Fighting the Mental Frost

How to dress to walk the dog.

How to dress to walk the dog, or: reasons to get a cat.

It is stupid cold outside: a breathtaking -11°F. For the lucky uninitiated, at this frigidity, nose hairs freeze and stiffen as you breathe in. You don’t dare cry outdoors, even if you’re late for work and your car door is frozen shut. Lettuce leaves freeze in the time it takes to walk from the grocery to your car.

I grew up in a dry land close to the sun where buying snow boots is more wishful thinking than preparedness. I am not blessed with the fortitude of Northern peoples to withstand six months of cold, dark hell. I don’t think many of them are blessed with it either; I know many pale skinned Northerners who struggle with Winter’s long, cold reign. I remember my first northern winter and thinking, “This is why these people drink so much.” (It also could have been because it was my freshman year in college, but I digress.) By February, the darkness and chill seep into my bones and despair sets in. It will not end for another 6-8 weeks and I begin to be mentally unwell.

As being constantly drunk for 6 weeks is not an option, I have found other ways of coping. My favorites are cheap and effective. Of course, I forget to do them and end up huddled against the radiator, eating mashed potatoes and weeping. But, when I remember to do them, they help.

Avoid the Idiot Box

I watch very little TV and few movies- 2-3 hours a week, at most. Empirical data from myself and children convinced me that television is bad for humans. Children’s behavior and attitudes are never better after watching TV; they are usually worse. If I consume more than 3 hours of TV within a couple of days, I am noticeably more anxious and unhappy. It makes my sleep less restful. Most TV is crap anyway. (Whatever show I currently love is excepted, of course.)

Escapism has its place in a northern winter, but TV for TV’s sake is a poor escape. It puts a mind in stasis. There have been times when I can’t even remember what I watched. When I turn the box off, my mind reverts to the same stressed, pent up state it was in before, except with a liberal sprinkling of anxiety on top.

Find other escapes if TV affects you negatively. Listen to podcasts/music/audiobooks. Go to bed. Talk to someone. Practice a hobby. Sort the socks. Do something besides sit in front of the TV/Hulu/Netflix.

Fill’er up with Happy

Jon Snow, you need a week in SoCal.

Jon Snow, you make me cold.

Last winter, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book in the Game of Thrones series. What a terrible decision- so much cold, and snow, and blood, and bloody snow. I could handle the gore; it was the snow, or Snow, that got me. I put it down until April.
In the depths of the winter that has already come, I seek out pleasing, diversions- silly British TV shows (watched in small doses,) audiobooks by comedians, or engrossing fiction or biographies in which winter is not a character and children don’t die.

Eat Live Things

When the snow flies, I am drawn to rich, fatty, carbohydrates and wine. However, when I haven’t felt the sun 3428573788_4f85b63636in months and winter’s cold fingers are tightening around my chest, I feel better when I eat some raw foods. The problem is that raw foods, like me in February, are always cold, and I only want warm things. Salad is nearly impossible to make desirable this time of year. Even the salty charms of feta cheese cannot draw me to a bowl of chilled vegetable. Bacon must be enlisted in a 1:1 ratio to lettuce to tempt me at all.

In winter, I try to serve something raw at each dinner: sugar snap peas, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, jicama, even fruit. I serve green leaves like a supplement, not a side dish. Everyone gets a pinch of fresh spinach leaves next to their vitamins, no matter what else is for dinner.

The easiest way to dose my family with raw veg in the winter is to juice them (the veg, not the family.) I always forget to do this until late winter when we all start getting sick. Children love to use the juicer and will suck down a carrot/orange/romaine blend without complaint. It tastes like sweet life in the bitterness of March.

Take Some Vitamin D

Because I haven’t made any of my own since October and will not do so again until April.

Let the Sunshine In

In the frigid north, it is colder when the sun is out. Clouds blanket the city, holding warmth in, but blue skies strip away warmth. When I can find a window with the sun streaming in, I stand there with the golden light filling my eyes, even for a minute. It’s better than nothing.

