Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
How to Raise Kids Who Love Winter: Sixteen Tips

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1. Before the children can stand on skis, they lie in the snow crying. At this stage, it is better not even to put on your ski boots. Instead, settle for the moose-hide mukluks, the ones with really good traction. Later you will teach the children to right themselves, but right now your job is to pick them up again and again, acting like you’re having fun. Say, “Whoopsie! You fell again! How funny!” in a voice laced with energy drinks. Clap enthusiastically when they fall. Fall over yourself and stick your legs in the air. Laugh harder. As you lay on the trail staring at your boots against the clouds, try to forget that you are almost 40. Consider that what you are feeling right now is what the Bozo the Clown punching bag you had as a child would describe to his therapist if he was alive.

 

2. When it is -30, and the stars are bright and the baby is in a sling zipped into your parka, the crunch of your snowshoes on the trail sounds like music played on instruments carved out of ice. You might imagine all the mothers in other places who wouldn’t dare leave the house with a baby in this temperature. Smug, you might even think I am a tough mother, one who looks winter in the eye and puts snowshoes on. Don’t let yourself forget: mothers have been doing this forever. Mothers who did not move to Alaska from elsewhere. Mothers who were once babies here. Mothers who long ago carried their babies into the winter in parkas, in kuspuks, in their arms. There are words older than you that describe the warmth the baby is feeling inside your parka. Words that you don’t know and may never know. Learn those words.

 

3. Ski on a shadow-lit trail in a bog. Marvel at Seussian spruce trees twisting in arcs over your head and imagine you are passing through needled tunnels. Skiing behind you, the eight-year-old declares, “Mom, sometimes I am bored with everything in the whole world.” This is the moment to teach her the word ennui. You tell her, “Mostly I feel ennui when I am at work, not while I am skiing.” Accept that she feels it while she is skiing.

 

4. Just as you are Velcro-ing the last mitten, one child says, “I need to pee!” Unbundle in the reverse order you bundled: mittens, hat, neck gaiter, coat, snowpants. Encourage the child to stagger to the bathroom with her snowpants around her knees. “Click, click,” her feet say as her ski boots slip and slide on the laminate flooring and threaten to topple her. It may be the best skiing that happens today. “Do you need help?” you ask. “No!” she shouts. Keep your fingers crossed that she will make it to the bathroom without peeing her snowsuit.

 

5. It is a good idea to have more than one snowsuit. Buy an extra the next time you go to the store.

 

6. The first time the beater circa 1989 Tundra snow machine (eligible but too ugly to race in the annual “Tired Iron” race in town) breaks down on the trail, ski back to the truck pulling the kids in the pulk. They think this is fun. They shout, “You are our dog! Mush! Mush!” They also think it is fun when, having gotten the snow machine running, their father, not having time to set up the ramp and fearing the engine will stall again at any moment, has to jump it, Dukes of Hazard style, directly into the back of the truck. They cheer wildly for him. Never admit to your husband that you are impressed as well.

 

7. Read books about the science, plants, weather, animals, history, and cultures of the Arctic even though you are a poet. When you stumble upon:

“There are two fundamentally different types of snow: that which falls from the sky and that produced by later changes in deposited snow. All snow crystals start as the first kind, but sooner or later they lose their original identity and become the second kind.”

in The Field Guide to Snow Crystals, realize this is true about your children as well, that sooner or later they will lose their original identity and become a second kind. Learn to be okay with this.

 

8. On a night that the aurora is strong long after the children are in bed, consider waking them up, and then don’t. Stand alone on the deck in the quiet of the night, barefoot even though it is cold, and stare up into the newly darkened sky. Think about all the people who say you can hear the aurora. Listen for the popping sound they describe. Instead hear a child’s voice asking, “Why are you here?” She stands on the deck behind you, her blanket a cape. Pick her up and point at the green shimmer. Stay quiet. Soon you’ll hear the shuffle of footed jammies. Her sister has followed. Something other than you woke them. Whisper, “You were born here, but you’ve never seen this before,” and let them stare as long as they need to.

