Tuesday, June 13, 2017

screen at mealtime

"Mom, you're on your phone again. If you can be on your screen, then we will all bring ours to the table."

Guilty as charged. I looked up and saw them all. They don't even all own screens, but the message stung. Yet I said, "Look at you guys. Two of you are again sitting with your knees higher than the level of the table, one of you is continuously screaming how dinner is yucky. Is the baby falling asleep in that puddle of soup she made on her high chair? And one of you has his elbows in my personal space. Until you produce better company, is it any wonder that I want to get lost in my screen?"

Yes, I've actually said that. Not my proudest parenting moment, and it might backfire spectacularly when they will start bringing their own screens to mask parental droning. But for the moment, they were quiet.

Dinners have been a mess lately. By lately, I mean for many years.If I do not start up a meaningful conversation and constantly direct it, most of the dinner ends up being filled up with talk about Pokemon, some latest cartoon, bizarre sounds, and taunts. Throw in a 4-year-old who preemptively starts screeching that dinner is yucky, and a baby who does artistic food splatters, and there is nothing to look forward to. I don't think I've had a civilized dinner, somewhere where you have to use proper manners in a very long time. When we were in Israel, my husband and I wandered into this street square where they served fine cuisine. It was a true French restaurant, where one could order gourmet food while the music played on the stage in the background. But my husband wasn't hungry, so he really didn't want to sit down and eat. I ordered dessert and a glass of wine, pretending that I am having a fancier meal than I am. But I was not dressed up since we were just planning to go walking on our last night of stay. I was wearing a hoodie. My husband was busy setting up the live stream of the musical performance on his phone while I was slowly sipping my wine with my creme brulee. It was a chance for a formal meal, according to the rules of the etiquette but it did not happen.

A friend shared this gem with me today. Somehow, she always seems to know what will resonate with me, and for that, I am grateful. My husband is not home tonight. I will be giving my mirror image another pep talk right after the shower but before I collapse. Until I will be able to be treated to a proper meal time with proper manners, what's a little technology to get through the night?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The plan for next year

I know it's the end of May. I know that most people have decided long ago what they will be doing with their kids the following school year. But that is not how we roll. We roll with agony, with false starts, with negotiations, with doubts. As of Friday, I finally know what we are doing.

Call it hashgacha pratit, call it prayer, call it coincidence, but a spot opened up for my 2 yo at the same school that my oldest is attending. We did not even apply, let alone get on the waiting list. We just spoke to the financial office to see what it would cost us to enroll all four children in one school. We got our answer, but then there was no spot for her because we started the conversation so late. So we did not even apply. I spoke to the director of their current preschool about next year and was told that since 4 yo will be in pre-K, it would have to be five days a week program, less he misses something important in his preparation for kindergarten, Insert giant eye roll here from an unschooly mom. Then we got into the financial side and for some reason, even though I had all the papers ready to sign, the same financial organization was not sharing our file with the preschool. It dragged on for almost two weeks till I got an unexpected phone call that they are expanding 2 yo class at the other school, the same financial package as before, are we committing? One school, one calendar, one schedule for pick up and drop off, one location? Are you kidding: we are committing. And this commitment gave me just the right push to decide that 11 yo, my second son, will be homeschooled next year.

He had an OK year at school. He adjusted to the schedule, the workload, the homework. But he did not adjust to bullying that was taking place and that both he and I tried to address with the administration. He was utterly lost in gemara because that's what happens when you take a child who is still struggling to read Hebrew, throw him with condescending boys who had a few years of gemara (8th graders), switch a rebbe in the middle of the year and give him tests where he aces one and fails the next. "I hate gemara." Brilliant, just what I wanted the school to do to you and your approach to learning.

