At Home

At Home

By Kris Woll

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Our blue Ford extended van, a rental, broke down about 10 miles outside of town. We—my big brother, my three older sisters, my mom and dad, our temperamental terrier, and myself—were on the way home from our second and final vacation as a family. It was the summer of 1985. The big kids were 19, 18, 16, and 13; I was the 7-year-old baby of the family.

The van had carried several coolers, stacks of suitcases, piles of pillows, and a steady stream of Mom’s Salem Lights across South Dakota, into Wyoming, through the Rocky Mountains, and back through Nebraska and along the edge of Iowa. We’d just made it into our little corner of Minnesota when it broke down—in the dark, in the heat, the shimmering lights of our small prairie hometown visible, so close, but so far away, on that vast horizon. My father swore. My sisters complained. My mom smoked. I am pretty sure I cried. The dog whined, and my brother took her for a walk in the ditch to go pee.

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. From the vantage point of that broken-down rental van, it was somewhere in the middle of the low row of lights shining in the distance: the white two-story with brown shutters in the center of town, with crab apple trees in the yard and a basketball hoop on the garage and a blue metal swing set out back and wood paneling in the hallway and crowded upstairs filled with kids. It was the place where we all lived, together. A bum engine might delay our arrival, but we all knew where we were headed.

And thanks to a kind soul who stopped and brought Dad into town and to our garage so he could pick up our Caprice Classic station wagon and come back to get us, we got there. That night my brother and sisters and I climbed, tired and relieved and one by one and as we had for years and years, up the soft brown carpeted stairs to the second floor filled with bedrooms, four for the five of us. We all brushed our teeth crowded around the one small sink the bathroom we shared, littlest in front, five strikingly similar faces—those cheekbones, that nose!—gathered in the medicine cabinet mirror.

And then summer turned into fall and everything changed. Well, not everything. The stairs still had soft brown carpet; the second floor kept all four bedrooms; the metal swing set remained firmly cemented in Dad’s neatly mowed backyard. But the oldest two—my brother and one of my sisters – packed up their (Billy Joel) records and (Toto) posters and moved away. To college, two hours away. I was asleep in my bed—the top bunk, in the room I shared with the sister closest (at 6 years older) in age—when they left. My brother stopped into my room and kissed my cheek. I pretended to be asleep, too sad to say goodbye.

Despite vacated space just across the hall, I refused to change my sleeping arrangements. My parents tried everything—new bed linens in pastel plaid, a relocated Barbie Dream House and bookshelf for my Little House on the Prairie books—but I would not comply. My Cabbage Patch Kids rested on my undisturbed comforter each night while I wandered back into the room I had shared with my closest sibling, a sister 6 years older, since my parents set up my crib in her corner. She kindly put up with my presence. For years. For her teen years. I filled my sticker book with scratch-n-stiff stickers and snuggled my stuffed Smurf while she studied the periodic table and wrote papers on Fahrenheit 451. We listened, together, to the “Top 9 at 9” on her clock radio by the twinkling light of the reading lamp clipped up behind her bed.

Two years later, the next sister left for college, leaving behind yet another mostly-empty room.

I continued to cross the hall to share a room come bedtime.

Until one day, five years and two months after the van broke down south of town, my roommate left for college. I helped my parents move her into her dorm room, carrying in her new comforter and a mauve plastic milk crate filled with microwave popcorn and towels and apple-scented shampoo into the low brick building where she would now live. On the ride home in our four-door Buick—a downsize purchase when our Caprice Classic hit the skids—I had the whole backseat to myself. That night I slept on my own, surrounded by empty bedrooms that I would, eventually, colonize and then, six years later, leave.

My parents sold that house a few years ago. By the time they did, we all had families and houses of our own; the old house’s upstairs filled only on a couple holidays each year. Its rooms featured minimal furnishings—cast-offs from downstairs, the few items that none of us pillaged for our first apartments, the bike and treadmill Mom and Dad bought for the free time and space they had after we all left. Even that one back closet—the one that once held a vast collection of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and piles and piles of dyed satin shoes—was empty, thanks to a big donation to the high school drama department. (Now you know why every production there looks remarkably like a 1990s special occasion.)

Before my parents moved, they hosted one last family cookout. I expected it to be an emotional event. The 20-and-a-half (I was 6 months pregnant at the time) of us gathered—some from close by, others of us from a bit further away—in the big back yard on a hot, sticky June evening. We said our goodbyes to the place in a rush when a summer storm blew up quickly, as they often do in that prairie town. We didn’t have time to walk back up the soft brown-carpeted stairs together one last time. Instead we abruptly gathered our bags and our Pyrex bowls of coleslaw and our children, and ran through the wind and thunder to our own cars—vans and sedans parked in a row in the driveway. I teared up a bit as we drove away that night, as my childhood home faded into a blur of rain and night, but my sadness only lasted a few minutes …

Which was about how long it took us to drive to my brother’s house, a recently restored old gem in the center of my hometown where he now lives, and where my siblings and our partners and our children reconvened. We sat on his porch and watched the lightening and wind. We told stories, like the one about the blue rental van that broke down at the end of our second-and-final family vacation, the summer before the oldest kids left for college. And we were, on that summer night, as at home together as ever.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer. Read more of her work at

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for more essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Our Sibling Blog Series

Our Sibling Blog Series



The Twins and the Pendulum


By Andrea Lani

But they’re not wizards, just two normal boys—as normal as you can be when you share the same DNA—a pair of pendulum bobs swinging through their days, sometimes crazily out of whack, and sometimes in near-perfect alignment.





