I used to write a retrospective of each passing year until I had twins and just about everything disappeared in a fiery crash. This year I decided to pick it up again. I’m sharing it with you because it’s fun and fluffy and not too scary.
- What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before?
I started working out with a personal trainer.
I took a kid to the hospital with a broken bone.
The police brought one of my kids home (not the same one).
- Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Last year on New Year’s Day I was on a liquid diet recovering from dental surgery and had to visit the ER with some weird fever and irregular heartbeats. I’m sure I didn’t make any other New Year Resolution than “survive 2016.” And I did!! Go me!
This year, my only resolution is to heed my own advice and live fearlessly. I have the “Fearless Family Life” thing down but I’m a fearful insecure person on just about everything else, especially my own creative endeavors. This year, I want to launch into crowd funding and try to get published. Both will require uncomfortable amounts of vulnerability and fearlessness, things I don’t have in spades.
- Did anyone close to you give birth?
My cousin gave birth to her first child and a lifelong family friend gave birth to twin girls. Many many friends and acquaintances gave birth. Congratulations mamas!!
- Did anyone close to you die?
My sister’s mother-in-law died of cancer in 2016. I had not known her very long but she was such a kind and caring person that one could not help but feel close to her. At her funeral Mass, the large church was full to the rafters. Her death made me reflect on how I wanted to touch those around me, how I wanted to be remembered.
- What countries did you visit?
None. Not even my own. I visited South Korea through the tv series Descendants of the Sun and the northern coast of Spain through Gran Hotel. That counts right?
- What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
Health, fitness, a positive self-image and confidence? And the right meds to achieve it.
- What dates from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
I don’t remember dates. The winter of 2016 is one big blur, I don’t even recall it happening at all. I’m assuming nothing noteworthy happened although I’m sure my family will let me know by email if I’m off the mark. The Spring of 2016 was when homeschooling wrapped me up and we rolled into the Summer holidays a little early.
- What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Giving up gluten for good. Finding Ritter’s Rum Soaked Raisins chocolate again after a too long absence.
- What was your biggest failure?
I got pregnant with my 10th child in 2015 and was due to deliver on March 30th 2016. That didn’t happen. Homeschooling was a big fat fail. Not because I think that sending the children back to school is a failure: our other children have done very well in school and I’m one of a handful of homeschoolers who believes that kids do learn something in school. The failure was to live up to my own standards, of still not being the person I want to be. Homeschooling has taken a lot out of me, and I’m proud of myself for having tried. But doing so prevented me from developing skills in the things I am good at such as writing and music. When I look back at our homeschooling adventure, I don’t (yet) see much to show for it. I’m sure perspective will grow on me like moss, with time and a peaceful spot in the shade.
- Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing new this year. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is still kicking my ass daily.
- What was the best thing you bought?
Chocolate, Pu Er tea and the entire Nashville discography.
- Where did most of your money go?
Depends how you look at it. Most of our family’s income goes to taxes. If you consider after-tax money, the mortgage is probably the largest number on the family’s spreadsheet.
- What did you get really excited about?
Starting music again. I had my Taylor guitar repaired and started playing for the first time in 10 years. I also learned to play the piano enough to play at church. Playing at church just about kills me every week but it gives me the motivation to practice. I occasionally sing with my daughters – at home, not at church — when they indulge me. Singing with my daughters is the single best part of my days when it happens.
- What song will always remind you of 2016?
Probably Alexander Hamilton
- Compared to this time last year, are you:
– happier or sadder? Roughly the same but more frazzled so I’ll say “happier” just because I WANT TO BELIEVE!
– thinner or fatter? Thinner by a whopping 5 lbs on a good month. Same on a bad one. Thanks for nothing thyroid jerk.
– richer or poorer? Richer
- What do you wish you’d done more of?
Writing. Finishing stuff.
- What do you wish you’d done less of?
Anxiate. Is that a verb? Compare myself to better-looking and more talented people. Believe that there’s no point writing because the world doesn’t need another book/song/blog post, especially not one written by someone less talented than (fill blank with current literary obsession).
- How did you spend Christmas?
Éloïse summed it up nicely on Twitter:
chicken pox is in the house:
my dads side of the family is staying as far away of us as they can, my moms side is invading with 34 people
— elo (@eloisedeg) December 26, 2016
- What was your favorite TV program?
Nashville and Gran Hotel
- What were your favorite books of the year?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King), Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Harding), Writing Better Lyrics (Pat Pattison) and Au Bonheur des Dames (Émile Zola)
- What was your favorite music from this year?
The Nashville Soundtrack, Half Moon Run, Miranda Lambert, The Lumineers, Hamilton.
- What were your favorite films of the year?
I saw three movies released in 2016: Fantastic Beasts, some kid movie I can’t recall and LaLaLand. Of the three, LaLaLand was my favorite.
- What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 43 and I was in Toronto with Éloïse, Marie and a friend for the Pentatonix / Us the Duo concert at the ACC.
- What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Losing the 20 lbs I should have lost a long time ago given the way I eat and exercise. Oh well, I didn’t gain 50 more pounds and that’s satisfying, I guess.
- How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016?
Flowy tops from Winners, jeans from Mark’s.
- What kept you sane?
Music and exercise, thyroid meds and a generous side of chocolate.
- Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.