 

9. When the children complain about the cold, say, “You’re lucky. There are people who pay thousands of dollars to come to this place.” Only one of those sentences is true. Because you love a place, your children will not automatically love it as well. Your definition of luck brought you here despite the wishes of your own parents. Your children will have to define luck on their own. Cross your fingers that for them it will involve moving to Hawaii.

 

10. Resent both the snow machine and the walkie-talkie, but be glad for them as well. They are the difference between skiing three miles listening to whining, and skiing three miles in happy silence. Sometimes it is okay to call rescue pickup for the five-year-old who has decided she is the only one who can ski in front, but then refuses to move. She is holding ski poles and is near her sister. Snow machine rides are always more fun than getting a busted lip.

 

11. Even at noon, the ice fishing hut is dark and eerie with the lantern’s lingering hiss as background music. The children will ask, “When will I catch a fish?” minutes after dropping their lines. You will still be chipping out one of the ice holes when they ask the first time. They will continue to ask every three minutes until you walk them back across the frozen lake to the cabin. Remember this the next time you think it will be fun to take them ice fishing.

 

12. When it’s -20 and no one wants to go outside, the dog will still need to go outside. Use this as motivation. Ask the children to walk the dog with you. If you can stand the traditional yelling of, “Mom, you walk her yourself,” and promise that you’ll play tag in the middle of the street with your headlamps off, the children will come too. They will even have fun. The dog is very good at tag. Even though she doesn’t know she’s playing, she likes to be “it.”

 

13. Accept that sometimes all you can do is abandon the pee-soaked underpants and pants in a tree and plan to pick them up when they’re frozen solid in a few days on the way back out. That is if the person with the pulk is too far ahead to catch, you have no plastic bag on you, and you don’t want to stuff anything pee-soaked in your pocket. Tell the upset child that skiing in snowpants and nothing else is a special treat. Enthusiastically introduce the term “going commando.”

 

14. Regret, once again, that you never bought that extra pair of snowpants.

 

15. When you get to the truck after the snow machine has broken down yet again, realize that you don’t have keys—they are in your husband’s pocket and he’s still three miles away. He’s skiing out, dragging the sled, having abandoned the stalled snow machine a mile farther than you made it with the kids. Be grateful it’s 20 degrees and not -35 like it was last weekend. Break the one granola bar left in half and learn that The Hokey Pokey is an excellent way to keep small people, who have no shelter, moving while they wait. Notice, hours later on the drive home, that you did have a lighter in your coat pocket the whole time. It just wasn’t where you thought it would be. Wonder what would have happened if it had been -35. Feel lucky again.

 

16. On an afternoon walk in the dark, look at the stars. Trace the Big Dipper, seek Orion over the tops of the birch and Jupiter alone and bright near the Pleiades. Looking straight up, one child asks if Polaris will always be the North Star. She says, “I read in a magazine that the pole will shift someday and point to another star.” She feels bad for Polaris the way you feel bad for Pluto. She says, “Polaris will always be my North Star.” Realize that the only response is, “Yes.”

 

 

 


Nicole Stellon O’Donnell is a poet and essayist who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of Steam Laundry, a novel-in-poems that tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, who in 1903 decided to start her life over in Fairbanks (Boreal Books, 2012). Steam Laundry was written with the support of an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in various literary magazines, including Ice Floe, The Women’s Review of Books, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Prairie Schooner. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Anchorage Daily News and as commentaries for the Alaska Public Radio Network. Her website is nicolestellon.com.


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Wonderful! Tips three and seven are my favorites.
Nicole, I adore your ever poetic voice. You weave gorgeous images and evoke powerful emotions. Thank you for this piece.
Having just committed this winter to taking our 8, 6, and 3 year olds skiing and having it be, well, exhausting and not particularly fun, I really, really, really enjoyed this piece!
Ohhh I so love this. Motherhood exemplified and authored by this loveliness. xp
Beautiful! I just found your column and I enjoyed reading all of your posts so far. Thank you for this beautiful insight into life in Alaska. The whole time I'm reading, I'm asking myself, how would this differ if it were about Iowa, a place I recently moved to and where we're making a home for our children. Thank you for that extra food for thought.
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