When the music started, I rose with the rest of the congregation, but I didn’t look towards the doors at the back of the church. I kept my eyes on my brother, my little brother, the man with the beard and the fancy suit, standing on his own with the icons and the altar.
His face was drawn, a crease between his brows.
The doors opened and his eyes found her. He exhaled, his shoulders eased, and a smile dissolved the tension around his eyes. My smile mirrored his and my eyes filled at the love in his face.
She joined him there and they joined hands and she joined our family.
This is what marriage is about. I am so grateful I was there to witness it.
Ever since I was a little girl, the only thing I’ve really aspired to is motherhood. I had other careers in mind—waitress, clown, firefighter, long-haul truck driver, writer—but those were always secondary to being a mom. Read More
In Part I, I gave an overview of our homeschooling lives. In Part II, I provided information about the materials we use and how we chose them. In this post, I tackle the thorny issue of maintaining balance while the kids are learning at home.
One of the biggest difficulties I have with homeschooling is balance.
There’s the balance between child-led activities and parent-led activities. There’s the balance between the time I spend with my daughter and the time I spend with my son. There’s the balance between education and play. And then there’s the oft-neglected balance between the time I spend with my children and the time I spend meeting my own needs. Some of these are easier for me to manage than others.
Child-led vs Parent-led Learning
Child-led versus parent-led is one about which I feel fairly confident at the moment. At my daughter’s age, things are naturally more parent-led, and my daughter makes this fairly easy. She’s enthusiastic about learning, and while she has subjects that she prefers to other subjects, so far she accepts that they’re all part of the package. I provide the basic structure and clear expectations, and my daughter has her wiggle room within that basic structure. I encourage her to give me feedback on and input about subjects and materials, but I avoid changing things too quickly. When she doesn’t really like something, I encourage her to stay with it long enough that she can distinguish between an actual dislike or lack of fit and the natural ebb and flow of her interest and enthusiasm. Sometimes we can’t rely on our initial reaction to a new experience and need to give it some time to grow familiar before we can judge whether it’s a good fit for us or not. I try to encourage this type of reflection in my daughter. It’s like when she or her brother tries a new food: I tell them to try three small tastes before declaring it “yucky.” I have them take these three tastes every time they try that food, too. I want my children to be flexible and to allow themselves to respond to change in their own tastes and preferences. This is also my primary goal in balancing child-led and parent-led activities and education.
Son-Time vs Daughter-Time
The balance between son-time and daughter-time is more difficult. Ideally, I would like both of my children to feel like only children in regards to the time they spend with me and their father while at the same time experiencing the benefits of a sibling relationship. This is, I realize, unrealistic. If one has one-on-one time with me during the day, the other one is going to be on his or her own during that time. Most days, this means that my son has a lot of time to play by himself while I do instruction with my daughter.
For a while I was using each evening to plan activities for my son to do the following day. For a while I tried to follow the weekly activities in June Oberlander’s Slow and Steady Get Me Ready, mixed with ideas for independent activities from parent blogs (like Hands On: As We Grow) and Montessori resources. I would set up an activity (for example, tongs + pompoms + muffin tin, or painters tape shape outlines on the floor + cars and farm animal toys) so he could “play school” at the same time I worked with his sister.
This, however, proved too labor-intensive for me to do regularly. Now I occasionally set up a project, but mostly I just let him do his own thing. He’s much better at entertaining himself than his sister was at the same age. His imaginative play is rich and varied, and he can occupy himself for stretches of time that aren’t incredibly long but which are usually long enough that I can get through a subject with his sister before he needs anything really involved from me. Still, I run back and forth between helping my daughter with math or Latin and helping my son with a fire truck puzzle or with a phonics activity he’s requested. Sometimes this back-and-forth frazzles my nerves…and sometimes I pay for a quiet moment by later cleaning paint off of the walls or mourning the toys that have been permanently personalized with a Sharpie pen, but it’s all part of the price of homeschooling, I suppose.
