The Big Reshuffle

I never did believe it, not really: that rearranging your space can help you to rejigger the rest of your life. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to see things looking a little neater and more symmetrical, but with four kids in a two-and-a-half bedroom house one can’t expect this new state to last more than a day or so.

So when I volunteered (after about six months of “mulling it over”) to take a full day to tackle our “spare room” (there is no room to spare in our house; the term refers to its former life as a garage), my wife undertook to remove herself and the girls from the premises for the duration. I had thought this was a little extreme, but appreciated the lack of distraction and the chance to queue up several of my Spotify playlists and crank them at unsettling volume.

After an indeterminate period that passed like a drugged dream in which I was forced to play Tetris with boulders attached to my limbs, I emerged covered with sweat to find that a vast, unmanageable pile of objects had been assembled into something approaching order.

I rested on my laurels for as long as it took for my family to return home, convinced that I would not have to do any more of this kind of work for months (providing I could spend a few minutes each day assuring that my arrangement of the spare room remained intact). I soon learned, though, that my efforts, greatly appreciated they may be, were only the beginning. It would be a new, glorious era of rearranging in our land.

Now that the spare room–our primary storage space–was in order, my wife could shift all the furniture everywhere else. We could clean the girls’ rooms and wash all the bedding. And then the real work could start: changing out the hundreds of books that double as the interior walls of our living room.

I dreaded the prospect, and asked if we could save the book wrangling for the next weekend. I continued, to say the least, to not look forward to the work. I had boxed and meticulously sealed all the books in the spare room, and they were stacked just the way I wanted them. To bring them out again would erase the sense of order I was holding in my mind like a fragile egg. Why did one good deed have to lead to a deluxe economy pack of new ones?

You know what? It was fine. In fact, it was really, really great. The bookshelves are pristine with room to grow and the spare room looks better than ever. The peace of mind we have gained is no mean thing.

For a close, largish, homeschooling family, this kind of organization amounts to a total reset. I have undertaken projects like this before. But finally I think that I get it, and can genuinely enjoy the results.

Also, I should mention that no one is allowed to touch anything from now on. Wish us luck!

 

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Giving in to Self-Care

Are you taking care of yourself?

This question, along with the equally earnest “So what do you do for fun,” never fails to elicit a guffaw of disbelief from parents when I ask it.

Of course we’re not taking care of ourselves. If we’re doing our job then we are putting the needs of the children before our own, every time. This is our lot, our destiny, and admit it, kind of a badge of honor, right? The more we have to suffer for our work the more points we get against other moms and dads. Also, and this is crucial, the more we can justify the poor decisions we make about our  self-care.  By the end of the day we might be incapable of anything other than another one more Chocodile, one more Marlboro, and one more level on Plants vs. Zombies. I was not compensated by the makers of any of those products. Just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing about that is, it’s a vicious circle that tightens right quick. If we don’t devote some energy to replenishing ourselves, we won’t have what we need to do the parenting in the first place. We can’t pour from an empty cup. And if we fly without fuel we crash, hard.

I work in a helping profession, so I count myself among the worst offenders on the self-care front. We even have workshops on the topic, and the very words “self care workshop” make me shudder. Those paper bags full of pipe cleaners and lavender scented erasers and a balloon “for funny.” I would rather do paperwork.

Why? How come it’s so hard for us to make the right decision?

There’s the guilt, for one. Taking time out for ourselves can feel like we’re snatching food directly out of kids’ mouths. Sorry for that image. Plus, you might not be able to relax and leave the work (and the control) to your spouse while you take a break.

More than that, though, there’s just the fact that being healthy is hard. Late-stage consumer capitalism got pretty good at putting the fast, easy empty thing, in whatever form that might take, at our fingertips. Self-care is slow. It is quiet. Unassuming. In other words, the direct opposite of what we’re immersed in all day.

Walking away and taking some deep breaths? That takes getting up and walking. Drinking a glass of water? Finding a faucet. Going to bed early instead of letting the next episode unspool on Netflix? You’d have to– well, close the cover the laptop. You could strain a muscle.

I’m being facetious (the kind way of putting it) because I’m largely addressing myself. It does take effort, and it doesn’t immediately shoot endorphins into your eyeball. Self-care is a hard sell.

A bath, on the other hand. That sounds alright.

