Anxiety, Depression, Academics, and Faith

Life has been busy and exciting. We are at the tail end of our summer vacation and we are gearing up for our next homeschool year to start in just a little over a week. The girls have spent many long summer days with friends, enjoying camps and the pool, as well as afternoon backyard games with the neighbors. My husband and I even got the chance to take a beach vacation by ourselves.

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The Great Southern, Seaside, Florida

It thrills me to see the girls soaking up their childhood with such free spirits, exploring and forming new friendships. Although we have packed away the books for the past couple of months, the learning has never ceased.

Hiking  photo courtesy of Melanie Atkins

Hiking, Photo Courtesy of Melanie Atkins

     We are handling things much differently this upcoming school year. For one, we will have our youngest joining us for Kindergarten. Also, I’m putting my 4th and 6th grader on completely different curriculum paths. One needs a more structured, pre-programed approach that mimics school at home, while the other needs a more self-directed learning path. I feel confident that each child is getting a program tailored to their specific needs, which will be an ongoing process as I become more engaged with how their specific minds work.

     I have high hopes for the upcoming year. Ironically, I contribute that hope to how badly our previous year ended. The girls all finished with good marks and in a timely manner, but I was battling an unexpected illness that left me debilitated for the last several weeks of our school year. It’s hard to write about, but it is necessary to be transparent due to the fact that so many moms out there struggle with the same issues, yet fear being open and honest about what they are going through. Us moms have so much weight on our shoulders, whether we homeschool, or not. Now more than ever in the history of parenting have mothers been under so much stress to do everything right. It all stems from a deep love for and wanting the best for our children, but the problem is the plethora of information on the internet that seems to be constantly contradicting the article before it. Do I need to hover, or do I need to let go? Is this over-parenting, or not parenting enough? Is there an ideal in-between that even exists? 

     In our struggle to do everything right, us moms are crumbling inside. Facebook is a dangerous place to visit when you’re stressing out about being a good parent. We must all know that posts are carefully constructed and life is beautifully edited for social media. Nevertheless there is that one mom whose body is more perfect, whose kids make better grades and win more awards, and whose social life seems to be perfectly balanced between diapers and MNO’s. Sigh.

     This constant pressure I put on myself to do everything correctly hit me full force this year. I struggled to relax. I was always worried from day one that I wasn’t going to do something right and that my children would pay severely for it. If it wasn’t their curriculum being just right, it was making sure they got enough exercise, that they had plenty of social time with friends, and that their extracurricular classes were enriching enough. I tried to give my girls my all, which I did, but in the meantime I was slowly stripping away pieces of myself that I desperately needed to hold onto–mainly my sense of self and my own sanity.

     As the school days piled up and my worry never ceased, I came to a breaking point. In March I suffered an abdominal wall injury that left me unable to enjoy my normal active lifestyle. As a precautionary, I decided to visit my family doctor. Little did I know that within a three week time span I would be sent through a series of tests that would throw me into one of the worst bouts of depression and anxiety I have ever faced. In that time I had an ultrasound, a CT scan, a transvaginal ultrasound, a pap smear, an ultrasound on my liver, an MRI, and a colonoscopy. For what I figured was simply a muscle strain, suddenly I was being scanned for cancer and other life-altering diseases. Although, thankfully, all of those tests came back negative and it was ruled that I did indeed just suffer a muscle strain, my psyche paid a huge price. I became so fearful and nervous that I started experiencing debilitating panic attacks–up to three or four a day–that sent me three different times to the emergency room. My anxiety and the associated panic attacks sent me into a downward spiral of deep depression. For many days all I could manage was to lie in bed. The physical effects on my body weren’t helping matters any. I experienced extreme nausea and muscle aches, which didn’t help the fact that I was also worrying constantly about my health. What if they missed something? I will never be the same.

     I felt permanently altered and broken. My husband worked from home many days just to be nearby. He, too, had suffered a severe bout of anxiety and depression in his college days, so he was able to sympathize with what I was going through. “It will take time,” he would tell me. “You will get back to your old self again, but you have to be patient. It takes time to heal from this.”

     My children were sweet and responsive. I hated for them to see me so differently than they knew me to be. I am active and engaging. I smile often, goof off, and laugh. Being outgoing, I’m always up for a good outing into the city, or to visit with friends. However, during this time it was like I had become someone else completely. I couldn’t smile. I was so scared all of the time. I never felt like I was going to get better. Looking back now, I’m grateful my children experienced this with me. I believe they got to see that even though your hero can come in the form of a strong mother, everyday heroes have weaknesses that make us very human. As a result, the girls have seemed to be a little more empathetic to the fact that I simply can’t do it all. They have since been more apt to embrace their sisterhood without me having to settle constant arguing. They have also started helping out more around the house. They have realized that Mommy can’t steer this ship alone; it takes all of us working collectively with the same goals in mind to get things done.

     It was the weight of stress that pulled me into a state of instability, but all of the doctor visits and referrals that seemed as though they would never end until they found something horribly wrong with me, was what sent me over the edge. I have always struggled off and on with mild depression and anxiety, but this was an entirely new beast. Thankfully, I was referred to an amazing psychiatrist who has offered me some of the best counseling, and who suggested that I take a medication at this point in my life to help me through a stressful time. He said that he sees a lot of women my age–mid to late 30’s–who are starting to enter a new stage of life. We are seeing people our age getting sick and some of them passing away. Our children are getting older and with that parenting is becoming more complex. It didn’t help that I had also suffered under severe stress for so many years with a child with special needs and my own struggle with perfection. It was only a matter of time before I would start to physically and mentally feel the negative effects. I protested at first, but ended up taking his advice; at a small dose, the  medication he recommended for anxiety and depression has helped me extensively.

     In one of our sessions, my doctor asked me if I knew what it meant to find the silver lining. “Yes,” I told him. “In the middle of any storm you have to look to find some good in the situation that will not only help you through, but will also teach you something that will allow you to positively impact the future.” At the time when I was explaining this, I felt like a fraud because I was sure that in this particular situation, I would not only never find the silver lining, but that I would never again see a glimmer of light beneath the dark cloud that wouldn’t cease to hover over me. God, however, had much different plans.

     In sheer desperation, I started praying every single day, several times a day. “God, please help me. I’m here, wide open. I have nothing left. My sense of control, which I always counted on, is gone. You’re in control. Take the lead. Put your hand out on the path and I’ll take it. My way doesn’t work. It leaves me panicked and rushed, always measuring myself up to what I feel I should be and where I feel I should be going instead of loving every piece of myself exactly where I am.”

     Slowly, I started feeling a little better, not only mentally, but physically. I noticed that my body started to ache less, my nausea started to go away, and my hope was starting to return. During one prayer session, it came to me that I should start praying the rosary every day. I suppose this is what happens when people say they “heard” the voice of God. I didn’t in the literal sense, but when I was quiet and still enough, I just knew this is what I needed to do. It’s what God wanted me to do.

     Suddenly, my prayer life became transformed. Praying the rosary allowed me to identify with Christ’s suffering on the cross. It allowed me to understand the importance of finding my strength in Him. It also has taught me a great deal about humility, as my prayers have slowly become less about my getting well, and more about praying for others in need. No longer was I praying alone because by meditating upon the mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was seeking an intercession of prayer from Mary herself and in doing so praying with her for the needs of others. My reward is the development of a deeper devotion to Christ through the sacraments and the Eucharist.

