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Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Speaking of removing external suggestion to allow your child’s authentic self to blossom, let’s talk toys.

I’ve been thinking about toys ever since the first ones started arriving in the mail, 3 months before the due date of my first child. When I was despairing the already accumulating stores of kid stuff, my mother-in-law said something to the effect of, “Oh, someday your whole house will be strewn with Fisher Price. And you know what? You’ll love it.”

Actually, almost five years in, I don’t love it. I love having my kids home with me, I love watching them explore the world and I adore watching the development of their independent play. Certainly, I have come to appreciate the relief and redirection of a well-timed gaudy plastic noisemaker, but overall I consider toys an entirely overdone pain in my ass.

a basket of questionably necessary toys, waiting to get dumped on the floor

Do kids need toys? I honestly don’t believe they do. Well, let me re-phase that. I don’t believe they need purchased items which were designed solely to be toys. In the dynamic environment of the DIY household, kids will make toys out of anything and everything. Often, even when there are myriad designated toys littering the floor, my kids will be running around playing with a piece of cardboard and a tin can.

That said, we have tons of toys. My Man is a sucker for making the kids squeal with glee, and that’s the bang you get for your new toy buck. Even I sometimes fall prey to thrifted plastic junk just to see those first 10 minutes of toylove. Doting grandparents have contributed a mighty pile as well. In our culture you have to be a hard-edged grinch not to accumulate toys.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone takes in more toys than their kids’ need. The question is what you do with them after that 10 minute honeymoon has worn off?

I used to keep all the toys, and right down at kid level. I hated that passive-aggressive mom trick of giving stuff to the Goodwill when no one was looking, and I figured what’s the point of having it if I keep it hidden away in a closet?

I still hate the covert Goodwill trick, but I have absolutely had to stoop to it. You can only pick up so many toys off of the floor, over and over and over and over again. I started by filling up boxes and keeping them in the closet. They weren’t permanently exiled, just saved for a rainy day. When I would take one down, the kids would have a guaranteed 15-20 minutes of blissful toy reunion. When the thrill wore off again, I would put the box back up. I highly recommend this.

Lots of good creative toys like Leggos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, etc drive me completely insane if left accessible to the kids, though that’s the way I did it for ages. It appears that my kids’ favorite game to play with anything in the ‘many small pieces all contained in a box’ category is dumping out the box. A top favorite with Leggos in particular (they make such a great big noise!) is to then swish your hands in the pile really fast so that the pieces fly out into a completely distributed 12 foot radius. I was beginning to really hate those cheerfully colored plastic blocks. Then I finally realized that if the pieces are scattered helter-skelter across the house, they can never play with it anyway and really what’s the point?

That’s when I started keeping the Leggos, and all those ‘many small pieces’ toys, up on a high shelf. The shelf is in our girl’s room, and open to view but too high for little people to reach. We take the box down once every few weeks and, miraculously, our relationship with Leggos has been remade. Not being a part of their daily landscape, the kids see them in a new light. They appreciate them more for what they were actually made for—building stuff. And I happily learned that cleaning up Leggos as soon as their play session had dissolved (don’t wait too long, a stitch in time saves nine!) is easily done with a dustpan.

Puzzles are my pet peeve. For some reason puzzles are considered unanimously desirable. People were giving us puzzles before our first was even born. They’re made out of wood and educational, right? Surely us greenie NPR hippies would like them. Every kid play space that’s worth anything has a whole stack of puzzles. And what do kids under the age of 3 do with a stack of puzzles? Systematically dump each one out on the floor and then immediately lose interest so that you, the adult, has to put them all back together.

I’m 34 years old, I don’t want to spend my time putting together motherfucking farm animal puzzles.

There’s nothing inherently evil about puzzles, but they need adult supervision. If given one puzzle at a time, some 2yos will maintain the focus and desire it takes to put it together. By 3 they are starting to have a real interest, but I still don’t see the point of owning puzzles because once a kid has done the same puzzle 5 or 6 times, they are done. Understandably, they have mastered it and want to move on. Many good libraries have puzzles to lend, if your kid likes them.

My other pet peeve is single use toys. Things which have only one way to play with. In a great decluttering post recently Kyce mentioned having given ‘play food’ the boot, and I’m with her all the way. My girl was always very good at disregarding whatever the intended use was and just using any toy as a prop for her self-created play, but then why bother with those specific toys in the first place? Our kid kitchen has been through several reincarnations over time, but lately it’s come down to just a small stainless steel mixing bowl, a small skillet—both thrifted—a kid sized rolling pin, a collection of animal shaped cutters, and a big tub of homemade playdough.