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Three Scenes

Sullen tee w/dad

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact is, a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for he and his brother to have separate play time? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

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All the Feelings

On the one hand, I think we have way too much discourse in our culture about feelings. As in, the importance of going with your feelings, following your feelings, avoiding stepping on the feelings of others. How important are they, really? Should they be the organizing principle of our lives?

On the other hand, feelings happen. They come and go like the weather, and sometimes they take down trees and flood canyons. And whether they come from outside or from deep within (“I’m a person with deep feelings who feels things deeply*”), the fact is that we can’t avoid them and we can’t deny them. As my great-grandpa might have said, “You can ignore the rain all you want until your boots fill up**.”

This is especially tricky for men, as we are generally raised to minimize and control the spectrum of our feelings.

So if our feelings are really powerful and we can’t stop them, what is there to be done?

Well, according to Nurturing Fathers, there are a couple of things to do.

First is simply to recognize the feelings when they come, and to name them. This takes practice, and as we see from our children, emotional literacy is a learned trait. We need feelings to be modeled for us; we need to see examples, and connect them to a context (“____ makes me feel ____;” “When _____ happens, I feel _____”). The therapeutic classrooms at Family Tree are dedicated to this task.

What if you grew up without very many of these models, these examples? Most likely you are aware of what sadness, happiness, fear, etc. look like, because Netflix. You simply may not associate some of these feelings with yourself. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t get angry?” Back away slowly from that person.

In this case, it’s good to do a little inventory. How easy or difficult is it for you to feel: Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid, Excited, Jealous?

Then, and this is the other thing…how easy or difficult is it for you to express: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Excitement, Jealousy?

For many of us, there is a disconnect between feeling the feelings and expressing them. So, like, if they don’t come out (which is the definition of “express”), where do they go? Probably, we are stuffing them down. And/or piling food on top. The usual.

Do we have to express all of our feelings? The short answer is yes. Nice if it happens on our own terms, in a safe place, and not in a job interview. All of this takes practice. What constitutes a safe place for you? Who is a safe person? When is a safe time?

Here’s something that comes up in parenting. We see it in our kids, and sometimes in ourselves: should there be a gap between feeling the feeling and expressing it?

Ideally, yes.

How much?

I don’t know, one second? Let’s work on one second, shall we?

Every little bit helps.

 

* Evan Dando, Reality Bites (1994). 

**I actually made it up, but I have no evidence that he didn’t say it too.

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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Parenting, Mortality and Stuff

A number of events came together this week into a sticky ball of parenting anxiety.

First, while ill-advisedly biting into a chocolate bunny (turns out it was solid, the real deal), I broke a crown that constituted most of one of my top front teeth. I can’t blame years of dental neglect, starting in college and continuing up to last week, on age or mortality. But I thought, nevertheless, about how I am going to die. And because I am a parent, I thought about how my children might deal with that.

The second event is that I began reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a slim but potent book-length essay on the death of her adopted daughter and her doubts about the stolidity of her own body and mind. As Didion writes in the first chapter,

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Exactly. In Didion’s case, she has experienced what she considers the reverse of the “appropriate” sequence of events: the child should not die before the parent. Reading this, I thought about the many ways in which I have shirked my responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life, so that I can continue to be there for my children.

Didion has more to say about this shirking of responsibility, and I am going to quote her at length, largely because she is my favorite writer and can do prose like no one else.

“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to ‘raise’ the child, to let the child go.”

The third event is that the two oldest girls got the results for their benchmark exams (3rd and 5th grade). As they are not public school attenders, we arranged for them to take the test with a professional proctor in Salem. The results were encouraging but not surprising: they are reading at the level of 10th grade and college, respectively. Guess what is important to our family?

This should not be grounds for further anxiety or thoughts of mortality, but leave it to me. Literacy is one thing we have managed to consciously and deliberately imprint on them. That’s one. Mostly it makes me think of all the unintended, or even unknowable, other things that are imprinted alongside it.

As I have said before, there are particular mistakes I am determined not to make as a parent. It’s going to be different ones that come back to haunt me.

Goes with being mortal, I guess?

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Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!

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Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

Baldhill kids

I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is because I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—anymore than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself “I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus. On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.) My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand: unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect.Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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Decompressing the Home

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

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