The Start of School

I am excited for school to start. My kids fight so much that I name them Israel, Palestine and Syria. That is not why I’m excited. We have been around each other 24/7 since June. That’s not why I’m excited. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed that, when Palestine wasn’t throwing rocks at Israel, and Syria wasn’t wailing about something. I’m ready because it is time.

P1010920We had a wonderful summer. I didn’t over plan it, like last year. We visited family, took some swimming lessons, and did minimal piano practice. We didn’t do camps, classes, sports teams, or any of the other extras that gorge on time and finances. I taught Bear to embroider. The kids played with friends, read and listened to books, did a lot of chores, and watched some TV. It was delightful.

I’m sure they would have liked to play baseball, attend camps, and other organized fun. Those are wonderful things- enriching, engaging, and good for kids. But my children get their heads pumped full of enriching, engaging activities throughout the school year. They do full days at school and take weekly music and dance lessons. If they do the prescribed homework and practice that goes along with these activities, their days are full. They are scheduled or getting nagged to work, from the time they get up, until they get ready for bed.

Summer is opportunity for contrast and a different kind of intellectual training. I’m convinced that after 9 months of cramming it full, the brain needs some down time to sort it all, put it away, forget that which it doesn’t want (to the chagrin of teachers,) and take some creative actions of its own design. Okay, so the forgetting isn’t great, but the sorting and creativity are at least as important to my children’s mental growth as is pushing them to do above grade level math. I suspect it is more important.

The best classroom ever

The best classroom ever

Unstructured time allows children time to listen to their own quiet minds and help them find resources within. They discover their own interests and practice navigating social situations without an adult overlord watching over them. They learn to amuse themselves and that being “bored” is a natural state for a mind unengaged. It is up to them to relieve their boredom, not me. (I do not create amusements at home. I make bubble solution, provide them with art supplies, take them to the library, and invite them to help me with household duties. That’s it.) Luckily, our neighbors and playmates have a similar philosophy about summer.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Q wrote a neighborhood newspaper with her friend. They busked on a busy corner, playing tunes on a lap harp, fiddle, and a banjo. They made three dollars! They gave each other pedicures, which consisted of soaking their feet in water full of floating bits of lavender, rosemary, mint, and… chives. (Mmm, onion feet.) They rode scooters, bikes, ate berries and cucumbers out of the yard. They designed Halloween costumes and spent a lot of time talking. That is a summer well spent.

But all good things must end and too much unstructure fosters ennui if it stretches out for too long. They are showing signs of discontent. They loll around and sigh. Easy amusements have lost their charm. They bicker longer, harder and about sillier things. Bear can’t stand how AJ chews gum. AJ can’t ride her bike if anyone else in on the sidewalk for the entire length of the block. Q is sick of everyone.

They are ready for work. Structure, goals, tasks, and challenge are part of a vibrant human experience and it is time. Get ready, kids. School starts tomorrow. Sharpened pencils and clean notebooks full of expectation and promise await your well-rested brains. Work hard. Be good. This is the season of work. Do it as well as you did the season of play. Ready. Set. Go.

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Six Year-Olds, 29 Years Later

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I went for a walk with a soul I met in kindergarten, my first friend who was not also my cousin. My mom joked that we became close because we were the only two minority, less than upper-class students in the class. I can’t corroborate that because the only division I noticed at the time was that we were all brown from a high desert summer except Catherine, who glowed with an ivory pallor and crown of blond plaits that I found mesmerizing. I had never seen someone that fair.

Keeping touch with childhood friends makes me think like an old woman- seeing the full length of my life, feeling the stretch of years as one event. Our shared experiences took place when we were shorter and had smoother cheeks, but it hardly matters. We are shaped by the sum of our experiences, not just the recent additions.

il_fullxfull.132528183Friends from youth are as much a part of my life as those who currently inhabit it. No matter where we are in life, our interactions with people follow a pattern. We come into each other’s lives, walk along side for a time, and then continue on our individual paths.

After kindergarten, my friend and I went separate ways until 6th grade, when we were once again at school together and our paths ran parallel until high school graduation. We now live on opposite ends of the country, but are digitally reconnected. While separated geographically and politically, she is a woman who’s decency and solid mind I admire greatly.

I can only think of one person I wish I had never met, whose interactions were onerous and pedagogically fallow. The upper classman concertmaster who dressed down 11 year-old me in front of the rest of our combined 6-12th grade violin section- I could have done without that arrogant ass. The only thing I learned from him was that some people are just jerks and that grudges can be carried easily for decades. Even the violist in my most dysfunctional chamber ensemble ever was diverting enough to make for good stories. (He threw a telephone receiver in a fit of anger- the big clunky kind that used to be attached to walls- over a spat about tuning his 3rd.)

