay was able to find Cars he didn’t already have (he’s been collecting them for almost two years), and Avery chose a Minnie Mouse pillow pet. This was their first trip to Disney, so I was okay buying one thing each.  If you agree to buying a souvenir, I’d recommend buying it at the end of the day, so you don’t have to lug it around all day.

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

5. Get to the parks early
We got to Disneyland right when they opened and to California Adventure an hour before they opened to the public (thanks to staying on property). Lines are short when the parks first open, so head to the rides that are most important to you first. It’s also good to get FASTPASSES for the popular rides in the morning since they run out quickly. That was the case for Radiator Springs Racers in the new Cars Land. Chase and Clay went and got in line for the ride, while I stood in the FASTPASS line, which meant Clay got to ride again later that morning. FASTPASSES for that ride run out by 11:00 a.m. and without them, my coworker waited in line for three hours. No, thanks!

Our breakfast companion

Our breakfast companion

6. Book a character dining experience
Disney characters walk around the parks, but they have handlers like the celebrities they are, and kids have to wait in line to meet them. But, there is a solution for impatient people like me – character dining. I know $16 is a lot of money for a child’s breakfast, but for little kids, eating with Disney characters is pretty darn cool. At our hotel, the Paradise Pier, the food wasn’t bad either. They had an omelet station reminiscent of our Hawaiian honeymoon and Mexico trips, so Chase and I pretended we were on a tropical vacation. You have to eat breakfast regardless, so rather than spending time at the park waiting in line to meet Minnie, let her come to you while you enjoy some pancakes. We went early (7:00 a.m.), so the dining room was not crowded, and we got a lot of attention from the characters. Almost too much attention for me, but it was great for the kids. If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, there are dining experiences at the parks, including Ariel’s Grotto, where you dine with the princesses (we chose the more generic Mickey & Friends option since Clay is not quite as obsessed with princesses as Avery is).

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we're eating in the hallway?

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we’re eating in the hallway?

7. Put the kids to bed, order room service and relax
Chase and I didn’t eat dinner at the park, choosing instead to order room service at the hotel. We brought a cooler with us, so we had drinks and the kids fell asleep quickly listening to a bedtime story from Cinderella on the TV (another benefit of the Disney hotel). The food was just okay and we ate in the hallway of our room with the lovely light of the bathroom, but it was nice to have some alone time and made it feel like a vacation for the adults as well.

All of these tips are specific to Disneyland, though for my East Coast friends, they’d probably work for Disney World, too. Chase and I joked that a fun drinking game (if they sold booze) would be to take a drink every time you hear a kid cry. Fortunately, it was never either of our kids. We had a blast!

I’m sure I’m forgetting some tips since I didn’t get much sleep on the trip and haven’t had time to catch up since. Do you have any tips for Disney, to make our next trip even better?

Avery turns three, still my baby girl

Back in bed, after her birthday visit

Back in bed, after her birthday visit to our room

We called her “baby girl” for years, but now it’s usually “Avery Gracie” or “princess.” She’s not a baby, as she so often reminds us, but she’s still my baby girl. Last night she came into our room at nearly the exact same time she was born. She doesn’t usually come in our room at night, so it’s almost like she knew that three years ago, at that time, something special was about to happen. Our world was changed forever when Avery Grace was born.

Avery has this charisma and upbeat personality that seems unusual in such a young child. I used to joke that if I were an illustrator, I would make a cartoon of her. Now I threaten to take her to Hollywood and make her get a job, but I don’t want her to end up like Lindsay Lohan, so we’ll keep her as our personal entertainment instead.

My first post on this blog was on Avery’s 2nd birthday. I said she was the perfect baby, which was true. About two months after I wrote that post, she learned how to climb out of her crib, moved into a toddler bed and still escapes a few nights a week. She’s not being naughty, she just doesn’t want to miss anything. She needs one more hug and kiss or a bite of whatever Chase and I are having for dinner.

Last year one of our friends, who doesn’t have kids of his own, made a comment that Avery is going to be that girl in high school that everyone loves because she is up for anything. I have mixed feelings about this (I will be monitoring her friends very closely!), but it’s a character trait I wish I had. If you ask Avery if she wants to do something, nine times out of 10, her answer is “sure!” The “nos” are few and far between and mostly occur when asking her to wear a certain outfit or to sit still to do her hair.

I hope our baby girl has a wonderful 3rd birthday!

Birthday outfit, I didn't have to fight her on this one

Showing off her birthday outfit, I didn’t have to fight her on this one

Preschool party presents

paperIn the past few years we’ve had many parties to attend and gifts to buy. I’m not complaining because they have all been happy occasions for people we love: engagement parties, weddings, baby showers, milestone birthdays and other fun celebrations. The wedding-related parties have slowed down a bit, as have the baby showers, but one party segment has grown this year: kids’ birthday parties.

As a kid I remember the rule that you had to bring Valentine’s cards for everyone in your class, so no one would feel left out. That rule has been extended, and kids are now expected to invite everyone in their class to his or her birthday party. I have mixed feelings about this, but I won’t get into that. What it comes down to is with 24 kids in class, your kid is going to be invited to a lot of birthday parties. Since no one can (or wants to) fit that many kids in their house, parents host parties at fun places like gymnastics gyms and Pump It Up, so your kid will want to go to each and every one. I knew the parties were happening too often when I got a text from another mom who just had a new baby, asking if there was party that weekend that she was forgetting about.