Sweat & Exercise

I can almost see your eyes rolling. I know; it’s a bit of a bummer. Pulling on spandex pants after a cold Christmas does not seem likely to

Simmons: He knows what's up.

Simmons: Good for what ails you…depending on what ails you.

improve one’s mood. Avoid the full-length mirrors and do it anyway. Or just do it in your house and wear your PJ. Who cares? Getting the blood moving reminds me that I am alive, even if the weather outside is deadly.

Winter is what got me started working out seriously. One February at 11:30 pm, I was paying a crew of men a revolting hourly sum to melt the 1’ ice dams off my roof. I was running out of money and there was still one damn dam to go. Stressed, worried by the water dripping down my inside walls, and a little furious at the whole situation, I decided to wear myself out doing mountain climbers- just to calm down. Gasping for breath and lying on the floor 4 minutes later, I was exhausted, but my mental state was much better, and I was a little bit hooked.

Now, I run for my mental health as much as for my physical health. There is something about the combination of rhythmic movement, sweat, a half an hour without someone yelling, “Mom!”, and the endorphins, that raise my mood more than anything else. Oh, the sweet endorphins. Sometimes, I run just for the endorphins. Being a user of these chemicals, I know that I need to run for 28 minutes to get a good hit, and I feel them hit my bloodstream. They are effective, legal, and free.

Exercise is also one of the only times I am actually warm during the winter. At the moment, I am writing this with a down comforter over my head and shoulders, and a space heater aimed at me. I walk around my house in shoes, sweater, hat, and sometimes a scarf for months at a time. Getting hot and sweaty, whether through exercise or sauna, feels so good during the cold months- bringing blood to the surface and opening pores that otherwise won’t open again until May. Even if you don’t want to P90X (and I’m right there with you,) getting in a steam room will give you the same glow without all the burpees. It’s a small wonder that the Finns love their saunas. Although, I am not game for the jump in a frozen lake afterward- madness.

You go first. I'll take pictures.

You go first. I’ll take pictures.

Warmth in Numbers

February/March is a social dead time. Holidays are over; the spring event season has yet to begin, and no one is thinking of barbeques or cocktail parties. People are hunkered down, waiting for Spring. If I can get myself invited to or arrange social gatherings with beloved and stimulating people, my heart warms and life is good.

Medicinal Grooves

When struggling with seasonal depression, I medicate with music. I choose it like a prescription drug- in accordance with what I need and what it can provide. It’s most effective when I can turn it up, close my eyes, and give it my full attention- so, when small people are asleep. This time of year, I take a lot of Haydn, early to mid Beethoven, Mumford and Sons, Cake, and occasional Metallica, AC/DC, Pink, and Randy Travis. I must be careful with those last ones; it’s easy to build up a tolerance and they quickly lose their effectiveness.

Bring Me [to] a Shrubbery!

I always forget this one and must be reminded of it by friends. In my city, we have a wonderful conservatory full of tropical trees, plants and lots of loamy smelling humidity. It is a relief to the skin and the senses to go in there and smell the plants, the damp earth, and see living horticulture. I will fill out a comment card the next time I go. I’ll suggest that they put deck chairs out in sunny spots and people can rent them by the hour and take the air and light for their health.
If you have access to an indoor greenspace- zoos, greenhouses, conservatories, go. Your skin and your mood will thank you.4308992311_e8bf512eed

That’s my arsenal. On occasion, it must all be employed at once to meet my mental health needs. I’m sure I’d be a good candidate for a light therapy lamp, but I haven’t looked into it. How do you cope with the cold, dark, icy white horror that is a Northern winter? I need all the help I can get… as long as it’s cheap and easy, or you’re paying.

Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

Mother’s Amnesia

How Second Children and Golden Nostalgia are Made

When you are pregnant with your first child, women of a grandmotherly age tell you to treasure each moment because it is the best time of your life. I have always been dubious of this gushy advice. Even before birthing my first, I took it with a chunk of salt. It couldn’t be true when every mother of young kids I saw looked tired, harried and in need of a nap. Now I understand. Nature programs selective amnesia into the minds of mothers. If she did not, she would find it difficult to convince any of us to have more than one child. But as soon as you deliver that grapefruit sized head from your body, you start to forget the sensation. It’s chemical fact.

Doux rêves- Firmin BaseYes, mothering is the most important thing I do. Yes, it has its moments of joy- hearing my daughter’s belly laugh, watching an older brother help a younger one without prompting.  I will be honest; those moments are precious and infrequent. They happen without warning, and I have to be ready to catch them. Often, they happen and I miss them because I’m busy burning dinner or digging in the mismatch bin for two socks that are in the same color family.

I don’t love the job, but I love my children and I am able and willing to take a stay-at-home position in service to their personhood and an immense sense of responsibility I feel for giving them the best tools I can and a sturdy foundation to build on.

There are stay at home parents who adore the job. (I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they exist.) On a day-to-day basis, it is mostly laundry, meals, and interruptions, and I never leave the office. When all three children were at home, I operated in stupefying chaos and nothing I cared about was under my control. I didn’t go to the bathroom on my own terms.  It’s getting better as they get older, but it is still a mess. I plan a nice dinner and someone drops/breaks/gets stuck in something and dinner goes unmade. A preschooler dumps a cup of milk into a basket of folded laundry. Order crumbles into disarray, like graham crackers in a car seat.

Sisyphus, artist unknownAll my tasks, except the long game of raising adults, are cyclical and eternal in nature: completing their tight little circle in a day and demanding to be done once again. Sisyphus didn’t have it so bad. He rolled that stone in peace and quiet and, as far as I know, no one vomited down the front of his tunic.

While this is all true, it is also true that the work is immensely significant and challenging. If I bring new humans into the world, I owe it to them and the world to do whatever I can to help them become a blessing and not a burden to the world. Doing so requires being honest with who they are  and I am.

Nothing cuts down your ego like parenting. Your children will embarrass you in Target. “Mom, that woman [pointing, of course] is so big! Do you think she’s a Bigfoot?” I bent down and said, “Oh, little girl, where is your mother? Let’s go find her.” and led the blabbermouth away as quickly as possible. Good times.

All pretense is stripped away as you rock a fussy baby at 2:00 am, or sit in a steamy bathroom at 4:30, trying to help your sick 5 year-old breathe. There are no breaks and the façade you keep up for others and yourself falls to pieces under the strain, leaving you facing your true self- all the good and ugly bits.

You make goals for your kids. You want them to eat kale, read Chinese, love baseball, be healthy and kind, but you have very little control over any of it. You are dealing with an autonomous being, and their free will and luck do a lot of thwarting your best intentions.

At the very least, parenting opens your eyes to what your parents did for you. You become aware of sacrifices to which you were blind. You forgive their faults because you realize that you have some of the same ones. Your parents taste a sweet little justice, sending sugared up kids home from their house, or watching you struggle with a mouthy teen. Grandparents should enjoy it; they earned it.

It is hard, long, and difficult. And darn it, if those old biddies weren’t right. The days drag, but the years fly. Before I know it, I will be teaching them to drive, and moving them into apartments. I will be wistful and weepy because Nature will have done her merciful kindness and I will carry the golden moments in my heart, the others, still there, but faded in the background.

"The Three Ages of Woman", detail, Klimt.

Perhaps I’ll remember myself as a very pale white woman.

Shock and Aww

Mine is not a militarily cultured family, but, I find myself thinking in military analogies. Here’s a sampling:

Rules of Engagement– Whatever tenuous rules and policies I’ve made for the moment and will change or abandon at will.

