Thursday, September 1, 2016

Just what he needed

Do you know who's thriving at home so far? My three-year-old. He potty trained and having a potty available to use as necessary is what did it. He naps as he needs, just goes and tucks himself in and then comes out when he's awake and ready to come out. He spent close to an hour every day painting with watercolor. I just need to get him water and close the door to the sunroom. He has been painting sheet after sheet, mixing colors, using different brushes, making up stories about his creations. Then he cuts them up, tapes them, modifies them further.

He has been playing with Cliks: building swords and guns of all kinds, imagining things, creating whole worlds. He is all about weapons and shooting and fighting, yet he's extremely mellow to his younger sister. This is a healthy release of aggression.

He made a cockroach
He has been playing with his older sister non-stop. I often end up breaking up their play to get her to do her schoolwork. He sidles up with his Costco book, and he does his "math"; he just circles what he likes on every page. He recognizes a few letters. Last year in Montessori he supposedly knew him all. Now I can see that not everything has stuck, but it's ok, because he is only three and I want him to think that what he's doing right now, all this painting and building, is what's important.

We've been to the zoo and aquarium and he loves the ocean pop-up book. He keeps asking to go back. He wants to go to the park or hike trails. He often tramps around outside our large yard, digging in the dirt, finding bugs and other treasures. He rides his trike down the path full speed.
At the zoo

Childhood is short. Childhood can also be easy and not require much. I forgot how much I love this stage, when they are old enough to talk and say the darnest things (Mommy, can I help you make coffee cause I Love you). They are still little, but they can already do things for themselves. They do not have an attitude yet, but the personality is there. I am pleased to have this child back at home with me.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An update

We were supposed to move, to a bigger house, in another neighborhood. I spent most of the summer packing, decluttering, and dealing with all the things that come with buying a house. I even spent energy on those hypothetical closets, convincing myself that it will he painful for a bit, and then there will be order.

The house sale fell through, but not early enough to realize that this is not happening. Some paperwork was required at the last minute, and that paperwork was something that we could not produce, no matter how much we pushed, begged and pleaded. Maybe I will write up one day what happens when a doctor gets a frivolous lawsuit and how little it matters who is right. Maybe I will write how some things have nothing to do with prudence and planning and saving. It is ironic that the house prices are so ridiculously inflated that it is impossible to buy a house without financing, no matter how carefully you save. The bottom line was, the same week that we were supposed to move, and all extensions were filed and not even exactly accepted, it became clear that this house is not going to be ours.

That left me in a very bad pickle: I have packed up all the books and most of the homeschool materials. I have taken all the posters off the walls. I was also planning on being near JCC and rely on their homeschool, afterschool, and adult classes for enrichment. We were supposed to be near a community college with its own course offerings. I gingerly checked out homeschool resources near the new location, but I definitely did not sign up for any classes where we live.

3yo made a fire-shooting tail for his dragon.
He is happy as long as he can find scissors, tape and paper
Those who were following this blog know that I also signed up 10 yo for school. First I put him on the bus so I would not have to drive him, then I told the school to take him off since there is no bus from the new location, then I had to beg them to please put him back on the bus since we did not move after all... At least his school bought all the school supplies through PTA and I was not stuck hunting all over town for perfect folders and exact markers. So far, he probably has a more put-together life than we do here.

MIT open course video that 12 y dug up
Since he already started school, I chose to start with 12 yo, 6 yo and 3 yo. But all of my materials are still packed up. And we still might be moving: our house did not grow more space just because the move fell through. The kitchen did not expand, the bedrooms were not added, more children did not move on our block... in short, all the reasons to move are still valid. So I started with whichever resources I happened to have on hand. I'm quickly discovering that if I let 12 yo have a lot of computer time, he will cobble something together. The problem is, without his brother to drag him out to the trampoline, and without classes set up, and without friends popping by, he will not see humans for days. He will not call for a play date (but my 6 yo daughter will!) So do I let this child stay at home and do his own stereotypically nerdy antisocial thing mostly on the computer, or do I set limits, boundaries, force him to go on outings that delight his younger siblings, all in hope of getting him out of the house?

I am also guilty of using him as a babysitter. I do it a lot: he does not want to go to the grocery store, but he will watch the rest of the kids, for example. Often I just want to run an errand by myself, and with all the stress of this "almost move", my need to be by myself is higher than usual. And he is so conveniently at home, and willing to stay at home. I am very conflicted about this. Is it a right thing to do to a 12 yo?