     Finally! I had found the silver lining to my own suffering. There was a purpose for me to have gone through a period in my life–albeit short-lived–that literally brought me to my knees with no choice but to pray while I was down there. Sometimes we have to lose it all in order to gain something much more valuable in return. I lost a sense of control and perfectionism, but in return I have graciously received the gift of humility. I had to lose something in order for room to be carved out for the Holy Spirit to enter and transform me. All I had to do was hold my hands up and let Him work within me so that His light could fill the void and shine outward with an outpouring of love. I realize that I sound like one of those crazy evangelicals, but I just can’t help myself. It’s too good not to share, and in doing so, I can’t possibly downplay the beauty of God’s redeeming grace.

     Never before have I faced a school year with so much excitement and hope, but it’s very different this time. Although I have always identified with Catholicism, I always wanted a secular curriculum. “I don’t want too much Jesus in our materials,” I would say.

     The truth is, Christ is the foundation of everything, and we should start and end every school day with a prayer and adoration for a Creator who brings us a sense of peace in a chaotic world–a peace that material things and achievement can’t give us alone.

     My anxiety about homeschooling and parenting has mostly ceased. I could care less about what the public schools are doing. I no longer think about what the private schools that we can’t afford are teaching. This is about us and no one else. This is our choice and these are our convictions. This is what we must do for our family. I also feel less intimidated by the accomplishments of others that I once felt I should be aspiring to–worldly pursuits that involve pleasing others more than receiving sanctifying grace. I am fully aware of my vocation, which is what homeschooling is:  a calling. There is absolutely no way for me to do this without integrating Christ into the very marrow of every single day, lest I become so overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility that I can no longer bear the weight. I can either crash down, or integrate the strength of God to help me carry the load.

     Surely we will teach our children about the world around them, introducing them to opposing views and keeping them informed more than sheltered. However, at the core will always be focusing on the importance of coming home to Christ where we can rest for a while and gather the strength to go out into the world again. My goal is to teach them not by force, but simply by example that going to Mass every Sunday, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a regular basis, and having an adoration for the Eucharist provides the blessed fruit of life that our soul needs in order to not just survive, but to thrive. In the midst of teaching mathematical skills and writing, I can also teach them about the importance of virtues, and that no matter where they are led in life and whatever they decide to do, at the core needs to be a desire to do God’s work, simply by having a reverence for the gift of life in a humanitarian effort to impact the world around them in some way, either big or small. With that in mind, I’m fairly sure each day will compile with the next to set our footpath in a promising direction upon solid ground.

     There are no guarantees in life. I can’t hold the weight of the household on my shoulders, let alone the weight of comparing myself to others. The time that I have is now, and I know that to focus on each day instead of worrying about the next five years is essential to my own peace of mind and appreciation for the gifts I have been given. I can’t please everyone, but I can do my best to serve others through prayer and assistance. I can be a good example to my children each and every day, which is a better goal to have than to pick all of the best homeschooling materials and then worry incessantly that there could have been a better way. The only guarantee is today. There is no choice other than to embrace each morning without fear, and to do so with my rosary in hand.

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Happy Valentine’s Day: 30 Something Style

I’m a last minute person.  Even my children know this.  It’s a part of my personality that clashes with my oldest child’s tendency to want to plan things months and weeks in advance, but we have an understanding with each other.  For example, if she starts to tell me weeks before her birthday exactly how she wants to make her cake and what we need to buy, I stop her and ask, “How does Mommy operate?”

“Um, one day ahead.”

“Right.  So when do you need to tell me all of the things you need for a birthday cake?”

“The day before we need to make it.”

“AMEN!”

Sometimes this last minute planning works out beautifully for me, but other times it doesn’t.  Over time I have learned to adjust and bend here and there.  For years Christmas was one thing I planned way ahead of time, finishing up all of our shopping by October, and not because I had the intention of being well-prepared, but because I desired to avoid the holiday traffic and shoppers.  This year I ignored my conscience and waited until after Thanksgiving to start shopping, thus I spent more time in stores and driving on congested streets than I have in all previous seasons combined.  Consequently, it was also the most miserable Christmas season that I can recall.

Valentine’s Day is one of those odd holidays.  (Is it even a holiday?)  Unlike Easter, when I’m typically left pillaging through the remainder of unwanted candy and stuffed animals the night before, Valentine’s Day seems to be one of those holidays that coincides beautifully with my tendency to do everything last minute.  How hard can it be to find a card and a small pack of Russell Stover’s chocolates the day before Valentine’s Day?  There is always so much of it on the store shelves, and even if that runs out, it’s not impossible to find an un-themed box of candy.  Perhaps a gift of womanhood is not having to plan for rings and flowers and balloons, or in our case, a new oven.  I have a man and three girls to shop for.  Cards.  Chocolates.  DONE!

Last night, when I had to stop by the grocery store for a few items, I stopped by the card aisle to make my selections.  The girls were fairly simple.  I found a cute card with a little cartoon girl riding a pony for Molly, a funny hologram card for Anne, and a sentimental card about growing into a lovely young lady for Jane.  However, when it came time to find a card for my husband, I found the task to be nearly impossible.  It isn’t that the cards were all sold out.  Most of the slots still had a few cards left in them.  It was that I couldn’t find anything that fit quite right to our 30-something stage of life .  There were funny and sappy cards for old love, or terribly sentimental cards for new love.  There were cards for people who are just entering parenthood, ones celebrating first Valentine’s Days, and plenty of trashy cards for Valentine’s Day flings.  What I failed to find were cards that most aptly fit into where my husband and I are in marriage:  two busy homeschooling parents/chaffers with older children.  We are no longer in the honeymoon phase of parenting, ushering our little bundle of joys in and out of high chairs and car seats.  We don’t have our little toddlers around who drive us nuts, but who also go to bed in time for us to enjoy a bowl of popcorn, or ice cream over a movie.  We have travelled so far beyond that, and it feels like it has been a lifetime even if realistically it has been going by in a flash.

My husband and I are in the throws of parenthood.  More often than not, we are now at the point where we fall asleep in exhaustion by the time the oldest child goes to bed at 10 pm.  If we want to enjoy a bowl of popcorn and a movie in secrecy, we would have to either drink a cup of coffee to keep us up a few extra hours at night (we actually do this from time to time), or put a microwave in the garage where the smell and sound wouldn’t waft up the stairs and into little bedrooms, which would inevitably be followed by the sound of feet hitting the ground.

Where were the cards for this stage of life when sentimental poems seem too sappy and silly, and the funny ones seem like lame jokes that aren’t worth the $4.99 price tag?  I can offer up more sarcasm and get more laughs than that for free in the kitchen.

As I stood there dodging the other last minute shoppers who happily and quickly made their selections, obviously in a different stage of marriage than I, I started to think that maybe I should just go home and make my own card.  I began to wonder who was writing these cards, and how underserved the market was for couples in our stage of marriage, for 30-somethings with older children.  I even thought about writing to Hallmark and asking them for a job for next year.  I could write some really good cards that would be most fitting for a couple like us, and surely there are other couples out there who would benefit from my half-witted wisdom and sarcasm.

Here are some of my ideas:

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I love you and you sure are great!

Can I go take a shower now?

___________________

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Roses are red;

Violets are blue.

I hope no one says “poop” over dinner;

don’t you?

___________________

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Did you accept my invites on Google for all of the upcoming soccer games?