On Mondays, however, this is different. On Mondays, a friend from church comes over and acts as a stand-in grandma, playing with my son so my daughter and I can focus on our lessons. This allows me to devote my attention to my daughter for a couple of hours. It’s so much fun for my son, and I love that we’re all deepening our relationship with a trusted member of our community (and a very fun person to be around). It’s a huge help, and really reduces the pressure I feel to be more to my children than I am.
Kid-Time vs Mom-Time
And then there’s the toughest one: the balance between kid-time and mom-time. I used to have this kind of figured out. When we were in Utah, we had a lovely young woman come over and watch the kids for two three-hour stretches each week. I would run errands, work out, or just go to the library or a cafe and write. And then we moved, and I’ve not been able to find someone to do this same regular babysitting for me. We’ve tried to arrange for Mommy Time on the weekends, but even that has fallen by the wayside as our weekends have become busier and busier. Saturdays are now Daddy-son and Mommy-daughter time, which is fun, but which doesn’t meet my need for balance.
What I’ve been doing that helps to a degree is getting up early and exercising each morning. I had been meditating, but I’m less likely to fall asleep while exercising, and it gives me an endorphin boost to get me through the morning. I get up and immediately put on my workout clothes, have a drink of water, and head down to the basement to do a 30- to 60-minute exercise video. It’s not as nice as getting out for a long walk in the woods would be, but it helps keep me sane.
I’m also active in several church activities. I sing in the choir each week, and I facilitate a small discussion group that meets once a month. This month, I hope to try out a local mothers’ group. It’s not ideal because it’s yet another evening activity, but I hope it might yield a stronger sense of connection and community.
I also get in some alone time by staying up until 1:30 or 2:00 a.m each night. However, I do not recommend this technique. It’s fine in the short term, but it’s not sustainable, especially when I’m getting up at 6:00 a.m. or earlier to be able to exercise before my spouse goes to work and leaves me at the mercy of our children. After several consecutive nights of this, I need two or more nights on which I fall asleep with my son between 6:30 and 7:00 in the evening.
Balance, it seems, is a moving target.
What do you do to maintain balance, whether it’s between parenting and alone time or between work and personal time or between time for a spouse or partner and time for yourself?
- Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part I: Overview
- Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part II: Curriculum
- Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part IV: Socialization
- Another Voice on Homeschooling – Homeschool Happymess
- Another Voice on Homeschooling – Music, Mayhem, Motherhood
- Another Voice on Homeschooling – Mindful Homeschooler
Breakfast at my house (on a weekday when Daddy’s already off to work):
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“What do you need, Honey?”
“Can I get you something?”
“Oh, for the love of Mike, what do you want?”
Lunch at my house:
My 6.5-year-old to her 2.5-year-old brother: “You’re a geologist!”
“NO I NOT A GEE-L-GIST!”
“You’re an oceanographer!”
“NO I NOT OSH-OG-FUR!”
“You’re a geophysicist!”
“NO I NOT A GEE…GEE…NO I NOT THAT!!!”
Me: “Honey, please stop calling your brother things. He thinks you’re insulting him.”
Her: “What does ‘insulting’ mean?”
Dinner at my house:
The typical scenario in which no one needs anything until the moment my rear end touches the seat of my chair. I alternate between being the dutiful, long-suffering mother getting the milk/straw/yellow cup/asparagus that’s been requested and acting like my maternal grandfather. Whenever all of his eight children, their spouses, and various progeny were visiting, my grandpa ate hunched over his food possessively, both elbows on the table, watching the goings-on from the corner of his eye.
In other words, I’ve been working on a post about mindfulness and parenting (in response to a comment on my post “Simply Living: My Voluntary Simplicity Project“), and I find that I’ve not been able to focus long enough to even write it. But I thought you might enjoy this slice of my life (and there’s much more where that came from) while I try to get my frazzled brain around this mindfulness thing.
I’m cautiously optimistic.
Years ago, long before I became a mother, I was riding in my boss’s car along with several other co-workers on our way to an off-site department lunch.
“So, Cheryl, do you have any children?” one of my co-workers asked my boss.
