Saturday, September 13, 2014

One

 Stella, Age One

 Sam, Age One

Sam is one. I can't believe this sweet, brilliant, hilarious little man has already been in my life one year, and yet I can't imagine my life without him.

People don't talk much about one. Everyone talks about the Newborn Stage - nursing constantly, up every couple of hours, wanting to be held constantly. And everybody talks about the Terrible Twos which, if you read my blog, you know I actually quite enjoy.

But nobody talks about one.

One was my breaking point with Stella. It was when my post partum depression hit its peak and didn't relent for months. I had no clue that PPD could really affect a mother that long after giving birth, so I figured something was just wrong with me, that I was a bad person for not enjoying my emerging toddler, that surely I'd soon get over myself.

Now that I have Sam and am also mentally healthy, I see why one was the straw that broke my back. When Stella turned one, that was officially our anniversary of hellish sleep. Sam wakes around 1 - 4 times per night, but he usually just nurses and goes back to sleep. Believe it or not, that's really pretty manageable. Stella, on the other hand, woke anywhere from 4 - 8 times per night, wanting to nurse constantly but lacking the jaw and head strength to do so on her own, meaning that if I didn't want her to scream bloody murder and wake all our neighbors I had to hold my breast in place for her while she took half an hour to 45 minutes to nurse. And, unlike Sam, she refused to take a pacifier.

One is the age where the child has specific wants, but she doesn't know how to express herself. Sam's new habit is screaming at the top of his longs - short rhythmic bursts that sound like a car alarm - until you get him a yogurt or change his diaper or fetch his paci or give him a hug. We're late to the game, but we're trying to teach him to sign so we can figure out what he wants before we all get headaches. It can be frustrating, but it's not as intense as Stella's earth-shattering fits. She would scream at the top of her lungs - one long burst that made you question if she actually needed to breathe oxygen. She would arch her back, try to jump out of my arms, smash her head on the concrete if I wasn't watching her. And, unlike Sam who's appeased the minute he gets what he wants, once Stella was in the Tantrum Zone, it was next to impossible to get her out. I remember days where the child screamed like that for hours on end. Hours. I was a wreck.

One is around the age where babies start to walk. Sam is pulling up on everything, standing up on his own, and has even taken the stray step here and there. This is incredibly exciting, of course, but it can also be frustrating. Because while you're waiting for the child to become mobile, they are reaching their maximum weight and need to be carried a lot. Sam is 22 pounds and I tote him in and out of daycare, in and out of stores (before I plop him in the shopping cart), up and down our stairs at home, and to and fro the car. My back is in extreme pain. But again, it was far more intense with Stella. She weighed a lot more than Sam, for one thing - almost 30 pounds at age one (that girl nursed like no child has ever nursed in the history of the world and yes - babies CAN get fat on breastmilk). And she hung out in this prewalking stage for months. I kept thinking, "Today has to be the day she will take her first step," but it never was. Months we waited, worried about developmental delays but not wanting to seem like neurotic parents. And whereas I get Sam in and out of a car, I was schlepping Stella either in an carrier or a stroller up and down subway steps. I remember sneaking in hot baths whenever possible and slapping Ben Gay all over myself.

One is the age when babies are into everything. We have baby gates that keep Sam contained within our first two rooms, which have outlet covers, no small toys, and nothing else that could hurt him (in theory, at least). The second one of us opens the gate to go to the kitchen, he bolts for it, crawling as quickly as his chubby thighs will take him, and we have to scramble. If we leave a stray piece of mail on our in table, it's ripped to shreds and partially eaten within minutes. If we leave a shoe by the door, it's in his mouth. He's pulled our dining room chairs on top of himself, and got his finger stuck in a cat toy. All in the "safe" rooms. And don't get me started on what it's like to take him to homes or businesses that are not baby proofed. I basically have to trail him, prying things out his hands and catching lamps before they fall down. If there's a doorway, that's where he wants to hang out, especially if it's in a busy establishment where he could get clobbered, like a doctor's office. In this regard, Stella was no different, but because she was such a late walker, this stage lasted forever. When toddlers learn to walk, they still get into things that could hurt them, but at least they are somewhat distracted by their mobility enough to give you a few minutes break here and there.

