Sunday, January 25, 2015

on my father's yortzait

It's my father's sixth yortzait. Six years.

But, really, it has been longer than that. I started mourning before, earlier. I was that weird Jew who got "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning" not in a wake of a relative's death, but in preparation for one. (It was actually a husband of friend, taken suddenly, someone my own age, and the realization that when I will have to sit shiva, it is not the time to learn the laws). My father was sick, for a long time. I started saying a long good-bye.

When he passed away, and I was trying to reread the book, on a flight back home in the middle of shiva (I had two small boys at the time), I remember reading the back section on techiyat hametim ( resurrection of the dead) and the afterlife, and it seemed hollow, empty, meaningless. I put the book away, aware that this is not the time to process those concepts, but with clear resolve to examine those ideas later, at a time when I could understand.

Then there were those two boys to take care of. Then I got pregnant with my daughter, who was born right before the 1st yortzait. A wise rebbetzin commented: "Dor halach vedor ba" (a generation leaves and a generation comes). I did not feel that the memory of my father was replaced with my daughter, and I did not think that I will get comfort from her birth, but she took a huge edge of my sorrow. Till that point I was acutely aware that my boys will not have any clear memories of my father, that the one active, hands-on grandparent was taken from them. (On my last visit, my father bought them an electricity kit, in hopes of teaching them how to use it. He was not getting them a gift; he was interested in passing on a passion of his. It did not come to pass, but I still have that kit). With the birth of my daughter, who never met her grandfather, that pity had to stop. I had a newborn to take care of, and we would have to live as we are.

Last night, I reread the last chapter of "The Jewish Way", and I found something that eluded me, did not register before. A death is compared to a birth, an entry into the unknown, a leap of faith, but so axiomatic that there is no need for detailed elaboration. To enter the world, one passes through a chamber (prozdor), and when one passes away, one also enters a chamber. Just as we are not privy to life in the womb, we are not privy to the soul's experience past its attachement to the body.Reading this while expecting another child, another grandchild, I felt a deep connection and consolation. There is a yet unknown life within me, just as my father's soul is in another unknown. My father is carrying on in my children, in their looks, in the name of my son, in their genes, in their quirks. My 8 yo, such a difficult student, and my father, who was failing school until he hit subjects that he found interesting. My father, the only one in my family to write to me a letter of apology for someting that happened during my childhood, something that I did not remember, but that bothered him greatly; and my son, quick to flare up, but also quick to apologize, sincerely, for his wrongdoings.

That first year, when I was saying kaddish, I felt my father's soul gripping me, nearby, not letting go. It sounds crazy, there is no rational proof, but he was near. As the years went by, I worried more about losing that connection, the memories are becoming hazy, and the ins and outs of busy family life leave precious little time for reflection. Now, Maurice Lamm spoke to me:
But if life is the creation of a benevolent G-d, the infusion of the Divine breath; if man is not only higher than the animal, but also "a little lower than the angels"; if he has a soul, as well as a body; if his relationship is not only the "I-it" of man and nature, but the "I-Thou" of creature with Creator; and if he tempers his passions with the moral commands of an eternal, transcendent G-d--then death is a return to the Creator at the time of death set by the Creator, and life-after-death the only way of a just and merciful and ethical G-d. If life has any significance, if it is not mere happenstance, then man knows that some day his body will be replaced, even as his soul unites with eternal G-d.
I am grateful to be able to step back, and see more of a complete picture rather than immediate grief, or the painful what-ifs.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

the day the tooth fairy didn't come

We looked at the last dayschool, and, the more I looked, the more I just wanted homeschooling to work out, badly.

Now I get asked by other parents, who have seen us at the open houses: what do we think? They are usually impressed by something a teacher said, or the computers in the classroom, or the studious kids, or some other glossy thing a school can put on to "sell" itself. I still feel that homeschooling, following the kids' lead, teaching to each child's strengths, is much better than any school, no matter how professional.

But then we have one of those days... like the day that tooth fairy forgot to visit. In her defense, the whole loose tooth drama was taking place on Sunday, with each one of the kids taking turns giving advice and wiggling a stubborn tooth. When it was finally out, late on Monday night, right at teeth brushing time, and I was literally falling on my face after getting up at 6 am, it was not on my radar. It was not a first tooth, and they are too old to believe in tooth fairy anyway, right? Besides, our tooth fairy is cheap, only 25 cents per tooth, but she does leave little sweet notes.

This morning, as I stumbled out of bed (10 yo got 1 yo out of his crib), I was greeted by a sulking boy who was very clearly upset that a tooth fairy did not visit. And my insides fell. "I looked all over; I even checked on the floor, but there was no note! Did she forget?"