Since all the books are packed up, and I begged boys not to renew their library cards and confirm the addresses till after the move, we have a general lack of reading material. Everyone is listless. 6 yo wants a plan, and all my hopes, dreams, and plans got flushed away, so I swat her inquiries because, frankly, I want a plan, too.

Art supplies are for dumping
Don't forget the baby. She is a firecracker. She screeches on top of her lungs and gets 3 yo involved in yelling competitions. She is not walking (we are starting physical therapy which I need right now like a hole in my head). She is climbing instead, pulling herself up onto the couch and the chairs and the bay window. Then she launches herself down, body-slamming into the cushions. I worry that she will crack her head open. 10 yo worries with me, to the point that he cannot sit still and eat if she's on the couch. It's a good thing that he is in school most of the day, missing her antics. She crawls across our laps as I try to read to 6 yo and 3 yo. She pulls the books out of our hands and has been pulling 3 yo's hair. Thank G-d he's a mellow sweet child, who had not smacked her back. She destroys his puzzle, she dumps the crayons and the drawers full of clothes. When she had her fill of destruction, she heads over to me to be picked up. Then she wants to be carried either by me or by one of the kids. The baby is cute, but she is not easy, and she does not make any of our lives easy either.

12 yo helps make armor.

We have started homeschooling, but I have no idea where this year will take us. I know everyone loves the first day of school pictures, with their promise of new beginnings and order. I bring to you the messy reality. I also hope that those homeschoolers who have not started yet and dread seeing yet another post about organized resources will not feel so bad about hot having it all together.
First day of school.
Typical uniforms.
The boys laughed when they realized what they were wearing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Self-care and support advice: helpful or harmful?

I'm reading another self-help book, this one on marriage (First, Kill All the Marriage Counselors). In case you're wondering, the title intrigued me. I am not done, but the content makes me wonder because I have heard this before.

The author starts by saying that in order to save an ailing marriage, self-care is important and so is a strong circle of supportive females.

Oh yeah, all those homeschool pages say the same. When you are running ragged, when you don't know where to turn to advice, just go take a break, focus on yourself, and spend some time talking to like-minded friends.

Oh, and the same goes for motherhood and parenting. When the kids get to you, when running a household and simultaneously taking care of everyone's needs feels stressful, give yourself some pampering and go dish it out with other moms in the same boat.

Before I go further, I have given out the same advice myself. "I said and said and said those words, I said them--but I lied them."

What if this is classic chicken-and-egg situation? What if we are trying to solve various problems with the same solutions when, in reality, the lack of accessibility of these solutions is what's causing these problems in the first place?

Imagine yourself well-rested on a day when you selected what you wanted to do for yourself and did it. Most likely, you would be more pleasant to your spouse and his little quirks and annoyances would not be so annoying. Most likely you would be teeming with ideas for your homeschool. Most likely you would be eager to see your kids, hug them, spend some time with them.

Imagine having a community of women who are there to catch you, watch your kids, spell you for a bit while you run to the store or the doctor, and converse when you need it. They give you valuable advice that sets you straight in all your family relationships because they see you and your family day in and day out, and they truly, really have your best interest at heart. You would feel able to handle any ripples that rock your boat because they are there to catch you.

What if the most important part missing from all this advice is the fact that so many wives/mothers have neither the ability to arrange large chunks of their life according to what's good for them nor this female group of tight-knit friends? What if this is the true reason for high divorce rate, homeschool burnout, and parenting failure?

Maybe I am the only one who has a hard time arranging for self-care that I truly need rather than measly bits that are available. For example, I can stereotypically paint my own nails at home and call it self-care, but what I truly enjoy is a professional massage. I can take a quick walk around the block, but I really crave a couple hours of hiking through the woods. Being told that I just need to make myself a priority when nobody else is jumping in to pick up slack does not miraculously produce time and resources. It just makes me feel even worse. And that gets to this support network business. I am an introvert. We have moved a lot and I am in a city far away both from my high school and college friends. I am far away from friends that I made when we got married. I am far away from friends that I made in two years in Houston. It takes me a long time to warm up to people, and I am at an age when one does not instantly make best friends and confidantes, no matter how bubbly and outgoing a personality. So where am I supposed to dig up this circle of support? On the basic level, who will watch my kids in minor emergencies, but on a deeper level, whom can I confide with my bigger problems? (I am about to do it on a blog for the whole anonymous world to see, which might be introvert's only solution...)