I appreciate people who come into my life. I admire them for what they’ve accomplished, or skills they’ve mastered that I have not. I esteem their strengths, especially when I am aware of some of their weaknesses. If people approach me honestly, I will respond in kind.

20121217-163827I cannot imagine being any other way. It would be exhausting to try to impress people, or to put up facades and keep distance. I’m too lazy for that. Here I am, a 6 year-old, a 16 year-old, a nearly 36 year old- adding years and people one by one, filling my memory with the richness of walking with my 6 year-old friend, 29 years later, toting her son, unpacking our families, careers, and ideas. For all the distance of space and years, knowing her is part of my whole.

Maybe my nostalgia is syrupy. Maybe it’s easy to feel like people are wonderful as I sit here, alone, in my house. Maybe I get caught in waves of emotion. Eh, so what? There are worse things than liking people easily.

The illustrations are all by Joan Walsh Anglund, a favorite from my childhood. Her website is here.

Mommy Wars- Call a Truce.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of an article about Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg. I’m old enough to know better, but after avoiding comment sections for months, my faith in humanity recovered and it was time to knock it down again. Comment sections are brutally efficient for this purpose. The article was about the continuing controversy surrounding her book. Most of the comments were hackneyed dismissals of her person, not the content of her book, many convoluting her career choices with her parenting choices, each comment revealing more about its writer than it said about Sandberg. Blech. Enough. Grow up.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I'll bet she didn't even have a Moby wrap.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I’ll bet she didn’t even have a Moby wrap.

Parenting is too complicated to waste time pecking at the choices and lifestyles of others. The Mommy Wars are squabbles of the bored and privileged.  I don’t care if you’re a tiger mom, a free-range dad, a Montessori mama, a homeschool champion, a Ferberizer or an attachment adherent. I don’t care if you’re career driven or a devoted stay-at-home parent. If it works for you- if your children are content and engaged, if you’ve managed to retain some semblance of self- I applaud you. You are doing great! There are some parenting practices that raise my eyebrows- I am suspicious of unschooling, and I am wholly intolerant of disrespect- parents letting children run roughshod over the rights of others to not be maltreated and disrespected by unfettered progeny. (Is there a name for this? I think it’s called, “Parental Narcissism,” but that might just be in my own head.)

There are so many ways to parent because parents and children are all maddeningly varied and their interactions complicated. Ploys work for a while, or for one child, and then must be amended or discarded. If your children’s clothes are stained because you make them do their own laundry- kudos! If they eat McDonalds on the way to tuba lessons because you can’t work, cook, and get homework done- awesome, they get music lessons! If you store your homemade, organic, locally sourced baby food in BPA-free jars- wow, this is really important to you! If you chew up a granola bar and then feed it to your baby, a la Alicia Silverstone– I will not bat an eye. That is among the more benign things they will ingest and I’d like the parent who never licked off a pacifier to please come forward so we can wonder why he’s so weird.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

The only parenting experts are those who aren’t parenting at the moment. I write and read about parenting because it helps me sort out goals and lay plans. The only thing at which I’m expert is getting back up after falling on my parental face. Talk is cheap. Opinion is a wisp of smoke. Action and results are the only things that matter. What is true in war is true in parenting- No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

In the quiet of evening, I resolve not to yell because it isn’t effective. I plan to set aside time to teach Bear to embroider to enrich his mind and our relationship. I say that I will not morph into a harpy of rage when practicing music with Q because it is detrimental to everyone.

The next day, I do it all… until the children wake up. AJ makes us late and I yell, “Where are your shoes!” I weed the garden instead of embroider with Bear. I get so frustrated during music practice that I close myself in the bathroom and scream into a bath towel.

Maybe I am inadequately equipped for parenting. If that is the case, then I am a member of a big club. The parents I know reasonably well struggle, search out new tactics, try stuff, find something that kind of works and pray it keeps working (It never does.) They struggle to manage their own natures as they teach their children to manage theirs.

Everyone struggles, even families with the most enviable exteriors.

The Kennedys. Everyone struggles, even parents with the most enviable exteriors.

I am glad the dad at the park brought his child out to play, even if dad’s smoking.  I have only sympathy for the mother trying to get through the grocery store by feeding her child Skittles the whole time. I do not know how the rest of her day has gone, or what else she’s got going on in her life. I get judgy like everyone else, but I remind myself that it is foolish and futile, especially when I’ve got my own trio of young humans to manage.