I have taken him to yet another psychologist and we collected yet another diagnosis and another set of suggested accommodations. Funny how they all sounded like what I did back in the day when I homeschooled him: no time pressured work, minimize written output, don't make him write long answers where a short one would suffice, offer typing or voice dictation instead of writing, keep environment distraction-free and quiet, give him extra time on tasks and tests... I wanted to meet with the principal and discuss the accommodations, but he was more interested in getting us to sign the tuition contract. Then he was more interested in discussing his standardized scores. My child who has anxiety had to take three MAP tests this year just so they would confirm what I already knew from IOWAs: he reads and comprehends on a high school level and is a level ahead in math. The principal was arguing that this shows how the school is helping him flourish. I was thinking of the same child cowering in the kitchen corner that morning, fully dressed in his uniform, crying how he does not like school... He has been begging to go back to homeschooling the whole year but I was not sure whether I have it in me.

Thank you, G-d, for everything turning out just as it should. Apparently, coming full circle is putting my typical kids into school and keeping my different child at home. Now please just give me strength, passion, and patience to pull this off and to keep on meeting his needs.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"All or nothing" thinking

One of the things that my therapist keeps bringing up is "all or nothing" thinking. In a nutshell, it is exactly as it sounds: either have it all, or nothing at all. I apparently suffer from it. It is not healthy because, well, I cannot have it all, and, as a result, I keep on feeling like I have none. Once you have none, what's the point of trying?

I have been thinking about this for a while. I know that it is better to be flexible, to enjoy even increments, to reframe small victories and defeats as just that. However, I have also been thinking how that's directly opposite of what brings happiness and satisfaction (not contentment, as that does seem to come from highs not being so high and lows not being so low).

A lovely poem, courtesy of Well-Trained Mind:

Work While you Work

Submitted By: Nancy Keslin
Work while you work,
Play while you play,
This is the way
To be happy each day.

All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by half
Are never done right.
Author: Unknown

A lovely sentiment, isn't it? And a perfect example of "all or nothing" thinking. We encourage our children to memorize it.

"I always type with one hand while wearing
 a white sweater. My baby's foot is
 perfectly positioned to spill
a cup of coffee all over my sweater.
Unless she chooses to spill that glass
of freshly squeezed orange juice over my laptop first". 
Then there is work itself. Either you are a working mom (guilt over not staying home with your kids, missing out special moments, etc, etc) or you are a SAHM (guilt over not contributing to income, wasting education, etc). Anyone who says "work from home" has not tried to actually work from home. It is not like those images: the babies do not let you type or complete phone calls. If you want to work from home, you need a space where you can escape, lock the door and not answer unless there is gushing blood. Or hire a sitter, which defeats the "staying home with kids" feeling. Besides, it is hard to do work with all your might when there is laundry to be washed, dinner to be started, plants to be watered, behinds to be wiped. So many "work from home" people, men and women alike, escape to Starbucks or some other location where the rest of house is not beckoning with the never-ending list of chores.

I have a four year old. He is in preschool every day from 9:30 till 1:30. I thought and thought and approached them about sending him next year, for a longer day, but only two or three days a week. No, nope. He is four, so it's pre-K, so he needs to go five days a week so he doesn't miss anything. Or don't send him at all. All or nothing thinking. I have been telling them that I do not worry about curriculum gaps because going to the zoo or being read to at home or unloading groceries is just as important as learning about a community helper of the week. They said, maybe, just maybe, if I send him four days a week it could work.

I wish I could send my older kids to school just for Judaics, but it's either the whole deal, or nothing. I wish there was a flexible education program where you sign up for a few gloomy winter weeks and then get the kids back to enjoy glorious spring days. I wish I could take them on multi-day trips and still get some structure when we come back, or unload some of the learning in the areas where I am weak. But schools and programs are rigid: either you sign up and commit to a full day, a semester, a year, or don't even bother.

And then something funny happens. Just as I got all my kids into schools, admitted an end to homeschooling, and their learning became someone else's responsibility, just as they all insisted has to be done to implement curriculum and achieve results, I am bombarded with school communications. Science fair! Scholastic! Curriculum night! Parent-teacher conferences! Learning opportunity alongside your child! And if you say "no thank you", now you are a bad parent for not being invested in your child's education. Multiply that by three schools, and you are constantly saying "no" and constantly feeling like you are directly messing your child up.