___________________

Just as I was about to give up, I gave myself one more desperate attempt to find the perfect card for my husband.  One card I kept coming across was awful looking.  From what was sticking out behind the shelf, I could make out the lame artwork of flowers and the beginning of a poetic cliche.  I sighed heavily and pulled the card out of its slot on the shelf.  Surprisingly, it turned out to be the most perfect card for our stage of marriage:

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Simple.  Sweet.  Right to the point.  I put it in the cart.

You may be wondering what else was involved in this Valentine’s Day extravaganza of what seems like little effort compared to what most others do.  Obviously, we missed all of the Jared Jewelry commercials and I certainly didn’t have enough money to buy my husband a brand new sports car.  And after all, from the sights of Facebook, everyone else’s Valentine’s Day includes expensive jewelry, a dozen roses surprising someone at work, and other lovely gifts that go beyond sweetly pleasing the sweet tooth.  We have more in store, but in our classic fashion, it will be simply sweet and shared.  Later on tonight we will make our traditional Italian Valentine’s Day dinner that we have been sharing with our girls since they were born.  The exciting thing about this stage of parenthood is that I have three girls who are now old enough to help me prepare the meal.  We will dim the lights, light some candles, and enjoy dinner and a glass of wine (sparkling grape juice for the girls of course) before indulging in cannoli, which we have twice a year – on our Anniversary and on Valentine’s Day.

As far as gifts, well, those were involved as well, but they came in bits and pieces, and were also typical of being in our late 30’s with three kids and living on a budget.  I had to order new running shoes last week, so that was sort of a gift.  We also had to have a new stove, and I have to admit that it’s nice to be able to put something in the oven and not have to babysit it for fear that the heating element will automatically switch off.  It also looks a lot better in our kitchen than the big, white eyesore that was there before.

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In addition to these fine gifts, our compressor went out on our heating and air unit, which we have to have replaced next week.  And lastly, we even had a truck-full of mulch delivered and put down in the landscaping yesterday, which I’m sure our neighbors are more grateful for than even us.  If you collectively added up all of these gifts, we could have driven to the beach for the week.  However, so goes the story of our lives in what seems to be a transitional phase for sentimental love with little time left to waste on bad attempts at Hallmark humor.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of the 30 somethings out there!  I suppose we better embrace all of our last minute shopping, rare enjoyment of late night popcorn, and Legos scattered all over the living room floor.  If it holds true to what most older couples say, one day we will look back with sweet memories and appreciation for this stage of life.  If anything, we will be ever the more grateful for being able to spend a week at the beach instead of buying new appliances and sprucing up the landscaping.  And who knows?  Maybe we will invite our then grown children to join us.  I will have to have someone to help me make that big Italian meal.  Nah, perhaps by then we will form a new tradition of hiring someone else to make the meal for just the two of us.

Investments In Happiness

I’m going to try really hard not to sound like a dumbass here, but that may have been more of an apology for what I know is about to come:  a comparison between money and happiness.

We took the girls on a vacation to Disney this past Fall.  One particular attraction in Epcot involved the girls answering a series of questions regarding what they would save up for if they had the chance to earn a lot of money:  a vacation, a bedroom renovation, and something else that I can’t recall.  Once they had made their decision, they were given a large, pink piggy bank to take through a crash course of short games that either helped them save money, or caused them to lose it.  As I assisted our preschooler, one particular game stood out to me.  The screen was of a bedroom that you had to hide your money throughout.  You had the choice of a chest of drawers, a trunk, bookshelves, under the bed, and other secret hiding places.  The goal was to spread your money out instead of hiding it all in one place because soon the big bad fox was going to come rummaging through the bedroom to find and steal your money.  In order to prevent the fox from stealing all that you had, and thus losing all of the money you had saved, you had to be sure not to put all of your money in one place.  That would be disastrous.  The best you could hope for would be that the big bad fox would make out with very little of what you had worked so hard to earn then wisely tuck away to protect.  Funny, even as a 36-year-old woman, I learned something valuable from this game, but it had nothing to do with money.  It had more to do with happiness and how, just like with our financial investments, we would be wise to spread ourselves out instead of putting all of our coins into one place; otherwise, we would be taking a big risk at losing it all.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about that game.  We are given only so much time, so much energy, and only one life, just one chance to get it right.  However, what if we mess up terribly?  What if we put all of our energy and love into one place, but it ended up being a really bad hiding spot?  What if a big bad fox comes through unexpectedly and devours all of the joy you had invested in, even after you had tried so hard to put it in the safest place possible?  Damn.

There are other options – other ways to spend your energy and invest in personal happiness.  Instead of putting it all into one place, you can deposit it here and there, and if the bottom falls out of any one of those things, then you didn’t lose it all.  You still have something valuable – albeit smaller – to work with.  One thing can go wrong, but you still have something to hold onto.

I put all of my bets into one place:  home.  And there is this belief that if we don’t do that as women, we are wronging ourselves, our spouses, and our children in some way.  Sure, for a while it is completely necessary to invest ourselves where the most energy is needed, and let’s face it, having babies and really little kids takes more energy than we even have available on most days.  It takes an arsenal of caffeine and wine just to get through the first five years of baby’s life.  Then what?

Well, our story has been different than most.  See, our oldest child has “special needs”, which aren’t that bad (especially since I consider those particular “special” things to be her greatest gifts), but it has left us in this continuous slump when it comes to educating her.  To say she has had an eclectic education thus far is an understatement, but whatever one takes from that, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it has worked.  She is funny, bright, and really a super cool kid – I mean, really.  The kid is pretty cool for 11-years-old.  For a child who used to ask in the second grade, “Why did God make me this way?” to now having a really strong sense of self and a really good sense of humor to go along with it, I think we have done a pretty damn good job making the decisions we have made.  But now…now…she is older.  She’s going into middle school.  Our baby is going into kindergarten.  (I have mentioned this like three or four times in the last few blog posts.  Maybe there is something there I should pay close attention to.)

So, obviously, at this point I’m asking, “What now?”  As life seems to be slowing down a bit and we no longer have a child under the age of 5, I am really thinking a lot about myself and what I have been ignoring.  Truth be told, everyone is happy and joyful.  We laugh and we have a good time.  Our kids are pretty good.  We have great friends.  But…am I happy?  No…not really.

And I don’t really know what it is that I need to change.  It just sits there on my shoulders waiting for me to figure it out and do something with it.  My biggest problem is that I have a really hard time sitting still, so instead of taking up yoga or meditation, I ask myself, “What now?”

I can write a good book.  I think I would be pretty great at it.  I’m not the most captivating writer (please for God’s sake don’t pick out all of these grammar mistakes), but I have heard from a decent number of people throughout my life that I should write more because they love to read what I write.  Doing that will take up at least a good three years…maybe four.  I could put some of my energy there.  I could go back to school and put some energy there.  I could still have some left for home because not as much is needed here…at least I don’t think that is the case.  I could take up a hobby like gardening, but then I can’t even keep a house plant alive for very long, so chances are that I will end up with a large muddy patch in the yard that will more than likely stay that way until we get ready to sell our house and, therefore, need everything to look all nice and tidy again.

The truth is, I’m kind of sick of putting all of my energy into one place.  It’s not that my children don’t make me happy because they do.  I love my daughters unlike anything else in the world.  They are the only people on the face of the earth for whom I could say beyond a shadow of a doubt I would give my own life.  But…kids grow up.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want them to stay little!  I enjoy them growing up and I honestly don’t want them to live under my roof for forever.