We didn't know it at the time, but Stella was exhibiting classic signs of her now diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder. I just figured I was failing as a parent, and had no idea that there were actually programs and people that could have helped both her and me. So all the frustration of dealing with these issues combined with my guilt sent my mental health into a ravine, and it would take a long time and a lot of work to recover.

Sam is behaving like a run-of-the-mill one year old, and I'm mentally healthy, so now I just find this stage a bit challenging. It's filled with adorable moments - new words and snuggles and so much learning - and because I'm not in that dark place this time I can take a moment here and there to enjoy it. Also, since he's my second kid, I know this stage is finite - it'll be over before I know it - so I focus on the positive as much as possible, secure in the fact that soon he WILL walk and talk, and that will make life a lot easier.

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to direct you to some resources. First off, now matter how old your baby is, if you're feeling chronically sad, angry, or anxious, you might have PPD and there is definitely help out there. Please get the help you and your family deserve.

Secondly, if you suspect your baby or child might be delayed or be different, trust your gut. Yes, all babies are different and they don't look at clocks or calendars, but sometimes those differences indicate a condition that can be helped through early intervention. Check in your state to find out what resources are available. Here in Kentucky, we have the fantastic First Steps program!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September 10, 2001

Thirteen years ago tonight, I sat in my bedroom which was just big enough for my full-size bed in my shared apartment in the West Village of New York. I pulled out my journal and wrote this quote: "I wasn't worth the pain my death would cost."

It's from a Dar Williams song called "After All," which is, in my opinion, the best song ever written about being suicidal. It doesn't romanticize it at all. In fact, the point of the song is that she chooses to live simply because she doesn't think she's worth enough to hurt those that love her. It's bleak, but damn, is it honest.

I was reminding myself, as I did so often in those days, that no matter how terrible things were, I couldn't subject my family and friends to the pain of suicide. I closed my journal, probably cried a bit, then fell asleep.

When I woke the next morning, it was to both my landline and my cell phone ringing off the hook. The twin towers a mile away were on fire and those people - the ones I didn't want to hurt by killing myself - were terrified that I was dead.

This isn't the story of how the shock of 9/11 rid me of my suicidal tendencies for good. I had a lot of trauma in my childhood combined with a genetic predisposition to depression, and it would take actual therapy to make me well.

What I had was tremendous survivor's guilt. I was supposed to go to a building at the base of the twin towers the next day for a 9am appointment. I was unemployed and it was time to check in with the unemployment agency to convince them that I was working  hard to find work, and then use their databases to scour for prospective positions. The plan was to wake up at 7:30am, shower and make myself presentable, then walk out of my apartment by 8:30am so I could stroll down 6th Avenue and pick up a coffee along the way.

What I actually did was hit the snooze button a million times, then just turn off my alarm because I was depressed and figured I'd never get a job anyway and would soon be crawling home to Kentucky. When I heard the loud explosion a few minutes later, I groggily assumed they were trucks banging over pot holes and went back to sleep.

Had I woken up on time, I doubt I would have died. I wasn't supposed to be in the buildings themselves, after all. But I kept imagining scenarios of how it could happen. A piece of shrapnel from a plane plummeting toward me as I walked down 6th Avenue. And even more horrendous situations that I'm embarrassed to admit. How the hell was it fair that this whiny, suicidal girl with no spouse and no kids would be spared when so many people with rich, full lives and non-suicidal brains died?

September 11th has become a regular day. We never thought it could happen, but here we are. Bars are offering drink specials, organizations have meetings, TV shows that have nothing to do with what happened that day will air tomorrow.

