I’m the Only Mom My Kids Have. Sorry, Kids.

People say that I must be an amazing mother. Really, they say it. I don’t know what gives them that impression. I probably talk a good talk. But there is one thing these sweet people have in common- they don’t see my mothering. If they did, they’d declare my children amazing for thriving in my haphazard parenting.

The grand goal of parenting is to raise functional adults, like the goal of war is to win. Of the smaller goals, the ones that make the grand one possible, I don’t have a clue. I am mostly reactionary- reacting to the freshest spilled milk, the bloodiest injury, the worst behavior, the newest and most ridiculous school drama. I just do… something.

Coptic_-_Funerary_Stele_with_Family_Portrait_-_Walters_263Sometimes, I do something great. I come up with just the right bit of pithy wisdom that wraps a problem up in a neat bow. Most of the time, I hastily and inexpertly handle an issue and put it down to go on to the next one, thinking to myself, “Please work.”  It works or it fails.

When I started on this career as a stay-at-home parent and home executive, I thought it beneath me. It was a sacrifice I would make for the good of my children, but really, I was capable of so much more. I was bored. None of my friends appreciated or honored this career choice. They were all in the exciting jostle of climbing those first rungs on career ladders, and I walked away when I got knocked up.

To be fair, in the beginning, I was bored. I was used to spending my days with other musicians, playing, practicing, going out after gigs.  I enjoyed sparring with a firecracker of a nun for whom I worked. I had a closet full of flattering orchestra black and shoes to match.

569px-Maarten_van_Heemskerck_-_Family_Portrait_-_WGA11298As a new mother, I spent my days alone in the house with a baby who slept a lot and nursed often.  My daily grooming goal was to put on a shirt without puke on it before Hot Swede got home. It felt hard at the time, and it was because I was a rookie. Nature has to ease parents into the fray with gradually intensive training or either three year-olds or we wouldn’t survive.

9 years later, with 3 increasingly sophisticated children, this job is above me. I feel like I am at the limit of my capabilities, patience, and wisdom. I am scraping the bottom of my bag of tricks. If I am honest with the past, this is how I felt as soon as child #1 began to move around and talk. Each phase overwhelms me with the newness of its challenges. I panic and wonder if my kids will grow up okay in spite of me, and before I know it, that battle is over and a new one approaches.

It’s an awful feeling to constantly judge myself as ineffective at doing the most important vital thing there is to do. There is no way out. I don’t get to quit. I know I am not the only parent to think to herself, “You know; this just isn’t working out for me. I don’t think I’m right for this position.” I comfort myself with the thought that if I didn’t think it was hard, I probably wouldn’t be paying close enough attention.

Maybe, or maybe I’m a control freak who needs to manage and mold every aspect of my childrens’ lives. Maybe I manufacture self-importance 640px-Family_In_Lanchow,_China_1944_Fr._Mark_Tennien_Restoredby thinking I’m more critical than I am. They will require therapy regardless; maybe I should just relax.

But I can’t. Every time I look ahead to their adulthoods, I see things in them that need to be guided now. Tomorrow will bring new challenges. I see pieces of their temperaments that they will need to learn to manage in order to not be ruled by them. It is already time to teach the 9 year-old about what comes next for a pre-teen girl. I haven’t begun to plan for that. There are social quagmires at school to wade through. There are issues around technology and entertainment that need to be sorted. (Other 3rd grade parents, can you please stop buying your kids their own tablets, please? Thank you.) There is the constant pull of a pushing a kid to take on one responsibility and deciding they aren’t ready for another.

This job is hard. If you care about doing a decent job, if you are honest about the nature of the world children will inherit and have to live in, it is hard. It will take all the strength, self-control, and talents you have and it will not be enough. It will require you to do things you are not good at, ask you to learn skills you’ll never master, ask you to behave selflessly, ask you to be a better person than you want to be. I suspect that one of the reasons parents cry at recitals, plays, the pre-prom pictures, even weddings, is because they look at their child and in that moment, they think, “This worked! Something worked! I didn’t screw it all up!”

