Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Self-care and support advice: helpful or harmful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Desiring more and happiness

איזהו אשיר? השמח בחלכו

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

On Minimalism

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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