I had this conflict come up in a visceral way with preschool. They were having a special visitor day at the same time I was supposed to see my therapist. So I had to choose: be a good parent by coming to my kids' school, or a be a good parent by trying to claw out from a major depression? Guilt all around because you cannot have it all, because you cannot clone yourself and be in two places at the same time.

At the same time, if I am reading a book, I just want to focus on the book and not be interrupted every five minutes. If I am cooking, I just want to be cooking. If I am signing up for art class, I want to attend all the sessions. And if I am relaxing, I just want to be relaxing.

Anyone else has trouble with this?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"What do you do all day?"

Yesterday, at breakfast that is nowadays a blur of cereal bowls, not-yet-packed lunches and 2 yo asking to be fed, as I hastily slurp my pre-driving coffee, a child asked me: "Mom, what are you really good at?" A question like that is the reason I feel like I have been living a midlife crisis even though I am technically too young for one. I retorted: "Keeping you all alive!" while thinking "Oh my gosh, what AM I good at? Obviously nothing visible, otherwise I would not be asked. Corollary: I am good at nothing. What am I doing with my life? What kind of a role model am I to my children?They caught on that it's all a sham. They will never grow up to be productive individuals..."

Before the train of thought went too far, 4 yo piped in: "You are very good at driving!" Yes, I drive. I drive a lot.With kids at three schools, all I do is drive: drop them off and pick them up. Drive to gymnastics. drove to taekwondo. Drive to museums. Drive to the park, to the store, to appointments. Drive to an aquarium out of state. I drive. I AM good at driving.

After agreeing with him, I thought out loud: "I am also getting good at just being. Not doing things, but just being me." That one sailed over their heads and my husband raised his eyebrows, but it's true. This past year has been a steep learning curve in getting good at just being. I can wrap it up in fancy terminology like developing potential, aligning heart, soul and body, self-actualization, transcendental meditation, self-awareness. I can wrap it up in less flattering terms like self-care, laziness, ennui, indulgence. But, essentially, this past year I have hit a brick wall where the question "What do I want?" had to be answered and not dismissed. I started with what I do NOT want. I did not want to multitask. I did not want to carve out time to "get things done" or be superproductive or accomplish amazing feats. I did not want those motivational quotes that passive-aggressively suggest that only if you tried harder and wanted it badly enough, you could do anything. I will not climb Mount Everest. I will not hack my way through jungles. I will not conduct scientific research in Antarctica. Besides, when you are so busy striving to achieve one thing or another, you are by definition not at peace. You get the adrenaline rush of action.You get dopamine load of achievement, finishing that marathon, climbing that mountain, getting that promotion. But the next day, when the hoopla subsides, you face yourself in the mirror and there is no more rush to carry the day. And you are still you. Are you at peace with what you see? Hint: strive and strife are related. Or are you still not enough and you need to prove to the world that you are more than what they see? Moreover, is your harsh inner critic still at it: you are just faking it. If you stop doing all these amazing things, they (whoever they are) will see that you are a fake.

So I have been not doing much.

"What are you doing?" Not much.

I used to judge others harshly for that. I was worried that if I did not judge others first, they would judge me. They would see through me and expose me as a fraud. So better run, keep busy, go places, do things. It is preferred to do things that come with external tangible recognition. Trophies, plaques, diplomas, awards, raises, mementos are all fair game.

But five years of homeschooling changed that. Moreover, the foray into unschooling did more for me than the time we spent poring over the workbooks and curriculum. I had to decide: what do I really need my kids to know so they can function in the world on their own? Not ancient Roman history. Not quadratic equations. The more I thought and the more I observed, the more I smashed my preconceived notions of what kind of education matters. I saw my children just being, and being happy at that. I saw them delight in playing in the creek, or in the sand, or lounging on the couch, or rereading the same book for the fiftieth time. I saw them find alone time and time to ask others to join the game. I saw them pick up objects and craft them. I saw them talk to each other, blurt out things, spontaneously dance, swing babies around, make surprises.