Saving My Sister

WO Saving my Sister ART

By Marcelle Soviero

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit.





They Are Not Half Sisters 


By Stephanie Sprenger

I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything.






Play With Me


By Randi Olin

Our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood.







At Home

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By Kris Woll

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. 





Illustration by Christine Juneau

Purchase our Sibling Bundle for essays on the joys and challenges of the sibling relationship.

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

By Kris Woll

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If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season.


I hate him.

Ok, those are strong words.

But I don’t like him very much.

Or maybe we are just not a good fit for each other.

And also he’s not currently on a shelf, as you can see.

I hate him because we have to move him around every night. Because we have to prove that he left while we slept, that he headed up to Santa to report on our day’s behavior. He’s added one more thing to my never-completed to do list—a list that only grows longer over the holidays—and frankly the whole arrangement is a little creepy.

Somehow, when I was a kid, Santa knew what we were up to without sending a spy. Probably because my mom called him from the kitchen each year in early December to give him an update while my sister and I sat on the couch crafting our wish lists from the back of the JCPenney Christmas catalog. I was always impressed by her direct line to North Pole and didn’t doubt that she would have his phone number. My mom had pull. And she didn’t need to shift a single decoration to drive home the point: Santa was watching, knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake. It’s so like us modern parents to make everything more complicated. Isn’t it enough to put up a tree and hang a few stockings and make a few cookies and DVR Charlie Brown so the kids have something to watch while we fold the laundry?

There are already many things I do not do well. Ironing, for example. And making homemade cut-out cookies. And flossing with a regularity expected by my hygienist. And other things I don’t want to admit to you because we don’t know each other well and I want you to like me. Why add a sort of scary, stiff doll to the list?

Why? Because my kids—my 7-year-old and my 3-year-old—expect it. Because it seemed cute the first year and now, as the first stack of unsolicited holiday catalogs from retailers I never buy from arrive in our mailbox, the kids ask for him. And keep asking—even when I try to distract them with chocolate-filled Advent calendars (a tradition from my husband’s family)—and start sharing stories about the elves on their friends’ shelves.

Today, as I paid for my haircut, the nice cashier even asked me about him. Did you get your Elf on the Shelf out yet? She asked as if it’s a real thing that everyone, everywhere does this time of year, like sending cards or overeating.

I started this thing and now I can’t find my way out.

If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season. When pressed, I’d come up with some story about how he broke, or could just relay reports to Santa through thought. These ideas seem no less plausible than the “real” story.

But it is not left up to me, and so the elf will move tonight just like he did last night and just like his companion book says he will continue to do right up to Christmas Eve, because while I’m falling asleep at 8:00 p.m. next to the kids or writing a blog post to complain about the elf’s existence, my husband will plop him on top of the stereo or in a planter or on top of the unread magazines. And in the morning the kids will be excited to find the elf in his new place, and though I’ll smile and say “Cool!” while I turn on a Rat Pack Christmas album and water the tree, I’ll feel sort of bad about both complaining and not taking a more active role in this new and oppressive tradition.

Which just makes me hate that elf even more.


Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at


The Tooth Fairy is Over

The Tooth Fairy is Over

By Kris Woll


Our kids lose teeth, they move forward, they change. But as parents, through it all, we try not to forget.


This week my 7-year-old son lost his eighth baby tooth. They are dropping at an alarming rate. I bought more applesauce and yogurt than usual in case we have to move to a very soft diet; steak and chewy breads are off the table until some of gaps are filled.

My son didn’t even bother to put the tooth under his pillow—he just popped it in the trash. The next morning, he came out of his room in a huff.

“Mom, you forgot to put money under my pillow!”

I calmly walked into his room. I actually had placed a little something under his pillow while he slept, emptying mouth wide open, the night before. (Not like tooth number 5—or was it 6?—when I had to make lame excuse for why the tooth fairy sometimes waits an extra night to deliver the booty.)

I suspected he flopped around at night, shifting his pillows and pushing the money to the floor. I moved the bed away from the wall. “Check back there,” I ordered, and then before he could, asked, “And why did you say that I forgot to put money under your pillow?”

He stared at me seriously, considering his response.

“I meant that the tooth fairy forgot,” he said.

“Hmmm. And what do you think about the tooth fairy?” I asked.

He stared at me again, silent for a while. The ceiling fan swooshed above us.

“Thats she’s you?” he responded.

I paused, preparing to give my answer.

“How did you figure that out?”

“Kids talk,” he replied, grabbing the flashlight he keeps on his nightstand and pointing it into the crevasse between his bed and wall.

So the tooth fairy is over, for my big kid anyway. And I noticed he has quite a lot of hair on his legs lately. And one night, after soccer, he almost ate a whole frozen pizza by himself.  It’s undeniable: He’s growing up. He’s getting bigger.  And this is an amazing thing. The best thing. A gift. I don’t want to hold him back from all—ok, maybe from some, but not much—that he is moving toward.

Still, as I notice that last year’s jeans hem graze his mid-calf, I am reminded: time is passing. Days and weeks and years are going by. He is getting older, so am I, so is everyone we know. The adorable pictures and videos we scroll through and open on the family computer—of babies struggling to crawl and toddlers smashing birthday cake all over their chubby faces and proud first this and that—are artifacts, history. I can snuggle and nuzzle and, when I kiss them goodnight, I can call them my babies, but they aren’t and won’t be that again.

Their long bodies spread out on their beds, and once their feet kicked against my ribs.