So, I hate puzzles and play food, and can barely tolerate Leggos. What toys do I like?

I like the toys that I see the kids actually play with (not just dump on the floor) the most often, and the ones that require no parental assistance or supervision. Here’s a list of my favorites:

Figurines— both animals and people, they use these every day. Our boy will also use trains and trucks like figurines, carrying them around and treating them like animate objects.

Building sets—as much as they can get on my nerves, I do like the way they work kids’ brains. Like a puzzle that you design yourself. My Man got a wonderful set of magnetic building pieces, flat squares and triangles with magnetic edges, that have become one of my favorite purchased toys of all time. Babies love them because of the satisfying way that they click together and will just hold two of them clicking together and apart for quite some time. As they get older they can use them in ever-more complex ways, starting with flat, floor based patterns and building up to awesome 3D structures. They are also easy to clean up because they click right together.

Collecting and carrying devices—I’ve recently realized that not all kids are like this, but our girl adores anything she can put other things into. Bags, boxes, basket, buckets. As long as it has a handle. She puts together a seemingly random assortment of items and then carries it around. This was one of the first ways that I remember her playing, and she still does it all the time. I don’t really understand what she’s doing, but I understand that she likes it.

Playdough—we make our own so we never have to get our panties in a bunch about mixing the colors or leaving the lid off. When it’s all brown or dried out we just make up a new batch.

want to kick it up a notch? i have one word for you: glitter. glitter and playdough were made for each other, i just can't believe that it took me two years of playdough making to figure that out.

Art supplies—I keep the bulk of our art supplies in a closet. We break out the paints maybe once every couple of weeks. I buy big bottles of blue, red, yellow and white and then use a Styrofoam egg carton to mix up more colors. Crayons have never taken off at our house, colored pencils are tolerated, but pens and markers are the clear favorites. Since the 4yo learned how to control a pen, she has become quite prolific and so I leave the basic drawing stuff out for constant access. The house is scattered with little notebooks and random scraps of paper. It’s really awesome to see what she draws with her budding skills. I also have to put in a little plug for scissors. We got our girl a pair before she was even two. If you get the kid-safe kind, with the chunky rounded ends, there’s not too much damage they can do, and they just love cutting things up! I think it must give them a real sense of power to make a big piece of paper into lots of little pieces.

Kids’ Table—this is perhaps a given, but not to be underestimated. We have built up over time to one in each room!

Hidey Hole—some kind of tent, playhouse or kid sized space is almost always a win. We used to have a plain sheet stapled at the top to the wall and held out at the bottom by the edge of a bookshelf. They loved it. Then last Christmas I got them an Invent a Tent and although I’m not that happy about how well it’s held up, it has gotten lots of use and love. I guess a few broken pieces are to be expected.

the invent a tent configured as a bow picker (fishing boat)

Rocking Horse—our girl adored her big plush rocking horse when she was 2, it was one of those expensive items I would never have bought, but My Man splurged on it and time proved it’s worth. I got a cheaper one down here for the boy’s second birthday, but he hasn’t given it the time of day…

Now what about toys that aren’t toys? In some ways, there’s no point listing them, if you give your kids access to the (safe parts of) the household, they will pick out their own favorites. But I do find it’s good to remind myself just how much fun kids have with these most simple household items:

  • string, buy several rolls at once so you won’t have to be stingy
  • rope
  • tape, I have a friend who bought a case of cheap tape for her daughter’s birthday
  • kitchenware (our bottom cabinets get unloaded all the time)
  • laundry baskets
  • recycling (plastic bottles, etc)
  • cardboard boxes
  • coins

she played with this cooling rack on a string for at least 20 minutes

And what about the outside world? Oh my, that is another topic altogether! But I simply cannot leave the humble ‘stick’ out of this post. I heard it was finally given a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. Not to mention leaves for stomping and piling! Trees for climbing! Rocks, sand and water! All absolutely irresistible to kids of all ages, and not to be underestimated.

So, you’re convinced. Kids don’t need toys, certainly not near so many as we give them. But what to do about it? Can you actually get rid of them? Won’t someone call child protective services?

The first time I went on a major decluttering spree, I felt guilty. I worried. I kept all the toys I gleaned in a box in the closet in case anyone asked after them. Each time I’ve grown bolder, taking more and more toys away with each sweep. I keep watching to see if I’ll hit up against a wall where the kids don’t have enough left and get restless.