And…what about marriage?  It’s forever, right?  I hope so, but what if it isn’t?  What if it doesn’t work out?  Then what?  Well, if you didn’t take the time to invest in yourself you run a real risk of really losing it all.  You spent all of this time and love and energy and self in one single place.  You didn’t spread it out over several different places, which truthfully helps you hang onto something should any one thing fall.  And me?  Well, I haven’t done that, and it’s kind of scary.  I keep thinking about how I put all of myself into one place, but does this one place really give me back what I put into it?  Not really.  Should it?  Well…no.  It’s about sacrifice (at least that is what we tell ourselves), and sacrifice makes us happy, right?  No, not really.  It’s good…perhaps…but it doesn’t ensure happiness.

So what does give us happiness, and what is the purpose of it anyway?  I can tell you this:  Happiness is the result of good investments, and the purpose of it is to ensure that we can continue to smile, laugh, and enjoy life while we are here.  I know, I know.  People say that happiness isn’t important, right?  It’s selfish in a way, I guess.  I agree that it is completely selfish to think about it in terms of using material goods to fill the void of happiness.  However, real happinessjoythat is what feeds our soul.  That is the thing that helps us to connect to other people, to help other people, and to make sacrifices.  It’s what gives us the get-go to get up and face the challenges of each day, to endure hardship, and to live life for everything that it is worth.

And God…where does He come in in all of this?  I have no idea, but He would have to be a part of it, right?  I read the bible daily.  I hear what it says.  It doesn’t say anything about personal happiness being a virtue, but it says a ton about being humble, gracious, kind, giving, honest, and loving.  The truth is, if we walk around in a cloud of darkness each day then what good are we for any of those things?  Not much.  Not much at all.  I know that I used to be able to deliver on all of those aspects with full force, but now I feel like I’m running on an empty tank.

I have to figure out a way to fill up again with all of the good things I will need to get through life continuing to be a good, strong woman.  It’s such a delicate thing to understand and balance.  It’s like when my 8-year-old got in trouble yesterday and I told her the story of the angel and the devil that sit upon opposing shoulders.  This is a scenario that has been depicted in cartoons numerous times, but this is actually a pretty good way to describe to a child what exactly it means to have a conscious and how to use it to decide between making a right and wrong decision.  It’s easy when you’re a kid.  You know that you don’t steal something, or hit your sister.  As an adult this gets much more tricky.  Is choosing to make some changes in order to help yourself find a deeper meaning and joy in life turning your back on good – on God?  Are you paying more attention to the little devil that wants self-gratification at the expense of others?  On the other side, if you ignore this constant pecking in your soul that you need to do something more – to hone in on your gifts and do something with them – are you then selling yourself short and at the same time not utilizing the best parts of yourself that God has given you?  It’s really hard to know the answer to those questions right off the bat, and mostly because the answer to those two questions constantly shifts throughout life.

Maybe this is just like anything else in life.  Sometimes you have it all figured out.  For example, it’s pretty easy to know what you’re going to make for dinner (most nights) and what you’re going to do for the day.  However, when those decisions get really big and confusing, you have to be okay with the fact that the unknown is a reality you have to learn to deal with in the best way possible.  Unfortunately, sometimes the only answer is to just close your eyes and jump, hoping that before you land, you will have learned how to fly.  If anything, at least the gift of flying will help you to avoid that asshole of a fox who is always lurking around the corner to steal all of your investments in happiness.  If you don’t learn to fly, let’s just hope you end up landing in a really good hiding spot.

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Laundry Basket Briefcase

As my children grow older, I’m coming to the realization that I have some regrets.  Due to being rather busy, frazzled, and absent-minded for the better part of an entire decade, I haven’t had much time to think about decisions left in the past that could have taken me down any number of different roads.  More recently, as these small windows of reflection begin to resurface, I am finding that certain regrets are starting to bubble up in my mind that I had buried a long time ago.  In fact, I didn’t always consider them regrets because they had previously been simply dreams left uncultivated.

One of these regrets is that I never finished college.  Instead of tending to my post high school education right after graduation, I wanted to break away from my hometown for a while, so I moved to Utah and California.  Being responsible for a younger sibling for the majority of my teenage years, I just needed to breathe for a bit and be responsible for only myself.  Somehow, I couldn’t manage to do this traveling the same streets and facing the same options over and over again.  I needed to see what was out there beyond the well-travelled path between my hometown in Kentucky, and Florida, the only place we ever vacationed when I was a kid.

To say that I was introduced to new things during my post high school adventures would be an understatement.  I was lucky enough – probably due in large part to the fact that my devout Christian grandparents prayed for me by the hour – to find a roommate in California who took me under his wing.  He was from out east as well and we both came from large, close-knit families.  We stuck together, becoming the best of friends; although, later we became romantically involved a little more than we should have been.  Once he took at job in the Middle East and moved, I decided I had had enough of the bigger world.

Among the things I learned on my self-imposed sabbatical was that people could be really messed up in ways I had never imagined:  parents supporting their kid’s drug habits, bosses addicted to cocaine, and cruel people who do whatever is necessary to get ahead in the world at the expense of others.  Eventually, I decided that it was time to go home where I had a mom and a dad, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and love all in one small town that I thought I would never want to return to.  I remember telling a friend of mine at the time that once I got home, I wanted to reconnect with a friend from my past whom I had always turned down when he approached me.  I had no intentions of anything more than a friendship, but just wanted the companionship of a true friend – someone who valued me for who I was.  I had no idea then that I would not only connect with that boy, but we would later marry and have children.

By the time I started college I was nearly 21 years old, and by then I was so confused as to what I wanted to do that I changed majors over and over again.  My husband graduated from school, I switched colleges, and when I was 25 we welcomed our first daughter.  There was no question about it, I would decide to drop out and take care of our family full-time.  While I have since not only taken college courses here and there, getting myself a little closer each time to graduation, I have also had two more daughters.  To say that I have put myself on the back burner is an understatement.  In fact, I have been lucky enough to even take a shower every day.

Lately, as my youngest daughter is preparing to enter kindergarten and my oldest is on the brink of being a teenager, I have been taking myself back to those decisions I made so long ago.  There is a part of me that wishes I had finished college before getting married and having children.  Nevertheless, the decisions I made are the fabric of what I have become, and there is no part of me that wishes my life to be any different than it is now.  So, what is it exactly that I regret?  Am I contradicting myself by saying that I regret what I have chosen, but that I wouldn’t want my life to be any different than it is now?  I know.  I’m just as confused.

See, it’s just that I’m only 36-years-old, but I feel like I’m approaching retirement, as if I’m already an old woman.  Life just seems to be hanging in the balance right now.  There’s nothing particularly interesting going on and nothing I particularly look forward to.  I suppose that wouldn’t be the case if I lived through my children, but I have never been that type of mother.  I like my own space and my own life aside from theirs.  I’m completely okay dropping them off here and there, encouraging them as their biggest cheerleader, but never being so invested that I can’t separate them from myself.  The problem is, I haven’t had much time to focus on what it is exactly that I need as a woman, and the sad part is, I can’t really figure out how to actually make something happen.  Going back to school isn’t so much of an option anymore.  The fact is, we are considered an upper middle class family, meaning that I don’t qualify for grants and our family contribution is much higher than what reality will allow.  Raising three children isn’t cheap.  Taking money from the budget for myself means them going without in some way, and the truth is, I had my time. It’s their time now.  I brought them into the world and they are my responsibility to take care of.  I have a choice to make and not everything is an option; although, I distinctly remember growing up learning otherwise.  It was something about being anything we wanted to be as women – this idea that we could have it all.  It was a sham.