But to me it will always be the day that death came really close and woke me up. My mental health wasn't fixed that day, but I did shed about 1,000 pounds of my chronic fear. I opened my heart and met Dave, my now husband, just over three months later. If I could go back in time and assure 25 year old Randi that 13 years later she'd have a husband, a daughter, and a son who love her so much it's ludicrous, I wonder if she'd have felt differently. Probably not. Because she was clinically depressed and needed help, and couldn't really see more than a minute into the future.

I found out this afternoon that September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day, and it seemed like such a crazy coincidence. So, if you feel like things will never get better, or if you're worried that someone in your life is suicidal, act now. Get help. Don't wait for a wake-up call. In fact, here's a resource for you.

And take a minute tomorrow to remember 9/11. Such a senseless tragedy (that spawned other senseless tragedies in its wake), and a day that most of us will never forget.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Wonderful Twos






As you may know, I left my career of nearly 13 years as a public school teacher to work with preschoolers. I now work with two year old kiddos. They are insanely cute. They're learning to be verbal, learning their boundaries, learning to eat with a fork, learning their colors, LEARNING LEARNING LEARNING. It's a great job with great people, and I'm very happy there.

But the thing that strikes me the most is how much I miss Stella at age two. That sounds weird, I know. She's six, and she's a wonderful six year old - smart and hilarious and kind. We get to do cool things like read magazines together and chat about life. She's tiny, but she's my best friend.

But being around these two year olds daily - one of whom reminds me so much of Stella both in her looks and her mannerisms - makes me miss this time with Stella.

Two. The age when we moved to Kentucky from our stressed-out Brooklyn life. The age my post-partum depression really started to subside. The age when Stella became verbal and no longer screamed bloody murder to show me she wanted something. The age she was walking on her own and somewhat independent. The age when I had long stretches - finally - of just enjoying being a mother, rather than fighting 1,000 demons.

So, although I'm not a person who believes in longing for the past or wanting to go back, I wish I could go back and just have one day with that sweet two year old. In the meanwhile, I'm just going to keep gazing longingly at these pictures.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Time for Number Eleven

It was my junior year of college, and I was dealing with some serious stuff. My sister, still in high school, was pregnant. My mom had suffered a heart attack. My first love came out to me as gay. And, as always, in the background, was the perpetual abuse my father laid on anyone unlucky enough to stay in that house with him.

My wonderful college roommate, Katie, could tell something was amiss. She urged me to get help, but like the good, in-denial American I was, I shrugged it off and said I was fine. Despite the fact that I cried nearly all the time.

Then, one day, my phone rang. It was the campus counselor, calling to tell me I had an appointment with her. She said my roommate had made it for me.

And thus began my life in therapy. Seventeen years later, I've rarely gone more than a few months without an appointment.

That on-campus therapist helped me cope with the craziness of that moment. She helped me realize that I couldn't fix what was going on with those I loved. She helped me embrace the moment. It ended up being a great year.

Then, that summer, I used my earnings working at Cracker Barrel to pay for my own therapist. She helped me cope with the fact that I had to live under that insanely dysfunctional roof for one final summer, as well as encouraged me to try dating straight men for the first time ever. It was a great summer.

After I moved to NYC, I found a therapist who guided me through my intense loneliness and feelings of insecurity as I pursued my theatrical ambitions. He also helped me level out after witnessing the twin towers on fire from my apartment.

Then the therapist that served double duty as Dave's and my couple's therapist and my individual therapist - something I've since learned is a no-no in the field. Still, she helped me work through my feelings of jealousy and insecurity and mistrust of men as I learned how to be in the first (and only) long-term relationship of my life.

There was the new-age-energy-healing-but-billed-herself-as-a-typical-social-worker therapist who did little for me after Stella was born and I battled my raging PPD.

A perfectly OK therapist who tried to help me manage my PPD, but then my insurance policy changed and she was no longer covered.

