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?

Bumbling towards Responsible Adulthood

I blew my lid with the kids this morning. Our babysitter left her bag at the house and my children took out her sidewalk paint and gleefully used it all up. They went into her bag and helped themselves. I was horrified. “What? You just helped yourselves to someone else’s property? Would you rifle through Grandma’s purse? What made you think that was okay? I am ashamed of your choices…” and on… and on.Hendrick_Jacobsz._Dubbels_001

There are times, like this, when I feel like the most terrible parent around. I felt guilty for losing my cool (but not that guilty.) I felt like a failure because my 8 and 6 year-old took stuff that wasn’t theirs and they should know better. I was embarrassed. I clearly had not done my job. I cried on the way to school. I knew I was over-reacting. My rational self kept mumbling, “This is not about you.” But she lost control of the ship; it was all she could do to keep me from blurting out, “I guess I’ll have to come visit you in prison!”

Knowing that I was teetering on the edge, I called Hot Swede at work. He is experienced and effective at talking me down from emotional cliffs. His level head and calm voice soon lowered my crazy sail, and I began to think sense.

People make mistakes. Kids are inexperienced people; they’re going to make a lot of them. Of all the lessons children need to learn, moral and ethical ones the most difficult.  Moral action requires mastery of oneself- doing what’s right instead of what’s desired. Ethical behavior takes courage, thoughtfulness and maturity- three things that my young have yet to develop. It takes practice, redirection, consequences, forgiveness and love to learn to behave in moral and ethical ways. It is part of children’s job to push boundaries and figure out how they will operate within and on the world. That is where I come in. My job is to help them learn these lessons with sidewalk paint, instead of more expensive property and consequences.

I thought they had “do not steal” all sorted- my fatuous mistake. When rational, I understand that, of course, I am not done teaching and reinforcing lessons about respect for others and their property. They are 8 and 6. Duh.

So, I will explain why I was so upset this morning and the seriousness of stealing. They will each buy a set of replacement paints with their saved allowance and write an apology.  Two sets- because I want them to feel the cost and because when we wrong someone, we often have to expend extra effort to make things right.

I wish I had been prepared with an attitude of “Wonderful, here’s a chance to teach a lesson.” instead of caught off guard and horrified.  I will pray for wisdom and grace in anticipation of the next time they make a bonehead move. Because this is just the prelude.

Still the best option

Still the best option

Mind Their Manners

A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile.  I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.

When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior

and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.

Ugh, airline travel.

Ugh, airline travel.

I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)

Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.

As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”

Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?

I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?

That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.

We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good 20762534_660705a831_zmanners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.

So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them.  It’s all part of making small savages civil.

Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.ba1de2eb0ff97867d7aa474eb3c3e20f-d5z94e5

Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.

Flawed Perfection

My mom was a mess. She’s pretty pulled together now, but when I was a kid, I remember wondering why she was such a flake. Her life was a stupefying Rube Goldberg machine of family life-467px-Cassatt_Mary_At_the_Window_1889 bewildering in its intricacies and number of moving parts. Somehow she managed it with only an occasional dropped ball. As a kid, I didn’t see the complexity. I only knew that she frequently called me by my sister’s name and called my brother by the dog’s.

For years, I thought toast was made by burning it black and then scraping it down over the sink to the desired lightness of char. Mom was always barely remembering snack day, or coming home from the store with sour cream instead of cottage cheese and looking at the carton with an incredulous look that I now recognize as- “What the hell?”

My mom broke a hairbrush hitting it on the counter in frustration while trying to get three little kids, my dad, and herself ready for a professional portrait.  (I’m surprised I got out of the ordeal with only uneven bangs.)

She was tired. She was flustered. She was awesome. She was perfect.

Since becoming a parent of multiple children, my opinion of my mom has gained significant altitude. I understand what it means to be at the mercy of a small tyrant who doesn’t give a fig if I haven’t slept since last Thursday. I struggle to keep my cool when we are late to school and one child is still shoeless.  I understand why so many people drive around with forgotten mugs of coffee on their roofs. (Car companies- do us a solid and put a cup holder up there.) I know how endlessly fragmented parents’ brains are, how no task is ever completed- just started, and how a clean kitchen floor is a magnet for the spiteful side of buttered toast.