What's even worse, as the day progressed, from bad to worse, in case you are wondering, I again totally forgot. Only at tuck-in time, when he rearranged his pillow, and the Ziploc bag with the tooth, was I reminded again of this huge disappointment.

Now, the note is written, the quarter is taped up, and I'm just making sure that he is asleep before tiptoeing in and carrying out my parental responsibility. It is not the reality of tooth fairy that we are playing out here; it is the reality of love and care.

He still wants hugs, but now, instead of accosting someone, he sweetly asks. My 1 yo caught on, and is often trailing me, arms open: "Hug?" I scoop him up and hug him. Sometimes, that's all he needs; sometimes, he wants to be held.

5 yo wants to snuggle with me on the couch, just about every morning. 8 yo asked for a special cuddle time in my bed. They all need me, and my touch, and my love.

A homeschooling friend was talking about sibling rivalry, and she brought up a concept of scarcity vs. abundance. If there is enough parental love to go around, kids do not need to fight over it. If the parent is drained, and is rationing the affections, kids are more likely to squabble over them by climbing over each other.

I am drained, and I start every day feeling drained. It will not get better with this new baby. I am aware of how I'm withdrawing myself, trying to save some space which is just mine, and is not constantly violated. It is hard to be affectionate and giving in time of scarcity. It is hard to remember those gestures of love and care when there is no reservoir to draw from.

My mother almost prided herself on how she didn't "baby" us, but there was a clear indication for us doing things for her to show affection. I'm starting to get worried, as I am seeing 8 yo taking on too much of a burden: "I'm trying to make life easier for you, mommy. I'm trying to take care of myself, to make it easier for you." I know that as much as he has pure motivations, this is just a matter of having same anxiety come out. I keep reassuring him that he does not need to worry so much, that he is doing enough, that I will take care of myself, but I see that he does not believe me.

So despite me desire to make it all "work out", I probably need to send some of them to school next year. We all need to regroup.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

some hard choices for next year

This past Sunday was the height of insanity: we attended an open house for one local dayschool, followed by a movie screening for "Class Dismissed". Oh, and it was my daughter's birthday, she turned 5, just the age for kindergarten or for chumash, depending on your perspective.

I have four kids, and I am expecting. I am also drowning. We are told that real drowning is really quiet, you have to watch for signs of it instead of expecting a victim to make a big loud splash and call for help. I feel that I am openly and loudly putting the signs out there that I am drowning, but I guess it appears to be quiet from the side, and a lot of people choose to look the other way.

I am very committed to the ideals of homeschooling. I know what it feels like when it is going smoothly, when kids are learning, when the sense of contentment and satisfaction fills the air. I also know what it feels like when things chafe and grate, and every day starts on a sour note and goes downhill from there. Lately, it's been feeling like drudgery, not unlike the feeling of school. There has been yelling and talking back, tantrums, messes, broken promises, unmet expectations (on both sides), and a whole lot of unhappiness. Some days I feel that we do not have a plan, others I feel overscheduled. And then throw in a newborn of unpredictable temperament into the mix, and you've got yourself a hot mess.

So I have been agonizing over the hardest decision: what to do with the kids for next year? Do I simply send all of them out, to give myself a year to regroup? Do I send out my oldest, to separate him from his impressionable brother, who is slowly coming into his own, in hope that school will give him structure and consequences? Do I send out 8 yo, hoping to alter the dynamic by having the "hardest" child out, and giving him a taste that other kids his age struggle with the same material? Do I send out my daughter, who is eager to go to school? Do I send out my 1 yo, in hopes that his active energy will be managed better outside the home and I will have some peace and quiet? Do I send out some combination of the above? Keep the older boys home while sending out the younger ones? Keep the younger ones home, do workbooks and reading at my daughter's bidding, and give them a chance to play and explore? Send out my oldest and my daughter, while focusing more on 8 yo?

I mull all these over and over in my head, I toss and turn and miss on sleep, yet the solution eludes me. I told the kids that school is a real possibility for next year, and they might not get much say in this decision.

The local, closest dayschool will not take 8 yo, despite incredible strides in his behavior over the past 6 months, since we have not started on medication or therapy. They would take my oldest son and daughter, and I could send 1 yo to a playgroup around the corner, running on the same schedule as a the school. But 10 yo will be in middle school, so drop off and pick up will be different from kindergarten and from 1 yo's playgroup.