The assigned-to-me and thoroughly bland therapist I had to see after my stint in the mental hospital ER during that raging PPD.

The "I Can't Believe This Woman is a Therapist" therapist who hoarded things and animals in her tiny Brooklyn apartment and spent more time complaining about her neighbors than counseling me about my persistent PPD.

The amazing, incredible, life-changing Louisville therapist who properly diagnosed my myriad of disorders brought on by a cocktail of abuse as a kid and some funky world-view crap by teaching me, step-by-step and in a classroom type setting, how to manage my emotions and accept myself as is. I only left this miracle worker because she had the audacity to retire.

And my latest therapist, a woman with a lot of experience helping trauma survivors, who encouraged me to use writing as a way to process the stuff I'd never before found a way to process.

If you're counting, that's ten. Ten therapists. This doesn't include the many therapists I met with for that initial interview, but ultimately decided I couldn't work with them. (A ton.) I know from therapists, let me tell you.

And now, my latest therapist is closing her practice, and I must find another person with whom to work. I don't think it's an over-statement to say I'm heartbroken to have to do this again.

But I will. Because I know that proper mental health is crucial. I deserve a life worth living, and Dave, Stella, and Sam deserve a good, steady, healthy wife and mom.

I just really, really, really hope that when I find my new therapist, it will be forever. I'm really tired of going through this.

PS - In case you're wondering, I'm willing to put this all out here because I'm trying my damnedest to destroy the stigma that persists around mental health. People everywhere (including me) have deeply mourned the passing of Robin Williams, and many wail and cry, "Why didn't he get help?" Those are also some of the same people who are shocked when they find how outspoken and open I am about my mental health struggles and my reliance on therapy to function. We can't have it both ways. If we want to save people from the black hole of suicide, we have to not act weirded out about therapy. *Steps off her soapbox.*




Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Need a Best Friend

A Young, Sassy, Pre-Kid Randi with Alex in NYC

 An Older, Still-Sassy, Post-Kid Randi with Katie in Orlando

I recently spent two days with my college roommate, Katie, at her house in Orlando. When I left, after hours spent talking about every known topic with this woman who gets me on every single level, I felt like a salve had been applied to my soul. I also felt thoroughly depressed to leave her.

Katie wasn't my first best friend. I had different best friends throughout my school years. And she wasn't my last. I became fast and intense friends with Alex, a woman I actually cast as myself in an autobiographical play I wrote, produced, and directed in my twenties in New York. (It may sound narcissistic, but she is truly a soul-mate.)

But that's when my line of best friends ended. Not coincidentally, this coincided with breeding. I had Stella, suffered the worst postpartum depression I could have imagined, then withdrew from everyone. Then we moved to Louisville, where I jumped head-first into an intensive career (see my previous post), worked my rear-end off to reverse the effects of PPD, then got pregnant with Sam. Although I didn't suffer the same debilitating PPD with Sam, having a baby makes socializing nearly impossible. Don't believe me? Try carrying on a meaningful conversation while making sure you son doesn't pull a chair on top of himself or grabs at your shirt because he wants to be fed or suddenly needs a nap or poops all up his back and into his hair or throws a tantrum because you won't let him teethe on your cell phone. It's challenging.

So now I find myself intensely lonely. This may surprise people because I am fairly extroverted. I know a lot of really cool people here in Louisville and am not shy about talking to them. I have different circles - work friends (or I guess former work friends - sigh), Moth storytelling friends, fellow friends in the birth work field, college friends, friends through our synagogue, and mom friends I've made through social media and new moms groups. Among this varied group of people, there are women who feel like they could be Randi's Next Best Friend, an honor I'm sure they all covet. I just don't know how to get there.

I talked about this with Katie, who shared that she has similar problems finding a local best friend. We both feel like creepy stalkers when we ask for new friends' phone numbers. And even when we get past that, we don't know how to make the leap from talking about our babies and our jobs and the bands we like to talking about our views on God or nitty gritty secrets about our relationships or the fears that drive our anxiety.