I don’t wish they were still kicking my ribs. I don’t wish they were not growing up. I don’t even wish the tooth fairy back into his head. I just don’t want to forget, I’m starting to forget, so I write to remember.

Thanks to his trusty flashlight, my son noticed—amidst the Legos and Pokemon cards and bouncy balls and missing socks beneath that bed—his payment for tooth number 8. It had fallen from under the pillow, just as I suspected. He reached his long, strong (but once so small and chubby—man, did he have rolls as a baby!) arm down and grabbed the money, leaving the toys and socks where they were. He quickly added it to the shark bank on his bookshelf, moving quickly so as not to risk that his knowledge or confession might require a recall of the funds.

And then he promised he wouldn’t tell his little sister what he knew, as long as he could be the one to put the money under her pillow when her first tooth came out, and of course I agreed.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at

The First Sleepover

The First Sleepover

By Kris Woll

sleepoeverMy 6-year-old son is sleeping at another house tonight.  A friend’s house, just down the street and over a few blocks. Today was the last day of school and tonight’s sleepover was part of the celebration.

This is a first for my son, and a first for me.  He’s never spent the night on a friend’s bedroom floor.  Just nine months ago, when the school year was beginning, he wouldn’t fall off to sleep at night without his lamp lit and without his father snuggled beside him.  Until two years ago, I held on to him at night—but with the arrival of his sister, that changed.  I moved across the hall, nursing and rocking and holding her, doing all the pre-bedtime things books and experts tell you not to, just as I’d done with my son before, creating yet another child who could not fall asleep alone.

My daughter early on proved rather independent, proved to be a better sleeper than her big brother.  Maybe I was more confident, more comfortable; maybe we were busier and she was far more tired than he had been at that stage. While she liked the pre-bedtime snuggles, she fell asleep quickly and did not need me to hang around.  I, on the other hand, wanted her close, had a hard time falling asleep without her little breaths on my neck, without her soft cheeks brushing against mine.

It was around Valentine’s Day that my son started to fall asleep on his own.  When he first told Daddy not to bother coming in to read.  Instead, my big kid paged through his own books all on his own in his big boy bed, turned out his own light, and snuggled under his big blue-and-white striped comforter—purchased when he insisted on replacing the truck comforter—all on his own.  And he didn’t wake during the night to come into our bed, he didn’t even climb in come morning for a pre-breakfast hug.  He grabbed a book until he heard Daddy get up, or stealthy located the iPad.

He was sleep trained at last.

So Daddy and I started to fight over who would read to the little one.  I’ll do it!  No, me!

We are not sleep trained yet at all.

And then, today, my son finished first grade and he went off to sleep somewhere else.  We brought him to his friend’s house and he ate pizza and built forts and wrestled and made up stories.  As I went to leave him there with that friend and that pizza and that night ahead, I was certain he would change his mind and probably tear up, get a pouty lip, be sad and grab me—the way he had when he was that small, chubby toddler starting at a new daycare, and I was the mommy kissing him on his forehead and promising to come back soon.

I was prepared for him to say he wasn’t ready, wanted to come home, wanted to read stories with Daddy and come into our room during the night.

But he didn’t.  He was fine.  He wanted to go build a fort, go make up stories.

He ran off, back to playing, while I took my time at the door—and then I headed home to snuggle his little sister as I fell asleep in our quiet little house.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at

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This is Ten: Lindsey Mead

This is Ten: Lindsey Mead

Kris Woll interviews Lindsey Mead, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Lindsey MeadWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece? Have you written other things about this age/stage?

I have written about and to my children consistently since they were very small, but it’s true that my daughter turning 10 felt particularly meaningful to me. I wrote a piece to her right before her 10th birthday about things I hoped she knew upon turning 10 which I published and shared. I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of writing, really, that I do about the various ages and stages of my children. The first, much more common, is an attempt to memorialize them, to press the details of them at a particular moment—and of our lives at that same time—into amber, to hold onto the particulars of what I know to be an immensely, painfully fleeting time. “This is Ten” is that kind of writing—a love letter to a moment in time. The second, which is rarer, is “to” them but also, I’ve realized, to myself—so much of parenting is learning lessons as I observe them, remembering things I want to believe, know, do, and exemplify, and sometimes I try to convey that to them but also, without question, to myself. My “10 things” piece was this kind of essay.

What is it about age 10 you liked the most? The least?

Well, Grace is 11 now, and Whit is 9, so I remember 10 extremely fondly. I don’t think there was much that I didn’t like about the age, other than the unavoidable way “double digits” tolls the bell of time’s relentless march. I adored the way Grace was still a child, despite her coltishly long legs and ever-more-mature face. She rejoiced in the tiniest things, held my hand, wondered at the world. The age of 10 is just plain magic.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 10-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I would tell myself to be kinder to myself. I still feel such immense guilt about the postpartum depression that marked my first months as a mother, and I wish I could release that. I would tell myself to pay attention and to breathe. But I’m wary of that advice, because whenever people told me that, and they did, a lot, I experienced it as pressure. Something I wasn’t doing enough of: loving this role, this season, motherhood. I did love it, I see now, and I still do, but in part I think we have to come to that appreciation, come to see how rich and myriad and messy and wonderful is life with small children ourselves. As well-intentioned as “appreciate it!” advice is from others, and I believe it is, I don’t think most mothers respond particularly well to it.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why?