Nope.

The 4yo does occasionally ask for a toy that’s been boxed, and I happily drag it out for her. Once in a while she wants something that I’ve given away. But, for the most part, out of sight = out of mind.

Even with all of my decluttering binges, I still feel like we have way too many toys. I still think kids should (and would) be happy with just a stick, a bucket and piece of rope. But we aren’t living squirreled away in a log cabin in the Alaskan bush, we are quite firmly seated in the modern world. Toys are everywhere, and I only have so much say over the running of our household (25% of the vote if we are being fair) so I try to let it go.

Let it go, clean up the mess, and hide whatever I can get away with.

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Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

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As you know, I finished my small but satisfying zine recently. Despite it’s slender finished appearance I spent many, many hours writing and thinking about it. The subject, you may remember, is Getting Shit Done (With Kids). To clarify, the shit I’m referring to is all the same ‘sustainable home’ shit that I generally write and obsess about. Growing some of your own food, responsibly sourcing the rest, cooking everything at home, consuming a minimum of our world’s resources, finding the smaller and simpler pleasures in life– all in the context of homemaking.

After finally getting the zine all laid out, I spent a few hours at Kinkos printing it (it always takes hours, even when I think it will only take 30 minutes.) While I stood there at my personally designated copier with a 3 foot square of countertop to lay out my piles of pages, I felt myself and my work laid naked before the world. There it was for any passerby to glance at– the Apron Stringz cover page. What at home had seemed clever and spunky suddenly seemed trivial and indulgent. Embarrassing. I felt a tiny crash in my heart.

I’m so excited? I wrote a zine about being a housewife?

Here, in this corner of cyberspace, we are together. All of us strange people who value home work. We come here to remind each other that we are important, to take shelter in one another. But out in the big world, people still think housewifery is for women who can’t get a job. People don’t understand what we might be doing all day, at home, and even if we explained what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why. Why go to so much trouble to make something you can buy at the store for $1.99?

As much as I want to believe that I am this strident renegade who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks, it’s not true. Of course I care, everyone worth anything does. It’s destructive and beautiful, but absolutely human– our pack mentality, our sensitivity to others.

So I go along, carrying my secret work in my heart, brandishing my beliefs occasionally in public too loudly and with too much passion. Confusing well meaning relatives, alienating myself and consequently those who try to be close to me. It’s a hard row to hoe, and I would be lying if I claimed to never have had a breach of faith.

Having kids is hard work. You know. Unbelievably, previously unimaginably hard work. Sometimes I find myself wondering why on earth I try to do anything else. Why do I spend so much time and energy with this whole punk housewife thing? Is it really so important? Isn’t the “revolutionary” tagline in my header just tongue-in-cheek? Who do I think I am that what I do matters so very much. What precociousness!

My lonesome Kinkos moment was just me, out in the real world. Remembering that I am a freak. Questioning my self, my motives, my outcomes. Not feeling at all sure of the answers.

It was somehow much easier to keep a grip on the import of my ‘work’ when we lived in Alaska. My daily activities just seemed more revolutionary– even after having a kid reduced my efforts to the household realm, at least I was making stock out of deer bones. We drank wild salmonberry juice and picked chantrelles out of the mossy forest. Whenever I needed a good jolt of ‘why’ I had the big wild mountain right there out the window.

Here in the city, the sustainable lifestyle looks less radical. I make my stock out of plain old chicken, even if it is from the farmer’s market. We buy organic juice concentrate from Whole Foods, and locally grown shitakes that come in a plastic box. Is this revolution? Really?

Maybe not revolution exactly, but inglorious though it may be, this work needs to be done. Figuring out how to live happily in a thriving wilderness ecosystem will not save humanity at this point (though it well might be our salvation in the future). Right now we need to figure out how to sustainably keep large populations happy and healthy in cities where their concentration is most efficient, we need to come down off of the drug of convenience slowly and explore the genuine possibility of change. There is much work to be done to turn cities and urban homes into sustainable working systems, and it is helpful to have someone actually in the home to do the work.

Wendell Berry is, arguably, the grandfather of the now very fashionable ‘local’ movement. He writes about farming primarily, about staying in place and owning up to land use, but he always honors the home itself as the nucleus of everything. His monumental book, The Unsettling of America was the first place I ever read the word housewife used without malice. It is obvious that he reveres the traditional rural housewife, but– perhaps because he himself is the farmer and not the farmer’s wife– he doesn’t focus much on the role.