“No,” replied my boss. “Children were never on my to-do list.”
I’ve always found that reply amusing, but it’s only been recently that I really understood that what she was saying was that she was prioritizing her career as a scientist over a potential role as a mother. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t see value in a mother’s role, it just wasn’t her value for her life.
This, to me, is the essence of voluntary simplicity: Looking honestly at our values and aligning our lives with them, even if this means our lives don’t look like the brochure. This is a simple thing to say but it can be difficult to implement because often saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” or at least “not now” to a slew of others.
Periodically I ask my husband if he’s happy with the amount of time he spends with our kids.
His answer is always yes.
“I like spending time with them, but I also like the work that I do,” he explains.
As a scientist engaged in biological research, he’s only recently been in a “job” job. After his bachelor’s degree, he went to more than ten years of school and postdoctoral training. He didn’t get his first post-post-doc job until he was solidly in his 30’s. He’s devoted much of his life and his time to his career. It’s something he values and that he finds enriching. Through science, he believes he can make his mark on the world and do the most good he can for humanity.
He values his children and his role as a father. He is very engaged in our children’s lives, devoting essentially every hour he’s home in the evenings and on the weekends to being present with them. He arranges his schedule at work so he gets in to lab before the kids wake up in the morning and comes home in time for dinner between 5:00 and 5:30 so he can see them and play with them and read to them before they go to bed.
He wants to make a mark on the world through his role as a father as well as through his role as a scientist.
On the other hand, I don’t have a career calling, at least not that I’ve discovered. I enjoy writing, and I can see how I could make a mark on the world through my writing. But being a parent is the primary way that I believe I can make my mark on the world. Parenting feeds and, I think, enhances my writing, so the two are intertwined, but I prioritize my parenting over my writing. As a result, I spend the majority of my time with my children and write in the evenings and on weekends.
My husband and I have arranged our lives around these values. The way this looks in our lives is that my primary occupation is at home with our children and his primary occupation is at lab with his scientific career. We’ve done this even during the lean postdoc days in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area where we lived simply but just barely voluntarily. Even then, we didn’t feel like we were sacrificing because we were living our values.
Our roles are synergistic in a way that reflects and supports the priority we place on our values. My husband’s salary as a scientist is, for now, the sole source of income for our family. My caring for our children and teaching them at home allows him to work at a career he loves and bring home the money that supports our family’s needs. When he’s home and spends time with our children, he supports my writing.
When we decide to live by our values, we have to admit that we’re prioritizing many important things, which can be a difficult process. Our family is arranged in one of the couple of ways that are deemed acceptable by our culture, which I think makes it a little easier. The way my husband and I articulate our values vis-à-vis children and career is pretty darned traditional and therefore (besides the homeschooling) accepted by our culture, but if our values were switched, I think we’d end up with a little more difficulty.
Even if it accurately reflected my family’s values, it would be less acceptable for me as a woman to say, “You know, I love my kids and value my role as a mother, but I see my career as the way I’ll make my mark on the world. I’m comfortable leaving the daytime child-rearing to others and having my time with the children after work and on weekends.”
The answer a woman must give to be a “good mother,” the only acceptable answer, is that she’s torn up inside about leaving her children, but that she has to work to bring in more money. Even women whose spouses have very high-paying jobs express this “I need to work for the money” when they choose to continue their careers after birthing their children.
Even though my husband and tons of other men state clearly their priorities for career over child-rearing and it’s seen as normal and even admirable, if a mother makes a statement like this, she’s callous or unmotherly. I don’t know why this is.
Whatever the reason, any deviation from the cultural norm is viewed with suspicion. If he valued being with our children over having a career (and acted upon that value), my husband would be looked at with raised eyebrows and given less societal support than stay-at-home moms get (and that’s precious little to start with).
And if both my husband and I had careers that were central to our lives and our fulfillment and we chose not to have children, woe betide us for being so selfish as to recognize and live by our values. It would be more culturally acceptable if we had children anyway and then outsourced their upbringing, complaining all the while that it sucks but we both need to work to support the financial needs of our family and sacrifice time with our children to do it.
