Tuesday, December 29, 2015

on being present

During the past legal holiday, we visited a nursing home. My friend posted that she would like to visit, as a חסד (kindness), but her kids are out of town, can someone with cute babies come with her? My husband was on call anyway, and I wanted to give my kids this experience, so I agreed to go.

This is so not my thing: going and making small talk with strangers while making sure that my kids are not too wild or loud. My insides clench at the thought. I don't know what to say, I don't know how to say it, and I'm afraid to offend.

Still, I went. I talked it up to the kids, trying my best to make it sound good and exciting: you can sing for the residents, you can do taekwondo presentation, it will be fun. The nursing home itself was brand-new, more like a fancy hotel. We went into the memory care unit, a fancy way to describe a place for those who no longer can orient themselves. The coordinator pulled out games: bowling, balloons and badminton rackets, balls. The kids busied themselves with the equipment. They tossed the balls to each other and to the residents, whacked at those balloons and were noisily happy. 11 yo played a game of "keep it up" with one of the ladies, solicitously tossing the balloon within her reach. He continued for good five minutes, patiently retrieving the balloon when it wandered off..

5 yo asked for a drink of water. We had to go around a corner, to the dining area to get her one. Over there, an old man was sitting in front of his breakfast tray. He looked at us, and something in his eyes looked like he wanted to connect. I had plenty of reasons not to do so: the rest of my kids were not within my line of sight, the residents who wanted interaction were in another room, the drinking that my daughter wanted was done. Yet I said something or other to this man, and he started talking. The words were tumbling out, with urgency. I sat down at his table, looking straight at him, nodding. He had a message, and he was trying to tell it to me. Israel, kibbutz, scientist daughter, millions of books, wise men, military: it was all there in the story, Yet I could not catch all the words that he said, and the details (who, when, where) were all missing. The story was circular, clearly without an end. My daughter left; I stayed, rationalizing that there are enough adults watching my kids. I consciously willed myself to stay and do nothing productive at this time. I stayed for a bit, and when my kids entered the space again, I excused myself.

As we were loading in the car, 11 yo angrily said that these residents do not need us: they have all these fancy activities. I explained how these people specifically need us. Our visit brought a certain positive experience to them, even if they won't be able to remember who came and what happened. They will remember the joy of interaction.


For the past three days, 5 yo has been sick. She has fever and feels overall miserable. She lounges on the couch and calls for me to sit with her. She wants me to cuddle. She does not want me to read books to her, she does not want me to get her drinks, or do anything else, she just wants me to sit next to her. It is excruciatingly painful for me. I want to do something to make her feel better. I don't want just to sit, I want to move, to fix, to tidy up, to do something with her or for her. I feel trapped, bored and lonely. I want to check my phone and arrange things. She complains about my phone. I try to just sit, but I can't.

In our lives, we are constantly told to be efficient, be quick, get things done, accomplish something, have a tangible measure of achievement. Sitting next to my sick daughter does not produce anything. Sitting to an old rambling man with dementia does not achieve anything. Yet both of these idle activities generate a sense of well-being in the recipient.

I am quite good at doing fun things with my kids. I am not quite good at simply being with them.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

When errands turn into pleasant outings

You have one child, and you worry and you fret. You fret about getting out of the house, nursing in public, crying baby, having enough diapers, not getting enough sleep, baby not sleeping.

Then you have two kids, and now you fret about coordinating naps, or one child running off, or being split into two directions. You fret about going out in public and not being able to control them, or having enough snacks, or using the restroom.

Then, somewhere, around three kids, magic happens. You still fret and feel overwhelmed, but you fret much less. You probably have a handle on nursing in public, you know which establishments have the cleanest bathrooms and are kid-friendly, and you have emergency diaper stash in the car. You gave up on coordinating nap schedules and accepted sleep deprivation as a trade-off to spend time with these little people.

It is the second day of the winter break for 5 yo and 2 yo, and, I have to confess, I'm loving it. I love no afternoon carpool. I love having them all home. I love having all the kids hang out together, separate into playmates as they see fit. I love that 2 year old is entertaining the baby. I love that 9 yo and 5 yo are playing their games. I love that we are all going to places together.