I feel that we have been lied to as women.  We have been told that we can have it all.  We can have a career and a family, equal opportunities in the workforce, and be president of the PTO.  We can be there for our children and our bosses.  We can go back to school and still be able to get to ballet, theater, the library, help someone with math and reading, make sure our family has a nutritious homemade meal on the table, and that the laundry is getting done.  We have been lied to that we can do all of that and still have an ounce of sanity to live by.  It simply isn’t true.

The cold, hard fact is this:  WE CAN’T POSSIBLY DO IT ALL!  We have to chose something – what is most important or most necessary for our particular family – and leave the regret of our decisions in the past.  The truth of the matter is, if a woman choses to work, there is something at home that they will miss:  a baby’s first steps, her first words, reading books to her at nap time, and being present during her most productive part of the day.  If we stay at home, we don’t miss out on those things, but we miss out on personal growth aside from being a parent.

As I sit here and deal with this festering ounce of regret for choices I have made that have limited my personal growth, I know that I have to eventually bury these regrets for good, realizing and being okay with the fact that I was never able to do it all.  I had to decide what was most important and what worked best for our family at the time.  I have to be truly grateful that I even had that choice to begin with.  Many women don’t.  For us, my husband’s earning potential and growth in the workforce was properly balanced with me staying at home.  He has grown in leaps and bounds working for fortune 500 companies.  His ability from this point forward will propel him into positions he would be so much further away from had I not made the decision to be a stay-at-home parent.  His income solely has been able to grow and care for us in ways that two incomes wouldn’t have allowed.  While I’m truly grateful for this and never once take it for granted, I have to be honest when I say that there is a small part of me that is jealous over his personal growth in his career and where it has taken him.

Yesterday we took our little girls to see Paddington Bear.  As Paddington sits at the attic window looking out over London, my husband leans over and says, “I’ve been over that bridge.”

“Oh, yeah.  Well, I go up and down our stairs like 400 times a day and I go to Target at least once a week.  So there!”  We both laughed.

“I would rather be at home with you than in London,” he replied.

Jokingly, but with a slight tinge of honesty I said, “You’re ridiculous.  I would rather be alone on that bridge in London than at home any day.”  And the truth of the matter is, that is exactly how I feel.  I would love to just for a little while take a business trip to Chicago or London.  I would love to be around grown-ups all day and make decisions that go beyond turkey sandwiches and peanut butter.  I would rather drive to work listening to NPR than listening to people argue in the backseat over being ten minutes late to swim class.  However, this is just…life.  It is what it is in all of its imperfect glory.  It’s the culmination of decisions I have made and the path I have chosen.  I can’t regret any of it.  There’s no turning back.

Surely many people now will say, “Go for it!  Finish school!  It’s never too late.  You can do it!”  Guess what?  I have already swallowed the hard pill.  I know for sure that I simply cannot do it all.  I have to make a decision, I have to be grateful for that fact that I have that decision to make in the first place, and I know that the decision to put the needs of our family first will always be what I will chose.  I need to make sure our bills are paid on time, our kids are being cared for, and that our house is livable and comfortable.  For us, it means one person in the workforce and the other taking care of matters at home.  Financially, it makes the most sense with my husband carrying his briefcase out of the door each day while I clean drops of concreted oatmeal off of the countertop.

Right now I find myself in a bit of a funk.  I read and study often, never willing to let myself stop growing in any way, shape, or form.  I take care of my health, stay up to date on what is nutritionally best for not only myself, but also my family.  I know my children, guide them, and work in unison with my husband to make the best decisions based on our specific needs.  I have to be okay with the fact that I am an intelligent, capable woman who on paper has less markable skills than Napoleon Dynamite.  I have to be okay with the fact that going up and down the stairs with a basket of laundry instead of a briefcase holds more meaning and purpose for my life than my selfish side wants to admit to.  When it comes down to it, when I decided to bring people into the world, my time to invest fully in myself was over.  I had my time and now it’s theirs, and by the time they grow up and leave home, I’ll be well into my life, so much so that it wouldn’t make much sense to invest in college and work for a short number of years before my husband retires and we seek opportunities together.

For now, I’ll wait.  Some day in the far, far future, maybe I’ll get to walk over the London Bridge.  It may be when I’m in my 60’s, it definitely won’t be on a business trip, and I will probably – if the good Lord allows – be there with my husband who will have been there several times before me, but nevertheless, I will enjoy it all the same.  I can’t have it all, but I can appreciate that compromise is the gift that getting by day to day hinges upon.  Life isn’t about having it all; it’s about making choices.  It’s about being okay with where we are and trying our hardest along the way not to let our regrets get the best of us.

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A Put-Together, Disheveled Mess of A Woman

To be completely honest, I enjoy life when my husband is on a business trip.  Granted, he doesn’t go on them very often, and he is never gone for more than a week, but still.  There is something about having the house all to myself at night – putting the girls to bed then not having to speak to anyone.  I can read a book without interruptions, watch whatever I want on television, hog all of the pillows, and sleep in the center of the bed (at least until the 5-year-old climbs into bed with me in the wee hours of the morning).  This might not sound like much, but to a woman who spends 99.9% of her time surrounded by other people, the solitude turns our bedroom into my own private island post bedtime routines.

This past week my husband has spent a few days in Chicago, leaving me to manage after school activities on my own.  This sounds simple enough until you consider the fact that I also homeschool the kids, meaning that by 3 pm I’m typically a over-caffeinated basket case with children who never seem to chose activities within close proximity to each other.  This leaves someone vulnerable to missing practice when only one parent-mobile is in operation.

Last night swim practice got the axe over ballet, and simply because ballet is much more expensive.  After a completely full day, which had involved a field trip downtown to see a play, we were all a little frazzled.  Most moms – the ones who have it all together, which I do NOT – would have been prepared by planning accordingly considering that not only was the field trip downtown, but so was ballet class.  The thought crossed my mind in Lala Land that I should have packed a nutritious lunch, snacks, ballet clothing, and bun-making accessories ahead of time, meaning that we would have made just one trip downtown yesterday.  Me…me?  No.  Of course that didn’t happen.  See, I envy the moms who occupy Lala Land.  They are the ones who homeschool with smiles on their faces and would never dream of threatening to send their kids back to school 400 times a day like I do.  I’m pretty sure they wake up with a full-face of perfectly applied make-up and daytime hair.  Those moms are a different breed and we don’t even remotely swim in the same gene pool.  There are several variations of mom that spans from put-together to disheveled, and I suppose I hit somewhere different along that line depending on the day, the hour, my mood, the weather, and how much I care.  We have pajama days, days where I’m demanding everyone put on daytime clothing, and days when I would rather crawl into a cave than start the day.

By the time dinnertime rolled around last night, we had been from home to downtown to home to run an errand in our hometown back to home and then back downtown.  Needless to say, by 5 pm I was operating in survival mode.  Although my outward appearance on this particular day would have given me approval for residence on Lala Land, a brain scan would have more properly placed me into a mental institution.  I wonder how many other homeschooling moms who look put together are in the same boat.  Obviously appearances can be deceiving, but I always assume that I alone occupy a space in between normal and getting-ready-to-jump-off-a-bridge.  I’m fairly certain that I no longer even have adrenal glands in my body.  They have shriveled up and forsaken me saying, ‘Screw you, woman!  I have given all I have and all you do is take and take and take!’