1101120521_600The media bait and we bite, stirring up a heady froth of black and white judgment. The sensational Time cover and its accompanying story ruffled a lot of feathers. The vaccine “debate” is drowned in emotion and distrust. The advice of Sheryl Sandberg and Gwyneth Paltrow grow patches of feckless disagreement. It seems that one must have an opinion on all of it. The only beneficiaries of all this ugly chatter are publishers. (I did purchase Lean-In after reading that article, encouraging the pot stirring  to continue. My bad.)

Peace with the life I’ve made comes from owning my choices and reminding myself of the good things that grow out of those choices, instead of envying the things I don’t have. Confidence in my parenting stems from seeing my children’s growth and behavior move in a positive direction. It does not come from judging my efforts as superior or the wholesale dismissal of another’s experience. If it were that easy, I’d get myself a gavel and judge with abandon. It would be easier than relying on results to confirm my work.

Read Sandberg,  Sears,  Dobson,  Chua-  a broad variety of experience and philosophy. See what they offer and get familiar with other ways of approaching the struggle. The only goals are respecting ourselves while raising healthy, wise, confident adults who can stumble through their own adulthood at least as well as their parents and maybe, (if we’re really overachievers,) a little bit better.  If someone else has managed to do that; they’re worth a listen. Even if you don’t buy all their suggestions, you’ll learn something.  Abandon the Mommy Wars. They are an utter waste of time and energy when we all need help, understanding, and to feel free to find the things that work for us and our children, here, in this moment.

Post Script: To that end,  I do not hate advice. I do not equate being offered advice with being judged as failing. Frankly, if your advice is good, you can judge me however you like. I don’t give a fig. If I’m struggling and something worked for you, please, share it! I take all helpfully offered suggestions seriously and with a good attitude. I want all the help and wisdom of the ages to get my children from birth-20 as best as is possible for them and for me.

Love, Despite Efforts to the Contrary

I didn’t want to fall in love. Fresh out of a long distance relationship on life support, I wanted freedom, space, and a chance to be unattached- for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t want you. Okay, I wanted you, but I didn’t want to love you.

Three weeks after our mutual interest was acknowledged, I was in trouble. I knew you for two years as a fellow student in my major- not studying in the library, screwing around in piano class, playing Frisbee on the lawn.  But as soon as I got close enough to smell your laundry soap, I couldn’t get close enough.over-the-town-1918.jpg!Large

I fought it. I told myself your earring was ridiculous. You weren’t a serious student and what did that say about your ability to make the most of life, which demands more grit than does college? You were newly released from a 4-year relationship that had run its course and you were ready to sew some oats; everyone around you could feel it. You would, rightly, not be serious about me and, if you did fall for me, you would be fickle and lose interest before long.

To protect myself, I held this picture of you in front of my mind’s eye every day. I believed the intellect had a big say in who I would “choose” to love. Love is too impactful to be left to the heart. Yet, while my mind raged against it, ringing alarm bells that I wasn’t ready for this, you couldn’t possibly want it, I was being a silly ass, there was no way I wasn’t going to get hurt- my heart, body, and soul were quickly losing their protective armor and becoming the terrifyingly vulnerable things that they are in love.

I was mad. You asked me what was wrong and I told you that I was falling in love with you and it pissed me off. And then I may have listed my reasons why- to your face. You looked at me and said, “I love you too.” That was it. There I went, over the precipice, never to return, still a little miffed by my lack of control.

This partnership is the greatest blessing of my life. The faults my “clear-thinking” mind found in you turned out to be trivial or wrong. You took the earring out when you changed careers. You are a capable and skilled man and you work harder than most people I know. Most of all, you are true- loyal to us and devoted to the family we’ve grown. You are a better match for me than I ever imagined and I love you without reservation. Finally.

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Happy Anniversary, Hot Swede. I know how you love public displays of affection. But since you won’t hold my hand in home improvement stores, I’m putting it here. Tee hee.

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?

I’m Not Lazy; I’ve Got Priorities

Last week, my parents flew across the country to see us. I let the lawn grow long. I let the blog idle. I didn’t clean the basement, workout, scroll through Facebook, or do any solitary things that could wait. The weather finally turned from garbage to gold, and I shifted everything of lesser import further down the list. I spent the week eating, walking, and laughing with, cooking for, and talking to these people who first believed I was worth the trouble, while soaking up beautiful weather with all my senses.  To do otherwise would have been foolish.

Relationships are the richness of life. It is incomplete when not shared, in some way, with others. Loved ones come first. Work will always be. People are precious and temporary.

5500724272_a8f55edbe4_z(Not my family, just another one, doing the most important things.)