“Think small to go big”. That’s from Seth Godin. I had been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to make my blog “go big”. I wanted to write the type of posts that make blogs popular – read: “earn income” — but I was in a conundrum because I don’t read any blogs that are popular. I was stuck trying to put out a message that I wouldn’t read if someone else posted it. That’s when I heard Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss podcast say “Think small to go big.” Meaning that if you can’t touch one person’s life, what makes you think that you can touch a million? I realized that being able to interact with my readers one-on-one, knowing them by name, being friends on social media, was what made my content special to my readers. I’ll never have the mean or fluffy streak that makes blogs go viral because I’m always striving for a genuine contact. When I accepted that this was the smaller and slower approach I wanted to maintain, it freed me to look for alternative methods of generating income online such as crowd funding. I don’t know if I will ever earn anything that way — it’s hard to convince people to pay for something they have been getting for free for years — but at least it will be on my own terms. And as a creative type, that’s the best I can hope for.
** This week’s podcast on self-care and was inspired by this blog post, originally published on Vie de Cirque in 2015. **
As a mother of many, I am often asked about self-care and finding time for oneself in the midst of chaos. Where can a mother find peace when the things that bring her joy — like hobbies and travels — are incompatible with parenting a tribe?
The question of “me-time” is one that is close to my heart because everyone wants to know. In an article for the Ottawa Citizen published in January 2014, I answered that I had to find “me-time” in the midst of chaos. It’s true but simplistic. The ability to find inner peace when your life is a pinball machine is a work in progress. I often feel like I am hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. So how do I go about finding my place in a household where my work is forever answering everybody’s pressing demands but mine?
To explain my understanding of self-care, I must go back a few years. I got pregnant with my oldest child when I was 21, unmarried and in Law School. My boyfriend (now husband) was a junior officer in the Armed Forces. He was deployed overseas and we didn’t move-in together until shortly before our first child was born. Our second child was born 14 months later. People around us quietly believed that our hasty marriage was doomed from the start. My husband deployed overseas again and our third child was conceived upon his return. I finished my law degree while expecting her. My husband’s traveling schedule and the demands of providing for a growing family were such that we decided that he would work while I stayed home with the children. I decided not to write the Bar exams at that time: the cost of putting 3 children in daycare while I pursued my studies for an intense year of studies, work placements and exams.
After our third child was born, we decided that our family was complete. I always dreamed of having 5 children, as had my husband, but I was hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. That’s when our fourth child was conceived and born. When I think back on that period of my life, I hear the song from Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl:
Nobody knows when she started her skid, she was only 27 and she had 5 kids
I was severely struggling with my imposed vocation as a stay-at-home mother of four young children. I had studied to become a lawyer, a challenging course of studies where I had excelled. Now I was a full-time mother in full downfall from my pedestal. My peers were starting to advance in their careers, moving into cute houses in trendy neighbourhoods. I was moving out of a world of visibility and rewards and into a world of invisibility feeling like a failure. People my age had no children, my friends with children had 10 years on me and had chosen to stay home. I was dreaming of living in a trendy neighbourhood with matching furniture as opposed to my perfectly adequate little semi-detached house with a mismatch of hand-me-down pieces.
I was neither very good or very happy in my vocation. I was trapped in a spiral of self-loathing, grasping at anything that made me feel better, regardless of whether it was good, healthy or moral. I believed that my unhappiness was the result of forgetting myself for too long. Of neglecting my goals and ambitions in the pursuit of an ideal that wasn’t mine. But the more “me time” I took the deeper I sank.
It took a ride to rock bottom before I understood that my family and I were in this together. That focusing on me at the exclusion of my family was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Mothers: there is no amount of stuff, credit, spa treatments and girls nights out that can buy you happiness in your marriage and family. So often I read desperate pleas from mothers who cannot find peace and happiness in their own family and there is always someone to suggest more “me time”. A night away, a day at the spa, a week in a resort, working outside the home. Don’t get me wrong: I love a pedicure as much as the next girl. But your happiness and your physical and mental health cannot hinge on an expensive getaway. Or even a cheap one. What I learned from my stay in the trenches of unhappiness is that you can’t outrun yourself. Indulging in temporary make-beliefs only makes the return to reality colder and darker.
Addressing underlying causes of unhappiness can be difficult. Children are too young to understand that they need to give mommy some space. Your life partner should be the one caring for you. If you don’t have a supportive partner, maintaining your sense of balance in family life will fall on your shoulders and you will have to build fences around the non-negotiables of your life. Fences and families don’t mix. If your life partner — husband, boyfriend, mother — is not looking after your needs, you need to fix your relationship. A happy marriage is the most important self-care you can give yourself, not to mention the very thing your children need the most to be happy and secure as they grow.
After I had my 4th child and disappeared in the fog of depression, my husband and I came to the conclusion that I was simply not cut out to be a homemaker. I still believed that having a stay-at-home parent was best for children but I simply couldn’t be that parent. I headed back to school to pursue graduate studies in law. But even though I excelled in my academic studies, the belief that I wasn’t cut out to care for my children was haunting me.
I found work as a political attaché and juggled family life and paid employment for the following 4 years. I learned that nothing was going to be easy. I could work to make our family-work balance manageable or I could work to become the mother I always wanted to be. I chose the later. Nowadays, I am a homeschooling stay-at-home mother. I have the large family I never dared to dream I would have.