It’s hard to say. I genuinely love every piece in this collection. When I conceived of the idea, I could never have imagined how moving, honest, and flat out marvelous each essay would be. In some ways I relate the most to the older ages—eight, nine—because that is where my children are. In other ways I particularly love the younger ages—one, two, three—because they remind me of a time that feels so long ago now.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you? How has that fit over time?

They are inextricable for me. Ernest Hemingway said, “I never had to choose a subject—rather my subject chose me” and that’s how I feel about motherhood. I have always written, my whole life, but it wasn’t until I had two small children that I truly turned to the page. It’s not as simple that my subject is motherhood, necessarily, but Grace and Whit exposed the drumbeat march of time in a way that I could not ignore. Paradoxically, they also slowed me down for the first time: we’ve all had the experience of walking down the street with a toddler and noticing through their eyes, the streak of an airplane across the sky and the dandelion pushing up between the blocks of cement. It takes forever, but man is it worth it. Motherhood has contained more surprises for me than I can count, but one of the main ones is how bittersweet it is. Every single day I’m brought to my knees by something that’s suddenly gone, over, never to come again. I can literally hear time whistling by my ears. And simultaneously, I’m reminded over and over again of how much richness a single minute or day can hold. Motherhood shows me the glory that my every day life holds, and writing helps me unfold it, understand it, and remember it.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Just write. Keep writing. No matter the form. I blogged, others write diaries, others write books. There is always a reason not to write, and there are plentiful excuses when children are small. I wrote my thesis in college on motherhood and poetry in the lives of three 20th century poets and read at great length about how hard it is to sit your butt in the chair and write after being up all night with a colicky infant. I’m of two minds on this: be gentle with yourself, and recognize that this is a short-lived season, but also, just write some of it down. It will be worth it to have the memories.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece? From this collection?

I hope I have, in some small way, captured the immense majesty that’s contained in the tiniest details of this life, of motherhood. Gail Godwin noted that “the more you respect and focus on the singular and the strange, the more you become aware of the universal and infinite” and that’s something I think of every single day. The only way I know of truly seeing the glittering, dazzling beauty of the universal and infinite is by capturing and honoring these smallest things, singular and perhaps even strange. I really hope this collection helps to remind readers of the value of doing this, and prods them to see how much gorgeousness there is even in the most exhausted, messy moments.

Read an excerpt from Lindsey’s “This is Ten” essay 

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This is Nine: Denise Ullem

This is Nine: Denise Ullem

Kris Woll interviews Denise Ullem, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Denise UllemWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece? Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

My daughter, Abby, was and will always be my muse. My experience as her mother provides endless points for reflection, celebration, frustration and love. As she gets older, however, I shy away from writing pieces about her because I want her life to be her own sacred place; I write more now about my own experiences (and those of my younger son, Henry). This is difficult because I am still a mother of a growing daughter, experiencing just as much as I did when my children were younger. I just don’t feel like it’s mine to share anymore. When I do want to write about an experience with her, I always ask her permission first.

What is it about age 9 you liked the most? The least?

Watching Abby at 9 was like watching an explorer prepare for a long journey—the passage from child to tween. I saw her muscles strengthen, her mind broaden and her senses sharpen. She morphed before my eyes and it was beautiful. However, within each of these stunning milestones brewed a slight melancholy. Nine walloped me with the acute awareness of the end of her childhood journey.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 9-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

Loosen your grip. Breathe in and out.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why?  (OR, if you don’t feel super familiar with the collection, what other age/stage in this collection—which explores 1-10—is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing?)  

My son Henry will be eight this summer. Just writing those words quickens my heart. EIGHT!? My baby’s continuing maturation serves as a further reminder to slow down to capture the intricacies of this splendid time:

Kisses from the bus window. The endless questions. His hand in mine. The small, quiet miracles of each day. The reassuring fact that I still provide refuge from any storm.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you? How has that fit over time?

Motherhood brought me to the page. I started writing to capture moments for my husband, who traveled extensively when my daughter was three and my son a newborn. I now realize that this chronicle of small moments is like a time-capsule to my future self. One day I hope, as I sit my quiet, still home after they’ve both left for college, that my words and essays will take me right back to this heady, physical, intense, wonderful time of motherhood.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Recently, a Facebook friend asked for friends to relay the best writing advice they’ve received. As I scrolled down to add my own, one commenter simply wrote, “Write.” It struck me with its simplicity and truth. Whenever I start to get in my own way now, I say, through gritted teeth, “Write, Denise, write.”

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece? From this collection?

Each day is a gift. Stop and savor it in your way, in a way that will help you celebrate that which is mundane today. Put the words on the paper. I believe those pedestrian moments are those which we’ll all hold up in our memories as time passes, sigh, and see them as glittering, rare gems.

Read Denise’s “This is Nine” essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

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This is Eight: Amanda Magee

This is Eight: Amanda Magee

Kris Woll interviews Amanda Magee, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Amanda MageeWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

My inspiration for this piece was the serendipitous shift in my daughter as the invitation to participate in This is Childhood arrived. Briar is my firstborn, which means that every milestone she hits is a first for me. From the first days of holding her in my arms to these days of waving as her bus drives away, it has been like watching an opal in the sun, constantly changing color and complexity in the gentlest pastels. I am fascinated by her, though this age has been the first that has given me pause as to what I write for public consumption. We talk, “Will you write about this, Mom?” I’ll respond, “Why, do you want me to?” She is my guide, my star, whether I hit publish or not.

What is it about age 8 you liked the most? The least?

Music, definitely music. She loses herself in songs, singing the lyrics under her breath long after the music has stopped without realizing it.