So, this is a new goal of mine, along with eating better, exercising, and meditating, which are always on my self-improvement list. First, I will nourish my existing, long-distance friendships. Alex and Katie deserve much more than the infrequent phone calls I've given them, and I look forward to being in the loop of their wonderful lives again. But I also need to nurture my friendships here in town. I hope that with my less-emotionally-consuming career choice, I'll be able to have the energy to go out and get dinner with people more often. I hope that I'll again have that person I can call when I'm angry at someone or elated about something or deeply confused about which path I should take. I also look forward to fulfilling that role of shoulder to cry on when her life takes a downward turn. I look forward to feeling really connected once again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why I'm Leaving My Job as a Middle School Teacher

The other day I was driving in the car when I told Stella that I'd no longer make the long commute to my job as a middle school teacher, and that I'd be working much closer to home in a preschool and sometimes as a doula.

"But Momma, who's going to teach your kids? You love your kids," she said.

I think it's pretty telling that my own daughter, when confronted with the news that I'd spend more time with her, thought first of my kids. Not my students, mind you, my "kids."

That's because, for the past four years, my kids have lived in my heart. There wasn't one day where I left my work at work. Work came home with me, was the topic of conversation at dinner, was the insomnia at night, was the anxiety and worry because I had no control over a situation that was making the life of one of my kids hard. My mother always said I had soft heart. Well, that soft heart made it impossible for me to compartmentalize my life effectively enough to be both a good mom and a good teacher.

I loved that job. I loved looking for creative ways to teach language arts to kids who were sometimes reluctant to learn it. Watching kids who told me on the first day of school that they hated to write later slaving over a play. Helping a kid who'd never read a book before finish up the last chapter of The Hunger Games. Watching as a student bravely performed a slam poem about the abuse she suffered under someone she trusted to a class of supportive and empathetic peers.

In a world where people constantly worry about our future generation, I was only ever given hope for them.

But it took its toll. I can't tell you the awful things some kids confessed in me. Things I had to then report to those in authority. I can't tell you how many kids told me they contemplated suicide. How many kids hated their lives. How many kids had home lives that would make the best of us break.

Sometimes those kids cried with me over lunch. Sometimes they wrote their confessions to me in letters. Sometimes, I found out these things about the kids only after weeks of antagonistic and incredibly rude behavior on their part.

It wasn't easy. Facebook followers of mine probably assumed I was Robin Williams from "Dead Poets Society" from my status updates. I try to focus on the positive on social media, and I definitely brag a bit. And while I did have my student fans, I also had many, many kids who drew unflattering caricatures of me, who called me names not safe for work, who yelled in my face that they hated my guts and wanted to punch me.

I don't blame them. They were going through the toughest developmental time in the world and dealing with difficult stuff. The problem is, that soft heart my mom mentioned? It also means I have thin skin.

I no longer took their mean words to heart, but being challenged day in and day out, fighting for attention and withstanding harsh insults affected me much more than I let on. In fact, had you walked in my classroom on a given day, you'd probably think I was impervious to adolescent behavior. I was downright calm, cool, collected, and almost always positive.

But had you been in my house in the afternoon when I walked through the door with a baby and a kindergartner, struggling to make dinner and change diapers and help with school projects and clean 4,000 parts for my breast pump, you would have discovered where all the pent up frustration went. The worst days were the ones I got annoyed at my poor kids over totally normal kid behavior. The best were the ones I held it in until they were in bed, then slowly let it steam out of me as I brainlessly watched TV and comfort ate crappy, crappy food.

My babies are only babies once. And they deserve a mom who's not flustered most of the time. So, until they're older, I need to put this career on hold.

I'll work with smaller children - a job that will have its own challenges no doubt - but will also be absent of outside-of-school-hours spend planning, aligning with standards, grading, writing rationals, etc. And there will be kids for whom I'll worry, but they won't also be battling their adolescence.

