The Parental Ideologue

So here is what happens… you find out your pregnant. You start to share this news with the world. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has parenting advice. Family, friends, distant relations, people you talked to once in high school, random strangers will stop you on the street, in the middle of the grocery store, to tell you how they parented.

You have the baby, and the advice does not stop. Especially if this is your first baby. Everyone is a parenting expert, and they will have this irrepressible need to tell you the many ways they succeeded, how they did it, and how you should do it.

I would like to note that rarely do these home-grown experts own up to their failures.

Among the advice givers, you’ll find the ideologue. There are roughly as many different theories on parenting as there are lip gloss samples at Ulta. You’ll find parents from many of these groups, and they will tell you how every decision they make fits within the tenements of their parenting philosophy.

It drives me crazy.

I parent to the kid, not to the ideology.

If I had to pin my parenting philosophy down, it falls somewhere around “Get Everyone to 18 Without Losing my Mind.” We do practice quite a bit of attachment parenting, I do consider us gentle parents. But we routinely find ourselves making decisions out of the definitions of those philosophies.

Each kid is different. There are vast differences between Sprout and Pudge. Already, I am seeing that some of the parenting techniques that worked with Sprout are not going to work with Pudge. She is an entirely different child, technical and precise, then her wild big sister. Making decisions just to stay within the parenting tenements I follow, to have more cred as a gentle parent, will hurt my children, rather than help them.

Along with this, comes the books. There are hundreds of books at my local Barnes and Noble on parenting. Many of them proclaim with bold phrases in bright letters that buying this book will solve all your parenting problems. Or the DVDs. For just $59.99 plus shipping and handling, you can buy this series from world renown parenting expert Doctor Clown, who can solve all your parenting problems!!.

No. It just doesn’t work that way.

Parenting is not finding one parenting philosophy or book or technique, that will solve all your problems. Parenting is continuous problem solving. It is tackling the same problem from different directions. It is giving up on a problem and coming back to it.

Let me be honest. There are days when I wish one book, one technique, one anything would solve every parenting problem I face. But that just isn’t true. Some days I have to drink enough coffee to caffeinate a hibernating bear; do as much as I can with the time I’m given, keep the girls fed, clean and get them into bed, and call it a day.

And that’s my parenting ideology. Do the best you can with each day you’ve got.

 

~Jennifer

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In Praise of the Older Mom

In March of 2011, I become a Mom for the first time. In July of that year, I turned 31. If you’re doing the math, I will be 37 the end of this week.

I remember my midwife, remarking on what an odd case I was. An Army Wife who hadn’t had babies until her 30s. It was the first, but not the last time someone has remarked on my age.

Many, most of my friends have older children. They are past the diapers and potty training, sippy cups, footed pajama stage. Some of the friends I went to high school with have kids graduating high school soon.

Among the many things people questioned, was whether we had fertility problems. Let me answer that, no. Neither of the girls needed much more planning that tossing the condoms in the trash, and maybe a few games of beer pong.

I didn’t have children in my 30s because I didn’t want to. In fact, I swore for years that I wasn’t going to have kids. I didn’t want them at all. At 25 I seriously considered tying my tubes and just not having kids. I didn’t grow up with the idea of being a mother, rather I grew up running from the idea of it.

And I just had stuff to do.

Sometime before I graduated high school I wrote down what I wanted to do with my life before I turned 30. Some of it was typical teenager fare, get a tattoo, stay out all night long, go to a bonfire at the lake; and some of it was deeper, I wanted to travel, to see the sunrise off the coast of Texas, down by my uncle’s place, go to South by Southwest, take pictures of all the flowers I could find in Texas, read all the historical markers between my house and Austin. I wanted to trace my family’s roots back to Europe, I wanted to rescue animals and rehabilitate them. I wanted to shop, and shop, and shop some more.

Just before my 30th birthday, I checked the last one off my list. I got a tattoo. I still live for a good shopping trip.