As the girls and I made our way down the congested, rush hour city streets from the only store in the city that sells the ballet tights we needed (they were out of stock and any other mom would have called before driving all of the way there) to Panera, I gripped the wheel with both hands as I feverishly reminded the kids to be perfectly quiet and still because otherwise I would certainly sideswipe a city bus or hit a careless, naieve college kid as she travelled the crosswalks in that I-have-my-whole-life-ahead-of-me stupor.  Not to mention that I was driving my husbands SUV in favor of the minivan, which added to my nervousness.  My husband is a kind and generous man, but driving his car is like driving your husband’s man-cave.  My husband doesn’t have a real man-cave, so in a house full of women, his car is his get away.  We have to be extra careful to neither leave trash in the cup holders, or run over pedestrians.  We also have to be sure to park his car in the back of every parking lot to avoid the inevitable dings left behind when careless drivers and passengers open their car doors.  However, this isn’t an option when parking anywhere downtown considering that parking is tight if you are even lucky enough to find a spot.

I pulled into Panera’s lot, carefully circling the parking area twice before deciding amongst the few available spots which one provided the most space for opening and closing doors, and reminded the girls not to open the doors prematurely as I pulled in and backed out, pulled in and backed out, and pulled in and backed out the proper number of times to ensure I was in the best spot possible between the neighboring cars to prevent the slightest chance of a car ding.  If I had been in my van, I would have simply pulled into the lot and chosen the one that was big enough to wedge the barge in, reminding the girls upon exiting not to knock out any of the toys, paper, or books that carpet the floorboards.

Once situated in our spot, I took a deep breath, quickly fixed my hair, and got the kids out of the car.  I told them to remember to behave because we were downtown and the restaurant seemed full of college kids and people wearing business suits, meaning that they wouldn’t take kindly to frazzled mothers and her triple brood.  Of course it didn’t work out that way.  I sent my ballerina into the bathroom to put her leotard and ripped tights on underneath her clothing while arguing at the counter with my preschooler over whether or not she could have chocolate milk with her dinner.  Then there is my oldest child who, while on the cusp of being a teenager, perceives herself to be on the cusp of adulthood, thus she is in this constant dilemma when eating out over whether or not to order from the kids or adults menu.  As the cashier waited for her to make up her mind over the vast expansion of new choices available to her, I tried to make her selection easier.

“You like grilled cheese.  Get the half and half grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup.”

She responds in an embarrassed tone of voice, “MOM, it’s called two and two, not half and half.”  She nervously looked around her at the people in line who must have been thinking,  ‘How could she?  What an idiot calling it that, and in front of her young daughters!’

“Whatever it’s called.  Who cares!  Just order something.”  I looked down at my phone.  We had exactly 30 minutes to get our food, eat, get a bun in the ballerina’s hair, and get to ballet school.

I’m sure I was a confusing specimen to the young, obviously childless and obviously not married college kid behind the register.  On the outside I looked completely put together, like perhaps I had just come from working a full day in my corner office doing something important and impressive, but once my mouth opened and my eyes darted around the menu and at my children like a deranged bird, it seemed I must have broken out of the hospital, stolen these children, ripped of a Banana Republic, and was trying to move in and out before the police caught up with me.  “Good luck,” she told me as she handed me the change.

“Thanks,” I responded.  All the while thinking that she has no idea what the next ten years of her life would bring.  She might not remember me 10 minutes from leaving her register, but there is a good chance the memory of me will resurface when she is in her late thirties and responsible for not only her schedule, but the schedules of four other people while driving around in a car that you need to treat as though it belongs in a plastic bubble instead of on the street like all of the other normal cars.  I really should have driven the van.

We sat down, we ate quickly, and I debated for a moment whether or not it was okay to put a bun in my kid’s hair at the table in the middle of a restaurant.  I have never heard otherwise.  I mean, I know the basics.

Things not to do at the dinner table:

1.  Blow your nose

2.  Burp

3.  Fart

4.  Use crude language

5.  Pick your teeth, nose, or ears

Nope.  No rules about putting up ballet buns that I have ever heard of.

As the girls finished up and joked around with one another, I looked around to scope out the surroundings, trying to assess the likelihood that I would end up on someone’s Facebook page or You Tube.

‘Just witnessed a mom putting bun in kid’s hair at the table in Panera.  Can you say GRODY?’

We had exactly fifteen minutes until ballet class started.  I took my chances.  I pulled out the bobby pins, the brush, and a pony tail holder and proceeded while ordering my oldest daughter to take our dishes and trash to the bins.

‘Just witnessed a mom ordering her child to labor over throwing away entire family’s trash all by herself while she put a bun in her kids hair AT THE TABLE!  I will never do that when I’m a mom.’  

‘She just handed her smallest kid a cell phone to occupy her while she put up a bun and sent her oldest child to dispose of everyone’s trash and dishes.’  

Surely these people know that my oldest child is on the cusp of adulthood because she is, but only when it’s convenient to my needs as a mom.  Surely they know that my preschooler is likely to end up in the parking lot if I don’t keep her occupied for five minutes.  Surely they know that I’m putting up a bun because my middle daughter probably has dyslexia so we homeschool her, have brought her reading level up two grades in less than a full school year, and invest in ballet classes in the most prestigious ballet school in the city!

Once it was all said and done, we got to ballet class only ten minutes late while managing to keep the preschooler alive and the oldest child only mildly embarrassed.  Win-win!

What was it I said up there about loving it when my husband goes away on business?  Did I mention that it’s much easier to say that the day when he returns home?  I can’t help but to think of the awesome moms out there who send their husbands to war, managing their households on their own for over a year’s time.  Some of them even homeschool multiple children.  They probably don’t care if they look disheveled or put together because their minds are occupied with real worries.  They probably could care less what people think if they let their oldest child step in as an adult to clear the dinner table in a restaurant, or if they have to put up a ballet bun at the table.  Me?  Well, I suppose I’m a total wiener who looks put together on the outside, is a complete disorganized mess on the inside, and obviously I care too much about what people think as I circle parking lots, mess up the Panera menu, and dodge pedestrians.  I suppose I’m just a put-together, disshevled mess of a woman.  That’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things.  I could still be a naive college kid thinking that I knew more than everyone else about how to solve the world’s problems.  Even worse, I could be an adult who thinks that way.  You definitely swallow your pride when you realize that not only do you have a hard time solving your own problems, but there is a very good chance that you never will.  That’s okay.  That realm of having it all together is already occupied by Lala Land inhabitants, and things can get a little too predictable over there for me.  I like to keep things exciting.  Obviously!

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My Short Sap Fest

My advice for what it’s worth: I don’t recommend looking at middle and high schools while listening to Ben Howard on iTunes radio. It’s like the sad, bawling scenes from a movie when a mother rewinds her child’s life in her mind, resurfacing memories of her as a baby, now growing closer to being a teenager. It makes matters even worse when you consider the fact that your youngest child is going into kindergarten. With that said, I see the silver lining in this being that we have SO many memories. It’s only been 11 years and there is SO much there already. So much goodness. So much time.

We have had such a wonky experience over the years, but they are ours and they are lovely. I wouldn’t change a thing, especially if it would alter the outcome which has resulted in really authentic, good-hearted, and smart kids.  I’m almost embarrassed when I tell people how much we have bounced around, doing whatever works best when need be, but simply because our experience veers so much from the well-beaten path.  Nevertheless, we remained vigilant that we were doing what was best, and looking back, we did just that.