But I saw them just being.

Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice their state of being for my being. I spent the last thirteen years parenting in a very hands-on way. There was a lot to do, and it was never-ending. There was nursing and diapering and blowouts and accidents and hours on the potty and hours of laundry. There were meals to plan, shop for, cook, set up, clean up. There was instructing and cajoling and bickering and imploring and fighting. But there was so much doing. Now that my older ones are 11 and 13, the doing does not end once the younger ones go to bed. They want to do stuff with me.They want to talk to me. They want to show me that latest craze. Oh, odfI am deeply grateful that they share a bit of what makes them tick with me, but that time to BE that could have come with early bedtime is not there for me anymore.

I did not use to feel this way. I think it took five kids and over ten years of this intense doing for me to reach the point where I could not postpone my being any longer. I needed to look in the mirror and truly think about what I see, not just how prudent the image appears to the rest of the world.

The scary part is that I don't know where this journey will take me.Will I get my bearings to homeschool again? Will I utterly disconnect from my kids? Will I pick up a new profession, craft, hobby? Will I spin out of control, lose touch with reality?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On motherhood

Motherhood in a nutshell: Ok, let me fix that.

I didn't break it.
I didn't want it to be broken.
I don't want to be fixing that.
I don't have time or patience or resources to fix that.

But you need me.
So let me fix that.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Minimalist Purim gone awry

Dear G-d, if this was supposed to be a joke, I am not finding it to be funny.

Two weeks ago I heard the rabbi speak in shul on the subject of happiness and Purim. He said how there is no specific prescription for happiness because everyone is happy in their own way. So I thought: this year, part of my happiness is not stressing about Purim. I will have a minimalistic Purim. I am no longer running Purim costume gemach that was a source of mitzvah, but also a source of tremendous personal headache. It was also a source of costumes for my kids, as I managed the donations and was on the lookout year-round for costumes to add. So this year, they had to make their own or tell me early enough what they wanted to do so I could buy it. Only 7 yo told me what she wanted to be: a baby (cue in processing complex emotions of not being a baby any more as she is becoming older and there are actual babies in the house). Her costume was footie pajamas, a bib, a giant plastic bottle and a diaper worn on the outside of the pajamas. I sort of tried to warn her that there might be conversations and remarks taking place over that diaper, but she shrugged them off. If rocking a diaper is what you want to do, you go girl! And just like that, she brushed off all the comments and wore her diaper.

To everyone else I suggested going as a swim team: everyone wears already existing bathing suits. 10 yo did it, I wore mine, and I put one on 4 yo and 1 yo. 12 yo went as an old Russian lady: a kerchief on his head, a patched blanket for his back, and a drumstick for a walking cane. He even learned a few Russian phrases to go with his look, for authenticity. My husband went as... drumroll... a doctor. Yeah, we went all out. And I did not stress about the costumes or keeping with a theme.

To continue my quest for minimalism, and to decrease stress, I decided that our mishloach manot will be a simple hamentash and a clementine in a paper bag. But then I panicked that the free-form hamentashen that my kids made were too free-form, so I spent a motzei shabbos making my own batch that would look more traditional. Except that I decided to use half whole wheat flour, to be creative. But I was also impatient, so I dumped it all together with the other ingredients and got sand crumbs instead of dough. Then I panicked and started adding water and oil to make the dough come together. When it did, it did not look nice, more like sand held together with water. So much for simplicity and minimalism. I shaped that batch, baked it, and hoped for the best.

On Friday before Purim I went to work assembling these michloach manot. I used brown paper sandwich bags, stuck a hamentash and a clementine inside and stapled them with a note that proclaimed package's minimalism. I was done in half an hour, feeling so smug about quick and easy way out from this task.

Comes Purim day and we are getting ready to deliver my preassembled batch when I see that the oil from the dough seeped through the paper bags, ripping some and producing ugly oil stains on the others. Now they do not look simple, now they look ready for the garbage... as 12 yo pointed out that I should have placed a hamentash in a plastic bag first (poor environment!) I blew up at him, how he did not lift a finger with these and now tells me what I should have done.