I was famous, or rather infamous, for the volatility of my relationships. If it wasn’t passionate, I didn’t want to be in the relationship. But there was never any stability with that passion. It took me until the last years of my 20s to find the right alchemical mix of passion and stability and strength, in a man, to keep me interested.

And Hubs may piss me off. May infuriate me. May send me into fits of anger so bad I send long, ranty messages to my friends and drink too much coffee. But I am never bored.

We are stable. Bills are paid, house is cleaned, laundry done, all that domestic stuff. Last night we cruised around town looking at houses and talking about grass versus gravel, plants to put in flower beds. We are not lacking for stability. I’m not bored though. I’ve discovered that a stable relationship is more encouraging for creativity, gives me more opportunities to create and play music, than the wild affairs I found myself in.

I am a better person than I was. I was not in the right place to have babies in my 20s. I was struggling from the pain of an unhappy childhood, cutting myself free of a toxic extended family that has poisoned me for most of my life. I would not have been able to dedicate myself to my kids the way I needed to. Motherhood is one sacrifice after another, and in my 20s, I was too selfish to do that.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a little selfish. It gave me the freedom to chase my dreams.

I had a second adolescence in my mid-20s. It was less about my body changing, and more about my brain changing. I was settling into life as a grown up, and realizing I had responsibilities. I was learning how to balance a checkbook, pay my bills on time, do my own laundry, and cook my own meals. It would have been so hard to have a baby in that time of my life, before everything settled into place.

I’ve heard the phrase “I grew up with my children.” And while there isn’t anything wrong with it, it wasn’t what I wanted for myself. The first time I held each of my girls, and looked them in the eyes, I met them not as a half-formed girl, unsure of herself. But as a grown up, as a woman. Confident in herself, in her abilities to raise a child, secure in a stable relationship, sure of herself as a person.

I am a better mother for having waited. And my children deserve the best of me.

 

~Jennifer

 

On Father’s Day

I said I needed a man who was tough enough to take on my problems.

I said I needed a man who would let me hide behind him.

I said I needed a man who knew how to cook, knew how to fix cars, and could iron his own clothes.

I said I needed a man who did not mind that my email address was in latin, that I read medieval history books for fun, and that I know some of the weirdest trivia facts.

I said I needed a man who would be a good father.

I said all that, in a note. I tucked the note into my journal, almost 10 years ago, and forgot about it. I got busy with school and work, and life.

And then -he- wandered into my life.

I had 1,001 reasons why it wouldn’t work. The age gap (I’m older), he was in the Army, I didn’t want to leave Texas, I didn’t like to cook, I had baggage from a string of failed relationships. He was nothing if not persistent.

I found myself, somewhere around 2 years after writing that note, sitting in a bathroom in a rental house in Georgia, south of Savannah, a few minutes from the gates of Fort Stewart. My pants were around my ankles, a Route 44 Strawberry Limeade was on the bathroom counter, half-empty. And 3 pregnancy tests were sitting on the counter.

Every single one was positive.

He became a father while on an airplane coming in from Iraq. He didn’t hold his first born until the next day. He smelled like dirt and sand and airplane, and his ACUs desperately needed to be washed when he dropped into the chair next to my hospital bed, and held his little girl for the first time.

And that was all she wrote.

Family life has heaped a heavy burden on his shoulders. He took it.

He held on as I cried through the loss of a sibling, and then another. I lost an aunt, then grandparents that never really liked me, and still I cried. He has endured countless mood swings; both girls inherited my temperament. He carried first one baby, and then another, on his shoulder, propped in the crook of his elbow, changed diapers, changed their clothes, brushed their hair. He’s learned how to give breathing treatments, allergy medicine, how to put on cortisone on itchy skin, where to put a humidifier to get the maximum effect.

He has gone to work on little sleep, after spending the night up with a sick baby and a wife too stressed out to remember how to measure out baby Tylenol. And slept with a sick baby in a recliner. And slept with a sick wife propped on his shoulder.

That note, with my list of things I wanted in a man is long gone. But I remember the last line, he has to be a good father.