Self-care starts with physical and mental health. I try to eat well, not too much, and exercise. I get regular medical check-ups to make sure that any physical or mental struggles are properly identified and treated. I make room for spiritual practices like prayer and a sacramental life. I see a friendly spiritual director and I receive the Sacrament of reconciliation once or twice a month. But where I draw the line for myself is the type of self-care that takes away from my family, whether it is by causing financial strain or emotional absenteeism. If you need to spend money you don’t have, or if you need to completely check-out of your role as mother to feel alive and whole, you need to address the underlying causes of your feelings. Going out with friends, sharing a meal, being pampered or getting relief from your daily occupations are some of life’s greatest pleasures. You should seek these opportunities for the joy they bring you, not as a matter of survival.
My husband and I have turned the self-care equation around. Instead of seeing me as the result of the equation, we’ve made our common vision of family life the result of the equation. Self-care happens in the context of the vision of family life we want to achieve: a happy, united, and well adjusted Catholic, large, homeschooling, family, living in the country. The pursuit of my dreams and ambitions are part of the equation yielding that result. Being physically and mentally fit, growing in faith and fortitude, laughing, looking pretty, feeling like I can leave for a weekend without societal collapse and starvation, are all part of the equation. My husband and children benefit from the result and therefore are part of ensuring that I get enough and adequate self-care. Knowing that they have my well-being in mind frees me from having to worry and pursue my well-being selfishly, like a desert wanderer searches for water. I am no longer afraid of disappearing behind my children because we are a team, not a competition.
Caring for a family of 11 is still hard on a good day and there is precious little time for self-care in the traditional sense. I have to rely on a “broken windows approach” to keeping my essential space in a large family: I don’t share my morning coffee and I am almost obsessive about using the bathroom by myself. I find great joy in having coffee with an old friend, seeing my siblings and my parents, and enjoying a few seconds of quiet in a tidy house (not between 1 and 2 am). There is always someone in my personal space and I have worked hard, emotionally and spiritually, to learn to love it.
Finally feeling good at what I do: that’s better than all the pedicures in the world.
I was going to start this blog post with some poetic musing about life being a winding road and how we don’t always end up where we thought we would. But even winding roads lead somewhere: a ditch, a dead-end, another road, a pretty little cabin in the woods. Life is a series of decisions which have ramifications, consequences, and more decision points. Days grow into weeks, weeks into months, months into years and suddenly you are 43 wondering where the heck it is you’re going. Sorry, am I talking to myself again?
My husband and I have changing our minds and correcting course down to an art form. Blessed are the flexible for they shall not break. In our 20 years of marriage, we’ve owned more cars than we can remember, we moved 10 times within the Ottawa area, bought big houses, sold big houses, bought little houses, sold little houses, rented houses, gutted main floors, finished basements and built from scratch. I have been a student-mom, a stay-at-home mom, a homeschooler, a failed homeschooler, a graduate-student mom, a full-time working mom, a part-time working mom. My husband has worked full-time, part-time, homeschooled when I could not, supported my pipe dreams and ambitions. He has started companies, joined companies, left companies, owned companies, sold companies. In the middle of all this, we had 9 children and lost two to miscarriage. We have lifestyle ADHD I think.
While I envy people who relentlessly pursue one thing, I am pleased by our ability to roll with the punches. We relentlessly pursue the stability of our family, no matter the personal cost. We may not have taken our respective careers in measurably successful paths — unless paying bills counts, which it should — but we know why. When my daughter asked me why I had not pursued a musical, legal or political career, despite my affinities for all three, I told her that I chose my family at every fork in the road. These are not career paths with stable incomes, regular hours and holidays. Each involves a good amount of damning the torpedoes. Maybe life’s road is not so winding after all, it’s more like a river, digging its bed by force of repeated decisions. We follow a road to where it leads us but the river digs its own bed, just like we make our lives to our image.
Last week, my husband and I met with the principal of the nearest French elementary school. See, we’re sending the children back to school after Christmas. With our two teenage daughters starting high school last September, this marks the end of our homeschooling journey. You can learn more about our discernment process by listening to my first podcast on discerning homeschooling.
Un-mixing the mixed feeling is a new journey of discovery and reinvention. In my life, I have accomplished things that required effort, things that required self-discipline, things that required commitment, physically demanding things, emotionally demanding things, everything demanding things. I’ve poured myself out and filled myself up all over again. I’ve stumbled, fell, dusted myself up and picked myself up. I never thought I was cut out for homeschooling but I thought I could channel all my brainpower and energy into this one thing and give it some forward momentum. The kind of energy and brain power I used to power a Master’s degree in Law with a breastfeeding infant, my fifth child, in Montreal, while we lived in Ottawa.
In 2016, I taught myself to knit, play the guitar and the piano, use Adobe InDesign and a few other things. But like my Master’s degree, those are things I can control, only limited by the capacity of my brain and the speed of my fingers. I felt called to homeschool and I thought that I could develop that skill just like music or design. As it turns out, I couldn’t. As it turns out, loving your children is not always enough. As it turns out, things are not as simple as they seem. Homeschooling involves other humans and you can’t switch them on and off.