399px-Cassatt_Mary_The_Bath_1891-92I yell. I get lazy. I forget all kinds of stuff. I want to quit. I need a vacation. I discipline out of desperation instead of wisdom. I am a flawed, messy human. How fortunate I am to have a flawed mother.

How else would I know that I am okay and not ruining three young lives? Mom did plenty of top-notch things. She fed us healthfully at nightly family dinners. She taught me to cook well, sew poorly, and knit only as a last resort. She made sure I could swim, ride a bike, provided opportunities for me to try a whole slew of activities, even when she knew they would amount to naught. She called bull on me when I needed it, listened when I needed that, and kept her mouth closed when an argument would have served neither of us well and I was too immature to bridle my own tongue.

But it’s her shortcomings that reveal the grace of imperfection. I need her blunders now as much as I needed her successes as a child; they bring me assurance and comfort. If Mom had always kept her temper, remembered all appointments, and remained smiley and well coiffed at all times, I would despair my own shoddy efforts at parenting and adult living in general. I would think my children doomed by having me for a mother, because I am a mess. Her example reveals the lie of perfection- it can’t be true because it isn’t honest. I am faulty. I needed a similarly flawed mother to teach me how to parent well despite my limitations and shortcomings.

1024px-Mary_Cassatt_-_Susan_Comforting_the_Baby_No._1_(c._1881)_detail_01Thanks, Mom, for forgetting to pick me up from sixth grade that one time. I needed that. Thanks for losing your temper and asking for forgiveness. What a good example you set. Thanks for always asking how my soccer game went, even though I played volleyball. You give me hope. Thanks for all the wise and unwise things you said. I only remember the wise ones. Really.

Parenting is a difficult job and the stakes are high, but unless your little dirty-handed booger eater is perfection incarnate, she needs someone like you to show her the way. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers in my life. You are inspiring admirable women, imperfect and just right.

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Some parents are happy if their children read anything. I am not one of them. I’d rather my kids watch hours of “Dora the Explorer” than read some of the children’s “literature” out there.

Q recently checked out Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life from the school library. Guess what? I don’t love it. It’s in the tradition of pandering books about silly girls with bad attitudes and nasty mouths who manufacture social drama in the name of plot. The fact that “dork” is slang for “penis” is a minor gripe. Go ahead; check it out. I linked to the series’ website so you can judge based on the most complementary angle on this drivel, tripe, book-like object.dd1-large

I cannot control what she chooses at the library. She goes with her class, and I am not about to ask her teacher to censor Q’s selections based on my criterion. She is a classroom teacher, not a nanny. This is not a battle I want to pick, because it is not one I can possibly win, and frankly, I don’t think it is necessary. Books let us try on someone else’s life and explore new worlds with only an investment of time. There is even a place for mindless and silly entertainment. I unapologetically loved “XENA: Warrior Princess” for years and consume PG Wodehouse novels like candy.

However, what we feed our minds matters as much as what we feed our bodies. A mind fed on a diet of pandering entertainment will be weaker and less healthy. Q’s behavior took a turn while she read this book. She got snippier, less happy, and Hot Swede noticed phrases from the book coming out of her mouth. When she read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she played pioneer girl, we had discussions about the Native American/US relations, and I taught her how to embroider.

I won’t forbid her to read these garbage books, (Forbidding something is the quickest way to pique her interest.) but I did make scaffolding for her reading. I explained my concerns with this book and we talked about the importance of putting good things into our heads. She may read another of the Dork series, but must finish Anne of Green Gables first, and so it will go- rubbish, literature, dreck, literature. Hopefully, the trash will become less frequent by her choice. If she comes home with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll volunteer to chaperone library trips.

What children’s novels do you love? Which ones stink to high heaven?