And finally, this gives me space to pursue my path as a doula, and if you've read my blog at all, you know that I'd be miserable if I didn't explore this. I'm obsessed with helping women achieve healthy, respectful births that are good for them and their families, and I just didn't have the time to do the reading, research, and actual field work necessary to do that.

But, my God, am I going to miss this job. The kids, obviously, most of all. Watching them grow into self-possessed young adults with their own voices. Watching them become aware of their gifts and strengths, and watching as they overcome obstacles. Doing what I can to help them with this difficult stage of life. Laughing with them over sarcasm and fart jokes. I will seriously miss that.

I'm also going to miss my colleagues. I worked with the some of the best teachers I've ever met at this job. Some of them routinely work 10 - 12+ hour days. They are creative, passionate, compassionate, energetic. They care as much if not more about those kids than I do, and routinely go above and beyond the call of our contract to get those kids on a track to an excellent future. They do not shy away from challenges, adapt well to change (and let me tell you, in public education, change is the only constant), and push themselves to achieve greater results each year. I would be the happiest woman on earth if my kids have teachers half as wonderful as these in their lives. Those who fear teachers are mongrels trying to steal tax dollars while zipping out at 3pm and only working ten months a year would have all their illusions destroyed if they spent one day with these folks.

I will miss that school. In a time and place obsessed with standardized test scores, the principal and the teachers have delivered year after year. And yet - and I'm so darn proud of this - the school does not drill and kill, does not do that test prep crap, and it retains its physical education and artistic programs. Our kids come through that school as well-rounded, curious young adults - not disheartened youths who've been trained to bubble in stuff with a number 2 pencil.

I will miss it. It is so much harder to leave a job you love than one you hate. I've experienced both in my life, but none have been as hard to deal with as this one. I just look forward to that day, a few years from now, when I run into one of my students as he/she kicks butt at a wonderful career. That'll be cool.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My Unpaid and Totally Cheesy Endorsement for the Disney Dream Cruise

Sam stealing a nap at Castaway Cay.

A rare family portrait starring everyone's favorite canines.

Attention to detail: our wonderful waiter made Stella's ketchup into a Mickey every night. 

Ready for Pirate Night.

Dave and I used to be true travelers. We backpacked. We hiked. We camped. We spent our honey moon traipsing all over Ireland and Scotland, meeting the people, eating the food, drinking the brews, experiencing that culture - not just watching it all from a tour bus.

And like most people before they have kids of their own, we made fun of other parents for doing things differently than we thought they should. Like taking their families on cruises. We rolled our eyes and talked about how our kids would really EXPERIENCE things. Our kids, and we, would be cool.

Well, we were wrong. It is wonderful for kids to hike and backpack and camp - I won't disagree with that at all. And we save money to travel somewhere every year, because exposing our kids to different cultures is a huge part of what we believe will make them intelligent, worldly, compassionate, well-rounded folks.

But there's a problem. When you pack up your one or more kid and travel to, say, a beachhouse (like we did last summer), it's true that the kid gets an amazing experience. Unstructured time in the ocean, hiking through nature, chasing crabs on the beach, building castles. But what are you - the parent - doing? Reminding them not to track in sand into the rental. Making breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon, and keeping them behaved in a restaurant at dinner. You're slathering on sunscreen and watching them like a hawk when the tide comes in and sitting in the beach house at night, exhausted and bored because the kids need to be in bed by 9 or else they'll be a wreck the next day. You get back from vacation as tired and cranky as you were before you left, but you spent all your money so you can't hire a sitter so you can take a nap.

This year, with the addition of ten-month-old Sam, I knew we needed a different vacation. One where we could do things as a couple as well as a family. A vacation where I could hand my children over to trained professionals who'd take excellent care of them while I did something grown-uppy. Something that might remind me of a me before I used words like "grown-uppy."