Tomorrow my oldest child turns 11-years-old.  Since her birth we have lived in three cities, two states, and she has attended three different schools, including a mix of homeschooling in between.  I suppose to be fair I should mention that we haven’t moved since she started kindergarten.  We just chose the wrong neighborhood, the wrong school district, and if I could recall the number of times I have cried about those unfortunate choices I would be here typing all day.  The more time has pressed on, bringing us to now – a time when we have to consider consistency in a school community and when lessons that will benefit her throughout her academic career are possibly better taught outside of our home by qualified teachers in a strong school – I don’t regret the unfortunate location of our home in the slightest simply because it has given us the gift of time, awareness, and   connection.  It has grown us into a close-knit family.  It has allowed us to learn lessons beyond the books and has given us connections beyond the norm in regard to typical American families and lifestyles.  Sure, our experience is a little weird compared to most, but it is ours.  It’s been an awesome ride so far.

There are some bright things to consider with my youngest going to kindergarten.  From her 5-year-old perspective, she is really looking forward to it, and she will love it.  She talks about “going to kindergarten” a lot.  I have to remind her that sweet Ms. Rosi, her preschool teacher, won’t be her teacher in kindergarten.  She will have to move to another school – a school for big kids.  She gets a puzzled look on her face.  She isn’t ready to imagine that just yet.  We usually end the conversation there.

And then there is Anne – sweet Anne – the forgotten middle child in the middle of the middle of things.  Going into the 4th grade next year isn’t anything particularly monumental.  We don’t create mountains out of molehills, so I know I might seem like an unloving mother; however, I can’t quite explain the excitement this particular child feels when she accomplishes something new and something she can claim as her very own.  Being in the middle gives her a little extra insight, a little something special.  In two years we will make a great big deal out of her moving onto new things.  For now, we will remind her that she is extra special because Jane is a big sister, Molly is a little sister, but she is a big and a little sister.  Being in the middle has its perks.

These have been some crazy years.  Honestly, my kids aren’t the best.  I admire kids who sit perfectly still in Mass, kids who behave in the grocery store, and kids who are quiet in restaurants.  My kids are loud and busy.  They are always in the middle of every single conversation.  They are curious.  Interested.  Alive.  They drive me nuts 99% of the time, but they are such cool little individuals.

OK…now to change the channel on iTunes Radio.  Maybe I should play the Beastie Boys and angrily clean the house.  After all, we have taken PTO from schoolwork today to clean the house.  It is THAT bad around here, and it is incredibly common for PTO cleaning days to exist when you homeschool your children under your roof during the winter months.  Things get REALLY, really unorganized and messy very quickly.  The piles of paper cutouts, rough drafts, and laundry are threatening to suffocate us all.  Onward to tackle those things.

Oh, and finally…this kid:  She turns 11 tomorrow!

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It happens quickly. Embrace it. It’s the only time you will have with them while they are little. Know who they are. Cherish them. Don’t look back and regret not taking advantage of the time.

Embracing Now

My middle child drives me nuts.  I mean, they all drive me nuts individually in their own little way, then all together when they combine their efforts, but with the middle child, it’s different.

My youngest drives me nuts with her physical energy.  She moves so quickly from one thing to the next, and not just with her short 5-year-old attention span, but in the entire way she moves.  You can’t hold her between the hours of 9 am and 8 pm.  She will claw, crawl, and bounce all over the place.  Holding her through Mass is like trying to hold onto a moody cat in a large crowd, with its ears turned back and back arched high.  She doesn’t have attention, or focus problems.  She isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to being a disciplined preschooler.  She is just so very five, which means she has a keen talent for one minute being sweet and gentle, then the next displaying the characteristics of a rabid animal tossing and turing in a fit of rage over silly things like not having another Gogurt.  Or not being able to wear a Batman t-shirt to church.  Or not being able to go outside in shorts and a tank top in 30* weather.  After three children, these are things that I simply step over, and I mean literally.  Unlike my firstborn whose setback in her short ten years on this earth has been learning that she isn’t the center of the universe (which she obviously was until she had siblings), we simply remove our screaming 5-year-old from the room, place her into another one, and shut the door.  She gets over herself very quickly.  I will admit that this is harder for me than it is for her.  Look at this face:

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Our oldest daughter drives me nuts for the reasons stated above, but of course now in a 10-year-old kind of way.  Her self-centeredness isn’t as overly obnoxious as it used to be.  In fact, the older she gets, the more she gains in understanding.  She is becoming more humble, patient, and kind, which I am grateful for.  This is the same child who has significantly challenged us when it comes to academics.  I won’t go into details, using dirty words like “gifted”.  (I don’t believe it is a dirty word, but I have been through this before and you learn as you go.  To the people who don’t really understand what giftedness encompasses, they take the word “gifted” and equate it to things like owning a Mercedes or a multi-million dollar house.  “Look at poor so-and-so with her bright kid…wah, wah, wah.”  It’s impossible to explain it.  When you come across another parent with a highly gifted kid you sympathize, “I get it.  I know,” but you leave it at that.  It’s not worth explaining the difference in gifted and status symbols.  It’s not even remotely the same thing.)

Our middle daughter will be turning 9-years-old this April, and in a lot of ways, she is my easiest kid to raise.  She is pretty calm, mostly quiet, and compliant as long as she is feeling loved and appreciated.  If that feeling of love becomes threatened in any way, she quickly turns on you and the level of drama rises to unprecedented levels.  She has a keen memory and will resurface ever single parenting failure since her birth.  The only solution is to coerce her into her room for a time of reflection, which mostly ends peacefully.  During her time she always writes a terribly misspelled, but beautifully printed note with backwards b’s and d’s, then slips it under her door.  They typically go something like this:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

Im not lovd.  Im a crubby kid.  Im going to run away.  You won’t need my anymor decase everyone hates me.  Im not sorry.  You will be happy when Im not here.

Your Crubby Kid

We don’t turn these mishaps and twisted sentiments into an episode of the Waltons.  Fuzzy-feeling music doesn’t play while we shed tears over our daughter’s hurting heart.  We mostly fold up the letter, put it on the table, and wait for her to come to her senses.  It doesn’t take too long.  Eventually we hear a sweet, transformed voice at the top of the stairs.  “Mommy, I’m sorry.  Can I come down now?”  We give her a hug.  We say, “I love you.”  We talk about the problem, what was learned, and life goes on.  I always save her little notes of despair, placing them into the desk drawer to use for future spelling and grammar lessons.  They do come in handy.

Most conflicts with my middle child arise from schoolwork.  She isn’t necessarily lazy; she’s a dawdler.  She isn’t stupid; she daydreams and loses focus if something doesn’t interest her.  This year we chose to use a unit studies, literature-based curriculum, which works out beautifully if she is interested in the particular concept we are studying, but if she isn’t interested, it’s easily the most miserable three weeks of my life – much more miserable than the miserable time before that one…or the one before that one…or the one before that one.  But all in all, we have had some really great weeks where she has been engaged and excited to learn.  We are learning together.  For example, the most important lesson I have learned thus far is that we will never pursue a full-curriculum of unit studies ever again.