What do you wish you knew before you had an 8-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I have no regrets because there is no way we can anticipate or know what to do, the beauty of this journey is that it unfolds in each moment. Every time I’ve ever tried to plan ahead, to script what will happen, it’s gone another way. I look back on each memory tenderly, because even if I faltered, I was trying, always will be.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why? 

I can’t select a specific post—these wonderful authors are my friends and each write so differently. I think the thing that means the most to me from this experience of chronicling, as a group, these years, is the understanding that in the most disparate scenarios, there is a common thread of love and questioning. It’s a spiritual salve to suddenly know unequivocally, that you are not alone.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I remember sitting at the computer late at night while I pumped milk, or early in the morning with B in my arms. My writing is the grown up version of bedtime stories, it is where my imagination runs and my heart rests. It restores me and inspires me.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Trust yourself. Have fun. Listen to yourself.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

Oh, I think all you can ever hope is that your writing sparks something, a sweet memory, an idea, or that whisper of knowledge that we are all just trying to love our kids.

Read Amanda’s “This is Eight” essay in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

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This is Seven: Tracy Morrison

This is Seven: Tracy Morrison

Kris Woll interviews Tracy Morrison, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Tracy MorrisonWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece?  Have you written other things about this age/stage? 

I was inspired by my daughter’s celebration of pure joy and childhood at this age. She celebrated 7 like many children do. It’s an age that starts some big steps towards big-kid independence, but yet is still so sweet and innocent.

What is it about age 7 you liked the most? The least?

I love how the curiosity continues to bloom and grow in endless directions. Seven wants to know everything and now has the maturity to do something with it—read, write, make stories and play, create! It’s the age of doing and thinking as they come into their own.

Honestly, there’s nothing I don’t love about this age. Seven is old enough to have amazing ideas and conversations, but young enough to still sit on our laps.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 7-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

I wish I knew how to prepare better for the endless questions and need for more. The books, the exploring, the need for knowledge. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. I have a younger child and cannot wait for her to reach 7 now, because I think I will parent better and let her explore more independently.

Besides your own piece, which other piece in the collection do you relate to the most? Why? 

Ten is the big one for us right now. I have an 11-year-old, and my ‘7’ is now 9. Ten is a huge deal—more so even than those baby and toddler years. Ten is like opening a window to adulthood—from their understanding, their empathy, their maturity, and their ability to be almost not a child anymore. It’s wondrous watching our children become teens. And starting to tower over us. I have many “We made that?!” moments now.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you?  How has that fit over time?

I have been blogging and writing about motherhood for more than six years now. My writing not only chronicles ages and stages, but feelings, joys and hard things for all of us. It gives me a place to share, process, and learn and I cannot imagine not having this for all of us. I think the writing gets more challenging as my kids get older because sharing is something that has to be done from a place of mutual respect. While I do write some hard things, I want to write things that my kids will be proud to read someday.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Write. Observe. Document. Daily. It doesn’t have to be a beautiful essay or even grammatically correct. Or even online. These moments of childhood pass us by too quickly not to remember and write. I have one big regret and that is not taking more time with my grandmother before she died. She never wrote her thoughts and feelings and experiences—and now I have so many questions. We all have experiences that are important enough to leave that legacy in print.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?  From this collection? 

I hope they find the joy in 7 because it’s such a happy time in the center of childhood. All ages have challenges and wonder—and I hope that all parents can step back and know that in reality—childhood is such a short part of our children’s lives and that we should celebrate it even more.

Read Tracy’s “This is Seven” essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.

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This is Six: Bethany Meyer

This is Six: Bethany Meyer

Kris Woll interviews Bethany Meyer, a contributing writer in This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood:

Bethany MeyerWhat was your inspiration for writing this piece? Have you written about this age/stage?

My third son was 6 when I participated in this series. The natural pace through which he navigates life is slower and more thoughtful than that of his brothers. Observing him at age 6 required that I slow my pace—so fast in comparison—to match his. Once I did that, I fell in love with him all over again.

I’ve written about this age before, but it’s most endearing to me after watching how it transformed my third son. Precious is the word that comes to mind to describe it best. Six is precious, and that was lost on me until the third time around.

What is it about age 6 you liked the most? The least?

A 6-year-old begins taking little risks, and he can do that because he feels loved and secure at home and at school. It’s a privilege to witness that shift occur in my kids.

That sense of independence is also a sobering reminder that childhood is finite and our kid’s time with us is short. Each step our child takes away from us also brings a brand new set of parenting worries. The worrying sometimes eclipses our ability to enjoy and celebrate our child’s breakthroughs.

What do you wish you knew before you had a 6-year-old, or what advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering at that particular stage?

When my oldest son was 6 years old, he had not one, not two, but three younger brothers! If I could go back, I’d tell myself to walk away from the dishes, skip the shower, lay the baby down, pull that 6-year-old boy onto my lap and envelope him in my arms. Six-years-old is a mix of big and little. But mostly it’s little.

What other age/stage in this collection (which explores 1-10) is one you would like to explore more—or do you often find yourself turning to—in your writing?  

Details are more accessible to me if I write a story almost immediately after it has happened. If I wait—a week, a month, a year—to write it down, it collides with the other thoughts in my head like “have I bought toothpaste yet?” and “where did I put the soccer cleats?” Knowing this, I find myself writing about whatever ages my kids happen to be at the time.

There are few things funnier than 4-year-old boys. They are an endless supply of material for a humor writer. I miss having one in the house, and I do love to read about that age.

How do writing and mothering fit together for you? How has that fit over time?