He is the best father.

~Jennifer

What We Learned

 

The first day of school, and the last. Of course I took pictures, it is what I do, I record memories and save them. Print them, frame them, turn them into books to flip through. I compared the pictures, side by side, two little girls, gamely holding up signs and smiling for me. Or really, smiling for the bribe of candy I promised.

We have come so far. Some days I lead, and they follow, like ducklings at my feet. But I realize now that they have led as much, leaving me to follow. If I just shut up, and trust in myself; to teach, in them to learn, in us to come together, I learn just as much.

I’ve learned that I do not have girls who learn through play. Well they do, but I came into homeschooling thinking we would have a play-based, Montessori-style education.

Instead Sprout will watch documentaries on Egypt, come to me with questions, and we will stumble down a rabbit hole, learning obscure facts.

I’ve learned that Pudge will stack blocks, just so, over and over, until they are aligned perfectly. She sits patiently with a box of rainbow counting bears, carefully sorting them and matching them, standing them facing the same way.

Where Sprout is all instinct and rushing into things, Pudge is calculating, technical, taking her time to finish something. She still eats paint though.

I discovered a huge secular homeschooling group, and my sanity when I did so. Through them I found a history curriculum, a science, a math. I am better armed for the formal years of schooling, now that I’ve seen so many of them do it, than I was before. And I am better prepared for how the girls need to learn. They need to be challenged and nudged, led to discoveries and realizations.

Halfway through the year, I realized that many of the questions I was getting, about homeschooling, about what we do, were not questions, but were thinly veiled criticisms. How do you do it, really means can I do it. I don’t see how you can teach that, you didn’t take it in school, really means, are you smart enough to teach it. I’ve learned to see the genuine questions, and the criticisms. Questions I answer, and criticisms I ignore. For the most part.

Along with that, I’ve learned that some people are not going to respect my decision to homeschool. (Our decision really.) I’ve whittled most of those people out of my life. Homeschooling will be a huge part of our lives for the foreseeable future, and I do not have the time and patience to deal with the nay sayers. I do not want to create an echo chamber, but I do not want to waste my time defending my decisions either.

I’ve learned to write lesson plans, to stay organized. A few minutes at the start of the week, and everything goes smoother. It’s easier to fill those little brains and keep them learning.

On the other hand, I’ve learned when to throw those plans out and get creative. The weather will ruin a perfectly planned outdoor experiment. I will run out of supplies the night before a big project. One of us will get sick. Those days, we put our best laid plans to one side, and just relax.

Most importantly, I’ve learned to relax. Although my end goal is to keep the girls on roughly their age level in public school, it is ok that Sprout has atrocious handwriting and doesn’t like to work on it. Or that she is ahead in math and science. I can teach them at their speed, subject by subject, until things even out. But they are learning, soaking in everything I point out, talk about, whatever they read about. More of it is sticking than I ever dreamed would.

We do things differently. We’ve become more classical in style than unschool. We have more of a routine than many homeschoolers do, especially with young kids. But it is working for us. That’s what is important.

For the rest of the summer, I have plans to do summer school. A few projects and things to do every day, nothing like the rest of the year. Maybe some handwriting work, lots of science lessons and math, lots of art and coloring.

And then?? We’ll see how much we all learn this next year.

~Jennifer

 

Here We Are

I wasn’t planning on writing this post anytime soon. I have a couple I’ve been working on, writing and saving as I come up with ideas. But like most of my life, plans changed.

On June 6, 2017, I washed the last load of cloth diapers for my kids. A little over a month before my 37th birthday, and we are done.

Tonight, the 11th, Pudge fell asleep without her milkies. She asked, but this time when I told her that bottles were gone and I would be happy to get her a cup of milk, she whined, and then fell asleep. It probably helps that she was up almost 2 hours past bedtime.

I am sitting here, drowning my sorrows in hummus, tortilla chips and Dr. Pepper.

The long, sleep-deprived trek of my life that has involved babies is over. My youngest is 2. My oldest is 6. And the days of rocking a sweet-smelling infant to sleep have slipped through my fingers.