Wendell and the local food movement broke ground, but Shannon Hayes was the first public voice I heard with the balls to say, without mincing any words, that choosing not to have a paying job, and instead staying home to care for yourself and your family is radical political action and will effect significant change, change that we desperately need.

Shannon’s book Radical Homemakers, gave us some real meat to chew, a fat gleam of pride. But like Wendell, she lives rurally. Although some of the people in her book live in the city, the overall effect is the feeling that if you’re going to quit your job, you’d better move to the country and start raising your own grass-fed beef.

Then came Harriet Fasenfest with The Householder’s Guide to the Universe. Dramatically less academic and achingly more intimate, Harriet lays out her own struggle to turn the farmer’s ethic of thrifty, hard working, conscientious living into an urban reality. She uses the genderless word ‘householder’ to describe this more tightly focused work. Harriet started right where she was, with what she had, and there is great inspiration in that. But Harriet’s kids are mostly grown and she has has been able to give incredible energy to the task.

I feel that there is a great untapped labor force– people like me, and maybe you– stuck in the city, partner working full time, little kids providing the greatest motivation for positive change that mankind has ever known and simultaneously carving our time and energy down to within an inch of it’s life. We can’t get anything very big and impressive done, but there are so many of us. Our actions might be small, but our potential is big.

This post is not meant to be a declaration, an imperative or a manifesto. Purely an explanation, to myself above all. Because, although it is absolutely true that I do what I do because I love doing it, it’s also true that I often don’t love it at all. Sometimes it’s a downright shit job, a literal shit job, and I do it anyway (mostly). DIY punk housewifery as described herein is dirty, tedious, time consuming and, after the inital high of aquiring the skills, often flat out boring. Today I need to remind myself, and any of you who haven’t had a good pep talk lately, why we do this thing.

Let’s be frank.

I believe the world is fucked up. We have ravaged the wilderness into near oblivion, sucked the life out of every arable piece of land, bombed and enslaved our fellow humans, all in order to provide for our extremely decadent first-world lifestyle. I know I can’t change things to any significant degree, but neither can I turn aside and pretend I haven’t noticed. I cannot, in good conscience and healthy mental condition, proceed at full speed. Over time I have accepted that I can’t and don’t want to withdraw from my countrymen into the wilderness. In fact, since having kids I find that I am drawn more and more back from the fray. I am guilty of participation at every level, but I cannot reconcile a life that does not at least try for something better. If I am weary with effort, I will know I am doing what I can do.

And here’s what I can do.

If I believe that massive-scale agriculture is defiling our land, and corporate food products are defiling our bodies, I can base our diet instead on whole foods from local farms.

If I believe that using fossil fuels supports global bullying and violence, not to mention environmental degradation, I can make the time to walk and bike whenever possible.

If I believe that the immense resources sucked down and shit out for every piece of plastic crap we think we deserve is inexcusable, I can mend broken things, reuse materials, buy second hand, do without.

But you know damn well those choices are not so simple, and that is where the skill and craft and countless hours of housewifery become meaningful. After the romance of changing the world has subsided, it all comes down to the number of hours in a day and the number of dollars in your bank account. In case you’ve never been to a farmer’s market let me tell you that local, sustainable food is enormously more expensive. If I want to be able to afford the luxury of responsible purchases, I need to defray costs by cooking everything from scratch. Creativity in the kitchen is worth money– stretching that costly ethical meat by picking every last shred off of last night’s roast chicken and cooking the bones into stock; planning ahead for variety and convenience so that we are less tempted by the many corporate foods surrounding us on a daily basis; and ‘adding value’ at home by making our own jams, yogurt, granola, and bread.

Although cooking tends to monopolize my own housewifery, cleaning up after everything is a law, like gravity. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. The infinitely humble task of washing dishes is radical political action, because after cooking your ethically and sustainably raised chicken into stock to make a second or third meal out of it so that you can afford to keep supporting that righteous local farmer, there is a pile of greasy dishes to be done. If a=b and b=c, than a=c. In other realms, it doesn’t take very complicated math to realize that eschewing 2-3 years’ worth of disposable diapers, per kid, has radical environmental impact.

And if you want to quit your job so that you can be home to do all this radical chicken cooking and diaper washing that means that you probably can’t afford day care for your filthy little angels, which means you will be involved in the now political act of picking up the floor on a more or less continuous basis.

Welcome to my world.

