Wednesday, December 6, 2017

working on not yelling

After facing the reality of how devastating yelling is to some of my kids, I have consciously cut down on yelling. (I have written about yelling before, but then I slipped, things got crazy again. I am human and imperfect and that was the emotional release shortcut.) It has been very very hard to control myself even when anger seemed justified, even when punishment seemed warranted, even when yelling was a primal scream of despair. One of the consequences of not losing it and not yelling has been how that child has reduced his tone of voice. Because the overall volume has been much lower, he modulated his voice to speak more quietly. His overall tone is so quiet that I often have a hard time hearing what he's saying, so I end up raising my voice to ask him again to speak up...

It seems that I have been the primary source of noise with my children because now I experience other people's elevation of tone or yelling as a physical slap. Probably didn't help that I was belted as a kid, so the body remembers drawing into a panic state because that kind of escalation by another adult would be followed with hitting. Oh no, no childhood abuse, just "I was spanked as a child and I have turned out alright, respectful and all." But now that the gut reaction of recoiling and protecting myself is activated, I am experiencing precisely what my children must have been experiencing all the years and times that I have raised my voice at them in frustration and anger.

And it hurts.

Because I spend so much of my day and emotional energy on controlling myself, I am drained by the evening time, when the rest of the children get concentrated mommy while trying to kick, back, let go, get comfortable and wind down. I have so little emotional reserve left that I end up losing it, either externally or internally. Sometime between 4 and 9 pm, despair sets in, the sort of despair that one experiences while pacing with a baby who just would not sleep. I am drowning while trying to rescue others.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Interlinear seforim

Chanukah is almost here and that means both Artscroll and Feldheim are having Chanukah sales. I have asked 11 yo to browse their websites, perhaps some books will catch his eye. I am hoping for more Jewish learning.

"Mommy, why isn't there interlinear Mishna Succah?" he asks, intently focused on the screen.

How do I explain, dear child, that by the time most people (children?) learn mishna, they do not need interlinear translation? How do I delicately put it that interlinear books are meant for those who do not yet have a grasp of Hebrew vocabulary or fluency, and who will probably never read Mishna Succah in Hebrew?

I feebly suggest that we have interlinear Pirkei Avot. He searches for other mishnayot, but none of them are interlinear. I see a worry form on his face. He has been meeting with a rabbi, studying Mishna Succah. I have an all Hebrew edition that I got for 13 yo when he was learning mishna. I have an old-style Hebrew-English mishna, but that one is hard to follow. I see that he is seeking an easy way to see an immediate translation of the words. The words still do not yield their meaning. The words are hard to read, do not connect into a coherent whole. Where I see mysteries, challenges, wisdom ready to be plumbed, he sees insurmountable obstacles.

I do not know why Hebrew is so hard for him. I do not know why he still cannot read it smoothly. I do not know why he does not see shorashim or remember the meaning of simple words that he encountered numerous times. I also feel so alone in trying to crack this puzzle. I want to help him, but give him enough room for growth and challenge. I want him to experience the sweet taste of achievement.

I have prayed this morning. I do not ask for the removal of obstacles, "why me?" or "why him?" I am not praying for miracles. My new insight is to pray for the right people to turn to. May Hashem keep on sending them onto my path.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Daily schoolwork for 11 yo

I have one child at home and this is what we aim to do every day:

  • Chumash. His bar mitzvah Torah reading is the first day of Pesach, last bit of Parshat Bo. We have started Shemot from the beginning. We have agreed to do four pesukim per day. The latest round of child's input landed us at him reading one day and me reading the next, with him translating to the best of his ability and me supplying the words he does not know or remember. We are using a Chumash with Rashi menukad, and I aim to do one Rashi per day. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. He continues to have reading difficulties, so my goal is to build his confidence in being able to read Chumash and Rashi.
  • Yahadus. We are using Yahadus textbooks, reading a chapter a day. I do all the English reading, while he reads the name of each mitzvah in Hebrew and the pasuk that the mitzvah is derived from. Then we pull out Stone Chumash and he highlights the relevant part of each pasuk. 11 yo also made a "Mitzvah Man": on graph paper he made a large rectangle that contains 600 squares (geometry snuck in there) and added extra 13 as hands and feet. For every mitzvah deoraita, he highlights a square. I also use The Taryag Mitzvot Manual tables as a review and reinforcement. Since 11 yo is a kinesthetic learner, I photocopied the relevant pages onto cardstock, cut out each mitzvah and separated its Hebrew name from Hebrew description from English summary. As we learn more mitzvot, 11 yo's goal was to line them up in order and match up all three parts. This was not trivial when we got to Avodah Zara. My secret goal is for him to know all 613 by heart following the order for Mishne Torah. I got these ideas from the One Minute Masmid by Jonathan Rietti. I am proud to say that we finished the first textbook this week and he was able to organize all 86 mitzvot with their explanations and translations correctly.
  • Chayienu. He does one page of Chayeinu workbook Daled. I know that he's technically in 6th grade, but Vav proved to be too hard and he started to give up, so we backed up a bit. It's Yediyot Klaliot, and there is plenty of new to him material in there. Currently we are working on knowing the seder of Parshyot in order. ( I know there are young kids who know this, but I also know plenty of adults who learned the song as kids and totally forgot it).
  • Lashon Hatorah. Honestly, I could not remember where we were a year ago before he attended day school, so I did what I do best: went online and ordered a new workbook for middle and upper school students. It is faster paced than other books. So far, it is review material, and he is going at a good solid pace. I skip along pages that are repetitive.
  • Math. He asked me more than once NOT to continue with Math Mammoth. Since last year he did some 6th grade math, he placed himself into 7th grade Khan Academy math. There are holes in his knowledge, so I have to often sit next to him when he hits unfamiliar areas. He gets to pace himself, so he sees his progress through badges and percent of material covered and decides how much time he wants to devote to math on any given day.
  • Grammar. He also does that at Khan Academy. From what I see, good solid progress. 
  • Coding. Khan Academy and Scratch from homeschool coop.
These are the skeletal basics. This is what he has as a daily plan. He can get it all done by 10 am, but it does not always happen.

Now, what this does not reflect is the insane amount of helpful housework 11 yo does. He sets the table without being asked, unloads the dishwasher, cooks for himself and others, plays with younger siblings, changes diapers, washes 4 yo, brings in groceries, cleans up, babysits. As far as being a mentsch, this child shines.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Outer Limits

A few weeks ago, we participated in the Shabbos Project. Originally meant as a Shabbat to encourage your non-observant Jewish acquaintances to give Shabbos a try, it seems to have taken a life of its own and now turned into a communal Shabbos celebration of "We are here. We are keeping it. Yay us!" Ok, I will admit that there is good coming out from the sense of not doing it alone, but it leaves me wondering what is lacking.

Our shul held a communal lunch where members were encouraged to share their "Shabbos at the outer limits" stories. I had one come to mind and was prepared to share it. However, I have waited for a clarification that explained that stories are to be heard by the Rosh Kollel and he will give feedback on how appropriately one acted, given the circumstances.

The stories came pouring in: wine brought over on Shabbos, electronic appliances malfunctioning, fridge lights turning on, naughty babies unplugging essential components threatening to cause major damage, menorah fire... Each participant shared and Rosh Kollel nicely explained what was at stake and how it could have been solved halachically.

I found myself feeling glad that I did not go first, and then unable to share in this format because my story seemed a world away from the concerns being voiced. I also felt that my story was not a halachic shaila, but in some other category.

I am fifteen. I have been to the States for two years, attending a Jewish high school, learning about Judaism and observance. Now, finally, as originally promised, I am given a ticket to go back to Moldova and visit my parents whom I have not seen in those two years. I am excited because I have been very homesick. But I am also very nervous: in these two years I have decided to become observant. My parents can be simply described as atheists. Now, I am going back to post-Soviet Union country in the middle of the nineties. The globalization had not reached that far (yet), so there is no kosher packaged food, no paper goods. There is no Google, internet is in its infancy. And I am going back, determined to keep Shabbat and kashrut among my family that expects me to come back and be the same person that I was when I left two years ago. I am supposed to eat my grandma's cooking. I am supposed to milk those precious two months for every opportunity to be with my parents and do what they do, Shabbos and all its prohibitions getting in the way.