For kids I know well (my friends’ kids, my nieces, Clay’s close school friends), it’s easy to buy something I know they will like and I’m happy to do it. It gets a little more complicated when buying gifts for school friends. Not knowing them or their parents, I agonize over what to buy, and the money spent and time shopping add up quickly. I have a new strategy though: buy in bulk!

First, presents. Most little boys like cars, superheroes and sports, while the girls like princesses and Barbies. I’ve noticed a lot of toys and books on clearance after Christmas and I’ve decided to buy three girl gifts and three boy gifts at a time. That should cover us for the next few school birthdays and Clay can still pick which one he wants to give to which kid. I buy physically smaller items, so they can all fit in one box in my garage. I can’t stand clutter, so it wouldn’t make sense to save time and money by buying in bulk, while making myself crazy looking at a pile of toys every day.

Second, gift wrap. To be prepared for kid parties, I buy a roll of boy wrapping paper and a roll of girl wrapping paper. I usually get it at Hallmark, as their quality is the best and they often have it on sale. Good quality makes my terrible wrapping look somewhat less embarrassing. I also buy a stack of generic birthday cards from Hallmark’s 99 cent collection.

When the next invite appears in Clay’s cubby, I won’t be running to Target the morning of the party or paying extra for Amazon’s Saturday delivery. All I have to do is stroll out to the garage, let Clay pick a toy before I wrap it, and we’re ready for the party! Now the only question left is who will take him – Chase or me?

Disney princess dresses, yellow is his color

I am sure this is not the last time I’ll write about Disney princess paraphenalia. They’ve marketed the heck out of these toys/clothes/shoes/food (i.e. anything they can slap a princess on) and since Christmas Avery has been the proud owner of a princess backpack and a few other toys.

My brother Mikey and his wife, Felice, very kindly bought Avery a trunk of Disney princess dresses for her birthday. I have to give them credit because not only would Avery like this gift, it came in a relatively small box, allowing me to hide the 43 pieces of fun when she goes to bed, rather than having cheap fabric strewn across my living room. Easily stored is a priority in toy selection for me.

Anyway, after grabbing the iPad and Googling the princesses to confirm that the blonde one with a pink dress is Sleeping Beauty (I didn’t recognize her with her eyes open!), I let the kids get into it. Chase wasn’t too excited about the results. I, however, think yellow may be Clay’s color.

Toddler birthday parties

I have to admit I’ve been feeling a little guilty for not having a big party for Avery’s birthday. I went back and forth about it, but realizing we had our good friend’s 40th birthday celebration and Easter the weekend before her birthday, it was tough to find a good time for it. We celebrated her birthday a week earlier when my mom was visiting, I sent cookies to school for them to celebrate there and Chase’s parents were coming over for cake and presents on her actual birthday. So, shouldn’t that be enough? When I was a kid, sure. Now in the days of $500 birthday parties, sometimes it feels like I’m depriving my child of a true celebration.

I had big parties for both kids’ first birthdays. I did them at my house, and baked cupcakes and bought pre-made food at Costco to feed our friends and family. I bought decorations and invitations. And beer (that may have been a bulk of our bill). I didn’t even do favors (I hate them, who needs more crap in their house?) and it probably cost $350. It just adds up. Not to mention the time buying supplies, but for a first birthday it was worth it. Since Avery was born less than a month before Clay’s birthday, I decided that we would alternate years for who gets to have a big party.

Our friends with older kids have hosted parties all over town: gymnastics places, Chuck E. Cheese (my worst nightmare), ice skating rink, etc. at a cost hovering around $500. There is a definite advantage to this, as you don’t have to pick up the mess or let weird kids (or their equally odd parents) in your house. But for small kids, whose friends are basically your friends’ kids, is there a point? Avery is two and a fancy party would be lost on her anyway. She loves sweets and girly clothes/toys. That’s all she needs to be happy. She was so excited every time we even said happy birthday to her. We had quality family time and I saved $300+ and countless hours of planning.

I gave Clay the option of a party since he’ll be four in May and he didn’t get the big party last year. He’d rather go to Legoland. A kid after my own heart. It won’t be cheap, but it’s money spent on time with my family. Worth every penny.

Baby girl is two!

I joke all the time that Avery is going to be a nightmare teenager because no one can be perfect forever. But at this point I’m thankful that we’ve had two years. She’s shown a little bit of a feisty side lately, but I’m hopeful that just means she’ll be a strong woman. She knows what she wants. There’s nothing wrong with that. Even if she always wants more food or to wear leggings every day or to sit in the driver’s seat of my car pretending she’s driving when we really need her to get in her car seat so we can go somewhere. She makes us laugh and is like a little cartoon character. She also adores her dad and brother and even me. Or at least she pretends with me so I’ll give her my makeup brushes and shoes. I’ll take it.

I have the family I always wanted. And our littlest member, our baby girl, is two years old today! As my dad would always say on our brithdays, “who would have thunk it?”