I am at turns unsettled and comfortable with this.

On one hand, both girls are sleeping better lately.

On the other hand… footed pajamas. Neither girl liked them much past when they started walking. So they have come to symbolize babyhood for me.

The Jennifer of Before Kids is not back. And honestly, she may never back as she was, so much has changed. But the Jennifer as I Am, the who I am beneath Mom, I can see her now. There is still so much I want to do, things I want to accomplish. I finished up my Bucket List, the one I wrote a week before high school graduation, before 30. In between 30 and 37, I have been Mom. And The Mrs. There hasn’t been much time for a new Bucket List, I’ve been too busy washing bottles and diapers, wiping faces and butts, rocking babies, folding clothes, pumping gas, carrying children.

To go back to those times of babies will be to give up what little Me I have rewritten. There is so much story still left to write, so many pictures to take and songs to learn, and tattoos to get. There is so much to do still.

But…

They were my babies. Long before they started claiming their independence, long before they started snipping apron strings, they were babies. They were my fiercely guarded lion cubs. They were mine. And I will have to give them up, to their own lives, far sooner than I realized.

I would stay longer in the Land of Babies, if I could. I would linger here, with tiny clothes, tiny fingers to curl around mine, and a tiny head propped on my shoulder. But the girls will not let me. They didn’t linger here any longer than they needed to, and now they are pulling me through their childhood.

We have tea parties to play, and dolls to dress up, sidewalk chalk to color with, and bubbles to blow. We have toes to paint, and lip gloss to use up. We have childhood to get to.

While I will throw myself into their childhood, just like I did their baby years… I may stop to look back. A few times.

~Jennifer

Room for Me??

I have written, and re-written, and re-written this. The previous incantations are all in the trash, sitting there on my desktop, mocking me. Mocking my fear.

I am afraid to write this. I am afraid to post it. I am afraid to even say it out loud.

Here goes…

There isn’t a place in Feminism (the movement, not the people within it) for me. That is remarkably hard to type.

I am a stay at home mother. I spend my days in yoga pants, homeschooling two small children. I rely on my spouse, a man, for income. I go to Starbucks in flip flops. A trip to the grocery store alone is a small vacation.

Feminism is all about Leaning In now. A woman’s place is in the boardroom. And I am not living up to that goal right now. I traded in a job, a career, for late night diaper changes and singing the ABC song during circle time.

And Feminism is leaving me behind.

Often I see posts and comments online deriding stay at home mothers. I see things talking about how boring it must be, and how women who are at home can not be fulfilled with those choices, and we are part of the problem.

But I thought Feminism was about me having a choice. I thought the goal of the movement was to allow women to make their own choices for their lives, from pregnancy to careers, to where to live, to who to bank with, all the choices we get to make. I’m not home because I am forced to be. I am at home by choice.

Let me say that again.

I. Am. At. Home. By. Choice.

I needed a break from the rat race that is working. I needed time to breathe and be in this season of my life. I was tired and emotionally wrung out, and I wanted some peace in my life. I found that, at home. I am happier at home. I like being at home.

I had plans to go back to work. I had plans to put Sprout into kindergarten, and go to work. I stumbled onto homeschooling, and then I had Pudge, and I realized that there is, right now, no other place I would rather be.

Yeah, some days I get bored. Somedays I am so tired of The Wheels on the Bus and Itsy Bitsy Spider. BUT.

The good days outnumber the bad. The moments in the sunshine, playing in the grass, the moments in the rain, jumping in puddles, the lazy warmth of afternoon when we put a movie on and snuggle on the couch, those moments all outweigh the bad tenfold.

I thought Feminism was about choices. I thought it was about letting each woman make her own choices for her own life without interference from anyone.

So why then, is the focus on pushing me to work? Why is the focus on putting me back into a career and a job and a life I do not want? Why can’t I be at Feminist and be at home? Why can’t I be a Feminist and homeschool? Why must I Lean In, when all I want to do is Slow Down?