I fought a lot with my parents about shabbos, on kashrut, on beliefs, on observance, on being brainwashed, on tears that this is not what they signed up for. I kashered whatever silverware they had that was all metal. I cleaned all glass/pyrex containers and plates that they had. ( I felt terribly guilty for not toveling those dishes). I became a vegetarian because there was no kosher meat, short of going to the Chabad rabbi with your own live chicken and then plucking it yourself. Besides, it was easier, kashrut-wise, for everything to be dairy and parve. I brought four cans of tuna from the States and those cans were my way to honor Shabbat. The local rabbi told us that the baguette bread could be eaten, so I ate lots of bread, vegetables, pasta, milk and dairy.

I had a list of candle-lighting times, so I knew when to light the candles. I made havdalah based on when I saw three stars. Instead of the elevator, I used the back entrance to the apartment buidling with the stairs. It reeked of urine and worse and was pitch-black for the two flights of stairs.

And I stayed away from the always-booming TV that drew me in. I used the bathroom in the dark because someone always forgot to leave the light on, or turned it off not to waste electricity.

I made kiddush and hamotzi. I spent time with my long-suffering family that was far from the enjoyable shabbat seudah that comes to one's mind. We did not discuss Torah unless I was called upon to defend it, with my total of two years' of learning.

The truth is, nobody would have known whether I kept Shabbat and kashrut when I went back home or not. I sort of wonder whether the assumption was that I WILL NOT keep it and we will all be quiet about it, don't ask, don't tell sort of thing. But I knew that G-d will know, and I wanted to be pure before G-d.

Ironically, that same summer, I had a meeting with a senior rabbi who was in charge of the program that brought Russian Jews to study in America and Israel. I showed disobedience by refusing to be a pawn and to go to a new city that he picked for me to go. I wanted to stay in the same school and with the same community that gave me the fortitude to keep Shabbat by myself halfway across the world at the age of fifteen. He was not pleased, and he was going to punish me by withdrawing the funding to continue going to the same school. I wonder how he will be judged after 120 for abandoning a Shabbat-observant girl in Moldova to fend for herself... I wonder if he also thought that I was not keeping Shabbos.

Looking back, I don't know how I did it. I would not eat nowadays by the level of kashrut that I kept at that point. I don't think I knew enough to keep Shabbat 100%. But given the circumstances, I know that I gave it my best shot.

How could I bring this extreme situation to the judgment of Rosh Kollel? How could I share it publicly when the biggest emergency meant simply finding a non-Jew to turn something on or off, and aah, breathe in the spirit of Shabbat, make a good story about it?

I sometimes wonder why my outer limits always end up so far outside of everyone else's.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

on parenting


Remember when you thought you had it all figured out? When you were sure that the future is bright? When you knew all the answers, and knew which path to follow? When all you had to do was wait for your life to start?

That seems like a million years ago. The older I get, the older the kids get, the less I feel like I know, or there is less that I know with certainty, that I can dispense as age-old wisdom.

I got the basics because they do not change. We swing in our norms one way and then the other, the parenting magazines and articles will list a brand-new technique, but, chances are, it was already empolyed and we know the results.

The basics are: you cannot hold your children too much. They will always crave your arms, crave your touch, crave a physical knowledge that they matter more than anything else. You cannot spoil them like that. They cannot be too old. The touch with change, the lap will grow smaller as their bodies grow bigger, but it is always needed, like air.

They want to know that they are loved unconditionally, whether they are good or bad, whether their actions are good or bad, whether they make you happy or not, whether everyone approves of what they do, or not. They will try very hard to be unloveable, to break your heart, and then break it again and again, in hopes of proving to themselves that they are not worthy of love. And you, as a parent, will be left to pick up the pieces and tell them that they matter, that you still love them, that you will not give up on them, because it's your job to make them feel whole and worthy of your love.