I have wracked my brain wondering why God would call me to something I was so woefully unable to provide. Why give me talents that are of no use to a mother of many, that stay bottled-up inside, stuck in my throat? Why give me a writing talent I don’t have time to use? Why give me a musical talent I can’t develop? Why give me 9 children and talents that involve quiet introspection? Why wasn’t I equipped with what I needed to answer this call? I don’t know. Either God made a mistake (unlikely) or I’m not humble enough to see the wisdom in the plan (very likely). Or maybe the call was to greater humility, masquerading as a call to homeschool. Maybe homeschooling was the light post I was supposed to walk into.
So my life flows on like a river, part water, part banks, unsure if I am the constraints or the current. At times spectator and actor, it lives me as much as I live it.
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Episode 001. Discerning Homeschooling. Last summer I gave a talk titled “Homeschooling: is it for you?” and I decided to record it as my first podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it!
Today I am reclaiming the concept of Netflix & Chill because someone has to and because there has to be a voice for people watching a period drama while knitting. Edgy. In Canada good TV shows are few and far between. Regional licensing *yawn* agreements — or lack thereof — mean that the Netflix Canada catalogue accounts for about half of what is available in the U.S. I don’t fancy myself a TV critic, even less a TV writer, but I do fancy myself demanding when it comes to how I waste my time. As such, I decided to share with you my favorite series and movies from the very limited selection available on Netflix Canada, starting with my latest
infatuation obsession, Gran Hotel. (The trailer below is in Spanish only but the Netflix offering has subtitles.)
After Downton Abbey was wrapped-up with a bow and a cherry on top — I like my endings happy and this beautiful series was tied-up with the same flawless class that characterized all 6 seasons – I found myself suffering from a severe case of hangover, which may have been due to my unapologetic crush on everything Matthew Goode . I started scouring Netflix for something, anything, to scratch that itch. Netflix kept suggesting “Grand Hotel” but from the cover pictures I could see that the production — including the costumes, writing and verisimilitude — would not be as tightly spun as my beloved Downton. Well, was I ever right in a wrong way!
Cast as the “Spanish Downton Abbey” Gran Hotel — titled “Grand Hotel” on Netflix — is set with the same “upstairs-downstairs” dynamics as Downton Abbey, and that’s about where any possible comparison stops. Where Downton Abbey sought to be a reflection of the era it portrayed, Gran Hotel is using the period as an accessory to its storytelling.
The popular series, which ran from 2011 to 2013 in Spain, is offered by Netflix in 3 seasons totaling 65 episodes of about an hour each (so that’s about 100 hours when you factor-in re-watching all the hottest kissing scenes, *coughs* *loosens collar*). The series is in Castilian (European) Spanish with English subtitles. The subtitles are easy to follow — and entertaining for the third season where typos, missing words and the original Spanish sneak-in, suggesting that the translator got as carried away as I did — and the repetitive nature of the plots, roving and twisting around each other, may even allow you to pick-up a few words of Spanish such as disculpe, lo siento and perdon (excuse me, I’m sorry and pardon me). It turns out that Spaniards apologize as much as Canadians do.
Each one the three seasons is wrapped around a main plot and a few simple subplots. But unlike American series who like their plots and subplots to go on forever and finish abruptly, Gran Hotel’s writers wound and unwound each plot with satisfying regularity. Questions are answered in ways that are not always believable but consistent once you accept to suspend just enough disbelief to enter into this lavish parallel universe. Gran Hotel is light and satisfying entertainment. There are no zombies, no gore, except for some obvious cinematic blood, and your favorite characters will not be killed willy-nilly. If this is how you like your entertainment, read on as I share — without spoilers except for one that should be obvious from the series’ cover picture — my 7 (plus one) favorite things about Gran Hotel.
1. The romance. Here comes the obvious spoiler: the series is spun around the star-crossed romance between Julio (Yon Gonzalez) and Alicia (Amaia Salamanca). Now, I am a very demanding consumer when it comes to fictional romance and let me tell you, this is one of the most contagious TV romance I’ve seen since Colin Firth longingly beheld Jennifer Ehle in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. Gonzalez and Salamanca have incredible chemistry, they burn right through the screen. Pacing is the key to a good romance and this romance is perfectly ordered. It always leaves you yearning for more but never frustrated. Their first kiss — deservedly — won TV awards in Spain and each subsequent one is equally deserving, not to mention the hotter stuff. I’d watch the series just for the kissing, seriously. Add two beautiful actors speaking Spanish to each other with the slow-burning emotionality we’ve come to associate with everything Spaniard and you have a love story playing out without a false note over 60 hours.
2. The pacing. One thing that seriously annoys me in American TV entertainment is the tendency to take viewers within a hairsbreadth of a plot resolution, only to be taken on another round of near discoveries, near deaths and missteps. I heard Gran Hotel aptly described in The Protagonist Podcast — listen here, it takes about 10 minutes to get in gear but it does justice to the first 2 episodes and doesn’t contain any spoilers — as “Downton Abbey meets 24” and it’s a true description. Of course — as with 24 — viewers need to overlook how quickly characters get from one place to the next, get changed and read letters. But I was happy to oblige in exchange for not being taken down some obscure plot rabbit-hole.