My life is so kid-centric right now that my children are typically my muses. It’s strange being the only female in a house with five males. I look for the funny in that because it helps me keep things that are beyond my control in perspective.

Writing about mothering has been a natural fit for me. Being a Mom is so integral to my story, but it doesn’t singularly define me. Raising children turned me into a Mother. Putting my stories about raising children down on paper has turned me into a writer. I wonder whether my subjects will be different a few decades from now?  I’ll just have to keep writing to find out.

What is your advice to other mother writers?

Write, write, write. Ours is a genre that seems saturated, but the voices are as unique as the experiences. Writing, for me, is therapeutic, and when another parent connects with something I’ve written, it validates both of us. Parenting is an enormous responsibility. So many of us are leading parallel lives, but if we don’t talk about what we’re experiencing, the weight of it can feel isolating. Yours could be just the anecdote that someone needs to read to get her through a particularly challenging time.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece? From this collection?

For readers whose children have passed these ages and stages, I hope they nod their heads and smile as they read along. Maybe reading an essay will unearth a tender memory nearly forgotten.

For readers who are just beginning their parenting journey, I hope this collection excites them about how robust the first decade of childhood will be!

Read Bethany’s “This is Six” essay in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood. 

What We Share

What We Share

By Kris Woll

holiday2Like many families, my family keeps several Christmas Eve traditions.  There is the array of treats, brought by each of us to share, with a few new recipes appearing annually amidst certain staples – Mom’s meatballs in a little crockpot, almond bark pretzels in a holiday tin.  There are the Christmas carols sung – off key, off tempo – first around the piano and then, after bundling up in hats and mittens and boots and coats, in the yards of kind neighbors, neighbors who actually open their doors in that frigid air to listen to us croon.  They always clap when we finish, and I understand why.

And there is one other, a tradition kept year after year, season after season, a staple of our holiday fest, something that lasts longer than anything else we share in the glow of that one holiday night …


You know the tradition, right?  The exchange of germs.  The sharing of bugs.  The passing of the virus.  There were at least three years in recent memory shut down early due to stomach flu, and one particularly uncomfortable yule featuring lice.  Other ailments – sore throats, sinus infections, standard-issue colds – have made an also made an appearance in Christmas’s past.

Such a tradition is unavoidable, really.  We are a collection of people living our ordinary, non-holiday lives in varied germ pools.  We are toddlers and teenagers and college kids and teachers and parents; some among us (I’m not naming names, but you know who you are) don’t even wear tights with our Christmas dress even though the night’s temperature starts with a minus sign.  We travel through airports and stop at grimy convenience stores on our way to that evening’s gathering, and then hug and sing and dish up some meatballs off the spoon that some young person, just a bit earlier, decided to lick.


Suffering through the season’s bug, whatever it might be, is never very merry.  For the inflicted, festivities come to a crashing halt as the first symptoms appear.  The music stops, the lights dim, and goodies are packed away; there is extra praying (O God, I hope I make it …) and some promises for reform (I will never eat another meatball…) followed by a whole lot of silent nighttime suffering behind closed doors.

(At least we are all cozy and warm in the new flannel PJ’s Mom and Dad gave us.  The whole family, young and old, sick and well, resting in matching plaids.)

And then, as the flu and the holiday passes, the story forms, the story that will be retold at the next Christmas gathering, after the spinach dip — new this year — and the meatballs, that old staple, are set out on the table and before we start singing indoors or out.  We laugh about plagues past.  It is our own sort of holiday cheer.

Which sort of makes me scratch my head when I think about it, because it seems that the closeness of my family – maybe of any family – probably has more to do with making it through the stuff that goes wrong — through the long nights, through whatever might come up — as it does with sharing the stuff that goes right.  A good thing to keep in mind during and after the holidays, and through most of the year, I guess.

Of course, I could also be scratching my head because I remember that year with the lice.  No more sharing Santa hats at our family festivities!  Now we all bring our own.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Read more by Kris at

Learning to Enjoy the Cake I Baked

Learning to Enjoy the Cake I Baked

By Kris Woll

0Several days before my daughter’s second birthday, we received an email from my mother-in-law—Subject: Kuchen Backen—with a photo attached. The photo featured a relative in Germany baking a cake with her granddaughter at her side. Flour floated in the air around them like fairy dust.

The photo made me feel a little sad. Those Kuchen bakers, in their matching aprons, live just steps away from each other. We, on the other hand, are among those modern families who do not live near family—a drive several hours one way, a flight several hours the other. We do not bake together without significant planning; no extended family would be at our home for cake-baking or even cake-eating this birthday.

I longed for the sweetness captured in that emailed picture.

So I decided to Backen our own Kuchen.

But unlike the relative in the picture, I am not known for my elaborate and delicious cakes. I’m more of a bakery counter sort of mom. And so I sought out the easiest recipe I could find. I avoided any version that required flour to be sifted and eggs separated. The recipe I selected—called “one-egg cake”—appears in the “Quick Cakes” section of my very worn The Joy of Cooking, a section that opens with a warning: “we all want a good cake in a big hurry … let’s not delude ourselves that shortcuts make for the best textures or flavors.” I chuckled at the disclaimer, doubting that it applied to this cake, to me, and assuming—as I so often do—that my want for it to be wonderful be enough to make it so.