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The 95%

Hey there friends,

I didn’t mean to alarm anyone. I’m doing fine, really. My thing on this blog has been to really bust out the shit that everyone feels and no one says. I give it to you straight. But since we are not together in real life, you don’t get to see the whole picture, just whatever extreme words I offer up on a given day.

Those words were all true, but only one piece of a big whole. You know how the acute emotionality of pms can make true things unbearable, wash away the good stuff and leave you just wallowing? The pain is real– the depression, disappointment, disillusionment is every bit true– but the enormity of it is false. That’s how it goes in the low times for me, be they hormonal or not. My heart takes out the little slivers that have been rubbing wrong in my otherwise very satisfactory life, and climbs into that raw hole, surrounded complete. The 95% goodness of life falls away and the 5% misery engulfs.

When I wrote that last post, I was actually already moving up, out of my hole. I can’t write from down in there in fact. I’ve tried a few times, it’s shit. But I needed to process it before it receeded, and also… I want to give you all the pieces of this weird gig, including the times I hate the job and doubt myself. I feel like that is an essential part of championing motherhood and housewifery– being honest about the whole goddamn thing. Ugly bits and all. If only we all knew how much we all struggle with life! Then maybe we wouldn’t have this ridiculous expectation for bliss and perfection that is really in fact the root of my particular turmoil. Nobody needs help to get through the happy times.

So, yes. I struggle. I get through. I keep on. As one commenter said about her own experience of motherhood, many years past, “I fell down got up fell down got up fell down got up and they were raised.” Amen to that sister.

I do feel like this last fall is a big, important one. A turning point maybe. The fact that my life is only 5% misery, the fact that bliss and perfection are mirages, doesn’t mean we should disregard that intensified emotion of hard times. I think of those times as lenses into an otherwise hidden world within myself. Not very fun to look at, but too important not to look at. Those emotional lows are my truthing points, and I’d better buck up and take heed.

Although life is complicated, and I can’t expect to fulfill my wildly high expectations, I do need to stop shelving myself and my goals. It’s not helpful to anyone. It’s the same old martyr bullshit that I am always fighting.

But. Let’s get on to that 95%, eh? That last post was written, not coincidentally, at the beginning of my true break. Christmas done, mother gone, flu averted and My Man still has another week before school starts. It’s just the sort of miracle I needed. I have had a few afternoons to myself already, and this morning begins a pre-arranged two whole days of bonafide vacation from mothering. Morning till night, two days in a row. All me.

It feels almost sinfully decadent. No, in fact it feels fully sinfully decadent. I had to force myself to take it since after my few afternoons I was already feeling so much better. Good thing I asked ahead for this weeks ago, locking myself in.

This morning, in the wee hours of dawn I crept out of bed. Alone! I quietly pulled on my clothes, packed a bag with entirely grownup things like books and computer, and stole outside. Sunday morning, no one out except the paper man. I rode my bike, no trailer attached, to the bakery and sat quietly ruminating over coffee and croissant. I have a sushi date with two dear friends for lunch, and the rest of the day deliciously empty.

And tomorrow too? My lord, what will I do with all this time?

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I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a fraud.

Lately, for months now, I just don’t feel like being a mama. My kids, my darling beautiful firecrackers, just seem like so much trouble. I have no patience for them whatsoever, everything short of perfect angels pisses me off.

At first I thought it was just because of our big scare, then because we were emotionally recovering, then because My Man’s finals were upon us, then again because we were recovering from those finals. But now he’s been out of school for two weeks, we’ve lazed around and taken it plenty easy, and I am not bouncing back. Some days even their angelic-ness pisses me off. There was one afternoon, frosting Christmas cookies with my girl, the 2yo napping so that she and I could delve deep into our creative task. It should have been a triumphal moment. Hallmark material. But she kept making these little happy noises and I couldn’t concentrate for want of some goddamned quiet.

That’s when I knew something was deeply wrong.

When one has a regular job, there are days, sometimes weeks at a time when you hate your job, when you just don’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. So you call in “sick” or take a vacation, sometimes you go to work anyway with a bad attitude. Eventually there is the big flat wall of burnout, when you’re heart goes out of it and the job becomes a drudge. It occurred to me that I have never kept a full time job for more than 6 months consecutively. I don’t like doing the same thing every day, day after day. I never have, and pre-kids I had structured my life so that I didn’t have to.

Now here I am, 4.5 years into the same job, no vacations to date, going to work anyway with my bad attitude. And let me tell you in case you haven’t been here yourself, it feels like shit to hate your job when your job is taking care of your babies. It feels like shit.