3.The physicality. Spaniards sure like their face slaps and Gran Hotel actors really know how to put their backs into it. When Julio fights, he fights. At first I found it a little ridiculous, over the top maybe. But I came to appreciate the unrestrained physicality because it carried over to…
4. The men-hugs, men-tears and men generally being very expressive with each other. The friendship between Julio and Andrès is real and meaningful and nothing else would explain how Julio can keep his job by so rarely doing it. My British period drama habit had me used to very restrained displays of manly emotions. The spectrum of British male emoting oscillates between angry, outraged and “I’ll go speak to your father…” Julio and Andrès hug, kiss, confide in each other and cry in each other’s arms, while remaining perfectly attractive — and attracted — to the female kind. Fancy that.
5. The smoking. The series is a 60 hour long shameless and unrestrained cigarette advertisement. The smoking=sex pipeline is not even thinly veiled. To this Canadian viewer this is entertainment anathema and I love the Spanish for their unapologetic want for political correctness.
6. The beauty. This series is visually enchanting. The outdoor scenes were filmed at the historic Palacio de la Magdalena in Santander, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The men are good looking but the women are stunning in a non-Hollywood kind of way. The make-up was purposely kept to a very natural look, allowing us to truly appreciate the beauty of the ladies. Except for a few shots of bare backs throughout the 3 seasons, everyone keeps their clothes mostly on, even the few sex scenes are tasteful and understated. The beauty and romanticism are wrought through acting only and this is a feat that should be attempted by American entertainment sometimes.
7. The cheese. There is some seriously awesome cheese in Gran Hotel. From oodles of fake blood, to a Laurel & Hardy-like policemen duet, to Julio digging his own grave with his shirt off, fighting with his shirt off, looking for a lost button with his shirt off, to babies being born completely clean and as chubby as 3 month-olds, to weird twists and turns in unlikely plot lines, Gran Hotel has a soap-operatic quality that would be overwhelming if it wasn’t for how honestly it comes by it. Embrace the cheese, don’t fight it.
(Plus one) * A word of warning to my Catholic readers. I know that many Catholics are sick and tired of the perpetually negative portrayal of the Catholic Church in entertainment. The third season of Gran Hotel features a plot line involving an affair with a Catholic priest. If you can’t stand the sight of a Catholic priest behaving badly, you might need to give the Padre Grau story-line a pass. I found it tolerable myself because unlike in American entertainment where he would have been portrayed as a cruel or sick pervert, Padre Grau comes across as just another sinner, which most priests of my knowledge would admit to be. Every single character in Gran Hotel has a morally questionable dimension. Everyone has a secret, everyone hides something, protects someone, makes poor decisions. The Catholic priest is just as sinful as the rest of the cast, no more, no less. Otherwise, Catholic ceremonies and Sacraments are portrayed tastefully and many a thing are left “en las manos de Nuestro Señor” (in the hands of Our Lord).
Et voilà! Gran Hotel is the stuff cult followings are made of and considering how much fun I had looking-up links and information for this post, I am in grave danger of booking a themed tour of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline soon. This is a series that remains true to itself from start to finish and consistently treats its viewership with respect. If you have a taste for pure escapism entertainment, book at night — or 20 — at the Gran Hotel.
This post was originally published on Vie de Cirque in March 2014
About a month ago, our family was the subject of a full-page feature in our local newspaper. This is not the first time that my little gang and I appear on the pages of a newspaper: last year, I took part in a Globe & Mail piece on the decision to stay home or return to work.
When you are the mother of a large family and you make a media appearance, you have to expect the global warming trolls to come to the party, regardless of the topic. We seem to be a looming menace: if everybody did what we did, the environmental impact would be disastrous. In theory maybe, but what about reality?
A quick glance at the literature shows that concerns over demographic decline are at least as pressing as those relating to overpopulation. Birth rates (the number of live births per thousand of population per year) and fertility rates (the average number of children born to women of childbearing years) are declining throughout the world. While many under-developed countries still show birth rates over the population renewal rate (2.1 children per women), their birth rates are in decline. Statistics suggest that the increasing world population is not caused by too many births but by an increase in life expectancy. In other words, we didn’t start breeding like rabbits; we just stopped dropping like flies. The elderly population is on the increase worldwide but the children population is decreasing steadily.
Blaming large families like ours for overpopulation discounts the fact that for countries like Canada, the fertility rate is significantly below the population renewal rate despite a handful of large families. Think about it: the fertility rate of 1.1 children per woman includes women like me. We don’t seem to be making a noticeable difference. If anything, we make demographic decline slightly less scary. I often meet funny people who enjoy telling me:
“I’m happy that there are people like you to make up for people like me.”
Except that we are outweighed: there are too many people like you for people like me to compensate.
Some will tell me that demographic decline is desirable to make-up for our poor ecological balance sheet. While it is true that resource abuse is threatening the environment, I would counter that what is killing the planet are abusive mentalities, not large families. If large families are too few to make a statistical difference in birth rates, what makes you think that there are enough of us to compromise the environment? Resource abuse and overuse happened in parallel with demographic decline. The problem is not simply how many people are killing the planet, but how they are doing it!