I don’t get why this is. Don’t all children deserve to be raised by people who value child-rearing over essentially everything else in their lives and who don’t feel acutely in every moment that they’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else?
Here’s the thing: when we live in line with our values, we don’t feel it as a sacrifice. We might feel pressure from family, friends, and society at large to make different choices, we might look wistfully into an imagined alternate future, but we’ll ultimately know that we’ve made the right choice based on our values.
A sense of sacrifice is a sure sign we’re not living our values.
I spend my days with my kids, and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed my career because I’m living my values. My husband works full-time outside the home and doesn’t feel that he’s sacrificed time with his kids because he’s living his values. Even though we each complain on the bad days, the way we’ve arranged things works for our family because it’s in line with our values. A feeling of sacrifice would signify that we’re not living in line with our values.
We don’t feel like we’re sacrificing. We feel like we’re simply living.
Wasn’t it about this time last year when I was fixated on the idea of selling everything and moving into an RV? I wonder, if I looked at my journals from the past two decades, if I would find that every late-winter brings me this “itchy feet” sensation.
What’s interesting this year is that my husband seems to have it, too.
“I think we should have some kind of adventure,” he said last weekend.
“Adventure?” I repeated, one eyebrow raised. “What kind of adventure?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe a road trip.”
“We’re going to western Mass in July,” I said. “We could drive up to Acadia and camp sometime. We could drive down to DC and see my dad, visit some museums. Oh! We could fly to Mexico and visit Tucker and Victoria before they head across the Pacific!”
“I’d like to see Vermont,” he replied.
“What about the big Canadian/Upper Midwest road trip you wanted to do?”
“I still want to do that,” he said after a slight hesitation.
“We’ll need to plan it, then. Hey! We could camp all through Canada on our way to Detroit!”
“Umm…” my husband replied.
“The kids and I need passports, and to get those, we need you to come with us to the post office between 10 and 3 one day.” It doesn’t take much to get me off and running in planning mode.
“Okay. Let’s do it. We’ll make the deadline for applying for passports March 1st.” I was impressed by the decisiveness of his reply.
Of course, we’ve not done anything else towards this goal. The passport applications are still collecting dust on the desk. We’ve not investigated routes or campgrounds or timing for a Canadian adventure. We’ve not seriously considered whether our car is big enough for camping equipment for two weeks AND the family.
And it’s not all my husband’s fault. I talk a lot about taking adventures, but when it comes to action, I’m as guilty of procrastination and equivocation as he is.
As much as we’re craving adventure, we realize that our definition of “adventure” is different than other people’s. For us, the 30-mile trek into Boston is preceded by weeks of planning (and then eventually scrapped because it’s too much work/the kids won’t get much out of it/parking will be a pain/it’s too expensive/what will I eat? I missed the Pompeii exhibit at the Museum of Science for all of these reasons).
We will, with little hesitation, pull up stakes and move across the United States, something that other people find unthinkable, but at the same time, the trip to visit my dad in DC has been postponed indefinitely because I can’t decide if he’d be offended if I bought a salad spinner, brought along my Vita-Mix, and filled his fridge with kale during our visit and because between train, plane, and automobile, I can’t think of any way to travel alone with my children that would actually be “pleasant.”
But should adventure be pleasant? My friend from middle school, Maggie, who recently spent a year traveling around the world, wrote about sixteen-hour bus rides with no bathroom facilities (and along narrow roads cut into the sides of cliffs…not sure which part I found most unnerving about this). She wrote about trips down the Nile that resulted in her contracting some kind of parasite. She wrote about almost getting kidnapped and robbed by a motorcycle cab driver in India. She wrote about drinking some unidentifiable liquor during a power outage somewhere in Africa. She risked injury, illness, and death on three continents, and this was all still part of her definition of adventure. It falls more in my definition of “near-death experiences.” Chances are, it’s a little of each.
What, then, is our (our family’s) definition of “adventure”?