But really, I was mad at G-d.

I just wanted something to be simple. I just wanted something to work out. I wanted to rejoice in the simplicity of stress-free mishloach manot. Usually, we make turkey wraps and give them out with pickles and a hamentash on the side. It has been our staple, but it is labor-intensive and makes distribution difficult, as it needs to be either eaten or refrigerated. Then it also requires a note warning that the wrap is fleishig but the hamentash is parve.

By the time we were ripping open the oily bags, placing hamentashen into ziplocks and I was retyping the note with our name and theme (G-d forbid I would clutter my computer with a file that I wasn't planning on reusing) and then cutting the labels, I wondered out loud whether it would not have been easier to do those turkey wraps in the first place.

Then, as the return michloach manot started to arrive, I thought whether our minimalist package would bring anyone happiness.

I hope it did, come today, the day after Purim, when there is too much candy, too many sweets, and Pesach is only four weeks away.

Monday, February 6, 2017

so hard just to be

New week, new day, drop the kids off at their schools and the time should be yours to relax, right? But your car needs new tires and you know it, you can see how worn the edge is because you didn't pay for alignment or balancing or you didn't have time to get it done and now you are driving on highways daily with a worn-out tire. So you swing by Goodyear where they take one look at your wheels, whistle, and get you onto tire replacement tomorrow morning. And you get a call from your husband that the work on adding a second dishwasher and fixing the laundry room will start in a few hours. You do not want to have a gaping hole where the dishwasher is supposed to go so you go into Home Depot right next door to scoop out the appliances and find out that the soonest they can deliver is on Friday. But it will be free. But now you are staring at these washers and dryers and dishwashers and try to remember what is it that you actually want out of them short of doing their job, not breaking down, and being cheap. And then you remember that your car needs new wiper blades because the rubber is falling off one of them, You find the right kind and decide to be courageous and switch them yourself. But not in Home Depot's parking lot: you do not want to embarrass yourself.

As you get home and pull up a few step-by-step tutorials, you discover that somehow you cannot remove the worn-out blades, no matter how much you search for a clip or pull firmly down. Yet another tutorial directs you to a non-existent clasp. Ok, hubby will need to do it tonight except that he's already annoyed that you didn't shop around for the cheapest tires. But you need them replaced during those four precious hours because you need the car to pick everyone up from their three schools.

To feel productive, you decide to save brown bananas by baking banana muffins. And you fold the laundry that was left on the table. And you hang up shirts and skirts. And you see a despairing amount of mess in every single room. And as you start picking up, you need to go to another room for more hangers or to bring in one more item or you decide that this child will have to do this part later when they come back from school.

And there is no peace.

And you remember to text someone for a name and number of a pediatric psychologist. And you leave a message with a lady who washes sheitels. And you pick up a few more items. And you wait for the construction guy to come.

And then it's lunchtime and you are trying to read "Smart But Scattered" about improving executive function to help your oldest stay organized, but you can't focus yourself. You know that your executive function is misfiring which is why you cannot get anything done in an orderly manner.

And suddenly it is 1, and you will need to go and pick up the younger ones in twenty minutes, and you still didn't make time to relax, to heal your brain. You look around and find that none of the rooms inspire you to sit down and relax. You sink into a couch, pick a five-minute meditation from Insight Timer and close your eyes. You breathe, you relax, but at the end you peek because you are nervous that it won't signal when the five minutes are up and you will be late picking up the younger ones.

As you drive out, it is starting to drizzle. The annoying old wiper swings across the glass. 3 yo starts whining that he dropped something. Baby flings off her shoes and you hear them drop on the car's floor. Baby falls asleep, 3 yo asks for yogurt despite having had lunch in school. You refuse to mix in chocolate chips and he refuses to eat it and cries and sulks off for his nap.

And you have half an hour before you will have to get everyone up and drive to pick up the older kids. The construction guy is still not here.

I made space for myself to be,
But I have trouble being in it.