In all seriousness, homeschooling is a daunting task to take on, but there are so many good moments that surprisingly make the bad moments seem like tiny little mishaps not worth much consideration.  In between some bad hours, or bad days, we have a really good time together.  I am getting to know my kids in an intimate way instead of merely rushing them off from place to place to place.  I know what they love and what they don’t; what bores them to death and what makes them come alive; what their desires are for themselves and roads they wish not to go down; their fears and their curiosities.

Next year will be a hard pill to swallow in some ways and a huge relief in others.  Our oldest child will be entering the 6th grade – middle school.  Elementary school is fairly simple.  With good lesson plans, a schedule, frequently refreshed art materials, a stack of books, paper, and a strong math curriculum, it’s pretty impossible to screw things up.  In these early years, it is important to build a strong foundation, and there are some benefits to homeschooling that heavily outweigh the drawbacks.  Homeschooled children have more time to spend investigating their surroundings, moving at their own pace, and not having to worry about preparing for a battery of tests to measure their teacher, school, district, and state.  They have insurmountable freedoms that even the most prestigious private school can’t provide.  They have the freedom to just be who they are without any outside pressures to perform according to someone else’s standards.  There’s a certain peace about a young school-aged child who can sleep in in the morning, wake slowly, take the time to eat a healthy breakfast, and dress themselves.  They can take a few moments to read their latest library books before diving into their schoolwork for the day, and if it takes an hour to do math one day and fifteen minutes to do it the next, that’s OK, as long as the child is learning, engaged, and making progress.

While I have a child coming into kindergarten next year and look forward to her possibly entering our homeschool (this is a decision that is still very much up in the air), I have my oldest child who will be moving outside of it.  We have had to play the system with elementary school, trying different avenues and doing whatever worked best at the moment, which has more-or-less been a method of survival for educating a gifted child on a budget.  While I love the fact that she has been able to develop into her own unique person outside of the social stigmas most other children have to grow up within, I know that the time is drawing near that she needs to start preparing for more – a life that does rely heavily on schedules, tests, and meeting the expectations of a teacher who didn’t give birth to her.  Eventually we want her to successfully attend high school and then college, which seems absurd to think about with a 5th grader, but time moves quickly.  The lessons she is learning now will impact her for a lifetime.  There is a nervousness about wanting to keep her little, pure, and innocent to a world that moves too fast and expects too much, but it’s a reality that we can’t ignore.  We have to give her the opportunity to adjust and grow into it before she leaves our home for good some day, while she is still under our roof, care, and watchful eye.

For our middle child, she still has at least two years left with me, next year homeschooling alongside a younger sibling, and having the opportunity to be the big kid in the household for eight hours a day.  Her needs are a little different than our oldest, and homeschooling has allowed me to grow in appreciation for the things she brings to the table that are completely unique to just her.  She communicates ideas on the peripheral, which gives me a heck of a time trying to ask her comprehension questions following a reading.  For example, the answer to a question a few days ago was “the park”, but instead of simply answering with that, she explained it in a huge, never-ending, breathless rambling of words that “the children went to the place where there are slides and there were swings and they got on the teeter-totter and we have one here where we feed the ducks and walk over the bridge”.  YES, BUT WHAT IS THAT THING CALLED for crying out loud! 

Reading with her has been a challenge since day one.  She came into it on her own and much more slowly than most other children, but nevertheless, she has gone in a single year from reading at a middle 2nd grade level to reading 5th grade level books.  And as time goes on, we evolve together when it comes to tactics that will make our school day run more smoothly.  We bounce ideas off of each other – things we can apply in the future that will help her to become more fully engaged with what she is learning.  This past weekend we were at Barnes and Noble, and I had done what I normally do when looking for books.  I will take the children with me to make my selections before taking them back into the children’s section where I sit at a table to review my books while they look through the toys and books that spark their interests.  Anne came up to me with a book about Martin Luther King.  She informed me that she doesn’t really like reading books with cartoon characters.  I asked, “What do you mean?  You don’t like books with illustrations on the front?”

“Well, no.  Not like that.  You know, the characters are drawn.”

Still puzzled, I looked at her, trying to figure out exactly what she was saying.  “You mean that you like books with photographs on the cover?”

“No.  Not like that.  I like books that are real.  I don’t like fiction books.”

“Oh!  You like nonfiction…like this book you’re holding.”

“Yep!”

She handed me the book.  I looked at the back cover, and while we hadn’t planned on the girls getting a new book this particular trip, I decided that I could spare $7 even though I was sure this book would sit on her shelf amongst the other books she had picked out and never finished.  I had come to the conclusion that this kid wasn’t destined to become an avid reader.  She loves math and science, but reading and writing are not her favorite subjects.  However, there are times when she will surprise me, and typically when I least expect it.  It will be like pulling teeth to get her to write a simple three sentence journal entry, but later in the day she will bring me a ten page well-written play.  She will complain over reading a simple book that is below grade-level, then will polish off a book three grade levels ahead with no problem.  Take the Martin Luther King book for instance.  We bought the book, she brought it home, and it sat on the kitchen counter for two days.  Last night she decided to crack it open and half an hour later brought the 100+ page book to me.  “Here, I finished this one, and tomorrow I am going to read the one I got in my stocking for Christmas about Marie Currie.”  And she did.  She woke up this morning and read the entire book in one sitting.

As we move through our last semester together, my oldest and my middle daughter homeschooling under my roof, I will try to take each day a step at a time.  While conflicts arise that get the best of me – I yell and throw fits like any good stressed-out mother with too much to do – I realize that the time we have now is a gift that I must embrace.  While one moment I can be crying that no one is getting along, a few moments later I can find joy in the laughter that comes from the girls being together at the kitchen table playing a board game.

There are so many materials out there when it comes to things like parenting and homeschooling, and often these materials all conflict with one another.  Do we let the baby cry it out, or do we pick him up to remind him that he is loved?  Do we send our child to school where they come home crying every single day, or do we bring them home into a productive environment?  Is it the right time to hold them back, or to let them spread their wings to see if they can fly?  The answers to these questions are as individual as each family…as each parent…as each child.  At the end of the day, it’s what makes us who we are, through the good times and the bad, through the things that draw us closer together and the annoyances that drive us to seek solitude under our own roof.  Nevertheless, at the center of everything…always…is family and home.  It’s a place where our children can come for as long as necessary to seek the tenderness they need to grow in their own right, but it is also the place they must eventually and carefully be guided away from so that they can step out into a world that is more harsh and less understanding, where they must learn to stand on their own two feet.  Time moves swiftly and our children are growing and changing so quickly from one season to the next.  No matter how much they drive me crazy one minute and melt my heart the next, and no matter how many times they make me reach my threshold which quickly turns me from a peaceful and understanding woman to a bawling, uncomposed mess the next, I will cherish this whole big, crazy idea of bringing my kids home when something didn’t quite work out, cracking open books at the dining room table instead of in a classroom.  I have none other to thank than my oldest who has driven me nuts with her self-absorbed and unquenched desire to learn quickly, my emotional and passionate middle child who uses an abundance of words to describe simple things, and my physically exuberant youngest who can take any single moment and turn it into a marathon.

Life is short.  Too short.  If we don’t take the time while our children are little to step off the grid, throw away the parenting books, and live life with purpose – teaching our children to do the same – we will miss out on the reward of living life with intention and we will miss out on the opportunity to learn about who our children truly are.  One day these little children will grow bigger, they will step out of our door, and God knows we will want to have given them plenty of reasons during all of that time we were gifted with them to make them want to keep coming back home.

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