4869071404_77104ed8e8_z BDR– Yes. Make your bed every day. It isn’t “Basic [almost] Daily [if you feel like it,] Routine.”

Troop management– Getting to school, through IKEA, church, or Costco with all members accounted for, unbloodied, and almost on time.

Group Cohesion– Tying everyone’s performance to everyone’s reward. While strongly protested as unfair, it has proved an effective tool for building cohesion and accomplishing missions.

The Enemy– Colic, TV, exhaustion, or an opposing faction within a family usually consisting of barefoot short people.

Guerilla Tactics–  Sneaky goings on: Throwing away [read: donating] unused toys when children aren’t around. Putting mushrooms through the garlic press, so the kids can’t pick them out. Changing their clock so we can sleep in for another 30 minutes.

Surrender– My flag waving arm is sore and it isn’t because I’m such a patriot.

I surrender!

I surrender!

Routing– What happened to me last Saturday when Hot Swede was gone all day, ending with friends’ pity and their bringing me wine.

Trench Warfare– The parenting of very young children. Consistently interrupted sleep, chaos and destruction coming at you from all directions all the time and all you really want is a pair of dry socks.

Night Watch– What the stay at home parent gets when a child has nighttime vomiting, ostensibly because I “can sleep during the day.” Bwah ha ha ha.

Recon– going through the backpack, looking for a permission form.

Special Ops– Volunteering, attending, being over age 30 at the school carnival, teaching Sunday school, leading a boy scout troop, etc.

Coordinated Attack– When the plebes work together to attack every weakness I have on a given day [see “Routing.”] For example: “Okay, you whine. When you’re done, I’ll drop a full quart of yogurt on the floor. Then, you run through it on your way to almost make it to the toilet. After that, we’ll complain about lunch and fight about who hates squash more. She’ll take away our screen time and then we’ll break her. She’ll cave without the hour’s break. It will be mac and cheese for dinner and play outside for the rest of the night.”

Victory– If Hot Swede and I make it to 51 and they make it to 20 nearly whole, good, functional, and still smiling at each other, we will have a ticker tape parade.

Headless Nike: I'll take it.

Winged Victory: If she kept her head, it wouldn’t be as fitting.

Housewife Proud

Today, for the first time ever, I felt a bit of pride about being a homemaker. It was fleeting, a wisp of a thought as I drove my garden fork into the second compost bin, breaking apart a mat of moldy grass clippings, but it was definitely there- pride. I am gobsmacked. I have purpose and pride in the work I do in parenting, but not housekeeping. I view housekeeping as a burden I bear because I am also a stay at home parent, and it makes sense that the stay-at-home partner does most of the work at home.

However creative and satisfying Martha Stewart makes it look, let’s remember that she has piles neat towers of cash tied with grosgrain ribbon and a small army of minions to do all the mundane and persnickety tasks. The reality is that the bulk of housekeeping tasks are mundane and persnickety. My “to do” lists are full of piddly affairs that no one really notices until they haven’t been done for a long time and have gotten out of hand: mopping, weeding, keeping a stock of toilet paper, pairing separated socks, changing sheets at least once a season.  Everything about housekeeping is cyclical and most of those cycles are daily or weekly. My people demand to be fed every single day! It is relentless and never ending. Until today, I have always detested and accepted it at the same time.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

What happened? Did I lose my mind for just a moment, inhaling the grass mold? No, not entirely. It has more to do with the three-week hiatus I took from this house. I am fresh and the drudgery is not yet repetitive enough to cause psychic blisters. With my face in the compost, I accepted the value of what I do.

Yeah, yeah, I know that homemakers save money by doing tasks that would otherwise be hired out, but I didn’t own that fact. I didn’t accept it as a good enough trade off for not clamoring after a career. But here’s what makes it okay: The stuff I do improves the quality of life for myself and those I love.