The dayschool that held open house this past Sunday is probably off the table. They have the exact same schedule from infants through middle school, so that is a huge convenience factor. However, we attended on a Sunday, and all the kids that we met in the hallways, practicing for a play or basketball, did not wear a kippa. All the teachers and administrators were wearing slacks. They are clearly not marketing to the frum community. While the school is under Orthodox auspices, it is not a place where Judaism seemed to be a way of life. G-d did not enter the picture, but there were sprinklings of "feel-good" Jewish stuff, like random relics. The administrator obviously was more comfortable promoting the secular studies and enrichment over Judaics.

When we moved here, my husband quipped: there are two dayschools here: one does not believe in G-d and the other does not believe in dinosaurs. I hate having to decide between these two options.

A snippet: as my boys were touring the classrooms, they were reading posters on the walls. They wanted to stop and investigate further; the administrator was more interested in showing off "learning environment" and moving on. My oldest caught a math problem and noted how the prices for bananas and oranges in it were deflated. She exclaimed: you must have been to a grocery store to notice this! So I will be substituting real life for this educational fakeness which will supposedly be giving my kids real-life skills like thinking which this administrator insisted needed to be taught precisely through her thinking map program. I am sure it works great for some, and confuses others, but it sure makes administration feel great: we are teaching kids to think!

There is a third Orthodox option here, a Montessori-based Chabad school. It is on two campuses, one for preschool and kindergarten, and the other for elementary. We toured it with 8 yo back in November, as a possibility. They are holding their open house later this week, just for adults. The advantage is that their Judaism is authentic AND warm and fuzzy. The school is smaller, and they will probably take all four kids without too many discussions. The disadvantages are many: different approach to Judaism, which is more of a concern for older boys; weak academic stimulation due to poor resources, and kids are likely to languish without school supporting them or letting us know until they fail some sort of standardized test. Then again, if the goal is just to park kids somewhere not too damaging for a year and regroup, this might be an ideal place.

Now, for "Class Dismissed": I liked the movie. I recommend it for everyone: for those whose kids are in school. for those who are homeschooling, for those who contemplate homeschooling, but would never do it, etc. I think everyone can find something to take away from the movie. It follows a famly with two middle-school daughters, where mom pulls the girls out and chooses to homeschool. They try different approaches, talk to other homeschooling families, question their decision, try charter school, finally settling on an approach which works for them. After we finished, my husband said that he feels strengthened in his resolve to homeschool. I chuckled; I am committed to homeschooling, too, only we have slightly different circumstances. And this is where fantasy rubs against reality.

I am not aiming for school at home. I have dropped many of my expectations. I am ready to follow my children's lead and give them opportunities to pursue what interests them. The problem is, I have four of them already; I do not have a spouse who can routinely take kids with him to work, and I do not have that third parent (the girls' parents are divorced, so the girls spend some time with their father) to give the kids over and get some personal space. In fact, when they interviewed people on the street, the supposedly false assumption about needing three parents struck me as true.

What I do have are four kids withe very different personalities and needs (about to become five). One wants to socialize the whole day through, two want to sit at home and read. One wants an occasional play date, one wants a bunch of friends over for a competitive board game. One wants park non-stop, one wants a pet, one wants high-level science stimulation. Two crave imaginative play. One wants to scale every mountain, explore every rock, climb every tree. One wants Minecraft creativity and online socialization.

And then there is me, who also wants something, most likely a quiet hour here and there, and a nice hot cup of beverage, preferably the one I do not have to prepare myself, or clean up afterwards...

Oh, and then there is my husband. whose poor head is ready to explode as he is looking over dayschool tuition. It's a fact: even as a doctor, he is not making enough for us to be able to pay any of it in full. It is not a matter of being comfortable, or indulging; it's a matter of affordability. He is not making hundreds of thousands of dollars that would offset 50K that it would take to send my kids to school. So we will have to enter the world of explaining what is going on, how we have crazy medical school loans, how we are paying for every little aspect of our life ourselves.

I want homeschooling to work out, but I do not see how to do it successfully on my own. I don't want to send my kids to school and drive ourselves further into debt. But I also need to accept the reality that I cannot afford full-time help or assistant, and nobody in my immediate family will step up and take on that role. I also have to accept that my husband cannot do more educationally for my kids than sporadic learning, nor that he can reliably give me that breathing space. I will have to manage this aspect of my life by myself.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Kids nowadays" and grown-ups at kiddush

The line one always hears, especially from people of a certain age: "Kids nowadays..."

They are rude.
They are loud.
They are pushy.
They get away with everything.

We belong to a small shul. Technically, it's a start-up, so everything is small and DIY type of thing, including kiddush. I like that my kids are involved in setting up for kiddush, and that the woman in charge takes time to think of a weekly theme related to a parsha, making it fun and educational. But more that that, they are vested in setting up and cleaning up.