Our family lives in the suburbs of Ottawa in a typical wealthy suburban neighbourhood found throughout North America. Large single family homes, 4 bedrooms, double car garage. Two cars, or rather, one car and a larger vehicle such as a minivan or a SUV. The house we currently live in was designed for a family of 4 or 5 people. On my street, in houses of similar size and function, you will find mostly couples with no children or 1 or 2 children. Some are young families hoping to expand but most are older. They all live in 3 000+ sq. ft. homes built on prime agricultural land, with 2 vehicles, air conditioning and heating brought to you by some coal-fired power plant somewhere in Ontario. It doesn’t cost more to heat-up 3 000 square feet for a family of 10 than it does for a family of 2 by the way. Except that with the size of my bills, when the weather is nice I open the windows. Most of my neighbours turn-on the A/C in May and turn it off in October. And while my pile of garbage is bigger than theirs, the diesel-powered truck moves for them as much as it does for me… and their garbage pile is not one fifth of mine, although their household is. Their vehicles are never full and move at least as much as mine do. Every March Break, we stay home while most of my children’s school friends fly-off to a sunny destination. And you are shaking your accusatory finger at me?
Let me tell you what is killing the planet. It’s egotism. It’s a culture of entitlement that drives us to grab what should be ours, whether we need it or not. It’s the pursuit of “more”, not to say “too much”. Take a drive through Ottawa’s old neighbourhoods and take a look at the little brick bungalows. 2 or 3 bedrooms, no bigger than a triple car garage. Reflect on the fact that these homes were once considered family-sized, at a time where families were bigger. Today, my single family home features two bedrooms with full ensuites. Ideal for the only teen who would rather not share a toilet with his parents: your children can now sleep, socialize and shower in their very own personal wing. They don’t even need to interact while going to take a pee! Progress would be a built-in meal door. But the problem with the world is my husband, my children and I???
From my home office window, I watch the school buses go by. Every day, a well-meaning mother drives her daughter – who looks to be about 12 years-old — to the corner and picks her up at the end of the day. In Ottawa, a student cannot walk more than 500 m to get to a bus stop. If the distance between his home and the bus stop is greater than 500 m, a new bus stop is created. Throughout this very cold winter, the coldest on recent record, our attentive mother drove her daughter to and from the bus stop. The daughter never wore as much as a hat. No scarf, no mittens, not even a pair of boots. You need to understand that within a 500 m radius of my home office window, there is no low-income housing. We are not talking about a child in need; we are talking about a child who cannot walk 500 m (probably less) in the winter because it is “too cold”. And it’s too cold by choice. That’s the kind of choice, made every day, multiplied by millions of us, over our lifetime that brought planet earth to her knees. Not a handful of large families.
Yes, we use too much electricity, we drive too often and we wear too many clothes. We gather so much that we must build air-conditioned condos for our stuff. Not only have we covered our prime agricultural land with asphalt, we now build apartments for our stuff! We got there while our population was decreasing. Could you be looking for a culprit at the wrong place?
As for me and my husband, we will keep having children and raising them to become responsible citizens. I don’t know if we will succeed: the social forces pushing us toward overconsumption and self-centeredness are strong. But I believe that we have a better chance of succeeding because a large family is an incubator for the values that we hope to pass-on to our children. You should be happy: they will be paying for your adult diapers and performing your hip replacement surgeries for the next 60 years.
True confession: I never waited for my kids to be “ready”. I potty train at 2. That’s it. None of my children (until the twins) cared about spending some time in a soiled or wet diaper. Some of them may still be in diapers had I been waiting for signs of readiness. There is a window of good will at age 2 and we jump right through it.
Our no-nonsense approach to potty training hinges on the knowledge of our potty-training children’s temperaments and the unavoidable fact that we cannot control their sphincter function. Keep cool, calm, and collected. This is not about you. First read the preamble to this potty training edition and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to teach your child: The Potty Training Edition
Take time off work, or plan to stay home for 4-5 days. The key to potty-training success is repeated successes. Success is defined as peeing in appropriate places. This is very difficult and immensely frustrating if you are always on the go.
Ask me about the day I sat my potty training toddler on a cashier’s counter at a department store and she emptied her bladder. I asked for a towel and the cashier gave me 2 tissues… That’s how I learned that if I was going to keep my temper, I would have to stay home for a few days or use Pull-Ups.
Don’t set yourself and your child for failure. Being constantly on-the-go will cause setbacks that are frustrating for you and demotivating for your child.
Figure out what motivates your child. Our approach is based on rewards or positive reinforcement. Some children respond well to motivational charts with stickers. Others respond well to the feeling of being a big boy/big girl. Some children are motivated by a special treat. Don’t skimp on the rewards: this is for a limited time only. Once the habit of peeing/pooping in the toilet is well established, you won’t have problems removing the treat, it happens very naturally. We use Smarties all the way. If you see that one motivator is not registering, try another. One of my friends buys a big toy that goes on display on top of the fridge. She uses stickers and after 7 days without accident, the toy is theirs. My kids would get discouraged by the delayed gratification and responded better to the immediate gratification of a single Smarties candy. For the purpose of this post, I will use “Smarties” as a synonym for “reward”.
Reward liberally. At first, I give Smarties to everybody who pees in the toilet. It sets the mood for the potty training child.
On the first day, I put my child in underwear. A little note: some children will treat undies like a diaper and only have success completely naked. That’s cool too. Just have a lot of cleaning supplies handy and let go of your inhibitions. Make sure that your partner, significant other or co-parent is on board. If not, delay potty training until you can teach with one voice. I strongly advise against using any form of punishment to potty train. It causes more problems than it seems to solve at first.