I feed us well, with the healthiest stuff I can afford and prepare, because I think what we eat matters. I grow food. I shop sales and plan meals around them. I go to one of four different stores, depending on what I need and who has the best quality for the price. I hold prices per ounce in my head. Those I can’t keep in my head are in my phone. Really. I spend a lot of time procuring, preparing, and cleaning up our food. I couldn’t do it if I worked full time, or even half time. It wouldn’t be worth the time cost. We would eat less healthfully and spend more money doing it.

I take care of life maintenance tasks that would be chronically forgotten if Hot Swede were in charge. He is gifted at many things, but managing the chaotic minutia of a family is not one of them. I am not a stellar actor in this theatre either, but I’m better. Our family works more smoothly if bills get paid on time, events are entered on the calendar, and underwear gets washed regularly, even if it doesn’t get put away.

I practice the stinking piano with two children, a task that takes more self-discipline on my part than anything else I do.  But it makes music lessons worth the cost; they are not cheap and are wasted on most children if parents aren’t involved. If I worked at a job, there is no way I could come home and bring myself to cajole, threaten, criticize and encourage reluctant children to curve their fingers and play it with the metronome eight more times.

I make Halloween costumes when I can’t find them for purchase, despite late night Internet searches. I stay home with sick children and am here on snow days. Hot Swede doesn’t face last minute childcare crises and juggling of client appointments. My being at home lets him be more dependable and steady at his job. I go to all the little performances and presentations at school, even the really lame ones.

I do bundles of time intensive tasks that I would punt if I were working for someone else. The wonderful thing about my job is that I still have freedom to punt the stuff that I don’t deem worthy. I re-prioritize at will. Not many careered people can say that. I don’t iron my clothes because wrinkles don’t bother me. I don’t edge the lawn, decorate cupcakes, or stencil cute things on my children’s walls. Why? Because I don’t want to and no one can make me. I’m co-president of this organization. I work for the people I love most in the world- for their health, their peace, their quality of life, and their future.

"Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!"

“Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!”

So there it is- the first time in 8 years I’m proud to be a homemaker. Next week, I’ll re-read this as I fold the 6th load of laundry and I’ll deride myself for posting such a load of buoyant crap. But today, two feet deep in rotting garbage, I was happy to be there.

Creative Destruction

There is a fine line between encouraging children’s creativity and letting them ruin your life. When their imaginative and explorative minds are fully active- watch out- something is going to get trashed. Children who are not fed on a steady diet of screen time are dynamic mess makers. It is the price paid for turning off the TV/smartphone/tablet/computer/DS/game console; they come out of stasis and commence learning.

I once came upstairs to find my 2 and 4 year old “greasing the piggy”- spreading Eucerin skin cream (the really thick one) like frosting on Bear’s piggy bank. It was all over their clothes and they were having a ball. Being the party killer that I am, I put a stop to it, but I couldn’t be mad. No doubt it was tactily stimulating.

At some point, each one of my children turns a lipstick all the way up and mashes the cap back on. They dump out boxes of neatly ordered items- bandages, cotton swabs, tea bags, but lack the interest and small motor skills to put them back in. They unroll rolls of toilet paper, pull out entire boxes of tissue, gleefully rip out page after page of phone books. (Alas, our youngest never had this thrill as we received our last one before she was of paper ripping age.) They are on a mission of discovery that usually entails moving from order to chaos.

As older children, they body paint themselves with sidewalk chalk or mud. Walls double as canvas, napkin, and Kleenex. Peony petals are stripped from their stems and flung about in a Disney excess of beauty and delight, leaving plants dejected and a near carpet of pink on the grass that quickly turns to something resembling brown snot. They’ll cut a ticker tape parade worth of paper nitnerts before they vote in their first election. They will all end up on my floor.

I was similarly busy as a child. While my parents lived with much child-made chaos, there was one feature that made harmony between childhood and adulthood easier.