Today could have been insane. The boys had their taekwondo in the morning, I was testing right after their class, and then we were taking the car for an overdue oil change. I could not attend the class, since I had all the younger kids with me, but it turned out to be fine. Both 5 yo and 2 yo packed their backpacks with toys and books of their selection. 5 yo stayed in the dojang and watched the boys. 2 yo stayed right outside the door, watching the practice, getting drinks from the water fountain and being quiet. The baby was the hardest: she did not nap in the car on the way over, and I needed her to be happy for my test, as I was relying on 11 year old to watch her. She was fussy, but I was able to nurse her to sleep and leave her in the car seat.

I fretted about not stretching before being tested. I knew the material, but my body was not warmed up. However, the test went well (and I have to thank the teacher, who is a parent himself, for keeping it short and sweet). 11 yo watched the baby and played Hangman with 5 yo. 9 yo watched 2 yo. He was impressed with my board breaking, on the first try.

Then we all changed into regular clothes and drove over to drop off the car for the oil change. Since it was a fast day, even though none of us were fasting, I did not want to take kids to Starbucks for hot cocoa, and I did not want to get them treats. However, we did have an hour to kill. When I unloaded the kids, they lined up around one of the car bays: I forgot how exciting it is to see the car go up and see the underbelly. Once they realized that our car is not getting hoisted up any time soon, they asked me what we are doing for an hour. I suggested going to a nearby square, but they spotted the library first. "Ooh, can we go?" One of the boys was sad that he did not have his library card with him. This is not the branch that we usually go to, so it was even more exciting. I said that we can stay inside as long as the baby doesn't fuss, and then we discussed why the library is expected to be a quiet place. When  we got inside, the boys disappeared into the stacks. 5 yo found some puzzles, 2 yo found a book and asked me to read. The baby squirmed, so I sent her crawling. We stayed inside, with me reading to the younger ones for about 20 minutes, when the baby's level of noise started getting louder and louder. It was time to leave.

When we came out, I told the kids that we can break into the only snack I brought: a half-eaten bottle of peanuts topped off with almonds, craisins and dried apricots. We walked over to the square, where there were benches and space to run around. 11 yo protectively held 2 yo's hand when we crossed the streets. 9 yo pushed the stroller. The kids looked around at the shops and the restaurants and commented on their names and food options. In the square, 11 yo sat on the bench, while the younger ones ran around, playing tag, and climbing on the sculpture. I took the baby out and held her in my lap. It was warm, it was nice, the kids were taking turns grabbing snack from the bottle and strictly enforcing fairness. 

I thought to myself: how lucky I am to reach a point where an oil change is a welcome break from our routine. It was such a good outing. I did not fret about the snacks, I already changed 2 yo at taekwondo, so I did not fret about the diaper. and we would get home, when we would get home, and they will either nap, or not. The older kids will either eat lunch, or not. And none of it matters.
What matters is that we are all here, right now, together. What matters is that I am not overwhelmed by my five kids. What matters is that I am enjoying them, in a pure way where parents get nachat not because of what kids do, but just from having them.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Trends in Jewish Education

This past week, I attended a lecture on Trends in Jewish Education, specifically targeting day school age population. I brought both boys with me (they probably wanted pizza that came with the shiur...) The takeaway was that the future of Jewish education looks more like homeschool than traditional school. There is need to differentiate, less frontal instruction, recognition of multiple intelligences and various learning styles, addressing special needs population. There is need to teach students how to learn, and how to spark in them desire to learn. There is need to build close relationships with teachers and rebbeim. There is recognition for tremendous potential of online learning, and awareness that the world in which current kindergarteners will graduate will look very differently from the world they started in.

But there is also the economic side and that is unwieldy. The speaker kept saying how the tuition is already high, and, with implementation of all these new ideas and individualization, there is no economy of scale, so the cost keeps on spiraling up.

Moreover, he quoted the principals who consider a student a success as long as they still engage with Judaism and Jewish identity in some way, be it through Zionism, advocacy, social causes, textual basis, or religious observance. Additionally, studies have shown that a 6 to 12 months stint in Israel (not a gap year which has turned into "fifth year of high school", but a self-selected program like discontinued Masa) have the same impact on the rate of intermarriage as eight years of day school.

Coming out from the lecture, 11 yo thanked me for homeschooling him, that's how bleak everything looked on the other side. However, no need to attend a lecture for that. It seems that every week now I hear of another family seeking out alternatives to day school/yeshiva. Parents are desperate: the children are not thriving, the children are not learning, the children are not accommodated, and the messages of day school are not sticking. Unlike the free public school, all of this comes with a hefty, back-breaking price tag. The parents are sincerely wondering whether all the sacrifices that the families are making to give their kids a Jewish education end up producing Jewishly-educated kids.