And then there is time. The children will remember the time that you took from a million more important, more worthy things just to be with them. My kids fondly recall an insane Starbucks Frappucino drive-through run that happened less than half an hour before Shabbos. It was not the most menaingful or stress-free activity, but it was fun and it clearly put them first. I try so hard to make time just to sit on the couch and see what develops. Usually it's books and cuddles, sometimes it's conversations, or games, but I hope they remember the importance of just sitting together without agenda, without productivity, just because they are my kids and I love them and I show that love by spending time with them.

Everything else is so murky. Bedtimes? Discipline? Sibling conflicts? Mess? Nutrition? I don't know if there is one way to do it right, but if there are tears from all involved, it is probably wrong. What was right for this kid does not always translate to that kid.

So I don't think I will ever have this parenting thing figured out. I envy parenting gurus, dispensing advice, like they have walked in my shoes, lived my life, dealt with my kids and their unique circumstances.

So you do you, as you do every day. Throw out the parenting advice and follow your mommy heart.

One Momma to Another

Friday, September 29, 2017

Two thoughts on Yom Kippur.

I was shocked to see how many people post lists of segulot, customs and "good things to do at the auspicious time" for Yom Kippur. It is not magic. Torah warns us strenuously and multiple times again idolatry and there are ten negative commandments (according to Rambam) that warn against omens, superstitions, astrology, divination and magical thinking shortcuts. I always thought that Yom Kippur was about teshuva, feeling bad for what you did, resolving to do better, being contrite and trying to rectify your mistakes. It is a painful process of intense internal self-search and finding yourself wanting. So I could not understand how a shortcut like "give tzedakah to our charity and erase your sins!" has any appeal beyond feeling like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. However, this year I realized that another theme of Yom Kippur is magic unlike anything else that we see in the Torah. Hashem will erase our sins. They will not be remembered anymore, moreover, they will no longer affect us. Imagine that someone punches a hole in the wall. Now the wall has a hole. If one wants to fix it, he has to carefully patch it up, wait for the plaster to dry, smooth it, sand it down, paint it in perfectly matching color. Even then, no matter how skillful is the craftsman, with time, due to the difference of the material, one will be able to detect the exact location of the hole. It is not there, and there at the same time. What Hashem promises to us on Yom Kippur is that the wall will revert to its unpunched state. No human can do that, only Hashem. What about the scarlet thread that changes from crimson to white as the sins are erased (only in the Beis Hamikdash)? What about the essence of the Day of Atonement that itself atones? Isn't it amazing how much love Hashem has for us that He will act against the natural order just so we can all have a fresh start?

So why do people sully this with segulahs and weird additions? Is it because we have so much fear that we are willing to invoke something, ANYTHING just to remove the feeling of pending doom? Isn't is because the impulse for Avodah Zara is so strong that we are willing to stray after ridiculous proclamations hoping to get a better year and avert the inevitable death that awaits us all? And then I realized that there is another theme of Yom Kippur. The essence of Jewish people getting atonement comes from Moshe praying to G-d (on Yom Kippur!) after the idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf. We are given the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that are recited numerous times during Selichot. Jewish people sinned because they did not understand the true nature of G-d. Jewish people sinned because they turned to an intermediary, hoping it to do "magic" for them. That's why Moshe asked Hashem to teach him his divine ways because he was hoping to bring down to people clarity so they would not stumble again.

A second idea that came to me is how I normally deal with this time of year. I have spent years missing davening.mostly due to kids being small, lack of childcare, lack of support to get to shul or to have a mental space to daven, being exhausted due to pregnancy or nursing. So usually I arrived at Yom Kippur feeling that I have not done enough, prepared enough, read up enough, did enough teshuva, did teshuva correctly, etc. I was feeling guilty (and tired and exhausted). The whole experience did not produce that fabled serene mother of many who can calmly say that taking care of her kids is her Avodah, thank you very much, why is it not cutting it for you, you must be doing it wrong... Last year I had a full mental breakdown that I kind of did not even care what kind of year I will get because whatever I tried to do during these days of repentance would not cut it.