I’ve referred to taking the kids on the bus through downtown Salt Lake City as an “adventure.” There was an element of the unknown. We were doing something out of the ordinary, although not unprecedented. It required ignoring the unpleasant (like the smell of the guy in the seat in front of us) in favor of focusing on the pleasant (my son’s amazement at finding himself inside this huge vehicle, my daughter’s elation at getting to pull the cord to request our stop, my own satisfaction at successfully reading a route map/schedule). But there was little danger of physical harm or even of getting lost. If all else failed, we knew how to get home thanks to the grid system upon which the roads are laid out (my daughter learned early on to ask, “What South are we?” a habit that’s less helpful in New England). And I always traveled with ample snacks and clean water, in case we found ourselves stranded on State Street where there would be nothing but fast food places and adult bookstores (like the one advertising “used” magazines. Ew).
Tucker assures me that adventure is different for different people and that my little anxiety-filled adventures are just as adventurous as his family’s upcoming voyage across the largest ocean in the world. I have the sense that this is at least mostly true, but I’m not entirely convinced.
I mean, which do you think sounds more adventurous? “We took our two kids and sailed our boat across the Pacific Ocean,” or “We took our two kids to the children’s museum in Salt Lake City via public transit”?
Or how about, “we camped our way across Canada from Boston to Detroit with two kids and a salad spinner?” (Yes, I know neither Boston nor Detroit is in Canada, but there’s some Canada in between the two cities.)
“Don’t worry, Mommy! I fix it!”
“I found the scissors!” (and the related, “Look, Mommy! I cut it!”)
“I wipe it up, Mommy!”
“I threw it in the trash!”
“The DVD not working!” (this usually means he’s trying to slide a CD into a narrow gap in a drawer or a toy)
We’re getting there, I think. The kids’ haul this Christmas was slightly less unreasonable than in years past, but they still got way more than two children really need. Way more.
“They’re still getting too much stuff,” I lamented to my husband.
“Come on. It’s Christmas! What they don’t play with after a few months, we’ll pass along to someone else.” While I appreciate his unflappable personality, I sometimes wish he’d get just a little uptight about the things I’m uptight about. It’s a real burden being uptight enough for the both of us.
I bought our son two gifts, a book and a wooden train set. I bought our daughter four smaller items (Bananagrams, a chess set, a pair of binoculars and a book about being a young naturalist). In their stockings we put two cookies, three pieces of candy, a set of “Three Little Pigs” finger puppets I real quick made up Christmas Eve, and a few stuffed toys and plastic animals that they already owned. I was skeptical about regifting to them things they played with every day, but my husband was right: they were thrilled.
“A new Elmo!” my son exclaimed when he from his stocking retrieved the small stuffed toy he plays with practically non-stop throughout the day.
Even with this pared down Christmas and the de-cluttering I did in the toy room before the holiday, it took some pretty creative maneuvering to find enough space to house the new stuff.
Before the new stuff arrived, I was really liking the new streamlined toy room. The only trouble I had was that my son reacted to the neater appearance of the space by creating chaos of his own. He would dump out the stuffed animals and the toy cars and the play food and his dinosaur floor puzzle all at the same time. When I suggested we get just one toy out at a time, he seemed to temporarily lose the ability to understand the English language. In addition, the toys seemed to be distributed throughout the house more comprehensively than before the de-clutter.
My kids seemed to be having more fun with their toys, though, and using them in more creative ways. The dress-up bin was getting much more use and the kids were using the recently-dumped bins as cars and rockets and (rather disturbingly) some kind of stuffed animal prison. My son could be seen toddling along, pushing Winnie-the-Pooh, Elmo, the stuffed cat he calls “Tokyo” (which used to be “Gatito” in my daughter’s toddlerhood), and his plastic panda in the toy stroller saying, “Okay, guys! Let’s go back to the park! Park then museum!”