More Than Mom

Recently, I played a set of concerts with the vocal ensemble, Cantus. There were rehearsals, call times, and genuine ticket buying audiences. I did not plan on bringing my children to any of the performances. They are 8,6, and 4. Hot Swede would have to bring them by himself and he does not enjoy courting disaster.

After one concert, a friend of mine told me that I needed to bring my kids. I told her that they had come to a rehearsal and she said, “No, not good enough.” They needed to see their mom as a professional- in concert dress, under lights, making music in front of an attentive audience. I was immediately struck by the wisdom of her insight and grateful for it because it had not crossed my mind.

I take the raising of my children more seriously than I do anything else. I chose a career as a freelance musician and violin teacher knowing that I would want the flexibility when I had children. And when I got pregnant, Hot Swede’s job was the one with the health insurance so, duh, I stayed home.

As a woman of my generation and particular formal education, I have deeply engrained ideas about what it means to be a successful person; becoming a mother is a fine choice, as long as I don’t sacrifice my career. Being just a parent and spouse is not a valid option and is a waste of everything I’ve worked for and am capable of.

betty-draper

Another woman who would have benefited from a diversified identity

Well, guess what? That’s what I chose. I think it is the right choice for me and my family, but I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and little nagging voices that tell me that what I do isn’t valued or respected and that I should have nurtured my nascent career. But I know myself and I know that if I tried to build both career and family with equal priority, I would do neither to satisfaction and I would carry crippling guilt about the state of both. Still, I hate being in social situations where everyone is asked what they do and some polite follow up questions about their work. If I say that I am a stay at home parent, that is the end of the conversation.

So I don’t say that, because I do try to hang onto the person I was before children. I say that I am a violinist, but am mostly a mom now.  Up until last year, I taught lessons out of my home. (The reasons why I gave it up are for another post.) I play gigs for pay and chamber music whenever I get the chance and sometimes, I even practice. The hardest part is carving out the time and finding babysitters. But it is vital to remain true to who I am without kids, because, if I do my job well, they will grow up and leave me some day. And then what will I do?

The beauty of my friend’s counsel was that it considered the benefit to me as well as my children. Knowing that I struggle with balancing my identities as parent and freestanding person, it is important that my children become aware that I am more than their mother. I want them to know that I’ve made the choice to spend my years on them and that it is an action I take, not a consequence of their birth. As adults, they should know, if they or their partners choose a stay-at-home role, that doing so does not diminish the other facets of who they are or of what they are capable. And they should not readily sacrifice those aspects of self.

So, they attended the performance, because of the kind words of a friend and Hot Swede’s willingness to take the wheel of our family ship, Chaos. He told the children that they would have a surprise and they needed to be ready to go. I texted him when intermission started. The kids threw on their coats and shoes and got in the car. Their father drove the 3-minute drive to the hall and parked up on a snow bank, right in front of a hydrant. He unlocked the doors, pointed to the hall and said, “Run!” AJ got about 10 feet and stopped because her feet hurt. With no time to put her shoes on the right feet, Hot Swede scooped her up and ran to the hall, arriving just in time to usher them in quietly as the second half began. They stood in the back in their coats. I could see their huge smiles from the stage. Q gave me an enthusiastic double thumbs up. They were thrilled. Hot Swede backed them out of the hall after my piece, still carrying the misshod AJ, returning to his illegally parked car. I ran from the greenroom to meet them and thank their father for making it happen. I think Q sees me in a slightly different light- one with a touch of awe. That is just fine.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don't know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don’t know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

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.

A Bad Day

Keeping a good attitude is like keeping a healthy body: it takes knowledge, discipline, nourishment, and work. That isn’t easy, especially when life throws you a bird.

Today was a bad day. Small people fought. A Pull-up, loaded with a night’s absorbings, was thrown at a mouthy sibling and met its mark.  Screaming ensued. Healthful breakfast, made with the children’s immediate and future well being in mind, was refused. On the way to school, the healthful breakfast that was consumed reappeared as vomit all over child and car interior. After arriving home and cleaning child and car, I sat down with a cup of coffee and, at the edge of my vision, saw some kind of critter beeline across the open carpet under my feet. I am still unsure as to its classification- diminutive disease spreading rodent that, while pervasive and cute in children’s books, is utterly abhorrent in my house, or giant stripy house centipede that, while physically harmless, gives me the freaking willies. (I think and hope it was the shiver inducing insect and not the actually dangerous mouse.)