My natal home has a two-part backyard. Visible from the house is the lawn, babbling pond, patio, and bonfire pit- all against a DSC_0080backdrop of a 5’ stucco wall and a riotous wisteria. There is only a glimpse of the Neverland that lies beyond- the back back[yard.]

The back back was our realm. We were essentially free to do anything there that didn’t involve shedding our own or each other’s blood, or at least not much of it. We had everything a child’s imagination and ingenuity required. A patch of 10’ bamboo-like grass served as building material for teepees, fishing poles, pit traps, spears, and anything else that required a stick. Queen of Heaven trees grew like weeds and, when we were old enough, we were allowed to cut them down for sturdy lengths of stinky green wood. We had food- apricots, grapes, and apples. A spigot watered our meager garden, filled multiple buckets for countless uses, and slaked the thirst of small throats. We dug a huge hole one summer that morphed from swimming hole to Egyptian tomb, to bear trap, to root cellar. We buried small pets there (previously expired,) marking their graves with haphazard markers that were always conspicuously absent after the next mowing.

We played at farmer, Peter Pan, and weeks worth of “Refugee”- a game of pretend in which we survived in the jungles of Vietnam with our family and pet panda.- like “house” with a touch more drama. We had many adventures. We discovered many things. We made a mess. If it had not been for the shield of that masonry wall, if my parents had had to look at a pit trap from the living room, or the bundles of tall weeds we harvested and tied as sheaves of wheat from the dining room, our activity would have been curtailed. That wall separated our worlds enough that they could let us be creative and imaginative and still have their adult preference for purposeful landscaping and order.

My family was lucky to have that wall there when we moved in. I doubt my parents would have divided their yard by choice, but it proved beneficial. Adults with children in their lives should consider the level of chaos with which they are comfortable and how attached they are to their possessions. Then they ought to set meaningful boundaries they are willing to enforce. If they do not, children will naturally expand to fit the space allowed, just like grown ups.

Of course, this is all highly individual. I know families who live by the Montessori mantra, “Everything in its place and a place for

Montessori- take me away!

everything.” I am in awe of those parents. I know families who are comfortable letting their children have the whole house and don’t mind the mess. Every room is full of children’s detritus- books, art, toys, games, etc.  Other families have rooms that are off limits to children, lest small feet mar the uniform nap of the carpet, or leave other evidence of their being lying around. My aunt, who had 3 boys and was married to a 4th, had a room that was just hers- full of girly projects and things she didn’t want broken. If you possessed a penis, you were barred.

Based on households I know, I consider my chaos tolerance as middling. Art and drinks stay at the table (That is the rule, but I have found a glass of milk turning to yogurt in a closet.) Playing with water happens outdoors or in the bathtub. Toys are not allowed on stairs; that is just dangerous. There are two rooms where children are not permitted to play- the kitchen- because I am always there and don’t want to trip on Legos, and my bedroom.

The parental bedroom is adult space. Period. Hot Swede and I are quite capable of trashing it ourselves and require no youthful assistance. After a whole day with children, I want one place where I can go and not have to step over plastic food or ruin a foot on a die cast car.  Other than that, they are free to roam. Of course, I am also a terrible troll and make them pick up their messes… when I have the energy.

Some parents feel guilty if they limit or carve out specific spaces or ways for children to play. Hot Swede and I are not among them. We

hmm, maybe a bunker?

hmm, maybe a bunker?

love our children and pay a financial and career-stifling price so I can devote these few years to caretaking this family. But, this is our life too, not just theirs. We live here as well. Heck, we own the place. Hot Swede pays for every material thing about our home with days of his life. I don’t want our children to squander that. I protect pockets of order and set rules about our home to retain a grip on my tenuous sanity and decrease the sense of fruitless effort that comes with keeping a house where children live.

Children need space and permission to make messes and do their learning.  Adults need the order and predictability that children unravel. It is about finding balance- a shifting equation of adult and child needs, unique to each set of people and circumstances, each finding her space and peace, being true to herself and respectful of others. Where do you put your walls and boundaries? How do you manage living with young inquisitives and youthful creatives?