I kept thinking about the famous pasuk from Mishlei, the battle-cry of Jewish educators everywhere: חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַל-פִּי דַרְכּוֹ--    גַּם כִּי-יַזְקִין, לֹא-יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה
Train a child according to his way: so when he grows old, he will not turn away from it. It seems that the day school world is waking up to the first part of the pasuk, but they are not doing a good job transmitting values, so the second part does not work. The secret is that the pasuk was not aimed at an institution, it was meant for a parent.

I sincerely feel bad for the educators who are trying to scale up the dynamic that is meant to take place at home and apply it to a classroom of diverse human beings.

Another painful point that was brought up had to do with socialization. Aptly, the speaker did not praise highly the socialization that takes place in the classroom, but he noted that there is a lot of ostracism for those who deviate from the communally-accepted modality of education. Many homeschoolers experience it on their own skin, as do those who do leave yeshivish or chassidish environments. It seems that day school does a fine job teaching whom to affiliate with, and whom to stay far away from. The speaker noted that this behavior is modeled by the parents and rabbeim.

What trends do you see in Jewish education?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

One day out of many

7:15 am and I hear the baby cooing. Or is it older kids talking? Oh, it's both. The baby has been up again during the night, a bunch of times, too many to count.

Is it dark? No, it's getting light. Where is my husband? His bag is gone, he must have gotten called up and I slept through.

The younger kids are cuddling in 5 yo's bed. Time to get them dressed. It is menorah painting day, so they need ratty clothes. 5 yo starts arguing that what I picked out is too nice. I tell her that it will be OK to get paint on it.

The baby is cooing. Will I have to drive the younger ones to school? When will I nurse her? I set up her babysitter so I can go to taekwondo with the boys, but if I have to drive, I might not make it back on time. I will definitely not have enough time to nurse her before dropping her off.

Where are the boys? Are they playing the new Pokemon game downstairs? Is my husband possibly in shul, and coming back to drive the kids?

I text him, he's on his way back from an early delivery, but he won't be back till 8:30. OK, get his breakfast in order, get myself dressed, make oatmeal for 5 yo, pour cereal for 2 yo. The boys are just getting up, pulling the shtick of late rising.

Start making coffee; I'll try to stall on nursing till closer to 8. She nursed the whole night, she should be fine. Here, sit in the highchair, eat a piece of mushy banana and a muffin.

Where is the insulated coffee mug? It is in the dishwasher which is dirty. Wash the mug, so my husband can take his coffee to go.

The baby throws the leftovers of banana on the floor.

My husband texts me that there is a lot of traffic and he will be getting in at 8:50. The kids need to be at school by 9. It takes half an hour to get to school in the morning.

Say brachot, and think: he's sitting in traffic, just to get home, grab the kids and breakfast and turn around and go back. He will be late to the office. I should drive.

But if I drive, I don't have time to eat breakfast. I will have to nurse the baby now. I might not make it in time to drop her off and still get to taekwondo. We might be late.

I decide to take them. I call my husband and tell him that. Spread butter on his bagel (I wanted some protein, but there is no time to make eggs, or to figure out what else to have). Wash, eat the bagel while nursing the baby.

Shoot, I only made fish sticks for lunches, and I didn't pack anything else. mad rush to get the lunch boxes, and shove some snacks in. "Don't step on the banana on the floor!" Shoes for all, grab my uniform, tell boys to run the dishwasher while I'm gone, daven and get started on the schoolwork, Tell them to be all ready by 9:30, so I can just pick them up.

Buckle everyone up. It's a good thing that it is warm, so I do not need to preheat the car. No jackets to wrestle with, either.

We drive. In the morning, Waze takes me on a different route than in the afternoon. More traffic lights, more stop-and-go. We listen to the iPod. I get lost in my thoughts.

Chanukah is coming. I need to plan something fun. I need to plan a family dinner and invite my in-laws. We have not been invited out for a meal in months. We have five kids; it is too much for most people. I need to invite others for Shabbos meals. What about that new homeschooling family? I need to be social.

I get to school. The kids happily clamber out, 2 yo waving to his teacher. "He's always so happy!" They love the school. It is a constant, a happy place.