With these new toys, I don’t know how the dynamic will change. One thing I really appreciate, though, is that as much as my children enjoy getting presents, they aren’t fixated by that aspect of the holiday. Opening gifts comprised a relatively tiny portion of our day yesterday. We opened gifts and played for about an hour and a half, then we headed to church. My children were the only kids there. They made rather more noise than I would have liked in the echo-y meeting house, but they were received graciously by the other ten people in attendance. We all sang carols together, my daughter following along in the hymnal with me, my son improvising an animal-related song to the tune of “We Three Kings.” I closed my eyes for meditation and saw the shadow images of the pews and the minister fade gradually away, reminding me of the transient nature of our time here. Afterwards we enjoyed cookies and coffee and conversations about solar panels and vegetable gardens and the aching absence of adult children grown estranged.
After church, we took a raw coconut cream pie next door and spent Christmas dinner with our neighbor’s extended family. Once again, my children were the only non-adults present and, as at church, they were welcomed and praised and entertained by grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles by whom we were adopted for the afternoon.
Back home, we called Nana and Skyped with Grandma and Grandpa and remembered again why so many gifts roll in at holidays and birthdays. It’s not to irritate me or to teach my children that materialism is paramount to interpersonal interactions. It’s how our families show their love for our children from hundreds of miles away. I know that they would much rather be here with us, eating and laughing and praising and petting, listening to my daughter play the flute and my son sing the alphabet song in person rather than over the internet. And we would rather be with them. My lamenting having too many or too few or the wrong kind just serves to put the focus more firmly on the items themselves rather than on the meaning behind them.
The gifts aren’t the point; it’s the love with which they were given. Yes, I want to simplify Christmas and streamline the kids’ toys and clothes in general, but I need to keep sight of the big picture.
With our late-October freak snowstorm, four-day power outage, and the start of National Novel Writing Month all hitting at about the same time, the degree to which I’ve over-scheduled and overcommitted myself and my kids became alarmingly clear. The chaos began with my husband’s lay-off in March and has just continued long after its needed to. Here we are, months after moving into our house, and I’m still in something like survival mode. I’m not happy. The kids aren’t happy. My husband’s happy but that’s because nothing ruffles his feathers. But even he admits things are more complicated than they seem like they ought to be.
As Janet Luhrs points out in The Simple Living Guide, we often keep ourselves busy to avoid intimacy with others and with ourselves. Whether or not that was my intention as I added so many responsibilities, it’s certainly had that effect. I feel so rushed, I rarely take the time any more to just be with my kids. I have no time for their emotional bumps and bruises because we’ve got somewhere to be in twenty minutes and the drive takes thirty-five. When my daughter was two years old, she had very few tantrums, in part because when she started to feel overwhelmed or upset, I had plenty of time and energy to empathize with her and talk her through our options. If push came to shove, we’d just scrap our plans for the day.
I don’t know exactly when I stopped doing that, but I’m sure the best my son’s gotten is the emotional equivalent to an emotional band-aid, so it has to have been at least two years. As a result, all three of us have more tantrums.
I repeat to myself over and over, “I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for this.”
Why don’t I have time?
It’s because I’m prioritizing other things over being there for my kids. Or my husband. Or myself. And by “being there” I mean not only physically in their presence, but present in the moment, with them, where they are right then.
I’m not going to solve this with creative scheduling or some magic combination of activities. I have to solve it from the inside out, and that means giving myself the space to think, reflect, connect, and just be. It means deciding what activities will feed us and help us connect and bring us joy, and it means saying a polite but decisive “no” to those activities that don’t do these things. It means accepting that being at home together, playing, and connecting as a family is enough.
It means letting go of my reliance on things outside myself when I estimate my self-worth. I am not my blog stats, my Goodreads list, my Twitter feed, my Facebook status (no matter how witty), my deliberate wardrobe, my intentionally messy up-do, or the numbers on my caller ID.
I don’t know yet what I’m going to cut and what I’m going to keep. I don’t want to make any abrupt changes, so I hope that I’ll be able to take this slow.
I have no immediate plans for the blog (just for the blog stats, which I plan to ignore as much as possible). Just know that if you don’t read something from me for a while, it’s likely because I’m making space for something else.