I mixed and measured and added the one egg while the children played around me, and the cake looked nice enough when it came out of the warm oven. A little flat perhaps, but absolutely like a cake. It smelled very cake-like, too. Later that evening, our little family frosted it with “quick white icing” (from the “Quick Icings” section of the same cookbook), and added polka dots—aka M&Ms—on top. My husband and I meant to send a photo of our decorating efforts (Subject: Birthday Kuchen!) to family in Germany and New York, but our hands were too full—with kids, with frosting—to snap any pictures.

*   *   *

Rain pounded the windows the next morning, and the birthday girl coughed and sniffled. We called off the party we planned to have in a nearby park. Instead, we stayed in our little house for a quiet day. Presents were opened and played with and fought over and played with again. We ate lunch, we did laundry, we took naps. After dinner we pulled out the polka-dotted dessert. We sang the song and the birthday girl joined right in with glee, blowing out her two candles with gusto. She clapped as a big chunk of “one-egg cake” with “quick white icing” landed on her plate. My husband took a few pictures as I lit candles; at least we caught a few moments to share.

The children ate their cake from the top down—M&Ms, then frosting, then a few bites of cake—but I took no offense. The M&Ms were the best part. As warned, the cake I baked seemed to lack something. Maybe it needed more than one egg, or some sifting and separating, or more flour fairy dust. The kids didn’t seem to mind— and they would have started with the M&Ms regardless—but I noticed the difference.

And as I cleared dishes from the table, the big chunk of cake still sat in the middle of the table. Far more than my little family could eat.

So I called a friend who lives just a few blocks from our place and far from her own parents and aunts and uncles. She is the “in case of emergency” contact for my kids on school and camp forms, as I am for her.

“Can I bring you some very sweet, dense, sort of mediocre birthday cake?” A testament to the friendship, she said yes.

We loaded up the sniffling birthday girl and her older brother and drove the few blocks in the rainy fall night. Warm light filled the windows of her lovely home. Her children greeted us at the door, eager to play.

“Can you stay for a bit?” she asked, offering a glass of wine and a comfortable seat on the couch. The children disappeared in search of toys. The birthday cake rested, sticky and sweet on the table, still in the Tupperware. Though that cake didn’t quite turn out as I imagined (though I can’t say I wasn’t warned) it did brighten our dinner table, summon some singing and—this is the sweetest part—bring us into the company and comfort of our own extended family that night.

Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.  

Reading (With Children)

Reading (With Children)

By Kris Woll

0-11It’s mid afternoon on a Saturday.  The windows are open and the warm air dances in through the screens.  Come sunset, that air will be cool—so cool the windows will need to be closed.  But not yet.  I’m sitting in my favorite chair and the breeze is at my back.  The weekend line up on Minnesota Public Radio mumbles a kind of white noise.  Just those radio mumbles and the breeze—the only noise in the house.  The toddler is still napping in her room.  The big kid is constructing his newest Lego set in his.  And I’m here, in the living room, about to savor a little time, about to read a book.

It is a peaceful moment, packed with promise and peace.  I look around my little house and feel grateful.  I open to the first chapter, considering as I do that this would be perfect if I had a cup of tea, and maybe if I also lit that new scented candle.  Yes, tea and a candle.  I scurry off to the kitchen to boil water and find a match.  I close drawers and turn nobs as quietly as possible.  The sun is blazing into my little kitchen.  It is bright and delightful in here, I think, and I wonder why I don’t notice that more.  While I wait for the pot to boil, I put away a few of the dishes that were drying in the sink.  I try to set bowls on shelves with steady hands, try to make no noise.  I keep an eye on the pot, hoping to catch the warm water before any whistle sounds.  A whistle would wake the toddler, would bring the big kid out of his room in search of a snack.  I light the candle and catch the water when warmed but not loud.  I pour my cup of tea and walk from sunny kitchen into my breezy living room, feeling triumphant.

I walk past the crumby floor where my children ate their lunch.  I try to ignore it, try to walk right past.  But when I sit down in my favorite chair and feel the breeze on my back, I notice the crumbs still.  They are staring at me.  They may have gotten bigger.  Did one of them move?  Is that a bug?  I take a sip of my tea and set it down on top of my book, the one I am about to read and really can’t wait to start, and walk to the closet to grab the broom.  The closet creeks, so I try to open it just enough to grab what I need.  I reach my arm into the dark and feel around.  I grab the long handle with minimal disturbance.  I sweep the lunch crumbs from the floor—only crumbs, no bugs after all—and walk to the kitchen to empty the dustpan.  I open the lid of the garbage manually instead of stepping on the erratic foot pedal; the foot pedal can send the stainless-steel lid swinging back too far and it can crash against the wall with a clang.  No clang—just the soft sound of dust and crumbs landing in an empty plastic bag.  I lean the broom against the fridge, not willing to risk returning it to the creeky closet.  Now I can read.

I wander back into the living room.  I sit down and exhale.  I pull a pillow onto my lap.  My tea has cooled just enough. The breeze still blows there.  The book waits, its pages still crisp, with just a little ring on its cover from my now-cooled hot tea.  I grab it and think all sorts of nice things—What a beautiful day!  What a great little spot to read!  What lovely kids I have, on this quiet afternoon!  What a well-swept floor!  What a nice-smelling candle!—as I open again to Chapter 1 and look out the window in satisfaction.  I wave at a neighbor walking her dog past our place.  I look down at the page and begin finally to read …

“Mom,” the big kid shouts from his room.  “MOM!” he shouts even louder when I don’t immediately answer.  I drop my book and hustle to his room.

“Shhh … You’ll wake the baby,” I say.