I am not about to bemoan the entire disintegration of society because it appears that many have this all blissfully worked out. Maybe they have supportive family and friends and never moved from their place of origin. Maybe they have other arrangements. Yet, considering the amount of my friends who are on the move, who move into new communities, new cities, new countries, it cannot be that I am the only struggling to figure out how this helpful advice on self-care and support networks is not causing more pain than it was meant to resolve.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Desiring more and happiness

איזהו אשיר? השמח בחלכו

Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. (פרקי אבות ד א )

We usually take this to mean material possessions: the one who appreciates all the stuff that he has is content. Overall, the one who is satisfied with his lot in life, who can appreciate all the good things that have happened to him, is happy. But what if your lot in life is to yearn for more? What if you are always challenging status quo? What if it's not about material possessions at all, but about wanting to acquire more knowledge, so you always want another class? What if you want even closer relationship with your spouse and children? What if you want to be more than what you currently are?

I just had a funny experience with the contractors working on the house that we are (hopefully) moving into. The closets are not finished yet, so they told me that they have a certain budget and can customize within that budget. Alternatively, I can go and get my own closet components and they will install them. I was offered a long closet shelf and a rod running the full length of every closet in the house, including a ridiculously long walk-in master closet. I stepped back, saying that we do not have nearly enough clothes to warrant such a long hanging system. The contractor countered that I can go to Home Depot and pick up the closet system that they have and they will happily install it. Their idea of a happy customer was someone who took stock of the large space they offered for clothes storage and then went and bought enough storage implements for all the clothes. I started thinking and asking whether a rod can be installed only in one-half of the closet space and the rest can eventually be lobbed off into master bedroom. I was envisioning a crafting space, a place for a desk where I can type, spread art supplies without kids messing with them, go back to watercolor and acrylics, set up the sewing machine. The contractor raised his hands up in protest: Please do not move any more walls, we will not finish this house in time. The agent piped in about resale value of a giant master closet. I thought how having this huge wasted space without air conditioning or windows and using it for storage of stuff because in the future somebody will covet it is stupid.

This is bringing into sharp focus how my "wanting more" is not the same as most people's "wanting more". I would like to use certain material possessions and advantages to achieve space, time and product. I have noted to my husband how my homeschool friends and acquaintances are more interesting and outspoken than the regular school parents. Perhaps the common denominator is the desire for change, the lot of wanting more. I pulled my oldest out of school because I wanted to give him more than the school was offering. I wanted to give him the gift of free time. I wanted to give him the ability to choose his own reading material and engage deeply with the content. I wanted him to figure out what interests him and pursue it. I wanted him to have an opportunity to read Chumash and Gemara as one reads a novel: out of his own free will, at his pace, and his comfort level. I wanted my family not to be stuck in the same old race of waking everyone up early and rushing everyone out the door because things have to be done (work, school, extracurriculars, grocery shopping). I really wanted more for my family.

Where does all this leave me vis-a-vis the Mishna? Am I unhappy because I want more? Or is wanting more that is not material possessions an essential human drive and not included in the text of the Mishna?

I am dreading having to go to the store and look at all these closet systems that I did not even know existed and then having to choose which one goes where. I cannot convince myself that it is like going to the dentist: painful, but necessary and it is better to just quickly get it over with.

Friday, July 15, 2016

On Minimalism

Most likely you have heard about Marie Kondo's book, "The Magic of Tidying Up". Perhaps you have heard about the Mimimalists and their movement of living with less stuff. A friend of mine (actually, a few friends) have done KonMari on their house and have shared their journey publicly. I have been intrigued enough to snatch tidbits of this lifestyle here and there. Ah, the promise of simplifying your life, living with fewer possessions, managing less stuff and having more time for what matters... who would not like that? Who would not want clean, sparse space as one is drowning in laundry and toys strewn all over the floor and books plopped open on the couch?

I looked into it. I have listened to a few podcasts. I have read a few articles. I was on fire internally.


It is easy to notice that most minimalists are single. There are married couples, and there are families who are minimalists for sure, but most ardent proponents of the lifestyle are single adults, somewhere in their twenties-thirties. I always said, I'll read Kondo's book that she writes once she has a few children. Life with children is messy and unpredictable. Outings with children depend not on packing the minimal amount, but on being prepared for the unexpected. I have five, and I have diaper bag packing on autopilot. I do not carry spurious stuff but what often saves the day (adds value to my life) is having that emergency pack of crackers in the bottom of my purse when we are out longer than expected. It is having an extra diaper for the baby and the 3 year old when he decides that he's too busy to go to the bathroom. It adds value to my life knowing that I have a ten pack of underwear at home for him, so I do not have to make the judgment call of whether to scrape poop off his underwear because he does not have enough pairs. Added value is having a pack of wipes both in the bag and in the car, so if we go out for ice cream (something that we do not do often, maybe a few times per year), I can wipe all those messy sticky faces. Brusters next to us does not have a bathroom, so washing off is not an option. I find myself happier having a large plastic bag in the trunk of the car that contains a complete change of clothes for each child. We can go wading, they can get messy, life can happen, and I do not have to think whether I want to allow them to participate in it.