But this year something shifted. I might still be doing it "wrong" but it seems to be working for me. I offered to give a class on Rosh HaShana machzor for women. Only one lady came, but it did not matter because I got to spend time thinking about what are the themes that have to do with these days of Awe. I also listened to Aleph Beta videos during my many hours of driving. The picture that emerged from Rosh Hashana was of Hashem as a benevolent King, a kind Ruler who only wishes good upon his subjects and eagerly awaits for them all to rectify their ways and enter into the glorious messianic era full of knowledge. There was a clear absence of guilt and dread. It seemed that the first step was crowning Hashem as King on Rosh HaShana and then receiving a royal pardon on Yom Kippur. The focus was on learning the essence of the day, understanding the ways of Hashem, realizing that he desires our teshuva and that the day will erase any wrongdoing. The Awe has to do with realizing the majesty of our Divine Ruler, not in fear. Once I have been honing this mental picture of who G-d is, I found myself desiring to be closer to him, to know more of him, and working on purifying myself spiritually to achieve even more closeness. Then, if my sins stand in the way, I will remove them as a barrier.

For the first time ever, I might be doing teshuvah meahava (from love).

In an interesting twist, once I achieved this understanding, I am no longer sad or annoyed that I am likely to miss on large parts of shul attendance due to my children. I also realized that I would not have been able to have these insights if my youngest kids were younger.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Wednesday

I am tired. Oh so deeply, essentially tired.

I don't want to whine about how tired I am.

I had a bad night of sleep. 11 yo got braces on his upper teeth and an expander and the pain kicked in in the middle of the night. He marched over at 3 am for a dose of Tylenol.

Not everyone had lunch packed this morning. 13 yo was having a picture day at school, but it was on me to remind him the morning of that he needs to bring a suit on a hanger. 11 yo refused to eat breakfast due to braces and inability to chew his usual morning fare: a bagel. No alternatives would do. He would not think about what to pack for lunch for the homeschool coop classes coming up later in the day. He refused to daven. He refused to go. He refused to do any schoolwork, to listen to any suggestions on how to deal with his teeth, or to offer any of his own. And the whole time I kept coaching myself internally: do not yell, it's his anxiety talking, do not yell, it will make it worse, do not yell...

I packed my lunch. I wiped the kitchen windows. I washed out the recycling bin.

He did get in the car when it was time to leave. He acquiesced to a water bottle, but no food. We listened to iPod in silence during the drive. I felt drained already.

I taught my class. 11 yo is in my class, and he was super jittery the entire time: pacing, touching, blurting things out. I find teaching exciting and draining, even if it's just middle school chemistry to five homeschool kids. My mom called in the middle. We have been taking coop classes on Wednesdays for six years, but she still called when I was teaching.

Then I assisted in another class. 11 yo freaked out about a forgotten password, then he recalled it. I helped paint some rocks. I had lunch. I chatted with other moms, all the while keeping an eye on the clock for the afternoon carpool. 11 yo came over to graze. He had a few crackers. I tried to pretend that it is normal to skip breakfast and lunch, nothing to worry about.

I left at 2 pm. 11 yo seemed agreeable to finding something to eat at home while I would drive carpool. I meekly suggested that he look over his schoolwork and see if he can do anything on his own. I dropped him off and zoomed to preschool to get 2 yo. She was sleeping, and sleepily transferred to her car seat. Then we zoomed onto the highway to get the rest of the kids from their school.

By some sheer miracle (and the existence of people more organized than I) I am part of a carpool where I have to drive only 2-3 times a week instead of 10 times. However, since there are six kids loading into my car, it is never smooth. These ones do not want to sit with those. That one is touching this one. This one is eating. That one is sort of trying to say a bad word while talking about it. These ones are just annoying. That one is loud. And they all have been cooped up in the school building since 8 am and now they are set loose in my car. I used to talk to my kids when we drive places. I used to think they were loud. But this is a whole new level.