One of the things that annoyed me to no end about a bigger shul down the road is the total mess of a kiddush. There was a kiddush committee who set up kiddush in advance. I tried volunteering for it years ago, but I was told that I cannot bring my kids, as it would violate sanitary standards. Then, as davening was over, the doors to the social hall were closed until some predetermined time, and the stampede of people and kids stormed the tables, grabbing food like they will never be fed. Five cookies at a time, ten crackers, mounds of vegetables, globs of humms... Moreover, as people and kids finished eating, the food waste was apparent in piles of uneaten food left on plates for the janitorial staff to clean up. I lost my cool when I caught a bar-mitzvah-aged boy pouring soda from his cup straight onto the drinks tablecloth. "What do you think you are doing?!! And who will be cleaning this up?"
I had high hopes for our smaller chevra (group). The rule is, grown-ups take food first, and then the kids. The place is small, so we are talking about a dozen of people.I hoped that once kids will be responsible for set-up and clean-up, they will not be inclined to make a mess, or waste food. I also hoped that there will not be scarcity, and civilized, well-mannered approach will prevail.

Today I realized that before we complain about kids nowadays, we need to take a look at ourselves. The kids who set up kiddush did politely wait, but the grown-ups disappointed.

It is rude to grab a quarter of a cake for yourself, when not everyone had a slice. It is rude to talk right by the table, blocking everyone else's access. It is rude to ignore the child who does grab half the donuts or candy, and not to stop them and tell them to put some back (I have done that, to my children's chagrin).  And it is rude not to clean up after yourself.

Meanwhile, my kids are being plied with candy and sweets (it is Shabbos!) against my express wishes. No, they do not need more sugar or food coloring, no, they do not need more sweets. And please stop testing willpower of a child by repeatedly offering him a treat. You will not be the one dealing with his refusal to eat lunch, or his off-the-wall behavior later in the day.

You will be walking home, shaking your head, and saying: "Kids nowadays..."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

taekwondo in the morning

I spoke to the boys' taekwondo teacher about organizing a homeschool class in the mornings, and moving them into two existing grown-up classes for two other times per week. The late night driving was killing me, together with not having an evening off, and preparing two separate dinners. It looks like it will be coming together!  The homeschool class will start next week. Today, we attended the morning class.

I was very worried, as 1 yo got woken up by his siblings at 5:30 am (and so did I). I really ripped into 10 yo, for getting out of bed, followed by 4 yo, and making noise. Boy, was I grouchy! Also, I was worried that 1 yo will fall asleep on the way to taekwondo, and be cranky, and then not nap at home (and my husband is on call, and it's a bath night, and it looked like a really long day, especially since 10 yo did not finish his schoolwork from yesterday...)

But, never fear, it all worked out.

Since 10 yo was up so early, I got him started on his schoolwork early. He finished everything by 10:30, the time we had to leave for taekwondo. 1 yo was melting down, badly enough for me to ask one of the boys to get him his paci (he only uses it for naps). He did not want to be held, or played with, or distracted. He kept sitting on me, screaming, throwing 10 yo's kippah. However, with paci, he calmed down. When I said it is time to get shoes on, he took the paci out, and handed it to me, since we don't leave house with a paci. He did snooze in the car for 5 minutes, but woke up as soon as we arrived at the dojang.

It was adult class, but the boys did really well, How do I know? Because that same kid who was so unbelievably cranky, sat on my lap, still as a leaf, for half an hour, Then he clambered quietly up and down the chairs in the visitor's area for ten more minutes, and then ate Cheerios in the lobby till the boys were done. I got to see how the boys stretch, how incredibly flexible 8 yo is, swinging from split to split, laying his belly down on the ground, how they listen and control their bodies, how they respectfully lined up, how they know their forms.

It was a sunny day, and the sun was warming my back, my baby quietly sitting in my lap, me, kvelling. I relaxed. I could see getting used to this.

The boys came out in high spirits. We drove home, and I put 1 yo down for a nap. I fed them lunch, and then 8 yo finished all his schoolwork, by 1:30. 10 yo was on Minecraft, while I worked with 8 yo, rather, I was sitting at the same table where he was doing his assignments, and was being consulted as need be. He melted down just once, when he got the spelling words wrong, again, but even that was a half-hearted meltdown. He did not seem to believe the words that he was using to berate himself, so he just chose to write down those troublesome spelling words in script.

Now he is on Minecraft. I will have to get my daughter soon, and the baby is still napping.

When I have days like these, I wonder, why do I complain about how hard it is (totally forgetting how this morning's early wake-up drove me to tears).

A friend posted "gam ze yaavor" (this, too, shall pass) poster this morning. 10 yo saw it, and said: the sign that will make a sad person happy, and a happy person sad. True, so true.