Channeling my inner grumpy old man today

Channeling my inner grumpy old man today

The morning was bad, but not bad enough to be responsible for marring the entire day. The vomit and critters are blessedly rare, but the rest of it is in the range of normal. I spend every day in the company of young children, in a work environment that would have people in paid employment touching up resumes. My youthful co- workers constantly interrupt me, fail to complete routine tasks, and one of them daily exclaims, “I poooped!” I have low expectations and a high tolerance for chaos.

What made it bad was I. After the rough start, I was unable to shake off melancholy and general cheerlessness for the remainder. I wasted the day on a funk.

I owe it to myself and to God to live life purposefully and with goodness in mind. That means making daily choices toward those goals because today is all the life I have to live. It is hard to be positive, kind, purposeful, gracious, and generous when I feel like a poo. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to be polite. But I should try.

Indulging a bad mood does not improve it. It does make me unpleasant company for everyone unfortunate to cross my path.  People have to manage their own difficulties and don’t need me adding my own to their load. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ask for help or bury our pain. But it does mean that we should take care of how much we inflict our moods on our fellows, especially when they are brought on by benign things like vomit.

Today, I failed at conquering it, but I did avoid passing it along to my family. I don’t always succeed, (Hot Swede will call that an understatement.) but I try and try again. I know things will look better tomorrow, assuming one or two of the following occurs: I get some sleep, eat healthfully, the sun shines, no one hurls, or the snow miraculously melts and the crocus emerge. (I won’t hold my breath for that last one.)

Some day. some day.

Some day. some day.

Table Manners

My kids are 8,6, and 4 years old. It is an even year. They are bright, distinct, and varied in talents, often kind and sometimes not. I get compliments on what good kids they are at church, in Target, and at school. That’s great, really, really great, but these kind strangers have never sat at dinner with my three diminutive savages.

Look at the Dowager Countess' face. She must be seated across from my children.

Look at the Dowager Countess’ face. She must be seated across from my children.

            I don’t know how any other family operates at table, (please, leave a comment so I can either be jealous or feel solidarity in this struggle,) but the following phrases pass my lips multiple times per week/meal.

Did you wash my hands? With soap? Go wash them.

We haven’t prayed yet; please stop eating.

 Put some clothes on. You can’t come to dinner without pants. (Really, I say this at least twice a week.)

 Don’t drive with your dinner plate.

*Notice, we haven’t started eating yet. When I serve the food, things get ugly.

Use your fork. Use a knife (and all it’s variations.)

Fingers are for noses; spoons are for soup.

Sit down…in your chair.

Don’t lick your plate (or fingers, or the outside of your glass.)

Elbows off the table

Smacking. (This one is so frequent, it is shortened to one word and now has a sign- a “close your mouth” snapping shut of the hand.)

Don’t talk with your mouth full.

Napkin! (Usually when saucy hands are being wiped on a pink shirt.)

Ask for something to be passed; don’t reach.

Don’t interrupt.

Why? It’s just my family here. There is no one to impress. Why put everyone through this? It’s so much work, all this nagging. Does it really matter?

YES, of course it matters! And it’s not because it shows good breeding, or anything so lofty. It’s because other diners have to eat with them. I have to eat with them every day. It’s about making these children acceptable dinner companions and not onerous appetite suppressants. Maybe, at some glorious point in the future, they will even be enjoyable to eat with. This, indeed, is the essence of all good manners- making ourselves pleasant to be around.

So, I correct and remind them all the way through dinner, (God help me,) from the moment they sit, until they are excused. If I did not, dinner would look like primate feeding time at the zoo, and I do them no favors by letting them keep their course ways. Still, I wonder when I will be able to serve a meal without a big steaming dish of nag.