You know I have struggled all along to embrace this mothering gig. I go in and out of good times and bad, as do we all I’m sure. But lately… lately…

It’s not that I don’t believe everything I’ve said here, I do. Mothering is heady, important, pivotal work, we should feel proud, hold our heads high, regardless the lack of any other product for our days. We are raising the next generation, giving them the values and skills that we believe matter. It’s not just okay to stay home with our kids, it’s goddamned beautiful!

As chronicled here on this blog, I submitted myself to my work, I let go all my grandiose ideas for how my life was going to be. It was hard, breaking even, but I think I actually did manage for awhile. Submission served me well during that hardest year in my life, when surrender equalled survival. I survived.

But as much as I have tried to release myself from the cultural expectation of productivity, of ‘greatness,’ I have not at all succeeded. I am beginning to admit to myself that yes in fact, selfish or not, I do want to do something big in the world. I do want to make my little mark and be recognized for my accomplishments. I am beginning to suspect that maybe, for me at least, trying to jam that desire back down and down and down again is simply not going to work. Compression can be explosive.

The explosion came last week. My Man mentioned the possibility of working for his dad in August. It sounds harmless enough, right? If I weren’t such a spoiled twat I would be thankful that we have this incredible safety net, cushioning our re-entry into a world of doubtful income. But instead, I completely lost it.

To understand you’ll need some background, and I’m sorry to say I have to go way, way back. Before Children.

Before we had kids, the idea was that we would split the parenting. As much as I champion staying home with your kids, I never in fact wanted or intended to be the full-time parent. Splitting it down the middle seems so brilliantly perfect to me, each parent getting what seems like just the right amount of time with their kids, and just the right amount of time to invest in grownup endeavors. We are both very driven people. My Man wanted to stop industrial progress via legal monkey-wrenching, and I wanted to figure out how to live as much as possible independent of that industrial system– a perfect team.

But dear god, we thought we could do all that and have kids? Of course we had no idea how much time and energy kids would take. The split parenting would work if we were both just righteously kicking ass in those kid-less hours, but then who’s gonna pay the bills? Someone has to get an at least moderately real job, and splitting the job force just doesn’t often work in the real world. Jobs are not generally constructed to be done part time. So we fell, like most couples, right along the gender lines. Man bringing home the bacon, Woman cooking it, feeding it to the little mouths and cleaning up afterwards. It was not how I’d imagined it, but life never is.

Then it became apparent that My Man needed to go to law school in order to continue fighting his Good Fight. I saw that he was restless and dissatisfied with his limitations, I knew that becoming a lawyer would allow him to kick a lot more ass, and ideally put a bit more bacon on our table than the non-profit he had been working for. I knew that as far as kids and families go, the sooner we got the job done the better, so I said yes. Let’s leave for three years.

Our first 4 or 5 months here in New Orleans were rough for me. I was hugely pregnant and toting a two year old through heat like I had never even conceived of, My Man gone all day learning exciting new things. I had not a friend to speak of, no mountains, no forests, no gill nets, rifles, berry buckets, no chest freezers or stacks of firewood. Everything I had worked toward with my life in Alaska completely irrelevant to this one.

We had been planning to go back home in the summers, so that I could work and get a break from the parenting and My Man could be with the kids more. First hitch was the oil spill here in the Gulf, providing an opportunity for My Man to put everything he had worked for, both in school and before, to good use. But, in retrospect I see that going home for the summers was an unrealistic plan in the first place. Three plane tickets per summer, averaging almost $1,000 each. The logistics of subletting our house here and finding a place to stay up there. Just a big fat money-sucking endeavor, all for the sake of some mountains?

So. We stayed. And I had my next big crisis, seeing the realities of life and money and kids collide, the slow receding of my lofty dreams.

But I met a friend, a kindred; and then over time even a small handful of them. I began to feel at home. I rerouted my towering ambitions to the smaller scape of the household, made a little garden, got cozy with the farmers market, discovered a latent passion for writing.

I faced myself, squared my shoulders, and kept at it. The kids grew up a bit and I gained a little of that blessed distance perspective, remembering that this too shall pass.

I looked forward to the time when we would return to Alaska, my familiar things all laying in wait for my return. My pressure canner, my fertile garden beds, my hunting rifles, my chest freezer and 14 dozen canning jars– all my dormant skills tingling with anticipation. We would go back in May, but My Man would need to study for the Bar, and wouldn’t really be free until late July. Then– then! He would be ready for a break, we could split the parenting for a month or two while I played with myself.