Laundry is for Suckers

I love my washing machine

Washing machines: the best thing since washable fabrics.

I am a sucker, a chump, a fool. Every week, I wash and fold about eight loads of laundry. That’s pants, shirts, socks, dishtowels, sheets, etc. for five people. I fill my baskets with towers of uniform rectangles, folded according to the depth of their intended drawers so that the folded edge will stand next to all the others and a census of the drawer’s contents can be taken at a glance. I don’t put clothes away; I file them.

I organize drawers, ostensibly so people can see what they’ve got and find what they need. A week later, I walk upstairs and, in any room,  am greeted by vomiting dressers, drawers spewing sleeves and pant legs over their lips.  I grumble, shove the mess over, and make room for my neat little stack of good intention- all ready to be disheveled tomorrow.

Is there another household chore that takes as much time and is as equally futile? I can’t think of one. Cleaning out the fridge is important for organization and hygiene, even if the pickle jar with the bad lid ALWAYS tips over on the top shelf within a week of cleaning.  Cleaning kid-level windows is a waste of time, but it isn’t something I do every week [read: year.]

Why do I do it? To model neatness? Because that is the way laundry has always been done and I’m a slave to tradition? I think I do it because deep down, I believe an organized laundry practice has merit. That said, all my trouble is only worth it if all parties agree to operate on the same system, and, well, they don’t.2628256853_8f0cd46700_z

It doesn’t matter to anyone but me if the drawers are neat. As long as there is a pair of underwear in there somewhere, I will hear nothing about it, good or bad. My children think the hamper is a folding machine- throw it in; it magically reappears in the drawer, clean and ready to wear. Do the children care if their clothes are wrinkly? No. Likely, smooth shirts would clash with their hair, which gets impressively sculptural under winter hats. Do I care if their clothes are wrinkly? No, not unless it’s picture day and the shirt has an archaeological aesthetic to its creases.

If I were sensible, I’d sell the dressers and get everyone two laundry baskets- one for above the waist, one for below. I would wash and dry clothes, sort them into north or south piles by owner and dump them into the appropriate baskets. The family could root around for what they want and I would save HOURS of wasted labor each week. You have to admit this system has merit. It saves loads of time and takes into account the reality of our clothing situation.

I currently entertain a Disney level fantasy of children and husband whistling while they refold their clothes and tuck them away in neat rows. There may even be songbirds folding t-shirts and chipmunks pairing socks. Then I get irritated when the reality falls short.  This is not a smart mindset.

I must be chicken, or a little OCD. I can’t change my broken system. I don’t know why, because I’m able to let go of other futile endeavors: flattening my post 3-baby belly, singing bass-baritone, not letting the kids eat in the car. I would feel like such an iconoclast- giving folded laundry the old middle finger and getting rid of furniture that is full of pointless expectation.

I cannot wait until I can share laundry duty with the children. (rubs hands together and cackles.) They are learning to fold, and I give folding as a chore- especially if I catch a kid throwing clean clothes in the hamper/folding machine. I am determined; they will do more. The summer chore campaign is approaching. Will I make them keep their drawers neat? No, but drawers must close fully and there must be room for fresh laundry to fit. Will I make them fold in uniform shapes? Yes, they will learn the proper way, even down to how to fold fitted sheets. (Yes, it’s possible.) Then, if they choose a more chaotic laundry practice as adults, it will be by choice and not because they know no better. I hope that some day, my children will appreciate that daily dressing need not involve the added stress of scavenger hunts for matching socks and quests for the one pair of magical sparkle tights.

Even if they end up choosing a less fussy system, they will learn one important lesson from me: Sometimes you just have to do pointless stuff because that’s what the boss requires.

I'm gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M'kay?

I’m gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M’kay?