5115210712_fe85e38fb8But it is worth it; I will say that. Despite the difficulties and the way it forces parents to grow up and be better, it is worth doing. It is the most important job in human society- the raising of a thoughtful, wise, productive next generation. Is it fun? Once in awhile. Do children make you happy? No. No they do not. But depending on others to make you happy never works for very long. Raise them anyway. Parenting connects you to the continuum of humanity in a visceral way. Raise a child and gain a deeper understanding of all those who came before you, and thank your own parents. Are children awesome? Yes, just like you and I. Are they are hard to live with, messy, and imperfect? Yes, just like you and I.

I am not an amazing mother. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on that until the youngest is paying taxes and building healthy relationships of her own. And that assumes that she makes her own excellent choices. I am just a mom, like millions before me- trying my best, praying for wisdom and for other good people in my children’s lives, making mistakes, saying I’m sorry, trying again.

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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.

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.)

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?

The Labor of Children

            My kids have chores because I want them to grow into functional adults. Also, I am mean and cruel and sneer like Cinderella’s stepmother. They sweep the ashes, black the stove, rub my bunions, slop the pigs and darn their own socks. Okay, I darn the socks (read: throw them away.)

Except I'm not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Except I’m not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Daily, they must make their bed and put their clothes away. On weekends during school, they each have one housekeeping job to complete per day. I choose the jobs based on what is needed, how long it should take to complete, and how much whining I can stand. Common tasks include: sort or fold laundry, pair mismatched socks, sweep a room, wash cupboard fronts, empty the dishwasher, pull a bucket of weeds, pick sticks out of the yard, and organize books. It is not much, but it takes half a day and half my daily allotment of positive energy to enforce it (which is why they only have one job.)

I started daily chores last summer. The first morning of summer break, they each woke up to a job list like this: bed, piano, small job, small job, big job. 7 year-old Q got a written list; 5 year-old Bear and 3 year-old AJ got theirs in pictures. Happy summer! (insert sound of whip cracking.) Mouths hung agape; tears welled in eyes; threats of running away were made, and then we had breakfast.

After 3 weeks of this, Bear and AJ didn’t like it, but they accepted it as a part of life that was just “toopee [stupid]” and horrible. Q, on the other hand, was shocked, SHOCKED each morning when greeted by a fresh job list. She fought it every single day, seven days a week. The week before school started, at the end of August, she was still appalled that she had to make her bed.

Q: What? Again?!

Me: Did you sleep in it last night?

Q: Yes.

Me: Then yes, you need to make it.

Q: Fine. I’ll just sleep on the floor.

Me: Well, that’s one solution.

 

Now, 10 months in, she still doesn’t like it (that’d be weird,) but she doesn’t raise a personal insurrection every day.

It's fun now            Children should do chores as soon as they are capable. My grandmother was in charge of making the family bread at age 6. She was too small to knead it, so she used to stand on a chair and beat the dough with a rolling pin, gather it all back up with her little hands and hit it again. I’m pretty sure that if 6 year-olds can make bread and young farm kids can be expected to milk cows, gather eggs, and muck out stalls, my soft city kids can fold clean dishtowels.

It builds confidence in skills that they will need when they are grown and (god willing) no longer living in my house. We all knew 18 year-olds who couldn’t do laundry, sew a button back on, or use a knife without fear of losing fingers. At some point, they will have to do their own housekeeping. Until they do, I want them to learn to appreciate what it takes when someone else does it for them. And I want them to leave my nest with the skills required to make one of their own. Then, I’ll be changing the locks.

Chores nurture self-confidence (which is earned) and independence. Recently, Q asked if she could help make an egg casserole. Because I knew that she had enough experience in my kitchen, I gave her the recipe, reminded her to tie her hair back, and she and Bear made the batter by themselves.  It was a banner moment for us all. They were proud of being trusted with a new task, and I was grateful that I had seen and taken the opportunity to let them try.

When I don’t want to hold them to their chores for their own sakes, or my own, I think of their future roommates and spouses. A grown up who doesn’t think to empty the trash when it’s overflowing and instead puts her empty chip bag on the counter is inconsiderate and kind of a pain. Yes, we can all be slobs, but we should know we are being slobs and know enough to not habitually inflict our slovenliness on others.  Non-slobs, I believe those people are called “childless”, are busy enough with their own garbage and don’t need to wade through someone elses’ who can’t be bothered.  My kids got so tired of me telling them, “Picking up after yourself is like wiping your butt or brushing your teeth- it’s just part of being healthy and living with other people.”