I am very good, disturbingly good, at accepting just about anything so long as I am given time to prepare my mind for it, and an end date to hold out for. Outwardly I might seem perfectly adjusted, but inside myself I hold on to that end date with a frightening tenacity. If it’s taken away, or some relief that I had counted on falls through, I go ballistic.

And so it was that when My Man mentioned casually that maybe we could all go to Spokane in August and he could work for his dad for a month, I had a breakdown of epic proportions. All four years of putting myself on the shelf for later roared to life and I became quite an unrecognizable blur of enraged weeping.

He was blindsided. We need the money and almost more importantly, he needs the health insurance. Our other option is a patchwork of self-employment and part-times, paying out seperately whatever ridiculous insurance premium they charge for a cancer survivor. His dad (also a lawyer) truly needs the help, and after a month in Spokane he could work long-distance from Cordova and continue to get the insurance coverage until he muddled out his own work situation. It made perfect sense. He suspected I might not like it, but thought he’d just test the waters and see how I felt.

I felt like the rug had been ripped out from under me and the world was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been chewed up by this growling, frothing motherhood beast which had, at long last, spit me out the other end. Stunned, confused, bloody.

Which brings me finally to my point, dear patient reader. If I am that conflicted inside, if I am holding myself so violently hostage that just the mention of an idea like that throws me into utter oblivion, isn’t something wrong?

As it always goes, this was just the pus rupture of a big fat long-infected wound. I have been feeling a growing concern that I’m actually not suited to being this awesome rock-the-home mother that I write so radiantly about. I want to be that mother, I really do, and for a long time I tried. But maybe I am just not cut out for it. Maybe I would be a better mother if I put the little guy in day care.

I hope you know that I am not opposed to day care. I have always felt that every family must work these issues out for itself. I do believe that, all else being equal, having mom or dad nearby for the majority of the early years is probably better, but I have never been so shortsighted to think that all else is ever equal. Life is nothing if not uproariously complicated. All financial factors aside, mom and dad are no good to anyone if they’re not happy and healthy, more or less. If day care and the real live grown up job it allows preserve some sanity and joy in the home, then I say hell yeah!

But here’s my particular quandry– I don’t want to leave the home to go work at a job. My thing, what I want to do with my hours, doesn’t make money. It might keep a bit of money in our pockets at the supermarket, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that the direct savings are nothing to write home about. It increases our quality of life, which of course cannot be valued and I never cared to try before. But now that we have a family and all the bills inherent in our (modest!) lifestyle, our days have come down to a tally of hours. For every hour that I wish to be able to weed the garden or can strawberries without the constant interruption of spill wiping, leg hanging and fight breaking up that whittles 60 minutes down to six, My Man must give up an hour of work. Or, alternatively, I put my kid in day care and essentially pay $10/hour to weed my garden?!?!?! What the fuck?

I know that in two more years, the little guy will start kindergarten and I will have 2 or 3 hours a day to do my thing, even more the following year. I know that my kids are growing up, and fast, and before I know it they won’t even want to be around me. I’ll have buckets of time on my hands.

And maybe that’s what this is all about after all. Some wiser, if a bit premature, part of myself preparing for the time when my babies will need me to step back and give them space. Maybe this is some kind of protective measure– me chomping at the bit so that when they open their doors to boot me out, I’ll already know where I’m going.

Or maybe I really am just tired, still recovering from one hell of a few months. Our two week “break” so far has included Christmas, a 12 day mother visit, and now the flu. Last night before bed, as I surveyed the wreckage of our unusually filthy house with dismay, My Man said hopefully that maybe tomorrow we’d both feel better and we could really get on with our supposed break. I gave an exhausted sigh, “Yeah. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll take over the world.”

“No,” he said brightly. “You will take over the world. I’ll watch the kids.”

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Screentime Again, Again

A friend sent the link to this excellent post, Why I Don’t Worry About my Kids’ Screen Time, on my own personal new favorite screentimesink, Camp Creek Blog.

I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase. Except here’s a brilliant little quote,

“Childhood: You’re doing it wrong.”

(Whosoever gets the reference in the title of this post winds my undying affection)

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It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee, quiet in a sleeping house, writing.