Is there room for me within Feminism?

~Jennifer

How Far She’ll Go

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Right now, Sprout tells me she isn’t going to move out. When you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says nothing, she wants to stay at home with me. “I’m not leaving my Mama”, she says, with a stubbornness that is genetic.

Every time she says it, I get a pang in my chest, my heart squeezing painfully against my ribs. Despite her insistence that she is not going to leave, I know she is. Her time will come, and she will want her independence. Already she is stretching the bond between us, spending more time without me, playing by herself, or with her sister, wanting Daddy for more and more, letting go of my hand when we’re at the grocery store, and skipping ahead down the aisle. She jumps from one brown tile to another, skipping the white ones, on the floor, until she is at the end of the aisle, and I have to call her back.

The knowledge that she will spread her wings and fly shows itself in her taste in music. She loves the Moana soundtrack, and she loves How Far I’ll Go, the most. One day, after she sat and sang the entire song from her car seat, I asked her why she liked the song so much. Because Mama, Moana is going on an adventure, and she sees all kinds of things on her adventure, she meets Maui, and the sparkly crab and whales, and she learns to steer the canoe by the stars.

She is attracted to stories and songs about adventures. For a year it was Tangled, and the adventures of Rapunzel. Then it was Frozen. Now it’s Moana.

The stories about princesses who wait for the prince to come? They aren’t for her. She’ll watch Snow White warble on about her prince, or Sleeping Beauty sing about her dream of a prince, but given her choice, she picks adventures. She watches Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, she has dived headlong into the Emily Windsnap series, this morning at 5 am she was up reading. She wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and just like Belle, she isn’t afraid of monsters.

My oldest child is going places. She feels the same attachment to home I have, and I know when she leaves it will be with tears in her eyes. But she will leave.

She is my child. The call to the road and adventures is genetic too.

~Jennifer

The Land of One

Tomorrow is my last day in the Land of One. There is no little baby coming up behind Pudge, once the clock rolls over to midnight, I will not come here again.

One is a land of sippy cups during the day, and bottles at night. One is a land of Up, and More, and NO. One is the land of naptimes, lovies and pacifiers.

The baby I cradled against my shoulder, a head full of dark hair, skin yellowed from jaundice, and slept in the sunshine from my living room window, she is gone.

But so is the barely one year old.

A sturdy toddler body launches herself into my arms from the couch. A head full of dark hair lays next to mine on the pillow at night, half-heartedly sucking on a pacifier as she sleeps. The crib has been turned into a toddler bed, and already we are looking at bunk-beds.

2T clothes, and soon 3T, dominate the wardrobe. Size 6 shoes sit by the door.

We are firmly in the Land of Toddler.

Today at lunch, she held her arms up, arms that are no longer chubby, and said Up. Followed it up with a please, and so I ignored the bubbling water on the stove, and hoisted her onto my shoulder. On their bedtime playlist is These Are The Days. I have memories of spinning slow circles in my kitchen with her cradled in my arms, or sleeping on my shoulder.

Sprout and I have Layla, the Unplugged version. She still firmly believes that Eric Clapton wrote that song for her.

Pudge and I have These Are the Days. And standing there today, on the last day of 1, with her head on my shoulder, and her eyes half closed, I cried. Not the big fat tears of true sadness. But small tears. Tears of letting go.

Tomorrow we are off to see the snow and play in the mountains. Her first day in the Land of Two will be one of adventure and fun.

Goodbye Land of One. My memories of you are sweet. And exhausting, I feel like every time I have come through this land, I am exhausted. But we can not stay any longer. Life is pulling us along.

 

~Jennifer

Best Laid Lesson Plans

I am prone to tweaking lesson plans. I write them, plan weeks and occasionally months in ahead, and in the moment, that week or that day, I tend to change them. There have been moments where the girls were working on one activity, and I was re-arranging plans for the next.