I am joyful as I watch them learn new skills, real skills that they will need everyday, or at least once a week, when they are grown. My biggest challenge is to continue expanding the chore list and giving them more and more complex and challenging work, as their skill and maturity warrant. My mom waited until my brother was 9 before making him plan and cook family dinner for a month. I can’t wait. Then I will sit on the porch, sipping a gimlet, whilst the youngest rubs my bunions.

 

The book, Cleaning House, reenergized my belief in chores. It is full of real ideas.

Preemptive Nostalgia

Oh look, there ARE fingerprints to wash off. Oh, good.

Oh look, there are still fingerprints. Good.

We are having work done in our house. My husband, the Hot Swede, is a very handy man who also happens to be a big idea guy. Thus, we are living through a year-long, epic, complete kitchen remodel and rebuild of the back third of our house. (Yes, I welcome your prayers and sympathies.) Really, I should have blogged about it from the beginning. It’s been quite an adventure.

He has done all the work himself, but the one job he always planned to hire out was taping (This is how seams and screws in new drywall get covered up and smoothed out.) With the exception of pouring concrete, there is no home improvement/construction task that he dislikes more. It is a job that takes finesse, expertise, and lots of practice. It is a job for a professional. An amateur can do it. He will spend three times the time and as much in materials and the result will not be as clean, but he can do it. It is one of those things, like moon landings and opera singing, that is best left to the pros.

As with all remodeling projects, ours has a tendency to leak into other parts of the house. We were going to have just the new drywall taped, but then we looked at the crumbly and cracking plaster ceilings on the rest of the main floor, and the holes handy Hot Swede cut to run new electrical. We thought, “What the heck, let’s get all this dusty, disruptive mess done at once.”

In preparation, we moved all the furniture off the main floor (with the exception of the piano and big ‘ol dining table.) The walls are bare, the rug rolled up. I even picked up all the kids’ stray socks. I thought it would feel great, getting everything out and uncluttered. But it made me sad. It made both of us sad. It felt like we were moving out and leaving.

When did this old building, this monster of responsibility, upkeep, and debt, become our home? When did it become a part of me?

When Hot Swede and I scraped, patched and painted it, we claimed it. When we removed horrible wallpaper and scarlet carpet, when we sanded and refinished kitchen cabinets, we claimed it. We filled it with the smells of our meals, laundry soap, shampoo, and one ill-chosen night of indoor hot-oil fondue that made the entire house smell like McDonalds for a month.

I brought each of my children home to this house. They grow, learn, and feel safe here. We have been healthy here. Whenever they leave, they have always come back to these walls.

We grow food in the yard and chase squirrels away from the peaches with Nerf guns. Every year, we watch the peonies come up, the buds swell and then watch as a spring rainstorm beats the glorious new blossoms to the ground. Every. year. We visit with neighbors in the front, and it is not uncommon for my neighbor to hand my kids ice cream treats across the fence.

Nearly daily, I complain and am stressed by the clutter, dirt, and general material chaos in this house. There are always piles of paper to sort, fingerprints to wash off, sprinklings of sand, food and glitter to be swept off the floor, and only once- watermelon to wash off the wall.

IMG_4171And yet, as I sit on the radiator, looking at the empty rooms, I am wistful for the mess of my life and the clutter of the people with whom I’m spending it.
Some day, when we are done with them and have moved on, these 100 year-old rooms will be emptied for keeps, for someone else to make their life within, or to be torn down and replaced. The woman who owned the house before us moved in as a newlywed and made her life here for 65 years. Her children still drive by and look at the house with eyes for their past.

In this moment, feeling its transience, knowing its temporal nature, I am immensely grateful for my time within these walls. Tomorrow, I will rail against the dust, curse the bills, and shake a fist at the piles of laundry (which, I’m afraid, are eternal,) but in this empty space, I see my incalculable blessings. The past was good. Today was good. And I am lucky.