We are going away for Shabbos. Since the older boys are at a sleep away camp, it is just three younger kids, my husband and I. I am not anxious about packing because I am not planning on packing elaborately. Yet I keep thinking about Minimalists soundtrack song:

Every little thing that you need,
Every little thing
That is powering your greed,
Oh I bet you'll be fine
Without it.

Yeah, beautiful. I do not need to bring my sheitel. I do not need to bring clothes on hangers and worry about garment bag. But I do know that having a spare outfit for Shabbos will save the day if one of my lovely children will get me dirty (or I do it to myself). I have gone away for Shabbos packing minimally, and then had one child spit up so much that by motzei shabbos I did not have a single piece of clothing that was not obviously stained and stinky. I knew the hosts well enough to borrow a spare skirt and do an emergency load of laundry. That is not the case this time.

Dear minimalists, have you ever gone away and forgot a child's favorite blankie or lovey? Have you ever had a child who could not fall asleep and tried singing to him the lullaby of how it's the greed and the child will be just fine? I have been actively discouraging my children to form attachments to bulky irreplaceable objects, to material possessions, yet, somehow, quite a few of them did. Have you ever had a child walk around like a zombie singing "I want my paci" song and thought, gee whiz, it would have been easier to pack it? I am packing few things for the baby, but I am planning on bringing a small floor heater. She sleeps better with the white noise from the fan. I did not want her to be attached to it, but in a small house with many active and loud children, it added value to my life to run this device and get a well-rested baby. We have gone away before and forgot to bring it, or chose not to bring it. It was not pretty. She was NOT FINE without it.

I have gone to my in-laws for a couple hours on Sunday. I forgot to bring diapers. Let me tell you, running to the closest grocery store when you discover that the baby pooped and there is not a single diaper anywhere in the diaper bag or the car makes you wonder how this is better than having a stack of diapers, "just in case".

We are hoping to move, so we are packing. I have gone and pared down clothes for 3 year old. He had boys' old clothes coupled with hand-me-downs coupled with grandma's gifts. I was able to sort it all by size and put away quite a bit. No child needs more than a week's worth of clothes. However, at his current age, when he can go through three pairs of pants per day, not having to do laundry daily adds value to my life. Not worrying whether he will run out of shorts is better than having just three pairs on rotation. Same goes for my baby's clothes. She dislikes bibs and she wants to self-feed. Frequently, I have to change her clothes after every meal. She likes to crawl around and scootch on her behind. It kills the pants that she wears. I much rather have plenty of outfits on hand and change her as necessary rather than be constantly doing laundry.

I have thought about minimalism and realized that it is a movement of being able to let go of material things because you firmly know that you will always be able to get them if need be. This can only be achieved if you have secutiry knowing that you have the finances, and that the items are easily obtainable. Growing up in Russia, where new purchases of clothing, furniture, etc, were few and far in between, and the opportunity to buy came up unexpectedly and did not even necessarly fit your needs left me with a residual worry. Our parents were minimalists, but not by choice. They were forced into the minimalist lifestyle by the system. As soon as they found themselves on American soil, their need to buy as they see fit went into overdrive. And I have it, too. Couple that with my entry into the States on a student visa and with only a suitcase worth of possessions (and no clear finances to buy more), and it becomes clear that I have hard time letting go of objects that come into my domain. Yet I am weighed with all the junk that comes with running a household full of kids of different ages. I want to declutter, I want to have those simple, clean lines, I want my house to be a Montessori classroom where every object has a purpose and a place, and gets used and put away. So I am seesawing between the need to have extra and having just bare minimum. Both of these bring me peace of mind.

I am hoping that in this new house I will have space to create my personal minimalistic space while leaving large swatches of household in kid-friendy zone of excess.

Have you encountered minimalist resouces that are family-friendly? I would love links to books, blogs and articles that address how to lead a meaningful life with less while having more people in your life.