Hubs challenged me to do 5 days, following my lesson plans to the letter. No substituting, no changing, do the plans as I wrote them. A brand-new camera bag/purse was on the line, if we met those days. I wanted that bag. And I wanted to see if we could actually get through those days, if with the promise of a treat, I would lead and teach the girls, and not find an excuse to spend the day in my yoga pants.

We set off the first day, and I was full of ambition. And caffeine. I have new curriculum for science, history and math, and I was eager to get into it. The night before I had printed off a lab, read ahead in the history book, printed off a map, and dug through my endless supply of math manipulatives. The girls sailed through that day. And the next. And the next.

But the 4th day, our Thursday, was a slog. No one wanted to work that day, especially me. I found myself accepting work I would normally ask for a redo on. Rushing through our science time just to get it over with. I didn’t stop to make sure Sprout has grasped the math concepts we were working on, and we had to go back to it the next day, and slow down. Our Friday was better, but everybody needed a break.

When we finished up that last day, Sprout looked up at me and asked if homeschool was always going to be this hard. Pudge had refused to let go of me for nearly an hour, desperate for some attention and some hugs. I had an epiphany in that moment, this is not why I homeschool.

I did learn some things though, and I have the feeling these lessons will stick with me through my homeschooling years:

  • It is so easy to fall into the trap of Drill Sergeant. Getting all those activities done, doing spelling words and math problems, became more important than what the girls were leaning.
  • In the moment, likes and dislikes change. Things that Sprout liked, that I could incorporate into lessons, were dislikes by the end of the week, and she did not want anything to do with them.
  • The ability to change lesson plans on the fly is a strength of homeschooling not a weakness. I can easily adjust to a new like, or skip ahead when something is mastered quicker than I anticipated.
  • I got into homeschooling for the creativity it afforded. The ability to teach on the fly, to change things up was a huge draw for me.
  • We have homeschooled for long enough now that going to a more structured schedule, more than what we do now, isn’t going to happen, at least overnight.

I hope to take this knowledge with me, to remember this when I start to feel bad about how often we don’t get everything accomplished, that the girls are still learning. Even when we do nothing more than stay in our jammies and build block towers and intricate marble runs, they are learning.

~Jennifer

Sick Day

It is not easy for me to take a day off.

My honeymoon, that first year of marriage where everything is sunshine and roses… wasn’t. Within months of getting married, Hubs was overseas on a deployment, and I was pregnant. Everything, every single detail of daily life, mundane or not, fell on my shoulders. To complicate matters, when we tossed out birth control, I did not think it would take us just a few weeks to get pregnant. But five days after I said goodbye, the lines on a pregnancy test turned pink.

Life has not slowed down since. I have lost two siblings to cancer, and taken on the care of my Mom, whose health has declined.

When the pregnancy test turned positive a second time, Hubs was finishing up his career in the Army, and we were planning a cross-country move. After we settled in the desert, I found myself homeschooling, making my own baby food, washing cloth diapers, doing it all again.

And then my health started to decline. Mood swings I could not explain, hot flashes, joint pain, and overwhelming fatigue. Nothing I tried made me feel better. I could not get enough sleep, could not get the house cool enough to be comfortable, even when my family shivered and ran for blankets in the middle of a hot summer.

All my passions, writing, photography, music, fell by the wayside. Weeks went by without me picking up my camera, I could not write even the simplest short story. My guitar sat alone in its case.

The doctor put everything together, and told me that I have Grave’s Disease. At first I was dumbfounded; I am never sick. The health problems that have plagued my family seemed to pass me by. It took days for me to really wrap my head around the idea that I was sick. And that no matter what treatment works, it will likely mean a lifetime of medicine.

But it meant something bigger than even medicine. It meant I had limits, and my body was at them. It meant that I could not stay up all night long, and then spend the day teaching Sprout, playing with Pudge, cleaning my house. It meant I needed to pay attention to my diet, lay off the caffeine, get more sleep.

I took some time to look for the lesson in this, what life is trying to teach me. It was a painful lesson, but one I needed to learn. I need to learn to take a sick day.