“I’m hungry, and I can’t find this gray piece …”

I proceed to the kitchen to get some pretzels before I join the Lego hunt.  I quietly open the cabinet; I try to control the crunching of the plastic pretzel bag.  I curse the smallness of Legos.

“MOM!” he shouts again.  “The baby’s awake.”

I turn to the kitchen door and see her standing there, rosy cheeked and drowsy eyed, dragging Cookie Monster with one arm.  “Carry, Mama,” she demands, and I lift her into my arms.  On our way to deliver pretzels to her brother, we walk past the scented candle.

“Birthday,” she says, and pretends to blow out a candle.   “Me do it,” she demands, pointing at the flame.  A little wave of smoke climbs from the jar after she blows the candle out.

We deliver the pretzels.  “I can’t find the piece,” the kid complains.  I want to do something else.

“Story, Mama?” the groggy toddler asks, and so we select a book—something by Richard Scarry, something they both like—to bring back out to the living room where we will snuggle up together for a few minutes to read.

Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.  

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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In The Mix: A Tale From The Trail

In The Mix: A Tale From The Trail

By Kris Woll

0-5My neighbor looked at me with amazement as I presented her with the large plastic vat of trail mix.

You know, I said, trying to poetically explain the rationale behind my rather unconventional gift, for the journey.

I didn’t always give M&M’s, raisins, and mixed nuts as a baby gift. I used to give things like cute and tiny onesies and plush stuffed teddy bears.

But then something changed: I had kids. And kind, well-meaning, and totally uninformed (either they forgot, or they didn’t yet know) people around me started bringing cute size 0-3 onesies and puffy bunnies and soft sheep to my house—my house that I could no longer clean, given that I had at best 15 minutes each day with both hands free; my house that was coated in last week’s laundry still to be folded but never to be put away; my house that was always a little light but had become so much so with the arrival of yet another resident, even one that small. Yes, they brought onesies and snuggly bears to my house and left them there, wrapped in three layers of tissue paper and placed inside a perky little bag with ribbon handles, for me to find a place for.  To find a place for somewhere in the “baby’s room,” that crowded former office space that now served as storage for diapers, wipes, onesies, and stuffed animals. And as the guest bedroom. And also the coat closet. (The baby was nearly the only thing not stored in the room; she slept near us.)

In other words, motherhood taught me to rethink my approach to post-baby gift giving, taught me to think about real wants and needs …

Like M&M’s! And a cashew or two! Mixed with—because, let’s face it, those early bowel movements are not a piece of cake—raisins!

I first gave trail mix as a gift to a mom down the street, a neighbor I knew only casually from front-yard conversations on warm summer nights. I gifted the trail mix to her just a few days after she arrived home with baby number two; the pink balloon still danced, though a little deflated, in the front window when I arrived. It was just a few months after I had my second child, the blur of the earliest days only starting to lift, and I gave the fruit and nuts and chocolate with a straight face, believing wholeheartedly that not only was it a totally appropriate present, but that it would be sort of a dream gift.

I expected my neighbor to open the door with her one free hand as she cradled her newborn to her breast with the other, and to tear up my thoughtfulness. I’m so hungry! she’d shout, and I only have one hand free! And the microwave buttons beep so loudly that they wake the baby! And the pretzel bag crinkles too loudly, too! And I want to save the leftover frozen pizza from last night’s dinner for tonight’s dinner because the thought of even unwrapping cellophane at 5pm is just more than I can handle, and, like the microwave buttons and pretzel bag, that cellophane is just so damn loud! 

But trail mix! she’d exclaim, now there’s something I can eat! With one hand! With no dishes! Oh, how did you know?

This is not what she said.

At first, as I held the plastic tub her way, she thought I was asking her to hold our snack while I adjusted the baby in the carrier on my chest. I motioned toward her as she tried to hand it back, adding, no, no, it’s for you!  She laughed but quickly caught herself, too polite (we live in Minnesota) to offend. Oh, wow!  she responded. Wow, well … (awkward pause, while she looked at me like I was the real nut in the doorway) … thanks! 

I stared past the door she opened to me and my baby. Admittedly, her life beyond our shared sidewalk was a mystery. And what a glorious mystery it was—behind her was a sparklingly-clean home with space far beyond that of my unexpanded version of her cape. Not a toy in site, even though her preschool-age daughter peeked through the stairway railing. She had brushed hair, and the top she was wearing not only lacked drippy stains but also coordinated well with the pants she had on. She wore lipstick and even a bracelet. I knew as I stared at the charms that adorned the one of her two free hands—the baby was asleep, presumably in its own room—that perhaps my trail mix was a miss. That maybe I should have re-gifted one of the cute size 0-3 onesies still stacked—unworn, unwashed, tags in place—on a shelf in my “baby room” back home.

I tucked my hands and bare wrists into the carrier and swayed with my baby to try to cover my embarrassment. I wished her well, and turned toward home.

I have not reverted back to giving onesies (even the cute ones at the co-op with “locally grown” stamped on the chest), nor have I given any stuffed bunnies or bears since that particular day, but I’ve not tried the trail mix again, either. Lately I opt for diapers or a gift certificate for a pedicure.

Yet I can’t help but think it’s the new mother’s loss. Those microwave buttons can be really loud. And frozen pizza is so hard to unwrap with one hand.

At least for some of us, those early weeks can be an arduous—blissful, yes, and rosy in mind now, but arduous at the time—climb. When I think back my first weeks with a new baby, I remember now all those hours spent rocking, rocking, rocking, and rocking, how hard it was to get up from the chair, and how hungry I got, and how good that trail mix tasted along the way.

Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.  

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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