Your goal for the first few days (it can take a few hours or a few days) is to make your child aware that she is peeing. What does peeing feels like? Before a child can learn to hold pee, she needs to learn what pee feels like. The sensation that we “need” to go is the feeling of pressure in the bladder and tightening our sphincters. The first phase of potty training is to make them aware that they are peeing. I watch them like a hawk and offer the potty but I never force them. As soon as they pee I take them to the potty and say “You peed! Next time we’ll do it on the potty”. No rant, no lecture, no disappointment. I try to get them to sit on the potty long enough to pee but this can be difficult. I make a game out of it, try to read a book, watch a movie, whatever. Otherwise, I just let them be and tell them when they pee. “Oups, another pee. Next time you’ll do it in the potty.” I always have some cleaning supplies handy because this can be a messy stage. I also buy 2 dozens cheap underwear. They have to be cheap enough to be cut and thrown out if the child has a really bad poop accident. The key to potty training success is to keep your cool in all circumstances. Scrubbing poop and swishing disgusting underwear in the toilet is not a circumstance that commands coolness. Life is too short to spend it up to your elbows in a toilet bowl. Unless you work in the septic tank business. But I’m not paid for this gig.
Keep body functions matter-of-fact, will ya? Peeing is no big deal. There are no air-horns going-on when you pee, are there? Some children may be jubilant when they have early success. Jubilate with them. But for some temperaments, the jubilation is a cause of stress and increased expectations. At first, keep the horns and sirens under wrap until you get a feel for what motivates or stresses your child. I ask my early potty-trainee if she needs to go every 2 minutes. At the first sign of stress or stubbornness, I ratchet-it-down a few notches and leave my child alone. Yes, she may pee on the floor, and that’s ok: she is learning what peeing feels like. Never force your child to sit on the potty/toilet. Just walk away, make tea, go scrub your baseboards or something. At the end of a long day, I have been known to put a diaper back on. Relax, this is not a salvation issue. If you can’t respond in a constructive way DON’T RESPOND. Put a diaper on the child and pour yourself a drink or three.
Every time your child puts even a drop of pee in the toilet, give her a Smarties. The goal is to teach her what peeing feels like. Be liberal with the Smarties: she may want to go to the toilet every 30 seconds, fantastic!! Take her. If you get a single drop of pee every 30 seconds, give her a reward every single time. To expel a drop of pee, she is using her sphincters. This is good stuff. One of my friends (a mother of 10) uses pretzels because it makes them thirsty…. Then they need to go more often. Apple juice and pretzels, Baby! Now you understand why you are taking 4-5 days at home to do this.
As soon as you see the pee=potty relation consolidate, build on it. If you go to the park, bring a potty. The more time you invest in potty training during the early days, the more success you will have. If you interrupt your potty training for errands, playgroups, coffees etc, it will take longer.
Once your child understands what peeing feels like and can control the outflow of pee, she will naturally start to keep it in. I find that this happens naturally: when they understand what pee feels like and are motivated to do it in the toilet, they learn to hold it. This may take a day for a motivated child but it can also take longer. That’s why I don’t like any method that promises success within a certain number of days. “Success” is not potty training in 3 days, children are not machines. “Success” is peeing and pooping in appropriate places with no damage to your relationship.
Be ready for setbacks. Potty training is often two steps forward one step back. As your child learns to control her bladder, she can get overconfident and start having accidents again. As always, keep your cool. She is not doing this to annoy you. Stress and tension in the household can also compromise potty training. Potty training is very demanding on the child: if her brain is occupied by a sudden language spurt or a stressful situation in the family, it may take away from potty training. Once again, keep your cool and stay the course.
The answer to any and every accident is calm and composed: “Oups, you had an accident! Next time you’ll do it in the toilet.” Don’t rant, don’t argue. Walk away, go make tea, call your girlfriend or take-up crochet. I usually just check Instagram and see what cooler people are up to.
Just stay the course. Remember that the most important key to success is not to let potty training turn into a power struggle. You will lose that struggle. It’s as simple a physiology: you cannot control someone’s sphincters. On the up side, your child cannot control your response. Manage what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Remain unaffected by your toddler’s antics. Respond constructively or don’t respond. It’s ok to ignore the bad stuff, how do you think I went this far without taking-up drinking?
If you have questions, just leave a comment. Don’t get married to a deadline, those only cause friction and stress. After 5 days in underwear, if your child shows no awareness of her need to pee, nor willingness or ability to go on the potty, stop and wait another month. If after 5 days your child has anxiety or throws tantrums at the sight of the potty, stop and waits another month. If your partner supports harsh methods of potty training and punishes your child when she pees in inappropriate places, stop and get a supportive partner. If your child is scared of the toilet, use a potty. If your child doesn’t want to use the potty, try a toilet adjuster. If your child is severely constipated or has pain when urinating, stop and seek medical attention.
You cannot your child’s sphincters, your child’s mind or your child’s temper.
You can control your response, your temper, the purchase of diapers.
The key to success is to know the difference between what you can control and what you can’t and acting accordingly. Stay calm and happy potty training!