But today was not bad. Today they even loaded quickly enough for the carpool lady not to hustle anyone. I had same iPod going and as long as it was playing, they seemed quiet. I checked my messages to see who is dropped off where today. Mind you, it is 4 pm now and I have been driving since 2.

We get home. 13 yo and 7 yo change into their bathing suits for swimming. Years ago, when I just started homeschooling, the boys tried out for a swim team and were not able to swim enough to qualify. Now it is a whole different story. We live a five-minute walk from the JCC. There are no major streets to cross. 13 yo is legally old enough to babysit. But JCC apparently has a rule that he is not old enough to be 7 yo's guardian while she is attending swim practice. They are not just splashing in the pool, they are attending an organized class, but they need to be watched by a legal; guardian. So they cannot walk over there and back on their own, and they cannot be left there unsupervised while they are swimming. I am very upset by this. Have I known this, I probably would not have signed 7 yo up. 13 yo is old enough to get there and back on his own. And I wonder: we keep complaining how kids nowadays are so ill-adapted to independent living, how millennials are such spoiled brats, how they don't know how to be tough. Why do we set up such rules in place that keep kids on a short parental leash for so long? How are large families supposed to manage this? I tried bringing my younger kids to practice, but it is no fun keeping 2 yo for half an hour away from the pool's edge. Besides. she was just in the car for over an hour. All she wants to do is come home, chill and play.

My only solution was to ask 11 yo if he so kindly would not mind watching his two younger siblings at home while I watched his two older siblings at the pool, twice a week. He agreed, but today both younger siblings disagreed. I ended up shoving two older kids out to the door, leaving 11 yo in charge of two screaming kids. If you want to feel mom guilt, do that, especially after spending zero time with the babies the whole day.

After the pool, faster, faster, let's get home, I know the little ones were storming the pantry before I left. I have not been home since 9 am, so there is no dinner because there was no time for the dinner. But never fear, we are going to eat out tonight at a new Israeli restaurant because that's the best I could come up with. As we are getting in the car to drive that ridiculously short distance home, 11 yo called me to hurry up because 2 yo did not stop crying the entire time I was gone.

I bitterly commented how I need more grown-ups in my life, so I am not leaving an 11 yo in braces pain in charge of two screaming kids. 13 yo wryly commented how he used to be that 11 yo. Yes, kid, we have been making do for years. It is sad when kids have to step up and function as adults.

I am greeted at the doorstep by a teary 2 yo clutching her blankie next to her big brother. 4 yo is freaking out that this new restaurant will not have hot dogs and what he will eat then? The rest of the food is "yucky". It does not take a supersleuth to figure out that he did not nap today, that he's tired, that the last thing he wants is to go out to eat instead of snuggling on the couch with mommy. But there is no dinner, and I am not serving noodles yet again.

The new restaurant was a bright spot. Even my husband made it home on time to come with us. The food was plentiful and good, they had schnitzel for 4 yo, 11 yo was able to chew and get mashed potatoes. The rebbitzen of the community invited us out for Succot lunch. Yay for procrastination! One less meal to plan for!

And then my husband got called up, And then we got home at 7 pm. 7 yo had twenty minutes of nightly reading log. 4 yo went back into full meltdown mode, and I was trying to manage the kids from the couch while half-listening to my daughter read. It is clicking, but it is still slow. Both boys were reading fluently and for pleasure at this age. She still does so little functional reading that I had to point out the kids' section on the menu. I am also thinking how this mandatory reading is not helping move things along, but, being a conscientious student, she dutifully reads every night.

After I finished and tucked in the three youngers, I did two more sections from Hilchot Teshuva with 11 yo. That was the only schoolwork that we did today.

It is 9:30. 11 yo is still up. I packed lunches. I am defrosting chicken for erev yom kippur and for kids to eat on Yom Kippur.

I just want to go and kick back with a book. But most of all, I want to arrive at the nighttime not mindlessly tired.