P.S. The Minimalists mention decluttering people in your life who do not add value. Kids add very little value when they are little. In the language of "All Joy and No Fun," they are economically useless and emotionally priceless. I wonder whether minimalists shun marriages and childrearing for this exact reason.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Earning Olam Haba

Some people think that to earn Olam Haba
One needs to do kiruv,
Or write a sefer
Or be a martyr,
Or do a lot, a lot of mitzvot.


A friend invited us over for a Yom Tov meal.
First on Pesach,
And then on Shavuos.
All seven of us.

We are not close.
We are not best friends,
But she sensed my desperation
Being daunted by all these meals,
And all these mouths to feed,
And all the expectations of joy
And perfection.

I don't do perfect.
I do good enough.

Yom Tov looms large in my mind
As I do not have a childhood yardstick to measure it by.
Its expectation of ecstasy
Of facing the Divine
And noticing how
I am empty-handed.

My friend earned her Olam Haba
One casual meal invite at a time.

Please G-d,
When she stands on Yom Kippur
And beats her chest
Remember her kindness.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A day trip to Chattanooga aquarium

I had all the kids home with me last week. We were talking about different things to do and Chattanooga Aquarium came up. We have been there once, almost four years ago, and I have much fonder memories of it than of our local overpriced and super-commercialized aquarium.

So this morning I woke up (after the baby has been sleeping through the night for the past week) and when one of the boys asked whether we can drive to Chattanooga today, I said: "Why not?" And just like that, we had breakfast, packed up lunch and a diaper bag, and set out. By "we" I mean myself and five kids. My husband had to work. I joked with him how I really need to go to farmer's market and Costco this week, but I much rather drive to an aquarium two hours away that go through the store with my crew.

On the way there, we finished listening to "The Dragon Rider" by Cornelia Funke. We started on the way to and from the homeschool conference, but since we have to intersperse music for the younger kids, books on CDs take a while. 3 yo's new favorite CD is Frog Trouble by Sandra Boynton, another library find. At least Sandra Boynton CDs are not annoying when played frequently, something that I can't say about Raffi or Wiggles.

I brought an umbrella stroller for the baby, a backpack cooler with lunch for 12 yo to carry, and a diaper bag. When we got to Chattanooga, we had lunch first and then entered the first building of the aquarium. I kept on thinking about the gorilla incident and the angry chorus how animals should not be displayed. And then I saw how much my younger kids, 6 yo and 3 yo, who have not been to the zoo in the past year, or any other place with animal exposure, picked up from seeing live birds, fish, and mammals. How can one teach a 3 yo to be brave enough to plunge his hand into cold water and pet a stingray? How can I give my daughter the experience of discovery that stingray feels like jello and she can reach in and touch it? How can they learn what a butterfly walking across one's face feels like? How else my 3 yo will discover excitedly that penguins "fly" underwater? That he can use two fingers to feel the scales of a cornsnake?

We had a great time. Nobody ran off, nobody got lost, nobody cried. 3 yo even didn't have any accidents, and the baby stayed awake and relatively happy the whole time. And I kept thinking: this is what a good homeschooling day feels like. This is what I love doing with my wild and crazy bunch: drive them to a cool place, get all excited about it, see them get all excited, and watch as they ask each other about what they liked the most. 

Before we headed back, the kids asked about Ben and Jerry's corner store right next to the parking garage. I said that I will take a look at their prices. When you have five kids, getting everyone a scoop gets expensive very quickly, not to mention that we already spent money on gas and parking and admission (technically membership since I am planning to get there again). When I ducked into the store ( more accurately, as we spilled into the store) and I saw their prices, I felt ready to leave. Enter 12 yo, the rationalist: "If I split a cup with my brother, and sister splits a cup with 3 yo and you get a small cup for yourself, it is much cheaper than getting everyone a scoop". "Yes, we all all ready to share". Ok then, The older boys ordered their cup, but 3 yo, spoiled by getting his own (free) baby cone at local Bruster's was not inclined to share. So he dropped on the floor, kicking and screaming that he wants his own. The beauty of having so many kids is that it is no longer mortifying. I knew that either he will stop yelling soon and chooses to share, or he will continue yelling and I will take him outside the store without ice cream. Knowing this child, I was betting on the first. Sorry, patrons, but I had to pay for our treat. By the time I paid, he calmed down and chose to sit next to his sister.
We finished our scoops, got in the car, and drove back home.

May I be known as a mom with a messy house and without groceries, but the one who took her kids places that generated happiness.