So, I talked Dave into considering a Disney cruise - a short, three-night excursion to the Bahamas on the epic ship The Disney Dream. Once he realized this meant we'd do no cooking, no cleaning, and would have time to ourselves, he agreed.

So now, without further ado, let me answer the question I know is burning through your brain: Was the Disney cruise all it's cracked up to be?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer is yes, absolutely, and here are some reasons why:

1.  The Childcare. I know the sanctimommies of the world will faint when I say this, but it was so incredibly awesome to have time alone as a couple on this trip. And it made it even more enjoyable that the childcare was so fantastic that even a neurotic worry-wart like me felt 100% confident in it. Stella's childcare was included in the price of her cruise admission. That meant she could come and go as often as she wanted from the time they opened in the morning until the time they closed - midnight. Since she's six, she was part of the Oceaneer's Club - a series of rooms as cool as Andy's Bedroom from Toy Story (complete with toys bigger than you) and Pixie Hollow. The counselors are compassionate and well-trained, even knowing how to handle Stella's sensory issues with ease (and yes - that actively came up). Characters like Minnie and Mickey come to the club, meaning the kids get tons of face-time that they don't necessarily get at Walt Disney World itself. It was so good that Dave and I often found ourselves talking Stella OUT of going there, because we wanted her to do something with us. Remember how I said we thought we'd be cool parents? Well begging your six year old to spend time with you pretty much cancels that out, doesn't it?

But what about Sam? Well, there's a nursery on board fashioned after the "It's a Small World" ride. It costs extra, but at $9/hour, that's pretty darn cheap (and worth it). It was impeccably clean and had a wonderful staff. They were breast-feeding friendly (which I know they should be, but if you know anything about this current climate, you know that's not always true). They had a separate, quiet room for sleepers, meaning we could put Sam in there every night while we painted the town - er ship - red. They even snapped photos of him playing and made a sweet art project for us using his footprints. You have to trust me when I say I have a great instinct for how well a childcare facility is run, and this one was top notch.

Also - both clubs will feed your kids lunch and dinner. They'll even chop up your baby's food into tiny bits for you. So YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO A DAMN THING TO GET YOUR KIDS FED. Do you hear me????

And, to top it all off, their security was amazing. Each kid gets a bracelet with a computer chip in it that stays on them. When you sign the kid in, the bracelet is scanned, along with your Key to the World card - a credit-card-type-thingy that is also your room key and charge card. That Key to the World has a photo that pops up on their computer of you and your kid, so even if the card is taken, ain't nobody getting your baby. And finally, when you come back to pick up your kid, all the scanning and whatnot is repeated, but this time you need to give them a SECRET CODE WORD. Seriously - I had no anxiety that some nefarious character would take my kid. And if you know me, you know that's nearly impossible.

Finally, if you have older kids, they have clubs for them, too. From what I could tell, and mind you this is coming from a middle school teacher who knows her stuff, it seemed those clubs treated the kids like the young adults they are, not like overgrown children. So you could let your tween or teen run off with similarly-aged kids, knowing they're getting supervision and not getting into crazy on-board shenanigans.

2. The Ship. I'd been on two cruises over twenty years ago - one on Royal Caribbean and one one Norwegian - both to the Bahamas (the most reasonably-priced option). Hands-down the Disney Dream is the coolest ship I've ever seen. The theater was as beautiful as the Broadway theaters I've been to, and nearly as large. The atrium is gorgeous, with a chandelier that Stella swears is Elsa's from Frozen. The three on-board formal restaurants are each very different in decor, one more delightful than the next. There was a regular pool, a shallow pool for littles, a spash area for toddlers, and - possibly best of all - a pool area only for people 18 and over (which is nice when you're tired of screaming kids jumping in next to your head). There were hot tubs and lovely places for strolls. Window seats in the portholes and Italian-style cafes. And, for this family at least, the piece de resistance was the AquaDuck - the world's first cruise ship water roller coaster. It is clear and 14 stories in the air and SO MUCH FUN. We loved it so much that, after riding it once each with Stella, Dave and I might have put both our kids in childcare just so we could ride it together. (Did I mention that we used to think we'd remain cool? It gets funnier every time I write it.) We loved the ship so much that we didn't even debark the day it landed in Nassau. We weighed the pros and cons, and decided that schlepping a not-yet-walking baby around the island to do some over-priced, second-party excursion just wasn't worth it. And we made the right choice, baby.