A few short month ago, I would have killed to get my little guy to sleep past 6:45 on a regular basis. Now he sleeps until 7 or 7:30 reliably, occasionally even later. Am I busy praising the stars and relishing my newfound extra sleep and more frequent mornings alone? No. This morning I didn’t get myself up till 7:30 and didn’t get myself coffeed till almost 8, so I’m busy wishing he’d sleep till goddamn 8:45.

And take a nap at 1, thank you very much.

When this mothering job gets really rough, kindly friends remind me that it gets easier as time goes on. But when things are looking up, and I gaze hopefully into the future for a time when things will be even better, those same friends soberly lead me back and say, ‘It doesn’t get easier, really. It just gets… different.’

What the hell? What does it get? Easier or not easier? Get your story straight.

I know kids (and parents) are all quite individual. Not all babies are as high maintenance as mine were. Some apparently sleep. Not all two year olds have daily 30 minute screaming sessions. Not all mothers need time and space for themselves as strangulously as I. Perhaps we, as a family, stir right up into an explosive younger-years cocktail.

Nevertheless I’m pretty sure that, apart from that long span of teenage years too far in my future to contemplate, when people say parenting doesn’t get easier, they are on crack. Parents of the 4-12 set have just plain forgotten what babies and toddlers are like. They have forgotten sleeping a total of 6 hours/night in no more than 90 minute segments and then waking up to a fussy baby and two shitty diapers before coffee. They have forgotten trying to control one child’s screaming fit in public with the other child strapped onto their body. They are under the spell of biological amnesia that allows our species to keep reproducing. I for one am writing this all down, so that I can never blithely tell a mother of a 2yo and newborn that what she is going through is not the very depths of what humans are capable of.

Fear not sweet mama, wherever you are, it does get easier. If you feel completely insane right now, at the very bottom of your barrel, it’s because you are. Things can only look up. Kids grow. It’s really true.

But.

I’m sorry to say, there is a catch. I have come just far enough now to see what it is.

Consider how you have stretched slowly over the years since your very first morning sickness. Things you never thought yourself capable of doing are now old hat. Motherhood is a million times harder than you ever could have conceived of. And yet, simultaneously, you are a million times stronger. You keep thinking ‘fuck me, it can’t get any harder’ and then it does! You keep thinking ‘I can’t hold out any longer’ and then you do! You keep thinking you are at the absolute bitter end of your frayed rope, but your rope keeps stretching.

Which is brave and wonderful and human. I remember one night, washing the dishes at 9:30 pm, after one of those insane days, thinking– I am a demigod. I will never be conquered again. I am now accustomed to working 15 hour days, on 6 hours of disjointed sleep, doing the hardest work of my life. When the impossible-ness of this job subsides, I’ll have the energy and the self-discipline to accomplish anything. The world will be at my feet.

The catch is– that stretchy rope? It shrinks too. It’s a goddamned bungee cord.

It gets easier, yes, but it doesn’t feel easier. When things ease up, I notice the change and appreciate it intellectually, but I still feel like I’m at the end of my rope, every day. I have to hang out with friends in the real crazy year (newborn + 2yo) to remind myself. Oh yeah, my life is hard right now. Plenty hard. But it’s possible. And immediately after that humbling thought, I go back to being mad that my now 2yo didn’t sleep till 8:45.

Maybe I’m just an ungrateful bitch. Maybe, as every little bit of new space opens up, I try to add in too many things. Keeping the house cleaner. Cooking extra for My Man. Writing more. Rioting in my spare time. Maybe it’s just that old ad-borne cultural expectation that we deserve to have it all.

Whatever it is, the outcome is that although it does get easier, it also doesn’t. You won’t have to wake up 6 times a night and then for good at 5:45 to a poopy diaper, you won’t have to strap on a 19 pound weight so that you can finally get the dishes done, you won’t have to listen to hours a day of full-bore screaming. You will be able to calm everyone down by reading a book sometimes, you will be able to leave the room for more than 10 minutes without catastrophe or injury ensuing, the kids will (not always, but often) begin to earnestly and happily play together.

But you will forget the harder times almost immediately, as your body prepares you to continue propogating the species. You will (if you are anything like me) suck down your newfound freedoms and instead of being sated, just want moremoremore. You will wake up one morning in your own bed at 7:30 and wonder honestly if it was all a bizarre dream. You still feel like you are operating at maximum. With a full 8 hours of sleep and 30 minutes of quiet morning, you still feel sparely armored for a day of what still feels like crazy hard work.

All you will have to remind yourself of those farther distances reached are the stretch marks.

You are a demigod.

Related post: The Glory Days

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