I posted a reply about potty training on a local parenting group. As I was writing it, it occurred to me that I had already given the same advice on the same group page. And elsewhere. Many, many, times. In fact, if I had a dime every time someone asked me for potty training advice and I answered, I would be a millionaire. In fact, I would be a “Parenting Expert”. Heck, by now I may even be on Oprah… Or whatever show people are on these days.
Maybe you came to that post through Google. Maybe you did a Google search about “potty training advice” and the robots lead you here. And maybe right now, you are expecting me to tell you how I trained my kids in 3 days with no accident. Maybe you are expecting to read on how to train your kid in 3 days with no accident. Presumably, and unfortunately, you’ve been trying for 3 months with no success and you are desperately looking for the magic word, the key to unlock your child’s underwear potential. This post may disappoint you.
Because I am not going to tell you how to train your child, even though several of my 6 potty-trained children trained in (almost) 3 days without (barely any) accident. Nope. In this post, I will tell you how to train yourself so your child can train herself.
(I feel like I should add that this post applies to children and parents who do not have any physical or mental illnesses that could undermine the potty training process. But we knew that, right? Goes without saying.)
Whenever parents write to me for potty training advice, their story comes in variations of:
– We started potty training. It worked at first, and then we had a setback (new baby, travel, illness etc.).
– We started potty training and it never worked.
Now potty training is a scene right out of a horror movie. There is screaming, crying and threatening and that’s saying nothing about the child. There is hiding in a closet to poop or pee, and when not hiding there is laughing while soiling pants in front of the parents. Poop and pee is either coming out in inappropriate places, undies being the least of it, or has completely stopped coming out. There is suffering the complications of retained fluids and feces: bladder infections, anal injuries, severe constipation. The relationship with the child is going down the drain (pun intended). Every week brings a new gimmick, a new approach, a new potty training miracle method. Parents and child go through positive reinforcement, threats, punishments, rewards, stickers, Smarties, in short cycles of emotionally charged back-and-forth.
STOP. IT’S NOT WORKING. STOP, PLEASE.
There are a few important principles of potty training that need to be well-understood before success can be achieved. Accepting them may not lead your child to toilet reliability overnight but it will save your sanity and prevent any long term physical and emotional damage in your child’s toilet parts.
Principle 1 : You cannot use the toilet for your child and you cannot make your child poop or pee. This may sound so obvious, but this is where most parents bite the dust and stay down. Potty training may be the first time parents have no control over what their child does or decides not to do. Your children’s sphincters are completely out of your reach. The interaction between your child’s brain and her sphincter is ever farther out of your reach.
When parents ask me for potty training advice, I often feel like they are asking me “How can I control my child’s sphincters?” You can’t, you never will. None of us who have achieved early potty training success have done so because we could control our child’s bowel/bladder function. We did because our children were willing, able and receptive to potty training.
If you feel like potty training is a loss of control and you are grasping for a way to retain control; if you feel like you are caught in a battle of wills with your child over potty training, stop. Put your child back in diapers and start again when you accept that this matter is out of your hands.
Principle 2: There is a difference between normal potty behaviour and abnormal potty behaviour. Don’t ignore abnormal potty behaviour. When emotions run high, it is too easy to lose perspective. Toddler is stubborn: normal. Toddler is defiant: normal. Toddler screams in pain when using the toilet or holds back urine for days: not normal!! Too often, I get potty training stories that include all of the above in one sentence. Whoahhhh… If your child sounds like she’s delivering triplets, maybe it’s time to back off and let her body heal. Put your child back in diapers until her bodily functions run normally and you learn the difference between stubborn and severely constipated.
Principle 3: Using sphincters won’t happen if pain is the outcome. Toddler soils his pants; he gets a clean-up in the cold shower. That’ll teach him, right? Wrong! A cold shower was the outcome of using his sphincters. You are holding baby on the potty until she pees. She screams, you get mad, eventually you win. Right? Nope. She now associates using the potty with intense frustration and anger. Toddler poops in the closet so he gets a spanking. He was willfully defiant and you had to act. Fine. But now he associates pooping with a spanking. Don’t make pain the outcome of using the sphincters. There is two kinds of response to bowel/bladder movement: the positive response and the no response. Don’t allow pain or shame to become part of the pottying equation: remember Principle 1.
Principle 4: You potty trained a long time ago; you are conditioned to pee and poop in the toilet. Your frustration comes in part from not understanding why something so simple can be so complicated. Sit, pee, done. Right? Wrong! Deconstructing peeing and pooping really helped me understand why my child was struggling. Since birth, your child has never held a pee. He doesn’t associate the sensation of holding pee with the need to go. He doesn’t associate the need to go with the need to hold it. He doesn’t associate the need to hold it with the need to hold it long enough to find a toilet. Once he’s learned to hold it, he needs to learn to let it go, which is not the same as just going in a diaper. Then he needs to learn to let it all go and recognize the sensation of an empty bladder. It’s not that simple, it is difficult, and you getting mad only add an emotional component where one shouldn’t be.
Until you understand these principles, put your child in diapers and don’t meddle with her healthy body. Don’t allow potty training to become a battle of will: this is your responsibility. Once you have accepted those 4 principles, write to me, I’ll tell you how I potty trained my children. It may not have taken 3 days; it may not have been accident-free. But we never cried, never screamed, and only got mildly constipated.