3. All-Inclusive/Food. It is so nice when you're on a budget not to have to worry about where you'll eat or what you'll order. It's even nicer when the food you eat is fantastic. The only thing we paid for out of pocket was Sam's childcare, our rummy cocktails, and some souvenirs. Otherwise, we didn't worry about a thing - even when we ordered four different appetizers and four different deserts - for three of us. They even had sushi at the lunch buffet one day. (The sushi guy and I became friends after I visited him several times). You can even indulge in room service - no extra charge.

4. Disney's Private Island, Castaway Cay. It's OK that we didn't debark on the Nassau day, because we more than made up for it the next day at Castaway Cay. You simply walk off the boat and walk onto a pristine, lovely beach. The water was gentle and crystal clear. There were ample umbrellas and seating. You could rent flotation devices and snorkeling gear. There was a delicious (included) barbecue lunch on the island. There was a character dance party. We even saw a stingray! This was my favorite day, by far. Oh, and there's a special beach called Serenity Bay for folks 18 and over. We could have put the kids in childcare and traipsed off with the child-free folks, but we decided to be good parents this one day. But I love that name - Serenity Bay. Doesn't every parent wish to visit Serenity Bay at least once a day?

5. You can be as busy or as relaxed as you want to be. I love Disney World, I won't lie, but you don't feel like you're earning your money's worth unless you GO GO GO all day and all night. The cruise felt different. There are character appearances every day, and we partook, but unless your kid is a diehard fan who needs to see Mickey 100 times in three days (thankfully ours isn't), it's not that big a deal. There are wonderful shows day and night that we loved, but you could skip them if that's not your thing. There are night clubs for every taste, as well as lounges to just sit and talk. There are even on-board 3D movies (great if the weather's bad, which we didn't have to deal with) and Shabbat services for us Jews (that we didn't attend because we're bad Jews). So, if you want to run constantly, you won't run out of things to do. But if, like Dave and me, you want to sit comatose in the hot tub for an hour and a half, you can do that, too.

6. It's Disney. Disney does everything better. They just do. Their attention to detail is insane, and this is coming from an annoyingly detail-oriented person (just ask my husband). For example - they have a "Pirates IN the Caribbean" theme night where everyone can dress up as pirates. I was able to get my daughter a costume, but I couldn't find the time to get one for the rest of us. No worries - Disney provides you with adorable bandanas so you can still dress as a pirate. There are hidden Mickeys all over the ship - which is helpful when you're in line and you need something to distract your kids. Interior rooms for us poor folks have no windows; but on Disney you get a "virtual porthole," which has a tv screen with a live feed to what's going on outside. Disney characters from Finding Nemo and other films even come by to say hello. And, Stella's favorite part, the chocolates on the pillow each night that are, of course, actually good quality.

That's all I can think of for now. We're going to start saving ASAP for next summer, and I'd love to go for a longer cruise if possible. If you plan to book a cruise, I recommend working with Small World Vacations. They're authorized through Disney, cost nothing extra, will find you the best deals, are quick and courteous, and will even get you on on-board credit. (I don't know how there's no down side, but there really isn't.) And if you're looking for tips and tricks, go to Mousesavers. Their advice helped us get the most out of an already wonderful vacation.

Have a wonderful summer! Oh, and if anyone from Disney is reading this and wants to reward me for this free advertising, that Disney Magic trans-Atlantic cruise planned for May 2015 looks great.