I drive back. I just get home by 9:30. The boys jump in and we drop the baby off. She wakes up as I pull up at the sitter's. I run and hope that she will last till I'm done with taekwondo.

Change quickly into the uniform. I have to review the forms with the boys, I haven't done them for the past two weeks and before that there wasn't enough practice for my muscles to remember what to do. The boys are gracious teachers, going over the steps with me, and practicing whatever I ask.

The workout feels brutal, especially after my break. My legs shake, but I do it. I feel strong and powerful. I forget about Chanukah planning, about schoolwork that still awaits. I focus on repetitions of the side kick.

When I change back at the end of class, I find a message from the babysitter, diplomatically wondering when the baby nursed last. The time stamp is from 20 minutes ago. A wave of guilt washes over me: here I am, self-improving, and she was probably yelling her head off. I text that I'm on my way.

When I pick her up, she's outside with the babysitter. She's not crying, so I finally exhale. She fusses the second I start placing her in the car seat and I briefly wonder about nursing her now. But I drive home, get the boys to open the house and bring in my bags while I sit down to nurse. She falls asleep while nursing and transfers to the crib.

I exhale again.

I get to eat lunch. The boys eat lunch of their own making. I rush them on, so we can get some schoolwork done before afternoon carpool, before the baby wakes up and I will need to finish nursing her.

We do chumash. They do everything else on their own. 11 yo really needs to add more to his day. His mishna teacher is no longer available to teach. For Judaics, I am only able to do chumash. 9 yo was upset about chumash yesterday, but today it goes smoothly. I do not prepare for him, I still remember VaYetze from last year. I remember the Rashis, too. I am getting to mastery. For 11 yo, I have to prepare. The language is different, and there is no narrative. Rashi cites gemarot and opinions which I have not heard before.

The baby wakes up. The boys trip over each other to take her out of the crib. 11 yo mentioned earlier how he misses her, For once, we finished Chumash without interruption. I nurse her. I make a chai latte for my afternoon drive. Now that the dishwasher has been run, I have a clean insulated mug. A piece of chocolate completes the afternoon pick-me-up.

I drive to get the kids from school. They are talking about Alfred Hitchcock's work on NPR. I have never seen Psycho, but when will I get the time? I get the kids and drive to pick up our betta fish from a friend. The kids are quiet in the back seat because the NPR is switched to iPod. The baby is asleep.

I get home and 2 yo does not want to get of his car seat unless I unbuckle him. His fussing wakes up baby. I need to nurse her, again. 9 yo is up to math, and he is having new issues. I still have not made dinner.

I text my husband and he's not coming home till later, much later. I nurse the baby and wonder whether I should be organizing something for Chanukah for the local homeschoolers. 9 yo moved to to have issues with his spelling words which need to be organized in an alphabetical order. I asked 11 yo to peel the potatoes, but he walked away.

I prepare dinner. First I decide that there will be no potatoes. Then I relent from punishing us all and decide not to give any to 11 yo. The baby is crawling into the kitchen, Is that chipped paint that she's licking off the floor? Why does she decide to start crawling when my housekeeping skills are at an all-time low?

I get her to sleep and hustle everyone to set up for dinner. 11 yo does want those potatoes, but I'm firm. And it's a shower night. And I'm still alone.

There was an ice-skating event for the women tonight, a chance to socialize and hang out. I forgot until the pictures started pouring in. I wanted to go. It is not happening. Is that why we have no Shabbos invites, since I don't see anyone?

9 yo washes 2 yo. "I even changed his dirty diaper and wiped him!" Thank you, child. I wash 5 yo. Then I beg the kids to watch the baby so I can take an early shower. I don't know how late my husband will come back. I don't know how long the baby will be up.

I read a story to 5 yo, tuck her in. I nurse the baby to sleep. I look up summer sleep away camp for boys. Darn, we already missed the deadline for one of the grants. I'm in a bit of sticker shock from the price. I share it with the boys and tell them that I will discuss the whole thing with daddy. 9 yo immediately decides that this means that he's not going and starts ruminating about it. I send them to sleep.

At 9 pm, my husband walks in. At 9:05, the baby gets up.


What am I doing wrong?
What am I supposed to be doing differently?
How did I trade the stress of five kids in the house for the stress of carpool?
When am I supposed to get any time to do something for my enjoyment?